Exterior Wood Finishes

Posted August 3, 2017 in Blog, Decks, Landscape Maintenance

You don’t have to be an expert to know that any wooden surfaces outdoors need to be finished with a protective coating.  Unprotected natural building materials left out in the open and exposed to the elements will turn ugly quite quickly, so it is in our best interests to protect our investments!  When it comes time to do this finishing work, what kind of protectant should you use?  First and foremost, it depends on what you are sealing.

Whether the structure you are sealing is a new construction or an existing structure, Mother Nature will try to break it down as soon as possible.  Sunlight breaks down the lignin (a key component that help form woody tissue) that holds the wood fibers together, resulting in the weathered gray surface you’re used to seeing in older structures.  The problem is, once the wood turns gray, this material can no longer effectively hold a finish…so you better act fast!

The beauty of stain is that it is easy to apply, quick to dry, resistant to peeling and easily brings out the natural character in the wood itself.  However, when was the last time you stood in the stain aisle of your hardware or big box store?  There are way too many types, colors, finishes to choose from if you are not certain where to start.

Well then, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to start at the start.  There are four main types of stain to choose from: transparent, semi-transparent, semi-solid and solid.  Freshly applied transparent stain may look great in the beginning but because they do not contain much UV protection, they will break down quicker, show signs of wear sooner and will need to be reapplied more frequently.  So, while you may want the look of natural wood and opt for a transparent stain, it may be more hassle than what it is worth.  Semi-transparent stains will not disguise the grain of the wood, but will provide the UV protection that the transparent stain lacks.  Semi-transparent stain contains just enough pigment to tint the color of the wood without leaving any film on the surface and shouldn’t need to be reapplied for up to 3 years on average.

Semi-solid stain contains even more pigment than semi-transparent stain and will still show a small amount of the natural wood grain.  While only offered by a limited number of manufacturers, the more concentrated pigmentation in this stain will offer extensive UV protection but still enhance the look of the natural wood beneath, unlike solid stain.  Solid stain, also known as opaque stain has the highest concentration of pigment and UV protection, has the most available color options and has the same look as household paint.  When using opaque stain, the wood grain is no longer visible and it will form a film on top of the wood, becoming nearly impenetrable.  This may seem like the most durable solution; however, solid stain can be prone to peeling and is not easily removed with a stain stripper.  Once a solid stain has been applied to a wooden surface, there is little chance to go back to a more transparent stain down the road.

Now that we established the four main types of stain, the next question would be, what is the wood you want to stain coated with now?  If the structure is bare, go ahead and select whichever stain you want, you are blessed with a clean canvas!  If the wood has already been treated, you should stick with the same kind of stain that was previously used.  In the instance that the wood was treated with a solid stain, a penetrating stain will no longer be absorbed by the wood and wouldn’t do any good.  Not sure?  Try a small patch test to see how the wood reacts to a new stain before you commit.

Another question you may want to ask yourself, if where do you plan to use the stain?  If planning to stain a deck floor or a place that has high traffic, it is best to stick with a semi-transparent or semi-solid stain because they penetrate the wood and do not run the risk of peeling.  Using a transparent stain on a high traffic area or in an area that is directly affected by the sunshine will wear down too easily.  Using a solid stain in this same situation will cause peeling and wear much quicker as well.  If using a solid stain, it is best used in places like pergolas, railings or fences.

  • *  If a homeowner wants the solid stain look without the fear of peeling, is it best to use an exterior paint instead?  The answer isn’t very straight forward, so here is a quick Q&A to aid in your quest for the perfect protectant:
  • *  Does solid stain or paint last longer? Technically, paint will last longer, but stain will protect the wood more efficiently because it lets moisture escape rather than being trapped in under the paint which is usually the cause of paint failure. Also keep in mind that stain is designed to handle foot traffic, paint is not.
  • *  Which is best for multi-surface use?  Stain is only to be used on wood that has not been painted, but exterior paint can cross over to other materials like stucco, plastic or metal.
  • *  Do both stain and paint come in different finishes like interior paint?  Because solid color stain is absorbed by the wood, it will only retain its own sheen, which is more of a matte finish.  Exterior paint, however is available is several sheen finishes.
  •  *  Which has the most color choices?  Along with several options for sheen, exterior paint comes with the most color selections and is best for the brightest and darkest colors you are trying to achieve.  If you are looking for a more organic color, solid stain may be for you.

Now that you are armed with some more information on exterior stain and paint, you can make the best-informed decision for your property and your own maintenance expectations.  Truth be told, composite decking has made great advances in the past decade, so if you are looking for the truest low-maintenance material, it may be time to chuck the pressure treated structures and talk to a landscape design professional about your options.

For those who live in the Poconos, Lehigh Valley, through the Main Line of Philadelphia and western New Jersey, MasterPLAN would love to help you explore all your options for your dream outdoor living spaces!  Together, we can discover the true potential for your property and make the best decisions for your lifestyle and your family.  If you would like to transform your outdoor living dreams into your reality, reach out to MasterPLAN Landscape Design…we would love to welcome you into the MasterPLAN family!

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