Oils or Acrylics: Choosing the Right Wood for the Job

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Appearing in PaintPRO Magazine
by Christina Camara
February 21, 2019

Armstrong-Clark Semi Transparent

Professional painters about to start an exterior staining job must answer several questions before the first can is opened. What kind of finish and tint does the customer want? What kind of weather conditions will the house be subjected to? And most important, what's the best product for the job?

Many contractors have used oil-based transparent and semi-transparent stains for years, believing they perform better than acrylics. But strict regulations to lower emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are forcing companies to re-formulate their products. The result is better-performing water-based products that are gaining in popularity.

"Many people still prefer oil-based coatings," says Lynn Chase, technical consultant for Samuel Cabot Paint Company. "However, the research and technology regarding the acrylic products has advanced tremendously, creating definite advantages and increased popularity for 100 percent acrylic products."

Chase listed some of the advantages of using water-based stains. Mildew does not feed on acrylic resins as a food source, making it the best choice for mildew-prone areas, coastal regions or homes near lakes, rivers or heavy vegetation. She added, "Quicker dry time, easier soap-and-water cleanup and added fade-resistance all add up in the plus column for the acrylic products."

Steve Cole, retail manager of Forrest Paints of Eugene, Ore., says the entire industry is moving toward water-based products, and so are the customers, which is pushing up the demand for high-quality, water-based stains.
Cole says he still prefers the impenetrable seal of oils for areas where water can collect, such as decks, handrails, windowsills and some trim applications, "but by and large, the acrylics have come a long way and they're holding up fairly well." He says Forrest Paints makes a water-based deck coating, for example, that performs just as well as an oil-based product.

"They're just a whole lot easier to work with, environmentally they're better for us, and as a company that's something we've been extremely sensitive to," he says. Forrest Paints has invested more than $1.25 million in alternative technologies to reduce VOC emissions.

Another plus, Cole says, is that water-based stains are breathable and bond well to a wide variety of surfaces, even metal flashing. On manufactured siding, for example, a water-based stain will flex as the boards expand and contract with temperature variations, he says.

Oil-based transparent and semi-transparent stains also have a loyal following, with fans of the products citing their excellent penetration, hard finish, durability and resistance to peeling and blistering.

Bubbling and cracking is usually caused not by rain, but by moisture evaporating through the wood, says Joan Griswold, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Performance Coatings Inc., which manufactures wood finishes under the Penofin label.

Penofin makes a penetrating oil finish with Brazilian rosewood oil that coats the wood fibers and allows water to pass through as a vapor, she says. It contains UV blockers to keep the wood from "graying out," a mildewcide, and an alkyd resin that prevents slips and falls. It's easy to apply - contractors don't have to worry about lap marks - and it's easy to maintain. A light coat over worn areas is all that's needed. Most of all, it preserves the beauty of the wood. "It appeals to wood nuts," Griswold says, "people who really love wood."

Armstrong Clark Co. has formulated oil-based stains that conform to California's VOC regulations, which are the toughest in the country. Company owner Jake Clark says the wood deck and siding stains are designed to improve the condition of the wood through the use of non-drying conditioning oils that penetrate deep into the fibers. The drying oils stay at the surface, locking in the conditioning oils and creating two barriers that repel water and UV rays.

Steve Zelinsky, of S.K. Zelinsky Painting and Wallcovering of nearby Twain Harte, Calif., says he likes Armstrong Clark products because the company is committed to research and constant improvement. Also, the company has developed a product that he says works well in the punishing environment of the High Sierras.

The freezing temperatures, deep snow, mildew problems, high sun exposure and residue dropping from the trees demand top-quality products, he says.
His company stains mostly decks and cedar siding. Many cabins in the area date back to the 1950s and 1960s, and the owners used linseed oil on their woodwork. "Acrylics have better color retention, but the oil-based stains are more compatible with what's already on there," Zelinsky says.

Clark says contractors simply have to spray the stain on, back-roll it and move on to the next job. "It's the easiest to apply and it's the longest-lasting. That's a pretty good combination."

Chase, from Samuel Cabot, says the best application advice is to use a natural bristle brush for oils, and a polyester or nylon bristle brush for water-based products. If the contractor chooses to spray, it is always recommended to back-brush to insure a uniform application, she says.

Cole, of Forrest Paints, says acrylic and oil-based stains don't look much different once they're dry, but any stain will get a sheen if too much is applied. "The millage specifications are there for a reason," he says. "So many of these guys think more is better, but that's not necessarily the case."

Should contractors use acrylics or oil-based stains? As with any other product decision in the painting industry, the answer is, it depends.

Contractors should help the clients understand how the finished deck or siding is going to look, how to maintain it and how long the stain will hold up.

Clark says that while oil-based products don't clean up with soap and water, contractors should consider their durability and the economics of the job. "If you're looking at a $5,000 to $10,000 job, who cares? Throw the brush away. If you're re-staining it twice as often because it's easier to clean your brush, you need to have your head examined."

Remember, he says, that 90 percent of the success of any paint job is the preparation. If proper prep work isn't done, no stain is going to look good or perform well over the long haul.

Tim Stephens, marketing and communications manager for Akso Nobel, which produces the Sikkens brand, says many contractors simply like the "feel" of oil-based stains. They say they brush out better, while water-based stains can feel gummy and sticky.

In general, he says, the do-it-yourselfers gravitate toward the acrylic stains. Contractors, who work with mineral spirits every day and don't find the cleanup difficult, often like the oil-based products.

But Stephens stressed that there are strengths and weaknesses to each kind of stain, and what one contractor may consider a plus can be a negative for someone else. For example, the quick drying time of acrylic stains helps get the job done faster. On the other hand, if it's a warm day and the stain dries too quickly, blotching and lap lines can show up.

It all comes down to avoiding cheap stains, regardless of whether they are acrylic or oil-based, Stephens says.

"If you stick to a quality product, you're probably going to get quality performance."

This article © 2005-2007 Professional Trade Publications. Used by permission.

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