Latex vs. Oil Exterior Stain: Which Is Best For Your Deck or Fence?

Staining a fence

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When staining any exterior wood element such as a fence, deck, siding, or garden bridge, you can choose between either an oil-based or latex-based stain. Oil-based stains traditionally been used for exterior elements, but they are messier and smellier than latex-based stains. The final appearance is different, due to matters of opacity and color vibrancy.

Oil Stains Latex Stains
How They Look A more natural appearance, with the wood's grain showing through. Color is muted. If improperly applied, shiny areas can result. More of a solid color look akin to the appearance of house paint. Vibrant colors. Easy to apply consistently.
How They Work Oil-based stains completely soak into the wood's cellular structure. With the cells filled, water cannot penetrate. It just beads up on the surface. More of a solid color look akin to the appearance of house paint. Vibrant colors. Easy to apply consistently.
Application Difficult to apply, though because you are working outside, downsides associated with indoor oil paint usage are mitigated. Use a natural bristle brush, synthetic filament brush, or pad applicator. Unless you are experienced, using an airless sprayer for oil-based stains is not recommended. Easy to apply. Nylon or polyester brush, 3/4” (19 mm) long nap roller, or sprayer.
Curing Time 4-5 hours. Oil does not dry. It soaks into the wood. About 2 hours.
Lifecycle 2 years on decks, 4 years on fences and siding. The issue isn't that the stain is failing; the transparent nature of oil-based stain gets only more transparent over time, allowing UV rays to degrade the wood. While annual refinishing is recommended, latex stains might go as long as 4-8 years before you need to refinish.
Cleanup Mineral spirits are required to clean up oil-based stains. These stains require only water and a paint comb to clean the brushes thoroughly.
Pro Wood grain will still show through even dark oil-based stains. With lighter latex-based stains, wood grain may not show. Even though the opaque pigments make for a less transparent stain, this also means that the wood is better protected against UV rays from the sun.
Con Over application means the stain will sit on the surface and pool up. Since oil does not dry in air, it will remain until you rub it off with a cloth. Cannot be used on horizontal surfaces, such as decks, as they do not wear well.

Representative Brand Names

Oil Stains

  • Behr Semi-Transparent Oil-Based Wood Stain
  • Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Exterior Oil-Based Transparent Stain

Latex Stains

  • Behr Solid Color House & Fence Wood Stain
  • Behr Premium Semi-Transparent Weatherproofing All-In-One Wood Stain & Sealer
  • Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Exterior Waterborne Clear Sealer

Recommendation

Even though oil-based stains are harder to work with, I recommending using them. For most homeowners, the beauty of the wood grain is the reason they installed a wood fence in the first place--otherwise, you could have put in a white vinyl fence and never had to deal with protective coating issues. If you truly hate clean-up, one solution is to purchase low-cost brushes that you can discard after each use, rather than soaking in spirits.