Paint vs. Stain: Which to Use for Deck, Cabinets, Furniture & So On?

Paint vs. Stain: Which to Use for Deck, Cabinets, Furniture, And So On?

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As the weather outside begins to warm up, you may be turning your sights to your cluttered “to-do” list, which has sat inactive all winter. At the top of your list, you may have plans to paint or stain a number of wood-based structures in and around your home. But at the same time, you may not be sure if paint or stain would be appropriate for each job.

You’re certainly not alone when it comes to differentiating between these two kinds of wood coatings. Lots of at-home DIYers simply use one or the other because it is cheaper at their local hardware store. But the truth is that paint and stain each have their own purpose-made uses that you should know about.

Once you understand what each is good for, you’ll be able to make enhance and protect your deck, cabinets, and wood furniture like never before.

This guide will take you through the basics of paint and stain, as well as some of their most common uses. Using the information in this guide, you’ll be able to plan your next wood coating job without ever second-guessing yourself.

Paint and Stain: The Basics

Let’s start with the basics, defining what each of the types of wood coating is.

What Is Paint?

Wood Paint While you’re likely familiar with the concept of “paint” in general, you may not know about paints that are intended for use on wood.

These paints are usually mixed from a variety of materials that make them more able to latch onto a piece of wood’s exterior and create a solid coating of color. Many also include special additives that prevent fading due to light exposure, given that this kind of paint is often used on outdoor structures like decks.

In general, there are two kinds of wood paint to choose from. The first are oil-based paints, which offer a durable finish that can often last up to 10 years without needing a new coat. They take far longer to dry, though, with many common brands requiring 24 hours of curing time. There are also water-based wood paints, which dry fast, provide better fading protection, and come in a wider variety of colors.

What Is Stain?

Wood Stain Wood stain is a type of liquid coating that can be applied to wood to change its outward appearance while also protecting the same outward-facing surface from moisture. Stains are usually composed of a mix of resins, pigments, and additives, all of which are added to a solvent to allow for easy application. Stain can dry relatively quickly (read this article for more details).

They are most often either water- or oil-based.

Stains range the gambit in their durability and appearance after application. A semi-transparent stain, for example, can last up to 2 years and only includes enough pigment to darken the wood grain’s appearance. A clear toner stain plays a similar role, with its inclusion of iron pigments reliably imparting a warm hue to any unfinished wood grain.

Meanwhile, on the darker end, semisolid stains contain more additives, thus allowing them to more efficiently cover the wood grain and last more than 4 years. There are also solid color stains, which look like regular flat paint and entirely cover the wood’s grain (usually with an earthy tone).

Paint vs. Stain: What Are the Differences?

In essence, paint and stain serve the same purpose, that is, to coat your wood deck or furniture with a coating that prevents said wood from succumbing to moisture infiltration. However, both options accomplish this task with differing levels of success and cost.

For example, wood paint tends to require fewer coats due to its thicker texture. It also tends to cost more, though. That said, wood paint is usually available in more color options than wood stain.

Meanwhile, wood stains tend to be cheaper due to the need to apply more coats to an absorbent wood surface. Wood stain does go on quicker, though, due to the lack of need for priming. Most stains preserve the natural beauty of wood grain too while also avoiding the risk of chipping due to temperature changes.

Also, paint and stain differ in appearance when it comes to uniformity. Paints will allow your wood to take on a solid canvas of color, regardless of the underlying woods’ coloration. Wood stain, on the other hand, enhances these natural colorations to provide a “woodsier” aesthetic that is less uniform overall.

Should You Paint or Stain Your Deck?

Whether you paint or stain your deck is a matter of personal preference.

Opting for paint allows you to reliably seal your deck’s surface in just a coat or two. Moreover, wood paint allows you to get creative and choose an appearance for your deck that matches your home’s exterior color. Also, if your deck is already painted, you’ll have to paint it again because generally you cannot add stain over paint.

Meanwhile, if you opt for wood stain, you’ll find a larger task ahead of you due to the need for multiple coatings. However, many homeowners are willing to put in this work to allow their deck’s natural wood colors to really shine through. You also have more choice after staining, too, because you can choose to paint over a stained deck later down the line.

Paint vs. Stain for Deck

Other Practical Situations

Lastly, let’s look at some other applications of paint and stain – and at which of the two you choose in each of those situations.

Paint vs. Stain for Furniture and Cabinets

When it comes to furniture and cabinets, the choice between staining and painting is up to you once again. Painting new wood furniture is not uncommon, especially if you are trying to match said furniture to an interior design motif.

Meanwhile, stained wood furniture and cabinets have a timeless feel that many still appreciate.

However, if the furniture or cabinets in question will be placed outdoors, using stain may be a better option. This is because most stains are more weather-resistant and are able to repel moisture without flaking or peeling.

Finally, you can even consider the stain over paint option.

Paint vs. Stain for Cedar Siding

When it comes to cedar siding, there’s simply no better option than wood staining.

Simply put, cedar wood is beautiful in its unfinished form. But with a coat or two of enhancing wood stain, cedar siding shows an unparalleled warmth that makes any structure aesthetically radiate. While paint can be used on cedar siding, you risk covering its natural beauty without adding any better protection in the long run.

Paint vs. Stain for Pergolas

If you’ve just built your own pergola, you may consider giving it a stain coating to start off with.

This will allow this large wood structure’s natural colors to speak for themselves right off the bat. It will also ensure that your new outdoor covering is not susceptible to damage from the elements.

However, over time, you may still choose to cover your pergola with paint. This can help protect such a structure for even longer, especially if you use weather-resistant paint.


As you can see, your options are fairly wide open when it comes to choosing between using stain and paint when coating your wood deck and furniture. Certainly, they each have their own benefits when it comes to cost and durability. But in the end, both can protect your priceless wood structures from degrading.

Now that you know the basic differences between paints and stains, you should be able to choose which option best fits your DIY needs and budget. But if you still need some pointers, don’t forget to check my advice regarding the use of either coating on your furniture, deck, cedar siding or pergola.