Any wood that is used outside needs to be finished properly to protect it. If it isn’t, you will have problems with wood rot, mildew, and fading caused by the sun. There are a lot of different finishes available including paint, oils, and exterior wood stains.
This guide will give you all of the information you need about what exterior wood stain is, the different types available, and the best products on the market right now. So, if you have an exterior wood project to work on, keep reading!
What is Exterior Wood Stain?
Exterior wood stain is a finishing product that is designed to add color to wood and protect it from the elements. Unlike paint, which coats the top of the wood, stain soaks into the wood, coloring it and protecting it from within. All types of wood stain contain 4 main elements;
The volatiles are the substances that carry the rest of the ingredients onto the wood. These will then evaporate, leaving behind the pigments, resins, and additives.
The pigments are what gives the wood its color. These are often made from iron oxide particles, but can also be dyes too.
The resin is the substance that binds the pigment together and adheres it to the wood.
Finally, you have the additives. A lot of different substances are added to wood stains for various reasons. Some are there to stabilize the stain and stop clumping, some protect against fading caused by UV rays, some make the stain more water resistant, and some will affect the viscosity to make it easier to apply.
In exterior products, fungicides will be added to prevent mold and mildew. The additives present will vary in different products.
Wood stains are painted on to wood (a few coats are usually required) to color and protect the wood. There are different products available for exterior and interior projects, and you will find a range of colors available. Wood stain is available in oil and water-based formulations.
How is Exterior Wood Stain Different from Interior Stain?
The main difference between exterior and interior wood stains is that exterior products are designed to withstand the weather. Any wood projects outside will get rained on, so they need to be water-resistant, and they also need to be protected from the sun. The 4 main elements of the stain are the same, but exterior products will have different additives.
Exterior stains usually have fungicides like zinc oxide to prevent mold and mildew, which is not necessary in interior stains. There are also hydrophobic additives to create a barrier against water. Interior stains may be water-resistant, but they won’t hold up in direct rain. Finally, UV inhibitors are used to prevent fading and graying caused by exposure to direct sunlight.
Often, exterior wood stains come in darker colors. This is because darker pigments are less prone to fading in the sun. However, if you need a darker stain for an interior project, you should be able to find it.
As exterior stains are designed to be used outdoors where there is more ventilation, there is less concern about toxicity and they tend to contain higher levels of harsh chemicals. Interior products, on the other hand, don’t give off as many fumes. That said, you should always use wood stain in a ventilated area.
What to Use Exterior Wood Stain on?
You can use exterior wood stain on any wood that is exposed to the elements. Use it for projects like:
- Railings and stairs
- Wooden Siding
- Garden furniture
- Garage doors
- Exterior doors
- Wooden window frames
Do You Need to Seal Exterior Wood Stain?
Most modern exterior wood stains are 2-in-1 products that stain and seal at the same time. They contain all of the normal elements of a stain, with additives that form a protective barrier on top of the wood, locking out the moisture. So, you don’t need to use a separate product to seal it afterwards.
However, that is not always the case and there are some stains that add color and give a little bit of protection, but should still be sealed. Often, the manufacturer will recommend a compatible sealer from their own range, but you can choose a different option.
10 Best Exterior Wood Stains for Outdoor Use
If you have an exterior project that needs staining, check out my list of the best exterior wood stains on the market right now.
The Ready Seal Exterior Stain and Sealer for Wood is a great 2-in-1 stain and sealer that is easy to use and gives full protection against rain, mildew, and UV rays. It is an oil-based, semi-transparent stain, so it does add some color but it also lets the grain of the wood show through still. This is often a better choice than a dark stain that covers the natural wood entirely. The stain is available in a range of colors:
- Light Oak
- Dark Walnut
- Mission Brown
- Burnt Hickory
- Natural Cedar
If you want an easy application, this is a good choice. It doesn’t need any pre-mixing and it can be applied with a sprayer, roller or brush. The no streak or run formula is excellent for people that don’t have much experience using stain and you’ll get a great finish.
When applying, you need two coats with at least 45 minutes drying time between them. The stain should be fully dried and cured in 48-72 hours. It looks darker when it first goes on but it will lighten up in a few weeks.
This is a relatively thin stain, which means that it goes a long way (roughly 200 square feet per gallon). Compared with other stains that are more expensive, you can cover more surface area.
Recoating is easy with this stain too. You don’t need to strip the old stain or even sand it down, you can simply apply a few more coats on top.
If you want an affordable stain that still performs brilliantly, this is a great option.
Water-based stains are great if you want a quick and easy cleanup. This General Finishes Exterior 450 Wood Stain is an excellent stain for smaller projects like furniture or doors. However, it’s not as good for large areas like a deck.
This is not a combination product either, so it will require a top coat like spar urethane over the top for added protection. However, the depth of color is amazing, so for aesthetic purposes, it’s one of the best options. The following colors are available:
- Aged Gray
- Natural Base
- Red Mahogany
- Stormy Gray
The stain goes on easily with a brush or sprayer and cleanup is simple. This is more expensive than a lot of other stain products out there, but you do get a nicer color than the cheaper options. If you are staining some nice furniture and you want to make it look perfect, I’d recommend this stain. But if you are covering a shed or a fence, for example, you’re better off going with a more affordable 2-in-1 sealer instead.
Thompson’s Water Seal Semi Transparent Waterproofing Stain is one of the better known stain products you can buy. Thompson’s have been making wood finishes for years and they’re a reliable brand you can trust. Their semi transparent stain and sealer product lives up to the name. It will fully waterproof exterior wood and it can last up to 5 years, depending on whether it is in direct sunlight or not.
It does have an anti-fade formulation and the color lasts better than other stain products, but it will eventually start to peel with prolonged exposure to hot sun.
The stain is available in a range of colors:
- Acorn Brown
- Woodland Cedar
- Harvest Gold
- Maple Brown
- Sequoia Red
This stain goes on easily with a wide brush or roller, and depending on the state of the wood, you may only need a single coat. However, if you want it to last longer before recoating, you may as well add a second because the application is fairly hassle-free.
There is a reason that Thompson’s Water Seal products are so popular. They offer excellent, long-lasting moisture protection so if you live in a particularly wet climate and you don’t want to keep reapplying stains, this is the product for you.
The BEHR Redwood Premium Transparent Wood Finish makes some big claims in terms of longevity. The manufacturer says, on average, it should give you protection from the elements for up to 4 years on decking and an impressive 6 years on fences, siding, and other exterior wood projects.
When using this product, you’ll notice that it goes on differently from other stains. It penetrates into the wood a little, but it mainly forms a protective barrier on the top, more like a clear coat sealer. It doesn’t go on as easily as other stain products either and it can be tough to get a completely even finish. However, it does live up to its promises in terms of water and UV protection and longevity.
As well as Redwood, this stain is available in other colors:
- Cedar Natural Tone
- Cordovan Brown
- Barn Red
- Golden Honey
- Antique Oak
- Natural Sequoia
This product doesn’t give the best finish in the world, but it is hard wearing and lasts a long time. If you’re looking for something functional to stain a deck, fence, or shed you can’t go far wrong with this. But if the color and finish are priorities (staining furniture, for example) try a different product.
Cabot Australian Timber Oil Stain is an oil-based finish made from a blend of different oils, each adding something to the stain. The linseed oil soaks deep into the wood, offering protection from within. Long oil alkyds give it improved durability and high-quality tung oil gives depth of color and moisture protection.
Iron oxide pigments and UV inhibitors are then added to create different colors that won’t fade in the sun. Colors available include:
- Jarrah Brown
- Mahogany Flame
There are also low-voc versions available in certain colors if you are concerned about fumes.
Natural oil based stains are great for accentuating the grain of the wood, and the addition of some pigment gives you a great finish. It is quite a thick stain, which goes on nicely. After applying a decent coat, it needs around 20 minutes to soak in before you wipe off the excess. If you haven’t treated wood with oil before, it may be worth practicing on a piece of scrap wood first.
This stain gives a nice finish and the color will last a few years without fading too much. However, it’s less effective at preventing mold and mildew than other stains. Overall, if you are willing to reapply the stain every year or two at least, this is a great product that looks beautiful, especially on high-quality wood with a nice stain. But if you want to reduce maintenance as much as possible, this might not be the one for you.
This KILZ Waterproofing Wood Stain is an acrylic formula that creates a lasting barrier against the elements. It even comes with a 3 year warranty on decking and 5 years on fences and siding because the manufacturer is so confident that the waterproof acrylic will stand up to the weather.
This stain goes on nicely with a nylon brush or pad. You can use a sprayer but you will need to work with small areas and back brush each section before moving on, so you won’t save that much time. Make sure that you don’t thin the stain either as it will ruin the finish.
Two coats gives you a rich color and full protection from the weather but the biggest benefit of KILZ Waterproofing Wood Stain is the coverage. You can cover around 250 square feet per gallon, which is significantly more than the alternatives. That said, the thick formula means that it doesn’t go on as quickly as thinner stains.
Unfortunately, this stain is only available in Redwood at the moment. But if you like the color and you have a large deck to cover, it’s perfect.
Seal-Once Marine Premium Wood Stain and Sealer is originally designed for use on boats, so it can easily withstand a bit of rain. It can be used on any exterior wood including decks, fences, and siding. It is a water-based formula with very low levels of VOCs, but it gives the same protection as an oil-based stain or a tough clear coat.
Application with a brush or sprayer is relatively easy, and you can recoat in an hour once the first coat has soaked in. You don’t need to wait for it to dry as the next coat can go on while it’s still damp. It does require a little preparation because it won’t soak into the wood unless you have an open grain, so be sure to give it a good sand before you apply.
You only need a relatively thin coat so you get good coverage and a nice natural finish. You also get long-lasting moisture and UV protection that shouldn’t need to be reapplied for a long time (hence the name).
This stain is available in a range of colors:
- Coastal Gray
- Light Brown
- Bronze Cedar
You can buy ready mixed colors but the great thing about this stain is that you can also buy tints and mix your own to get the shade.
Seal-Once is more expensive than other products on this list, but you have to weigh up the relative costs. Firstly, it gives good coverage, so you won’t need to buy as much. Secondly, it is incredibly durable and you shouldn’t need to reapply it for a long time (it has a 10 year guarantee). So, if you are willing to spend a bit more upfront, you will save a lot of time and money in the future.
The #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain is a great all-rounder. It’s easy to use, you can apply two coats quickly, and you get a good finish. The moisture protection is great for the price too; it should last 2-3 years before you need to reapply it. It goes on best with a pump sprayer (spray a fine mist and work slowly for best results) and 2 coats is plenty enough to give you a deep color and plenty of protection.
If you are working with an old deck or some furniture that has seen better days, you can combine the stain with the SaverSystems cleaner and brightener. Cleaning and brightening the deck before staining will make it look as good as new. You don’t necessarily need to use their either, there are others available but if you use the set, you know for sure that the products work well together.
The stain itself is available in a range of colors:
- Light Walnut
- Dark Walnut
- Driftwood Gray
If you’re looking for a reliable stain that won’t break the bank, the #1 Deck range is a safe bet.
DEFY Extreme Semi-Transparent Wood Stain is one of the best performing water-based stains money can buy. It contains zinc oxide nano-particles that simultaneously block UV rays while also preventing mold and mildew. It penetrates deep into the wood, giving a tough finish that is resistant to peeling, even after years.
There are also epoxy resins in the stain that harden the wood from within, strengthening it as well as protecting and coloring it.
Colors available include:
- Driftwood Gray
- Light Walnut
- Natural Pine
It goes on just like any other water-based stain but it doesn’t cover up the natural grain as much as a lot of other similar products do. The color fade is very minimal, even after a few years, and you won’t get any problems with mold and mildew. The moisture protection is excellent too. Overall, this is one of the exterior wood stains you can get, especially if you’re concerned about UV damage.
For the low price, the performance of STORM SYSTEM Sealer and Stain Protector is excellent. It’s a heavy-duty stain and sealer that will stand up to a lot of foot traffic, as well as harsh weather conditions. It’s a great option for decking as well as fences, sheds, and furniture.
It applies easily on any type of wood, soaking deep into the pores of the to protect it. It gives a nice rich color and the longevity beats other products in the same price range by a few years at least. The only issue that you might find is that you get a lot of sludge at the bottom, so you need to stir it thoroughly throughout the application.
STORM SYSTEM is available in a range of colors:
- Golden Oak
- Pacific Redwood
- Black Walnut
Out of all of the oil-based stain and sealer products, STORM SYSTEM is probably the best value, especially considering the performance.
How to Apply Exterior Wood Stain? (Step-by-Step)
1. Clean the wood
Stain needs to be applied to a clean surface free of dust and grime. If you don’t clean the wood properly, the finish could be ruined and you won’t get the protection you need, so don’t skip this vital step.
If you are staining a new deck or fence, for example, the wood should be relatively clean already. Wiping the wood down with some warm soapy water and rinsing it off should suffice. However, if you are refinishing old wood, you may need to be more thorough.
You can buy specifically formulated wood cleaners that will get rid of tough grime on old wood. It’s worth investing in because it will give you a better finish in the end. For old decking, you can use a wood brightener after cleaning. This is an acidic treatment that opens up the pores in the wood, preparing it to take the stain better.
2. Sand the surface
Sanding is an equally important part of the preparation process. Once you have cleaned (and applied brightener if using), let the wood dry and then sand it. Use a 180 grit sandpaper to create a rough surface and open up the pores of the wood. Then, move towards a finer sandpaper to smooth the surface and prepare for the stain.
You should use a different grit depending on the type of wood and the type of stain. For softwoods, use 220 for a water-based stain and 180 for an oil-based stain. With hardwoods, use 180 for water-based stain and 150 for oil-based stain. Don’t go finer than this because you may clog the pores of the wood and stop the stain from absorbing too much.
Once you have finished sanding, brush it off and then wipe it with a damp cloth to get rid of any dust.
3. Apply your stain
Now that your wood is properly prepared, it’s time to apply the first coat of stain. Before you do anything, read the directions on the can in full. All products are slightly different and you should stick to the manufacturer’s guidelines for the best results.
Choosing the right brush is crucial. A natural brush has hollow bristles, which soak up too much moisture when using water-based stains. So, always use a synthetic brush for water-based products. However, natural brushes are best for oil-based stains.
Always mix your stain thoroughly in case it has separated, and if you are using multiple tins, it’s best to combine them to ensure color consistency. Test it out on a small area of the wood first to check the color.
When applying the stain, follow the grain of the wood using smooth, even strokes. Let it soak in and wipe off any excess quickly before it pools and creates an uneven finish. Always blend areas of stain together before they dry to avoid lapping and brush marks.
If you decide to use a sprayer, you may be able to thin the stain slightly with mineral spirits. This makes it easier to spray, but you should always check the guidelines first because some products should not be thinned.
Picking the right conditions is important too. If you stain on a boiling hot day, it will dry quickly, which makes it harder to avoid lapping. Equally, if it’s too cold, the drying times will be much longer. Around 21 degrees Celsius is the optimum temperature but as a general rule, just avoid excessively hot days. Obviously, pick a dry spell too so the rain doesn’t wash away all of the stain.
4. Recoat if necessary
Once the first coat is applied, check the guidelines for drying times. Many of the products listed above can be recoated in an hour or two. On the other hand, some products only require one coat. If you do require a second coat, follow the same process as the first coat. Then, let it dry fully before using the wood.
5. Use a sealer (optional)
Finally, you may want to use a sealer. If you use a 2-in-1 stain and sealer, you can skip this step. Otherwise, apply a clear coat to create a barrier against moisture. Polyurethane or spar urethane are the best options as they’re affordable and they give a durable coating. Just make sure that you buy a sealer with UV protection to stop the color in the stain from fading.
When you have applied a few coats of sealer and let it dry, your exterior wood project is fully protected!
Exterior Stain Questions Answered:
How Long Does Exterior Wood Stain Last?
This all depends on the product that you buy. Some high-quality stain and sealer combos, like Seal-Once, can last up to a decade before you need to recoat. On the other hand, some cheaper products may need coating after a few years. Natural oil-based stains tend to need recoating more often.
As well as the quality of the product, the environment makes a difference. If you live in a particularly wet climate, for example, the stain won’t last as long. Very hot climates will cause wood stain to peel faster too.
Can You Apply Multiple Coats of Exterior Stain?
Yes, most products recommend two coats of stain. This ensures a rich, even color and proper protection. Unless the directions specifically say you should only do one coat, it’s always best to do a second.
Is Exterior Wood Stain Water Resistant?
Yes, the majority of exterior wood stains are water-resistant. Oils have a natural resistance to water and water-based stains will have additives. However, some products that do not contain a sealer would benefit from a top coat to give added protection against moisture.
Is Exterior Wood Stain UV Resistant?
Yes, most exterior wood stains contain UV inhibitors. These stop the color from fading too quickly when it is exposed to sunlight outdoors. However, the color will eventually fade and reapplication will be required.
Does Exterior Stain Require a Primer?
No, you do not need to use a primer like you would if you were painting. In fact, a primer will create a solid barrier on top of the wood, meaning that the stain is unable to soak into the pores of the wood.
What is the Difference Between Oil-Based Stain and Water-Based?
There are a few key differences between oil-based stain and water-based stain. Oil-based stains tend to use petroleum distillates and varnishes, which are more toxic. Water-based stains, on the other hand, use water as the solvent so they are a lot more eco-friendly and don’t give off as many fumes.
Water-based stains tend to dry faster and they’re easier to clean up with everyday soap and water. Oil-based stains, on the other hand, require solvents for cleanup and they will take longer to dry fully.
In the past, oil-based products offered superior protection and lasted longer but these days, that isn’t really the case. There are some excellent water-based products out there that can easily match the protection of oil-based. You get a larger range of colors with water-based too.
Can You Add a Clear Coat Over Exterior Wood Stain?
Yes, you can add a clear coat of the stain. If you are using a 2-in-1 product, it’s not required, but you could still do it anyway for extra durability. It’s worthwhile for things like planters because they’re in constant contact with the wet ground.
Any vertical surfaces like doors and windows benefit from extra protection too because they are particularly susceptible to the rain. If you want to clear coat your project, check out our guide on the best clear coats for outdoor wood.
Can You Stain Over Painted Wood?
No, if the wood is painted then there is a barrier over the surface and the stain won’t soak in. You need to use a paint stripper to remove the paint, and sand off any remaining areas. Then, you can clean and prepare the wood following the steps outlined above before you stain it. If you don’t remove all of the paint, you won’t get the finish you are looking for.
Yes, Old Masters do an exterior gel stain. Gel stains are oil or water-based stains with a modified formula to make them thicker. This means that application is easier and you don’t have as many issues with runs or lapping. You often only need one coat too.
The Old Masters stain gives a rich tone while also retaining the natural grain of the wood. It’s also available in a huge range of colors including lots of natural wood tones as well as bold reds and whites.
The manufacturer recommends a top clear coat over the top of this stain. They suggest their own exterior water-based finish or their spar marine varnish. However, you can use other clear coats, just test a small portion first to make sure it is compatible and you get the desired finish.
Does Staining Untreated Wood Protect it for Outdoor Use?
Yes, the whole purpose of wood stain is to protect it from the elements so it can be used outdoors. You can learn more about treating untreated wood for outdoor use in our great guide here.
Can You Apply Stain Over Weathered Wood?
Yes, stain can help you bring weathered wood back to life, but you need to prepare it first. Make sure that you thoroughly clean it with a wood cleaner and then use a brightener. Any patchy areas that are not cleaned up will show through when you stain, so it needs a good sanding too.
If you put the stain straight over weathered wood without prepping it properly, it will look awful. It’s best to go with a darker color too, as this will hide more of the damage to the wood.
What Types of Exterior Wood Should You Avoid Staining?
There are certain circumstances when you shouldn’t use wood stain. For example, if you are trying to finish some teak furniture, it will look better if you use teak oil instead of an exterior stain. It brings out the natural beauty of the wood and gives it the waterproofing it needs.
In general, some woods take stain better than others and this has to do with how tight the grain is. Remember, the stain must absorb into the wood so if it has a very tight grain, like birch, maple, or poplar, the finish will be very blotchy and uneven.
Pine and cherry can be difficult to stain because the grain is quite uneven, which means the stain absorbs better in some parts than others. However, if you sand them back enough to open up the pores, you can get them looking nice.
What’s the Difference Between Exterior Wood Stains and Wood Oils?
Although some wood stains are oil-based, they are different from wood oils. A wood stain contains a number of different ingredients including pigments and additives to protect against UV rays. Wood oil, on the other hand, does not contain these extras.
When you use a wood oil, it brings out the natural color of the wood and highlights the grain, but it won’t change the color like stain does. Both products will protect the wood against moisture damage.
As oils don’t have any pigment that sits on the surface of the wood, you don’t have issues with cracking and peeling. As a result, the reapplication is easier than it is with water-based products, in general.
Bear in mind that some decking oils have a pigment added to them and may be called stains or oils.
What Stain Should You Use on an Exterior Door?
Exterior doors need strong moisture protection and UV resistance because it is often in direct rain and sun. Any of the penetrating stains listed above will work well, and adding a clear coat gives you extra protection. Gel stains are particularly good for exterior doors too because the thick formula is easier to apply on vertical surfaces. Using a thin wood stain on a door can lead to a lot of drips.
Is Sherwin Williams Exterior Wood Stain Any Good?
Sherwin Williams do a water-based and oil-based exterior wood stain. The water-based stain offers excellent mildew resistance but the oil-based option can actually feed the mildew, so it spreads incredibly quickly. The oil-based stain also has problems with peeling.
Overall, the oil-based stain is best avoided. The water-based option is decent enough but with so many great options on the market, it doesn’t make this list of the best wood stains.
Does Exterior Paint or Exterior Stain Last Longer?
As a general rule, paint lasts longer than stain. It creates a strong barrier over the top of the wood that lasts for years, while stain needs to be reapplied more often. However, this does depend on the quality of the products in question. A good stain can last longer than a very cheap paint.
Can You Apply Exterior Stain Over Stain?
Yes, if the stain starts fading, you can touch up areas and when you recoat, you don’t need to strip the wood right back. However, if you have neglected it for a long while and it’s very patchy and flaky, it might be worth stripping it back a bit more.
Read our guide Do I Need to Remove Old Stain Before Restaining a Wood Deck?
Can You Buy Black Exterior Wood Stain?
Yes, you can get some great black wood stains like Burnt Hickory by Ready Seal. It is a great durable exterior option that will last a long time. This stain will reach its true color in 2 weeks. Ready seal stains are sealers as well so once applied you don’t have to worry about sealing it after.
Finding the right exterior wood stain can be tough when you have so many options. You need to consider what your priorities are when choosing a stain. If you’re staining some nice furniture and you want a nice rich color, the General Finishes wood stain is excellent.
But if it’s longevity that you’re after, Seal-Once is the best bet. It’s designed to withstand constant contact with saltwater, so a bit of rain shouldn’t do any harm.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.