Deck Staining

How to get the Best Deck Stain for Cedar

Spring is the perfect time to repair and refresh your deck. Winters are usually very hard on wood, and you may start to notice some cracking, warping, and fading when spring finally arrives.

Bare wood decks are particularly vulnerable to weathering. The UV in sunlight breaks down lignin, which is the component that holds wood fibers together. Once these fibers start moving apart, you’ll find it harder to apply and maintain a finish, and you’ll end up with a grey, sad-looking deck.

Sun-beaten wood is also less resistant to water damage since the water can penetrate much deeper into the wood when the wood grain fibers are looser. Water damage will certainly cause rot, which may affect the structural integrity of your entire deck.

One of the most popular ways to protect exterior wood decks is with a deck stain. The deck stain creates a barrier between the wood and the environment while adding an extra layer of aesthetic appeal.

The tricky part comes in when you start to look at what stain to buy. There are hundreds of different varieties on the market, and knowing which one is the right for your property can be challenging. Here are some tips that will help you find the best wood stains for your natural cedar deck.

Factors to Consider When Buying a Cedar Deck Stain

Cedar wood is a versatile material that you can use indoors and outdoors. Cedar decking is extremely popular, as are cedar fences and cedar siding. Cedar is a soft wood, and because of it’s oily nature, it’s naturally weather resistant. Although cedar has natural water resistance, it still needs to be protected as over time, even cedar will begin to break down and deteriorate.

Choosing the right deck stain for your cedar wood deck depends mainly on what you want. Some deck stains are easier to apply, while others require a bit of extra work. You can also choose from stains that enhance the natural beauty of cedar surfaces, or you can choose something that covers up any blemishes that your cedar surface has.

Wood Stain Types

Wood stains come in two broad categories: film-forming and penetrating.

Penetrating stains move through the wood grain, penetrating down under the surface. The stain wraps around each wood fiber, making it stronger and more resistant to water damage, rot, and insects. A penetrating deck stain still allows the wood to breathe but will protect it from harsh elements.

Penetrating stains are a popular option for soft woods like cedar since they’ll allow the wood grain to remain visible, as well as help stain the wood and keep it protected inside and out.

Film-forming stains make a film on top of wood surfaces, forming a solid barrier between the wood and the environment. A film-forming wood stain is excellent for covering blemishes and providing UV protection and will typically last several years before needing refreshing. These type stains are great if you have both new and old boards on a deck. It will hide the uneven appearance that’s created when replacing boards.


Transparency refers to the amount of natural cedar surface that shows through the stain. The less transparent the wood stain, the more the grain and blemishes will shine through. The more opaque the wood stain, the less of the wood surface you’ll see.

Solid Color Staining – A solid color stain is very similar to paint in that it hides the wood’s natural finish completely. Solid stains can be a good idea if you want to create a uniform look or hide the imperfections of an extremely weather-worn cedar deck.

Semi-solid Staining – A semi-solid stain is slightly more transparent than a completely opaque stain color but will still completely change the look of the wood. The best use of a semi-solid stain is for old wood that lacks character and needs life and color. However, since a large part of the appeal of cedar decks is their unique character and natural weathering, choosing a semi-solid stain may not be the best option for your new cedar deck.

Semi-Transparent Staining – These stains add pigment that provides a subtle hint of color, but are transparent enough to allow the wood grain to show through. The best semi-transparent stain is one that protects your cedar wood surface while bringing out the character and grain of the wood. Semi-transparent stains aren’t very good at hiding blemishes, so if you have an old deck that’s in bad condition, you may be better off with a more opaque option.

Clear Toner or Transparent Staining – Clear stains have absolutely no pigment and just form a protective barrier between the wood and harmful UV rays and harsh weather conditions. If you want to show off the beauty of natural western red cedar on your wood siding or deck, then a clear sealer is the way to go.

Oil or Water-Based Deck Stains

An exterior deck stain will have an oil, water, or hybrid base that affects how easily it applies and how well it performs.

Water-based stains are easy to apply and easy to clean up with soap and water. They are usually lower in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which means they’re better for the environment. The only downside is you have to properly prep the wood before applying a water-based stain if you want the longest lifespan. The good news is once the wood is prepped properly with a cleaner and brightener, a quality, water based stain will far outlast most oil based stains.

Oil-based stains are better at soaking into the wood and will usually penetrate deeper. An oil-based stain works on most wood types but usually contains more VOCs, so it’s not as great on the environment. The upside is they’re easier to apply than water-based stains, and they’re more forgiving when it comes to lap marks. They have several downsides though. They don’t last as long, they’re messier to clean up, they tend to attract mold and mildew, and sometimes you can track footprints through the deck long after you’ve applied it, as dry time can be longer. The wood has to be bone dry before applying most oil based stains, and they typically take longer to dry than a water based stain. When using this type of stain, make sure there’s no rain in the forecast.

Hybrid stains are usually a type of oil based resin that’s encapsulated in water. This is more of a recent technology as tougher VOC restrictions have forced stain manufacturers to come up with newer VOC compliant versions of their stains. They’re a happy compromise between the ease of use of water-based products and the functionality of oil wood stain. They’re becoming more common, and many times, they’re simply referred to as “oil based” but with soap and water cleanup. They typically still don’t last as long as an acrylic water-based stain, but they do offer some of the advantages of both oil and water.

In the end, the right wood stain choice for exterior surfaces like cedar decks, an outside cedar fence, or outdoor furniture is up to you. Oil based stains will penetrate better, be easier to apply and more forgiving. Water-based stains will last longer (assuming the wood has been cleaned and brightened), resist mold and mildew better, and be better for the environment. The right wood stain will provide protection and enhance the natural beauty of the wood.

What Supplies Do You Need?

Applying a wood stain to a cedar deck is a relatively simple process and one that you can complete yourself. All you need is a bit of prep to ensure that your new deck accepts the stain color and that you get the best stain results possible.

The tools you need to for staining cedar include:

  • Sanding tool
  • Pressure washer
  • Scrub brush
  • Paintbrush or paint sprayer

The key to getting a high-quality deck stain is to prep the whole deck before applying any stain and sealer.

For new cedar surfaces, like rough sawn cedar, your first step is to allow the wood to weather. 3-6 months is ideal. Allowing the wood to weather gives time for some of the natural oils in the wood to dry out, and will give you better staining results.

A thorough cleaning with a high-quality, oxygenated bleach wood cleaner will ensure that you stain wood and not dirt, mildew, or impurities remaining in the wood. The best method is to apply the deck cleaner with a pump sprayer, then pressure wash to rinse. You can also use a deck brush as a gentler treatment, but this may take longer.

After cleaning, don’t forget to apply a wood brightener. Wood brighteners are basically oxalic acids and they do 2 things. First, they brighten the wood so that it looks like it did when it was new. Second, they neutralize the surface of the wood so the pH level is perfect for accepting a stain. If you skip this step, any remaining cleaner that didn’t get rinsed off the surface of the wood could chemically burn the stain, causing it to prematurely fail. This is a simple step that involves spraying it on the surface, letting it sit for 5 minutes, then rinsing it off with a garden hose.

If you choose a water-based stain, allow the wood to visibly dry, then you can stain the deck. If you choose an oil based stain, you’ll need to allow the wood to dry for 24 hours, or until completely dry. Start with a small portion of the cedar fence or deck that’s out of sight. This is your test spot to help you see the final color before applying it to the entire deck.

The easiest way of applying stain to cedar decks is with a pump-up garden sprayer, or a car wash brush. An airless sprayer can also be used, but it’s still a good idea to back-brush after spraying, as this will break any surface tension and ensure that the stain penetrates down into the wood. A regular paint brush is great for posts, railings and areas up close to the house that may need trimmed. Apply the stain in the direction of the grain and focus on the seams, joints, and edges for best results.

Maintaining Staining

Keeping your deck stained will require a bit of maintenance and care, but the results are worth it. Stained cedar decks retain their appearance, and your maintenance schedule depends on the type of stain you’ve chosen. Oil based stains will normally need reapplication every year, while semi-transparent water-based stains can last longer. Water-based, solid stains can last for up to five years.

You can also use a wood brightener to refresh graying cedar decks without having to do a full restain.


What is the best stain for cedar?

Water-based, non-toxic exterior stains are the best for cedar decks because they’re easy to apply while providing maximum protection.

What color stain should I use?

It depends on what you want.

Transparent or semi-transparent options are great for decks where you want to show off your wood, while more opaque options are great for worn decks with ugly wood.

Is staining a cedar deck a good idea?

Yes! It protects against weather, water, UV, and insects and brings out the natural appeal of cedar.

What is the longest-lasting cedar deck stain?

Most stains have similar lifespans, but take a look at DEFY Extreme Semi-Transparent Wood Stain as a great choice for water-based stain. If you’re looking for easy to apply oil-based stains that won’t last as long, but are more forgiving, take a look at Readyseal or TWP.

  1. […] it also pays to take account of the type of wood. If the wood in question is more oily such as cedar or redwood, then you might consider an oil based stain as they all respond particularly well to […]

  2. […] Cedar, and redwood panels have more natural oils and need some time to weather. As they weather, they dry out and are able to accept stain easier. […]

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