The Best Stains for Fences
Keep your fence healthy and looking great with the right stain.
Beyond merely benefiting your property’s curb appeal, a wood fence adds privacy to your yard while keeping your children and pets safely off the road and out of harm’s way. There are many pros.
Cons? First and foremost is the maintenance work required. Outdoor structures made of wood are very susceptible to damage from the elements—precipitation obviously, but also damage from the sun. Left unprotected against these environmental factors, a fence can dry out, crack, and discolor.
Adding a coat of high-quality stain goes a long way to prevent wood fences from weathering. For this reason—and because stain also brings out the natural beauty of wood—many homeowners stain and re-stain their fences every few years or even every year.
Exterior stains vary widely in type and color. Complicating matters further is that many are formulated for use on specific types of wood. If you’re struggling to make sense of the available options, continue reading for our top tips on choosing the best fence stain for your needs and budget—and don’t miss our roundup of favorites, below!
- BEST ALL AROUND: #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
- BEST LOOKS: Cabot Australian Timber Oil Stain
- MOST ECO-FRIENDLY: Eco-Safe Wood Treatment
BEST WEATHER PROTECTION: Olympic Stain Maximum Wood Stain and Sealer
Before You Buy
When choosing a stain, it’s important to take the type of wood into consideration. Most wood fences can and should be stained, but the kind of wood will determine the type, color, and amount of stain required, as well as the time spent on prep work.
- Walnut, cherry, and mahogany, for example, are difficult to stain but boast natural durability to the elements. The pores between their wood fibers are too small to absorb stain without significant preparation and sanding beforehand. If your fence is made with one of these wood types, stain may not be a good option. However, these types of wood generally have better inherent moisture protection and are attractive woods even without stain.
- Softwood fences like pine and cedar absorb stain quickly and easily, but a water-based stain can cause problems with these woods. Softwoods have larger pores that absorb more water than hardwoods. Due to this higher absorption rate, their use with water-based stains may result in blotchy, uneven staining. Avoid this issue by using oil-based stains with softwoods.
- Hardwood fences have mixed reactions with stain. Alder wood, birch, and maple have a difficult time absorbing stain evenly. However, other hardwoods, like oak and ash, have much larger pores between wood fibers that easily absorb stain. For difficult hardwoods, a water-based stain has a better viscosity for being absorbed into the smaller pores.
The type of wood used for your fence can guide your choice in stain color, as well. To preserve beautiful grain patterns in wood, opt for a single coat of a lighter color. To cover up the grain of the wood, a darker color in a solid stain is best.
Key Shopping Considerations
It is necessary to take certain elements into account before selecting a stain, in order to achieve optimal results with your fence.
Water-Based vs. Oil-Based
Choosing between a water-based and oil-based stain can get confusing very quickly. The question isn’t which is better than the other, but rather how they are being used and on what surface.
- Water-based stains don’t work well for softwoods, though they offer a quick-drying solution for hardwoods that is easy to clean up. Their mildew- and mold-resistant formulas are also more environmentally friendly than their oil-based competitors and won’t leave you with a headache from fumes. However, water-based stains are more challenging to use. Their quick drying time means that the stain is raising the grain of the wood while it’s still being applied, leading to a less even finish. Water-based stains also have less penetration and provide less UV protection than oil-based stains.
- Oil-based stains can be used on both softwoods and hardwoods, but they have a slower drying time than water-based stains. They are more vulnerable to mold and mildew, but their deeper penetration will protect better against UV damage. Oil-based stains also tend to be more durable, lasting longer than water-based formulas. Their slow drying time can also be an advantage, allowing the wood to evenly absorb the stain and resulting in a better overall finish.
Stains can come with or without sealant included in their formula. Stains with sealant provide more complete protection than those that don’t. Stains that don’t have sealant will leave fences more susceptible to moisture damage; while they can be applied to protect fence wood from UV damage, a sealant should be applied on top to provide adequate protection from the elements.
The opacity of a fence stain is the level to which it covers up the wood grain underneath, or the level to which the stain can be seen through. In general, the opaquer a stain is, the better it will be at covering up the wood underneath and protecting against UV damage. However, you may prefer a more transparent stain if your goal is to highlight or accent the wood grain instead of covering it up.
- Solid stains create a film on top of the wood that completely masks the grain. These stains look more like paint. These stains give the best UV protection, but are also the most vulnerable to chipping.
- Semi-solid stains will hide almost all of the wood grain and natural color, while providing a high degree of UV protection.
- Semi-transparent stains go on much lighter and allow more of the wood grain detail and color to come through. However, with a higher transparency, the UV protection decreases.
- Transparent stains are clear and do not provide much UV protection. These stains normally contain sealant and are better for water protection.
When it comes to shopping for stains, there are other options available that may not be as technical as those we’ve discussed so far, but they are no less important.
The average stain brand offers between four and eight different colors to help DIYers find the closest match to their home exteriors. The level of opacity impacts the final product, allowing DIYers to choose a single color that can be applied in a solid, semi-solid, or semi-transparent stain. The result of each creates a unique look, so choose carefully.
For those who are interested in using environmentally responsible products or limiting their exposure to harmful chemicals, eco-friendly stains provide an excellent option. These stains don’t rely on harsh compounds to seal the wood against damage. Instead, they use more natural options that are less damaging to the environment and don’t have a powerful and unpleasant smell from chemicals that can induce headaches or nausea if inhaled.
Our Top Picks
1. BEST ALL AROUND: #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
This combined stain and sealant comes in five semi-transparent finishes and provides active protection against mold and mildew. Being a water-based formula, #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain is easy to clean up and works well with both softwoods and hardwoods. In addition, this is a weather-ready solution compatible with damp wood—meaning, it minimizes the time necessary to wait between cleaning and staining. This durable stain and sealant helps prevent fading, graying, or peeling and protects wood against moisture and UV damage—and even the price is right.
2. BEST WEATHER PROTECTION: Olympic Stain Maximum Wood Stain and Sealer
Combining the advanced UV protection of a stain with the enhanced waterproofing of a sealant, Olympic Stain and Sealer helps keep your fence standing up and looking great. The stain can be applied just eight hours after washing or rainfall and can be used at temperatures as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to its weather-ready formula. Suited primarily for hardwoods, the water-based stain comes in eight different shades and can go on clear, transparent, semi-transparent, or solid.
3. BEST LOOKS: Cabot Australian Timber Oil Stain
Cabot Australian Timber Oil Stain uses the natural moisture-repelling features of linseed oil, tung oil, and long-oil alkyds to increase the life expectancy of your fence while enhancing its wood grains with five vibrant shades. Australian Timber Oil contains trans-oxide pigments that imbue this stain with rich colors and provide between three and four times more UV protection than stains using synthetic pigments. Great for use on stubborn hardwoods, the specialized formula penetrates deep into the pores between wood fibers to create a lasting color and protection.
4. MOST ECO-FRIENDLY: Eco-Safe Wood Treatment
Eco-Safe Wood Treatment is environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and safe to be used around kids and pets. Even the garden and vegetable bed are safe from this stain. The powder in the package is mixed with water to make three gallons of stain to be applied with a brush, sprayer, sponge, or roller. The stain penetrates deeply, imparting a silver to brown patina appearance to practically any type of wood.