Exterior wood stain is the best choice for decks, rough-finished wood (such as cedar shake and log cabins) and any exterior project where you want the grain of the wood to show. Unlike paint, which forms a thick, smooth film over the surface of the wood, experts say the best stains actually soak into the wood. While paint can peel and chip over time, stain simply fades when it ages. You can expect a wood stain not to last as long as a properly applied coat of exterior paint, though experts and professionals add that its longevity depends on the type and quality of stain you choose, how it well it's applied, how harsh the weather is, and whether the stain is applied to a horizontal surface (such as a deck floor), which suffers more weather abuse than a vertical surface (such as a wall).
Like paints, 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 most recent round 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 is the top-reviewed wood stain in one independent test. There, editors put the Benjamin Moore wood stain through a simulated weathering test and found it provides an impressive finish after the equivalent of nine years on a house or vertical surface and three years on a deck, the longest period tested. It even resists cracking, color change, mildew and dirt, and with 100 grams per liter of VOCs, it meets the most stringent VOC limits in California and other areas.
The stain also performed strongly in an in-depth review in American Painting Contractor magazine. The reviewer, Scott Burt, a professional painting contractor, says Arborcoat performed "surprisingly well" in his tests – surprising because in his experience, waterborne paints don't have a reputation for superior performance on wood. Bird tested out the Benjamin Moore Arborcoat on a customer's log home after stripping a failed film-forming coating off of the home, which is situated in an area where it's subject to harsh mountain elements. Bird uses a combination of stain and clear coat to achieve the final result, and after being exposed to snow and full sun all winter, the home still looked great one year later (the minimum waiting time before Burt reviews the products he's tested). Burt points out that the freeze/thaw cycles common in similar climates are tough on wood, with the constant expansion and contraction often leading to the failures commonly seen with wood coatings. Burt says the Arborcoat did fade some – as is advertised by Benjamin Moore – but he found no indications of hard weathering such as water staining, and found that the Arborcoat also resists mildew, which most oil-based stains do not.
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 If that's a concern, Behr Waterproofing Wood Stain (Est. $30) is a solid alternate to consider.
This Behr stain earns the second highest rating in the independent test mentioned above, offering similar perks as Benjamin Moore Arborcoat: resistance to cracking, color change, mildew, and dirt, along with 100 grams per liter of VOCs. One caveat: A handful of user reviews say the stain is prone to peeling. In response, experts recommend applying thin coats, which makes it easier for the stain to penetrate fully into the wood.
As with Arborcoat, Behr Waterproofing Wood Stain comes in solid, clear and semi-transparent treatments. Various colors and opacities of the stain draw ample feedback at HomeDepot.com, the primary distributor of the brand. For example, nearly 50 users post feedback for the solid color version in slate, resulting in an overall rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Most reviewers say it offers excellent coverage, though a few detractors reporting flaking and peeling, primarily when this deck stain is used in areas prone to direct sunlight with little protection from the weather.