Best and Worst Wood Stains From Consumer Reports' Tests

The best aren't always the costliest. Here's what you need to know—and what to avoid.

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Staining a wood deck doesn’t just add to its beauty; it adds a layer of protection to the wood that will help it look great for years to come. The same holds true for staining fences or siding. The best wood stains can help add years to the life of the wood.

That’s extra important in an era of high inflation, particularly when an ongoing lumber shortage has driven up the cost of materials used for decking.

There are currently nearly 30 wood stains in our ratings, and our tests have found significant differences. The best wood stain in our ratings currently earns an Overall Score of 82 out of 100. The worst earns an abysmal rating of just 4 out of 100.

Bear in mind that manufacturers periodically reformulate their products, so in turn, we retest samples from time to time to make sure this article and our ratings reflect the most up-to-date information available.

More on Stains, Paint & Decking

The best stains should last three to five years on a deck and even longer if applied to siding or fences, which don’t get as much abuse. “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 engineer who led Consumer Reports’ wood stain testing program for more than a decade. “All those issues are minimized on a vertical surface.”

To find the best wood stain for your needs, start with CR’s wood stain ratings and check the Features & Specs tab to see which ones are best at resisting cracking, fading, dirt, and mildew. That makes a difference depending on the climate you live in. Find a stain that resists mildew if you live in a humid area, for example, or one that resists dirt if you live in a desert. If you’re upgrading your home’s exterior, we also have test results on decking, replacement windows, roofing, siding, and paints.

Types of Wood Stains

Solid wood stains. Just like regular paint, solid stains hide the grain of the wood, and the best should last three to five years on a deck, the longest of the three types of stains. But the paintlike qualities of solid stains have a drawback: They might build up a film, especially after several coats, which can peel, chip, and crack just like paint. The 11 stains in this category included in our comprehensive ratings chart earn Overall Scores of 12 to 82 (out of 100).

Semi-transparent wood stains. These color the wood but let the grain peek through, making them a good choice for wood that you want to show off, such as western red cedar. But even the best semi-transparent stains in our tests aren’t as tough as the top solid stains, and our data suggests that this type of stain will probably last only two to three years on a deck. The 10 stains in this category also vary widely in performance, garnering Overall Scores of 8 to 41 (out of 100).

Clear sealer. This type of stain contains water repellents but little or no pigment. It’s ideal for accentuating the beauty of the natural grain of the wood. But without anything to deflect UV rays, the wood itself will turn gray over time; picture a weathered cedar-shingled house. You’ll probably need to restain annually. The eight clear sealers in our tests score the lowest, with Overall Scores from 4 to 27 (out of 100).

How Consumer Reports Tests Wood Stains

To test wood stains, CR’s engineers apply two coats to pine boards, then place them on the roof of our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. They face the boards south and angled down, like a roof, to intensify the effects of the sun and weather for up to three years.

One year of testing tells you how a stain will do after a year on your deck or about three years of weathering on vertical surfaces (siding or fences).

For more information on the best ways to assess and apply wood stains, see our wood stain buying guide.

Below, CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of some of the best wood stains we’ve tested. You’ll find additional details and options in our comprehensive wood stain ratings.

Best Wood Stains: Solid

Best Wood Stains: Semi-Transparent

Worst Wood Stains From CR's Tests

As a category, transparent wood stains, or clear sealers, don’t fare well in our tests. The Olympic WaterGuard for Wood is among the worst of the bunch, earning the second lowest Overall Score in CR’s stain tests: a 5 out of 100. It also earns a Poor score for its appearance after one year in our simulated weathering test for decks, meaning this stain didn’t take to the wood at all.

The Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Clear Sealer receives an abysmal rating of 4 out of 100 and doesn’t resist cracking, dirt, mildew, or color changes.

Even among solid stains, not all are up to the task. The Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Solid fails in the same four areas as the Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Clear Sealer and earns an Overall Score of 12 out of 100.

Best Time to Apply Wood Stain

Timing the application of wood stain is almost as important as the stain you choose and how you apply it. In the video below, we outline the best timing and technique for restaining a deck.

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.