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Natural Wood Stain: Which is greenest, which performs best, and which do we prefer?

Comparison of 3 natural wood stain brands to find the best, via SustainableBabySteps.com

I recently reached out to quite a few natural wood stain brands to request samples of their product to try. My husband, being a master carpenter, was given the job of guinea pig, testing out each brand to find the best wood stain.

We were not compensated by any company in any way for their products or our review, except with product to try.

(You can also read about our natural wood sealer and low-voc paint comparisons here.)

Traditional wood stains contain pigment, solvents, and binders of various sources. According to OSHA, the health risks to wood stains and solvents in general include "toxicity to the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis". However, discovering the specific ingredients used in different wood stain brands can be challenging, so discovering the true adverse effects can feel impossible. Even reading the MSDS on a specific brand might not give you the complete story of new research being done and potential health risks being discovered. To read more about potential risks, check out Green Seal's Choose Green Report on stains and sealants.

Ideally, the best wood stain would be the one we make at home. Traditionally, stains have been made out of anything from coffee and tea to tobacco, turmeric, fruit and veggie juices pennies, nails and more.

However there are drawbacks to homemade stains that might inspire a person to look for a natural wood stain brand instead: inconsistency in color, length of time it take to create or apply the stain, or durability of color (whether it fades and how quickly).

Of the 10+ brands we contacted the only 3 who chose to participate included SafeCoat, WoodShield (with 2 samples), and Earthsafe (with a stain + sealer).

When looking into brands there are several factors to look for. Our priority being sustainability and whether its toxic to the user, but also the performance (because nothing can be considered sustainable if it doesn't really work). We looked for the following in each brand:

  • How eco-friendly is it?
  • How was the coverage?
  • Does it have an odor?
  • Does it perform as expected?
  • Does it hold up to the elements?
  • How does it look once sealed?

We chose to sample each stain side-by-side on the same piece of wood so that we were sure any differences were not based on the moisture or quality of the wood. We also tested each with the various eco-friendly wood sealers we were reviewing in case this showed us any differences. The only thing we wish we had done differently was to insist on the same colors of each brand.

Comparison of 3 natural wood stain brands to find the best, via SustainableBabySteps.com

ECOS WoodShield Stain

ECOS Paints actually sent us to colors of their WoodShield to test out. The top stain in the image above is Early Americana and the second from the top is Special Walnut, 2 of the 10 colors they offer.

According to the MSDS, it contains no VOCs and no particular warning, other than commons sense practices (such as protecting your eyes and not inhaling or ingesting).

When it came to applying both WoodShield samples they each performed as we expected any traditional stain to perform. We applied two coats and saw consistent coverage and the same viscosity you'd expect to see. We didn't find either had any obvious odor, (in fact, I even spilled some inside and didn't notice) until we sniffed from the container. Even close up, it has almost no odor. The wood sealer type had no negative bearing on the stain itself.

Read more about ECOS WoodShield here.

AFM SafeCoat DuroStain

SafeCoat's DuroStain is #3 from the top in the image above; the color shown is Cedar, one of 7 colors they offer.

Their natural wood stain is water-based and we found it to have a very low odor. In fact, using it outside we couldn't smell it at all. According to its MSDS, it's VOC content is 13 grams/liter, is non-carcinogenic, but still shouldn't be burned (such as throwing scrap wood that's been treated in a campfire), and comes mostly with common sense precautions (don't eat it) and no major health warnings. However, it can still cause respiratory or skin irritation, especially in people with existing health concerns. This being said it's the only wood stian brand we tested that backs up their product with both SCS and LEED certification.

As far as its performance, we had no qualms whatsoever. It went on like you would expect a stain to apply. We applied two coats and saw consistent results with both traditional stains and the other stains we tested. Again, the wood sealer type had no negative bearing on the stain itself.

Read more about AFM SafeCoat here.

EarthSafe Stain and Sealer

EarthSafe sent us a natural wood stain and sealer in one, Fruitwood being the color they sent out of 4 colors they offer and pictured at the bottom of the image above.

It is also water-based and non-toxic with zero VOC, however the odor was the strongest of the three we used. An added bonus was that it is a two-in-one product, which cuts down on consumption and waste, however our thoughts on it as a sealer are better discussed here.

Because this is a stain and sealer the viscosity was thicker and a little more challenging to work with. We applied two coats, like the other wood stain brands, and saw good coverage and consistency in its application. Once again, the additional wood sealer type had no negative bearing on the stain + sealer itself.

Read more about EarthSafe Stain and Sealer here.

So, Which Natural Wood Stain is the Best?

Truthfully, we found the best natural wood stain for us was the WoodShield. It had the lowest odor, the most colors, and a great MSDS. We felt totally safe using it without any concerns. We also appreciated that it can be ordered online easily (something we couldn't figure out how to do with SafeCoat and that comes in handy if you don't have local dealers) and for literally half the price of EarthSafe.

As for the second best wood stain, it would be a toss-up, but for different reasons. We preferred the performance of the SafeCoat over the EarthSafe, but we felt the EarthSafe was a more sustainable product overall.

The only thing that might steer us away from using any particular natural wood stain brands in the future is the idea of experimenting with our own DIY, homemade stains, something we want to investigate next!

(Click here to learn more about the natural wood sealers we tested.)

What about you? Do you have a favorite natural wood stain? Have you ever made your own?

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