Exploring Various Wood Finishes: The Top 4 Choices

Several different types of wood finishes are available in the market today.

Each wood finish type has a role in the overall protection and durability of the wooden substrate. 

These wood finishes include paints, fillers, sealants, stains, primers, varnishes, lacquers, and more.

Note: I will pay closer attention to sealing and staining as the two are the most related and closely confusing to woodworkers.

This article will also give an insight into the need to stain and seal your wooden structures.

I will also look at some consequences of not staining and sealing and keep reading for more information.

Various Types of Wood Finishes:

These finishes include:

Wood Stain

Wood stain is the type of paint used in wood coloring and has colorants suspended in a “vehicle” or solvent. 

The vehicle is the most preferred term, considering the contents of a stain may not be fully dissolved in the vehicle but instead remain suspended. 

It, therefore, means that the “vehicle” may not be a proper solvent.

Wood Staining

Image of newly stained deckWood staining involves a change in the color of the wood.

The best stain to use is an oil stain because of its high ability to penetrate the wood. 

Typically, the Oil-based stains are semi-transparent and tend to make the color of the wood a little dark while showing the grain. 

A semi-transparent wood stain lasts longer than other sealants or the different stain types.

In the case of weathered wood, a solid stain makes the best option. 

Solid stains help hide the flaws in the deck; it covers the grain of the wood, providing a semi-smooth finish. 

Solid stains tend to show slight weathering effects, so you should give it a new coat annually as a maintenance practice.

Advantages of Staining

  • Ease of Use

If you compare paint and stain, which one will be simpler to apply and maintain? 

It’s pretty much evident that a stain carries the day. 

You can use a stain without a primer, halving the total amount of time you’d take to apply it. 

Maintenance practices extended to stains do not come so frequently and depend on the prevailing environmental conditions.

Usually, it takes at least a year before re-staining.

  • Stains are Cost-Effective in the case of Walking Surfaces

Wood makes a great walking surface for outdoor areas; if used for this purpose, it undergoes a lot of strain due to foot traffic. 

You can use paints in this situation; however, it will be the wrong choice as paints have low durability in such a case. 

It doesn’t take long before the paint may start cracking, affecting the appearance of the surface. 

Instead, use cheaper and easy to apply stains which will take longer before adding another coat.

  • Staining helps Preserve the Aesthetics of the Wood 

The wood’s aesthetic appeal is in its natural look.

 Painting, for example, would completely cover the grain, affecting the natural beauty. 

It, therefore, leaves you with staining, which allows the grain of the wood to show. 

Furthermore, the stain has various tints and colors, making it easily customizable. 

  • Staining Prevents the Rotting of Wood

Wood rot is a common thing, especially for the ones that are outdoor and lack sealers. 

Rotting, as you would expect, will make your woodwork less pleasing; it can further cause the collapse of your structures. 

Staining your wood projects, the right way can help prevent rot.

  • Offer Protection against Sun and Moist Conditions

The penetration of water or moisture elements into wood can result in rotting. Wood can freeze and break after absorbing water. 

Sunlight also emits Ultraviolet radiation that can discolor the wood; therefore, using a stain will preserve the appearance and structural integrity of the deck in the event of these threats.

Disadvantages of Staining

  • Some wood stains have harmful chemicals that can affect the user.

Note! Some products do deck sealing and staining, for example, Ready Seal Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer.

Do I Need to Stain and Seal My Deck?

Decks are the quintessential substrates for both sealers and stains. 

In my opening encounters with the two wood finishes, I was so spellbound, and I used to ponder whether it was a case of either seal or stain regarding the painting of decks.

You may have found yourself in a similar situation and asked yourself, do I need to stain and seal my deck?

Yes! You can stain and seal the same deck or patio. 

However, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds; you must first sand, clean, stain, and seal. 

That’s the proper order of activities that lead up to successful staining and sealing in one.

How to Stain Wood

Following the nod in the just-concluded paragraph, it behooves me to show you how to stain wood- wooden deck in this case. 

The staining may appear intimidating, especially for first timers; the procedure is quite simple.

As shown below, you only have to use the required materials and the correct method.

Step 1: Deck Inspection

First, examine and repair any defects on your deck. The most critical imperfections to look out for are:

  • Warped wood pieces
  • Broken wood planks
  • Protruding nails and screws
  • Old and loose boards

Replace the damaged and old boards accordingly before proceeding to the next step.

Step 2: Cleaning the Deck

Acquire an appropriate cleaning agent(s) and apply it to the deck. 

Detergent-based agents work well to remove waterborne dirt, grease, and oils.

I often use the Karcher Multipurpose Cleaner, an excellent product suited for outdoor surfaces. 

It’s not only meant for wood; it’s universal, so you can use it on other surfaces. 

Then, scrub the floor using a hard-bristled brush.

Next, rinse off the wood using clean water from a pressure washer. 

Decks are large surfaces; cleaning without the help of a pressure washer will tire you. 

We’re still at the primary stages of staining and sealing the deck. 

It’s advisable to apply the soap in smaller segments so that you can scrub and pressure-wash within 15 minutes, so the soap does not dry up. 

I usually operate within 100-150 square feet at a time.

After cleaning the entire deck, let it dry undisturbed for at least 48 hours.

Cleaning is an integral step you shouldn’t dismiss; it dramatically impacts your outcomes. 

If you stain and seal dirty and grease-filled decks, the agent won’t adhere ably, and the aesthetics won’t be as pleasing.

Step 3: Sanding

If the deck surface doesn’t have the grip to accept the stain, I advise you to sand it. 

Sanding opens the wood grain, giving it “teeth” that can bite or hold tight to the incoming stain.

Ensure you wear safety gear before you start sanding. The pack includes a face mask, goggles, and a pair of gloves.

Use a belt sander or an orbital sander and 60 to 80 grit sandpaper for the first round.

Follow up with 120-grit sandpaper.

Next, remove the accumulated debris using a vacuum cleaner.

Step 4: Stain Application

First, tape up the walls and areas you don’t want the stain to spill on; this is especially important if you plan to use a sprayer to stain.

Wear a full-face respirator and gloves before handling the stain and the accompanying agents.

Take a long brush stick or pole and attach a staining pad at its end. 

The staining pad is made of synthetic wool or similar material that quickly takes up paint or stain for convenient application.

Open the stain can or gallon and pour it into a paint tray. 

My best pick is the DEFY Extreme Semi-Transparent Wood Stain. 

It’s a premium product for decks, fences, siding, wooden rails, outdoor furniture, and more. 

Some of its outstanding features include:

  • It’s water-based, therefore, easy to use and clean up.
  • The stain is environmentally friendly and with no health risk to humans.
  • It has zinc nanoparticle technology: this reflects off harmful UV rays, much like sunscreen does to the body
  • This stain is highly durable: it contains first-grade resins that resist darkening and fading
  • The product is VOC-compliant
  • It gives a matte finish

When pouring the stain into the paint tray, do so with caution; remember, we’re dealing with stain here, not paint! 

It will spill and cause a mess if you pour it aggressively. Stains are less viscous; therefore, they flow easily.

Dip the stain pad into the stain, wring it a little bit on the ridges on the paint tray and apply gently but firmly on the boards.

Stain along the wood grain to enable it to get deep into the substrate. 

Ensure you cut into cracks, crevices, and edges using a small, angled paintbrush.

The staining pad attached to a pole smoothes out the stain, just like brushing, so go over the stained areas with the pad to smooth it.

Ensure you keep a wet edge throughout the staining process to avoid inconsistencies in absorbance and drying times.

Let the first stain coat dry for 3 hours before putting on a second coat.

The second coat is easier to apply because the first coat is already soaked up into the substrate.

Let the second coat dry before you move to the next step.

Here’s a Video on How to Stain Wood:

Wood Sealer

A wood sealer is a product applied to the wood to protect it from damage from different elements, especially on the exterior. 

Wood sealers include stains, shellac, paint, and oil. 

In other words, a sealer is a product that coats the wood to provide a layer of protection.

Wood Sealing

Wood sealing offers protection to the wood against the penetration of water. 

Almost all the sealants in the market today come with compounds to protect them against the harmful Ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Ensuring a consistent sealing application is excellent for maintaining the wood’s natural look for years.

Most sealants have wax, which protects the water from penetrating the wood. 

As much as wax offers some water resistance, it also causes the beading up of water, preventing it from draining away. 

Because of the sealing, you must have seen some decks having standing water days after heavy rain. 

So that you maintain the protection, it’s indispensable to reduce the protection with each passing year.

Advantages of Wood Sealing

Sealing has excellent benefits for your wooden structures. 

Some of the advantages that come with using sealers include:

  • Most of the sealers are friendly to the environmentally
  • Usually, it involves a one-time application procedure
  • Sealing will leave your wood with a bright, natural finish that has no surface membrane
  • Sealers help enhances the grain in the wood
  • Sealers will give your wood a surface for a perfect bonding of paints, adhesives, and varnish
  • Like their names, they seal, offer water resistance, preserve, and harden your wooden structures
  • Sealers easily penetrate the wood to form an internal seal
  • They do not have effects on the physical aspects of the wood
  • Sealers are slow to seepage; they don’t dampen quickly; they resist mold, warping, and fungus.

 Disadvantages of Wood Sealing

  • Sealers are not durable and continuously call for recoating after a couple of years.
  • Constant recoating might prove expensive.

How to Seal Deck

After staining the deck and letting it dry, you can light-sand it, vacuum it, and follow the procedure below to seal the deck.


  • Paint roller
  • Paint tray
  • Water
  • Sealer
  • Safety gear (respirator, goggles, and a pair of gloves)


Now that this is a continuation of the staining part, I presume you’ve already cleared your deck of all furniture, worn all the safety gear, and ventilated your working area.

Open the sealer can and mix it with a stirring stick to achieve homogeneity

The best deck sealer I’ve used over the years is the Wood Sealer by RAIN GUARD Water Sealers. 

It has the following distinguishing features:

  • It’s eco-friendly; therefore, there is no concern for environmental degradation
  • The sealer is water-based and therefore easy to use and wash off
  • It has a low odor for convenience of application
  • The concentrate version of the sealer covers up to 300 square feet
  • The manufacturing company makes the wood sealer in concentrate and ready-to-use solutions, giving you options
  • The product is 98.7% effective against wind-driven rain
  • It is 95% effective in protection from efflorescence
  • It provides a 100% breathable finish that lets the wood deck release trapped moisture

If you’ve purchased the concentrate version of the Rain Guard Wood Sealer, apportion some of it into another container and thin it with water.

Next, pour the RAIN GUARD Wood Sealer into a paint tray. 

Again, pour slowly to avoid accidental spillage to unwanted areas.

Clamp the paint roller into the roller frame and roll it into the sealer in the tray. Wring off the excess sealer on the ridges of the tray.

Apply the sealer on the stained deck gently and along the wood grain.

Cut into hidden areas like crevices between wood planks and corners using an angled paintbrush.

Let the first sealer coat dry for 3 hours before applying a second coat. Follow the same procedure in the first coat to put on the second coat.

Let it dry once again for not less than a day before high foot traffic and returning of furniture.

Here’s How to Seal Wood:

What Happens If You Don’t Seal Your Deck?

Many DIYers and a few professional painters skip wood finishing protocols like sealing, cleaning, sanding, and even the dictated drying times.

Whether you miss the steps due to innocence or deliberately avoid “wasting time,” the consequences are the same. 

Let’s look at sealing; what happens if you don’t seal your deck?

Failing to seal is consequential in the following ways:

  • The wood stain or any other underlying coats will wash away in rainwater
  • The wood planks forming the deck will get damaged by excess UV rays
  • Deck color fades away faster than normal
  • The boards will create creases and warp
  • The deck becomes susceptible to mildew and mold growth
  • The wood will rot easily

The miseries that will befall your deck/patio when you avoid sealing are manifold; I can’t mention all of them. 

The cumulative effect of all the above will make you replace your patio often and become costly in the long run.

Therefore, it’s good to seal your deck and observe all the wood finishing protocols by extension.

What Is the Cost of Sealing a Deck?

We’ve discussed everything to know about sealing decks; only the price part remains. In that respect, how much does it cost to seal a deck?

The cost of sealing is contingent on several factors. 

Such factors include the size of your patio or deck, the type of wood you’re sealing, the brand and quality of the sealer you’re using.

Another aspect is the number of sealer coats you’re applying, etc.

Therefore, it’s tricky to tell what it would cost unless I have your deck’s measurements and the sealer brand you’re planning to use.

All I can say is the Wood Sealer by Rain Guard Water Sealers contains 32 fluid ounces per bottle (the concentrated version).

 Each bottle of the concentrate costs around ﹩31.00.

You can dilute this concentrated version with water to produce two gallons of ready-to-use sealer. 

The two diluted versions can cover 300 square feet or 150 sq ft per gallon. 

So you can extrapolate the figures above to the size of your deck to calculate the exact cost.

You’ll realize that the cost is quite affordable relative to its work. Little wonder I’ve been using this sealer over the years.

How Do You Permanently Seal Wood?

Sealing wood has many benefits: improved durability, better water resistance, reduced weathering, low maintenance costs, and others.

You would surely like the seal to stay on your wood or deck forever. To cut a long story short, how do you permanently seal the wood?

Unfortunately, wood sealers don’t last forever. Is there anything that ever lasts forever? But you can make it last longer. 

The best way to do this is by following all the manufacturer’s instructions.

Applying multiple thin coats instead of a single thick sealer coat and allowing the drying times to run to completion between coats.

It’s also advisable to avoid frequent water cleaning, especially during the first few weeks after sealing. 

Following the above, your sealer will last 3 to 4 years before resealing. 

All this while, the paint or stain underneath will remain intact, and the wood deck will appear as good as new.

Difference Between Wood Stain and Sealer?

What Are the Differences Between Wood Stains and Wood Sealers? Both sealants and stains are wood finishes. 

Painting DIYers and professionals often confuse the two; it’s frustrating that some people have resigned to using the terms interchangeably. 

So, what are the differences between wood stains and wood sealers?

I’ve already outlined the differences, so I’ll go ahead and expound on the points:

  • Order of Application

When prepping a surface for painting, you should apply the stain first, followed by the sealer. 

There are many differing accounts on this; my take is a sealant should go on top of a stain.

Well, I’ve seen cases where a client applies a sealer first, stain, and seal again; in short, sandwiching the stain between sealers.

 In this case, the two sealers are often different and serve disparate roles.

The first time I used stain before sealing, it worked perfectly and has remained so since then. 

The sealer protects the stain from physical damage, water damage, and fading. 

So, it’s only sensible when it goes on top of the stain.

  • Composition

Stains comprise three ingredients, i.e., solvent/vehicle, pigment, and binder. The predominant constituent is the solvent, followed by 

pigment or dye, then binder.

Pigment decorates the wood by coloring; the solvent is the vehicle in which other constituents are suspended, making the stain flow. 

The binder makes the stain molecules stick together after drying and curing, enhancing attachment to the substrate.

Wood sealer comprises a waterborne polymeric binder, a hydrophobic filler, and a water-based siliconate salt. 

The binder has two parts. 

The first is a stretchy, soft polymer with a low glass-transition temperature enabling it to stretch with the wood. 

The second part has a high glass-transition temperature that improves binding properties.


These are the roles of wood stain:

  • It gives color to the wood to improve its aesthetics
  • Stains outline the wood grain/pattern
  • It protects the wooden substrate from rotting
  • Stains protect the wood from sunlight
  • It hides minor wood imperfections

Functions of a wood sealer include:

  • It makes wood waterproof
  • A sealer makes it easy to clean surfaces
  • It provides physical protection
  • A sealer precludes fungal and mildew growth on wood
  • The sealer evens out surfaces and makes them appear smooth


Opacity means the degree of being opaque.

Stains, from the name, are opaque or, at the very least, translucent. It’s because they contain pigments in their formula. 

The pigments come in different colors allowing you to pick your preferred choice. This attribute makes stains ideal for decorations. 

On the other hand, sealers don’t contain pigments or coloring agents. They are transparent, so they only form clear coats on surfaces. 

They are therefore not the best for decorating surfaces.


Polyurethane is a class of polymers with organic units joined by carbamate links. 

Unlike other common polymers such as polyethylene and polystyrene, polyurethane is from a wide range of starting materials.

A good number of furniture today has a polyurethane finish. 

Polyurethane, other than adding the much-needed beauty to your wood, offers protection and a lot more. 

Polyurethane is a strong, durable, and glossy compound. However, it’s vulnerable to chips. 

If you want to paint a piece of furniture with a polyurethane finish, you should remove all the vanish and prepare the surface properly for the best result possible.

As much as polyurethane is an essential compound for painters and woodworkers, it has shortcomings. 

In this section, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of polyurethane. Starting with:

Pros of Polyurethane

Polyurethane Offers a Wide Range of Hardness: The hardness of polyurethane depends on the prepolymer’s molecular structure.

High Load Bearing Capacity: Polyurethane finishes have high load capacity in tension and compression. 

Polyurethane may change shape under a heavy load. Still, it will return to its original shape once the load is removed.

It Is Flexible: Polyurethanes perform very well in high-flex fatigue applications. 

Flexural properties can be isolated, allowing for excellent elongation and recovery properties.

It Resists Abrasion and Impacts: Polyurethane makes the best finish for applications where severe wear is challenging.

Resist Tear: Polyurethanes possess high tear resistance.

Resist Water, Oil, and Grease: The materials in polyurethane as a compound remain stable in water, oil, and grease. 

Polyether compounds can last many years in undersea applications.

Polyurethane Has Electrical Properties: Polyurethane has good electrical insulating characteristics.

Strong Bonding Capability: Polyurethane can bond with many materials when used on projects. 

Some of the materials include plastics, wood, and metals. This versatility makes polyurethane an appropriate material for wheels, rollers, and more.

Resists Mold, Mildew, and Fungus: Most polyether-based polyurethanes resist growth in fungal, mold, and mildew.

Polyurethane is highly suitable for tropical environments. 

Cons of Polyurethane

They include:

Durability: Polyurethane formulas are characterized by a short life span. 

Polyurethane has hygroscopic traits; for example, mattresses made from polyurethane absorb water to disintegrate gradually.

The adhesives and sealants in polyurethane have a similar problem. 

Polyurethane paints’ durability is seriously affected when in direct sunlight or organic solvents.

Odor: Polyurethane compound has dissolved chemicals that release toxic fumes into the environment.

The fumes have a terrible smell that can cause irritation and severe coughs. 


Varnish is a traditional resin containing oils, waxes, and other solvents. 

The formula comes with a higher solids ratio, making UV light less susceptible to damage.

The properties of varnish make it suitable for outdoor projects and can be used in exterior furniture, offering longevity.

One thing about varnish is its tricky application process considering it is prone to peeling, cracking, and even bubbling.

The cases of peeling and cracking are a risk to your wood as it remains exposed to water damage, shortening its lifespan. 

It would help if you followed the manufacturer’s application instructions to the end.

How to Varnish Wood

Here are the steps involved in the application of varnish over wooden surfaces.

Clean the Wood

As it is with the start of most DIY projects, you need to clean the wood before any other subsequent steps. 

Use white spirit plus a lint-free cloth to wipe down the surface of the wood and remove grease, dirt, and other foreign particles.

Sanding the Wood

Use 120-grit sandpaper to smoothen the surface. Sanding will help the varnish stick and result in a smooth finish.

If you removed the previous coat using sandpaper, you don’t necessarily need this step.

Applying the Varnish

Properly stir the varnish to attain a smooth consistency with zero lumps.

Dip your paintbrush in the can containing the varnish, wiping off any excess of the tub’s rim.

Paint your surface in the direction of the wood grain with a smooth finish.

After applying the coat to your wooden surface, ensure that you are well aware of the drying time of the formula to avoid touching it before it has dried.

Allow the formula to dry between the coats.


Wood finishes are a crucial part of woodworking projects as they provide many benefits to wooden structures.

These finishes offer protection to your wooden structures. 

They can be decorated by blending with other products to form beautiful pieces like river tables.

As we conclude our discussion, let us revisit…

Different Types of Wood Finishes

Some of the wood finishes discussed in this post include

  • Wood Stains
  • Wood Sealers
  • Polyurethane 
  • Varnishes

Stains and sealers are significant for exterior woodworking structures like picnic tables, fences, and even decks.

Polyurethane formulas are great for surfaces that experience high foot traffic and heavy usage, like garage floors.

Until now, I hope you had a good time reading through the different types of wood finishes at your disposal. 

Do you have any questions that you’d like to answer?

I hope so; kindly share your concerns with me in the comment below.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

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