How to Choose a Deck Stain

Updated: Apr. 17, 2024

The right deck stain can bring out the natural beauty of a deck's wood grain and extend its life by protecting it against sun and water damage.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed in the exterior stain aisle at your local home improvement store? You’re not alone. The seemingly endless options can make it difficult to know if you’re making the right choice.

The first time I stained my deck, I think I spent more time choosing a stain than actually working on my deck. With experience and lots of questions posed to my local paint store reps, I’ve learned how to choose a deck stain with confidence.

If you’re looking for guidance for your own project, read on for expert tips from two painting industry pros – Shayne Pancione from Pancione Painting Plus and Rachel Otto from Fleury Lumber.

What Is Deck Stain?

Deck stain is a penetrating wood treatment. Available in options from clear to heavily tinted and costing between $50 to $100 per gallon, deck stain not only makes a deck look good, it also extends its lifespan. Without the protection of stain, wood splinters and dries out over time.

Types of Deck Stain

There are four main categories of deck stain from which to choose.


Transparent stain is clear or slightly tinted, so it’s a great choice for showcasing the natural beauty of the wood grain. It’s best used on newer decks with wood that’s in great condition, as it does not hide any imperfections.

Transparent stain does need re-coating every one to two years, “especially if you have a deck with a lot of sun exposure,” Otto says. It is a thin product that is not very durable and offers little ultraviolet (UV) light protection.


A semi-transparent stain has a bit more color than a transparent stain. “If you’d like to add a touch of color, but still see the wood graining a semi-transparent is great,” Pancione says. This stain type also offers a bit more UV and water protection.


A semi-solid stain “has much more color than a semi-transparent but still lets the wood texture show through,” Otto says.

Higher pigment levels create a thicker consistency that does a better job of covering up worn-out wood surfaces. It also offers better UV and weather protection with a more durable finish.

Solid stain

Solid stain forms an opaque finish that obscures wood grain and texture. It can look indistinguishable from a paint, but is more penetrative and does not require a primer.

Solid stain offers the best UV protection and the longest durability of all stain options. Its thicker consistency fills in small cracks in the wood, improving its appearance and lifespan.

Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Deck Stain: What’s the Difference?

Transparent and semi-transparent stains come in both oil-based and water-based formulas.

Oil-based stains penetrate and condition wood, usually require one coat and tend to be less durable than water-based stains.

Water-based transparent and semi-transparent stains are not as penetrative and require multiple coats for adequate coverage.

Factors to Consider When Picking a Deck Stain

Choosing the right deck stain for your particular project depends on many factors.

Local climate

In hot, sunny climates you’ll want strong UV protection to extend the life of your deck, so consider a semi-solid or solid stain. In rainy or humid climates, choose a stain with additional mold and mildew protection to combat the constant moisture.

Age and condition of the deck

Any stain can be used on a deck under five years old, but semi-solid or solid stains will help preserve aging, weathered wood.

Stain longevity

“In New England, the best we can hope for is three to five years on flat surfaces before it’s time to re-stain again,” Pancione says, however, product lifespans do vary.

Transparent stains will last one to two years before needing re-coating. Semi-transparent will last a bit longer at three to four years. Semi-solid and solid stains last the longest, at four to five years.

Preparation time

Consider your deck’s previous coating when choosing a new stain. It’s challenging to switch from a heavily pigmented stain to one that is less so. “If your deck has been previously stained with a solid stain, it would be an arduous process to strip that off to go back to a semi-transparent,” Pancione says.

Application and dry time

Some deck stains require a 72-hr “no-rain” window, starting with the cleaning step and extending until the product is fully cured and ready for foot traffic.

Dry times between coats also can vary. “Some stains do take longer to apply,” Otto says, “but it really has to do with the individual stain manufacturers rather than stain type.” If you’re on a time crunch, look for a product with a shorter dry and use time.

Personal preference

For previously uncoated, recently installed decks, “it really comes down to personal preference,” Otto says. Decide what look you like and buy the corresponding stain.

As your deck ages, these options narrow more to semi-solid and solid stains, but there are still lots of color choices available.

What Is the Best Deck Stain?

It really depends on the considerations listed above. If you love the natural look of wood and have the time to re-coat more frequently, a transparent or semi-transparent stain is the best for you. “Do you like a painted look or is your deck older with wood that has lost its attractive appearance? Then solid stain is your best bet,” Pancione says.


Is it OK to use a cheap deck stain?

You can, but you’ll probably wish you hadn’t. Cheaper products contain lower quality ingredients, which leads to earlier failure and refinishing. “A higher quality stain will cost more upfront,” Otto says, “but will end up saving you time and money.”

How do you choose a deck stain color?

Beyond choosing a color you like, consider the amount of sun your deck gets each day and how you use it. “Darker stain colors retain more heat, which can be uncomfortable on bare feet,” Otto says.

Do I have to stain my deck?

No, but it’s recommended. “You don’t have to stain your deck, but it extends its lifespan,” Otto says.

About the Experts

Rachel Otto is the paint department manager at Fleury Lumber in Easthampton, Massachusetts, specializing in Benjamin Moore products. She has 10 years of industry experience.

Shayne Pancione is the owner of Pancione Painting Plus, a full-service residential and commercial painting company in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He has over 25 years of experience in the trade.