Staining Vs. Painting for Outdoor Wooden Surfaces

When you install a new deck or another wooden surface outside of your home, it needs protection from the effects of the weather. But is painting or staining a better way to do that? We've researched the advantages and disadvantages of each, so you can decide with confidence which is best for you.

Finishing your deck with stain allows the natural grain and beauty of the wood to show through. It also produces a finish that is not as slippery when wet as paint often is. A good deck paint provides longer-term protection than stain, often lasting many times the number of years stain does.  Paint provides a larger variety of color choices, and it can cover more flaws and cracks in the wood. Ultimately, the choice depends greatly on your preference and the look of your home.

Below we discuss the pros and cons of both paint and stain for outdoor, wooden surfaces. Please, read on as we also discuss which lasts longer and share some tips for simple preparation and flawless application.

A collage of two different person staining and painting an outdoor wooden table, Staining Vs. Painting for Outdoor Wooden Surfaces

Finishing Your Deck

When you choose a method to finish and protect your outdoor wood surfaces, two of your main options are stain and paint. Both have their upsides and downsides. While paint is a more even, solid color, stain allows some of the wood's natural look to show through. Depending on which you prefer, either can make a good option to protect your surface.


Paint is opaque and lays on top of the wood. It often lasts around ten years or more before repainting is necessary. Chipping and peeling become more common as it ages. This usually makes it obvious when it is time to repaint since you see these chips and peeled areas. Sometimes paint fades, but it still protects the wood at that point; it just doesn't look as pleasing. Once chipping and peeling occur, you need to refinish your deck, or you lose the protective benefits the paint offers. That could lead to permanent damage to your deck.

Pros Of Paint

  • Wide selection of colors
  • Uniform finish that covers flaws, repairs, and damage
  • Outlasts stain
  • Easier to clean
  • Fills small gaps and cracks
  • Better UV protection

Cons Of Paint

  • Covers natural beauty of wood
  • Traps moisture
  • Difficult to remove
  • Requires a lot of preparation
  • More difficult to apply
  • Slick surface, especially when wet

With paint, you can select almost any color you can imagine, making it easy to match your home. The solid, opaque color easily covers repairs and spots that don't match the rest of the deck well, providing good UV protection. Quality paint that is correctly applied can last several times longer than a stain. Because the surface of the paint is smooth, it is easy to clean and maintain. Paint is often thick and can fill small cracks and cover over splintered areas.

But the opacity of paint covers the natural look of the wood, which may not be what you want. It traps any moisture in the wood at the time of painting, which can cause more expansion and contraction down the road, leading to peeling or damage. If you paint your deck, it can be hard to go back to a stained finish later on since you would have to remove every bit of paint before doing so. Paint is more difficult to apply since you need to make sure you get a good, even coat across all surfaces. Painted decks can become very slick, especially when wet since the paint has a smooth surface.

Painting your deck is a lot of work. You must clean the deck well, make sure all nails and screws are below the surface, then apply a wood preservative. After that, you still need to prime the wood before applying multiple coats of deck paint, such as these:

Kilz Porch And Patio Floor Paint

Click here to see this paint on Amazon.

Valspar Porch And Floor Paint

Click here to see this paint on Amazon.


Most stains soak in and become a part of the wood. Depending on how dark your choice of stain, it allows the natural beauty of the wood to show through. With stain, it is often harder to tell when it is time for another coat. It may fade a bit, but if you started with a lighter stain, to begin with, you might not notice that until it is too late. The stain will not usually chip and peel as paint does, so you may not see that kind of visual sign that it is time to reapply. The way to tell with stain is to check whether water is still beading up on your wood. If it does, your deck is still protected. If not, it's time to stain again.

Examples of stains used on decks:

Kilz Exterior Waterproofing Stain Sealer

Click here to see this stain on Amazon.

Thompson Waterproofing Stain

Click here to see this stain on Amazon.

Pros Of Stain

  • Allows natural wood grain to show through
  • Penetrates the wood
  • Less slippery than paint
  • Cheaper than paint
  • Easier to apply than paint
  • Less preparation necessary

Cons Of Stain

  • Doesn't last as long as paint
  • Less UV protection
  • Harder to maintain
  • Flaws show through
  • Lack of uniformity in appearance
  • Some woods won't hold stain well

There are various transparency levels available with stain, allowing however much of the natural grain to show as you choose. The stain penetrates the wood, filling it and preventing water from penetrating. A stained deck is usually less slippery when wet than a painted deck is. It is usually much easier to apply a stain, and most stains are cheaper than paint.

But stain doesn't last as long between applications as paint does, usually requiring a new application at least every few years. The fact that the stain does not sit on top of the wood to create a smooth surface like the paint does also makes it harder to keep clean and maintain. Stain won't cover flaws or differences in wood decking. Some types of very hardwood will not hold stain well.

It is easier to prepare a deck for staining than it is for painting. You still need to clean the deck first but can skip most of the other steps usually required before painting. There is no need to use a sealer or primer like there is with paint. Instead, once the deck has fully dried after cleaning, you can immediately begin staining. Stain is also more forgiving of uneven coats.

Is Staining Easier Than Painting?

Most people find staining much easier than painting. Many stains contain a sealer, meaning you need only clean the deck well and let it dry before you apply the stain. After that, the only thing left to do is to let it dry completely.

Paints usually require the same cleaning, but also several extra steps. You need to seal the deck and apply a primer. At that point, you need to apply several coats of quality deck paint. 

Which Lasts Longer, Paint Or Stain?

Paint usually outlasts stain on exterior wood surfaces. While a high-quality stain may last five years, paint usually lasts at least ten years if properly applied and maintained.

Paint can be physically damaged, shortening its lifespan. You may chip or peel it by dropping or sliding something on it. That would leave an exposed, unprotected section of wood. This is an area where water can seep in and start to loosen the paint around that damaged spot. But you can repair the finish by touching up the paint, preventing further damage. 

This isn't a problem with stain, but the stain will naturally not last nearly as long. You need to apply a new coat of stain every few years to maintain its protective qualities, even if nothing has been dropped or slid across it.

Does Paint Need Primer?

You should always prime your exterior wood surfaces before painting. The primer provides a better seal to the wood, adheres better, and can help fill the pores and minor scuffs on the wood surface. If you do not use a primer, the paint may unevenly soak into the wood. This can be unsightly or even provide less protection to your surface.

Primer sticks to your wood better than paint will. Paint that does not have at least one good layer or primer under it will chip and peel much worse. Over time the natural oils and moisture in the wood can seep up through the paint. That can interfere with the paint's adhesion, but it can also leave ugly stains showing on your deck. Primer helps prevent that.

Can You Paint Over Stain?

With a little preparation, you can paint over stain. In fact, this is one advantage staining your deck has over painting it since you can later paint over the stain, but it is difficult to stain a previously painted deck.

If you are going to paint over stain, you should sand the surface with coarse sandpaper, something around 150-grit, so that the primer and paint will stick well. Other than that, the process is the same as any other paint job.

In Conclusion

While both stain and paint will protect your deck, there are advantages to each. Stain shows off the natural wood look better, while paint can cover flaws and lasts longer. In the end, there are tradeoffs to each one. You should consider the pros and cons of each before making a decision. Select what matches best with your home, and you will be fine, whichever way you choose to go.

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