Should You Stain a Wood Fence?

To be honest, we’re very much on the fence (pun fully intended) about whether to stain a fence. As with anything, there are pros and cons with either choice. But we’ll tell you all about them and let you decide.

Who knows, maybe by the end of this article, we’ll both have a clear idea of what we want to do. Let’s get started.

Why Stain a Fence

Aesthetic Protection

Staining offers, first and foremost, aesthetic protection for your fence. With stain, you can keep your fence looking like new many years down the road. Without stain, your fence will eventually look worn and grey due to exposure to the sun and the elements.

We should mention that aesthetic protection really only applies to semi-transparent and solid stains, not transparent (or clear) stains. As you can imagine, transparent stains – being transparent – will allow UV rays to penetrate and cause wood to turn grey over time.

With little to no pigment in the product, clear stains aren’t really “stains”, so sometimes you’ll hear them being referred to as waterproofing sealers or waterproofing wood finishes.

Comparison between clear, semi-transparent, and solid wood stain.

Facelift

Besides protection, stain can give an old fence a new look. Semi-transparent and solid stain can hide imperfections and re-introduce color to weathered wood, while transparent stain can make the wood “pop” again.

Longevity

Another benefit with stain – which applies to transparent, semi-transparent, or solid stain – is longevity. Staining will make your fence last longer by preventing mildew and repelling water. These things can cause irreversible damage and deliver a fatal blow to your fence.

The Case Against Stain

Nobody wants a shabby, old fence, right? So you may be wondering if it makes any sense to not stain. As a matter of fact, it does!

Weathered Look

You should say no to stain if you want your fence to look shabby. Or perhaps “rustic” is a better word? By leaving your fence unstained, it will eventually weather into a silvery grey that some people find attractive.

But what about mildew and water, you ask? There are certainly tradeoffs with choosing not to stain your fence. Exposing bare wood to the outdoors will speed up decay. And you’ll have to replace the fence sooner rather than later.

Zero Maintenance

That said, the amount of money you spend on a lifetime of staining products will be a whopping zero dollars. Plus the amount of effort you spend on upkeep will also be zero. Simply replace the fence down the road and toss the old wood into your fire pit for some good backyard vibes.

Wait a minute, what do we mean by “a lifetime of staining products”? Don’t you just “stain once and done”?

Fence Stain Fades

The thing is, stain can protect the wood from fading, but that doesn’t mean the stain itself won’t fade. And because stain fades, you’ll have to re-apply it again someday to maintain the look. This is the downside with choosing to stain: you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of maintenance.

A good stain will give you 2 to 3 years and as many as 5 years before fading, depending on how harsh the weather is in your neck of the woods. Besides fading, solid stains – in particular – may chip, peel, and crack due to their paint-like qualities. The flip side is that they offer the best protection among all types of stain against the sun.

An average wood fence lasts about 20 years with proper maintenance. So you can do the math to see if you mind the extra costs and effort of a stained fence.

Which Stain Lasts the Longest?

If you did the math and think it makes sense to stain, great, because now we’re going to talk about choosing a good stain. You’ll want to stick around because we’re going to show you how to stain a fence too. If you decided against staining, well, you’re welcome to continue reading in case you change your mind.

If you’re like us, the last thing you want to do on the weekends is home maintenance. We would much rather be having a barbecue. So when it comes to choosing a stain, we want to pick something that will last the longest.

Brands

A few quality brands are Ready Seal, Cutek, and SuperDeck. We don’t have any preferences on brand, but we do have preferences on the type of stain.

We suggest using a semi-transparent stain for a cedar or redwood fence, as it will offer UV protection while allowing the wood grain to shine. Semi-transparent stain is suitable for a pressure-treated wood fence too. But pressure-treated wood is not known for its beauty. Most people choose pressure-treated wood for its price, with plans to hide its look with stain. If that’s your intention, you may want to use a solid stain instead.

Ready Seal Oil-Based Semi-Transparent Wood Stain and Sealer (Cedar)
This stain will enhance the look of your wood fence and protect it from the elements.
SuperDeck Oil-Based Transparent Wood Stain and Sealer (Natural)
This stain will make your wood fence pop and inhibit the growth of mildew.

Oil or Water?

Oil-based stains penetrate better into the wood and last longer than water-based stains. Being able to highlight the wood grain beautifully, oil-based stains look better on wood than water-based stains. The advantages of oil-based stains are looks and durability.

But water-based stains provide greater protection against the sun and have better color retention. If you want to use a solid stain, you may want to choose a water-based formula. You may also decide to go for a water-based stain for easy cleanup as you only need some soap and water. With oil-based stains, you would need to use solvents for cleanup.

Behr Premium Water-Based Solid Wood Stain and Sealer (Cedar)
This solid stain cleans up with soap and water.

When to Stain

Generally speaking, you can stain your fence as long as the temperature is between 50°F and 80°F. Anything lower than 50°F will affect the curing process, and anything higher than 80°F will not allow the stain to properly penetrate. Make sure conditions are dry over the next two days.

The wood also has to be dry. You should wait one month before staining untreated wood like cedar or redwood. Pressure-treated wood needs more time due to having a very high moisture content from the chemical treatment process. A good rule of thumb is to wait 3 to 4 months to let the wood both dry and age before staining.

How to Stain

Now the fun begins! Or at least, staining can be fun, right? That’s the spirit! The trick to staining a fence well is having the right attitude. In all seriousness, it’s all about the preparation and having the right tools.

Step 1: Clean Your Fence

Your fence has to be sparkling clean. OK, maybe not sparkling, but clean. That means no mildew, grease, oil, or dirt. One way to clean your fence is by using a 3:1 solution of water to bleach. Get yourself an inexpensive low-pressure pump sprayer to spray the solution onto your fence. Then rinse it off thoroughly with water.

Chapin Bleach Sprayer
This sprayer is designed specifically for mold remediation and general cleanup.

Another way to clean your fence is by using a pressure washer. This may be the better option for a really dirty fence. But you have to be careful not to leave streak marks or damage the wood. So try to keep the pressure under 1,000 psi (when in doubt, use the lowest setting and if it cleans, there’s no reason to go higher), use a wide-angle tip (40° or more), and go the length of the board in a single direction.

Sun Joe SPX3000 Electric Pressure Washer
This pressure washer is great for cleaning fences, patios, driveways, cars, and more.

After cleaning, wait 48 hours to allow your fence to dry completely before staining.

Step 2: Protect Your Grass/Plants

Stain can kill your grass and plants. So you’ll want to cover them up to protect them. Small amounts of overspray won’t do much damage, but heavy overspray and spills can certainly wipe them out.

Step 3: Apply the Stain

The most effective way to apply stain is to use a good old stain brush. You want the stain to penetrate deep into the wood and into every nook and cranny. There’s just no other tool that’s better than a brush. It’s certainly effective, but as you can imagine, it’s not the most efficient.

A faster way would be to use a sprayer in combination with a brush. An airless sprayer does a great job at coating the fence evenly and it’s what professionals use, but it’s pricey. If you don’t have the budget, you can do just fine with a low-pressure sprayer since you’re going to use a brush too.

Graco Magnum X5 Airless Sprayer
Save time and get professional results by using this airless sprayer. This is a good investment if you have a large yard and deck.
Chapin Deck and Fence Stain Sprayer
This is the sprayer you want to use with fence and deck stains.
Wooster Stain Brush
Don't forget to add a stain brush to your arsenal.

Spray the stain onto your fence (vertically) a section at a time. Then immediately go over the stain with a brush. You can avoid overspray by stopping a few inches from the top and bottom, and sweeping the stain towards the edges with your brush. Smooth out any drips before they get a chance to dry, and the result will be a nice, even coat of stain.

Keep Stain from Going Bad

To wrap up, we have some storage tips to share with you. After you finish staining, you likely have some stain leftover. Don’t let it go to waste. Keep it in good condition and you’ll be able to use it again for touch ups.

First, transfer the stain into a smaller container. The less contact the stain has with air, the longer it will keep. Make sure the container lid is air-tight. Then store the stain indoors – somewhere that’s always above 32°F to keep the stain from freezing.

Stain does go bad, so you want to have a good look before re-using. Check the stain for an unusual odor or texture. If everything looks normal, do a spot test. And if it dries OK, it’s good to go!

Have You Decided?

We dread at the thought of having to stain and re-stain a fence. We would much rather lounge on the patio. At the same time, we don’t like the look of weathered wood. In fact, we probably hate it more than staining a fence. So, guess that means we’re in favor of staining! We hope you were able to make up your mind too.

Have Fun Out There!