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Why Penetrating Deck Stains are Best

Finding the right stain for your wooden deck is the key to getting lasting results. But with so many deck stain choices it can be a daunting task to say the least. To narrow down the search for the best deck stain you first need to understand what the different types of protection are.

Without getting into oil vs. water based debate or colors, tones, and opacity levels there are basically two different types or characteristics of a deck stain – film forming and penetrating. Both of these deck stain characteristics will provide adequate protection from the sun and lock out unwanted moisture. They both can also enhance the beauty of the wood and provide general overall protection from mold and mildew, freeze/thaw damage, and heavy foot traffic.

Film Forming Stain Failure

Film Forming Stain Failure

Film Forming Deck Stains
The main differences between the two are appearance, longevity, and maintenance. The way a film forming deck stain works is basically like the name suggests, it forms a film or barrier of protection that stays on top of the wood surface. Film forming stains are normally semi-solid to solid stains that come in a wide array of colors. They mostly hide the wood grain and show a lot more color almost like a paint. The downside with film forming stains is the way they wear over time. As the wood stain begins to age and break down it literally begins to crack, flake, or peel off of the wood.

Film forming wood stains are typically more heavily pigmented than penetrating stains making them much tougher to get rid of once a recoat is necessary. Not being able to remove an old coat means applying a new coat over top. Although the wood surface may look better initially following a recoat of this manner, it doesn’t tend to last as long because this type of deck stain doesn’t adhere well to itself. Over time, the buildup of multiple coats begins to create more frequent peeling and flaking, mold and mildew issues, and a nearly irreversible mess.


Penetrating Stain 2 Years Full Sun

Penetrating Stain 2 Years Full Sun

Penetrating Deck Stains
With penetrating deck stains longevity is normally better and future maintenance is much easier and less expensive. Penetrating wood stains don’t sit on top of the wood surface like film forming stains but rather penetrates or dives into the wood pours to give superb protection. Penetrating deck stains are excellent water repellants and do a good job of blocking harmful sun rays. They are usually transparent or semi-transparent allowing the natural beauty of the wood to show through and are available in different colors or tones.

a penetrating wood deck stain ages and begins to wear it does not peel or flake but instead it just fades and begins to disappear. They are also normally much easier to remove using a deck stain stripper so a recoat can be applied. In the case of using the same penetrating stain for a recoat, you can even do a light wash to the wood without removing the old stain before applying a new coat of the same penetrating stain. This recoat over an old coat of stain is much more effective with penetrating stains than with the film forming type.

When choosing a deck stain type it isn’t hard to see a clear winner. As far as a more natural enhanced wood appearance, longevity, and ease of future maintenance – penetrating deck stains are best.

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18 responses to “Why Penetrating Deck Stains are Best”

  1. Margie says:

    Can I change from a solid deck stain – one coat which is pretty well worn off – to a penetrating stain? From reading this site, it seems I'm in for a bad problem if I apply solid again because it will peel. What is best?

  2. Tyler says:

    I'm torn between TWP 100 and the Cabot 4300 Wood Preservative. Are there any reviews for this new Cabot product? I can't seem to find any mention of it.

    Cabot is available locally whereas TWP I would have to order.


  3. Alyssa says:

    I am a facilities manager on a campus with Craftsman-style buildings. The newest building, built in 2000, has tons of exterior wood trim, wood stairs, and a huge upper deck. It was originally stained with Cabot transparent stain to show the grain. Due to construction with new, poor quality wood and/or stain failure, the wood railings were badly split and dried out within 4-5 years. Because lots of patching was needed, transparent or semi-transparent penetrating stain was not an option. For the last 10 years we've stained it with Cabot OVT solid stain. It's been stained 3 times – most recently just 2 years ago and it looks horrible and even has termites. It is way too much wood (10,000 sq. ft. building) to completely remove all the solid stain. Short of that, what are your recommendations for prep and a better solid stain product? Thanks.

    • Probably is you cannot fix a bad solid stain job by adding more solid stain on top. In short it will continue to peel. Prep by removing all the loose paint. Try a stain stripper and pressure washing to remove what is loose. Stain with any solid stain brand.

  4. Fran says:

    Replaced some old deck boards with new ones. Let some of the new ones dry out for 3 months and other new ones 12 months (has been a work in progress). Had the deck power washed and cleaned. Applied Armstrong Clark semi solid Oxford brown stain to blend old
    with new. Looked great first few weeks some of the boards are oozing sap. Sap is turning white. How do I get that off and return the boards to a better look? Also, can I restain next spring for better penetration?

  5. Betsy says:

    We have used stripper and powerwashed. Even with sanding all of the previous product that was used will not come out. The sanded wood looks ok dry but when wet, you can tell something is still on the boards. Are we safe using a penetrating stain or will the boards look bad? We do not want to use a heavy stain that will flake and peel and are at our wits end. Our deck is elevated and is about 40 feet by 16- we don't want to have to replace all of the cedar. Help!

  6. Betsy says:

    We have applied stripper and power washed but the solid staid remained. We have sanded and dry it looks ready for a penetrating stain but some boards look like there is some sort of product deep inside the wood – maybe a penetrating stain was used years ago. The deck is 40 x 16 and we don't want to replace all the cedar boards. Are we ok to use another penetrating stain?

  7. pbean says:

    How do you know which of the 2 kinds of stains you're getting?

  8. JUlianne Biehl says:

    Have a low to ground deck which peeled badly and had to be scraped off/ Penetrating is bet but deck must breathe. what is best stain for this.?

  9. Tom says:

    Is Behr Transparent Oil-Based Waterproofing Wood Finish a film forming stain or a penetrating deck stain? I desparately want to avoid a product that will peel and/or flake off. Open to suggestions.

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*This is first and foremost a help site from our experience as wood restoration contractors. All stain and prepping manufacturer directions were followed with our reviews and ratings. We offer no guarantee of similar results. Take inconsideration that wood and deck stain results may differ due to prepping procedures, different wood types, exposure to UV radiation, natural weathering, etc.