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Buying Guide

Best Exterior Wood Stains for Your Project

Consider the Climate
A rainfall leaves wet deck boards on a back deck.

Before selecting a deck stain, fence stain or other stain for exterior wood, consider the climate conditions where you live. You may need to choose a stain and prepare the wood surface based on your environment. Wood in wet conditions can be more likely to absorb water, which leads to cracking and warping.

  • In areas with high humidity, mildew and algae can be a problem for exterior wood. Prepare the surface with a deep cleaner, then stain with a product that provides mildew resistance. 
  • In areas that are hot and sunny, UV rays are tough on wood. Choose a product with built-in UV protection. Also, consider a semi-transparent, semi-solid or solid color stain to provide greater protection from damaging UV rays. 
  • When staining a deck or wood project that receives a lot of sunlight, consider a light stain that reflects heat over a dark stain color that will absorb more heat.

Tip: Most stains require dry wood for application. After applying, the wood will need at least 24 hours to dry completely. Check the upcoming weather forecast for rainfall and plan accordingly before beginning your staining project.

Check the Wood's Condition
New boards are installed in a deck.

You also must consider the condition of the wood before choosing a stain. The age or level of damage to the wood will influence the type of stain you need. 

  • New wood refers to lumber used in new construction. Use clear or transparent stains to ensure your project looks as natural as possible.
  • Existing wood is lumber that has been in place for a while and may have been treated before. Transparent or semi-transparent stains will enhance the natural appearance of this wood. Semi-transparent stains will typically last longer than transparent stains.
  • Mixed wood refers to a project made of both new and old boards as a result of replacing damaged or unsafe boards over time. Use semi-solid stains to allow the grain of wood to show through while simultaneously providing a uniform appearance among all boards.
  • Damaged wood refers to wood that remains structurally sound but shows visible wear and tear. It may have splinters and has likely had a lot of UV exposure. Cover the damage and preserve the wood's life with solid stains that will completely obscure the grain of the wood.
  • Badly damaged wood that is no longer structurally sound, especially deck boards, should be replaced as soon as possible. 

Tip: Consider a lighter-colored stain on a newer wood structure, which gives you more flexibility for applying darker stains in the future.

Wood Stain Transparency and Color
An image shows, from left to right, the appearance of transparent, semi-transparent and solid wood stain.

Several varieties of wood grain transparency can be achieved with stain. Each brand offers a variety of colors from varying qualities of pigments. Opacity, or the intensity of pigment in the stain, can have a significant impact on the final appearance of your project.

  • Clear and toner stains are ideal for new or premium wood surfaces as they contain no pigment and allow the wood to weather and gray naturally.
  • Transparent stains allow a great deal of wood grain to show while hiding a few imperfections. These nearly clear stains contain a hint of wood-inspired color. The durability depends on the quality of pigments used to make the color. Use a paint or stain stripper before applying a layer of transparent stain to wood that’s been previously coated.
  • Semi-transparent stains may have the most popular look as they provide more color to hide imperfections while allowing some wood grain and texture to show though. Also called translucent stain, semi-transparent stain often involves wood-inspired colors meant to fit well in nature.
  • Semi-solid stains are offered by some brands to provide the same color as semi-transparent stains with a better ability to conceal damage.
  • Solid stains provide the most color, protective durability and ability hide imperfections. They are available in a wide variety of colors, including natural browns and reds as well as blues, grays and blacks. In sunny climates, the less natural colors of a solid stain may be less durable.
  • Restoration stains are used for aging wood or composite surfaces to coat and fill cracks and imperfections. It tends to be thicker than other stains and shows less of the wood grain.

Tip: Solid stains that provide a restorative surface film are ideal for badly damaged wood. These create a coating on the top of the wood that is thick, flexible and able to encapsulate very small splinters.

Water-Based Exterior Stains
A container of water-based exterior wood stain.

Wood stain falls into three different formula types: water-based, oil-based and hybrid stains. Water based stains, which include acrylic stains, are more durable and provide greater protection than oil-based stains but sacrifice some of the beauty of wood grain.

  • They offer a choice of solid, vibrant colors and can be comparable to house paint.
  • They offer such benefits as easy application and high durability.
  • They are lower in VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than the alternatives, making them more environmentally friendly. 
  • They dry quickly and can be applied in low temperatures.
  • They only need soap and water for clean-up. 
  • They are often recommended for woods that resist decay and rot, such as cedar, cypress and redwood.
  • They do not wear well and may not be ideal for a wood deck. 
  • They can be more expensive than oil-based stains.
Oil-Based Exterior Wood Stains
A container of oil-based exterior wood stain.

Oil-based or alkyd stains are designed to penetrate the wood, which highlights the wood grain and offers a more natural appearance.

  • They protect wood from water damage and can be better for decks than the alternatives.
  • They can be more challenging to apply, require solvents for cleanup and may not be as environmentally friendly. 
  • They tend to be less expensive than water-based stains.
Hybrid Exterior Wood Stains
A container of hybrid exterior wood stain.

Hybrid stains that are blends of alkyd and acrylic stain have become increasingly common. 

  • They can represent the best qualities of either stain, being as durable and easy to use as acrylics, while highlighting wood grain as well as alkyds.
  • They offer durability, powerful adhesion and water repellency.
  • They are effective at highlighting the wood grain, comparable to penetrating stain.
  • They are also low in VOCs, can be applied in low temperatures and only need soap and water for cleaning.
Tips for Using Exterior Wood Stains
A person applies wood stain to a deck.

Consider these tips when using the different types of exterior stains.

  • Before staining any wood, perform a quick water penetration test to determine how well the wood will absorb the stain. Simply wet the wood's surface to see if water beads up. If it does, lightly sand the surface and try the test again until the water penetrates the wood. Allow the wood to fully dry before staining.
  • Before applying stain, especially to weathered wood, deeply clean the surface to achieve the best appearance. Use a cleaner that removes mildew, dirt and discolorations, which could otherwise diminish the finished color. 
  • Most exterior wood stains are now formulated to contain a protective sealer.
  • After staining, read the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance. Some products may need a simple cleaning and re-treatment, while other products may require stripping, sanding and reapplication.
  • Keep decks swept and periodically rearrange outdoor furniture to prevent sunlight from causing mismatched color patches.
  • Check the stained wood for signs of wear and tear with regular inspections.

Choosing between the types of exterior stains can be a matter of matching the condition of the wood to the levels of pigmentation and protectiveness you desire. The best exterior wood stains for your needs can ensure your deck or other outdoor project will look its best while lasting as long as possible.

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