Knowing What Paint Stain is Right for Your Fence or Deck

Fence & Deck Staining

Since 1989 I have been power washing and sealing decks for hundreds of customers throughout Maryland and I have learned from my mistakes and others’ mistakes. There are a lot of misconceptions, and mistakes people have made on treating their deck and fence. Deck and Fence staining are extremely similar in basic practice, but they vary in how they respond to the elements simply because water can sit on a deck while it runs off of a fence. Knowing how to manage and treat your deck and knowing how to best treat and service your fence is important for any homeowner.

I thought it would be helpful if I shared my experiences and guidance in our property management services. For many of us, the deck is a place to retreat from life for a little bit and have dinner, relax, and enjoy the changing seasons. So it’s important to have the deck being in proper condition and not a distracting honeydew project. Decks are also one of the most frequently improperly maintained areas I run across. Wrong stains, poorly applied, with bad results again turn your oasis into a mess. And to be fair, if your deck is a mess, and you did it, you might be able to shed some of the blame. Decks are not simple. There is room for error and this article can hopefully navigate you through the process of picking the right stain or paint to best suit you and your deck.

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Differentiating between different deck & fence stains & paints

Before we get started let’s define a few terms:

Damp – means a moisture content above 16%. New Pressure-treated wood is considered damp and can take a full season to dry out. If the rained last night, the wood is damp. Some toners/wood preservatives and semi-transparent stains can be applied the same day a fence or deck was power washed providing there are no puddles.
One coat products – One coat products seal themselves up when they dry. If the deck boards are sealed, and you apply a second coat, and can dry to a glossy finish, and or also stay tacky for weeks!
Yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. Years ago a customer insisted we apply a second coat on her deck and the deck boards didn’t dry for about 2 weeks. Unfortunately, her party was one week out!

When to apply a second coat:

  • Prior to the first coat drying
  • If the wood is old and porous
  • If the surface is scuffed up with sandpaper or scrubbed with TSP. These two methods will break the sealant which would be blocking the second coat from absorbing.

Water test – drop a couple of drops of water on areas that you desire to apply a second coat. If the deck wood absorbs in 10 seconds, it is safe to assume that your wood will accept a second coat of the one coat product. But I still would try a couple of sample areas as well.

Wood Preservative or Toners

When you see the words “Wood preservative” or “Toner” they mean the same thing. Think of a toner as a clear solution with a “tone” of cedar or redwood pigment added to it to give the wood some added color and protection. Wood preservatives will show more of the natural look of the wood than the other stains and paints. They come in several different tones as well as clear. Stay away from the clear unless you don’t mind redoing your deck next year, and they after that too. The pigment or lack thereof is what protects the deck. With clear wood preservatives, there is no pigment and very little UV protection. The darker the toner the better the production and the longer it will last and protect your wood. Wood toners and wood preservatives for the purpose of this article will mean the same thing.

Advantages of wood preservatives/toners

  • Wood preservatives and toner do not peel, they simply fade over time.
  • Many wood preservatives are one coat products as well.
  • They are very easy to apply. Meaning wet drips and runs can be easily wiped off and blended in.
  • Can be applied over brand new pressure-treated wood.
  • Future maintenance is easy. Just clean and reapply.
  • As the deck ages over the years, more opaque stains can be applied over wood preservatives.

Negatives of wood preservatives/toners

  • Deck and Fence wood preservatives and toners cannot be applied over anything darker or opaquer than what is currently present.
  • Decks over 15 years old that have cracking and obvious age only look marginally better.
  • If not applied properly, it will certainly leave lap marks. Boards need to be done from one end to the other.
  • Clear toners with little or no pigment need to be treated more often than semi-transparent and semi-solid stains. Most toners last 2 ½ years on decks and 4 years on fences. Areas with significant shade can last at least a year longer. The reason decks last a shorter amount of time is because of the constant wear.

Semi-transparent Stains

Semi-transparent deck and fence stains come in a larger sample of colors than wood preservatives/ toners. Semi-transparent stains will allow you to see plenty of the wood grain on your deck or fence, but typically less than a wood preservative. Like toners, they also don’t peel, and some of them can be applied on damp surfaces. This will allow you to power wash and seal on the same day! Many semi-transparent deck stains are one coat products as well. If so, do not put a second coat on unless you try the water test.

How long will it last? Not as long as the can says. It depends, but the short answer is 3-5 years. For fences, railings, and vertical surfaces expect 4 to 5 years. For horizontal surfaces 3 years max. This means if you are sealing your deck and handrail in 2018, in 2021 you will only need to seal the deck! Besides the very top of the handrail which can easily be re-stained all the spindles can skip a re-coat.

Advantages of semi-transparent stains

  • The darker semi-solids will give slightly more protection and longevity than a toner.
  • It never chips or peels.
  • Some products such as Olympic and Woodscapes can be applied on damp surfaces.
  • Recommended for decks less than 10 years old.
  • Can be applied with brush roller or sprayer

Disadvantages of semi-transparent stain

  • The pigment in semi-transparent settles quickly making it difficult to apply evenly and get even coverage. To avoid the settling of pigment it is necessary to stir every ten minutes or so. Many semi-solids are one coat products. If a second coat is needed, it should be applied before the first coat dries (about 15 minutes). This is a common problem.
  • Apply a second coat before the second coat seals. Within 15 minutes or so.
  • Should not go over decks that have had semi-solid stains or opaque stains or paints.
  • Should not go on decks with uneven areas where the deck is 15 years old or older. It will still likely look blotchy, less blotchy but not still blotchy.

Semi-Solid Stain

The stain shows a little of the grain and gives you the best possible protection that will not peel. It will chip over time but very little. Some grain of the wood will still be visible but not much. If you apply 2 or 3 coats of semi-solids over the years it will look like a solid, but it won’t peel. If you want to see some hint of the natural grain of the wood, a semi-solid is the most pigment you can have prior to having a totally opaque finish like a solid stain or paint.

Advantages of a semi-solid stain

  • It won’t peel but it will chip.
  • It has the best UV protection from any product that won’t peel.
  • Can be brushed rolled or sprayed.
  • Semi-solid deck stain comes in many colors.

Disadvantages of a semi-solid

  • After 2 or 3 applications of a semi-solid, it looks like a solid stain application.
  • Because it seals so well after several applications vertical surfaces can get stay glossy. If you don’t mind this look then it’s no problem. What the product is basically saying is “This surface was sealed, and the last application was unable to penetrate.” It’s like a sponge that can’t absorb any more water.
  • It will not fill in cracks in wood as decks start to age at the end of its lifespan.
  • The pigment also settles quickly and must be stirred frequently, or it can have an uneven finish.
  • Most be applied on the wood below 16% moisture content. Cannot clean and seal on the same day. Also, it cannot be applied to new pressure treated wood for 90 days.

Solid Deck Stains

Solid Stains – Experts say that solid stains provide maximum protection but I disagree. It peels too easily, and water gets trapped underneath the solid stain which provides more opportunity for peeling. Solid stains do not penetrate, so the heaviest traffic areas where you want the most protection are the first to go. Plus, they peel, which adds to the future prep work down the road.

When to use a solid deck or fence stain

I start recommending solid stains when the deck is around 15 or 18 years old. By this time the wood has typically had areas that look okay and areas where the wood is getting near the end and apply something other than a solid probably won’t hide the discrepancies and variations in the deck floor. Solid stains will solve this problem.
Solid stains will fill in minor cracks and can get multiple applications. In fact, most recommend two coats which I 100% agree with. I would strongly recommend always applying two coats on all surfaces because it greatly increases longevity. You might not be able to see the difference right away, but you will down the road. Solid stains are also good choices to use if the deck is uneven with past wood preservatives.

The only practical solution to this deck is to replace it or apply a solid stain.

Advantages of a solid stain

  • Hides unevenness in deck wood.
  • Solid deck stains will fill in minor cracks.
  • You can make older decks look reasonable better.
  • You can pick any deck color you like.
  • Your deck wood can be brushed rolled or sprayed.
  • Your deck or fence can be touched up without flashing or getting glossy.
  • If your deck stain is maintained every 2-3 years, it will give maximum protection to the wood.

Disadvantages of a solid stain

  • Deck stain chips and peels over time.
  • Displays dirt and mildew faster than toners, semi-transparent, and semi-solid stains.
  • Requires more prep work to apply future recoats if it is peeling.
  • Flat surfaces that are exposed to the elements rarely last more than 3-4 years.
  • The deck must be below 16%.
  • Applying two coats of solid deck stain results in more labor and materials.

Deck & Fence Age & Condition

Knowing what product to put on a deck or fence is no easy task. You will need to consider the age and condition of the wood. The age of a deck or fence can be divided up into 3 stages

Stage 1: Deck/fence is 1-6 years old (young)
Stage 2: Deck/fence is 7-15 years old, (middle-aged)
Stage 3: Deck/fence 15 old? (seasoned)

What was the last product applied? Wood preservative, semi-transparent, semi-solid, solid stain, or paint
As we go through each product you will notice as the wood ages and becomes uneven in appearance the options become more limited. It is safe to say though that unless you strip or sand a surface back down to bare wood you cannot switch to a less opaque look.

Pressure-treated, PT, wood that is between 1-7 years old has the most options:
If the deck wood is untreated you can apply any of the four options:

  • Wood preservative
  • Semi-transparent
  • Semi-solid
  • Solid stain, or paint

Here is my recommendation for new or untreated decks under 15 years old: Use anything except a solid stain and paint on the deck because the deck stain or paint will start to peel. The other products fade over time. In my 30-year experience, I found when properly applied all products look great for the first year and good for the second year but start to fade and disappear in the third year. If you choose a solid deck stain and it just starts to peel, the others fade away leaving you with far less prep work. In fact, the only prep work is to clean the surface again with bleach and possible wood brightener and apply the product again. Some wood preservatives like Olympic and Deck Scapes can be applied on a damp surface. This means your deck can be cleaned and sealed in the same day saving money and time.

Solid Deck Stain vs. Paint

Semi-solids, solid stains, and paint do not have that flexibility. Their moisture content needs to be 16% or less.
If your deck already has a semi-solid or solid stain or paint you will have to continue with that type of product or go all o
Paint vs Solid Stain. People often ask me what’s the difference between a solid stain or paint. There are several.

stripped paint on wooden deck

Solid Deck Stain & Paint

  • Paints have a harder finish and on flat surfaces will lead to quicker peeling.
  • Paints come in different sheens, from flat to glossy. Stains are mostly flat, and some stains have a low luster finish.
  • Paints can look fantastic, but I do not recommend using them on flat surfaces. Fences and handrails are a different story. Because they are vertical they don’t get the rain, snow, sun, and foot traffic that horizontal services do.
  • Solid deck stains are self-priming. Most paints that even claim to be self-priming would be better served to have a true primer applied first.

Advantages of Paint

  • Paint provides a classic look on fences, especially on historic homes.
  • Comes in thousands of colors and several sheens.
  • Paints with a sheen wash much better than flat solid stains and paints. Making periodic cleanings worth the effort.

Disadvantages of paint

  • It is the highest maintenance of all products. Especially on flat surfaces.
  • Paint on flat surfaces does not hold up well to the harsh elements and will generally peel in a year or so.
  • The fence wood needs to have a moisture content below 16 percent.
  • The fence wood should also be primed.
Solid Stain on Deck and Handrail

Solid Stain on Deck and Handrail

Thick Deck Paint

This is one last product that I have not mentioned yet but certainly needs to be discussed. Those super thick paints like that are supposed to fill in cracks on old decks. The paints state that they are 10 x thicker than normal paint. Unfortunately, I have used this product twice and both times it failed. I don’t think that they expand and contrast with the wood and they seem to come off in sheets. There are thousands of bad reviews and some lawsuits have caused me to come to one conclusion. These products have no advantages and should not be applied under any circumstances.

Advantages of thick deck paint

  • None – not even joking

Disadvantages of thick deck paint

  • peel quickly.
  • looks ugly.
  • takes two coats.
  • Thick paint is expensive.
  • Thick paint is hard to apply (you could have 18 holes of golf played golf!).
  • Thick paint has horrible square ft coverage so you’ll purchase a lot of it.
  • Thick paint is uncomfortable to walk on.
  • If your deck is screwed on, good luck finding the screws after you apply this stuff. Repairs will become a nuisance that leaves the deck looking worse off afterward.
  • Your oasis will be a bad memory.

Choosing the Right Product For You Deck or Fence

When considering the best product ask yourself a few questions. What is the purpose of maintaining your deck?

Are you:

  • Selling
  • Buying
  • Renting
  • Maintaining

Other circumstances that will dictate the proper wood material will be the use of the deck. If you have a lot of children and the deck is older a solid stain will help reduce the chance of splinters. If you have an active dog that will scratch the decking then something other than a solid stain or paint would be best.

Let Klappenberger & Sons take a look at your deck or fence situation. Our professional handymen and painters will help to make your home’s paints and stains look beautiful and last longer. Contact us at 410-647-5700. We perform deck and fence staining for commercial buildings, local homes, and government buildings. We also perform historical restoration projects. Contact for all of your interior or exterior painting needs.

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