Cedar is a beautiful building material. While it can last a long time, even without stain or sealer, it can eventually show signs of wear. Whether it’s a new project or an older surface that might do well with a bit of refreshing, protecting and rejuvenating your cedar structures and furniture with some high-quality stain might be a smart move for optimal longevity.
But with so many products on the market, it might seem impossible to figure out which is the best stain for cedar. This guide helps clear up the differences among stains while pointing out some of the top considerations to keep in mind while shopping. Keep reading to learn more and check out some of the best options on the market.
- BEST OVERALL: DEFY Extreme Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Ready Seal 512 Natural Cedar Exterior Stain
- BEST CLEAR: DEFY Extreme Crystal Clear Exterior Wood Stain
- BEST SEMITRANSPARENT: SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Stain
- BEST WATER-BASED: THOMPSONS WATERSEAL Transparent Waterproofing Stain
- BEST OIL-BASED: Cabot 140.0003400.005 Natural Australian Timber Oil
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Stain for Cedar
Whether the goal is to enhance cedar with a fresh color or to simply protect your investment, there is a stain that’s up to the task. Before selecting the stain, there are a few details to consider when shopping for the right product. The type of stain, the finished look, and the existing coating are all worth keeping in mind. The following sections include these helpful details to make selecting the best stain easier.
Cedar is one of the most flexible and versatile woods available. It does as well outdoors in the elements as it does as a blanket chest or closet lining. As each application encounters different environmental factors, there are different approaches to staining cedar.
For interior projects like hope and blanket chests or dressers, any quality interior stain can do the trick. But for the interiors of those chests, dressers, or closets, it’s best to leave the surface untreated. Cedar is naturally bug repellent, so an unsealed surface will help safeguard blankets and garments stored inside.
When it comes to cedar that’s used outdoors for decks, fences, siding, and furniture, it’s important to use an appropriate stain. These stains are exterior grade, contain sealers, and will protect the wood from decay caused by moisture, UV rays, and fungi.
The best stains for cedar come in a few varieties: water-based, oil-based, and hybrid. These names refer to the liquid base that the stain manufacturer uses for their recipe of pigments and protective particles. It’s important to understand what they are and how they work.
- Water-based stains use good old-fashioned water as the liquid base. These stains are easy to apply and easy to clean up, requiring just a bit of soap and water. They’re also low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), so they’re less likely to bother the user’s respiratory system during application. But they don’t penetrate very deeply, and they might not last as long.
- Oil-based stains, such as those that use paraffin-, synthetic-, and plant-based oils, soak into the wood deeply, rejuvenating the fibers and protecting the surface from the inside. They can really improve the grain’s visual “pop,” enhancing the look of the wood. But, they have a much higher VOC content, so they can require a respirator to avoid irritation, even outdoors. Also, cleanup requires mineral spirits.
- Hybrid stains combine a bit of both worlds. Generally, these stains use water as the main base but also contain penetrating oils to soak into the wood. They’re lower in VOCs than oil-based stains and generally clean up with mineral spirits. However, hybrid stains aren’t wildly popular yet.
Film-Forming vs. Penetrating Stain
Stain products will protect cedar decks, fences, furniture, and siding differently, depending on the type of stain. For instance, a water-based product might create a film or shell over the stain, while an oil-based product might soak into the grain to protect it from within.
- Penetrating stains work their way into the grain of woods like cedar. While in there, they rejuvenate the wood fibers and strengthen them. They allow moisture from within the wood to escape but keep rain, snow, and other elements from penetrating. They’re long-lasting and may last around 5 years before restaining is necessary. However, they don’t do a great job of hiding damage, blemishes, or mismatched wood.
- Film-forming stains will create a barrier over the exterior of the cedar, keeping water from passing through. Because they coat the surface of the wood, they can be excellent at covering blemishes and mismatched grain, but they don’t last as long as penetrating stains.
Depending on their amount of opacity or transparency, stains have the ability to hide blemishes, enhance grain, or simply protect without drawing attention to themselves. They come in varying levels of transparency.
- Transparent stains, or clear stains, won’t do much beyond strengthening the wood fibers and protecting the wood against the elements. Many DIYers find this level of transparency perfect for cedar if they want to let the natural silvery color of weathered cedar shine through.
- Semitransparent stains are mostly clear but often tinted with a pigment or color to enhance the overall look of the surface. These stains don’t hide blemishes or mismatched grain well, but they do offer protection and a bit of rejuvenation for cedar surfaces that are still in good condition.
- Semisolid stains are all about adding a new hue to the wood while offering protection. These stains also will hide the grain and character of a cedar deck or fence, so they’re generally not preferred for cedar surfaces.
- Solid stains will hide a wood surface’s grain, blemishes, and knots. They help visually blend repaired boards and other imperfections completely, leaving behind a uniform surface.
If you’re staining a new deck, new siding, or a freshly erected fence, any exterior stain can be used. But when restaining or refinishing a cedar surface, the previous coating needs to be considered when choosing a product.
If a previously finished cedar surface has an oil-based stain, there’s the choice of using oil-based or water-based stain on top. The oil will be able to penetrate the wood, and water-based stains will adhere to the surface.
But for surfaces already treated with water-based stains, another water-based product needs to be used. Previous water-based stains won’t allow oil-based stains to penetrate, causing them to pool on the surface and offer very little protection.
An exterior stain’s primary purpose is to keep moisture from penetrating wood surfaces and causing damage from swelling, buckling, warping, and more. But some of the best stains for cedar offer more protection.
Cedar is already fairly rot- and mildew-resistant, but using a stain that contains mildewcide will help ensure that cedar surfaces don’t succumb to the damage of fungi.
And while many people probably enjoy using their cedar deck on bright sunshiny days, the sun is not a deck’s best friend. For cedar decks, it’s worth looking for a stain with extra UV protection, as these stains will protect cedar surfaces from the damage caused by intense UV rays.
Applying the best stain for cedar is fairly straightforward, but a little prep work and knowledge can go a long way toward ensuring a quality outcome. Here are some tips to help the job go smoothly:
- Prepare the surface: Using an exterior wood cleaner and a scrub brush, give the surface a thorough cleaning. Quickly sand off any standing fibers after the deck dries.
- Apply the stain: Using a roller and brushes, apply the stain to the entire surface. Work in small sections to avoid missing spots or dry edges. If using a sprayer, it’s possible to work in larger sections, but be sure to overlap the edges of each section.
- Keep a wet edge: As with any stain or paint project, be sure to maintain a wet edge to avoid lap marks or dry spots.
- Apply a second coat if necessary: Wait for the stain to dry before determining if it needs another coat. A sealer can be applied over the top of penetrating stains, but most exterior-grade products already contain sealers.
Our Top Picks
There is a lot to know about choosing the best stain for cedar. To help make the shopping process go as easily as possible, check out the following list. It’s a compilation of some of the best products on the market for staining cedar surfaces.
For cedar decks, fences, siding, or furniture that needs some freshening up or protection, check out DEFY’s Extreme Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain. This water-based stain will add a bit of color without blocking out the beauty of the cedar. It comes in seven colors, including Natural Cedar, which is meant to enhance the look of cedar surfaces or allow other wood species to mimic the look.
Not only does DEFY’s Extreme stain enhance cedar surfaces, but it also has some other desirable traits, like UV protection and low-VOC content. The recipe includes zinc, the same ingredient found in sunscreen, to prevent the sun’s UV rays from damaging a cedar surface. This stain is easy to apply with a brush, roller, or sprayer, and its water base makes it easy to clean with soap and water.
Those looking to stretch their cedar staining budget as far as it will go may want to check out Ready Seal’s 512 Natural Cedar Exterior Stain. This bucket offers a lower cost per gallon than other stains with similar features, making it a smart choice for budget shoppers.
Ready Seal is an oil-based stain that penetrates and protects cedar surfaces from within. It comes in nine colors, with a natural cedar variation meant to bring out the beauty of cedar surfaces. It contains UV-protecting particles as well as a mildew-resistant recipe, offering protection against more than just water damage. Users can apply Ready Seal with a brush, roller, or sprayer, though cleaning will likely require mineral spirits.
Sometimes it’s best not to mess with a good thing. For those who would prefer to protect their cedar surfaces without detracting from the weathered beauty, DEFY’s Extreme Crystal Clear Exterior Wood Stain might be just the ticket. This water-based stain applies easily and features a low VOC content for safe application.
DEFY’s Crystal Clear formula is environmentally friendly and won’t change the look of the wood underneath. This also features DEFY’s zinc-based UV-protective formula to prevent damage from UV rays. It can be applied with a roller, brush, or sprayer. When working with a sprayer, it can be difficult to see missed spots, so stainers should take their time.
SaverSystems #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain might be the product for anyone looking to protect and add a bit of color to an older cedar fence, deck, or siding surface. Its semitransparent finish won’t hide any of the grain or natural beauty, but it can add a bit of color. And with its water-based formula, it will work over any existing stains.
This stain from SaverSystems protects against fading and graying, and it’s available in five colors to bring a bit of pigment to cedar surfaces. It’s also a naturally mildew-resistant formula, preventing fungi and mold from growing on wood surfaces.
Protecting cedar surfaces with a water-based stain and sealer might not get any better than with a reliable, old-school product like THOMPSONS WATERSEAL. This stain comes in five colors, one of which is meant to mimic the color of natural cedar. It can be a good choice for rejuvenating an older cedar deck, fence, or siding surface.
The THOMPSONS WATERSEAL formula uses a unique recipe to resist color fading, allowing its color to last longer than some other water-based stains. Also, this formula creates a coating that resists mildew and UV damage, preventing graying and fading caused by both of those wood surface enemies.
Cedar surface refinishers looking to give their decks, siding, railings, and outdoor furniture a luxurious finish may want to give Cabot Australian Timber Oil some serious consideration. This product features a blend of linseed and tung oil to penetrate deeply into the wood and protect it from within.
This formula from Cabot protects against water damage as well as UV rays, as it contains iron oxide pigments that protect from the sun. This oil-based stain is available in 10 colors, including a natural finish to enhance the look of beautifully weathered cedar. There also are some low VOC variants, which might be preferred for those with particularly sensitive respiratory systems.
FAQs About Stain for Cedar
Even with this extensive background on cedar stains and review of some of the top products, there might be some additional questions. The following is a collection of frequently asked questions about stains for cedar, so an answer to your question may be listed below.
Q. Can cedar be stained easily?
Cedar is a softwood like pine, but it stains very easily and evenly.
Q. Is it better to stain or paint cedar?
Painting versus staining is a matter of preference, but since most people use cedar because of its natural beauty, painting it or staining with a solid stain will hide its characteristics.
Q. How do you keep cedar looking natural?
On its own, cedar will last a long time, resisting rot, bugs, and mold. Over time, the color will turn into a pleasant silvery gray. To protect that surface without taking away from its natural beauty, use a clear or transparent stain.
Q. How do you weatherproof cedar?
Cedar is naturally weather-resistant, but it cannot be weatherproofed. Its water resistance can be enhanced with a stain and sealer to protect it from water penetration.