Basic Guide to Exterior House Finishes

Colorful Victorian House Exterior

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House exteriors need protection. Battered by snow, rain, wind, sun, and falling objects, house exteriors are subject to damage on a constant basis. Providing protection for your home's siding also means protecting everything inside of your home. When the home's envelope fails, the rest of the house follows suit rapidly.

But exterior finishes are not just about protection: They also beautify your home and add aesthetic and monetary value to it. The right exterior finish can turn your house into the gorgeous showcase that you have always dreamed of.

Exterior finishes generally fall into three major categories: paints, preservatives, and stains. Stains are sub-divided into semi-transparent stains and solid color stains.

Exterior House Paint

  • Solid colors in a wide range of shades
  • Maximum protection
  • Apply with roller, brush, or sprayer
  • The best option when the house is already painted
  • Simple and straight-forward finish choice

When homeowners think of exterior finishes, they naturally think of paint. 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 is exceedingly difficult to go back.

Paint technology has improved to the point where home exteriors can be painted in a variety of temperature conditions, pushing down nearly to freezing. This considerably extends your painting season. In most parts of the country, you should be able to paint your home exterior from spring to late fall—barring precipitation.

If your home exterior is in poor condition, exterior house paint may be your best option since it lets you patch imperfections and paint them over.


  • Best for the natural wood look
  • Works best when your siding is already unpainted wood
  • Can be applied with a sprayer or roller
  • Requires frequent maintenance and re-application
  • Fast application
  • The exterior must already be in fine condition

Think of preservatives as car wax for your house. Preservatives maintain the current look of your house's exterior, adding nothing and taking nothing away. The aim of exterior preservatives is to freeze the look of your house and protect it against the effects of weather.

Preservatives are for wood siding exteriors only. Preservatives soak into the wood's pores, preventing the infiltration of moisture. While it is said that preservatives do not discolor wood—and this is largely true—preservatives will add a faint shade to the wood. Preservatives are light-bodied and work well in paint sprayers. Due to its light body and sprayer application, preservative applies quickly and soaks in rapidly.

Preservatives are best when the house exterior is already in good condition. Preservatives will not repair or cover up a highly damaged home exterior.

Semi-Transparent or Solid Color Stains

Semi-Transparent Stain

  • Lets the look of the wood show through
  • Provides some color but not as much as solid color stains do
  • Only partially covers blemishes
  • Best for home exteriors in good condition
  • Apply with a sprayer or a roller

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.

Solid-Color Stain

  • The 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, though not as thin as semi-transparent stain
  • Can fade over time especially in areas that have strong sunlight
  • Covers blemishes well
  • Apply with a sprayer or a paint roller

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.