My advice: be conservative: choose the best deck stain you can afford. On our deck, we used ECO Wood Treatment: it is once-per-lifetime of the deck. But if you go with a traditional stain, the key point is low maintenance and it is what you will get with the best deck stain and sealer.
We like semi-transparent stains even though it may not protect as long as thicker stains, there is never any scraping: just re-coating.
Some key supplies are here on our list of deck supplies.
What types of deck stain are on the market?
- Once-in-a-lifetime deck preservative. This is what I used on my deck: ECO Wood Treatment and sealer that saves you money and is once-per-lifetime of the deck. Low effort, low cost, great protection. Really, there is no downside, except only 4 colors are possible. Just cannot say enough good things about my deck with this treatment. See our post dedicated to just this product.
- Deck sealers. A deck sealer offers water protection (until it ages), but will not protect from sun damage: it will not prevent the color underneath from graying. Some of these products can also cause drying and cracking. Recommendations below.
- Transparent stain. Same as the next one down on the list, just fewer “solids” in the solution.
- Semi-transparent stain. Now you’re talking. See the section below on this, my 2nd favorite method: low effort, low maintenance, medium protection.
- Semi-solid stain. Simply a transition between the one above and the one below on this list.
- Solid (opaque) stain. Almost exactly the same as paint. We cover this in our post on the best deck paint. Solid deck stain and sealer can hide many imperfections but still shows some of the grain of the wood. Downside? Scraping in 5 years. Or 10 at most.
- Restore deck paint. If your deck is in horrible shape, this might help delay the installation of a new deck. Most of these do not work and are now or have been sued in class actions. They always lose. LOOOSer There is one possible product described below that I have no experience with but has good reviews. Some companies claim they can restore a deck, but deck restoration is often not possible.
- Replacement. Yes, there, I said it. My advice here is that if you can afford it, go with Trex Decking, (especially if your deck stays wet a lot).
Remember that semi-transparent deck stains will allow the wood grain to show through, while deck stains with more solids are more opaque and cover the grain more fully.
The exact same stain will be a different color on different woods
When deciding what is the best deck stain and sealer for you, remove a small piece of wood from your deck. Take it to your local paint store and ask to see the different samples applied to it. If that can’t happen, buy or ask for some free deck stain samples. Stores sometimes have mistake-tinted stains for reduced prices, but you usually have to ask.
Here is a nice article, sponsored by Minwax, explaining how the stain takes to the wood. Below you see 5 types of wood getting the same color stain: before and after. You can see that some sections of the samples were treated with a condition for better penetration (photos from Minwax).
We also have an entire post just about the best sprayers
Walking surfaces and railings should have different products
Not completely necessary, but doing this extends the life of the deck stain. These days you can have most products in most colors, so when deciding on the best deck stain and sealer, keep in mind you need 2 types that you can have in the same color. Your paint store can answer all these questions. You can always ‘ask Sherwin Williams’ (by email). Rather than asking them ‘how to refinish a deck’ ( they will just send you a page link), ask a specific question and get a conversation going. My email is at the bottom also.
Siding stains are best used for exterior walls and fences.
Surface graying from the sun (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
Cabot, Olympic, Behr and so on have decent products but we don’t recommend them. We don’t like the fact that some of them have false advertising (as in ‘one-coat’ paints etc). We only go with the big boys on the block, Benjamin Moore, and Sherwin Williams, and we do not get paid to say this. Avoid Thompson’s unless you like spending money and having little protection (it looks good and protects for a year at most even if applied gentle climates).
How long should the best deck stain and sealer last?
For water-based stains with fewer solids (semi-transparent etc), perhaps every two to three years, depending on where you live. For oil-based semi-transparent stains, expect to re-coat in three to five years.
Thicker solid stains of both types will last longer.
More solids, more opacity, longer lifespan. (But more scraping!)
Shake well just before opening as the solids settle out fast. The store will shake the can for you even if you have opened it, but you then need to either use it right away or shake by hand. See my 15-second video of how a professional shakes paint. (Don’t shake clear coats—it makes bubbles!)
The list: best deck stain and sealer
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 my 35+ 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 fail to the elements very quickly and you have wasted your money AND you have to do it all over again!
There are too many categories and it confuses me too: but here are the basic categories:
- One-time products. I put Eco Wood Treatment on my deck last year. I’m lazy and hate to spend money, and I like gray. At the time I was told they only offer gray, but now I see 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 new post. Please consider this option carefully.
- Deck sealers. A deck sealer alone however, will not protect from sun (UV) damage. This can also cause the natural oils in the wood to become dry and crack. The best deck sealer is actual the stains discussed below (and above). 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.
- Transparent deck stain. Almost the same as semi-transparent, but just has fewer solids in the solution and will need re-coating more often. We recommend the same line of Sherwin Williams as you see under semi-transparent stain. Here, there are no options for deck paint colors.
- Semi-transparent stain. This is in our opinion the best deck stain and sealer. I always try to protect my customer’s wallet and this is what I recommend. There is next to zero prep when re-doing (the big money saver), but you do have to do it more often. The look has some color, but not as much as the stains below in this list. We like Sherwin Williams Semi-Transparent SuperDeck for the walking surfaces and S.W. Semi-Transparent Woodscapes for everything else. Both are water-borne and are excellent products. You will have a longer lifespan with the oil versions, but we avoid these as they are more toxic.
Below this option, there is nothing that I would recommend to any customer as these products all start to involve more maintenance (but I have to admit, they look better!)
- Semi-solid deck stain. This is in-between transparent and solid deck stains. More protection than a transparent stain, and less than opaque stain. If you go this route, we only like Arborcoat by Benjamin Moore. Ask your dealer about the best choices for walking surfaces vs. railings and posts.
- Solid (opaque) deck stain. Opacity is the degree to which you can see the natural grain of the wood. Solid deck stains (and this is true for paint), are not recommended for the deck floor. They peel over time and require much labor to keep in good condition. Comes in Flat or Matte, which are almost the same! This is the only product to use if you want to stain over paint. There is little difference between this deck stain vs deck paint.
- Deck Restore Products. Super thick paint, but most do not last and some make things worse for your wood. Even Sherwin-Willims 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. The only product I can find good reviews about is Anvil Deck-A-New. I have no experience with it but do read some of the 5-star (54%) and 1-star (17%) reviews. In the northern harsh winter, you may want to start replacing wood. Sorry.
Sample many stains
If you cannot take some 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).
Why deck stain jobs go bad
- Too much stain: do it once–don’t re-coat
- Clean wood well with water pressure
- Don’t paint when damp
- Before staining ‘pressure-treated’ wood (the green/brown stuff) do your research
- Allow all new wood to weather for some months
- Don’t apply even the best deck stain and sealer in direct sunlight
How to stain a deck: a refresher from our other post
We explain this in our recent post, 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.
We save an enormous amount of time by spraying the stain with a low-pressure insecticide sprayer. We take our 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 painting tools, and just pick what you need. We also have an entire post just about sprayers.
With any applicator (and a 9-inch roller is also good here), we 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.
Protect what you do not want stained
This is a breathable sealer that prevents stone, tile, and concrete etc., from getting stained…for when you spill coffee like I just did. Or stain.
Be sure to have all the painter tools that you need
Good luck. Contact me with any questions!