Exterior wood stains are the perfect remedy for wood exposed to the elements on patios, homes, and outdoor furniture. A good exterior stain should protect the natural wood surfaces from harmful UV rays, foot traffic, and mold and mildew while simultaneously giving the wood a beautiful look for as long as it possibly can. Some wood stains hit this intersection of needs perfectly, and others that miss the mark. After all, creating a product that offers sufficient protection from the elements while still allowing the natural beauty of the wood grain to show through can be a challenging task. That’s why we’re here to help you understand the facts when it comes to choosing the type of exterior stain and sealer perfect for your home’s outdoor wood surfaces.
What is Exterior Wood Stain?
Exterior wood stains come in multiple different forms. Some are semi-transparent that sink into the wood surface and deliver color without forming a film layer that can crack and peel over time. Others are solid color that form a film and hide the wood grain. Although exterior wood stains are not as resistant to wear and tear as other exterior wood finishes, they are praised for their trouble-free maintenance and ease of application.
Usually, exterior wood stains are made up of a base consisting of oil or water, solvents, and valuable pigments that deliver color while also offering protection from UV rays.
What are the different types of wood stains?
Wood deck stains can be categorized by both their transparency and base. In terms of opacity, stains can be classified into several different categories- clear, semi-transparent, semi-solid, and solid color. The amount of pigment is what distinguishes stains when it comes to their transparency.
Clear stains are totally transparent sealers that allow the natural color of the wood to show through. They offer minimal protection since they don’t have any pigments, but they’re a great choice for those wanting to retain the natural look of their wood. As long as you’re ok with applying a clear sealer on your deck annually, this may be a great choice for you.
Semi-Transparent Wood Stain
Semi-transparent stain allows the natural wood grain to peek through, giving your deck a nice, natural wood finish. Semi-transparent deck stains are typically very light in consistency and are applied with a thin coat.
Semi-Solid Wood Stains
Semi-solid stains are in between semi-transparent and solid color wood stains. They have more pigment than semi-transparent stains, and will hide more of the wood grain. They offer better UV protection than semi-transparents, but they don’t penetrate as well, and will form a film, which could lead to peeling. Typically, these types of stains are better for vertical surfaces such as fences or siding.
Solid Color Wood Stain
Solid stains have a greater amount of pigment than both semi-solid, and semi-transparent stains. The larger amount of pigment seamlessly covers blemishes and any discoloration in the natural wood. A solid stain will still show the texture of the wood but cover most of the wood grain. Solid stains are denser in consistency, and coats are thicker to give a painted look to the deck. These wood deck stains are the perfect choice for projects utilizing different types of wood, or if consistency in both color and appearance is wanted.
All types of stains are available in oil-based and water-based formulas. These deck stains are a good fit for most uses and will deliver excellent results with exceptional waterproofing wood capabilities.
Oil-based stains are usually made up of a combination of alkyd resins, linseed oil, and/or tung oil. Pigments and stabilizers for UV protection are added to these oils for color and increased durability. Well known for being a great penetrating stain, oil-based stains will seep deep into your wooden deck. However, despite their ability to sink into the wood grain, oil-based stains are known to fade faster. This means your wooden deck will need to be re-stained more frequently. Additionally, if your deck is located in a humid climate, or surrounded by trees, you may consider a water-based stain as oil-based stains tend to attract mold and mildew.
An oil-based stain will offer unmatched penetration and will be easier to maintain overall. In the end, the finished look will be more even in color and appearance as well- especially with semi-transparent stains. Unfortunately, despite their many benefits, oil-based stains are both hazardous and flammable. They have a powerful, unpleasant odor and will need to be refinished more frequently as they simply don’t last as long as water-based stains. The advantage is the prep process is usually easier, and they are more resistant to stop and start marks.
Water-based exterior stains are made from a combination of acrylic or latex resins, stabilizers, and pigments for color. Although water-based stains share similar qualities with house paint, water-based stains are thinner and better penetrate the wood. Semi-transparent water-based deck stains are quick to dry, and penetrate into the wood pores for protection. Water-based stains offer substantial longevity most of the time but require a more involved preparation process.
Emulsified Oil + Acrylic
Another wood stain option for your deck is emulsified oil plus acrylic. This stain is made from a combination of oil base and acrylic components. Emulsified oil plus acrylic stains better penetrate the wood than its acrylic counterpart, allow for easy cleanup with soap and water, and have outstanding durability.
What are the different application processes of wood stains?
There are several different ways to apply wood stains, depending on the product you choose. For most customers, ease of use is a top priority, so it’s essential to know the application steps for the stains you’re considering. Some stains require extensive preparation, including sanding or pressure washing your deck. Some even require a particular temperature or humidity level during application. On the other hand, some stains can be easily applied on top of an existing stain with little to no prep work at all. When choosing an exterior wood stain, make sure to understand exactly what you’re getting into.
How to choose an exterior wood stain
To choose the proper exterior wood stain for your deck, there are several factors you’ll need to consider.
1. Wood Type
The wood type you’re going to be working with is very important to consider when choosing an exterior wood stain. For example, any type of softwood (such as pressure-treated pine, fir, cedar, or redwood) will absorb the stain quicker than hardwood surfaces. To find out for yourself what kind of wood your deck is made of, take a look at its appearance and texture. For one, hardwoods are often much smoother than softwoods. Softwood surfaces also have a tendency to appear blotchy and have inconsistent wood grain. Understanding whether you’re going to be staining hardwood or softwood is a critical factor when it comes to deciding on an exterior wood stain.
2. Level of Protection
The level of protection varies when it comes to the exterior wood surface you’re working with. Different stains are used for different projects. For example, you might not use the same stain on a piece of outdoor furniture that you’d also use on your deck or fence. Water based stains will typically offer superior mold and mildew resistance, UV protection and waterproofing wood. A combination stain and sealer will also provide maximum protection for your exterior wooden surfaces.
As mentioned previously, preparation can either be a significant part of the deck staining process or as simple as grabbing a brush and opening the can. Preparation time largely depends on the stain you choose as well as the wood type. Most often, it’s a good idea to apply a wood cleaner to the wooden surface before the application process. A wood brightener is beneficial as it neutralizes any cleaners and brightens the wood back to a new look. Alternatively, sanding the wood can also help. If sanding is necessary, be sure to use a coarse grit sandpaper and lightly sand the surface of the wood. Using a fine grit can close the pores of the wood and make it difficult for the stain to soak in. Also, be sure to rinse the wood after sanding as any sawdust left on the wood can create an uneven appearance after staining.
It’s important to always know what you’re working with when delving into a new staining project. By considering your wood type, required protection level, and preparation, you’ll find the perfect stain for your exterior wood surfaces.
Common problems with wood stains
Let’s say you’ve finally decided on a deck stain, prepped your deck, and applied it- but something’s just not right. We’ve outlined some potential problems you might run into with your exterior wood stains, as well as some helpful solutions.
- Uneven Surface
- Uneven Color Shade
- Wrong Color Shade
- Sticky Stain
- Stain Not Penetrating Wood
- Unwanted Stain Marks, Drips, or Streaks
For oil based stains, if you have areas with uneven color, simply try applying another layer of stain to the area. Take the stain that you used on the first coat, and apply another layer to the lighter target area. Make sure you don’t use too much, though, as that will create more unevenness throughout the wood. If you accidentally apply stain elsewhere, just grab a rag and gently wipe it off.
Uneven Color Shade
The inverse problem can occur as well. If you’re using an oil based stain, and find dark spots on your wooden surface creating more unevenness, try using a stain thinner. Choose a stain thinner based on the stain you’re using, and simply apply it to the areas you want to lighten. Then, just wipe it off with rags until you reach your desired shade. Make sure to concentrate the thinner to the specific area you want to lighten. Otherwise, the thinner will strip the stain from the regions that are already perfect.
If you can’t tell exactly what parts are uneven, try applying another layer of stain over the entire exterior wooden surface to even it out.
Wrong color shade
Sometimes, the stain as a whole just might not cut it. If this is the case, you can restart by stripping or sanding down your exterior wooden surfaces. Make sure to wait until the stain dries before sanding. At this point, it will probably be necessary to use a floor sander. You can rent these from most big box stores.
Wood stains soak into the wood, saturating the color from the inside out. However, if you apply too much wood stain or the humidity levels are extremely high, you just might end up with a sticky surface. This occurs when the stain doesn’t cure completely. If you’re stuck in a sticky situation, here are some simple remedies to save yourself.
The easiest option is to simply cover the wood and wait. If the humidity levels are high, you can try covering the deck with plastic tarps to protect from rainfall while the wood is drying. Be sure the plastic doesn’t lay directly on the wood. You want air to be able to get in to help dry the stain out.
Stain Not Penetrating Wood
If you’re working with a wood stain and find that the stain is not penetrating the wood, it’s likely due to one of three simple slip-ups.
- The deck wasn’t properly prepped.
- You might’ve used more stain than needed on the wooden surface. Every wood surface has a limit when it comes to the amount of stain it can feasibly absorb. After that limit, it becomes too saturated and can’t absorb any more. Be sure to only apply as much stain as the wood can absorb. If you see areas where the stain isn’t soaking in, try using a soft-bristle push broom or car wash brush to spread the stain around.
- If you’re trying to stain on top of a previous stain, you may have issues with the stain not penetrating the wood. In this case, get aggressive with a 180-220 grit sandpaper to remove the previous stain. The one exception to this is solid color wood stains. Solid color stains can usually be applied directly over top of other stains without any issues.
Unwanted Stain Marks, Drips, or Streaks
If you find that your deck stain is streaky or shows drip marks, there are a few steps you can take to solve the problem. If the stain is oil based, try applying enough stain to the area to cover up the mark. Using more stain will cover the mark but will create a darker area as well. To even things out, soak a rag or cloth in mineral spirit and wipe the target area gently. Mineral spirit is a helpful tool to remove any unwanted marks created during the staining process in general. If the stain is water-based, unfortunately there’s not much you can do. Over time, as the stain lightens, you can apply a maintenance coat that should even things out.
Need to Start Over?
If things have gone to the point of no return and you’re unable to fix the stain job at all, the best move would be to remove all of the stain and start from scratch. If you’re working with an even surface, you can easily use an orbital sander to remove the stain. But for uneven surfaces, chemical stain strippers are the way to go. Chemical strippers allow you to remove the stain from any surface it’s been applied to. There are several chemical strippers out there ranging from very strong and corrosive to relatively weak. To start, a weaker chemical stripper is a better idea. These chemical strippers are safer overall and don’t require much more time to remove the stain. To remove the stain, begin by applying a coat of stain stripper to the surface you want to strip. Follow the time-sensitive instructions specific to the stain stripper of your choice, then remove with a pressure washerclean. With pressure washers, be sure to only use no more than 1500 PSI and don’t allow the nozzle to get too close to the wood as this can cause permanent damage to your wooden deck. Once complete, this will give your wood a new, natural look and allow you to give it another shot.
Wood staining is an art form and will likely take lots of practice to perfect. The next time you give staining wood a try, just try not to make the same mistake twice. But even if you do, now you have the tools to fix it and bring your wood-stained projects to the next level.