How To Choose The Best Deck Stain

Outdoor decks require a coat of protective finish to keep the wood safe from water, weather, the sun, mold, and mildew.

Many people prefer to treat their decks with a stain. Deck stains soak into the wood to change the wood’s natural grain color and block water from absorbing into the material. Stains come in a variety of opacities, colors, and protective properties. Some stains only protect against water damage. The best will also prevent damage from the sun and mildew.

We’ve provided the five best deck stains. Plus, we include a detailed buyer’s guide that will teach you about everything you need to know about choosing a deck stain

The 5 Best Deck Stain Options

We’re starting our detailed deck stain buyer’s guide by reviewing the five best deck stain options. Once we’re through with the review, we launch into our buyer’s guide’s information section.

1. Ready Seal Natural Cedar Exterior Stain

Ready Seal 512 5-Gallon Pail Natural Cedar Exterior Stain and Sealer for Wood
  • Requires no primer. Ready Seal is darkest when first applied. It reaches its true color in approximately 14 days. Do not apply Ready Seal over painted or newly stained surfaces. Sealed surfaces inhibit penetration.

The best option to stain and seal your outdoor deck is Ready Seal Natural Cedar Exterior Stain, which comes in one or five-gallon buckets in eight natural pigment shades. This is an oil-based, semi-transparent product that adds color and protects from moisture. 

You can apply this stain/sealer combo at any weather temperature, without the need to back brush, dilute, or thin the mixture. The application can be done with a roller, brush, or sprayer. 

This product will not run, streak, lap, and does not need wet-line application. You do not need to sand or strip away the stain when reapplying, but you cannot apply this stain over painted or freshly stained surfaces. 

2. Thompson’s WaterSeal Semi-Transparent Waterproofing Stain

Thompson’s WaterSeal Semi-Transparent waterproof stain comes in five natural colors – Coastal Gray, Harvest Gold, Maple Brown, Sequoia Red, or Woodland Cedar. 

This stain uses stronger polymers that resist color fading and protects your deck from water, UVs, and mold while staining the wood a medium color and offering medium wood grain exposure. 

You can apply this stain to decks that are dry or still damp from a recent cleaning. One coat’s lifespan ranges from four years for decks up to six years for siding or fences.

3. Cabot Australian Timber Oil

Cabot 140.0003400.005 Australian Timber Oil, Quart, Natural
  • This item is a Cabot Australian Timber Oil Penetrating Oil Formula Natural 1 Qt

The Cabot Australian Timber Oil comes in quart, aerosol, or gallon sizes in ten different stain colors. This product must go on decks that are completely dry with less than 15% moisture content when the temperature stays above 50-degrees. 

You’ll get the best application using an applicator made of pure lambswool in small sections to prevent laps. It takes 24 to 48 hours to dry thoroughly. You cannot apply this stain over the top of surfaces previously painted or stained. 

Since this is an oil-based stain, you’ll need to use a solvent, mineral spirits, or other VOC cleaner when cleaning your brushes and other equipment. 

4. KILZ Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain

KILZ L832211 Exterior Waterproofing Wood Stain, Semi-Transparent, Redwood, 1-Gallon, 1 Gallon, 4 l
  • A good exterior wood stain offers long-lasting protection, waterproofing and a mildew-resistant finish that maintains the integrity and beauty of wood in variable outdoor conditions

This Kilz Exterior Waterproofing wood stain comes in two color options – cedar or redwood. You can apply this product to decks, siding, or fencing to protect the wood from water damage, harmful UV rays, mildew, and mold. 

The lifespan of this semi-transparent, acrylic (water-based) stain is three years for decks and five years for fences or siding. However, you should only use it on exterior surfaces unsealed and new to moderately weathered (0-10 years old). 

The surface must be dry for at least 24 hours before application, and any loose fibers sanded smooth. You can use a pump sprayer, brush (polyester or nylon), or a pad applicator to apply this stain. One gallon will cover 250 sq ft for new coats and 500 sq feet for second coats.

5. Storm System Penetrating Protector Stain

STORM SYSTEM Storm Protector Penetrating Sealer & Stain Protector - Deck Protector, Fence Protector, Mahogany Stain, Redwood Stain - 291115-1 Gallon, Sienna
  • Wood deck protector - A true oil-based semi transparent stain and sealer meant to protect and highlight the natural beauty of the wood grain.

We recommend Storm System Penetrating Protector Stain for another combination sealer and stain, which comes in one-gallon cans in six color options. One gallon covers between 125 to 175 square feet. 

This oil-based, semi-transparent stain/sealer enhances the wood’s natural grains while protecting the surface from weather conditions and water. Drying takes 12 to 24 hours, and mineral spirits or turpentine are needed for cleaning equipment after staining. 

Application is easy using a pump sprayer, roller, or brush and lap-free application. You can use Storm System on all exterior wood types, including Douglas Fir, Cypress, Spruce, Cedar, Redwood, Pine, Pressure treated, or mahogany. 

What Is Deck Stain?

When you build a deck, you have to apply a finish to the wood, which protects the material from weather, UV rays, and damage. 

Many people choose to use a stain finish. When you apply a stain to wood, the finish’s pigments soak into the grain, altering the wood’s color. 

Deck stains also provide a protective barrier that repels water and resists damage from UV rays. Stains come in a range of options in solid, transparent, or semi-transparent colors. 

Types of Deck Stain

Deck stains come in different formulas that affect the transparency of the natural wood grain. The more intense the pigments of the stain are, the darker your wood will stain. The options are:

  • Clear/Toner stains – zero pigments so the wood weathers naturally (best for new wood)
  • Transparent – almost clear, so the grain is visible, but minor flaws aren’t due to slight traces of pigments
  • Semi-Transparent – hides the most imperfections without obscuring all of the natural grain using nature-inspired pigments
  • Solid – hides the most flaws with solid colors, available in a wide range from natural shades to blacks, grays, blues, or reds.
  • Restoration – best for composite or aged wood due to the ability to repair cracks and other flaws, but it hides the grain the most

Bases of Stain

The base of a stain will affect its use, durability, and protection. You can choose from oil-based, water-based, or hybrid. 

Oil-based stains – also called alkyd – soak into the wood to highlight the grain to look more natural. Due to the oil content, these stains offer excellent water-repellent properties, making them perfect for decks. 

The downside of oil stains is that they are harder to apply, especially for beginners. And you have to use chemical solvents to clean up afterward, which can be dangerous when done improperly. But they are cheaper than water-based.

Water-based stains, including acrylic, have better durability and protection than oil-based, but the quality of the grain’s natural look goes down. These stains are eco-friendly with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds). 

Although easier to clean, water stains do not weather well, making them less ideal for deck stains. But they do well on strong woods like cypress, redwood, or cedar. 

Hybrid strains are a combination of acrylic and alkyd, which gives you durability, ease of application, and naturally highlighting the grain rather than hiding it. These stains are also water repellant, have low VOCs, and easy to clean. 

Deck Stain vs. Sealer

Deck stains and sealers have a few similarities that cause people to confuse them with each other. You can use both products to provide a protective finish to your wood. 

But despite the similarities, deck stains are a different type of product than sealers. Some situations may make one choice the better option over the other. 

When comparing deck stains vs. sealers, the most significant difference is that sealers provide a transparent protective layer over the top of the wood to prevent moisture from causing damage. In contrast, a stain soaks into the wood and typically has colored pigments that cause the wood to change color. 

Sealers also rarely offer protection against UV rays, which can cause wood to lose its color and become gray, split, or crack. Stains, on the other hand, keep the wood safe from the sun. 

High amounts of sunlight can cause a sealed deck to lose its color in three to six months and require resealing yearly. While it’s more difficult and expensive to apply a stain, the treatment will last five times longer than decks with sealers.

Considerations When Buying Deck Stain

Before you decide on a deck stain, there are some critical criteria to consider. With the wide variety of options out there, you’ll save money and time by doing your research first before making a selection. Weigh the following factors when comparing deck stains. 

Base

As we’ve explained, deck stains come with different bases. Oil-based stains are cheaper, repel water, reduce the growth of mold, and protect the wood from cracking. Water-based stains have more durability, but you will lose some of the natural appearances. And they don’t do as good with weather exposure, making them a less popular choice for decks.

Application

You’ll also want to consider the process required to apply the stain to the wood. Oil-based stains take up to two days to dry. And you need strong solvents (paint thinner) to clean your equipment after applying. Oil is also flammable while wet, including the fumes and liquid. 

Water-based stains are dry two or three hours after application. And since there are less volatile organic chemicals, there are not as many harmful fumes, making it better for the environment. Cleaning up requires soap and water. The temperature can also affect the application.

Opacity

The opacity of a stain affects the wood’s final color, the amount of protection, and how often you have to reapply it. And the higher the opacity or pigments, the less wood grain you’ll be able to see through the stain. Remember that you can choose from: toner, semi-transparent, transparent, semi-opaque (semi-solid), or opaque (solid). 

Protection

Both water and oil-based deck stains will protect your wood from water damage, including blocking water from soaking into the wood, causing rot, warping, or swelling. But for the best protection, find stains that also offer UV ray protection and mildewcide, preventing black mold and mildew. 

How to Stain a Deck (Step-by-Step)

Staining a deck can be a weekend DIY project for beginners or advanced users. To stain a deck, follow these steps.

  1. Prep the surface by sweeping with a broom (pressure wash old decks and let dry)
  2. Apply painter’s tape to exterior walls where it meets the deck 
  3. Stir stain in the can, then pour into your paint tray
  4. Attach paint pole to paint pad with a tight fit
  5. Place paint pad into the stain, then apply a full coat to the deck
  6. Use a 1″ natural bristle brush to joints and sides

Tips for Staining a Deck

When staining a deck, you’ll get the best results if you wait until the weather’s warmer, between 50 to 90-degrees, with a few days of no rain in the forecast. 

And try to wait until there’s the least amount of direct sunlight, so you don’t end up with uneven brush strokes. It’s best to apply a stain ASAP after installing the deck, so the wood doesn’t get damaged.

Although stains last for years, you will need to reapply touch-up layers every two to three years or whenever you start noticing signs of wear. 

Before you apply stain to your deck, you have to be sure the surface is clean and dry. If you have to pressure wash an older deck, use the lowest pressure setting to prevent damage to the wood. A garden hose with a high-pressure nozzle attachment and deck cleaner works better. 

A screwdriver comes in handy for cleaning between the boards and butt joints. And to clean up grease spills, you can use a solution of TSP. 

When re-staining a deck, you also have to be sure the surface is clean and dry. You may also have to sand down any rough areas using 80-grit sandpaper. Be sure to sweep up any dust before applying the stain. 

Best Deck Stain FAQ

There are always additional questions not covered in the detailed guide above. Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions. 

What is the Best Stain to Use on a Deck?

An oil-based stain works the best on decks. Products with UV protection and mildewcide will give you better durability, protection, and extended life.

Which Deck Stain Lasts the Longest?

Solid deck stains have the longest lifespan of three to five years. There are many colors to choose from, but you do lose the natural grain of the wood. 

What is the Best Wood Stain and Sealer?

The best wood stain and sealer for decks is our number one recommendation, Ready Seal Exterior stain and sealer. 

What is the Best Deck Stain for Older Decks?

The best option to stain an older deck is a stain that will fill in holes and other imperfections. Semi-transparents or solids are better than clear or transparent stains, which will highlight flaws rather than hide them.  

Which is Better: Oil or Water Based Deck Stain?

For exterior decks, oil-based stains work better than water-based in terms of weathering. Water-based stains are more durable, but they do not do as well against the passage of time. A hybrid-based stain gives you the best of both worlds. 

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a lot of different things to know about deck stains. Choosing the right one for your deck isn’t just about picking the appropriate color. You also have to consider a stain’s opacity, protective abilities, base material, lifespan, and application process. Try any of our five recommendations to find your best deck stain.