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Best Deck Stain

By: Angela Stringfellow on May 16, 2017

Deck stains are best when you want the wood's grain to show

Like paints, wood stains come in either oil-based (alkyd) or water-based latex (acrylic) formulations. ConsumerReports.org editors note they've found neither have a clear advantage over the other in their recent rounds of durability tests.

Similar to paint finishes, wood stains come in three different treatments. Solid stains, sometimes called opaque stains, hide the wood grain the most but are the most durable and last the longest. Clear stains, sometimes called transparent, are ideal when you want the most wood grain to show; however they hold up the shortest and experts say you can expect to have to refinish frequently (and annually in the case of decks). Semi-transparent stains typically provide the middle ground between those two options.

Among popular deck stains on the market, we spotted two that stand out. Benjamin Moore Arborcoat (Est. $45) is the top-reviewed opaque wood stain at ConsumerReports.org. There, editors put the Benjamin Moore wood stain through a simulated weathering test and found it provides an impressive finish after the equivalent of three years on a deck, the longest period tested. It even resists cracking, color change and mildew, although dirt resistance isn't very good. With 100 grams per liter of VOCs, it meets the most stringent VOC limits in California and other areas.

Painting professionals at PaintTalk.com and American Painting Contractor magazine say Arborcoat performs surprisingly well given that waterborne paints don't have a reputation for superior performance on wood. Arborcoat did fade somewhat over time – as is advertised by Benjamin Moore – but experts say it resists hard weathering such as water staining. Benjamin Moore Arborcoat is available in a variety of colors and opacities -- ranging from transparent to solid, so it should be easy to find a product to match your project.

While Benjamin Moore is a top choice of the experts, we don't have a lot of user feedback. That's because the stain is sold through local paint and hardware retailers rather than major online ones such as Amazon.com, though you can find it there through third party sellers on occasion

However, while Arborcoat's solid opacity formulation earns top grades, the same cannot be said of its semi-transparent formulation, which shows disappointing results in testing. If you are looking for a semi-transparent stain, Behr Premium Waterproofing Wood Stain & Sealer (Est. $40 per gallon) looks like a better alternative. Both solid and semi-transparent versions are very good performers on decks over their first two years according to testing at ConsumerReports.org, offering good protection, resisting cracking, color change and mildew, while maintaining a good appearance. Behr Premium Waterproofing Wood Stain & Sealer contains 100 grams per liter of VOCs, meeting the strictest standards for stains.

However, the semi-transparent version is where Behr Premium Waterproofing Wood Stain really shines. It's the only semi-transparent stain to garner a recommendation from ConsumerReports.org, and the only one to garner better than a fair rating in the second year -- earning a score of very good. The solid version of the stain performs similarly over the first two years, but starts to show wear in the third -- which is typical performance for most stains under real-world conditions.

The various colors and opacities of Behr Premium stain draw ample feedback at HomeDepot.com, the primary distributor of the brand. Most reviewers say it offers excellent coverage. One caveat: A handful of user reviews say the stain is prone to peeling, primarily when this deck stain is used in areas subject to direct sunlight with little protection from the weather. In response, experts recommend applying thin coats, which makes it easier for the stain to penetrate fully into the wood. Another common complaint comes from reviewers who take issue with the manufacturer's claim that this deck stain will last for six to 10 years, depending on the opacity. Like most deck stains, Behr generally lasts for two to, perhaps, three years, at best.

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