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Picking the Right Exterior Stain

Image Credit: 123rf.com

Paint isn’t your only option when it comes to protecting exterior woodwork. In fact, there are a wealth of products out there specifically for exterior woodwork like chairs, decks, siding, and more that are easier and cheaper to apply than paint, but still give some extraordinary results. I’m talking about exterior stain.

Exterior stains are made by most major paint companies as well as some specialty manufacturers like Cabot who only produce exterior stains and don’t venture into the paint world.

What is the difference between an exterior stain vs. paint? Sometimes a lot and sometimes very little. The variety of exterior stains can be classified into several different categories and while their application is similar their appearance and performance is considerably different.

We’ll explore each of these different types in this post so you can pick a winner for your projects.

Transparent Stains

These stains aren’t really stains in some ways. Most of them have very few solids in the mix (only 5-10%) and they rarely change the color of the wood their are applied to. The main purpose of a transparent stain is to seal the wood and maintain its natural color.

Transparent stains work great to enhance the beauty of exotic or hardwoods that already have a beautiful grain and color that you can’ bear to hide with a thicker stain. 

Left to its own, wood will degrade from exposure to UV rays which breakdown the lignin in the wood causing the wood to turn grey and weaken with continued exposure. A transparent stain protects against that UV exposure by penetrating the wood and leaving behind a very thin layer of protective solids to keep water out of the wood and keep the UV at bay.

These finishes are typically oil-based and deep penetrating. The do not form a film on the surface like paints so they are easy to refresh with a new coat when they wear out.

Typically, you’ll only get about 1-2 years out of a transparent stain before it needs to be re-coated. It’s wise to coat a deck annually in the spring to keep it protected and looking great on an ongoing basis.

Semi-Transparent Stains

The next step up from a transparent stain is the semi-transparent stain which is by far the most popular stain for decks, furniture, and siding. This type of stain gives you the best of both worlds. You get to allow the natural grain of the wood to shine through, but you also get to add some color and depth to the wood as well.

With a much higher solids content than its transparent cousin (20-35% solids) it holds up better under the harsh outdoor conditions and in southern climates where the UV exposure is more intense. Semi-transparent stains come in a ton of different color options to mimic the most popular wood colors like redwood, cedar, ebony, etc. and you can mix colors to create a custom stain specifically for your project.

You can expect a longer life from a semi-transparent stain as well. 2-5 years is pretty common. You’ll get longer life on vertical surfaces compared to horizontal surfaces like a deck that will always need to be recoated more often.

Just like transparent stains semi-transparent stains are typically oil-based and deep penetrating which means they won’t peel or bubble. They don’t form a film on the surface like paints do and so recoating and maintenance is easier even though you have to re-coat more often than with paint.

Semi-Solid Stains

The semi-solid stain is bit of an odd ball to me. It’s like deciphering the difference between the weatherman’s forecast or partly sunny vs mostly cloudy. It’s all about perspective and about how the stain manufacturer wants to bill their product.

Some companies sell semi-solid stains that contain less solids than another company’s semi-transparent stains and vice versa. The point seems to be that these stains obscure the wood grain more than other options but unlike a solid stain they still leave some of the grain visible.

My experience with semi-solid stains is that they apply and last almost identically to their semi-transparent cousins. The main performance differences will be between the different manufacturers and the actual solids count and formulations that you find.

Bottom line down’s give too much thought to the difference here. If you find a company that makes a semi-transparent and semi-solid then chances are the semi-solid will cover the wood a little more and last a little bit longer.

Find the color you want and go to town.

Solid Stains

Solid stains are a unique product in the painting and staining world. Are they a paint? Are they a stain? Can you tell the difference when you look at them? Most people can’t. But they are different indeed. Here are some of the differences.

Performance wise, the paint can provide more of a barrier for your wood but the stain allows moisture to move through the wood and remains flexible. Longevity wise, when the solid stain gets older, it will fade instead of peeling like paint does. In most cases this resistance to peeling is true, but some acrylic formulations are more film forming and can pee as they age.

Solid stain also does not have a variety of sheens like paint does. Though it completely obscures the wood grain it gives a flat appearance or at best some brands have a slightly satin appearance when first applied, but they fade to a dull or matte sheen quickly.

Solid stains have the highest solid content in most cases (30-40% solids) meaning they provide the most protection to the wood and last the longest. 5-10 years on a deck is common while 10-20 years on siding is not uncommon which come close to rivaling the life of high quality paint.

Solid stains are great for covering less attractive woods where seeing the grain is not important. They are also great for decks with high traffic or for people who just don’t have the energy to refinish their deck every 1-3 years like on the other staining options.

Now that you know the difference what do you think? Is an exterior stain right for you or should you stick with traditional paint for your project? There are so many questions and even more answers, but learning about the additional options that exterior stain vs paint gives you for your projects is a good start to a very long conversation.

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