Applying a quality finish on a wooden deck can prolong its lifespan by protecting it from UV light, insects, and moisture-related damage. But is it better to paint or stain a deck? 

One of the most challenging parts of this important project is deciding whether to paint or stain deck boards. While both deck stain and exterior paint can do the job, these two finishes differ in maintenance, appearance, durability, applications, cost, and more.

This article looks at painting a deck vs staining to help you decide which way to go. 

Stain versus paint: Should you paint or stain a deck

Comparing the benefits of painting vs. staining your deck can make it pretty challenging to decide between paint and deck stain. There’s no simple answer when deciding whether to paint vs stain your deck. The only way to go about it is to compare the pros and cons of each product and see which option best fits the kind of finish you are looking for. We believe a good exterior paint could be more beneficial despite their closely competing advantages. 

Difference between stain and paint

About Painting vs. Staining 

Both paints and deck stains are available in oil or solvent and water-based varieties. As such, you can find an oil-based paint and a corresponding oil-based stain in the market if you want. Also, you can find a water-based acrylic latex paint the same way you can find a water-based stain for your project.

Introducing Deck Paint 

One prominent feature that sets paint apart from stain is how it works by covering the substrate, completely masking its original color and surface appearance. For instance, if you use white paint on a wooden deck, the finished deck will lose its original color and become white. 

This property also means you will lose sight of the grain if you paint it. All that will be visible is the sheen of your chosen paint. 

However, you can always strip down the paint layer and wash it to return the beautiful deck to its original color and appearance. This reversal is possible because paint works by sitting on the surface of the substrate and doesn’t penetrate it.

Pros

  • Paint is durable and can last up to 10 years before requiring repainting. 
  • Paint will completely cover surface imperfections   
  • Paint offers protection against UV damage 
  • Painted decks are easier to clean 
  • Paint is relatively permanent

Cons

  • Painted decks may be a hazard as they tend to be slippery 
  • Deck paint can chip and peel over time
  • Painting can be time-consuming
  • Paint hides the wood’s natural grain  

Introducing Deck Stain 

Whereas paint sits on the surface of the substrate, deck stain seeps into the grain to protect the wood, highlighting the appearance and beauty of the wood’s natural grain pattern. This way, staining is the ideal option if you wish to retain the wood’s natural appearance. 

As already implied, an oil-based semitransparent stain doesn’t form a solid film on the surface of the decking boards. Instead, it works by penetrating the grain. 

Notice, there’re film-forming deck stains that sit on the wood surface. But these are usually mixtures of standard wood stains and some form of varnish to make the stain more protective.

Since the colorant in deck stains penetrates the wood, it may be impossible to reverse the wood color to its original state. 

Pros

  • Staining enhances the appearance of wood’s natural grain 
  • Deck stain helps the wood retain moisture which helps in preventing wood rot. This way, staining can be more beneficial than painting in rainy areas. 
  • Stained decks are less slippery than painted decks 
  • Stain is easier and quicker to apply than paint 
  • Staining is a relatively cheaper option.  

Cons

  • Stain offers little (if any) protection from sun damage
  • Wood stains are less durable than paint 

Best paint or stain for decks

Best new decking paint

Rust-Oleum 206999 Marine Topside Paint, Gloss White, 1-Quart
4,322 Reviews
Rust-Oleum 206999 Marine Topside Paint, Gloss White, 1-Quart
  • Ideal for use on fiberglass, wood or metal surfaces above the waterline
  • Oil-based formula is flexible and applies easily with excellent leveling
  • Dries to the touch in as little as 1 to 2 hours and covers up to 100 sq ft
  • Durable coating resists abrasion and extreme weather conditions and provides long-lasting UV protection
  • Superior gloss retention and smooth finish help maintain the beauty and elegance of your surfaces

Best wood stain for deck

DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain, Cedar Tone
620 Reviews
DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain, Cedar Tone
  • WATER-BASED SEMI-TRANSPARENT WOOD STAIN – This environmentally friendly, water based deck stain allows the wood grain to show through with a beautiful semi-transparent, natural matte finish. It's great for staining wood decks, fences, siding, playsets, outdoor patio furniture, and more.
  • FORTIFIED WITH ZINC NANO-PARTICLE TECHNOLOGY– It’s like sunscreen for your wood. Tiny zinc particles dispersed throughout the stain reflect damaging UV rays, preventing premature graying and color loss.
  • EXTREMELY DURABLE, QUALITY THAT LASTS – DEFY Extreme wood stains are made with the highest quality resins available that have better resistance to fading and darkening. The result is a quality semi-transparent deck stain that typically lasts a season or two longer than competitive products. Keep your deck, fence or siding looking great for longer by using DEFY premium wood stains.
  • EASY TO MAINTAIN – When it’s time to do a maintenance coat, there’s no need to sand or strip the surface again. Simply brighten the wood with DEFY Wood Brightener and apply a single maintenance coat of DEFY Extreme Wood Stain.
  • 100 VOC COMPLIANT - Ships to all states including California

Painting Vs. Staining side by side 

This section looks at the various features and aspects of painting versus staining your deck to draw out the better of the two options. 

Let’s dive right into the battle of paint vs stain deck.

Preparation – Staining versus painting deck

Before applying a finish on your deck, clean its surface and sand it to improve adhesion. This step applies across the board, whether you intend to stain or paint your deck.

In case of rotten or broken wood boards, you want to replace them before refinishing. Tighten any screws or nails and replace any missing decking board to make the structure sound before refinishing it. 

If your deck has any significant surface imperfections, such as holes and dents, you want to fill these up with exterior-grade wood filler. Let the filler dry, and then sand the filled areas to sit flush with the rest of the deck before painting or staining. 

 Whatever the case, the procedure for prepping your deck for staining or painting is the same. 

Verdict—it’s a tie. 

Application – Stain vs paint deck

Once you are ready to apply your matte finish, panging will require extreme measures not involved in staining. Specifically, you must always apply a layer or two of primer if you are going to paint it. 

Usually, you have to protect wood with a water-repellent wood preservative before applying the primer, which is another time-consuming step. All of these make painting a longer process. 

On the other hand, staining is a relatively straightforward process with few steps. Once you have prepped the surface, you can proceed directly to applying the stain without any additional steps in between.

With this consideration, staining your deck is easier than painting. And if you buy a two-in-one product containing wood stain and sealer such as Thompson’s or Behr Waterproofing Stain & Sealer, your work is even simpler. You won’t need to apply any additional clear coat on top.

Verdict—stain is a winner. 

Cost  – Deck stain vs paint

The average cost per gallon of exterior paint ranges from $30 to about $60. Deck stain on the hand costs about $20 to $35 per gallon. Based on these numbers, deck stain is a more budget-friendly option.

Painting also comes with the added cost of a primer and a clear wood preservative that can significantly drive up the price. Consider a gallon of clear wood preservative that will cost anywhere from $15 to $40, while the primer price is an extra $15 to $30 per gallon.

Therefore, staining is cheaper and cost-effective in terms of the number of products you must buy.

Verdict—stain is the cheaper alternative 

Color options  – Painting vs staining a deck

Deck paints are available in a wide range of colors, from neutral options to more vibrant ones. You can get any imaginable color with paint. Therefore, deck paints allow you to choose something that will match your home’s exterior décor. 

Wood stains are limited in terms of color options, unlike paint. The product is designed to darken wood’s natural color and accentuate its grain instead of giving it a new color. 

Therefore, when you choose deck stain over paint, you can expect your color choices to be limited to a handful of options. Chances are, you may not find a solid color that matches your home’s overall color theme. 

Verdict—paint wins 

Ease of maintenance  – painted deck vs stained deck

Paint forms a slippery surface when dry, which makes it much easier to maintain. You can sweep away loose dirt, dust, and debris with ease. And if you want the deck surface spotless, all you have to do is wipe it with a damp rag.

Stubborn stains are uncommon on painted surfaces because of their slippery nature. But in the case of something like ink or nail polish, a soap and water solution will be sufficient to do the job. 

Drying time after washing the deck is also quicker because the water and deck cleaner have nowhere to seep into. 

Staining a deck is different. The surfaces, on the other hand, lack the kind of gloss that makes cleaning a breeze. Even film-forming deck stains don’t make deck cleaning as easy as painted surfaces. You still have to deal with stubborn dirt from time to time when you have a stained deck. 

Verdict—paint wins. 

Coating over the finish  – Stain or paint deck

Since deck paint usually works by seeping into the substrate, you can always paint over it without much hassle. More specifically, if the paint is the same base as the stain, you would only need to clean the deck, sand it lightly, and then proceed with painting. 

In essence, this property makes coating over a stained finish easier. So if you want to give your stained deck a new shade, you can do that by scuff sanding the old finish and applying your new stain or paint.

A painted surface requires more work to refinish. First, you would have to apply a paint stripper to remove the old peeling paint before you can refinish it. This process can be a lot of work if you are working on a large deck. 

Attempting to paint over an old coat of paint can result in chipping and cracking of the paint job. 

Verdict—stain wins 

Hiding flaws on the deck surface  – Deck stain vs deck paint

Paint is the go-to product if you wish to hide flaws on the deck surface due to its film-forming and masking nature. A coat of paint completely marks the substrate, along with any flaws it might have. 

On the other hand, a stain only penetrates the decking boards, after which you must wipe the excess from the surface to let it dry. So, any flaws and imperfections on the wood’s surface will remain visible. 

On the contrary, staining a deck might make cracks on the deck surface appear more visible instead of masking them. If you have a wooden deck with imperfections to deal with, deck stains may not be the ideal choice.

Verdict—paint wins 

Durability of the finish  – Deck stain or paint:

Both paint and stain finishes have their share of unique problems—stains are prone to heat-related discoloration, and paints to peeling or chipping. 

However, when compared, paint comes out as the more durable contender. It is generally more colorfast and durable and can last up to 10 years or longer before you have to refinish the deck. 

If you have the most number of years of service off your painted deck, go for oil-based paints. It offers the best protection from moisture and lasts a long time without peeling or chipping. 

Stain finishes may enhance your deck wood’s natural beauty, but their protection is generally short-lived. You often have to refinish a stained deck after one to eight years.

Verdict—paint is the winner. 

UV protection  – Wood stain vs paint

Most exterior paints offer the same protection against the sun’s damaging UV rays. However, not all paints are created equal; some provide better protection from fading or UV-related discoloration than others. 

If you are looking for the best protection from sun damage, latex paints are your best bet. They offer excellent defense against the damaging effects of UV light. 

For the deck stain, avoid semi-transparent stains. Instead, consider going for a more pigmented version if you want better UV protection. These solid stains have higher opacity, translating to better moisture and sun damage resistance. 

Transparent stains offer little protection against moisture damage and no UV protection. 

Verdict—paint is the better choice. 

Concealing the wood’s natural beauty  – Painting vs staining deck

While painting will hide the flaws on your deck surface, it will be disadvantageous for homeowners who prefer the natural beauty of their decking boards. 

The paint’s masking behavior also means the wood’s natural beauty will be hidden beneath the layer of paint. So, you may want to go for deck painting if you are finishing an old deck, but not a new one whose natural color you still love.

When finishing a new deck with beautiful wood, consider a good deck stain instead of paint that will hide wood texture. The former will allow your gorgeous wood to retain its natural appearance while helping make the grain pop. 

Because you don’t want the wood to lose its color, we recommend using a darker shade of stain to get better protection against UV rays and moisture damage. 

Verdict—stain is the winner. 

Which Wood Decks You can and Cannot Stain

Wooden decks generally respond differently to stains depending on the type of lumber it is made of. In any case, oil stains are a better choice for deck staining because they are easier to apply and maintain. 

That said, you should be able to use stain on any wood type, but not non-wood decking boards common in the market today. If you have a deck made of vinyl or plastic, staining it may not be an option.

If you have to apply a finish to any non-wood decking materials, your best recourse is to discuss your options with a professional. 

What to Expect When You Hire a Professional to Stain Your Deck?

An experienced contractor is likely to help you choose the best stain or paint option for your deck based on the material. 

When you hire a professional to stain your deck, you can expect them to help you choose the deck stain that best suits your situation. They are adequately informed about the brands and formulations of different wood stains and will be better placed to know what works best.

Types of Wood Decks You can and can’t Paint

Two common types of wood used in outdoor projects are cedar and redwood. These natural woods work well with various types of deck paints. 

More specifically, treated lumber is an ideal option if you want your decking boards painted. In such instances, select the correct type of paint. Consider paint explicitly designed for exterior use.

Outdoor paints are formulated specifically to offer a high level of protection against sun damage. Without protection from UV damage, outdoor lumber is vulnerable to the damaging effects of sunrays and could soon get faded. 

What to Expect When You Hire a Professional to Paint Your Deck

Painting a deck is an intensive task, and the quality of work put into it will determine its success. 

Hiring an experienced professional to paint your deck provides the needed assurance that the job will be done correctly and the outcome will be durable. In addition, a professional painter will prep the deck properly before priming and painting it.

They do the job for a living, so they have the necessary experience to guarantee quality. 

Tips for Applying Stain or Paint

Whether you are a DIYer or a professional painting or staining wood decks for a living, there’re a few best practices that will guarantee successful outcomes.

Pay attention to the weather forecast

You definitely don’t want to put a stain or paint on your deck only for it to rain heavily soon after completing the project. A downpour can spell disaster to a freshly stained or painted deck. The water will either damage the finishing or delay its drying. 

So, always check the weather and plan your work when no rain is forecast for at least 24 hours. The longer it takes to rain after completing your stain or paint job, the better. 

Check out what happens if it rains on a freshly stained deck.

Work with the proper temperatures for your specific product

Ambient temperatures can make or break the quality of a deck finish. For instance, if you are painting your wood deck with latex paint, the ideal temperature range for the task is between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the other hand, oil-based paints are more forgiving. You can apply them on your wood deck when the ambient temperatures range between 45 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This range is wide enough to allow some flexibility.

Avoid working in direct sunlight

Direct sun exposure will likely create too much heat for your stain job. The resulting temperatures and UV rays will likely work against you. Direct sun exposure can cause the deck to dry too quickly, leading to poor surface appearance or leaving watermarks behind. 

Smooth out your painted or stained surface through back-brushing 

Once you have sprayed your paint or deck stain on, run a paint roller or high-quality paintbrush over the surface to even out any globs and remove imperfections. Back brushing with a paint roller or brush typically goes a long way in creating a uniform finish.

Allow for the full drying time to elapse before putting the deck to use

A newly stained or painted deck will be dry in about 24 to 48 hours or longer, depending on the weather and product you have used. 

Usually, you wind information regarding the drying time on the product label. Always pay attention to this piece of information and allow the deck the full drying time before returning the outdoor furniture to it or putting it back to use. 

Read: How long after staining deck can I walk on it?

FAQs

Can you paint over a stained deck?

Yes, you can paint over deck stain. You can easily paint over or re-stain a stained wood deck after dulling the old finish with sandpaper. Once you have sanded down the old stained deck, remove the sanding dust and then wipe the surface with a de-glosser to prepare it for priming and painting. 

Can you paint a deck instead of stain?

Yes, you can paint your deck instead of staining it if you want to enjoy a broader range of colors for your home’s exterior. Staining tends to limit your color options since only a few shades of deck stain are available to choose from. You can’t miss your desired color when you opt for the painting instead of staining your deck.

Why you should never paint a deck?

One main argument against painting your deck is that heavily pigmented paints can trap moisture in the wood, leading to premature chipping or peeling of the paint layer. This argument favors staining instead, which is a more breathable option. 

Is painting decking a good idea?

Painting can be an excellent idea, especially if you are finishing a weathered deck with surface imperfections or tropical hardwoods that don’t hold stains well. The paint can fill cracks on the deck surface, giving it a fresh new look.

Is it best to stain decking or paint it?

While deck stains may be less time-consuming to use, painting can do a better job filling any cracks and will completely cover the deck surface imperfections. It also provides longer-lasting protection that can last up to 10 years. 

Can you seal a painted deck?

Yes, sealing a painted deck is a required part of the painting process. After applying a thick layer of at least two coats of oil-based or latex deck sealing paint, you must seal the painted surface with a clear sealer or polyurethane to make it durable.   

How to tell if wood is stained or painted

Look for the wood grain to tell if the deck has a solid stain or paint on it. A painted deck will have no visible wood grain since deck paint will completely cover the deck with a pigmented film over the decking boards. Stained decks, on the other hand, will have a more natural look, letting you see the wood grain. If you can see the wood grain, the deck is likely stained and not painted. 

Old deck paint or stain—which is the best treatment for old wood?

Transparent or semi-transparent stain and clear finishes are fine for new wood. However, an old deck is likely to have surface imperfections accumulated over the years and will benefit from paint that can hide imperfections, instead of semi-transparent stain. 

How long does deck paint last

A quality paint job on a wood deck will last as long as ten years or longer before requiring a touch-up with paint or some other finishing product. 

Should I paint my deck black?

Black is an excellent wood deck color for homeowners who want to incorporate high contrast into their outdoor design schemes or make a strong statement. But we don’t recommend it because it can get hot on sunny days and traps moisture beneath it, leading to premature peeling or chipping of the paint.  

Is there deck paint that looks like stain?

Yes, film-forming stains with solid stain colors can resemble deck paints due to their appearance that tends to mask much of the wood’s natural appearance. 

Painting wood deck vs staining

Is it better to paint or stain a deck? Having weighed various aspects of deck paint vs. stain, deciding between the two popular finishes should be a walk in the park. It’s now upon you to decide whether to paint or stain deck boards and achieve your desired look. We hope this guide helps simplify your work. 

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