Buyer’s Guide: Deck Stain
Understand the differences in stain ingredients and opacity, so you can choose the right product with which to restore and protect your wood deck.
Harsh UV rays, battering rain, and temperature extremes can take a toll on your wood deck, leaving it faded and dull. Fortunately, a quality deck stain can help revive its appearance while adding a measure of protection against the elements. Not all deck stains are created equal, however. Keep reading to learn about the different types and what to look for–and don’t miss our roundup of top-favorite picks among the best deck stain options available.
- BEST OVERALL: Cabot Australian Timber Oil
- BEST FOR OLD DECKS: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
- BEST FOR NEW DECKS: Ready Seal Redwood Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
- HONORABLE MENTION: CABOT Semi-Solid Deck Stain
Stain vs. Sealer
There’s a fine line between deck stains and deck sealers. The two products are comparable, containing many of the same ingredients, but while a sealer is transparent, stain seals and imparts color to the wood. Both products help to preserve wood by repelling water and, depending on the brand, both often include UV-blockers and mildewcide (to prevent mold and mildew growth).
Oil-Based vs. Water-Based
Unlike paint, which remains on the surface, deck stains are designed to penetrate the wood, protecting it from the elements. Oil-based deck stains have been around for decades, and they do a good job of protecting the wood. Water-based stains are relatively new but becoming more popular. Each has its pros and cons.
Oil-based deck stain…
- Naturally repels water and reduces the risk of mold growth.
- Conditions wood to help prevent warping and cracking.
- Can take up to 48 hours to dry after application.
- Usually requires strong-smelling solvent, such as paint thinner, for cleaning brushes and paint sprayers after use.
- Is flammable in its wet state—both the liquid and the fumes can ignite—so you must refrain from smoking while applying the stain, and take care not to apply it near an open flame, such as a barbeque grill. Once the stain dries it no longer poses a fire hazard.
- Costs approximately $25 to $45 per gallon.
Water-based deck stain…
- Features lower in volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), so more environmentally friendly and fewer fumes.
- Cleans up easily with soap and water.
- Dries quickly, within two to three hours).
- Costs approximately $40 to $75 per gallon.
Selecting a deck stain opacity (pigment level) is about more than just the desired end color of the deck. Opacity also determines how well the product will protect your deck and how soon it will need to be reapplied. Also consider that the more pigment, the less wood grain will be visible.
Deck stain is available in four basic opacities.
- Toner: This stain is the closest to a clear sealer; it contains just a hint of color and imparts only a slight hue to the wood, so it won’t change the overall look of the deck. Toner requires reapplication every year for the best protection.
- Semi-transparent: The bestselling of all opacity levels, semi-transparent stain will add noticeable color to the deck but the wood grain will still show through. Plan to recoat every two to three years.
- Semi-opaque: Also called “semi-solid,” this deck stain contains enough pigment to obscure most of the wood grain while imparting rich color. You’ll need to recoat every three to four years.
- Opaque: Also called “solid,” this stain contains the most pigment and it will protect the wood longest, requiring recoating only every four to five years. It’s also the densest and will hide the wood grain completely.
All deck stains (both water-based and oil-based) offer a measure of water protection—they repel water and keep rain from saturating the wood, which can lead to swelling, warping, and rot. The best deck stain also protects against sun rays that can fade the surface of the wood and increases the risk of cracks and splintering. For the highest level of protection, deck stains contain mildewcide to prevent the growth of both whitish, powdery mildew stains and splotchy, black mold that can lead to wood rot. These additional ingredients can add $8 to $15 per gallon to the price of the deck stain, but it’s well worth it to protect your deck. Look for the terms “UV Protection” and “Mildew Protection” on the label to ensure your deck is completely protected from anything Mother Nature throws its way.
Our Top Picks
1. BEST OVERALL: Cabot Australian Timber Oil
Defend your deck from UV rays, water, and mildew while bringing out the natural beauty of its wood grain with Cabot Australian Timber Oil. This translucent, oil-based stain is available in multiple colors that suit a variety of wood decks. DIYers appreciate its attractive uniform finish as well as its ease of application; the stain can be applied with a brush or a paint sprayer.
2. BEST FOR OLD DECKS: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Stain
SaverSystem’s #1 Deck Premium Stain, available in four rich, semi-transparent colors, can give an old, weathered deck a fresh new look. SaverSystem is easy to apply with a brush or a sprayer, and it protects wood from UV rays, mildew growth, and moisture damage.
3. BEST FOR NEW DECKS: Ready Seal Natural Exterior Stain and Sealer
Protect a new deck from the get-go with Ready Seal Natural Exterior Stain and Sealer. Its efficient two-in-one application is a time-saver, and the product comes in a selection of rich, wood-toned colors. This oil-based, semi-transparent stain lets the wood grain show through and protects against UV rays and mildew growth.
4. HONORABLE MENTION: Cabot Semi-Solid Deck Stain
If your deck is heavily stained or you want a complete change of color, Cabot’s Semi-Solid Deck Stain is a worthy option. The high pigment level in this oil-based formula offers superior UV protection and high-hiding coverage to camouflage imperfections. For best results, use a brush to apply this stain.