How to Choose the Right Exterior Stain

Apply exterior stain to make your deck, outdoor furniture and other outdoor projects beautiful and long-lasting

Choosing Exterior Stains

Exterior stains protect your deck, outdoor furniture and other outdoor projects while bringing out the natural beauty of the materials. This guide will help you understand the different varieties of exterior stain and determine which type is best for your outdoor projects.

Tip: 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.

Consider Your Climate and Project Surface

Before selecting an exterior stain for your project, it is important to consider where you live. Prepare the wood surface for stain accordingly, depending on your environment.

  • In areas with high humidity, mildew and algae are a problem. Prep with a cleaner that deep cleans and stain with a product that provides mildew resistance.
  • In areas that are hot and sunny, UV is tough on wood. Choose a product with UV protection built-in and consider a semi-transparent, semi-solid, or solid color stain to maximize the pigments, which equal protection from damaging UV rays.

Tip: Most stains require dry wood for application and a rain-free window of 24 hours following application, so check the upcoming forecast and plan accordingly before beginning your project.

You must also consider the condition of the wood you're planning to stain. How damaged the wood is will impact which type of stain you should use.

  • New wood: Lumber used in new construction. Use clear or transparent stains to leave your project looking as natural as possible.
  • Existing wood: The lumber in your project has been in place for some period of time and has probably 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: Your project is made up of 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: This is wood that looks badly damaged but is structurally sound. It may have splinters and has likely had a lot of UV exposure and wear. Cover the damage and preserve the wood's life with solid stains that will totally obscure the grain of the wood.

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

Transparencies vs Colors

In general, there are three or four varieties of wood grain transparency that can be achieved with stain. Each brand offers a variety of colors from varying qualities of pigments. While color is a matter of personal preference, opacity, or the intensity of pigment in the stain, has a lot to do with the final appearance of your project.

Clear and toner stains
are ideal for new or premium wood surface as they allow the wood to weather and gray naturally.

Transparent stains allow the most amount of wood grain to show, hiding few imperfections. 

  • These are nearly-clear stains with a hint of wood-inspired color. The durability of protection is highly dependent on the quality of pigments used to make the color.
  • Deep cleaning the wood before stain application, especially on weathered wood, is necessary to achieve this look. The cleaning will remove stains, dirt and mildew, allowing you to stain a clean surface.
  • On previously-coated wood, use a paint or stain stripper before applying a layer of transparent stain.

Semi-transparent stains are the most popular look as they provide more color to hide imperfections while allowing some wood grain and texture to show though.

  • Stains in the semi-transparent family are generally wood-inspired colors that fit well in nature.
  • Deep cleaning, especially on weathered wood, is an important step to achieve this look to remove stains, dirt, and mildew that impact the finished color. 
  • Do a water penetration test to see if a previously-coated deck needs a stripper to remove the existing stain.

Semi-solid stains are offered by some brands to provide the same color as semi-transparent stains with a better ability to hide imperfections.

Solid stains provide the most color, imperfection hiding capabilities and durable protection.

  • Available in a wide variety of colors, from nature-inspired browns and reds to blues, grays and blacks. Note: the less natural colors may be less durable in more sunny climates.
  • Deep cleaning, especially on weathered wood, is an important preparation step to ensure maximum adhesion. 
  • Do the water penetration test to see if a previously-coated deck needs a stripper to remove the existing stain.

Restoration stains are used for wood or composite surfaces. They coat and fill cracks and imperfections.

Water-Based vs Oil-Based Stains

Stain falls into three different families of formula types: acrylic, alkyd and acrylic/oil hybrid.

Acrylic (Water-Based) Acrylic/Oil Hybrid Alkyd/Oil
  • Acrylic stains are what people think of when they refer to “water-based” products.
  • They are more durable and provide greater protection than alkyd stains but sacrifice the beauty of wood grain.
  • • Long-lasting
    • Low VOC (toxic fumes)
    • Quick-drying
    • Low temperature application
    • Only need soap and water for clean-up
  • Acrylic/Oil stains represent the best of both worlds. 
  • They are as durable and easy-to-use as acrylics, and highlight wood grain as well as alkyds.
  • • Long-lasting
    • Powerful water repellency
    • Deep penetration highlights wood grain
    • Powerful adhesion
    • Low VOC (toxic fumes)
    • Low temperature application
    • Only need soap and water for clean-up
  • Alkyd/Oil stains are what people think of when they refer to “oil-based” products.
  • • Deep penetration highlights wood grain
    • Protect wood from water damage
    • Require solvents for clean-up

Stain Maintenance

Read the manufacturer’s recommendations for detailed maintenance instructions. Some products may require a simple cleaning and re-treatment, while other products will require stripping and neutralization, sanding or both. 

It is also likely that the manufacturer will recommend cleaning your project on a regular basis to extend its useful life.