The Best Deck Stains, According to DIYers
Understand the differences in stain ingredients and opacity to choose the right one to restore and protect your wooden 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 revive its good looks while adding a measure of protection against the elements. Not all deck stains are created equal, however, so keep reading to learn about the different types and why we’ve selected the following five options as the best deck stain for every specific need.
- BEST FOR HIGHLIGHTING WOOD GRAIN: Woodrich Timber Oil Deep Penetrating Stain
- BEST FOR SAME-DAY PREP-AND-STAIN PREPARATION: Restore-A-Deck Wood Stain
- BEST FOR OLD DECKS: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
- BEST FOR NEW DECKS: Ready Seal Redwood Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
- BEST FOR HEAVIER COVERAGE: CABOT Semi-Solid Deck Stain
Important Considerations for Finding the Best 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.
The Best Deck Stains
The following five deck stains are tops in their class for restoring wood decks to their original beauty and keeping them looking that way. For the best results, your deck should be thoroughly cleaned prior to application. (Our favorite deck cleaners can help simplify the cleaning process.)
1. BEST FOR HIGHLIGHTING WOOD GRAIN: Woodrich Timber Oil Deep Penetrating Stain
Defend your deck from UV rays, water, and mildew while bringing out the natural beauty of its wood grain with Woodrich Timber Oil Deep Penetrating Deck Stain. This semi-transparent, oil-based stain is available in three classic colors that suit most decks. DIYers appreciate its attractive uniform finish as well as its ease of application. One gallon covers up to 150 square feet, and the stain can be applied with a brush or a paint sprayer.
2. BEST FOR SAME-DAY PREP-AND-STAIN APPLICATION: Restore-A-Deck Wood Stain
Many deck stains require the deck to be clean and perfectly dry before application, but if you’re pressed for time, Restore-A-Deck’s Wood Stain can be applied while wood is still damp after cleaning. This water-based stain penetrates deeply to protect wood from damaging UV rays, moisture, and mildew growth while providing a semi-transparent color that allows the wood grain to shine through. Available in eight true-to-life wood shades, Restore-A-Deck goes on easily with brush or sprayer, and one gallon covers up to 200 square feet. Reviewers love its “rich and gorgeous” color and quick dry time.
3. BEST FOR OLD DECKS: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Stain
Don’t give up on that old deck, even if it’s grayed and weathered! SaverSystem’s #1 Deck Premium Stain, available in four rich, semi-transparent colors, will give it 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. One gallon covers approximately 100 square feet of deck.
4. BEST FOR NEW DECKS: Ready Seal Natural Exterior Stain and Sealer
Protect your deck from the get-go with Ready Seal Natural Exterior Stain and Sealer. Its efficient two-in-one application appeals to those who want to save time and money when staining a deck in one of the eight rich wood-toned colors. This oil-based, semi-transparent stain still lets the wood grain shine and protects against UV rays and mildew growth and contains additional waterproofing additives—a plus in wet and humid regions. One gallon covers approximately 150 square feet.
5. BEST FOR HEAVIER COVERAGE: CABOT Semi-Solid Deck Stain
If your deck is heavily stained or you want a complete change of color, you’ll get great results with CABOT’s Semi-Solid Deck Stain in Cordovan Brown, a rich, deep brown (seven other shades are also available). The high pigment level in this oil-based formula offers superior UV protection and high-hiding coverage to camouflage imperfections. For the best results, the manufacturer recommends using a brush to apply this stain. One gallon covers approximately 250 square feet.