One of the more popular questions that come from those who own a deck is whether stains or oils are the better choices.
The question is not easy to answer because the differences between wood stains and oils are relatively slight but significant. Plus, they can sometimes mean the same thing.
What is important is to understand the differences both in substance and terminology so that you get the right product to protect your wooden deck boards.
While a deck stain is good enough to provide you with a marvelous colored look by changing the shade of the timber, decking oil is only good at offering you some extra shine and enhancing the wood color to some extent, which is good for those who prefer natural wood color.
Below we will take a detailed look at what these products are, along with the advantages and disadvantages of both these products.
By the end of the article, hopefully, you can decide which one you should be using on your deck and why…
Decking oil is designed to protect the natural color of the wood boards by replacing the natural oils and nourishment found in the timber, which can evaporate or fade over time.
Decking oils are designed to penetrate the porous surface and protect the timber from within. Their goal is not to change the color of the wood, although it may darken the tone depending on the exact type and brand of oil that is used.
Most decking oils contain wax as well, which fills in the gaps and tiny holes of wood, making it water and dirt resistant. This means that a deck that is properly covered in oil is easier to maintain while being far more difficult for water, dirt, and the elements to penetrate.
With the above information in mind, it’s also important to know that there are positives and negatives associated with most decking oils. Understanding them will help you make the best-informed decision.
1- Easy and Fast Application:
You do not need to strip the existing wood for wood oil application. Simply brush off the deck, open the oil can, stir it a little, and apply it to the deck. Add additional coats (if required) once the first layer of oil has covered the deck area and dried.
Once you apply the oil to the surface, it is ready for light foot traffic in as little as four to eight hours, depending on the type and brand. This means you can apply it in the evening, let it sit overnight, and it should be ready in the morning for you to walk on your deck.
2- UV Protection and Water Resistant with Required Traction:
The ultraviolet or UV rays of the sun can break down wood over time. But many decking oils contain protection from UV rays which considerably slows down the damage that otherwise would happen.
Generally, oils that darken the deck offer more UV protection compared to light colors or those that do not darken the wood. So, you should check and choose the one that suits you most.
Oil on the timber deck also helps repel the water, which is particularly helpful when it comes to rain, as the water tends to roll off the surface rather than penetrate the wood.
Also, the oil on the wood tends to be less slippery than most oil-based stains because it does not cover the wood with a film but penetrates the surface and allows the natural grains to stand out. This means better footing when walking on the deck.
3- Replenishment of Natural Oil with Algae and Mold Protection:
Since the oil, when applied over the deck, refills and replenish the natural oil that has evaporated or has been lost over time due to wear and tear, it helps to keep the wood in its natural state. The result is that the wood is less likely to splinter, crack, or warp over time.
Also, because the oil fills in the small, porous areas of the wood; algae and mold have no place to root and grow. You will, however, need to maintain the deck by washing and brushing it off regularly to keep the oil in place.
Of course, there are some drawbacks to using natural oils on the deck as well. Not that many, but you should know these issues before making your decision and purchase.
- The color imparted may be different than shown on the can
- You cannot have decking stain applied on top of oil unless stripping occurs
- Exotic woods such as teak, Iroko, Cumaru, Balau, and Massaranduba may require special oils to cover and protect properly.
Unlike timber oil, wood stains are designed primarily to change the color of the surface. It’s an enhancement that brings out the features and grains to make the timber appear more natural and colorful and can also protect the wood itself by setting it deep inside.
Stains not only provide a wide range of colors but they can also be used to cover the deck and any accessories, such as spindles or handrails, for a complete look.
1- Top Layer:
The main difference between stains and oils is that the stain completely soaks into the wood and provides a stronger top layer that resists the elements, sunlight, and other forms of damage like erosion and foot traffic. You can even use some specific oil-based stains on pressure-treated wood if that’s what your job demands.
2- Quick Drying Time:
A good stain can dry within a couple of hours, depending on the outdoor conditions. This means that you can use your deck faster compared to decking oils which would normally take days to dry out.
3- UV, Algae, and Mold Protection:
The pigments included in stains not only change the color of the wood but also provide UV protection, which keeps the timber intact. Plus, just like decking oils, algae, and mold will have a tough time taking root in the stained decks because of the strong surface layer provided by the stain.
4- Can Make the Deck Stain Look Even Darker:
Remember, the darker shade is what many of us love to get out of the stained deck. If, after the stain application, you do not feel the shade dark enough, you may look forward to making it even darker.
Fortunately, there can be ways you can achieve darker colors on dense wood on your deck. Here are a few of them…
Use more stain: The first is simply using a higher concentration of stain/dye to liquid. This means using very little water, thinner or mineral spirits when diluting the stain for the application.
Most of the toning is done with the stain color itself. So, if you are using a higher concentration of stain, it will add to the darkness and richness of the color you are looking for.
Add more coats: Remember that unlike paint (which often dries with darker shades), the stain will, most of the time, dry lighter.
Letting it dry properly and adding more coats of stain can therefore work better to make the wood darker. This way, you can achieve dense woods as dark as you want.
Use tinted polyurethane: The original deck stain you use, if mixed with polyurethane thoroughly, can create a darker shade for you.
However, remember that this can create a slightly different shade as well by deepening and neutralizing the color.
In many ways, decking stain can be superior to decking oil, but it is not without its issues. Some of the drawbacks that come with it are:
- Reduces visibility of the grain.
- Stain is difficult to stick to wood that has decking oil applied.
- Old stains, varnishes, or paint must be fully removed if you want to re-coat the wood.
- Many exotic kinds of wood are difficult to color with regular stain applicators. Also, the wood needs to be dry; otherwise, moisture from underneath can crack or peel away the stain over time.
What is Better – Stain or Oil?
When choosing between decking stain and oil, it’s actually about your personal preferences and how appealing you would like to get the surface.
It may seem that from the descriptions decking oils and stains are significantly different. But the confusion comes in when it’s about the decking oil products that have color built into their formulas. And the wood stains that come with clear or semi-transparent finishes.
Because these oils and stains can both change the color of the wood while adding a protective layer, it may seem like oils and stains do exactly the same thing. But that is not really the case despite the similarities.
- If you want to keep the natural color and texture of the wood as is with its grains intact, then oils are better.
- But if the solid dark color is what you are trying to achieve on your wooden deck, the stain would be an ideal choice.
Although both the products have varieties available in between the two spectrums, the factors that make decking oils and stains different from each other are their easy application, penetration ability, durability, and performance of the final finish.
At the end of the day, you will need to shop around for the right brand and ingredients you want before covering the deck.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.