Wood Stain
Buying Guide

Photo of an open can of wood stain with a brush sitting on top.
Wood Stain Buying Guide

Finding the Best Wood Stain

Wood decking has a warmth that its synthetic counterparts lack. The tradeoff is higher maintenance, since wind, rain, sun, and snow can take a toll in just a few months. That's where wood stains come in, providing a layer of protection that can keep your wood deck looking great for years; many will also do the job on fences and siding. Top-performing stains from our tests will lighten your workload by lasting longer before they have to be reapplied. The most durable options are often the most expensive up front, but their longer life should save you money over the long haul.



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Wood Stain Primer

Consumer Reports buys and tests various stains by painting wood panels and leaving them exposed to the elements. The best 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 in less than a year’s time.

Better for the Environment, and You 
Today's wood stains have to meet environmental rules that lower volatile organic compounds. VOCs are linked to pollution, smog, respiratory problems, and can cause headaches and dizziness. Some may even be carcinogenic. Top stains from our tests meet these environmental standards and still looked good after the equivalent of up to three years on a deck.

Arsenic and Old 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 EPA recommends using a semi-transparent stain, which tends to penetrate 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.

Prepping Under Pressure
Washing and sanding are typical first steps. 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. For more on pressure washer safety, read this article.

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Types of Wood Stains

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 semi-transparent or clear finish for aesthetic reasons. Wood stains and treatments cost $15 to $50 a gallon.

 

Photo of an Arborcoat can of solid wood stain.

Solid Wood

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.

See Our Picks For Best Wood Stain Ratings
Photo of a can of Behr Premium semi-transparent wood stain.

Semi-transparent

Generally not as weather-resistant as solid treatments, although some semi-transparent products go the distance better than others. Semi-transparent 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.

Explore Our Ratings For Best Wood Stains
Photo of a container of clear sealer by Thompson's WaterSeal.

Clear Sealer

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 of these, deck refinishing is an annual chore.

Check Our Wood Stain Ratings for then Best Products
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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 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.
While Valspar does not make deck treatments, its acquisition of Cabot has 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 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 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.
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.
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.
McCloskey Glidden