5 Best Stains for Your Cedar Deck in 2023

Cedar is a beautiful, durable wood species that is ideal for decking. Compared with other wood types, it holds up better against the elements, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect it. Staining your Cedar deck can increase its lifespan and make it look better too. 

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about staining your Cedar deck, with some of my top product recommendations to help you get the perfect finish.

Does a Cedar Deck Need Stain?

Technically, a Cedar deck doesn’t need to be stained. The wood itself contains natural oils that protect it against decay and insect damage, so it will last longer than other wood species if left untreated. That said, it isn’t completely waterproof and it will still rot eventually. You can avoid this, to some extent, by ensuring that the deck dries as quickly as possible after it rains. However, if you want to extend the lifespan of your Cedar deck and make it last for decades to come you should treat it. 

Staining the deck, especially on the cut ends of boards where water gets in, will protect it and prevent rot. Wood stain can also stop the wood from discoloring due to sun damage. Ideally, you should re-apply stain every two to three years, depending on how much rain and sunlight it is exposed to.

As well as wood stain products, you can also use oils to give the wood natural protection and maintain the original aesthetic.

Does the Stain Color Matter for Cedar Deck?

When choosing deck stain, it’s really down to you what color you want to choose. However, you will get the best results if you choose a color that works well with Cedar. If you want to maintain the natural pinkish-red color of Cedar, you can use a transparent absorbing stain. This will still soak into the wood and give it a layer of protection from moisture, but it won’t alter the color.

If you are going to use pigmented stains, semi-solid stains work best on Cedar. In fact, a lot of wood stains come in Cedar shades, which will only alter the color slightly, so it still looks very natural. These semi-solid stain colors allow you to retain the grain of the wood and give a slight tint without completely covering the wood.

Solid stains can be used if that’s the look that you want, it’s your deck after all. But the reason that people invest in Cedar is because it has a nice color and an interesting grain. If you are going to use a dark, solid stain that completely covers those features, you may as well use cheaper wood for the deck because the end result will look exactly the same.

Does it Matter What Type of Stain You Use on Cedar Wood?

You can use oil-based or water-based stain on Cedar and you’ll get good results with both. Oil-based stains penetrate deep into the wood and give excellent protection. They are also good for wood species like Cedar because they accent the natural aesthetic of the wood instead of simply covering it with dark pigment. 

That said, wood that already has a lot of natural rot resistance doesn’t necessarily require the protection of an oil-based stain. There are some excellent water-based stains on the market and they work brilliantly with Cedar because it is a softwood that absorbs a lot of stain. Water-based products are easier to apply and clean up afterwards, so if you’re working with Cedar, they’re also a good choice.

5 Best Stains for Your Cedar Deck

1. Ready Seal Natural Cedar Exterior Stain and Sealer for Wood (Natural Cedar) Ready Seal 512 5-Gallon Pail Natural Cedar Exterior Stain and Sealer for Wood

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Ready Seal Exterior Stain and Sealer is a professional-grade, all purpose stain and sealer that’s easy to use and gives excellent results. It can be used on all exterior wood projects, including your decking. This Natural Cedar option is ideal for your decking as it will give you the protection you need, while also highlighting the natural color and grain of the wood.

This is an oil-based product (paraffin oil) but compared with other oils, it is easy to apply without drips or runs. It’s also low in VOCs, which is fairly unique for an oil-based stain as they tend to have a lot of harsh solvents in. However, it does have an oily finish for a few days after application while the oil fully soaks into the wood.

This stain gives you excellent protection. It prevents rot and the algaecides combat mildew. It will also protect against UV damage and the color retention is excellent. When it comes time to re-apply, there is no need to strip the old stain or anything, just give the surface a light sand and apply another layer.

You can tell that this is a commercial product that has been sold for home use because it’s quick and easy to apply, and gives you robust results. 

2. Cabot Wood Toned Deck & Siding Low VOC Exterior Stain 1 gal Cabot 19202 Cedar Wood Toned Deck and Siding Stain

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The Cabot Wood Toned Deck and Siding Exterior Stain is a robust protective coating made from a combination of natural oils and resins. The transparent finish gives the same protection as a typical oil-based stain, but the combination of oils and resins helps reduce VOCs to make it a more eco-friendly product.

The protection is excellent but it doesn’t go on as easily as some other stains. Although it does penetrate well, you will need to brush it on thoroughly before it soaks in. But it’s worth the extra effort because you only need a single coat to get the protection you need. You also get a nice rich color and it’s long-lasting, so it will hold up against the weather for around 3 years before you need to re-apply.

Application is best with a pad or a brush rather than spraying. With a sprayer, you will most likely get a lot of drips and lap marks unless you back brush constantly throughout the process, so you wont’ save much time. 

3. Thompson’s WaterSeal Wood Stain and Sealer THOMPSONS WATERSEAL 21802 VOC Wood Protector, 1.2-Gallon, Clear

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Thompson’s WaterSeal is one of the most popular wood protection products out there. The range has a reputation for easy application and long-lasting protection in even the harshest weather conditions. Their wood stain and sealer doesn’t disappoint and it’s one of the best choices for your Cedar deck. 

The Clear Wood Stain and Sealer soaks right into the wood, giving you excellent coverage and brilliant protection against moisture, mold, and mildew. It’s very easy to apply and it dries quickly, so you can get a brilliant result, even if you have never used it before. Just make sure that you prep the surface properly by sanding thoroughly to open the grains and help the stain soak in. It’s a combination stain and sealer product, so you’ll get a better protective layer than you do with most stain products. It’s also affordable compared with many other products on the market.

If you want to add a bit more color to the deck without overpowering it too much, you can try the Semi-Transparent Woodland Cedar option. When applied on old Cedar that has started to fade, it brings the color back nicely and restores it to its natural shade.

4. Penofin Red Label Cedar Stain Penofin Red Label Cedar Stain 1 Gallon

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Penofin Red Label Cedar Stain is an excellent product made from Brazilian Rosewood Oil, which penetrates very deep into the wood pores to give superior protection. It also has incredibly robust UV protection, so if you’re looking for something that will highlight and maintain the natural look of your Cedar deck, this is the product to go for.

Application is easy and it absorbs nicely, and you only need a single coat, so it’s a quick job. This is one of the more expensive stain products out there, but if you want superior protection and a brilliant finish without the hard work, it’s worth paying extra. 

5. #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain #1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain for Decks, Fences, & Siding - 1 Gallon (Cedar)

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#1 Deck Premium Semi-Transparent Wood Stain is a reliable, straightforward product that works a treat on most decks. It may not have unique ingredients like Brazilian Rosewood Oil or a combination of oils and resins, but it still gives you great protection against moisture, and the water-based formula is easy to apply. The Semi-Transparent Cedar stain highlights the grain and colors the wood nicely with a single coat. Re-application is simple too, just wash the deck with soap and water and add another layer. You can even apply this stain to damp wood, so there is less waiting time between cleaning and application. 

Even though this is a simple product that isn’t that expensive, you still get long-lasting protection for 2-3 years before you need to reapply.

How to Stain a Cedar Deck (Step-by-Step)

1. Sand the Deck

Sanding is the first step when staining a deck, and it’s particularly important with Cedar. Brand new Cedar boards can have an issue with mill glazing. This is a coating on top of the wood caused by compressed wood fibers and melted cellulose and sugars in the wood and it usually happens due to heat during the milling process. This coating stops the stain from absorbing properly, so it needs to be sanded off.

Old decks also need to be sanded to remove any old stain from the surface and allow the new stain to soak deeper into the wood. Without proper preparation, the new stain will not last as long.

If you are working with an old deck, use filler to repair any small holes before you start. Once the deck is repaired, you can start sanding it. Using an orbital sander is the quickest and easiest option.

Use an 80 grit sanding sheet to strip the top layer of the deck, working up and down the boards, following the direction of the grain. Your aim is not to get the smoothest possible surface, you just want to open up the grain so it is ready to absorb the stain.

2. Clean the Deck

Once you have sanded it, you need to clean the deck thoroughly. If the deck is brand new, you can use a simple soap and water solution to clean off any residual sanding dust or any general dirt and grime. 

Older decking will be dirtier and you may have mildew forming too. In this case, you should use a specific deck cleaning product with mildewcides in to help you get rid of it. You can also use a wood brightener on old, discolored wood to bring it back to life before staining. These products usually need to be diluted and then left on the decking to work for around 10-15 minutes before you scrub it with a stiff bristled brush and then rinsing it off with fresh water. You can also get cleaners that run through a pressure washer if you want a quick option. Remember to always follow the guidelines on whatever product you choose.

After cleaning the deck and rinsing it thoroughly to remove any residual cleaning products, make sure that you give it plenty of time to dry. Certain stains can be applied to damp wood but most cannot and the moisture will impact the finish. Ideally, give it 48 hours to dry fully before you apply the stain.

cleaning cedar deck for refinishing with stain

3. Apply First Coat of Stain

Now, you are ready to apply your stain. Use a foam pad or a brush to apply the stain, working up and down the boards. Follow the direction of the grain and make sure that you work it into the wood, so it absorbs nicely. Back brushing the stain after applying will help you push it into the wood. Continue applying stain until the wood is saturated, and then wipe off any excess to avoid drips. If you do have areas where too much stain has been applied, use a roller to even it out.

4. Let it Dry

Before you can apply another coat, you need to let the stain dry properly. Applying a second coat while the first is still wet can oversaturate the wood, drawing the stain out and ruining the finish. On average, it takes 3 or 4 hours for water-based stain to dry. However, all products are different and some water-based stains dry a lot faster. Oil-based stain, on the other hand, has a much longer drying time and takes a day or more. Always follow the guidelines for the specific product you are using and remember that it will dry slower in lower temperatures, so always account for this. If in doubt, leave it a bit longer to be sure.

5. Apply a Second Coat

When you are completely sure that it is dry, you can apply a second coat, following the same technique as before. If you are using oil-based stain, you do not need to sand between coats. However, water-based stains can raise the grain slightly so you may need to give a light sand before you apply a second coat.

Bear in mind that some brands are one-coat applications so you won’t need to do this step.

Finally, you just need to let it dry again and you’re ready to enjoy your beautiful Cedar deck.

How Often Does A Cedar Deck Need to Be Stained?

On average, you should stain a Cedar deck every 1-3 years to ensure that it is properly protected. The exact length of time between applications depends on a few factors. Firstly, the quality of the stain. If you use a cheap stain, it won’t last as long and you’ll be staining every year. The climate in your area makes a difference too. Lots of heavy rain or direct sunlight will cause more damage, so the deck will need more protection.

You can tell if the deck needs staining from the appearance. When the color starts fading and it becomes patchy, with flaking areas, you need to re-apply. You should also look at how it reacts to rainfall. If the water beads on the top, the protection is still there. But if it’s soaking into the wood, it’s time to stain the deck again.

Final Thoughts

Cedar does have some natural resistance to rotting and insect damage. However, you should still stain it regularly if you want it to last for years to come. There are some excellent clear and semi-transparent stains, which are best for Cedar because you can maintain the excellent natural look of the wood. But if you decide to go for something darker, that’s fine, just make sure you’re using a stain that protects against moisture, mildew, and insect damage.