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Wood stains

Wood stain buying guide

Last updated: April 2014

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Getting started

Wood decking has a warmth that synthetic decks lack. But you pay a price in maintenance: Wind, rain, summer sun, and winter snow can take a noticeable toll on its finish in only a few months. Some deck treatments can lighten your workload by lasting longer before they have to be reapplied.

To see how well each deck treatment we tested protects, Consumer Reports applies various stains to wood panels at its Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters and leaves them exposed to whatever Mother Nature dishes out. The best we've tested still remained close to their original color after three years, picked up only a little dirt and mildew, and effectively protected the wood from cracking. The worst looked ratty and provided little protection after just one year.

While the longest-lasting products were often the most expensive up front, their longer life should save you money over time. Don't buy strictly by brand; different products from the same manufacturer often performed differently. What's more, a product that worked well for you last time may not do as well this time, as manufacturers keep reformulating to address cost and performance, and to comply with government regulations.

When greener isn't better

Wood stains must meet environmental rules that lower volatile organic compounds. VOCs can cause acute symptoms such as headaches and dizziness, and some may be carcinogenic. But manufacturers admit that removing VOCs from wood stains and treatments without reducing performance is a challenge. Solid wood stains that have made our winners list still looked good after the equivalent of up to three years on a deck. All of our picks meet or beat federal limits for VOCs of 350 to 550 grams per liter for stain. Several also meet stricter regional California limits of 100 grams per liter for stain. Some offer mildew resistance.

Best choices for older decks

Before 2004, most decks were made of lumber pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to fend off rot and insects. But concerns that arsenic, a toxin, could leach into the soil led to the introduction of other preservatives. If the wood in your deck is pressure-treated with CCA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using a semitransparent stain, which tends to penetrate the wood and seal in the arsenic, preventing it from leaching out. Solid treatments also seal well, but they may flake or peel and require sanding, which would spread arsenic-laden dust from CCA lumber. If your deck is made of CCA lumber and its finish is flaking, we suggest calling a pro equipped to safely remove the old finish, dust, and debris.

How to choose

Insist on top finishes. Your painter's favorite stain might not be a top pick in our tests. The contract should specify the brand and line of stain, its cost, and how many coats the pro plans to apply. (Figure on a coat or two.)

Use the right materials. Using the wrong brush, roller, or technique can mar the final result. Stick with synthetic brushes for water-based stain because natural bristles are hollow and can lose their rigidity as they absorb the water in the finish. For rollers, use one with a 1/4-inch or shorter nap. You need to apply a thin enough layer that it adheres to the wood without pooling. Excess will flake off, resulting in spotting.

Prep decks carefully. Washing and sanding are typical first steps to staining a deck. But remember that sanding a wood deck treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) releases toxic arsenic into the air and surrounding soil. Call a pro if your deck was built before 2004 and its finish is flaking. If you'll be pressure-washing a newer wood deck, read instructions before starting and cover adjacent landscaping with plastic sheeting. The pressure needed is typically 1,500 PSI; a wide-angle spray tip of 25 to 40 degrees creates a relatively wide spray that protects the wood. Angle the spray and keep it between 6 and 12 inches away from wood surfaces.

Types

Finishes vary according to how much of the wood's natural grain they show. The best opaque treatments tend to last the longest. But you may prefer a semitransparent or clear finish for aesthetic reasons. The cost of all types of wood stains and treatments is $15 to $50 a gallon.

Solid wood treatments


Also known as opaque stains, solid treatments typically hold up for at least three years--the longest overall. They're fine for pine decks, where seeing the grain isn't important. On the downside, they hide the wood grain the way paint does. Solid finishes might also build up a film, especially after several coats, which can peel, chip, and crack like paint. That's a concern with older decks made of arsenic-laden, CCA lumber.

Semitransparent wood treatments


Although generally not as weather-resistant as solid treatments, some semitransparent products go the distance better than others. Semitransparent products let some of the wood grain show through, making them a good choice for cedar, redwood, and other costly woods that you want to show off. But even the best we've tested have needed refinishing after two years.

Clear wood treatments


These may contain little or no pigment, along with water repellents. They're ideal for showing off the natural grain of a premium wood as much as possible, though the wood will still turn gray over time. Clear treatments may have ultraviolet inhibitors and wood preservatives. But with most, deck refinishing is an annual chore.

Features


Synthetic components and solvents have largely replaced linseed and tung oils. Manufacturers describe them as preservatives, protectors, stabilizers, repellants, sealers, cleaners, restorers, or rejuvenators. Neither alkyd- nor latex-based treatments have shown any clear advantage in our durability tests.

Latex finishes

Latex-based stains and treatments allow easy cleanup with water.

Alkyd-based finishes

Most alkyd (oil-based) products require cleaning with mineral spirits. Environmental regulations, however, are slowly making these much more difficult to find.

Brands


Major brands of deck stains and treatments include Ace, Behr, Benjamin Moore, Cabot, Flood, Glidden, Olympic, Sherwin-Williams, Sikkens, Thompson's, and Wolman. You'll also find many smaller, specialized brands.

Behr

Behr is a leading brand of exterior coatings and is available exclusively at The Home Depot. For decks, Behr offers solid, semi-transparent, wood-toned, and clear finishes.

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore makes a wide variety of decking stains, including water and alkyd-based solid, semi-transparent, wood-tone, and clear finishes. Benjamin Moore operates over 1,200 Benjamin Moore paint stores and has about 4,000 independent dealers who carry the brand; The company cites training and service as reasons why it hasn't entered the home-center channel.

Cabot

While Valspar does not make deck treatments, its acquisition of Cabot has certainly propelled it to the top of the category. While many brands offer combined deck and siding stains, Cabot makes alkyd and latex-based solid, semi-transparent, and transparent stains tailored for each application. Cabot has also introduced stain for composite decking.

Olympic

Olympic is a member of PPG's architectural coatings family of brands (the company was formerly known as the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company). Olympic exterior stain can be found at Lowe's and independent paint and hardware dealers. Olympic stains include solid, semi-transparent, wood-toned, and clear finishes. Its most popular stains combine deck, fence, and siding applications in one product.

Sherwin-Williams

Sherwin-Williams is the largest producer of paints in the United States. Sherwin-Williams manufactures deck treatments under the Deckscapes line, which is sold at more than 3,000 company-owned retail stores. Its retail stores cater to professionals and consumers, and offer a variety of paint supplies and tools.

Thompson's

With an effective advertising campaign that includes television spots over the last decade or two, Thompson's WaterSeal has become a recognizable brand leader in deck treatments. Thompson's signature product is a clear waterproofing finish, and the company has expanded its line to include oil and latex stains. Thompson's is available nationally through home centers and major retailers such as Walmart.

Valspar

While Valspar does not make deck treatments, its acquisition of Cabot has certainly propelled it to the top of the category. While many brands offer combined deck and siding stains, Cabot makes alkyd and latex-based solid, semi-transparent, and transparent stains tailored for each application. Cabot has also introduced stain for composite decking.

   

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