Exterior Finishes Made Easy: Your 3 Basic Finish Choices

Man Painting House Exterior
Man Painting House Exterior. Getty / Kim Steele

Painting interior walls is a breeze.  Protection is only a minor concern; it's all about looks.  But house exteriors, battered by snow, rain, wind, sun, and falling objects, need to considerably turn up the dial on protection.  Exterior finishes fall into three major categories: paints, preservatives, and stains.

1. Exterior Paint

Why You Might Want This:

  • The house is already painted.
  • You want maximum color and covering.
  • Protection is a high priority for you.
  • You have a siding material other than wood.


When homeowners think of exterior finishes, they naturally think of paint. Let's first look at exterior paint's strong points.

Painting your home is usually the least expensive way of protecting your home's siding. Paint spray guns--also inexpensive to rent or even to buy--work well on exteriors. Paint can cover up stubborn stains and give your house a fresh, new look.

But if you have natural wood siding, paint may not be the best choice. Once you cover up wood grain it's nearly impossible to go back. And buyers of cedar shake homes want to see cedar shake--not a paint job.

Check out Consumer Search's Ratings of the Four Best Exterior House Paints.

2. Preservatives

Why You Might Want This:


  • You like the wood look.
  • Your siding is already unpainted wood.
  • Dramatic color changes are unimportant to you.
  • You prefer to work with a sprayer.


Think of preservatives as car wax for your house: it maintains the current look of your house's exterior, adding nothing and taking nothing away. The aim of exterior preservatives is to freeze time.

Preservatives are for wood siding exteriors only. They soak into the wood's pores, preventing the infiltration of moisture.  While it is claimed that preservatives do not discolor wood (and this is largely true), preservatives will add a light shade to the wood.  Preservatives are light-bodied and work well in paint sprayers.

3. Stains

Why You Might Want Semi-Transparent Stain:

  • Oil-based stain is your preference.
  • You want to provide some color and partially cover blemishes.

Semi-Transparent Details

Semi-transparent stains capture some of the best of paint and of stains. They impart some color to the unfinished wood siding but do not overtake the wood's natural color. Like other stains, semi-transparent does not form a shell over the wood (as does paint), instead sealing up the wood's pores and keeping out water.

Why You Might Want Solid-Color Stains

  • Highest degree of pigment of any of the stains.
  • Use when displaying the siding's wood grain is not a concern.
  • Easier to apply than paint because it is thin (but not as thin as semi-transparent stains).

Solid Color Details

Solid color stains are like paint, but in stain form. So, you get nearly as much coloring and blemish coverage as with exterior paint, but in the workable form of stain. But solid color stain, unlike semi-transparent, does have enough "body" that it will form a coat.

If you have natural wood grain that you want to show through, do not use solid-color stain. You will see almost none of the wood grain. Solid color stains can be oil-based, acrylic, or a combination of oil- and latex- based.

* = Some siding material, such as vinyl siding, does not paint well.