The Definitive Guide to Exterior Wood Stains

Deck season is upon us, folks!

Between picking oil or water-based, level of transparency, color, and type- the choices can be daunting. We hope that this post will serve as an uncomplicated introduction to the world of exterior wood stains. We want you to walk into our stores with a clear idea of what you need to guarantee success.

Unlike paint, exterior wood stains penetrate to protect against damaging UV rays, mold & mildew, and moisture. They also aren’t limited to just deck use! Fences, outdoor furniture, doors, and siding would also benefit from a stain’s permeating preservation.


Wood stains commonly come in oil-based (alkyd) and water-based (sometimes called acrylic). A third category, called a hybrid stain, is a water and oil-based combination product.

Water-based stains dry quickly, contain no VOCs (a safer option for you and your environment), and clean up with soap and water. They also won’t attract any microorganisms and are super mildew and mold resistant. Water-based products do not soak as deeply into the wood as oil-based, and their quick dry times leave little room for error.

Oil-based stains have been used forever. They soak deeply and dry slowly, which gives you more time to achieve a professional, perfect finish. The results will last a long time, and it’s easy to reapply when the time comes. Oil-based products do contain VOCs, and if applied too thickly or in too wet of conditions, they can attract mildew.

Hybrid stains are newer to the market and incorporate the durability and low odor of a water-based stain along with the ease of application and beautiful finish of an oil-based stain.


Stains have varying levels of transparency based on personal preference, the condition of the wood, and the required protection needed.

Clear– Clear stains or sealers add waterproofing protection, and most include UV protection. These are completely transparent, so no pigment is added- allowing the beauty of the natural wood to shine while also protecting it.

Transparent– These provide a slight tint of pigment to accent the wood grain and bring out the color of the wood. They offer more protection than a clear stain.

Semi-Transparent– These stains provide even more color while allowing the natural wood grain to still show through. Because of the pigment concentration, they give even more protection, especially from UV rays.

Semi-Solid– Semi-solid stains will conceal much of the wood grain and offer better sun protection.

Solid– If your wood is weathered or if you want to drastically change a look, a solid stain is a perfect option. They provide rich color but hide most of the wood grain. These can be applied like paint and will typically last the longest.

Deck Resurfacers– Deck resurfacers are in a category all their own and work beautifully if your starting surface is in poor condition. These are thick and opaque to cover minor cracks, splinters, and other flaws.


Pre-tinted stains are pigmented stains ready to be used right off the shelf. They commonly come in classic wood tones like cedar, mahogany, chestnut, and cherry.

Tintable stains come in a rainbow assortment of colors and are hand-tinted by a specialist in our stores. One of our paint specialists will provide you with a color brochure specific to the brand you select and will tint your stain to order.


The best stain for your job depends on several factors: appearance, type of wood, and whether or not the surface has an existing stain.

Here are some general guidelines, but make sure to read the manufacturer’s info because this is where things can get complex.

Hot Tip: All stain manufacturers have a hotline number you can call to ask a representative any specific questions about their product. Look for it on the back of the can!

New treated lumber with pre-applied water repellency will, you guessed it, repel water, so an oil-based will be required. If new treated wood doesn’t have a manufacturer-applied water repellent, you can use either water or oil-based stain.

Solid stains can be used over an existing stain of any transparency. If your existing stain is solid, you’ll need to strip it if you’d like a more transparent stain. Otherwise, applying a solid stain over an existing solid stain is fine.


Improper prep work can cause stains and sealers to fail. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s preparation and application instructions. You’ll want to use an exterior wood or deck cleaner if the wood isn’t brand new to remove dirt, algae, and mildew from the surface.

If your wood is new, it most likely has a mill glaze, a glossy film that develops on milled lumber during the production process. Use a wood deck cleaner or stripper to remove it before staining, so your stain will be able to penetrate the wood.

Rotary Drill Examples


No one is expecting DIYers to know it all, and that’s where our paint specialists set our stores apart from the usual big-box experience. We have dedicated employees who are frequently trained in painting and staining. They are always willing to spend the necessary time with a customer. Our specialists are in-store Monday through Saturday to make sure every time you try something new, it comes out a success!