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Picking Colors for Staining

Homeowner's Guide

Stain vs. Paint

What is the difference, what are the options, and which is right for you? Both stains and paints serve the same purpose: to protect and beautify the surface they are applied to. But what really is the difference? What types of stain and paint are out there? Which is right for me?

What is stain?

Stain is a sealant, usually with coloring in it, that is applied to wood surfaces to waterproof the surface and prevent rotting. Stain soaks into the wood and usually weathers by slowing fading. Solid stains can weather by peeling. Stain can come in either an oil-based or water-based formula and in a variety of colors. Stain is a popular option for decks, fences, and any other wood surface where the wood grain is important for the desired look. Stain usually lasts 2-10 years on a surface depending on the number of coats, integrity of the wood being stained, and the type of stain used.


What is paint?

Paint is a coating that can be tinted to any color and a variety of sheens. Paint sits on top of nearly any surface and protects the surface from weathering. Paint is a popular coating for wood, metal, and concrete as it prevents rotting, rusting, and algae growth. Paint creates a film on the surface and does not soak into the surface at all. Paint can come in an oil-based or water-based formula with water-based being by far the most common. Some paints require a primer, but many paints today are self-priming and can be applied directly to wood or metal. Paint is a popular option for wood and aluminum house siding, fences, and railings on decks.

No Application vs. Application (Stain)

No Application vs. Application (Paint)

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Deck Staining
Peeling Paint Garage

Old Weathered Stain in Madison, WI

Old Peeling Paint in Wauwatosa, WI

What types of stains are there?

Stain comes in multiple different transparencies. These can be anywhere from a clear coat to a solid stain that looks like paint and anywhere in between. These transparencies are most commonly clear, transparent, semi-transparent, semi-solid, and solid.


A clear coat (C) is an entirely clear sealant. It has no coloring in it and will result in your deck looking the exact same as how it looked before staining and will not cover any imperfections. It will waterproof your deck and extend the life of the wood but is the least durable transparency of stain as it is the thinnest product. Clear coat sealers are typically offered in both water-based and oil-based formulas.


A transparent stain (T) is similar to a clear coat except that it has a colorant in it. This means that your deck will be visibly different than before it was stained, but you will be able to see every imperfection just as before. A transparent stain is most commonly offered in an oil-based formula and for that reason we do not recommend this product.


A semi-transparent (ST) stain has significantly more colorant in it and will dramatically change the look of your deck. You will still be able to make out the grain of the wood but nearly all imperfections will be covered. After two coats of semi-transparent stain, the wood will be completely colored. Semi-transparent stain is more durable than both clear coats or transparent stains. Semi-transparent stain can be difficult to apply and usually results in an inconsistent finish. If it is important to you that your deck looks completely uniform, a solid stain is a better option. Semi-transparent stains are available in both oil-based and water-based.


A semi-solid stain (SS) is incredibly similar to a semi-transparent but typically thicker and more durable. This stain will still be partially transparent but will completely color your deck after one or two coats. This stain is available in both oil-based and water-based. 


A solid stain (SL) is our most popular option. Solid stains look like paint but soak into the wood like stain. It is the most durable option and results in a consistent finish across the surface after two coats. A solid stain will cover all imperfections and protect wood that is prone to rotting. Solid stain is popular with our customers for all of these reasons as well as the beautiful finish it provides. 


Whatever transparency you choose, you should know that you can never go back a transparency without completely stripping the surface first. If you have a solid stain on your deck, but decide in a few years that you want a semi-transparent, you will need to remove all of the solid stain first so that it doesn't show through the semi-transparent. If you decide to go up a transparency, there will be no issues with doing so as it will just go right over what was previously applied.

Stain Opacities

What types of paints are there?

There really is one main variable when deciding a paint to use on your exterior maintenance project - the sheen


Sheen is the shininess of the paint. Many paint brands offer paints in High Gloss, Semi-Gloss, Satin, Eggshell, and Flat or Matte. For most exterior projects, a flat sheen will be your best option. This is because flat shows the fewest imperfections and typically does not result in visible brush strokes or sprayer flashing. Higher sheens can also make your home difficult to look at when the sun is reflecting off of it. There are a couple of main reasons to choose a stain or eggshell finish though, and that is they can be easier to clean and result in less UV damage as they reflect sunlight. 


Paint is available in both interior and exterior options. For exterior projects, exterior paint is required as it is specially formulated for that purpose. While interior paint may look fine in the short term, it will weather much quicker and provide less protection.


In our experience, a flat sheen is the best choice for nearly all exterior maintenance projects such as house painting, deck painting, and fence painting. 

Is oil-based or water-based better?

Both paints and stains can be made with an oil-based formula or a water-based formula. For stains, both are very common. At EcoWash, we try to use exclusively water-based stains as they are durable, easy on the environment as they are low in volatile organic compounds, can be applied over bare wood or any type of stain, can be applied to damp wood, and can be cleaned from brushes and equipment with water rather than petroleum distillates. 


Oil-based stains are also quite durable but are comparably difficult to clean and far worse for the environment with few upsides. They can result in your deck being sticky and cannot be applied over anything other than bare wood or another oil-based stain. The main advantage of an oil-based stain is that it can be shinier than a water-based formula and may be more attractive to some homeowners. If a client specifically requests an oil-based stain, we will still do the project assuming that the previous stain was also oil-based and the client has been informed of the risks of oil-based stain.


All in all, we use water-based stains because we believe they are a superior product. They are durable, easy on the environment, have a much simpler and eco-friendly cleanup, can be applied to damp wood, and can be applied over any bare wood or stained surface. 

Brown Bad Purple Good

Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Stain

What is the right choice for my project?

As you likely know by now, paint and stain have different purposes and have a lot of options within each type of coating. As a general rule, with plenty of exceptions, decks and fences should be stained with a solid (SL) or semi-transparent (ST) water-based stain. This is to provide maximum longevity and beauty to the surface. Houses should be painted with a water-based flat-sheened paint that is specially formulated for exterior use. If you need any assistance on what type of coating is best for your project, please contact us and we can schedule a personalized consultation and thoroughly explain your options and our recommendations.

EcoWash Recommends

Water-based Solid or Semi-Transparent Stains

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