I’ve been using stains since my very first painting apprentice job in 1977. I’ve learned the difference and here I review the good and less good (read ‘bad’). My advice: be conservative and choose the best deck stain you can afford.
Here is the best available from my personal experience.
Just below I discuss a once-in-a-lifetime stain (“ECO”), but for traditional stains, I tell all my customers: semi-transparent stains are great because they are low-maintenance, even though it may not protect as long as thicker stains, there is never any scraping—just a quick pressure wash at most, then re-staining. Most decks last about 5 years between treatments depending on your location.
From experience, I’d say that these days the top deck stain is Extreme Wood Stain from DEFY, is made in the USA and that means a lot to us. It comes in 7 shades counting clear. A very good price and easy to clean up (water-based). Definitely one of the best deck stains on the market.
More options below: are all my picks for what’s available in 2022.
Deck Stain Types (with my favorites)
These start with the easiest re-application (next time) and go to the most difficult.
- Once-in-a-lifetime deck preservative: This is what I used on my deck. Here is my review of EcoWood Treatment. It’s a powder and you can get the five-gallon mix (a big deck) or the one-gallon mix (a porch or 2). I found this to be the easiest to apply of any paint or stain I’ve worked with in 30+ years as a painter. It saves you money because it’s a once-per-lifetime of the deck. Low effort, low cost, great protection. Safe chemicals alter the wood so that it cannot rot. Really, there is no downside, except that color selections are limited and the color, like all stains, does not stay bright forever, but neither do you or me! I used the basic powder with no tint (“Silvery Patina”). It turns your deck a weathered gray look which we love. I just cannot say enough good things about my deck with this treatment. See my review dedicated to just this product. (No I don’t work for them! Just love the stuff.) Video of samples here.
- Clear deck sealers: I’ve done a lot of clear deck sealers and they do offer water protection (until it ages), but do not protect from sun damage: it will not prevent the color underneath from graying. My favorite for clear is the ‘Cabot Natural’ clear. It gives great UV protection like the best clear deck sealer. Made in the USA too.
- 3 Semi-transparent stains: This is the most popular type of deck stain. There are three good products we have tested and think are good. The DEFY line called “#1 Premium” (3 colors); the Cabot semi-transparent (3 colors), and the DEFY Extreme (7 colors) are for semi-transparent, the best deck stains out there. Low effort, low maintenance, medium UV protection. Made in the USA.
- Semi-solid stain: Simply a transition between the one above and the one below on this list. Shows some wood grain. Cabot is the one I recommend to those customers who want more color, but I caution them that this will require some scraping when time comes to re-do. That’s a dealbreaker for many.
- Solid (opaque) stain: Cabot has been around forever (company website), and makes a venerable solid deck stain you have probably used.
Almost the same as a paint.It’s exactly like paint. It’s paint. Follow the info on deck paints in my post on the best deck paint. Solid deck stain and sealer can hide many imperfections but also hides the grain of the wood. Downside? Big time scraping in 5 years. Or 10 at most.
Honorable mention is a DEFY solid stain called #1 Wood Stain. It’s a bit more money and has good ratings. I have not yet used it.
- Restore deck paint: BIG WARNING! These are nothing more than very thick paint and do not work and are now or have been sued in class actions. If your deck is rotting or in horrible shape, this might help delay the installation of a new deck. They always lose. LO-OO-SE-R products! All 3 big makers, (Olympic, RustOleum, and Behr) are in class action law-suits up the Wazoo. The Rustoleum product is pictured just below after only 6 months on an internet guy’s deck.
Some companies claim they can restore a deck, but deck restoration is not possible with paints. I have a post on restore products good and bad in the post Paint or Stain a Deck.
- Replacement. There, I said it. My advice here is that if you can afford it, go with a new deck and treat it as soon as the lumber cures. I have recently learned that composite decking such as Trex is not as good as pressure treated wood. Trex tends to bend. If you use it, make your supports very close together.
Opinion: Please NEVER use Thompson’s Water Sealer on your deck: it lasts about a day. Oh, the bad stories I have heard.
In my 30+ years as a painter, I’ve done tons of decks, literally.
I’ve also been looking around the internet at the state of affairs of these big stain and paint makers. It’s not pretty.
Many products succumb to the elements very quickly and you have wasted your money AND you have to do it all over again!
Deck stain opacity in general
Remember that semi-transparent deck stains will allow the wood grain to show through, while deck stains with more solids are more opaque and protect cover the grain more fully.
Different woods stain differently
When deciding what is the best deck stain and sealer for you, choose a small hidden piece of wood from your deck and remove it. Take it to your local paint store or buy some small samples online and apply the different samples to the same wood.
Below you see 5 types of wood getting the same exact stain: before and after. You can see that some sections of the samples were treated with a condition for better penetration (photos from Minwax).
Here is a nice article, sponsored by Minwax, explaining the chemistry of how the stain combines with the wood.
Surface graying (UV exposure)
The best deck stain and sealer will protect the wood better if it contains some solids (resins, etc) to cover and block the sun. The more solids in your deck stain, the better your protection. So this is a factor that you have to balance with your desire to have a low-maintenance deck.
Makers of today’s best deck stain and sealer are the usual suspects: Olympic, Behr and so on have decent products but I don’t recommend them these days. I don’t like the fact that some of them have false advertising (as in ‘one-coat’ paints etc).
I only go with the big makers. Avoid Thompson’s products unless you like spending money and having little protection (it looks good and protects for a year at most even if applied gentle climates). You should hear the stories I have heard.
How long will the best deck stain and sealer last?
For water-based stains with fewer solids (semi-transparent, etc), perhaps two to three years, depending on where you live. For oil-based semi-transparent stains, expect to re-coat in three to five years, perhaps.
Thicker solid stains of both types will last longer.
More solids, more opacity, longer lifespan. (But more scraping later!)
Remember: shake it
Shake well just before opening as the solids settle out fast. The store will shake a non-rusty can for you even if you have opened it, but you then need to either use it right away or shake by hand. It’s best to just shake it by hand on the spot. See my short video of how a professional painter shakes paint. (Don’t shake clear coats—it makes bubbles! Stir it Mr.Bond.)
The list: best deck stain and sealer
Tip: Thinking of spraying it? Greenlight. I researched garden sprayers for spraying stain: this is the way to go for light stains, not solid or opaque. In another post, I selected hand pump sprayers that can handle clear, transparent and semi-transparent stains. The low-cost plastic sprayers cannot do it all.
This one is suitable for stains up to semi-transparent. For semi-solid and full-solid deck stains (opaque stain), you need a big boy: read about air and airless DIY sprayers.
- One-time products. I put Eco-Wood Treatment on my deck a few years ago. I’m lazy and hate to spend money, and I like gray decks. At the time I was told they only offer gray, but now they have 5 colors. I have written a lot about these products, but there is too much to say, so I have put everything in a my post: read Spray Wood Stain. It’s a powder you mix with water and can spray from any garden sprayer. You get a tint bottle with the color versions and can use all of it or not. I really recommend that everyone consider this option carefully. Normally comes in 5 colors, but sometimes they run out of tinted versions.
- Best deck sealer. A deck sealer offers decent protection from sun (UV) damage. The sun can also cause the natural oils in the wood to become dry and crack. The best deck sealer I know of is the Cabot 3000 Natural, the translucent ‘stain’.
It has the best UV protection out there. On this same page are all the many Cabot choices.
- Semi-transparent stain. In my opinion this is the best way to go in a deck stain and sealer (after EcoWood above). There is next to zero prep when re-doing (just a quick pressure wash and let dry), but on the other hand, you do have to do it more often. The look has some color, but not as much as the stains below in this list. I like three products in this, the main category.
All the Cabot 3 color semi-trans choices are here. It’s the old standard and time-tested. Cabot Stains: since 1877 !!
Also, DEFY’s #1 Semi-transparent is a quality stain for a bit more money. Three colors.
DEFY’s Extreme is the most expensive, but also probably the pick of the litter (7 colors).
These three all have very good prices and are easy to refresh every so many years.
Deck stains below here I hesitate to recommend to any customer as these products all start to involve more maintenance (scraping when the time comes). But I have to admit, they look better!
- Semi-solid deck stain. This product comes in between transparent and solid deck stains. More protection than a transparent stain, and less than an opaque stain. If you go this route, give a look for Cabot Semi-Solid. There are not many choices out there as most folks go semi-transparent or full solid (and paint).
This Cabot is oil-based and offers fair UV protection.
- Solid (opaque) deck stain. Opacity is the degree to which you can see the natural grain of the wood. They peel over time and require much labor to keep in good condition. The Cabot wins again. It has great ratings and the brand is of course the gold-standard. Opaque is the only product to use if you want to stain over paint. There is little difference between this deck stain vs deck paint. Read about deck paint. Cabot solid comes in 5 colors.
Restore products: these are not the droids you are looking for
- Deck Restore Products. Super thick paint, but most do not last and some make things worse for your wood. Even the great Sherwin-Williams is in hot water here. Some will have “4x” or “10x” on the label: this means it is 4 or 10 times the thickness of paint. This is supposed to fill cracks and “restore”.However, please read about some lawsuits involving Rust-Oleum Deck Restore, and Olympic Rescue It, and Behr DeckOver, and others.
Everyone would like a product that looks great and lasts a long time, but you have to choose between the look you want and the labor you are prepared to do (or pay for).
- In any case, please never use Thompson’s Water Seal. It is simply paraffin wax dissolved in mineral spirits. Send your money to starving children: this will have the same deck protection as this so-called deck sealer.
Sample many stains
If you cannot take a small piece of wood to your local store, you can ask for free samples (they often have open cans for this if you ask) or you can buy a few small cans. Apply the deck stains in an out of the way areas with different amounts of light (and be sure to look at it at night if you have lighting on your deck).
What deck stains last the longest
- More solids in opaque stains last the longest, and less so as stains become more transparent
- If you have intense sun or intense snow, get the best quality you can afford: it saves money in the long run
- Proper prep is equally important to the quality of the deck stain
Why deck stain jobs go bad
- Jobs go bad because of too much stain: do it once–don’t re-coat
- Decks are not cleaned well with water pressure
- People stain or paint when damp
- People fail to allow all new wood to weather for some months
- You should not apply even the best deck stain and sealer in direct sunlight
Final tips: How to stain a deck… a summary of our other post
I explain this in How to Stain a Deck, but just to summarize:
The most difficult job I do as a painter is scraping and sanding old paint. This includes ‘solid stains’ which are essentially paint: they crack and peel with age.
For more transparent stains, the only prep for re-treatment is a light washing using our #1 prep tool: a pressure washer. They last for-ever!
We pros save an enormous amount of time by spraying the stain with a low-pressure insecticide sprayer. I take my time and protect non-decking with plastic sheets and tape and paper. This saves a large amount of time: no cleaning overspray in the end: that’s a drag. Read the list of deck tools, and just pick what you need.
Before staining ‘pressure-treated’ wood (the green/brown stuff) read about it in How to Stain a Deck
With any applicator (and a 9-inch roller is also good here), I always have a quality brush handy to push the material; into the grooves and corners. A soft spray lets the wood soak up the stain, and if there are any puddles, you push them around with your brush.
Be sure to have all the painter tools that you need
Good luck. Contact me with any questions in the comments below!