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, and experts and professionals say 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, although experts say you can expect to have to refinish the deck every year, as they hold up the shortest. And semi-transparent stains typically provide a middle ground between the two.
Among popular deck stains on the market, we spotted two that stand out. Behr Waterproofing Wood Stain (Est. $30) is the top-reviewed wood stain in one independent test. There, editors put the Behr stain's solid treatment through a simulated weathering test and found it provides an impressive finish after three years, the longest period tested. It even resists cracking, color change, mildew and dirt. 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. Behr Waterproofing Wood Stain also comes in clear and semi-transparent treatments.
Thompson's WaterSeal Deck & House (Est. $25) is another top choice among expert reviewers. Like the Behr stain, experts test WaterSeal Deck & House's solid stain in accelerated weathering tests. It performs respectively, though it doesn't have the longevity of Behr deck stain. It resists cracking, color change and dirt, but not mildew. We haven't spotted any consistent complaints among user reviews regarding peeling or blistering with Thompson's WaterSeal Deck & House. Unlike Behr stain, which is available exclusively at The Home Depot, Waterseal Deck & House is available at most major retailers. It also comes in semi-transparent and clear treatments.