Finishing your deck – oil or stain?

Now that you’re done constructing your deck the only thing left to do is to add the finishing touches.  Both oils and stains have their own distinct advantages. In this post we’ll have a look at both finishing materials.

A good deck can make a house a home...
A good deck can make a house a home. In this example, the deck is oiled without any tint.

Finishing your deck with an oil or stain is an important step to ensure that your deck will last for years. Untreated wood is vulnerable to cracking, fading, and weathering and attack by fungus and other microbes. Treated timber will also dry and crack over time but will not rot assuming the treatment has been performed properly.  Regular application of an oil or stain ensures that decking materials are well protected against the major causes of deterioration.

Decking Oil:

Decking oil is used to protect wood from weathering and UV exposure. Because it soaks into the timber, restoring lost natural oils it significantly reduces the risk of decay. The right oil also greatly enhances the appearance of the deck.

Choosing the right colour
Decking oils vary in terms of colour. Tinted oils provides a richer and darker tone to the wood and are best for lighter shaded wood. Natural (untinted) oils retains the original colour of the wood. Wood valued for its colour is best finished using clear oils because it highlights the deep and rich natural colour of the wood.

Note that you should apply the first coat of oil as soon as practicable after completion. Delaying, even for a few weeks, will cause some permanent discolouration and bleaching of your timbers.

Decking oil application
The method of application depends upon the variety of wood and the type of oil you’re using. In recent years, despite sounding counter-intuitive, some excellent water-based oils have become available. They are very easy to apply and give an excellent finish however, in my experience, need re-coating more frequently than traditional oils.  The trade-off is that they are quick to apply so your annual time commitment is probably equal.

 

This deck has been stained with a light pigment
This deck has been oiled with a light pigment to give a consistent colour

To get the best results with any oil (or stain) it’s best to experiment by applying the oil on an off-cut from the job to see what the finished effect will be. If you have used a combination of timbers, for example, pine and cedar, make sure you test the oil on both as they will give very different results. You may need to add a tint to the pine and use a clear finish on the cedar.

Go lightly, my friend…
Avoid applying thick coats of oil as the excess oil can attract dust and other particulates. Instead, apply a light coat wait between a week or even a fortnight between coats. This will give the oil time to soak completely into the wood before you apply additional coats.

Wood stains:
Much like decking oil, wood stains also protect wood from weathering, UV rays, and other forms of deterioration. Unlike an oil, stains seal the wood, adding an extra layer of protection against the elements. It is important to understand the difference because you cannot ‘unstain’ timber.

Wood stains are used to permanently alter the colour of the wood. Stains come in a wide variety of penetrating strengths. These strengths allow you to control the depth of colour and tint of the wood.

Wood stain variation
The ability of the stain to penetrate determines the kind of pigmentation it’s able to create. Less penetrating stains provides a solid stain. Less penetrating stains provide the best UV protection but because they don’t penetrate well they fade easily. Deep penetrating stain provides transparent or semi-transparent finish. Deep penetrating stains provide less protection against UV rays but are able to highlight the natural grain and character of timber.

 

An example of staining. The finish is permanent.
An example of staining. The finish is permanent.

Wood stain maintenance
Wood stain also requires resealing but doesn’t require the same level of maintenance as decking oil. However, your decking is going to be exposed to the weather 24 hours a day and will look tatty if you leave it to long between scheduled maintenance.  You should also be aware that regular re-coating will minimise your ‘prep time’ – the hardest part of any painting process.

Wood stain application
As with decking oil, it’s best to apply a couple of coats to off-cuts or excess pieces of wood to test the final look of the stain. You should also avoid rebrushing stain that has already been applied as this will often result in annoying changes in colour depth in that spot.  Instead, work consistently in one direction. You should also stain the entire area in one sitting as this will give full colour consistency.

So, there you go!  Both oil and stain have distinct advantages.  For me, the decision usually comes down to the quality of timber used. If the deck is merbau, teak or jarrah for example, I will want to highlight and enhance the natural beauty of those timbers by using a clear oil. If the deck is pine, I will usually choose a solid colour stain in order to get colour consistency and to provide maximum protection.

Now it’s over to you… oil or stain? Which one will you use and why?

If you have any questions or you’d like to share your experience, just scroll down to the comments box below. Thanks for joining me.

In our last post in this series, I discuss the why Free-Standing Desks are Such a Great Alternative




  • Malcolm Maclaren

    Hi, I have a pine deck, laid 2 years ago which has never been treated. I recently pressure washed it and it has come up pretty good, but I want to stain it now. will a good stain alone be ok or can I stain it then coat it with clear oil? I want the colour of a stain, but I think the deck would benefit from being oiled. Or perhaps the stain will treat the wood sufficiently?
    Many Thanks For Your Time.

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Definitely use an oil. It will enhance both the appearance and longevity of the deck. Speak to a local supplier about water based ‘oils’. They dry faster, are less likely to collect dust and tend to last longer than traditional oil finishes. As a bonus, your brushes will wash clean in water and there is no residual oil odour.

      Hope that helps.

      • Rosie

        Hi David, like Malcolm I have inherited decking a few years old which looks like it has never been treated. I have been busy pressure washing it to get the green/moss off and it’s grey underneath. Would you recommend an oil or Stain? Or can I Stain then oil? It gets a lot of footfall and I really want this to last, but prepared to put in the hours graft. If you recommend just oil, what brand? Reviews for home bases own brand seem better than the big names. Thank you.

        • Hi Rosie! Apologies for the delayed response. I missed seeing your question 🙁

          By the sound of it, the timber is very dry so getting some oil into it is going to be a preservation step. You don’t mention what timber it is. A clear oil will just ‘feed’ the timber without any lasting impact on colour (other than making it look darker). I would start by giving it two coats of water based oil (I know that sounds like a contradiction), leave it a month to see how it looks and then decide on colour. Long term, I’d stick with a tinted oil. The colour won’t build up and it’s fast and easy to apply.

          As to brand, make sure the reviews you are reading are for your climate but oils are very forgiving, even in freezing conditions.

          Hope that helps 😀

  • John Martin

    I have a new deck made of attractively coloured hardwood. It was completed about 8 weeks ago. I was advised not to oil it for a few weeks to allow the tannin to come out.Bad advice. During this time it has become stained in two places. One underneath a rubber type mat which I had put under the BBQ. The other a round stain from a metal structure which holds the sundeck umbrella. Both are black stains. I want to remove them both before I oil the deck. What can I do?

  • Jake

    I have stained my deck many times and it rarely lasts a summer. We have a very hot back yard and the portion of the deck in the sun seems to immediately peel up.
    I am wondering about stripping, sanding and using a deck oil instead. Would that be a better option?

    • Hi Jake,

      Depending on the product you have used in the past, you may be able to use an oil based finished without sanding but the fact that is ‘peeling up’ is a concern. That indicates that the stain is not bonding/keying with the timber so a heavy sanding may be in order. The advantage of oil – especially the water clean up ones, is that they are really easy to apply so even if you still have to do it every year, it’s not a big job.

      Hope that helps.

  • Chris Keenahan

    Hi David,
    I have a covered deck that is made of redwood that has never been treated. I’ve sanded it back to bare timber which is a pink colour. Which would “bring out” the rich red colour best, oil or stain? It cops some heavy traffic as it is the approach to the front door.

    • Hi Chris,

      Definitely an oil. It will show of the timber in the best possible way and is also very easy to apply. Look for a ‘water clean-up’ oil. If you are happy with the current colour/cleanliness, I would use a straight untinted oil. If you need a little colour touchup/cover, use something with only a light tint. Remember that the colour will build up little by little every time you recoat.

      DW

  • Adam

    Hi David,

    we are working on refurbishment and maintenance for beach boardwalk around 15,000 Sq.m of hardwood , I am finding difficulty to choose the right finish oil or stain.

    I would appreciate if you could advice.

    • Hi Adam,

      That’s a tough environment as the timber is going to be continually assaulted by salt-laden air and humidity. Do you know what species the hardwood is? What is the general location of the job site?

      DW

  • brabha

    I have a small pine deck on my balcony which is one year old. Not treated yet.

    Does it need any cleaning / treatment before oiling or staining?

    • Hi Brabha! Yes, I strongly recommend cleaning it before you coat it. It may not look stained now, but anything that is sitting on the surface is going to show when you oil or stain it. A little extra cost and time now but you will regret not making that investment.

  • Steve

    Hello David “Note that you should apply the first coat of oil as soon as practicable after completion. Delaying, even for a few weeks, will cause some permanent discolouration and bleaching of your timbers”. Regarding this it has not been practical for us to treat the deck before now, it has been down about 12 months so has discoloured and bleached slightly. To overcome this would you recommend a slight tint i.e. oak or would a clear oil bring the wood back?

    • Hi Steve. Get a good deck cleaning product like Cabots Deck Clean and give your deck a thorough was down. Let it dry for a day in case you need to give it a second wash. Then apply your oil. You should not need extra tint.

  • edward

    do I oil decking before staining or stain first before oiling

    • Hi Edward! I apologise for the late reply. Your best option is to get a tinted oil rather than do the job twice. Another big advantage is that you will find the colours to be much more consistent versus staining first.

  • Elizabeth

    I have a static caravan in Cumbria with decking. A few years ago, when the decking was new, I sought advice from a local timber company and was advised to use Rustins decking oil. Unfortunately, over the years (even though I have given it another coat each year), I have found that is it now starting to peel and to be quite honest, it looks a mess and I am not sure if it would take another coat without serious preparation work.

    In the coming months I will be changing my static and having new decking installed. Should I put oil or stain on my new decking? I would like to know the easiest method from a maintenance point of view as I am not able to cope with sanding down.

    Thanks

    • Hi Elizabeth. Apologies for the slow reply. Stain and oil are not mutually exclusive as one simply colours while the other preserves. However, there are various degrees of stain, some of which completely cover and, effectively, hide the grain of the timber. I assume you are inquiring about the latter.

      For my money, I’d use a water based oil, either clear (no stain) or something with a teak or merbau tint. My experience here in very sunny and warm Australia, is that each application is good for about 10 – 12 months. You should do a lot better there but regardless, the advantage of the water based oils is their ease of application and cleanup.

      I have not experienced any challenges with build-up or peeling as you have mentioned. I don’t know what brands you have available to you there but I can recommend Intergrain, Cabot’s Aquadeck and Wattyl, all of which I have used satisfactorily. Feast Watson also offer a similar product but I have not used it.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  • Dean

    Hi David I have a merbau deck about 50sqares I let it bleed for a week then oiled it with an oil base oil but a year later and it has lost a lot of colour and holds the dirt,is it possible to give the deck a merbau stain as I love the real colour,would I have to sand back the deck first considering it also has an oil coat

    • Hi Dean. Thanks for the question. Like you I love the colour of merbau. Sanding would be a last resort. I would try a good deck cleaning solution first. There are lots of brands and you will undoubtedly have a choice at your local hardware or paint dealer. Apply it with a stiff broom and then use a pressure washer (wide spray setting) to hose it off. I’d be surprised if that doesn’t restore it. If it’s really bad now, you might need a second application.

      Once clean, use a water based oil with a merbau tint to give it two good coats. It goes on easily and can be re-coated on the same day.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  • Gerry

    Hi Dean.
    I am building a boardwalk down the side of my house. I am using blackbutt planks. We really like the blonder look of this timber and want to retain it. From reading previous posts, I think I’ll use a clear oil.
    Can you please advise me on the following?
    1. Will a clear oil (waterbased or otherwise) preserve the colour.
    2. What are the major factors in contributing the to the frequency of reapplication? Sun and rain?
    3. Is it necessary to let the tannins leach out, or should I apply asap?
    4. What preparation work is required when re oiling when using a water based oil?
    Thanks in advance.
    Regards
    Gerry

    • Hi Gerry,

      Sun is the killer, not rain however, if water pools on your decking that can obviously lead to rot. Unfortunately, you will always get dirt buildup on any deck, even one that is fully roofed. This will make your timber look darker over time more than the oil itself. Pressure cleaning before re-coating will minimize build-up.

      I’m too late answering your question about tannins but the paint companies recommend waiting 4 – 6 weeks before applying to new timbers. In contrast, the timber mills will argue that if you don’t apply it to BOTH sides and edges BEFORE laying your deck that they will not warrant you against twisting, warping or ‘excessive’ splitting! I have just been through an instance where some of the decking (clear grade 140×22 pine) twisted and cupped so badly that it was snapping off the screws! The mill argued that the fault was mine since I did not fully seal the boards before laying them!

  • Craig Connoll

    Hi David,

    I currently live in NZ, north island and the sun is unforgiving here.

    I have built a new boundary and front fence with treated pine, each 9 meters long by 2 meters high.
    I want to use something that I only have to treat once every two or so years as the fences will be tricky to treat due to hedges and trees.
    The front fence will pretty much have sun the whole day and the side fence will be covered by trees and be in a damp area pretty much 24/7 during winter.

    I have already staind the front fence with a water based stain (ebony colour from cedar base) with cabbots deck stain and now am considering tinted oil instead if stain.

    I want to prevent the palings from warping, cracking and the knots falling out.
    Am I correct in saying that the water based stain will require the palings to be sanded down after every four coats as it looks like a sealed film is created when two coats is applied?
    I need an option that is quick to apply but not every 10 months as time is a luxury for me at the moment.

    Am I asking too much from Oil and being unrealistic about stain preventing warping and cracking?

    Regards,

    Craig Connoll

    • Hi Craig. I have to check back here more often 🙁 I don’t think you’ll find anything that is going to last longer than 15 – 18 months at best in full sun. And given your desire to try to prevent warping and cracking, even that may be too long given that most fence palings are only 15 – 20 mm thick. You could consider getting a spray gun which will make the job faster but does not cover as well as a brush. It’s a trade-off, I’m afraid.

  • JEET

    Hi, I inherited decking nearly 200 sq.ft. It looks weathered and starting to peel. I am not sure what material is used for the decking but from what I know it was laid around 7 years ago.

    I cannot decide between oil or stain. I’ve got a pressure washer and a ronseal cleaner and reviver and will start the cleaning this weekend. However would need your help as to which is better of the two (oil or stain) to keep it protected.

    Thanks,

    • Sorry for the late reply, Jeet. You’ve probably already made all your decisions. As I said to Gareth above:

      “You’ll need to use a deck clean solution first. If the previous coating was oil, the clean will remove any residue. You can then assess the surface when it dries and decide whether to stain it. I prefer to use the water-based oils which you can tint. Why not try that first since you can always use stain later, but staining is a no-return option.”

      Hope that helps.

  • Gareth James

    We have moved into a bungalow with 50 sq metres of decking
    And the previous,owners applied oil. Do we need to continue with oil or can we apply stain instead? Or do we have to stick with the oil?

    • Hi Gareth. You’ll need to use a deck clean solution first. If the previous coating was oil, the clean will remove any residue. You can then assess the surface when it dries and decide whether to stain it. I prefer to use the water-based oils which you can tint. Why not try that first since you can always use stain later, but staining is a no-return option.

  • Ingrid

    Hello,
    We have just cleaned our decking with a jet wash and then treated the wood to remove some of the mould and black stains. We decided to then use oil to restore it and, after doing the first coat, I don’t like the colour. My partner says that we would get a better shade of colour if we stained it so my question is: can we stain the decking once it’s been oiled? i.e. apply the stain directly on the layer of oil.

    • Hi Ingrid. Staining now will give a very uneven result. You will probably see a marked improvement in appearance with a second coat of your existing choice OR simply tint the oil to move closer to your desired colour. You haven’t said where you are, but a single coat of oil will certainly break down within 12 months.

      Hope that helps.

  • That’s good to know about applying oil for the timber deck. I guess it would be something for me to do once my deck is finished. My brother and I are hoping that it would be finished by tomorrow.

  • Aaron

    Hi David – thanks for the time you take answering all of these questions.

    What do you recommend for Marietta, Georgia. Very humid summers and my deck sees a lot of fallen leaves in the fall. Previous owners had a company do it and that company says they used emulsified (sp?) Oil. I would use them to if funds weren’t so tight.

    • Hi Aaron! Emulsified oil is another name for water-based oils. A common brand is Cabots AquaDeck but there are many others. I like to use these products since they go on easily and quickly and seem to have the same staying power (or better) than full oils. Cleanup is also much easier 🙂

      • Aaron

        Thanks again for the reply. Do you think cabots is the way to go for me?

        • Aaron

          By the way, I believe the deck material is pine I’d that makes a difference.

          • Hi again Aaron,

            Use any quality brand. Just see what’s being discounted at present 🙂

            Just make sure you have enough to complete the job if you are using a tint.

            Make sure you give the deck a good clean before starting or you will trap any dirt under the oil.

            DW

  • Abb Baks

    Hi David,
    I’ve inherited decking that’s severely splintered and with little children I need to resolve asap. I’ve washed it with a decking cleaner and pressure washer but think it’s going to make matters worse. It’s groves decking and am thinking of sanding it.the decking area is large so am thinking of hiring a professional sander. Any other alternative or thoughts on this would be appreciated. Also, what kind of sander would you recommend.

    • Hi Abb,

      I’m not sure if you have inherited just the decking or the deck along with the house:) Either way, the solution is simpler than you imagine…

      Although MANY people lay their decks with the groove up, that is not the correct laying method. The purpose of those grooves (reeding) is to allow and enhance airflow under the deck once it is laid.

      If it is simply the decking you inherited, problem solved 🙂 If you inherited the deck, the next question is whether the boards are screwed or nailed. If they are screwed, you don’t have a problem. Unscrew them, flip them over and screw them down! On the other hand, if they are nailed down with proper decking nails, you’re screwed. Only kidding 🙂 It will just require a bit more work as you will need to lever off each board carefully and then cut off the nails with an angle grinder. Now flip them over and screw them down and you’re done!

      Hope that helps,

      DW

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