Harsh UV rays, battering rain, and temperature extremes can take a toll on a wood deck, leaving it faded and dull. Fortunately, staining a deck with a quality product can help revive its appearance while adding a measure of protection against the elements.
Keep reading to learn about the different types and what to look for when choosing the best deck stain for your wood structure. Then, check out some of the top-rated picks on the market today.
- BEST OVERALL: Cabot 140.0003400.005 Australian Timber Oil
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: KILZ L832111 Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain
- BEST FOR OLD DECKS: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Stain
- BEST FOR NEW DECKS: Ready Seal 512 Exterior Stain and Sealer
- BEST FOR PRESSURE-TREATED: DEFY Extreme Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain
- BEST FOR COLD WEATHER: SEAL-ONCE MARINE Penetrating Wood Sealer
- HONORABLE MENTION: Cabot 140.0017437.007 Semi-Solid Deck Stain
Before You Buy Deck Stain
There’s a fine line between painting vs. staining a deck. The two products (paint and stain) are comparable and contain many of the same ingredients, but while stain is transparent and still shows the wood grain, paint covers and completely obscures the wood. Both products help preserve wood by repelling water and, depending on the brand, often include UV blockers and mildewcide to prevent mold and mildew growth.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Deck Stain
Choosing a deck stain is about more than just picking a color and brushing the product on the decking; the process requires considering the type and age of the deck wood and whether you’ve previously stained or painted it. In addition to updating the look, the best deck stain often provides a measure of protection against foot traffic and the elements.
Deck stains come in two main types: oil-based (alkyd) and acrylic-based (water). Both types are applied in a similar manner and are available in a range of attractive wood-tone shades, including colors that mimic redwood, cedar, and mahogany. Still, while similar, each type has some specific benefits and considerations.
Oil-based deck stains have been around for decades and do an excellent job of protecting exterior wood. Oil-based stains:
- Naturally repel water and reduce the risk of mold growth.
- Penetrate the wood grain.
- Condition wood to help prevent warping and cracking.
- Can take up to 48 hours to dry after application.
- Cost less than most acrylic-based stains.
- Usually require strong-smelling solvent, such as paint thinner, for cleaning brushes and paint sprayers after use.
Keep in mind as well that oil-based stains are flammable when wet. Both the liquid and fumes can ignite, so refrain from smoking and stay away from an open flame when applying the stain. Once dry, oil-based stains no longer pose a fire hazard.
Acrylic-based stains are relatively new but becoming increasingly popular. These stains use water as a base. Acrylic-based stains:
- Clean up easily with soap and water.
- Dry quickly, often within 2 to 3 hours.
- Sit on the top of the wood instead of penetrating the grain.
- Usually cost more than oil-based stains.
- Register lower in volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), making them more environmentally friendly with fewer fumes than oil-based deck stains.
The opacity of a deck stain—the degree of transparency or opaqueness—determines the finished look and affects how well the product will protect the deck. Deck stain is available in four opacities:
- Toner: This stain is closest to a clear sealer. It contains just a hint of color and imparts only a slight hue to the wood that won’t change the deck’s overall look. Toner requires reapplication every year for the best protection.
- Semi-transparent: As the most popular opacity level, semi-transparent deck stain adds noticeable color to the deck, but the wood grain will still show. It offers some deck sealer protection, but plan to recoat every 2 to 3 years.
- Semi-opaque: Also called “semi-solid,” this deck stain contains enough pigment to obscure most of the wood grain while imparting rich color. Users need to recoat every 3 to 4 years.
- Opaque: Sometimes called a “solid deck stain,” this product contains the highest percentage of pigment and will protect wood the longest, requiring a recoat every 4 to 5 years. Opaque stain is also the densest and completely hides the wood grain. It offers the most coverage short of applying a deck paint.
Wood varies by species, and different types of wood are better suited to weathering the elements. Most wood surfaces will still need some kind of protection and may, at some point, benefit from a deck stain that refreshes color. Exterior deck construction utilizes four main types of wood:
- Redwood: Perhaps the top wood species for high-end decks, redwood naturally resists insects, moisture damage, and decay, but it comes at a high cost. Considered a softwood, redwood contains natural oils and tannins that give it a warm reddish hue. To retain its natural color, once a year apply a clear penetrating sealer rather than a wood stain. Older redwood decks may benefit from a toner stain or stain/sealer combo to refresh the wood’s color.
- Cedar: Also a softwood that’s naturally resistant to decay, rot, and insect damage, cedar is an optimal wood for decks, but it’s also pricey. When new and in good shape, cedar doesn’t require the application of a stain, which would alter its natural beauty. However, cedar does benefit from annual application of a clear, penetrating sealer. Older cedar decks that have weathered to a silvery gray hue can be enjoyed as is, or a tinted sealer can help restore the wood’s youthful appearance.
- Teak: The natural oils in teak protect it from fungus, decay, and water damage for years, so this wood doesn’t require stain or sealer to retain its appearance. Unlike redwood and cedar, teak is a hardwood that can last 50 years or more when left outdoors. It can weather to an attractive silvery gray over time and be refreshed by light sanding to remove the surface grain. Applying a wood stain is usually not necessary.
- Treated: Treated wood is a fraction of the price of redwood, cedar, or teak, making it the wood of choice for most decks. When infused with alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), treated wood, usually yellow pine or Douglas fir, resists rotting and weathering. However, it does take up to 6 months before ACQ effectively evaporates from the wood. For best results when staining a treated deck, wait 6 months after installation before applying stain. Treated wood decking is also a candidate for exterior paint.
It’s important to reapply deck stain when the color starts to fade to maintain both the look and protection of the deck. This is usually a straightforward process if you’ve previously treated the deck with a penetrating stain. For a stain that only coated the surface, as many acrylic-based stains do, remove the existing coat before applying a new stain product. Removal involves sanding the surface of the deck to remove the old coating.
When applying stain over a previously stained deck, the general rule is to go with a similar or a darker color instead of a lighter shade. An existing dark color will overpower the tone of a lighter stain. If a lighter color is still the goal, you’ll need to first sand off the existing darker stain. Alternatively, some manufacturers make a deck-bleaching product that lightens and brightens old stain to accommodate a lighter tint.
All deck stains (both oil-based and acrylic-based) offer a measure of water resistance by preventing rain from saturating the wood, which leads to swelling, warping, and rot. The best deck stain also protects against UV damage that can fade the wood’s surface and increase the risk of cracks and splintering.
Some deck stains contain mildewcide to prevent the growth of whitish, powdery mildew and splotchy black mold that can lead to wood rot. These additional ingredients typically add to the price, but it’s well worth the cost to protect the deck. Look for the terms “UV protection” and “mildew protection” on the label to ensure the product will protect the deck from anything Mother Nature throws its way.
Most deck stains can be applied with a roller, a brush, or a sprayer. For the best results, prep the deck by cleaning it and making any necessary repairs before application. Also, make sure the wood is completely dry and the temperature is mild before staining; deck stain of any type does not dry well in cold temperatures or humid conditions. When preparing to stain a deck, choose a day when the temperature is between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with no wind or rain in the forecast.
Our Top Picks
To qualify as a top pick, a deck stain should impart a rich, natural-looking tone that enhances the look of the deck while also protecting the wood. While choosing a deck color is a matter of personal preference, the product should apply evenly and leave the deck looking fresh, natural, and new. These deck stain products differ in type and hue, but each one is well suited for staining various wood decking.
Defend the deck from UV rays, water, and mildew while bringing out the natural beauty of its wood grain with Cabot Australian Timber Oil. This semi-transparent, oil-based stain is available in multiple colors to complement a variety of wood decks. The stain formulation contains linseed and tung oil that ensures uniform penetration and increases the wood’s ability to resist moisture damage; rain beads up and runs off rather than soaking into the wood.
Application is simple with a brush, roller, or sprayer, and Cabot stain is long-lasting. For best results, apply only to clean, dry decking when the outdoor temperature is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on humidity, dry time is approximately 24 hours. The stain comes in several size options, with 1 gallon covering about 200 to 400 square feet, depending on the thickness of the application.
Give a wood deck a fresh, updated look without spending a lot of money. KILZ Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain imparts a semi-transparent layer of color and protection to new and older wood decks that still allows the wood grain to show. Best of all, it’s available at an affordable price point in several popular hues.
The KILZ stain goes on uniformly and can be applied with a roller, brush, or paint sprayer. It offers long-lasting protection from sun, rain, snow, and mildew. This acrylic-based stain comes in a 1-gallon can that will treat up to 250 square feet of decking with one coat.
Give an old deck a new look with the SaverSystems #1 Deck premium wood stain, which is available in a handful of rich, semi-transparent colors. This is a stain and sealant combo product that protects wood from fading and graying while imparting a natural wood tone. It can give an old, weathered deck a fresh, new look while offering naturally moisture-resistant qualities.
Easy to apply with a brush, roller, or sprayer, this deck stain protects wood from UV damage, mildew growth, and moisture rot. The acrylic-based formula is low-VOC, making it eco-friendly and easier to apply without worrying about inhaling toxic fumes. One gallon of SaverSystems deck stain covers up to 150 square feet with two complete coats. It’s also available in a 2.5-gallon can.
Protect a new deck from the get-go with Ready Seal 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 penetrates the wood for deep protection yet allows the wood grain to show. It contains UV blockers to prevent fading and resists mold and mildew growth.
Apply this penetrating stain/sealer combo by brush, roller, or sprayer. However, because the product is oil-based, cleanup of tools will require paint thinner or another solvent. Ready Seal is well suited for applying to new treated-wood decks, but users should wait 6 months after the deck’s construction to allow treatment chemicals to evaporate. One gallon covers up to 175 square feet, and the product comes in a 5-gallon can.
Pressure-treated decks can look worn or exhibit a slightly green tinge but DEFY Extreme Wood Stain will change all that. This semi-transparent stain is available in a selection of realistic-looking wood tones that impart rich, uniform color while still allowing the natural grain of the wood to show. The product contains ingredients that block harmful UV rays to keep the stain from fading and graying. It is also designed to last 1 or 2 years longer than other popular deck stain products.
Future recoating is also simple: Rather than sanding to remove the prior stain, just apply DEFY Wood Brightener, and then cover with a new coat of stain. Users can apply this acrylic-based deck stain by brush, roller, or sprayer, and it’s low-VOC to boot. One gallon covers up to 150 square feet with two coats of stain. It is also available in a 5-gallon can.
Many deck stains recommend application only over 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but SEAL-ONCE Marine deck stain is safe to apply when outdoor temps are as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This marine-type deck stain is designed to prevent water damage in areas with high humidity levels around fresh and saltwater. The product is also low-VOC, making it an eco-friendly choice.
SEAL-ONCE deck stain creates a breathable barrier that enhances the look of the wood while also protecting it. Users can apply it with a brush, roller, or sprayer to form a defensive coating that’s nontoxic to pets, humans, and plants. This acrylic-based stain is a clear toner, but it also comes in a handful of attractive wood hues. One gallon covers up to 350 square feet.
Cabot’s Semi-Solid Deck Stain is a worthy option for a deck that is heavily stained or requires a complete change of color. The high pigment level in this oil-based formula offers superior coverage paired with UV protection to camouflage imperfections. For best results, use a brush to apply this stain. Cabot Deck Stain is available in a handful of rich wood tones to suit most yard designs.
While this product is an oil-based stain, it’s lower in VOCs than other oil-based products and is designed to withstand heavy foot traffic without scuffing or wearing off. A single coat of this semi-opaque stain is all that’s necessary to refresh a deck that needs a pick-me-up. One gallon covers up to 450 square feet.
FAQs About Deck Stains
Spending time outdoors is a favorite activity across the nation, and an attractive deck makes it all the more pleasurable. Staining an existing deck will give it a fresh new look, but for newbies to the world of outdoor staining, some questions are to be expected. Check out some of the most frequently asked queries here.
Q. Which deck stain lasts the longest?
In general, an oil-based deck stain will last the longest, but it also depends on the type of wood, the weather conditions, and how long the deck has gone unprotected before staining.
Q. What is the most popular deck stain color?
Redwood and cedar colors are two of the most popular hues for deck stains, but other wood-tone colors are just as rich and beautiful.
Q. How often does a deck stain need to be applied?
The opacity of a deck stain—the degree of transparency or opaqueness—determines the finished look and affects how well the product will protect the deck. Semi-transparent stain, which is the most popular opacity level, adds noticeable color to the deck, but the wood grain will still show. It offers some deck sealer protection, but you’ll need to plan to recoat every 2 to 3 years.
Wood is an excellent material for building a deck, but unless the deck is constructed from redwood or another wood that naturally resists the elements and insect damage, it’s likely to suffer from fading and wear over time. A high-quality deck stain can refresh the look of the deck and help protect it from damage.