Update 2019 Please read this article and post any questions you have in the comment are below. Our newly enhanced website now offers the ability to upload and post pictures of your exterior wood or deck.
Deck stains have not changed much in the past few years. Many brands have gone away from oil based stains to water based, but you are still able to use oil based stains in all US States and Canada. We currently restore about 300-400 decks annually, and our favorites are the penetrating semi-transparent and semi-solids.
We have been getting great feedback here at www.deckstainhelp.com from all of the consumers who have been looking for better stain alternatives for their deck restoration. Our most popular article, “What is the Best Deck Stain” has quickly become the number one article on the web for asking questions and getting answers on restoring your exterior wood and deck.
In this article, we are going to cover what actually is a “Deck Stain”. We will compare the many different types of decking stain options available and what are the positives and negatives of each.
Deck stains are used to protect and preserve your exterior wood. They offer UV protection, water repellency, mold and mildew resistance, etc. Deck coatings come in many different types of opacity and bases. Many deck stain brands can be restricted in certain states, cities, and counties based on their VOC laws.
Deck staining can be a “chore” for residential homeowners and unfortunately walking into your local store may produce some of the worst options available. Not all deck stains are created equal and there is not a perfect stain type or brand that will outperform all the others.
Water-Based Deck Stains
Water based deck stains have come on rapidly in the last 4 years. The main reason for the vast amount of water based stains on the market today is related to changes in VOC laws across the country. Many states have adopted or soon will adopt lower VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) regulations. This has prompted stain manufacturers to increase production of water-soluble decking stains. In our opinion, water-based deck stains are “thin” paints with varying amount of acrylic and pigment.
Pros: Water cleanup, less chance of mold or mildew growth. Environmentally friendly.
Cons: Do not penetrate like an oil-base can. Slightly harder to apply as they dry quicker. Can be prone to peeling and wearing. *Restore-A-Deck Wood Stains and Defy Wood Stains are the only exceptions that we have tested. They penetrate the best of all water based stains, nearly as well as an oil.
Oil based Deck Stains
Oil based decking stains have been around for 20-30 years and have been traditionally what all stain manufacturers produce. Oil based stains are typically made up of natural and synthetic oils. Many contain oils: Linseed Oil, Paraffin Oil, Tung Oil, Rosewood Oil, Etc.
Pros: Excellent penetration into wood. The better a deck stain can penetrate, the better the performance. Easier to apply. More natural looking.
Cons: Stronger odors, longer drying and curing time. Some oils can promote the growth of mildew. Some oil-based stains will darken in color over time.
Deck Resurface Coatings
Deck Resurface products are basically similar to an extremely thick paint. They are designed to mask the wood and fill large cracks or voids. Deck Resurface products will not show any wood grain. Please note that this product is far beyond conventional wood restoration.
Pros: Excellent UV protection. Enhanced traction. Fills voids and cracks. Great idea to restore an older deck if it actually works.
Cons: So far most of these product types fail miserably. They peel after the first Winter and cannot be removed with a deck stain stripper. Sanding, scraping or even the replacement of the wood is needed. There are numerous reviews on our site and other sites with angry consumers and product failures. Class action lawsuits are being filed against Rustoleum Deck Restore and Olympic Rescue-It. Behr Deckover has the same issues as well. Only a couple of these products seem to work. If you really want one of these coatings, consider the Gulf Synthetics Deck Revive. See this link for more info, articles, and reviews on these coatings: Deck Resurface Coatings
Solid Decking Stains (Opaque)
Solid deck stains look like paints. They cover the wood so you will not see the wood grain anymore. Once you apply a solid decking stain there is little chance you will ever be able to go back to a transparent stain. Solid stains come in both oil and water based versions.
Pros: Excellent UV protection.
Cons: Films on top of the wood and do not penetrate well. Prone to peeling. Looks like a paint. Harder to apply. Cannot be removed with a deck stain stripper effectively.
A Semi-Solid Deck Stain will only show a small amount of wood grain as they contain a high amount of pigment. They are offered by a limited amount of manufacturers. Semi-solids can be both water-based and oil-based.
Pros: Very good UV protection
Cons: Only a small amount of wood grain will show. Oil-based semi-solid versions will penetrate and perform much better the water-based versions.
Semi-transparent stains contain pigments that highlights the natural grain while sealing the surface. The semi-transparent wood and decking stains are our favorite. Both water and oil-based are available.
Pros: Average to better than average UV protection. Shows natural grain. Very good penetration. In most scenarios can be cleaned and re-coated easily. Can be removed with a deck stain stripper.
Cons: Most water-based versions perform poorly compared to the oils. Many states with the Low VOC laws have a limited amount of quality oil-based stains available. May need to buy online if in a Low VOC area.
Transparent Wood Stains
Transparent deck coatings look the most natural as they contain minimal pigment. The average life of a transparent decking stain is about 1 year. Mostly oil-based only are available.
Pros: Very easy to apply and reapply as needed. Natural looking.
Cons: Below average UV protection. Typically need to be re-coated annually.
Clear Wood Deck Finishes
Clear Deck Finishes offer little to no UV protection and will gray quickly. Typically used as sealers.
Pros: Does not change the appearance. Extremely easy to apply.
Cons: Grays and oxidizes in months.
Non-Drying Oil vs Drying Oil-Based Stains
Drying oils are “curing” oils. This means that they actually dry on top of or just below the surface. They will help “seal” the wood as well. Non-drying oils are the opposite. They never actually dry, but rather dive deep into the wood to help condition the cells of the wood. Paraffin oil (not wax) is the most common.
Are Deck Finishes, Stains, Sealers, or Both?
This question can be confusing to homeowners. In general, all deck stains are sealers as well as they will help prevent water absorption. Deck sealers typically are not stains as they do not have any pigment. Some though may have a very light tint.
Low VOC Stains and States:
Currently, there are 17 States that restrict Decking Stains and Coatings. These states require a lower amount of Volatile Organic Compounds to be released into the air. This mainly affects oil-based coatings. By lowering the amount of “solvents” that can evaporate into the ozone you need to increase the amount of “solids”. This can cause issues with oil-based stains as they may have drying and curing problems. There are still a few good oil-based stains allowed in the Low VOC States, but not as readily available at your local stores. You may need to go on the Internet to find them and have them shipped. A couple of examples would be TWP 1500 Series and Armstrong Clark Wood Stains.
Current Low VOC States:
California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Northern VA, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana.
With all of these different types of products, we prefer the semi-transparent products as they allow the wood grain to show. They offer better than average UV protection and can be easier to reapply in the future. Penetration is better for oil-based versions over the water-based versions. The one exception is the water-based Defy Stains.
See this: Top 5 Semi-transparent Deck Stains
*All decking stains will eventually fail that is why you want a deck stain that is easy to work with down the road.