Painting or Staining a Fence: Which One’s Better?

Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Painting A Wood Fence: Should You Do It?

Although PVC fencing has grown in popularity, wood fencing is still favored for its natural beauty, but the biggest disadvantage of owning a wooden fence is having to maintain it with a fresh coat of paint, or stain. Without routine maintenance, a neglected fence will turn gray and eventually rot from rain and UV exposure.

Staining a weathered fence every three to five years is the best way to extend its lifespan and avoid rot and expensive repair work. But what about using paint on a fence instead of stain? Is painting a wood fence better than staining it? I’ll answer those questions in this article and cover the pros and cons of both.


Painting vs. Staining A Fence – The Pros and Cons

Unless your wood fence is already painted, or you want to use a color that’s unavailable with stain, I recommend using the best water-based fence stain you can afford instead of paint. In my experience, the prep work associated with re-staining a fence is usually less than the prep work to re-paint a weathered fence. If you choose wood fence paint instead of stain, it’s really important to repaint the fence before it starts peeling otherwise you’ll have a lot of scraping and sanding to do.

Paint Can Last Longer Than Stain, But Not Always

Exterior paints are thicker and protect the wood more than stain, but when paint starts peeling, the prep work isn’t fun when it’s time to repaint. Paint eventually peels and cracks, especially oil-based paint, which becomes very brittle. Moisture from within the wood can get trapped underneath the paint layers too and cause blistering.

Fence paint durability also depends on the surface preparation, climate conditions where you live and the quality of the paint. When the wood is pressure washed and given plenty of time to dry before priming and painting, paint can prove to be very durable on a fence. However, solid stain, which looks similar to paint, is also very durable and does not require primer in most cases. Solid stain can peel too, but not as badly as paint in my experience. Exterior stain fades and flakes off more than it peels.

Wood Fence Paint Has More Color Options

Wood fence stain is usually limited to natural wood colors, although some products can be mixed in white, blue, gray and even green colors. Fence paint, on the other hand, is available in a multitude of color options, so paint is the way to go for unique colors you can’t use with stain.

Painting a Wood Fence is More Work

Wood fence stain doesn’t require primer, but paint usually does. Priming a fence before painting is necessary because the primer prevents natural wood oils from bleeding into the paint coats and ruining the color. Primer is also important because paint alone doesn’t form the strongest bond with unprimed bare wood.

Paint Minimizes Wood Grain

The thickness of paint minimizes wood grain and makes it less noticeable on a painted fence. If you want to maintain the wood grain texture and natural look of your fence, use stain instead of paint.

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Stain in a solid finish doesn’t hide the natural wood grain as much as paint does. If you want to see more of your fences wood texture, I recommend going with semi-solid stain, or even semi-transparent, but know that the more transparent the finish is, the sooner it will fade and need a re-coat.

Stain gives you more finish options

Paint gives you plenty of options for colors, but the finish itself is always solid. With wood stain, you have several finish options including solid, semi-solid, semi-transparent and clear toner. Solid stain contains the most pigment and lasts the longest out of all the fence stain finishes. If you don’t want to re-stain your fence every year, I would avoid using a clear transparent toner on your fence. A solid stain finish will last around five years before you need to re-stain the fence.

My favorite waterborne stain for fences and siding.

My favorite waterborne stain for fences and siding.

The Best Wood Stain for Fence Posts and Panels

As I’ve explained in this article, I don’t recommend painting a fence unless it’s already painted or you want to use unique colors you can’t use with stain. Prepping a painted fence for a re-paint usually involves scraping and applying primer. Staining a fence is easier because it doesn’t require primer. The prep work to re-stain a fence using the same color typically consists of a pressure wash and one coat of stain, that’s it. Stain also preserves the natural look of the wood. Check out my article Tips for Applying Stain to a Wood Fence for application tips.

The best wood stain for fence posts and panels that I’ve used several times is Woodscapes (waterborne version) from Sherwin Williams. Check out my Woodscapes stain review to get more in-depth information on the performance and application. The waterborne acrylic Woodscapes also works great for staining cedar siding and T1-11 siding.

I really like the solid stain from Woodscapes, but the semi-transparent stain is nice too if you want to see more of the natural wood grain. With the solid stain finish, you don’t have to treat the wood first with brightener or scrape off old layers of stain. On a fence, the solid stain from Woodscapes lasts roughly five years before it needs to be re-stained.

What’s the Best Paint for A Wood Fence?

If you decide that painting a wood fence is better for your situation, I would definitely choose the best exterior wood paint you can afford so it lasts longer. I’ve never used paint on a fence, but for painting exterior house trim, I’ve used the acrylic latex Super Paint and Duration from Sherwin Williams. Both paints are expensive, but very durable. I would avoid using oil-based paint on a fence. The paint becomes brittle and cracks more than acrylic latex. Oil-based paints can also become a food source for mildew.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to be substituted for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Matt G.

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