Whether adding privacy to a yard, accenting the garden, or keeping pets contained, fences can be the finishing touch to tie a property together. However, most backyard fences are made of wood, which is susceptible to ongoing UV damage from the sun or moisture damage from rain, snow, and humidity. This can cause drying, cracking, and weathering of a wood fence.
Enter stains. Many wood stains contain added pigments that help reflect harmful UV rays. Some stains include sealant blends and natural oil blends that help protect against moisture damage. Whether a wood fence is new or old, a coat of high-quality stain can accent the natural wood grain, protect the wood from weathering, and add curb appeal to a home.
The best fence stains come in a wide variety of colors and types, with many devised for specific kinds of wood, and all designed to keep a wood fence protected. Listed below are some of the stains that outshine the competition in their category.
- BEST OVERALL: Ready Seal Exterior Stain and Sealer for Wood
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Krylon K03601000 Exterior Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
- BEST FOR NEW WOOD: STORM SYSTEM Penetrating Sealer & Stain Protector
- BEST FOR OLD WOOD: SEAL ONCE Nano Guard Prem Wood Sealer
- BEST WITH SEALER: Olympic Stain Maximum Wood Stain and Sealer
- BEST STAIN ONLY: Cabot 140.0003458.007 Australian Timber Oil Stain
- BEST WATER-BASED: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Stain
- BEST LONG-LASTING: KILZ L832211 Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain
- BEST COLOR OPTIONS: DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Exterior Wood Stain
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Fence Stain
When shopping for the best fence stain, it’s important to find a water-based or oil-based stain that suits the wood type and provides substantial protection against rain, sleet, snow, and UV radiation. Some key considerations for long-lasting protection include opacity and whether the stain comes with a combined sealant to help lock out moisture and protect the fence from mold, mildew, and rot. Read on to learn more.
When choosing the best stain for a fence, it’s important to take the type of wood into consideration. Most wood fences can and should be painted or stained, but the kind of wood surface will determine the number of coats, type of stain, color of stain, the time spent on prep work, and the amount of stain required.
Some woods have beautiful grain patterns that can be accented with a lighter stain instead of covering it up. To preserve the wood-grain look, 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.
The following are a few popular wood species used for fences and some of the characteristics that affect the staining process.
- Walnut, cherry, and mahogany are difficult to stain. The pores between their wood fibers are too small to absorb stain without significant preparation and sanding beforehand, so stain may not be a good option. While they have better inherent moisture protection, linseed oil or an oil-based polyurethane sealer can help against aging. Without sealing, walnut and cherry will change color as they age outside.
- 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 can result in blotchy, uneven staining. Avoid this issue by using an oil-based stain, which is the best stain for cedar fences and other softwoods.
- Hardwood fences, like alder, birch, and maple have a difficult time absorbing stain evenly. For difficult hardwoods, a water-based stain with a lower viscosity is more easily absorbed into the smaller pores. A pre-stain can help prepare these hardwoods for staining. Also, using lighter color stains can make staining easier.
- Hardwoods, like oak and ash, can easily absorb most types of stain. These woods have much larger pores between their wood fibers that easily absorb stain, so there are many choices available when it comes to selecting the color, type, and opacity of a stain.
The opacity of a stain is the level to which it covers up the wood grain or the level to which the stain can be seen through. In general, the more opaque a stain is, the better it will be at covering up the wood underneath and protecting against UV damage. However, a more transparent stain can 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 and give the best UV protection, but they are 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 higher transparency, the UV protection of the semi-transparent wood stain decreases.
- Transparent stains are clear and do not provide much UV protection. These stains normally contain sealant and are better for water protection.
Choosing between a water-based stain and an oil-based stain can get confusing very quickly. The question isn’t which is better than the other, but rather who is using them and what surface is being stained.
- Water-based stains don’t work well for softwoods, but on hardwoods, they offer a quick-drying solution that is easy to clean up. Their mildew- and mold-resistant formulas are more environmentally friendly than oil-based options and won’t cause a headache from fumes. However, water-based stains are more difficult to use. Their quick-drying raises the grain of the wood while it’s still being applied, which can lead 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 offer better wood protection against UV damage. Oil-based paints and stains also tend to be more durable, lasting for a longer time than water-based formulas. Their slow drying time can 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 that include sealant provide more complete protection than those that don’t. Stains that don’t have sealant will leave fences more susceptible to moisture damage, and many woods will change color as they age.
Separate sealers can be applied on top of a stained wood fence to protect the wood from UV damage and to provide adequate protection from the elements. While the guidelines change with the manufacturer and the climate, most wood fences are stained every 5 years and resealed in between to provide long-lasting protection.
When it comes to shopping for stains, there are other options available that may not be as technical as those discussed so far, but they are no less important.
One of the most important features of any stain is undoubtedly the color selection. The average stain brand offers between four and eight different colors. The level of opacity will impact 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 will create a unique look for the yard’s perimeter fence.
For those who are interested in using environmentally responsible products or limiting 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 chemical smell that can induce headaches or nausea if inhaled.
How to Stain a Fence
After the fence has been inspected, repaired, sanded, and washed, it’s finally time to stain the fence. Check the weather and choose a day that looks clear from rain, and then get to work.
- Use painter’s tape and plastic drop cloths to protect areas that you don’t want to stain, like lawn ornaments, rose bushes, and paving tiles.
- When the area is ready, grab a brush, roller, or paint sprayer and begin applying the stain evenly to the fence. Make sure to stain with the grain of the wood for the best results.
- After applying the stain, wait for it to dry. Then determine whether a second coat is needed to achieve the desired color.
- Add a second coat, if necessary.
- If the stain doesn’t come with a sealant, then consider applying a top coat of sealer to protect the wood.
These essential steps provide a basic guide for how to stain pressure-treated wood fences, though you may want to read more detailed instructions on how exactly to stain a fence.
Our Top Picks
Now that you know more about choosing a fence stain, it may be time to start shopping. The list of some of the best fence stain options below has been selected based on the paint type, color options, opacity, and overall effectiveness. One of these stains may be just what is needed to beautify, renew, and protect your wood fence.
The Ready Seal Stain and Sealer is offered in eight colors and can be applied using a paint sprayer without dilution or thinning. If applying with a brush or a roller, the stain is streak-free and doesn’t leave drips or runs. The only drawback to this stain is the 48- to 72-hour curing time.
Suited for both softwoods and hardwoods, the oil-based formula is both a stain and a sealant, saving time and money. While the biodegradable formula makes it better for the environment, the low price makes it even better for the wallet.
This inexpensive 12-ounce can of fence stain is a great option for touching up worn or faded portions of a fence without having to invest in an entire bucket of fence stain. The small spray can is useful for staining small repairs, and it comes in five color options so users can select the best color for their fence and yard.
The semi-transparent wood stain comes with a sealant mixed into the stain formula to protect wood from rain, sleet, snow, and UV radiation. It’s easy to apply with its spray nozzle and takes just 15 minutes to dry to the touch, though it can take up to 24 hours to fully cure.
When selecting a wood stain for new fence boards, consider choosing a product that comes with a built-in sealer to repel moisture, protecting the wood from mold, mildew, fungus, and rot. This STORM SYSTEM stain offers that protection, and it also repels UV radiation to help prevent the wood from fading, drying, and cracking.
While other fence stains may work only with specific wood types, this stain and sealer is engineered to work effectively with any wood species, including pressure-treated wood and wood substrates. It is offered in five color options, but it’s only available in a semi-transparent opacity.
It can be irritating to try to find a fence stain for older fences that have been stained in years past. Parts of the wood may still be protected, while other parts have begun to fade and rot. With the SEAL ONCE penetrating a fence, stain users can apply the stain evenly over the entire fence. The stain and sealer blocks out moisture and creates a UV barrier, protecting the wood from mold, rot, and fading.
The low-VOC fence stain doesn’t just act as a barrier; it also seeps deep into the wood to prevent warping, cupping, staining, and decay. This water-based stain comes in both 1-gallon and 1-quart sizes. It works best with hardwoods, and it can be tinted to 11 colors for the ideal appearance.
Olympic Stain combines the advanced UV protection of a stain with the enhanced waterproofing of a sealant. This stain and sealer keeps a fence protected and keeps it looking great. The weather-ready stain can be applied just 8 hours after washing or rainfall and can be used at temperatures as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Suited primarily for hardwoods, the water-based stain comes in eight hues and can go on clear, transparent, semi-transparent, or solid. No matter which color choice is the most appealing, there are a lot of options to achieve the desired look with this affordable stain and sealant.
Cabot Australian Timber Oil Stain uses the natural moisture-repelling features of linseed oil, tung oil, and long-oil alkyds to increase the life of the fence while enhancing its wood grains with five vibrant shades. Australian Timber Oil contains trans-oxide pigments that imbue this stain with incredibly rich colors and provide between three and four times more UV protection than stains using synthetic pigments.
Perfect for use on stubborn hardwoods, the specialized formula penetrates deep into the pores between wood fibers to create lasting color and protection that can breathe a new life into the yard.
The combined stain and sealant from SaverSystems is offered in five semi-transparent wood colors and provides active protection against mold and mildew. It has a water-based formula that allows the wood grain to show through, is easy to clean up, and works well with both softwoods and hardwoods.
The #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain has a weather-ready solution that can be applied to damp wood, minimizing the time between cleaning and staining. The affordable durable stain and sealant prevents fading, graying, or peeling, and it protects the wood against moisture and UV damage.
While there are only two color options, redwood, and cedar, this fence stain excels in other areas, including long-lasting mold-, moisture-, rot-, and UV-protection to keep a fence looking great for up to 5 years. It also can be used on decks for up to 3 years of protection or on wooden patio furniture for up to 10 years of protection.
The gallon of semi-transparent fence stain is designed for use at low temperatures, so users don’t need to wait for warmer weather to seal a wood fence against the elements. It takes about 24 hours to dry and can take up to 72 hours to fully cure.
Properly maintaining the fence doesn’t have to be a boring task when users have a variety of color choices. Keep the fence protected while giving the yard a face-lift with one of seven color options, including butternut, cedar, crystal clear, driftwood gray, light walnut, natural pine, and redwood.
The water-based fence stain comes in 1- and 5-gallon sizes, and it has an incorporated sealer to help protect the fence wood from rain, sleet, and snow. This fence stain also has zinc nano-particles that reflect UV radiation away from the fence, helping to preserve the appearance of the wood for up to 3 years.
How to Prep a Fence for Staining
Before picking up the paintbrush or roller, the fence needs to be prepared; otherwise, the results could be less than ideal. Preparing a fence for staining involves inspecting, repairing, sanding, and washing the fence boards.
- Inspect the fence wood for chips, cracks, or rotting boards that need to be replaced.
- Decide whether to replace the entire fence or just a few boards. If repairing the fence, replace the damaged pieces of wood with new boards.
- Sand the fence boards to remove the protective layer of stain. If the fence boards are not sanded, the stain may not be evenly absorbed, resulting in a splotchy appearance.
- Finally, grab the hose and a power washer to remove any remaining dirt and debris so that the stain can be readily absorbed into the wood, producing an even, attractive barrier that looks great and keeps the fence safe for years to come.
FAQs About Fence Stains
Staining a fence helps eliminate that nagging realization that every day the fence is being damaged by sun, rain, sleet, or snow. However, you may have some questions about the best fence stain, including whether paint is a better option or how long the fence stain lasts. Read on to find the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about staining a fence.
Q. Is it better to paint or stain a fence?
Fences are regularly exposed to rain, sleet, snow, wind, and direct sunlight that can cause paint to peel, crack, and blister. While exterior paints are designed to withstand these elements, in most cases, a stain is a better option for a fence because it provides protection to the wood without the risk of bubbling, peeling, and cracking.
Q. What is the best color to stain a fence?
The stain color depends on your personal preference, but some popular options include gray stains for a modern look, natural green colors to help the fence blend in with the natural appearance of the yard, and red or brown stains that accent the wood grain of the fence.
Q. Which fence stain lasts the longest?
Oil-based stains that have a solid opacity last the longest. If properly cared for, these stains can last up to 5 years before the fence needs to be stained again.
Q. What equipment is needed to stain a fence?
To properly stain a pressure-treated wood fence, you will need sandpaper, a power washer, a garden hose, stain, a paintbrush, a paint tray, and a paint roller. Painter’s tape and drop cloths may be necessary to protect structures, ornaments, and vegetation in the yard.
Whether the fence is for privacy, security, or an aesthetic addition to a yard, it’s important to invest in a fence stain to keep the wood protected from moisture, UV radiation, and changing temperatures. For the best results, match the type of stain to the type of wood. Choose a solid opacity that covers up old and worn fence wood, or use a semi-transparent stain to highlight the natural wood grain of a new fence, adding to the natural appeal of a yard.