Best Wood Stains of 2023 (and a Few of the Worst)
The best aren't always the costliest. Here's what you need to know—and what to avoid.
Staining a wood deck doesn’t just add to its beauty; it adds a layer of protection to the wood that will help it look great for years to come. The same holds true for staining fences, siding, or outdoor furniture. The best wood stains can help add years to the life of the wood. And while it’s never fun to prematurely replace rotting wood, that’s doubly true now, as lumber prices remain very high by historical standards.
There are currently more than 30 wood stains in our ratings, including those still undergoing our three years of testing, and we’ve found massive differences from one formulation to another. The best wood stain in our ratings currently earns an Overall Score of 82 out of 100. The worst earns an abysmal score of 4 out of 100.
Bear in mind that manufacturers periodically reformulate their products, so in turn, we retest samples from time to time to make sure this article and our ratings reflect the most up-to-date information available.
Types of Wood Stains
Solid wood stains: Just like regular paint, solid stains hide the grain of the wood, and the best should last three to five years on a deck, the longest of the three types of stains. But the paintlike qualities of solid stains have a drawback: They might build up a film, especially after several coats, which can peel, chip, and crack just like paint. The 11 stains in this category included in our comprehensive ratings chart earn Overall Scores of 12 to 82 (out of 100).
Semi-transparent wood stains: These color the wood but let the grain peek through, making them a good choice for wood that you want to show off, such as western red cedar. But even the best semi-transparent stains in our tests aren’t as tough as the top solid stains, and our data suggest that this type of stain will probably last only two to three years on a deck. The 10 stains in this category also vary widely in performance, garnering Overall Scores of 8 to 41 (out of 100).
Clear sealer: This type of stain contains water repellents but little or no pigment. It’s ideal for accentuating the beauty of the natural grain of the wood. But without anything to deflect UV rays, the wood itself will turn gray over time; picture a weathered cedar-shingled house. You’ll probably need to reapply annually. The seven clear sealers in our tests score the lowest, with Overall Scores from 4 to 27 (out of 100).
What's the Best Deck Stain?
Decks take a bigger beating than any other outdoor wood surface. They withstand serious foot traffic and hold heavy items, like grills and outdoor furniture. Plus, unlike with a wooden fence, things like snow, salt, leaves, and rain can all easily collect on a deck, breaking down the protective layer of wood stain in the process. While any of the CR-recommended stains may do, it’s best to stick to those with particularly high ratings for their appearance after three years in our test; these tend to be solid stains, as opposed to semi-transparent or clear ones.
If your deck is in direct sunlight, look to those stains that resist color change over time (you can check features and specs in our ratings charts). If you have a covered deck, or if your deck is in a shady spot, look for a stain that resists mildew, because mildew tends to proliferate in damp, shaded areas. And if you frequently move items like a grill, deck chairs, or a table from one spot to another, select a stain that resists cracking in our tests.
If you’re curious about which brand makes the best deck stain, you should know that the bigger differences are actually between the different types of stains, not the companies that make them. Even big-name brands like Behr, Valspar, and Olympic, all of whom make highly rated solid deck stains, also make some semi-transparent and clear options that don’t hold up in our tests.
If you want your deck stain to last a long time, your best bet is to choose an option that fares well in our tests and to apply it correctly. And of course, if you’re tired of staining and restaining your deck, you can look into composite decks; they offer years of maintenance-free good looks, without ever needing to apply a coat of stain.
How Consumer Reports Tests Wood Stains
To test wood stains, CR’s engineers apply two coats to pine boards, then place them on the roof of our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. They face the boards south and angled down, like a roof, to intensify the effects of the sun and weather for up to three years.
One year of testing tells you how a stain will do after a year on your deck or about three years of weathering on vertical surfaces (siding or fences).
For more information on the best ways to assess and apply wood stains, see our wood stain buying guide.
Below, CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of some of the best wood stains we’ve tested. You’ll find additional details and options in our comprehensive wood stain ratings.
Best Wood Stains: Solid
Best Wood Stains: Semi-Transparent
Worst Wood Stains From CR's Tests
As a category, transparent wood stains, or clear sealers, don’t fare well in our tests. The Olympic WaterGuard for Wood and Valspar’s One-Coat Clear are among the worst of the bunch, tying for the second lowest Overall Score in CR’s stain tests: a 5 out of 100. They don’t even provide a single year of protection for wood in our tests.
The Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Clear Sealer receives an abysmal rating of 4 out of 100 and doesn’t resist cracking, dirt, mildew, or color changes.
Even among solid stains, not all are up to the task. The Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Solid fails in the same four areas as the options above and earns an Overall Score of only 12 out of 100.