Buying Guide

How to Choose the Right Applicators for Exterior Stain Projects

Types of Stain and Paint Brushes
Several types of paint brushes placed on a deck floor.

Paint brushes are used to apply paint or stain with a smaller surface area or in oddly-shaped spaces. Bristles usually come in two types: natural and synthetic. 

Natural bristles provide the best results with alkyd/oil stains. They are less likely than synthetic bristles to create brush marks. When back-brushing, the hollow filament of the natural bristle brush picks up excess stain and redeposits it in areas which will absorb more stain. Natural bristle brushes can be cleaned and reused for multiple projects. 

Synthetic bristles are best with 100% acrylic and acrylic/oil stains. Unlike natural bristles, they won’t become limp. Synthetic brushes are more budget-friendly than brushes with natural bristles. They can be tough to clean. Consider simply disposing of them when the project is complete.

Tip: A high-quality brush of any material lasts longer and may be worth the investment. 

Choosing a Paint Brush
Someone staining a deck with a square-cut brush.

When applying an exterior stain, the shape of the bristles can drastically affect the finish of the stain. Most brushes have bristles that are square cut. Square-cut brushes are versatile but offer limited control. Brushes cut at an angle are called sash brushes. Sash brushes offer greater control for corners and narrow spaces.

Always choose a brush that is at least slightly narrower than the surface you are coating. Use a 1 - 2-inch brushes are ideal for narrow surfaces like trim. A 2 1/2 - 3-inch brush works best for narrow boards, railings and cutting-in. For large surfaces, a 3 1/2-inch or larger brush is a good choice.

Selecting a Roller
Several new paint rollers lying on a wood deck.

Roller covers slide onto a roller head, which then can be attached onto a pole. Natural fiber rollers are best with alkyd stains. However, they mat if used with acrylic or acrylic/oil coatings. Synthetic fibers should be used with 100% acrylic and acrylic/oil stains. 

Roller covers come in a variety of naps. A nap is the thickness or configuration of a roller.  Naps come in different lengths. 3/16 – 1/4-inch roller covers give smooth results on smooth surfaces. 3/8 – 1/2-inch roller covers are best for lightly textured surfaces. For rough surfaces like weathered exterior wood, use 3/4-inch or thicker roller covers. 

Tip: A paint or stain’s manufacturer will list whether a long or heavy nap, or if a short nap will work best. 

Using a Sprayer
Someone using a paint sprayer to stain an outdoor lattice.

Spraying stain is an excellent way to get a uniform look over a large or complex surface. You can invest in an airless sprayer or opt for a budget-friendly pump sprayer.


Airless sprayers are professional sprayers. They work well for high viscosity or thick products. The cleanup of an airless sprayer can be involved and take time. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to keep the machine performing well.

Pump sprayers work well with less viscous or thinner stains. They can be cleaned after use and are usually compatible with a variety of stains. Check the stain manufacturer’s packaging on whether a pump sprayer is the right choice. 

Exterior Staining Application Tips
Someone staining an outdoor pergola with a paint brush.
  • Work with the grain not against it.
  • Don’t apply exterior stain in high heat or humidity. 
  • Even out any drips or puddles before they dry.
  • For more professional-looking results, use a sprayer or roller to apply the stain first. Follow with back-brushing to eliminate drips and runs.
  • Stain pads do an excellent job of applying the correct amount of stain, especially on smooth wood. You can purchase the head, which will attach onto a pole, along with several refill pads for your project. Pads are disposed of when the job is done.

Using the right applicator for your exterior stain project will result in a better, more durable finish. When you’re ready to start your project, The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.