Stain is easier to apply and less expensive than paint.
Your deck will have a more natural wood look if you stain it
Paint offers more color options and better UV protection.
Paint lasts up to 10 years, while stain lasts 2 to 3 years
Both stain and paint protect your deck from the outdoor elements.
Wooden decks set the scene for outdoor gatherings like summer barbecues and hangouts, and peeling paint or washed-out stain can put a damper on the celebration. When debating deck paint vs. 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 applying the paint or stain. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between painting and staining your deck.
Deck Staining Pros and Cons
Deck 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. Plus, deck stain retains moisture and prevents future wood rot. Wondering how often to stain your deck? You can expect to restain every two to three years.
If you live in a rainy region, like the Pacific Northwest, staining is more beneficial than painting your deck because it will be 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 peels easily.
Types of Stains for Decks
When selecting a stain, you have three options:
Solid stain: More like paint, its opaque nature allows solid stains to cover the wood’s natural graining completely.
Semi-transparent stain: With its slight hue, semi-transparent stain allows some of the wood’s graining to show through.
Clear stain: This stain type is completely transparent, allowing the wood graining to shine through. If you have a beautiful wood you want to highlight, such as cedar, choose a clear stain.
Stain is easy to apply and 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, and you can expect to spend $1 to $2.50 per square foot on deck staining.
Its transparent nature doesn’t protect the 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.
Stain has a shorter shelf life than paint, and you’ll need to re-stain the wood every few years.
Deck Painting Pros and Cons
Whereas stain seeps into the wood, painting your deck covers the grain, giving it 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 give it the look of a brand-new deck.
Although you’re 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 select a paint that complements your home’s siding and trim.
Types of Paint for Decks
When selecting paint, you have two options:
Oil-based paint: These types of paints protect from moisture and typically last for about one year. 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.
Acrylic paint: When debating between oil and acrylic paint, keep in mind that acrylic paint works well in humid climates, lasts for three to five years, and lays on top of the wood.
Deck paint typically lasts longer than stain and covers imperfections better.
It’s durable, lasting several years before you need to repaint your deck, depending on the paint type.
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.
Paint creates a slippery surface, which is something to consider if you live in a rainy location.
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
Deck paint is more permanent than stain. When you stain your deck, you can always repaint later on down the road.
Deck Stain vs. Paint
Since stain and paint are great choices for a deck, focus on what’s most important to you. Here's a breakdown of key factors with a clear winner in each category.
When you stain a deck, you don't need a primer or sealer—only the stain. Stain tends to cost less per gallon, too. Most stains run between $20 and $60 per gallon, while exterior paint usually costs $55 to $75 per gallon. Plus you'll need to purchase a paint primer and sealer.
If you hire a contractor, painting a deck is more expensive than stain because it's a more time-intensive process, so labor costs more. Keep in mind that paint lasts about three times as long as stain does, so you won’t have to shell out money as often.
Best for Budgets: Stain
Stain helps accentuate the wood grain in your deck, offering a beautiful, natural look. Paint offers a more sleek, modern appearance and can be great for hiding flaws in the wood.
Best for Natural Look: Stain
Wood stains range from clear to solid in their opacity. Stains often have colorful undertones, too, such as red, brown, and gray. But paint gives you a much wider palette. You can match your home's exterior and trim work or opt for a striking contrast that'll get big reactions from guests.
Best Variety of Colors: Paint
Ease of Application
Deck painting and stain require prepping the surface, including cleaning and sanding the deck. After that, you can apply a single coat of stain. With painting, you'll need to prime the surface, apply two or three coats of paint, then apply a sealer.
Because painting is time-intensive, it can often make sense to hire a local exterior painter who can ensure a smooth surface and full lifespan.
Easiest to Apply: Stain
Deck paint lasts up to 10 years, while stain only lasts two to three years. Stain tends to be easier on the wood, allowing it to breathe and contract more. Both products help protect your deck from the elements, but paint provides more defense against UV rays.
Best for Long-Lasting: Paint
Whether you paint or stain your deck, you need to clean it at least once a year, repair any boards and screws, and perform general deck maintenance.
Paint covers flaws better, and can boost the appearance of an older deck. Due to its sheen, a painted deck is easier to sweep than a stained deck. And you only need to repaint your deck about once every 10 years, whereas you’ll need to restain once every two to three years.
Easiest to Maintain: Paint
Marissa Hermanson contributed to this piece.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can paint over deck stain by sanding the surface, applying a deglosser, priming, and painting. Without prepping the surface first, the tannins from the stain can bleed into the fresh paint and cause a blotchy finish. You can also apply a new shade of stain over existing stain, but you should sand the deck first.
It is better to stain your deck if you want a natural look and paint your deck if you want to add color. Stain is easier to apply and easier on the wood, but painting gives a more protective barrier and lasts longer. Ultimately, it depends on the goals for your deck and the look you want.
You should not paint a deck if it’s going to rain or drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit within 48 hours of painting. It’s best to paint a deck when the weather is dry and between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You also shouldn’t paint a deck if you haven't sanded and primed it first.
It is not okay to not stain or paint a deck, as the deck is likely to get damaged by the elements and UV rays. An unfinished deck also is a breeding ground for rot, mold, and insect infestations. Paint and stain help protect your deck from moisture damage, fading, and the elements. It helps your deck stay beautiful and structurally sound for far longer.