Wood Stain Buying Guide
Finding the Best Wood Stain

Staining a deck or fence is a perfectly doable DIY project. That doesn’t mean you want to do it any more often than necessary. To avoid doing this chore every year, you’ll need a long-lasting stain.

 

Wood Stain Primer

To evaluate wood stains, CR test engineers apply two coats of stain to pine boards and place them on the roof of our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. We face the boards south and at an angle, like a roof, to intensify the effects of the sun and elements and to accelerate weathering.

One year of testing tells you how a stain will look after one year on your deck, or about three years of weathering on your home’s vertical surfaces (siding or fences), as you’ll see in our wood stain ratings

“The sun and water beat down on a deck, snow can pile up, and even dirt and mildew spores can settle on the flat surface,” says Rico de Paz, the chemist who oversees CR’s tests of stains and paints. “All those issues are minimized on a vertical surface.”  

The worst stains don’t hold up a year. The best remain close to new after three years, without fading, cracking, or mildew buildup. Some also fend off dirt. You’ll see these test results in the Features & Specs section of the ratings. 

Better for the Environment and for You 
Today’s wood stains have to meet environmental rules that call for lower volatile organic compounds. VOCs are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems, and can cause headaches and dizziness. Some may even be carcinogenic. Top stains from our tests meet these environmental standards and still look 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 regularly applying a penetrating coating, such as a semi-transparent or clear stain, to help reduce the leaching of arsenic.

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 getting started and cover adjacent landscaping with plastic sheeting. The pressure needed is typically 1,500 pounds per square inch; a wide-angle spray tip of 25 to 40 degrees creates a relatively broad spray that protects the wood. Angle the spray and keep it between 6 and 12 inches away from wood surfaces. For more on pressure washing, read “Should You Use a Pressure Washer to Clean It?

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. Prices of the wood stains in our ratings range from $15 to $50 per gallon.

Photo of an Arborcoat can of solid wood stain.

Solid

Also known as opaque, solid stains typically hold up the longest overall—the best should last three to five years on a deck. Solids hide the grain of the wood the way paint does, so they’re fine for pine decks, where seeing the grain isn’t important.

Solid stains’ paintlike qualities have their drawbacks: They might build up a film, especially after several coats, which can peel, chip, and crack like paint. And performance varies widely. The stains in this category earn Overall Scores of 12 to 80 (out of a possible 100) in our tests. 

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

Semi-Transparent

These color the wood’s grain but let it peek through the color, making them a good choice for wood that you want to show off—western red cedar, for instance.

But the best semi-transparent stain in our ratings isn’t as tough as the top solid stains, and our data suggest that this type of stain will probably last only two to three years on a deck. The stains in this category also vary widely in performance, garnering Overall Scores of 12 to 65. So compare the products in our ratings before you shop.

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 accentuating the beauty of the natural grain wood, although without anything to turn back ultraviolet rays, the wood will turn gray over time.

And you’ll probably have to restain your deck annually. As a group, the clear sealers tested earn Overall Scores ranging from 5 to 28 (out of 100). 

Check Our Wood Stain Ratings for the Best Products
Behr is a leading brand of exterior coatings and is available exclusively at 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 more than 1,200 Benjamin Moore paint stores and has about 4,000 independent dealers that carry the brand; the company cites training and service as reasons it hasn’t entered the home-center channel.
Although Valspar does not make deck treatments, its acquisition of Cabot has propelled it to the top of the category. Many brands offer combined deck and siding stains, but 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 family of coatings brands. (PPG was formerly known as the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.) 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 widely sold stains combine deck, fence, and siding applications in one product.
Sherwin-Williams is the largest producer of paints in the U.S. Sherwin-Williams manufactures deck treatments under the Deckscapes line, which is sold at more than 3,000 company-owned retail stores. Its 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 past 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.
Though Valspar does not make deck treatments, its acquisition of Cabot has certainly propelled it to the top of the category. Many brands offer combined deck and siding stains, but Cabot makes alkyd- and latex-based solid, semi-transparent, and transparent stains tailored for each application. Cabot has also introduced stain for composite decking.
Other brands on the market include McCloskey and Glidden.
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