Tips for Applying Stain to a Wood Fence

Updated on October 4, 2017
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Matt is a professional painter sharing house painting tips and product reviews.

Why Stain Your Wood Fence?

Like paint, a quality exterior stain helps protect wood fencing from long-term damage caused by moisture and the sun. Leaving a bare fence unstained for too long can lead to splitting and cracks in the wood, reducing its lifespan. Staining a fence is actually very easy, using the right method. Most fence staining jobs don't even require the use of a ladder.

Two popular stain finishes for a fence are semi-transparent and solid. A semi-transparent finish highlights the natural beauty of the wood grain, while a solid finish masks most of the grain, looking more like a paint coating. Solid stain is thicker and does a better job at protecting the surface of the wood. A solid finish typically lasts longer than semi-transparent and transparent, but some homeowners prefer the more natural look of semi-transparent.

Oil Vs. Acrylic Fence Stain

Acrylic fence stain has become increasingly popular due to new VOC laws changing many of the traditional oil-base products. A premium acrylic fence stain will perform as well, if not better, than oil. I personally use acrylic Woodscapes stain from Sherwin Williams for my fence and cedar siding jobs. I have also used Cabot deck and fence stain with satisfactory results.

The main problem with oil stain is it contains resins that feed mildew. If your fence is in the shade most of the day, or surrounded by plants, mildew is more likely to form and spread quickly. Oil-base stain also becomes brittle and crumbles when the coating wears out. Acrylic penetrates wood very well and cleans up easy with soap and water.

Power Wash the Fence

Power washing removes dirt and any loose material from a previous coating. What I do is spray a wood cleaner on the surface first, using my pump sprayer, allow the cleaner to soak for about ten minutes and then power wash the entire surface.

If you plan to apply a transparent, or semi-transparent stain, you will need to remove old stain from the surface entirely so it won't be visible through the new coat of stain. If you're using a solid finish though, this won't be necessary because the solid coating will hide traces of the old stain on the surface. A good power washing usually removes old stain, but in some cases, a chemical stripper might be needed. If the wood is dark and discolored, applying a wood brightener will brighten the wood to its original condition to get the best stain finish.

Spraying Vs. Brushing

I recommend using an airless sprayer when applying wood fence stain. Using only a brush and roller for this project is extremely time consuming and labor intensive. You can easily stain an entire fence in one weekend by renting an airless sprayer from your paint store.

Use a sprayer to quickly apply the material on the surface and a brush and roller to push the material into the wood. For cedar, a 9-inch roller with a 3/4-inch nap is suitable for filling the porous surface well. Before spraying, cover bushes and grass with drop cloths, and you might need to cover objects on the other side of the fence too.

Staining a fence is similar to deck staining. Never start or stop in the middle. Always apply the material in one direction from top to bottom, working in one direction. With a fence, you can use a larger spray tip and turn the pressure down on the sprayer to minimize over-spray. The recommended spray tip size will be specified on the can of stain you're using.

Best Stain for Wood Fencing

The product I have used the most on cedar fencing and siding is Woodscapes from Sherwin Williams. I use the acrylic version. There is also an oil version for those who prefer it, but the acrylic version is what I have used for years with good results. This product contains anti-microbial agents to help prevent mildew growth. It is also recommended for cedar.

Two coats is best, and it's best to avoid applying the stain in direct sunlight. Woodscapes can be second coated within two hours, depending on the humidity and air temperature. Most products can be re-coated the same day. You should stain your fence every three to four years, when the coating starts to fade and wear. Your fence will last longer when properly maintained.

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