The Best Exterior Wood Stains to Add Finish to Your Wood Surfaces

Add an attractive protective finish to the wood surfaces around your home from these top exterior wood stains.

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Best Exterior Wood Stain Options

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Your outdoor wood furniture and structures look great when they’re brand new, but if you don’t take care of them, the sun, rain, snow, and wind will wear them down in a hurry. The best exterior wood stain is the cure for what ails your surfaces.

The best exterior wood stain will protect your wood structures, siding, or furniture while also achieving your ideal color and transparency. However, choosing the best exterior wood stain isn’t always so see-through. This guide will help, so keep reading to learn more.

  1. BEST OVERALL: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Stain
  2. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Olympic Stain Maximum Deck Stain
  3. BEST FOR DECKS: Ready Seal 512 5-Gallon Pail Natural Cedar Exterior
  4. BEST FOR FENCES: DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood
  5. BEST FOR SIDING: KILZ L832211 Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain
  6. BEST FOR FURNITURE: THOMPSONS WATERSEAL TH.041851-16 Transparent Stain
Best Exterior Wood Stain Options

Photo: amazon.com

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Exterior Wood Stain 

Before you start shopping for the best exterior wood stain, there are a few factors to consider, including your intended use and the transparency of the stain. The following section breaks down the most important points to keep in mind while hunting for the best exterior wood stain.

Intended Use

How you intend to use your stain will have a lot to do with choosing the best exterior wood stain. For one, any outdoor wood surface, whether it be a fence, chair, deck, or siding, requires an exterior-grade stain. These stains help preserve the wood in rougher environments, whereas interior-grade stain won’t provide the same protection.

Also, some stains are better for use on decks than others. Since decks lay flat, they’re more susceptible to standing water and the sun’s baking UV rays than other wood surfaces around your property. The foot traffic is also a concern. For these applications, a penetrating stain is often the best bet.

Outdoor furniture frequently uses wood with attractive grain patterns. For this reason, a transparent stain would protect the wood without blocking out the grain.

Stain Type

Exterior wood stains come in a few varieties: water-based or acrylic, oil-based, and a hybrid stain. These names refer to the liquid that the manufacturer uses to mix the pigments and protective particles.

Water-based or acrylic stains use water as the base liquid. These stains are relatively easy to apply, and they clean up with a bit of soap and water. They’re also less likely to cause any respiratory issues as they typically have a low-VOC (volatile organic compound) content. The downside is that they don’t penetrate wood quite as deeply as oil-based stains, so they might not last as long.

Oil-based stains really penetrate the wood, which makes them longer lasting. Once they soak into the wood grain, they protect from within and strengthen the bonds of the wood fibers (this is also true for some penetrating water-based stains). Oil-based stains also really showcase the wood grain. Cleanup can be a hassle, however, as it usually requires mineral spirits. Also, keep in mind that oil-based stains can be very irritating to the respiratory system, so wear a respirator mask.

Film-Forming vs. Penetrating Stain

Various products will protect wood surfaces in different ways. For instance, some products penetrate the wood grain and protect it from the sun’s UV rays and moisture from within. Other products create a protective barrier, or film, that encapsulates the wood to protect it. There are pros and cons to each.

Penetrating stains seep into the pores of the wood, strengthening the bonds in the material and protecting it from within. They’re long-lasting and durable, and they can highlight the grain. However, they don’t do a great job of hiding unsightly blemished or mismatched grain—even if they’re solid.

Film-forming products encapsulate the wood and protect it like a shell. They do a better job of hiding irregularities between wood planks and less attractive areas. However, their bond to the wood breaks down over time, requiring more frequent reapplication. This depends on factors like hours in the sun each day, foot traffic, and the condition of the deck boards.

Transparency

Not only do the best exterior wood stains come in a variety of colors, with varying degrees of penetration, but they also come in different transparencies. This is an important consideration to keep in mind.

  • Transparent stains are entirely see-through, and they rarely change the color of the wood below it by more than a shade or two. They don’t hide any of the wood grain, and they’re excellent for expensive exotic exterior woods, though they work equally well on more common wood types. They’re often not entirely long-lasting.
  • Semitransparent stains will hide more of the grain, but they’re also longer lasting. They also do a better job of blending in blemishes than transparent stains.
  • Semisolid stains are the next step up in transparency, and they do a nice job of blending the grains of various woods without removing the texture entirely. They’re also longer lasting.
  • Solid stains hide the wood grain almost entirely. They’re excellent for using after replacing deck boards, shingles, or furniture. They also last the longest of the exterior wood stains.

Color

Many of the best exterior wood stains come in different colors, allowing users to choose whichever hue best fits their aesthetic. Keep in mind, however, that there may be other reasons to choose one color over another.

If you’re considering a deck stain, remember that a deck will bake in the sun all day. A dark color will absorb a lot of heat, but dark colors are easier on the eyes than a lighter color. Light colors reflect more light, which can make them uncomfortable to look at in bright sunlight, but they often stay much cooler.

Likewise, a lighter color fence stain will brighten a backyard, while a darker stain might make a bright yard feel cozier.

Our Top Picks

With a bit of background on the subject, shopping for the best exterior wood stain doesn’t have to be so difficult. The following list includes some of the best products on the market to make it even easier. Be sure to keep the top considerations in mind when comparing these products in order to choose the best exterior wood stain for any application.

Best Overall

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain for Decks
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Protecting outdoor wood surfaces like decks, siding, furniture, and fences doesn’t get much easier than with SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Wood Stain. This water-based stain features a low-VOC formula that’s easy to apply, clean up, and maintain. It works on pressure-treated pine, cedar, fir, redwood, and most other softwoods. It can work on hardwoods like teak and mahogany but will require more applications (like most stains). A 1-gallon bottle will cover up to 100 square feet with two coats.

This semitransparent formula penetrates the wood surface and protects it from within. The formula protects against graying from sun exposure and against moisture penetration from rain and snow. There are also five colors to choose from, including cedar, dark walnut, driftwood gray, light walnut, and natural.

Best Bang For the Buck

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: Olympic Stain Maximum Deck Stain
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When it comes to getting the most out of a gallon of stain as possible, there’s plenty of value in Olympic’s Stain Maximum Deck Stain. Its budget-friendly price tag aside, this 1-gallon can of stain can cover up to 350 square feet of deck space, fencing, or siding, as well as several pieces of furniture with multiple coats.

The Olympic Stain Maximum Deck Stain is a two-in-one product, both staining and sealing the wood to protect it from water and sun damage. It can also be applied in temperatures as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and this formula will penetrate damp wood, even after a rain.

This stain comes in six colors and several transparencies, allowing users to find the ideal color and finish.

Best For Decks

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: Ready Seal 512 5-Gallon Pail Natural Cedar Exterior Stain
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Between lap marks and brush strokes, staining a large deck can be a hassle. With Ready Seal’s 5-gallon pail of exterior stain, that’s not an issue. Its “Goof Proof” formula eliminates the need for back-brushing to reduce lap marks for a high-quality finish, and with a 625-square-foot coverage area, 5 gallons is enough for most large decks.

This oil-based stain has a low-VOC formula that penetrates deeply into both soft and hardwoods, protecting decks and railings from within. The semitransparent finish will hide some of the grain without removing all of its beauty, so it will work well for both treating newer decks and reinvigorating older surfaces. Do keep in mind that the deck must be dry before application.

Best For Fences

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain
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Though rain and snow can damage a fence, the most harmful element is typically sunlight. DEFY’s Extreme Exterior Wood stain fights back against UV rays with its specially designed formula. This stain contains the same zinc found in sunscreen to reflect the harmful rays before they can damage the wood. The formula is also water based and low-VOC.

This semitransparent stain will hide just a bit of the wood grain while still allowing its natural characteristics to show. It’s available in seven colors, including Crystal Clear, Cedar Tone, Natural Pine, Light Walnut, Butternut, Redwood, and Driftwood Gray. And, since it’s water based, it cleans up with soap and water.

Best For Siding

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: KILZ L832211 Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain
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Whether it’s a new siding installation or reinvigorating siding up to 10 years old, Kilz Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain gets the job done. This 1-gallon can of stain can cover up to 250 feet on the first coat and 500 square feet on the second, helping to get a tough job finished sooner.

This stain is water-based, and it penetrates deeply into log siding, timber siding, and shingles, protecting from within. The semitransparent finish allows the majority of the grain to show through for an attractive finish while also providing a bit of uniformity across the entire structure. Kilz’s wood stain is available in two colors: cedar and redwood.

Best For Furniture

Best Exterior Wood Stain Options: THOMPSONS WATERSEAL TH.041851
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Covering the grain of beautiful natural wood furniture is a no-no for some outdoor furniture fans, but protection is a universal necessity. For those grain-loving folks, Thompson’s Waterseal Stain has what it takes to protect a high-end piece of outdoor furniture without taking the grain out of the picture.

Users can apply this stain to both damp or dry wood, removing some of the waiting time common after a rain. While this product is transparent, it does come in five colors, including acorn brown, harvest gold, maple brown, sequoia red, and woodland cedar. Be aware that this product isn’t low-VOC, so a respirator will be necessary.

FAQs About Exterior Wood Stains

Now that you know a bit more about the best exterior wood stains and what goes into choosing one, you might have some additional questions. This section contains some of the most frequently asked questions about the best exterior wood stains. Be sure to check for an answer to your question below.

Q. Will stain protect wood outside?

Exterior-grade wood stains will protect wood outside. These stains protect against moisture and UV rays.

Q. Is there a difference between interior and exterior wood?

Interior stains simply change the color of wood. They don’t offer much protection. Exterior wood stain protects against the sun’s UV rays and moisture.

Q. What type of stain do I need for exterior wood?

You need an exterior wood stain. Once you find a product, you’ll have a choice between colors, transparencies, and liquid bases.

Q. How do you prepare exterior wood for staining?

It’s best to remove any loose paint or finish with a scraper or by sanding. Then, pressure washing the surface followed by another quick sanding will free the surface from any additional contaminants. Once the deck is dry (unless the chosen product specifies otherwise), you’ll be able to stain your deck.

Q. How do you apply exterior wood stain?

Applying exterior wood stain is usually done with a brush, roller, or sprayer. It’s essentially the same process as painting:

  • Avoid lap marks by maintaining a wet edge.
  • Avoid pooling or running.
  • Work in one small area at a time.