The Ultimate Guide to Exterior Wood Stains for Your Deck and Beyond

Jenna Jonaitis
Written by Jenna Jonaitis
Updated March 2, 2022
house with wood deck on sunny day
Photo: tab62 / Adobe Stock

Nail your next project by choosing the right type of stain

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Whether you’re refinishing your deck or beloved Adirondack chair, staining it can protect your wood from the elements. Staining your wood not only prevents damage from the sun, moisture, and mold, but it enhances its beauty. Based on your project, you’ll need to decide between a water-based or oil-based stain, then select your transparency type or color.

You can stain your wood furniture, fence, or deck yourself or hire a local deck refinisher to handle the job for you. Read on to learn about the best types of wood stains for your next project.

Water-Based Exterior Stain

man painting deck with water-based-stain
Photo: ronstik/ Adobe Stock

Choosing the base of your stain, whether oil or water, depends on your wood project and the effect you want.

A water-based stain is made of water, a combination of acrylic or latex resins, stabilizers, and pigments. This exterior stain offers solid protection from the elements but is slightly less durable than an oil-based stain.

Environmentally friendly (produces fewer VOCs)Less protective than oil-based stains
Safer to work with than oil-based stainsLess durable than oil-based stains due to less wood penetration
Dries quickly (usually 3 hours or less)Quick drying time can be difficult and time-consuming to work with
Helps prevent mold and mildew because it doesn’t trap water
Easy to clean
Can be thinned with water

Best for: Furniture, wood decor items, and smaller projects that need a fast dry time, as well as interior wood projects such as cabinets and wood flooring

Oil-Based Exterior Stain

woman using oil-based stain on deck
Photo: NinaMalyna/ Adobe Stock

An oil-based wood stain is made of linseed oil, alkyd resins, or tung oil. It offers more durability than water-based stains and is a great choice for staining your deck or fence. If you’re using new lumber treated with water repellency, you’ll need to use an oil-based stain as that type of wood won’t accept water-based stains.

Absorbs into wood better than water-based stainsLong dry time (usually 48 hours)
Offers more durability and protectionProne to water damage, mold, and mildew
Prevents cracking and peeling as it conditions the woodUsually needs to be reapplied sooner than water-based stains
Smooth final finishMust be applied in temperatures between 50 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit
Rich colorNeeds mineral spirits to thin and clean
Flammable when wet

Best for: Decks, fences, and pieces that need to withstand harsh conditions, but make sure the label says it contains UV and mildew protection

Wood Stain Colors and Opacity

Whether you choose a water- or oil-based stain, you'll need to decide the best wood stain color or opacity level for your project. Depending on what you're working on, you may want to choose a clear, semi-transparent, semi-solid, or solid stain.

Clear Stain

 wooden deck with clear stain
Photo: Gold Coast Girl/ Adobe Stock

Clear toners offer your wood protection but don't add color. They’re great for when you want to admire the natural beauty of the wood grain. You’ll likely need to recoat every year, unless you’re staining a piece of furniture you move inside for part of the year.

Shows natural wood grainLess protection than stains with pigment
No visible brush marksMay need annual recoating
Must use paint or stain stripper if you’re applying to wood with a darker stain

Semi-Transparent Stain

woman painting deck with stain
Photo: PiLensPhoto/ Adobe Stock

Semi-transparent stains contain some pigment, offering your wood color while still allowing you to see the wood grain. You’ll likely need to restain every two to three years.

Offers more sun protection than clear tonerDoesn't offer as much protection as semi-solid and solid stains
Allows you to appreciate natural wood grainNot best for horizontal or south-facing surfaces (due to harsher UV rays)
Doesn't leave any brush marks

Semi-Solid Stain

person painting wood deck with semi-solid stain
Photo: sayayute/ Adobe Stock

A semi-solid stain offers more color than a semi-transparent one but not as much as a solid stain. It hides most of the wood grain but not all. You’ll likely need to recoat every two to four years.

Offers deep color while allowing for some wood grain to show throughCan form a film, causing peeling
Provides better sun protection than lighter stainsDoesn't show as much wood grain for those who want that look
Great for horizontal surfaces like decks

Solid Stain

paint roller on patio deck
Photo: nd700/ Adobe Stock

Solid stains are the darkest choice for exterior wood stains and can even look like paint. A solid stain hides the wood grain but still shows some of the texture. Depending on the surface, you’ll likely need to recoat every three to five years.

Offers deep, rich colorHides wood grain
Great for fencing and outdoor furnitureCan peel or crack if not properly applied
Hides imperfections of old wood or pieces made with various types of woodMay not work well for horizontal surfaces like decks, especially with foot traffic that could wear out the color
Provides painted look

You can tackle the deck staining project yourself or hire a deck staining company near you to ace the job.

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