When Should You Consider Painting or Staining Your Wood Deck?

Marissa Hermanson
Updated December 17, 2021
Hand staining deck dark brown
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Wooden decks set the scene for outdoor gatherings like summer barbecues and hangouts, and when there’s peeling paint and washed-out stain, it can put a damper on the celebration.

Whether you choose paint or stain, the decision comes down to the look you want, what kind of protection you need, and how much time and energy you want to spend on applying the paint or stain. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between painting and staining your deck.

Staining Basics

Stain highlights the warmth and beauty of the wood’s natural graining. It’s ideal if you are looking for a more rustic or natural look.

When selecting a stain, you have three options:

  • Solid stain: More like a paint, its opaque nature allows solid stains to completely cover the wood’s natural graining

  • Semi-transparent stain: With its slight hue, semi-transparent stain allows some of the wood’s graining to show through

  • Clear stain: Completely transparent, it allows wood graining to shine through. If you have a beautiful wood you want to highlight, such as cedar, choose a clear stain

Not only does stain give your deck a natural beauty, but it also retains moisture and prevents future wood rot. If you live in a rainy region, like the Pacific Northwest, staining is more beneficial than painting your deck. Also, with its matte finish, stained decks are also less slippery than a glossy painted deck after a rainstorm.

Stain is also the go-to choice for pressure-treated woods, as paint won’t adhere as well and also peels easily. 

Staining Pros

  • Gives your deck a quick facelift

  • A stain that includes a sealer cuts your workload and time, as you only have to apply one coat

  • Staining is more affordable than painting, as you are buying just the stain. With paint, you need to purchase primer, paint, and sealer.

Staining Cons

  • Its transparent nature doesn’t protect wood from sun damage

  • Stains with more pigment (like solid or semi-transparent stain) can hold up to moisture and UV damage, whereas transparent stains don’t

  • Has a shorter shelf life than paint, and you’ll need to re-stain the wood every few years

Painting Basics

Whereas stain seeps into the wood, paint completely covers the grain, giving your deck a clean, crisp look. If your deck is older, paint can hide its imperfections (think cracks and other flaws) much better than a stain—and can give it the look of a brand-new deck.

Although you are concealing the wood grain, you can still get a natural look with paint by choosing an organic color scheme, including taupes, browns, sandy hues, and shades of green that echo the great outdoors. 

For more modern homes, paint gives your deck a more streamlined, minimalist look because of its uniform application, whereas stains let a wood’s nuances and variations shine through. And with paints, you also have more color options—you can even select a paint that complements your home’s siding and trim.

When selecting paint, you have two options:

  • Oil-based paint: These types of paints protect from moisture and typically last longer. Their durable nature allows them to hold up against daily wear and tear better than latex. Oil-based paints typically adhere to surfaces easily and offer a smooth finish.

  • Latex paint: Latex paints hold up against UV fading and are best used in locations with higher temperatures. These types of paints resist cracking and chipping, emit less odor, and have a shorter dry time than oil-based paints.

Painting Pros

  • Lasts longer than stain and covers imperfections better.

  • Durable, lasting up to 10 years before you need to repaint your deck.

  • Paint protects against sun damage, which is something to consider if your deck is in full sun or you live in a sun-soaked region

Painting Cons

  • Paint creates a slippery surface, which is something to consider if you live in a rainy locale or are concerned about safety

  • Wood decks expand and contract in the heat, causing paint to chip and peel over time

  • More time- and labor-intensive, requiring extra steps as you need to treat your deck with a water-repellent wood preservative, add a layer of primer, a layer or two of paint, and then seal it with a clear polyurethane

  • Permanent; when you stain your deck, you can always repaint later on down the road

Prepping Your Deck for Painting or Staining

Whichever route you choose, the first step is always the same: prepping your deck. 

Sweep away dirt and debris, scrub the wood with a deck cleaner, and smooth away imperfections and rough patches with sandpaper. If there’s mold or mildew, use a cleaner with mildewcide. 

Repair and replace rotten wood boards, make sure screws and nails are secure, and fill any holes with exterior grade wood filler It’s important to have a clean surface for paint to properly adhere and stain to soak in and cure.

Rinse your deck and let it dry completely. If your deck is already painted and looking weathered from wear and tear, you will need to strip and sand it.

And for decks that are older than 10 years old, this is the time to have your deck inspected to check for wood decay, weak joints and railings, and missing screws and fasteners.

Pro Tips for Applying Stain or Paint

Before painting or staining your deck, check the weather. You don’t want to apply paint or stain if it’s going to rain within 24 hours. 

For latex paints, it’s ideal to apply when it’s 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas with oil-based paints you can apply when it’s anywhere from 45 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. To avoid UV rays, apply stain on a cloudy day or in the shade when it’s 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. 

For fast, easy, and uniform application, use a paint roller (even if you’re staining!). Use a brush or roller to smooth out any globs and touch up imperfections. For railings and hard-to-reach spots, use a small brush. Back-brushing the stain also helps with penetration. 

It can take up to 48 hours for it to fully dry. Be sure to wait the allotted time for the stain or paint to dry before inviting friends and family over for a big backyard bash. 

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