How to Stain a Fence: A Step-by-Step DIY Guide

A new coat of stain gives your fence and your yard new life

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated March 20, 2023
A backyard with a stained wood fence, table, and chairs
Photo: Leslie C Saber / Adobe Stock


Flex your DIY muscles.

Time to complete

96 hours

This project takes a few days, but most of your time will be spent waiting for your fence to dry.



If you already own the tools, this DIY is a no-brainer.

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Get quotes from top-rated pros.

What you'll need:


  • 2-inch stain brush (optional)
  • 4-inch roller with a 3/4-inch nap (optional)
  • 4-inch stain brush
  • 9-inch roller with a 3/4-inch nap (optional)
  • Drop cloths
  • Moisture meter (optional)
  • Orbital sander (optional)
  • Paint sprayer (optional)
  • Power washer
  • Roller pole (optional)
  • Set of ladders


  • Large paint tray
  • Painter’s tape
  • Sandpaper (optional)
  • Wood stain

If you want to prolong the life of your fence and enhance your outdoor space, you’ll need to stay on top of maintenance and learn how to stain a fence. Staining a fence every few years is the easiest way for you to help your fence resist warping and rotting for a long time. Unlike paint, stain permeates into wood rather than sitting on the surface, keeping it stronger for longer. Plus, you won’t have to deal with any unsightly paint peeling.

With a little bit of elbow grease, you can make this a DIY project that will save you the cost of hiring someone else to do it for you, meaning you can put aside that couple hundred bucks for a garden party once you’re done. Learn how to stain a fence for a long-lasting effect with just a few supplies and some easy-to-follow steps.

Prepping to Stain Your Wood Fence

Before you start staining your wood fence, you’ll need to pick a good stain with the right base. The stain you select should depend on the type of wood you built your fence out of and the finish you want. There are two main types of stains you’ll be looking at:

  • Water-based stains: These work best for hardwoods like oak and ash.

  • Oil-based stains: These work best for softwoods like cedar and pine.

Keep in mind that the hardest woods (like walnut, cherry, and mahogany) don’t absorb stain well, so you’ll need to do extra prep work if your fence is made from one of those. 

When looking for the right stain, you’ll also have to choose the right opacity: solid, transparent, or semi-transparent. 

  • Solid stains hide imperfections and provide UV protection, but they’re prone to chipping. 

  • Transparent stains show off the wood grain, but they don’t offer UV protection. 

  • Semi-transparent stains are a popular middle ground that offer a nice view of your wood grain but are prone to fading.

  1. Check the Forecast

    If you have a weekend off, it might seem like the perfect opportunity for you to tackle that long-overdue home improvement task of restoring your old wood fence. However, before starting, make sure that there’s not any rain in the forecast and that there won’t be any showers for at least 24 hours after the job is complete.

    If it rains on your newly stained fence, you’ll likely immediately see unsightly water spots that will ruin the integrity of the stain. 

    You should also pay attention to the temperature. Cold temps or high humidity levels will make it tough for the stain to dry thoroughly. Conversely, scorching hot days can dry the stain out before it has a chance to absorb into the wood, leading to glaring overlap marks and an untidy finish. Save yourself money, time, and labor by checking the forecast first and taking a rain check if you need it.

  2. Strip and Sand the Fence

    Wood prep depends on the current state of your fence. It will either be new or previously painted. For a new fence, you’ll need to make sure the stain can penetrate the wood. Test the wood by spraying a section of your fence with a garden hose. If the water beads off rather than absorbing into the wood, you’ll need to sand the fence down before staining. 

    Using an orbital sander is the easiest way to sand down your entire fence quickly, but if you’re looking to save money and have a lot of extra time and endurance, you can sand by hand. Regardless of the method you choose, after sanding, make sure you wipe away all the dust. Otherwise, sanded-off wood particles may get trapped in your stain and make the appearance patchy and uneven.

    If your fence was previously stained or painted, you’ll first need to remove the old finish using a paint, stain, or finish stripper. Apply your product according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally, finish-stripping products bubble up when it’s time for you to clean up the paint or stain. Use a plastic scraper and soft bristle brush to gently scrape your fence clean. Then, wipe the wood with a damp cloth.

    According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, paint and stain strippers contain hazardous ingredients, like methylene chloride and caustic alkalis. These ingredients can cause skin and eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, and headaches, in addition to more serious illnesses. These side effects are why it’s incredibly important for you to take all possible safety precautions when working with paint and stain strippers. 

    Always wear chemical-resistant gloves, a respiratory mask, and goggles when handling paint and stain strippers. Additionally, avoid letting these products come in contact with your skin, and do not use them near sparks, open flames, or high heat, as many of them are flammable. When in doubt, call in a professional.

  3. Clean the Fence

    A person using a power washer to wash a fence
    Photo: Елена Захарова / Adobe Stock

    Cutting corners with prep work can lead to problems with stain application, durability and longevity, and even mold, mildew, and rot.

    Using a power washer or a spray nozzle attached to a garden hose is the easiest and most effective way to clean your fence. Hosing the wood down will remove dirt, mildew, and paint or stain peelings, leaving the wood clean and ready for the next step. 

    You should start on a lower pressure (around 800 PSI) to ensure you don’t overly weather and wear down the wooden slats during the process. Additionally, don’t go above 1,500 PSI. Be slow and methodical, passing the pressure washer over each board to remove stains, discoloration, and debris. If your fence has extensive damage or severe sun bleaching, you can add a wood cleaner to your power washer or a diluted bleach mixture (75% water and 25% bleach).

  4. Spot-Treat Mold and Mildew

    Wood fences are sometimes magnets for mold and mildew. If you notice mold or mildew stains, you’ll need to spot-treat them with a bleach solution. 

    Taking proper safety precautions by wearing gloves and a respiratory mask, mix 75% water and 25% bleach in a bucket, then put the solution in a garden sprayer and spray it over the affected area. Let the bleach mixture sit for five to 10 minutes so it has time to absorb. Then, wash it away using a power washer or spray nozzle attached to a garden hose.

  5. Allow the Fence to Dry

    Don’t apply your wood stain until the fence is completely dry, as the stain won’t adhere properly to damp slats. Most stain manufacturers recommend that the moisture content of the wood should be less than 15% when you apply stain. It typically takes up to 48 hours for a wooden fence to fully dry out after you wash it, so a little patience will go a long way during this step.

    Making sure newly-cleaned wood is dry isn’t the only important thing to consider when talking about a fence’s moisture level. New wood often contains a lot of moisture and needs time to cure and dry out. Depending on the type of wood and your local climate, you might need to wait for one to six months before staining your new fence. 

    So how do you know when your fence is dry enough to stain? There’s an easy trick that can help you decide. 

    After waiting a few months for the fence to dry, grab some water and sprinkle it onto the fence’s surface. If the water beads off, the wood is still too wet. When the water absorbs straight into the wood, the fence is dry enough for you to stain. However, if you have even a shadow of a doubt, test the wood with a moisture meter; this is the only way to be 100% sure that the fence is ready for you to stain.

  6. Protect the Area With Drop Cloths

    Use drop cloths to protect nearby furniture, plants, grass, paving, and driveways; you don’t want to splatter anything with hard-to-remove stain. For a neat finish, use painter’s tape to protect any fencing hardware, as well.

  7. Apply the Stain

    An older man applying wood stain to a fence with a brush
    Photo: encierro / Adobe Stock

    Most DIYers apply stain using brushes or rollers, but using a paint sprayer also works. Pouring some of the stain from the can into a tray makes it easier to load up the brush, and you’ll definitely need a tray if you’re using a roller. You may also need a set of ladders or a roller pole for taller privacy fences.

    Using a Brush 

    Using a brush might be the slowest technique, but it offers the best control. A 4-inch brush helps provide a neat finish and good coverage, but you may also want a 2-inch brush for touch-ups and small details around hardware.

    A natural bristle brush typically works best for oil-based stains, and a synthetic bristle brush is ideal for water-based varieties. You won’t have to load up as often if you choose a natural bristle brush, as this type holds more stain than synthetic bristle brushes. If you’re painting an old fence and the wood surface is very rough, a synthetic brush is a better choice because synthetic bristles are stiffer and less likely to break. 

    Coat horizontal slats from left to right and vertical slats from top to bottom. Try to always complete an entire slat before taking a break to prevent lap marks from forming. Don’t forget to stain each slat’s top and bottom edges, too.

    Using a Roller

    A roller with a 3/4-inch nap works best on rough wooden surfaces, like fences. Use a 9-inch-wide roller for good coverage and a 4-inch-wide variety for those hard-to-reach areas.

    Using a Paint Sprayer

    Spray painting is a fast way to apply wood stain, but mastering the technique is tricky (and it can be messy). 

    There are a couple of downsides here. You’ll need to buy or rent a sprayer if you don’t already have one from one of your other outdoor DIYs. Also, the overspray (particles that don’t actually make it onto the fence) with this technique means you’ll need to purchase more stain than you would if you were to use a brush or roller. 

    Be extra careful about covering the surrounding area before spraying, and don’t use a paint sprayer when there are high winds.

    To get the best coverage, spray in the direction of the wood grain and work your way back up to cover half of the area you just sprayed on the following stroke. Adopting this technique helps prevent lap marks.

    Practice on a less visible section of the fence to get a feel for exactly how much you should be spraying. If you apply too much, there will be lots of runs, and too little spray means you’ll have a patchy finish.

  8. Let the Stain Dry

    Depending on the wood, the type of stain, and the application method, you might need to apply a second coat to each side of the fence. Adding a second coat can help produce a more even finish or a greater depth of color. If the fence is new and you're happy with the coverage or plan to add a sealant on top, another coat usually won’t be necessary. When deciding whether or not to add a second coat, wait until the stain is fully dry. Only then will you spot any lap marks or patchy spots and get a feel for the final color, which will help you make the most informed decision. You can expect to wait between two and 12 hours for the stain to completely dry and between one and three days for it to fully cure. Given that fence stain costs around $0.30 to $0.60 per square foot, it’s well worth the extra time and investment for a tidy, long-lasting job.

  9. Apply Sealer for Additional Protection

    A high-quality, well-applied stain is often enough to protect your fence for at least a few years. However, you may decide to add a coat of sealer on top once the stain is fully dry. 

    Some people looking for a natural wood finish choose to seal their fences instead of staining them. However, although sealers provide excellent waterproofing qualities, they don’t penetrate the wood the same way that stain does, and their UV protection qualities aren’t as good.

    You can apply sealer using the same steps and methods you would for applying stain. Make sure the fence is fully dry, and use a brush, roller, or sprayer to evenly apply the sealer in the direction of the wood grain. Then wait again for the sealer to dry before doing anything else with your fence.

Should You DIY Staining a Fence?

Now that you know how to stain a fence, should you actually do it yourself? Most people can save a pretty penny by rolling up their sleeves for a DIY on this one, given that professional fence staining costs an average of $750 to $4,250. Of course, this depends on the size of the fence and the amount of prep work required. That said, it’s sometimes difficult to get a smooth coat, and a large job can take a long time if you’re staining solo.

A pro can bring in a team to make things speedy and seamless. They’ll know how to strip old stain without damaging your fence and make sure the new stain lasts. To get the best price on a pro job, interview at least three fence stainers near you.

Paul Pogue contributed to this piece.

Frequently Asked Questions

The easiest way to stain a fence depends on your experience and comfort level with the project. Applying stain with an airless sprayer or pump sprayer might get the stain job done faster, but it can be tricky. Paint rollers and stain brushes are slower but simpler for a DIY project.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.