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How to Choose the Best Stain for your Deck

Who doesn’t love a beautiful wood deck? A well-maintained deck can add value to your home and increase your usable living space where you can relax, enjoy fun outdoor activities and throw festive gatherings. Properly caring for your decking will make all the difference in having a deck that you enjoy and use regularly versus a terrible eyesore that becomes increasingly difficult to salvage as time goes on. 

Harsh UV rays, battering rain, extreme temperature, and foot traffic can all take a toll on a wood deck, leaving it faded, dull, peeling, or worse – rotted beyond repair. Staining or painting a deck with a well-chosen high-quality product will improve a deck’s appearance and add an important measure of protection against the elements. 

Painting vs. Staining - What's the Difference?

You may have heard the words ‘paint’ and ‘stain’ thrown around interchangeably when discussing your deck maintenance. The two products are comparable and contain many of the same ingredients. Stain is transparent and should still show the wood grain; however, paint covers and completely obscures the wood (similar to a solid stain). 

Finishing a newly installed wooden deck or refinishing an older one will protect it from moisture- and weather-related damage and prolong its lifespan. While both exterior paint and wood stain can do the job, there’s a fine line between painting vs. staining a deck. The two popular finishes differ slightly in terms of appearance, application, durability, maintenance, and cost. However, both products help preserve wood by repelling water and, depending on the brand, often include UV blockers and mildewcide to prevent mold and mildew growth.

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Deck Stain

Choosing a wood deck stain is about more than just picking a color and brushing the product on the decking. First consider the type and age of the deck wood and whether it’s been previously stained or painted. In addition to updating the appearance, the best deck stain often provides a measure of protection against foot traffic and the elements.

1. Base: Oil vs. Water-Based

Deck stains come in two main types: oil based (alkyd) and water based. Both stains are applied in a similar manner and are available in a range of attractive wood-tone shades, including colors that mimic redwood, cedar, and mahogany. Still, while similar, each type has some specific benefits and considerations.

Oil-based deck stains, which have been around for decades, do an excellent job of protecting exterior wood. 

  Pros:

  • Naturally repels water and reduces the risk of mold growth.
  • Available in a range of colors.
  • Provides a tough, durable finish.
  • Generally cost less than most acrylic-based stains.

  Cons:

  • High in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which create fumes that can lead to watery eyes, a sore throat, or other respiratory issues.
  • Can take up to 48 hours to dry after application. 
  • Costs less than most acrylic-based stains.
  • Requires additional labor and a strong solvent, such as paint thinner or turpentine, to clean brushes, rollers, and paint sprayers after use.
  • Flammable when wet! Both the liquid and fumes can ignite. Once dry, oil-based stains no longer pose a fire hazard.

Water-based stains are relatively new but becoming increasingly popular. These stains use water as their base. 

  Pros:

  • Registers lower in volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), so they are more environmentally friendly and create fewer fumes than oil-based deck stains.
  • Cleans up easily with soap and water.
  • Dries quickly, often within 2 to 3 hours.
  • Offers the best protection against fading.
  • Cracks and peels less because its acrylic ingredients are flexible.
  • Dries quickly and is ready to recoat in 4 to 6 hours.
  • Available in a range of colors.

 Cons: 

  • Usually cost more than oil-based stains.
  • Sits on top of the wood instead of penetrating the grain.

- A Note on VOC Content -

Many of today’s consumers want to use fewer toxic products. In response, paint manufacturers are finding ways to manufacture quality paints with lower volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which are the harmful gases emitted by these products. Some may cause health problems. Deck paint with lower VOC content is labeled as either “Low-VOC” or “Zero-VOC.”

  • Low-VOC: Paints bearing the “Low-VOC” label should contain less than 50 grams per liter (g/L) of VOCs if the paint has a flat finish and no more than 110 g/L if the paint features a sheen, such as gloss or semi-gloss.
  • Zero-VOC: Also called “No-VOC,” paint labeled “Zero-VOC” contains minimal volatile organic chemicals—or none at all. A Zero-VOC deck paint may still have trace amounts of VOCs, but no more than 5 g/L. Individuals who are sensitive to the fumes from higher VOC paints likely prefer these paints.

2. Opacity

The opacity of wood stains—their degree of transparency or opaqueness—determines the finished look and affects how well the product can protect the deck. Deck stain is available in four opacities:

Toner: This stain is closest to a clear sealer. It contains just a hint of color and imparts only a slight hue to the wood that won’t change the deck’s overall look. For the best protection, toner must be reapplied every year.

Semi-transparent: As the most popular opacity level, semi-transparent stains add noticeable color to the deck, but the wood grain still shows. They offer some deck sealer protection, but plan to recoat every 2 to 3 years.

Semi-opaque / Semi-Solid: This deck stain contains enough pigment to obscure most of the wood grain while imparting rich color. Users must recoat every 3 to 4 years.

Opaque / Solid: Contains the highest percentage of pigment and can protect wood the longest, requiring a recoat every 4 to 5 years. Opaque stain, also the densest, completely hides the wood grain. It offers the most coverage short of applying a deck paint.

3. Wood Type

Wood varies by species, and different types of wood are better suited to weathering the elements. Most wood surfaces still need some kind of protection and may, at some point, benefit from a deck stain that refreshes color. When constructing exterior decks, contractors generally use four main types of wood:

Redwood: Perhaps the top wood species for high-end decks, redwood naturally resists insects, moisture damage, and decay, but it’s expensive. Considered a softwood, redwood contains natural oils and tannins that give it a warm reddish hue. To retain its natural color, apply a clear penetrating sealer rather than a wood stain once a year. Older redwood decks may benefit from a toner stain or stain/sealer combo to refresh the wood’s color.

Cedar: Also a softwood that’s naturally resistant to decay, rot, and insect damage, cedar is an optimal wood for decks. However, it’s also pricey. When new and in good shape, cedar doesn’t require a stain, because it would alter its natural beauty. However, cedar benefits from an annual application of a clear, penetrating sealer. Older cedar decks that have weathered to a silvery gray hue can be enjoyed as they are, or apply a tinted sealer to help restore the deck’s youthful appearance.

Teak: The natural oils in teak protect it from fungus, decay, and water damage for years, so it requires no stain or sealer to retain its appearance. Unlike redwood and cedar, teak is a hardwood that can last 50 years or more outdoors. It weathers to an attractive silvery gray over time and can be refreshed by a light sanding to remove the surface grain. Applying a wood stain is usually not necessary.

Treated: Treated wood costs a fraction of the price of redwood, cedar, or teak, making it the wood of choice for most decks. When infused with alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), treated wood, usually yellow pine or Douglas fir, resists rotting and weathering. However, it does take up to 6 months before ACQ effectively evaporates from the wood. For best results when staining a treated deck, wait 6 months after installation before applying stain. Treated wood decking is also a candidate for exterior paint that performs on horizontal surfaces.

4. Durability

To stand up to the elements, the deck paint must be labeled “exterior” paint or stain to help ensure its suitability for outdoor use. Steer clear of interior paints, which don’t have adequate weather- and fade-resistant qualities.

The adage “You get what you pay for” is true with both deck paint and stain. The best formulas contain better binding agents and longer-lasting pigments, such as titanium dioxide, that make the color less likely to fade or peel.

Manufacturers often produce paint in three categories: “Good,” “Better,” and “Best.” Products labeled “Best” may cost twice as much as those in the “Good” lineup, but they are more durable. Higher quality paints are also thicker, which means a gallon of “Good” paint will cover more square feet than a gallon of “Best” paint. “Best” paint can leave a thicker, more durable coating on the deck.

This is why Zoe’s ProEdge Painting only recommends the highest quality paint or stain available and we guarantee it’s performance with our two-year warranty. The final product will look better, last longer and protect the wood more efficiently.

5. Climate Conditions

Because they’re intended for exterior use, most deck paints contain additives to protect the deck from mold, mildew, UV rays, and extreme temperatures. While paints with one or two of these additives are typically OK, it’s often a good idea to opt for a product with all three for the best protection and longest-lasting color.

Wet and rainy climates contribute to deck paint failure, because if moisture seeps into the wood beneath the paint, it can loosen the bond between wood and paint, resulting in peeling. To reduce this risk, paint all sides of the deck boards—even the bottom, if possible—to seal the wood and keep out moisture. If the deck sits low to the ground, making it impossible to paint the underside, consider using a penetrating deck stain rather than a deck paint. When choosing between paint or stain, remember that stain will seep into the wood grain itself.

6. Existing Coating

When the deck’s color starts to fade, reapply the stain to maintain and protect it. If the deck has previously been treated with a penetrating stain, this is usually a straightforward process. For a stain that coats only the surface, as do many acrylic-based wood stains, remove the existing coat before applying a new stain product. Removal involves sanding the surface of the deck to remove the old coating.

When applying stain over a previously stained deck, the general rule is to go with a similar or darker shade instead of a lighter hue. An existing dark color can overpower the tone of a lighter stain. If a lighter color is the goal, first sand off the existing darker stain. Alternatively, some manufacturers make a deck-bleaching product that lightens and brightens old stain to accommodate a lighter tint.

7. Added Protection

All wood stains & paints (both oil-based and water-based formulas) offer a measure of water resistance by preventing rain from saturating the wood. Water-saturated wood can lead to swelling, warping, and rot. The best deck stain also protects against UV damage, which can fade the wood’s surface and increase the risk of cracks and splintering.

Some of the best deck stains contain mildewcide to prevent the growth of whitish, powdery mildew and splotchy black mold that can lead to wood rot. These additional ingredients typically add to the price, but the cost is worth it. Look for the terms “UV protection” and “mildew protection” on the label to ensure the product can protect the deck from anything Mother Nature delivers.

8. Proper Application

Most deck stains/paints can be applied with a roller, brush, or sprayer. For quality results, it’s important to make any necessary repairs and properly prep the deck before application.

Any professional painter (that actually knows what they’re doing) will tell you that proper prep is the single most important step in achieving high-quality results.

In addition to using the correct paint or stain for your wood deck, the team at Zoe’s will prepare your deck by first cleaning with a pressure washer to remove dirt, debris, grease and grime. We’ll also scrape and sand away any loose or peeling paint that may be present, which will ensure proper adherence.

Also, it’s essential that we make sure the wood is completely dry and the temperature is mild. Deck stain or paint of any type does not dry well in cold temperatures or humid conditions. This is why the team at Zoe’s ProEdge Painting closely monitors the ever-changing weather forecast when performing exterior painting. It’s best to choose a day when the temperature is between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with no wind or rain in the forecast.

Final Thoughts

With the cost of construction materials at an all-time high, it pays to protect a backyard deck to gain as much useful life from it as possible. A fresh coat of paint can help safeguard wood decks from UV damage, mildew, and water rot, but for those new to the idea of painting a deck, some questions are to be expected.

This is why the experts at Zoe’s ProEdge Painting are here to help! Not only will we offer tips and tricks throughout the process, we guarantee high quality results. We only use the best products and methods of application to make sure that you achieve the look you want and to ensure your deck is protected for several years to come. 

Let the experts at Zoe’s ProEdge Painting tackle your exterior deck project. We can make the process of updating your deck quick, easy and headache-free. Give us a call today!