How to Choose the Right Deck Stain

Imperial Painting

In this blog, you’ll learn more about the three primary factors to consider when selecting a deck stain and tips on how to achieve a successful project.

An after image of a deck that has been stained with an opaque red-colored stain

Staining your deck isn’t just about enhancing its looks—it’s a protective measure that can significantly extend the life of your outdoor living space. A high-quality stain will shield your deck from moisture, UV rays, and wear from regular use, preventing decay and maintaining material integrity.

However, not all deck stains are equal. If you want the best protection, you need to choose the right stain.

In this article, we’ll cover what qualities to look for in an exterior stain and how to select the best stain for your deck.

Primary Factors to Consider When Selecting

First, look for stains that are labeled exterior. Although this may seem obvious, many stain options are available to buy. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and pick the first one you see.

Interior stains are unsuitable for exterior surfaces primarily due to their formulation differences. Interior stains are designed to enhance and protect wood within controlled environments and lack the necessary additives that exterior stains possess, such as UV blockers and heavy-duty water repellents. Without these additives, the stain would quickly fade, peel, or degrade, failing to provide the necessary protection required for outdoor conditions.

So, when looking for a deck stain, look for a product that will provide exceptional moisture, UV, and mildew resistance.

Beyond this significant qualifier, there are four criteria you need to keep in mind:

Deck Material

An after image of a deck that has been stained with a red opaque stain

Besides selecting a stain designed for exterior use, deck material is the next most important factor. Many types of wood can be used to construct decks, each with a unique set of requirements. The three most common types of wood decking are cedar, redwood, and pressure-treated wood.


Cedar is naturally beautiful and resistant to decay. However, it’s also soft and highly absorbent, which means it can quickly soak up stains. If you have a cedar deck, choose a penetrating stain with UV protection to enhance its natural colors while protecting it from the sun, which can cause the wood to gray over time.


Like cedar, redwood is naturally beautiful and durable but requires a specific approach to staining due to its color and grain. Redwood-specific stains that enhance and protect its natural red hues are ideal. Due to redwood’s propensity to retain moisture, these stains should also be mold—and mildew-resistant.

Pressure-Treated Wood

This type of wood is treated with chemicals to resist rot and pests better, making it a durable and cost-effective deck material choice. However, pressure-treated wood can be challenging to stain properly due to its varied absorption rates. A stain specially formulated for pressure-treated wood will usually offer better results, providing uniform coverage and protection. It’s also important to allow new pressure-treated wood to dry out for several months before staining to ensure proper adhesion.

Frequency of Use

Another critical factor is frequency of use, as it directly impacts the wear and tear your deck will experience.

First, consider how much traffic the deck will get. If you frequently host gatherings or have children or pets that love to be on the deck, you need a semi-solid or solid stain because they provide a thicker, more protective layer, which helps shield the wood from physical wear and damage. These stains also tend to last longer before needing a reapplication. If you use your deck sparingly, a transparent or semi-transparent stain will work. These stains penetrate deeply into the wood, providing adequate protection while highlighting the wood grain’s natural beauty.

Next, consider how often you are willing to re-stain your deck. Although more transparent stains are aesthetically pleasing, they generally require more frequent applications (every one to two years), especially in high-traffic areas. More opaque stains, while not as natural-looking, can last up to five years or more.


A red-brown tinted deck with drops of rain on it

Your climate will also impact the stain you choose:

  • Wet Climates: If you live in an area with high moisture levels, like a coastal region or an area that frequently experiences heavy rainfall, you need a stain with exceptional water-repellent properties. Look for stains specifically formulated to resist mold and mildew. Semi-transparent stains can also be ideal because they allow the wood to breathe, preventing moisture buildup, which can lead to rot.
  • Sunny & Hot Climates: If your deck is frequently exposed to intense sun, UV protection in the stain is vital to prevent fading and degradation of the wood. Solid stains or stains with heavy pigmentation provide the best protection against UV rays, as they cover the wood more thoroughly than transparent ones.
  • Cold & Snowy: Michigan has unforgivable seasons, so you also want to choose a stain that can withstand the expansion and contraction of the wood due to temperature fluctuations. A durable, penetrating stain that can protect against moisture intrusion from snow and ice is required for these climates. Solid stains or thicker, more durable semi-transparent stains are recommended.
  • Variable Climates: If you live in an area that experiences all three of these lovely climates (as most places in Michigan do), choose a versatile stain that offers a combination of UV protection, moisture resistance, and durability. Semi-solid stains can provide a good balance between appearance and protective qualities.
Deck MaterialAny—it’s particularly good at showcasing the wood’s natural grainAny—it adds more aesthetic flare while improving protectionAny—semi-solid stains work particularly well on older, slightly worn decks that need more visual uniformity while still showing some wood textureAny—and particularly recommended for heavily worn or older decks that need significant coverage
Frequency of UseLow trafficModerate trafficModerate to high trafficHeavily used/heavy traffic
ClimateMild, stable climatesVarying climatesHarsher climates with significant rain, snow, or sunExtreme climates

Our Favorite Products

As mentioned, there are already a ton of products on the market. To save you some time, we’ve made a list of some of our favorite ones that are versatile and well-suited for Michigan’s varying weather conditions.

Sherwin Williams: SuperDeck

A pail of Sherwin Williams' SuperDeck Exterior WaterBorne Solid Color deck stain
Image from Sherwin Williams’ website.

SuperDeck by Sherwin Williams includes a wide range of products in varying transparencies. Our favorite SuperDeck product is the Exterior Waterborne Solid Color Deck Stain. Its advanced waterborne formula offers exceptional moisture, mold, mildew, and UV resistance.

It’s also easy to apply and clean up, and is available in many colors, from Summerhouse Beige to Brick. It features Cool Feel™ Color Technology, which reduces the surface temperature and improves comfort. It’s suitable for all types of wood, although you may want to be cautious if you have composite decking or a deck made from a combination of wood and plastic.

Benjamin Moore: ARBORCOAT

A pail of Benjamin Moore's ARBORCOAT Waterborne Exterior deck stain
Image from Benjamin Moore’s website.

We also love Benjamin Moore’s ARBORCOAT line, which is also available in a range of opacities and colors, from clear stains that preserve the natural look of the wood to solid stains that provide more pronounced color and greater coverage. Just like SuperDeck, ARBORCOAT is designed to protect outdoor wood surfaces from harsh weather conditions, UV rays, and moisture.

All ARBORCOAT stains are formulated with advanced waterborne technology, providing superior resistance to weathering, particularly UV light and moisture. It also provides a durable coating that resists blistering, peeling, stains, and scuffs. ARBORCOAT is low-VOC, too, which makes it an eco-friendly option.

For Michigan climates, we recommend the ARBORCOAT Matte Solid Stain. It offers all the benefits listed above, is engineered with Gennex® Color Technology to ensure better uniformity and fade resistance, and is available in thousands of colors from Dark Purple to Ashland Slate.

Product Comparison

ProductSuperDeck Exterior Waterborne Solid Color StainARBORCOAT Matte Solid Stain
Vehicle Type100% Acrylic Latex100% Acrylic Latex
Volume Solids (higher volumes mean thicker layers and better coverage)31%38%
Environmental Impact96 g/L VOCs (for reference, the federal limit is 250 g/L)Lower at 93 g/L VOCs
Recommended MaterialsPressure-treated wood, cedar, redwood, pine, cypress, fir, spruce, and most composite deckingPressure-treated wood, cedar, and redwood
Suitable ClimatesVariable, although it’s not as suited for wet climates as ARBORCOATVariable
Durability & Weather ResistanceAverage water resistance and excellent mildew and UV protectionExtremely resistant to peeling, cracking, and blistering. Exceptional water resistance and UV protection
Fade ResistanceExcellentGood
Application Limitations-Do not apply more than two coats
-Allow at least 24 hours to dry when relative humidity is at 50% and degrees exceed 77 degrees Fahrenheit OR 48 hours in colder temperatures
-The wood’s moisture content must be below 25%
-Cannot be applied when temperatures are below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
-The wood’s moisture content must be below 15%.
-Allow 48 hours to dry -Allow to dry for at least 30 hours before washing

Tips for a Successful Project

Someone is sanding a deck with a palm sander
  1. Choose the Right Time: As you saw in the product comparison, temperature does matter. Pick a relatively warm day for the project (50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit), although watch for humidity. The higher the humidity, the longer the dry time is. Additionally, although ARBORCOAT and SuperDeck can be applied to damp wood, you don’t want to apply deck stain just after or before rain.
  2. Don’t Skip Surface Preparation: Unless you want imperfections to show, you want to thoroughly clean your deck and remove dirt, mildew, and old finishes before you stain. This could involve pressure washing, sanding, or using a deck cleaner. Allow the wood to dry before applying the stain.
  3. Test the Stain: Always test the stain on a small, inconspicuous area to ensure you’re satisfied with the color and that the wood absorbs it properly.
  4. Apply Evenly: Use a brush, roller, or sprayer to apply the stain, and use back-brushing to ensure even coverage and deep penetration into the wood. This technique helps avoid puddles and ensures the stain enters the wood’s pores.
  5. Allow for Drying Time: Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for drying times before using the deck.
  6. Apply Multiple Coats: Depending on the type of stain and the condition of the wood, you may need to apply more than one coat. Always allow the first coat to dry completely before applying the next, and never exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations for how many coats to apply.
  7. Hire a Professional: Professionals can help you choose the right type, opacity, and shade of stain to match your home’s exterior. Deck staining is also labor intensive, so a professional can help you save time and avoid common mistakes like poor adhesion (peeling and flaking), uneven application, and mismatched colors.

Schedule Professional Deck Staining Today

Ensure project success with Imperial Painting by your side. We’re a professional painting contractor serving homeowners throughout Michigan. We offer a wide range of services, from exterior painting and insurance repairs to deck staining. We use exceptional stains, including the products mentioned in the article, and ensure quality through extensive surface preparation.

Visit our website to learn more about our deck staining capabilities and how to prepare for this type of project, or contact us today to request a free quote.

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13900 Grandeur Ave, Shelby Township, MI 48315

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