Staining Deck vs Painting: Which Is Better?

A deck, covered porch, or gazebo are great outdoor living extensions for many homes. However, decks take a beating from the elements every day and also have to withstand furniture movement, heels, shoes, and pet claws. To keep your deck looking great and protect your investment, you’re probably wondering what’s best, deck staining vs painting.

Stain goes on easier, is better for maintaining the natural beauty of the wood, has limited color options, and needs to be reapplied much more frequently. Paint is thicker, so hides the wood grain, age, and imperfections. It takes more work to apply, but is more durable, protects better, resists the elements better, and lasts much longer. Plus, it’s available in numerous colors to compliment any aesthetic palette.

In this article, we’ll compare key aspects of painting vs staining a deck. Discuss deck staining and painting, their pros and cons, and their differences. We’ll explain how often to stain or paint a deck, and whether you can paint over stain or stain over paint. Plus look at staining or painting pressure-treated wood, and if the railing should be done too. We’ll even review one of the best deck paints and stains. Our goal is to provide you with the information to help keep your deck looking like new.

Staining Deck vs Painting

Staining Deck vs Painting: Key Points

Paint and stain are both applied in similar ways and even contain common materials. They are both formulated to protect the deck from the elements. However, they are not the same. Stains tend to be thin and transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque, so they allow the grain and texture to show through. Paints are thick and opaque and commonly hide the grain for a consistent coloring and are available in thousands of color possibilities.

Aside from personal preference and aesthetics, there are significant differences between the two materials. To determine which to choose for your project, it’s best to compare key points to identify which will meet your requirements and expectations. We’ve set the information out in the table below to assist you in your selection.

Staining DeckPainting Deck
DurabilityLess durable. Clear and semi-transparent offer less protection against UV fading and discoloration.More durable, better protection against UV and moisture, longer lasting color.
Longevity1 to 3 years based on quality and exposure to the elements.10+ years based on quality and exposure to the elements.
Dry TimeWater-base touch dry in 2 hours, oil-base in 4 hours. Both need 24 hours to cure before full use.Water-base touch dry in 3 hours, oil in 4. One coat of either is ready in 24 hours but 2 or more need up to 48.
Color OptionsTransparent or tinted clear, or limited semi-transparent shades to allow the grain and natural beauty to show through.Thousands of opaque color choices for a uniform finish and to hide grain, discoloring, and other imperfections.
QualityOil stain is better than water-based. Check reviews and use a reputable brand.Select products based on brand and reviews, but also look for high percentages of solids and titanium dioxide in paint.
WeatherproofingAbsorbs into and closes pores to moisture, but not much surface protection against weathering and wear.Much better than protection due to thickness and opacity. Bonds to the surface to provide years of protection.
UV ProtectionUV blocking additives in clear and semi-transparent provide limited protection. More opaque stains with UV blockers are better protectionThe thicker opaquer surface film provides much better protection against UV damage.
SafetyLess slippery when wet as natural grain is more exposed for tractionSlippery when wet but grit can be added for traction
Cost$20 to $50 a gallon every 2 to 3 years.$40 to $80 or more per gallon of paint, plus $20 to $50 per gallon of quality primer every 10 years. May also require a wood preservative and clear polyurethane sealer too.
Application TimeInitial single coat application takes less than a day for most decks, a second coat, if needed, will take another half day or so.Initial primer coat will take a day, 1st paint coat will add a day, 2nd paint coat another day, and a sealer another day.
MaintenanceEasy to sweep clean, damp mop, or pressure wash with a mixture of vinegar and water.Easier to sweep clean, damp mop, or pressure wash with a mixture of vinegar and water due to the smoother finish.

What Is Deck Staining?

What Is Deck Staining

Deck stain is an oil- or water-based clear, tinted semi-transparent, or colored opaque liquid. It penetrates into the pores of the wood to protect against moisture, UV rays, rot, mildew, and mold. Stain helps prevent graying so that the natural wood beauty remains vibrant and visible. They are formulated to enhance the natural wood color and grain pattern for a more natural-looking finish.

Oil-based stains contain natural and/or synthetic oils such as Tung, Linseed, Paraffin, or Rosewood oil. They tend to penetrate better than water-based stains, but also commonly have greater VOC concerns, and some can darken the wood over time. Most water-based stains contain water, liquid acrylic polymers, plasticizing and binding polymers, and coloring pigments or resins. Both often contain UV blocking agents and mold and mildew inhibitors.

There are different types of both water- and oil-based stains available for decks.

  • Clear stains contain no coloring and seal the wood, often highlighting the grain and natural wood tone and color. Some clear stains are tinted with different brown tones for a more consistent transparent coloring.
  • Semi-transparent stains commonly contain pigment and give the wood a white, gray, brown, red, or green ‘washed’ look. They also last longer and offer more protection than clear stains.
  • Semi-solid deck stains hide more of the wood grain and are more durable than clear or semi-transparent stains.
  • Solid deck stains are opaque, offer greater protection against UV rays, and hide some grain, discoloring, and other imperfections. Unfortunately, they are more likely to chip, flake, crack, and peel.

Most stains should be applied when the temperature is between 50°F and 80°F, and when the wood is clean and dry. The newer the wood, the higher its moisture content, the less stain it will absorb. Stain won’t chip or flake, although some water-based stains do peel. Stains won’t hide blemishes and other imperfections, and typically require reapplication every 12 to 36 months.

Pros and Cons of Staining a Deck

As with everything, there are pros and cons to consider. On the positive side, stains are easier to apply, usually more cost-effective, and preserve the natural wood look. They can protect from UV and sun damage to prevent graying, and resist mold and mildew.

Stains are thinner and offer more traction when wet, so prevent slips better. Transparent stains enhance the grain and natural wood tones. Semi-transparent, semi-solid, and solid or opaque stains add color and offer more protection too. So, stains provide a full spectrum of finishes from natural to opaque. All of which still allow the grain texture to show through.

On the negative side though, stains need to be reapplied every 1 to 3 years, regardless of how opaque they are. Stains are thinner and allow imperfections, cracks, nicks, scratches, and discolorations to show through. Since they are thinner, they don’t protect the wood surface as well as other finishes.

The thinner finish also makes sweeping more difficult as the surface is more natural and holds onto the dust and dirt. Plus, the color selection available in stains is limited.

What Is Deck Paint?

What Is Deck Paint

Deck paint is an exterior paint that comes in oil- or water-based liquids. It is formulated to withstand abrasive wear by feet and furniture and to resist chipping and flaking. So, it differs from exterior house paint for walls since it gets walked on. Deck paint is designed to expand and contract to accommodate moisture, temperature, and seasonal changes. A thin layer will seal, protect, hide blemishes, and add color to the surface.

Paint for decks typically contains pigments, liquid solvents, binders, and a variety of additives, including UV protective agents, plus anti-bubble and anti-fungal additives too. Oil-based paints will contain natural or synthetic oils like linseed and vegetable oil as the base. Water-based paints contain water with different liquid binders such as polyvinyl acetate (PVA), which is also known as white glue.

Deck paint is thicker than stain and fills in cracks and small imperfections or voids in the wood. It hides the grain and covers color deviations in the decking, for a more solid, even, finish. Paint provides a durable, tough, flexible, hard, colored film when it dries. Both water and oil-based paints are available in matte, satin, semi-gloss, or glossy finishes.

Painting Your Deck: Pros and Cons

Paint, like stain, has its pros and cons, but the pros are pretty impressive, though. There are literally thousands of color choices allowing for a solid single color over the deck expanse instead, of a variety of wood tones that can gray with exposure to the sun and elements.

Paint is opaque, so it hides discolorations and imperfections in the wood and provides a smooth less abrasive finish that will last 10 or more years. It’s also easier to paint over deck stain if you’re tired of constantly reapplying stain, or if the wood will require too much effort to bring the natural grain and color back.

On the negative side, deck paint hides the natural beauty and texture of the wood. It can trap moisture within the wood which can cause bubbling, peeling, flaking, and rot, so the wood needs to be dry prior to painting.

Paint often also requires a primer to seal the wood and improve the bond with the paint, adding to the overall cost and time required to paint a deck. Quality deck paint is also more costly than stains, although, in the time it lasts, you’ll probably spend more on stains. It’s also very difficult and costly to remove paint, so in most situations, it is permanent.

What is the Difference Between Deck Stain and Paint?

Difference Between Deck Stain and Paint

Paint and stain share common ingredients and both protect wood decking. However, they are not the same. Comparing their similarities and differences will assist in selecting the best finish for your deck.

Durability

Stain absorbs into the wood to enhance the natural color and grain of the decking and provides an ultrathin layer of protection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer long-lasting protection against UV rays and the elements, or against fading and wear and tear. It typically lasts 1 to 3 years, so must be reapplied more frequently.

Paint is more durable, colorfast, and will better withstand foot traffic, UV rays, the elements, fading, and moisture. It will commonly last 10 years or more, allowing for more deck enjoyment than maintenance.

Longevity

Stains will last between 12 and 36 months before requiring reapplication. There are some stains, though, that will only last 6 months and some that can last between 6 and 8 years. Much depends on the quality and amount of exposure to UV rays, the elements, and foot traffic.

Paint commonly lasts for 10 years or more, although some will begin to look drab after 5 to 8 years. Again, much depends on quality, exposure, UV, and traffic. The longevity of both paint and stain also depends on how thorough the wood prep work is prior to application.

Dry Time

Temperature and humidity affect the drying time of both stains and paints. The warmer the temperature, the faster both dry, but the higher the humidity, the longer the drying time. Water-based stains dry faster than oil-based products, often being dry to the touch in 2 hours and ready for use after 24 hours.

Oil-based paints and stains are both touch dry within 4 hours and commonly ready for use after 24 hours, although some require 48 hours before full traffic exposure. Most water-based paints are touch dry and ready for a second coat after 3 hours. The thicker the coat(s), the longer the overall drying time, typically 8 to 24 hours for one coat and 48 hours for 2 or more.

Color Options

Stains absorb into the wood and leave a thin covering on the wood. They can be clear to allow the wood color and grain to be displayed. Or tinted to varying degrees of opacity which will mask the grain and wood texture, but provide a more uniform color finish.

Semi-solid and solid stains have more pigment which provides color but still allows some wood textures and characteristics through. Stain colors range from clear or natural, to browns, blues, grays, greens, and reds, with white and black filling out most options. The more pigment, the more solid the color and the greater the protection against UV rays.

There are literally thousands of color choices of paints to compliment any color palette or aesthetics. Paints are thicker than stains and provide more solid, uniform coverage. It coats the wood surface creating a barrier against moisture, environmental concerns, and UV rays. The paint also hides the wood grain, discolorations, imperfections, and even previous coats of stain or paint.

Quality

Stain and paint quality often depends on the type of base, pigments, and additives to protect against UV rays, mold, and mildew. Natural oil-based stains are better than water-based stains as they penetrate to seal the wood grain and repel moisture more effectively, thus helping to prevent graying, cracking, and warping. Plus, they are usually less expensive than water-based stains, so the price isn’t always the deciding factor.

When selecting a deck paint, look for one that contains a higher percentage of solids and titanium dioxide. Also consider if it is for hardwood or softwood, pressure-treated or exotic, protected or full exposure. The type of wood and exposure does affect the paint choice. Plus, some paints work better with a quality primer and some paints contain a primer.

Quality paint is usually thicker, so it will take longer to dry. It will fill cracks and other irregularities and is waterproof, weather, mold, mildew, and UV resistant. Some may even be slip-resistant. Your choice should be able to withstand the intended use.

Whether selecting stain or paint, oil-based or water-based, choose a reputable brand and check out the reviews. The better the quality, the better the coverage, protection, and even warranty. So don’t be satisfied with the price, see how others feel about the product.

Weatherproofing

Weatherproofing

Paints and stains both provide protection against weathering and UV rays. However, paint is thicker and more opaque, so provides greater protection against the elements. Plus, it is an effective barrier against moisture, dirt, and UV damage. Paint is even better protection than a solid stain as it is thicker. Unfortunately, neither will last forever. Stain typically needs reapplying every 12 to 36 months, and paint every 10 or so years.

UV Protection

Solid stains and paint provide greater UV protection than clear or semi-transparent stains. Some clear stains have UV protective additives, but they typically don’t hold up well, and the wood can gray and the woodgrain lift so the decking feels furry. The opaquer and thicker the protecting film or coat, the better the UV protection.

Safety

When painting or staining a deck, many don’t consider safety unless using a ladder. Oil-based stains and paints can contain VOCs which can cause respiratory issues to users and those inhaling the fumes through open windows.

Stains are thinner and often more fluid than paints, but both can splatter and damage eyes, so safety glasses are recommended. Applying paint or stain on a sunny day may best be done while wearing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Plus, staying hydrated is also a good idea.

Cost

New wood decking should be allowed to dry for 3 to 12 weeks depending on its moisture content, relative humidity, and other climate issues. Once the wood is dry it will absorb stain and paint more evenly for a better finish. The size of the deck also impacts the cost too.

Stain ranges from $20 to $50 a gallon and typically covers between 200 and 300 sqft. Most stains commonly require only one coat for full coverage. However, stains need to be reapplied every 1 to 3 years. So, their cost over the life of the deck may be greater, especially if it needs to be stripped off before reapplying.

Many deck paints recommend a primer be used on new wood prior to painting. The primer seals and protects the wood, and provides a stronger bond for the paint. A quality primer runs between $20 to $50 per gallon and a gallon of paint $40 to $80 or more.

Some paints include a primer too, which can save time and money. Most paints require two or three applications for full coverage, with a gallon of paint and primer typically covering 300 to 400 square feet.

Exposure to the elements and local climate conditions can also affect the cost. Some pros recommend a wood preservative before the primer and a clear polyurethane sealer on top of the final coat of paint, which will increase the cost. However, these last two steps aren’t typically required if using a quality primer and paint.

Application

Deck Stain Application

Both stain and paint are applied with a brush or roller, and sometimes with a sprayer. New decks should dry for 3 to 12 weeks prior to treatment. Repair or replace damaged boards on older decks before staining or painting and ensure to set nails and screws flush, also fill dents and cracks too if painting.

Decks should be swept or vacuumed clean, stains and spills washed off, and the wood allowed to fully dry prior to staining or painting. Expect to use more stain or primer/paint on new wood as it will absorb better than on reapplications.

Applying stain is easier and quicker as it typically requires only one coat. Painting takes more time as a primer coat is commonly recommended, followed by one or more applications of paint. Some even recommend light sanding between coats to create a better bond between layers too.

Clean up any drips, pooling, or runs, and remember not to paint yourself into a corner. Brush lap marks are more common with paint or semi-solid and solid stains, so keep an eye out for them. Doing 3 to 6 boards end to end at a time helps minimize lap marks too.

If the deck has been stained or painted in the past, you may not know if it was oil or water-based. The unknown often means you have some extra work ahead of you. The deck may need to be stripped and sanded, prior to applying stain or primer and paint. To restore the original wood luster prior to staining, a brightener may be required too.

Maintenance

Paint creates a hard, smooth, durable surface that is easy to sweep, dry or wet mop, or wash clean with a sponge. Stains absorb into the wood more, so the surface is not smooth or hard, making cleaning more difficult. Spills, dust, dirt, pollen, leaves, and other debris should be swept off stained or painted decks monthly as they can mark the decking or cause mold or mildew growth.

Whether painted or stained, a pressure washer or a garden hose with a spray nozzle can be used to wash decking. Set the pressure washer at 600 psi for softwoods and 1500 psi or less for hardwoods. Use a soft-bristle broom or scrub brush with some dish soap once or twice a year to deep clean the decking. It will help remove any mold bacteria before it can take hold. Rinse off and let dry before replacing furniture, planters, and other items.

Stains or scratches on painted decking can be touched up easier too with a bit of light sanding and a swipe or two of matching paint. The same marks on a stained deck are more difficult to touch up as even solid stains are thinner and don’t cover marks or discolorations well. So clear and semi-transparent stains will hide them even less.

How Often Should You Paint or Stain Your Deck?

The frequency with which a deck should be stained or painted depends on its exposure to different types of environmental conditions. Plus, the maintenance schedule plays a role, as will the kind and quality of the paint or stain. Deck stains commonly last only 12 to 36 months, with some solid stains lasting 5 to 7 years with proper maintenance. Most quality deck paints will last 10 or more years before requiring a fresh coat.

On a newly stained deck, water will bead and run off or evaporate, and the color of the wood is bright and often the grain is visible. As the stain wears with environmental interaction, the color fades, and water absorbs and darkens the wood. This will make the grain less visible and allows mold and mildew to take hold. If you begin to see these signs, it’s time to reapply a fresh coat of stain. It should be noted too, that more opaque stains tend to last longer than more transparent stains.

A well-maintained painted deck should last 10 or more years between reapplications. Paint is tougher, more durable, and thicker than stain and offers more protection. Additionally, touch-ups to scratches or wear damage are easy and blend much better.

Over time, the paint color may fade or wear depending on traffic and exposure to weather, and moisture may creep under causing flaking or blistering. If this occurs, it is definitely time to begin the process of repainting your deck.

Can You Stain Over Paint on a Deck?

You can do anything you want, but applying stain directly over paint doesn’t work very well. Stain is formulated to absorb into the wood pores, and the liquid agent evaporates leaving the protection behind. Paint bonds to the surface preventing liquid penetration, so staining over paint often creates a tacky mess. It is best to remove the paint by sanding or using a deck stripper before applying stain.

Can You Paint Over Deck Stain?

If you’re tired of reapplying stain or just want a new look, you can apply paint over stain. Clean the deck with a solution of TSP, rinse, let dry, lightly sand, sweep or vacuum, and apply a quality primer. Wait a couple of hours and apply a coat of paint or two. The process may take a couple of days, but it will last longer and look great.

What’s the Best Deck Stain?

Ready Seal 512 5-Gallon Pail Natural Cedar Exterior Stain and Sealer for WoodStains are designed to penetrate into the wood to prevent rot and weathering and protect against mold, mildew, and moisture damage. The first thing to decide is on the look and color. Stains come in four formats, with the clear or transparent offering the greatest natural wood look and solids the best protection and color choice. Semi-transparent and semi-solid fall in between. The next decision is oil-based or water-based, with oil typically offering better penetration and protection.

Once you’ve made those two choices, look for a quality deck stain that comes from a reputable manufacturer. It should seal the wood, contains mildewcides and UV blockers, and has good reviews. There are hundreds of deck stains to choose from, but only a dozen or so are top-rated. Our pick is Ready Seal Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer.

Ready Seal exterior wood stain and sealer is an all-in-one stain and sealer. Available in 8 wood-tone tinted semi-transparent oil-based stains, with a gallon covering between 150 and 175 square feet. The stain enhances the wood’s natural beauty while keeping the grain, texture, and other natural characteristics visible, and the sealer protects it from moisture.

Ready Seal is easy to apply using a brush, roller, or sprayer and can be applied wet-on-dry or wet-on-wet between 45°F and 90°F. It contains UV and mildew blockers, is moisture resistant, and leaves no lap or drip marks.

Two light applications are recommended with a minimum of 45 minutes between coats. Depending on temperature and humidity, allow the stain to cure for 48 to 72 hours before returning the furniture and using it. Ready Seal is biodegradable and meets most VOC requirements, and the clean-up is easy with mineral spirits or paint thinner. The stain will lighten over the first 14 days as it adjusts to its true color. Don’t apply over painted surfaces or those that have been newly stained surfaces.

What’s the Best Deck Paint?

KILZ Low-Lustre Enamel Porch & Patio Latex Floor Paint, Interior/Exterior, Slate Gray, 1 GallonWhen selecting a paint for your deck consider its exposure to the elements, the type of wood, which paint base – oil or water – is preferable, its durability, and color. The texture or sheen, whether flat, satin, semi-gloss, or gloss also needs to be determined too. The paint should have a high percentage of solids and titanium dioxide, and be waterproof, weather, UV, mold, and mildew resistant. It should be thick to fill in cracks and other irregularities, and thus will take longer to dry.

There are numerous products available, pick a reputable manufacturer, select the product that meets all of the qualities a good deck paint should have, and check out the reviews. Our pick is KILZ Porch & Patio latex floor paint. The low-luster acrylic enamel light or silver gray and medium or slate gray paint goes on easily over previously primed or painted decking and cover well. Formulated to resist fading, mildew, peeling, cracking, and scuffing, it has low to no VOCs, dries fast, and is very durable.

Apply between 50°F and 90°F, but avoid applying it in full sun or if the deck surface feels hot to the touch. Use a nylon brush, 3/8” or 1/2″ nap roller, or airless sprayer; dilute the paint with less than 1/2 pint of water per gallon for spraying. One coat covers well, but two are better. A gallon covers between 200 and 400 sqft depending on surface preparation and roughness.

The paint is touch dry in an hour and ready for a second or top coat in 6 hours depending on temperature and humidity. Allow 72 hours for drying before replacing furniture and enjoying your deck, but four weeks before using a scrub brush to clean the deck. Easy to clean up brushes, roller, and sprayer with warm water and some dish soap.

Can You Paint or Stain Pressure Treated Deck?

Pressure-treated wood contains waterborne chemical preservatives pressured into the wood. The treatment commonly protects the wood from insects and rot, but not from weathering and UV rays. Due to the pressure-infused moisture in the boards, they are often wet when purchased and installed as decking. Before applying stain or paint, allow the boards to dry for 3 to 12 weeks.

Some decking is stamped or tagged ADAT for air-dried after treatment, others are KDAT for kiln-dried after treatment. Some pressure-treated lumber also contains a moisture repellant, which should be identified on the label. It will absorb oil-based stains or paints better than water-based ones once the wood dries.

Perform a water or sprinkle test randomly across the deck to determine if they are ready to stain or paint. Drip water onto the boards. If it pools or beads, it needs to dry more. If the water absorbs into the wood, it’s ready for stain or paint.

Should I Paint or Stain My Deck Railing

Paint or Stain Deck Railing

The deck railing should be painted or stained to match or compliment the deck. The railing experiences similar weathering to the deck, however, by its vertical nature the wood is exposed on all faces to the elements. So, it will shed moisture easier but can dry out and weather faster.

If you paint the railing and stain the deck, it will pop and accentuate the deck. Plus, it won’t need to be painted again for 10 or more years. If you stain the railing to match the deck, the grain will show, but it will need reapplication in a year or two. Additionally, paint offers a smoother surface and less chance of splinters too.

Is It Better to Stain Or Paint a Deck?

Better to Stain Or Paint a Deck

A wood deck is exposed daily to the elements which can discolor, wear, age, and rot an untreated deck. Both stain and paint will protect wooden decks from the elements, so either is better than nothing! However, if you have decking with great grain pattern and color that you wish to see, apply a clear or color-matched semi-transparent stain. If the decking is pressure treated or old go with a more opaque stain or use paint.

Stain needs to be applied every 12 to 36 months, and paint every 10 or more years. However, paint takes more work to apply, is initially more expensive, but is more durable, protects better, is easier to clean, and is available in literally thousands of colors. So, if you want the wood grain to show, go with stain, otherwise, paint is easier to clean, maintain, and gives more time for you to relax.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of the similarities and differences between stain and paint and feel better prepared to choose the best product to protect your deck.

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