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Painting vs. Staining the Deck: 5 Things To Consider

At the moment, I have this nice stained deck in my yard:

Stained deck in yard

I am vaguely considering painting it. Why? Because every time I take the dog outside, I sit down on the steps and my butt gets dirty. Paint is easier to clean, hence, paint.

But there are other things to think about too.

When deciding whether to paint or stain a deck there are five main things to consider – the appearance of the deck, the difficulty of initial application, the level of ongoing maintenance work, the cost of the product, and the future versatility.

I have thoughts about each one, of course!

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Deck Appearance

This one is simple, but probably the most crucial – what do you think looks best? If you think the natural wood looks best, or you’ve been dreaming of a certain color, well, here’s your chance.

You probably don’t need my help on this one. You know what you like. But I want to bring up a few options that you might not have realized existed.

Solid-Color Stains

First off, solid color stains. If you love the wood look, but want some color in your yard, there are stains that color the wood.

Instead of creating a film on top of the wood, they soak into the wood, coloring the appearance.

They’re available in a wide variety of colors (not just natural wood,) and are a relatively affordable option. Plus, they don’t come with some of the drawbacks of paint (cracking, priming) that we’ll talk about later.

Natural Look

Your deck doesn’t actually need a stain. I know what you’re thinking – protection! – but most wood stains don’t actually do anything to protect the wood.

Wood finishes are what protect the wood, and you absolutely need one of those.

But you can leave your wood it’s natural color, and just add a finish.

And if you splurged on some really nice wood that deserves to be the focus, this is absolutely the path you should take!

Also, many of those nicer woods, like maple and birch, don’t take stain very well, which is another reason to leave them natural.

Some finishes actually add a little bit of warmth to the wood, so you might want to test a few finishes out in an inconspicuous spot to see if it’s a look you like.

Personally, I like the natural-wood look. If I opt not to paint, I’ll probably just leave the wood as it is, and add another coat of finish.

Difficulty of Application

Paint is a lot of work to apply. First you have to prime, then you have to add two coats of latex paint. That’s three coats total, with at least 2 hours of dry time between each one.

(And if you’re thinking “I’ll just skip the primer,” no, don’t do that. I have a whole post on when you can and can’t skip primer, but exterior applications is absolutely a place where primer is 100% necessary.

No primer means the paint will crack and peel off faster, and you’ll be spending even more time and maintenance on your deck.)

Comparably, stain is pretty easy. The stain itself just requires one coat, and often times stains meant for decks come as a “stain + finish” combo.

Even if you’re doing the stain and finish separately, that’s still only two coats, compared with 3 for the paint.

Side Note: A few other websites throw in a coat of polyurethane to go on top of the paint. As long as you’re using exterior paint, this is unnecessary (and could be harmful.) Exterior paint is formulated for the exterior, and doesn’t need poly to protect it.

Also, oil-based poly yellows over time, and if you’ve picked a light color paint, it will yellow on top of your paint. Not pretty.

If you’re really determined to use poly over paint, water-based polyurethane doesn’t yellow, and is a safer bet.

Level of Ongoing Maintenance

Paint is more work to put on, but once it’s on, it’s on. Given you’ve used high-quality exterior paint with the right primer, you’ve got 10 years before you need to worry about repainting.

Even some of the traditional problems of paint, like cracking and peeling, don’t usually happen until after years of extreme temperatures changing the width of the wood.

Stain (or really polyurethane finish, since the stain itself is not what’s protecting the wood,) doesn’t last anywhere near as long. You’ll likely find yourself reapplying in 2-4 years.

And as I alluded to at the beginning, paint is also easier to clean. Paint creates a smooth surface, so brushing off debris or cleaning with soap and water is easier to do.

Hint: If you’ve stained the deck, and water is soaking into the wood when you try to clean, it’s time to apply more finish.

Cost

Paint is expensive, and the fact you’ll need to do two coats plus the primer will drive up the cost even further.

For my relatively small deck, I’d need a can of primer (Zinsser’s Oil-Based Primer is a beast and I love it,) and hopefully just one can of paint.

I like Behr (they’re affordable and get a higher rating from Consumer Reports than the fancy brands,) and a can of porch paint is roughly $35.

Which is puts me at $65. Obviously, the bigger the deck, the more this number will climb.

Whereas, a can of deck stain+sealer is around $40.

Versatility

Okay. This is the one that really keeps me from painting the deck.

Once you paint the deck, you can’t go back.

Paint does not come off easily. I strip paint from furniture all the time, and even as someone experienced in stripping paint, getting it off a whole deck would be a nightmare.

So once you’ve painted the deck, you’re painting it forever. The wood-look is gone.

And as someone who generally likes the look of wood, taking that permanent of a step scares me.

That said, it might not scare you, in which case, paint away!

Final Thoughts

I’m thinking I’m going to leave my deck the way it is, and probably add a few coats of finish. I’ll probably opt for a true polyurethane, not one of the “stain + finish” combos, because I keep applying that stuff and it seems to require reapplication fairly quickly.

(Not a review, or any sort of data-driven analysis. Literally me just being unhappy with whatever product I pulled off the shelf last year.)