Wood Stain vs. Sealer (Pros & Cons of Each)

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As a woodworker, when you are involved in installing and maintaining wooden decks and fences, you would necessarily have to get involved with wood stains and wood sealers. But everyone isn’t familiar with everything about these two types of wood finish. With that in mind, we would like to define them. Here is a brief guide that gives you a reasonably thorough insight into the aspects of wood stain vs. sealer.

Wood stain penetrates the wood, and it contains pigments that change the color of the wood. Stain needs another surface layer of wood finish over it. Wood sealer is a clear finish applied to the outer surface of the wood to seal and protect it, sealer can also provide waterproofing and protect the wood from UV damage.  

If you doubt where to stain and where to seal, we have the answers here. You will also see what is common to these types of wood finish. For instance, both of them serve to protect the wood. Hence, you would be better off with either rather than none. If you do not apply either of these, you may well end up having to make some costly replacements.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the finer details of wood stain vs. sealer.

Wood Stain

Varnish brush strokes on a wooden floor

Wood stain can penetrate the wood, and it contains pigments and will change the color of the wood. Because of the opaque pigments, stain also protects the wood from the harmful effect of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It also imparts a certain level of water resistance to the wood.

You can get different stains that range from solid to transparent and semi-transparent. The extent of opacity required depends on the surface type and individual choice. It would help if you had a particular skill level to apply stain, and you have to know what you are doing. Stain is more expensive than many other types of finish, but it also lasts much longer.

Wood Sealer

Buck of Wood Sealer


Wood sealers are typically used for applying to decks and fences. A sealer is a clear finish that we apply to the outer surface of the wood. Sealer has a waterproofing effect on wood. Unfortunately, wood sealers do not provide adequate protection from UV radiation from the sun. Hence, if you only use a sealer, you are best advised to use it on wood that you will keep indoors. Wood coated just with a sealer and kept outdoors will only last for three to six months, after which it will start to fade and take on a gray color.

Wood Stain vs. Sealer

Wood Stain

At first glance, both these types of wood finish may seem the same, but they are two different products. The purpose of each type of finish remains the same, which is to protect the wood that it coats. However, there are some significant differences between the two we discuss here.

Wood that remains outdoors exposed to the elements like fencing and decking needs some form of protection. You have the choice of a wood stain or a wood sealer. Wood stain provides waterproof protection to the wood, but thanks to its pigments, stain also provides UV protection to the wood.

Another advantage of using wood stain is choosing different shades and tones. You can apply finishes to make the wood look like redwood, walnut, or cedar. Or, if the wood already has an attractive grain structure, applying a stain can bring out its features. Hence, you can use wood stain to enhance the natural beauty of the wood that you are applying the stain to.

Sealer, on the other hand, is a clear, transparent finish. It may or may not penetrate the surface but normally coats the surface of the wood to provide a kind of waterproof layer. Sealer doesn’t add anything to the appearance of the wood other than perhaps to give it a glossy look. It needs to be replenished every three to six months.

Wood Stain vs. Sealer: Pros and Cons

summer morning in hotel

Applying each of these wood finishes has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most prominent ones that come to mind:

Stain Pros

  • It lasts up to five years.
  • Wood stain protects wood from mildew, mold, and rot.
  • It also provides UV protection to the wood
  • You get a wide choice of colors and tints with wood stain.
  • It is possible to cover wood discoloration and defects with wood stain.

Stain Cons

  • You have to wash the surface and let it dry before you apply wood stain.
  • The pigments in wood stain hide the original wood grain.
  • You need to apply multiple coats for the desired effect.

Sealer Pros

  • You get to see the natural color of the wood.
  • Wood sealer makes the wood water-resistant.
  • Applying sealer can extend the life of wooden structures.

Sealer Cons

  • Does not provide UV protection.
  • It takes a longer time to dry.
  • Wood may dry, split or crack even after applying sealer.

Wood Stain vs. Sealer FAQs

painting wooden fence

Further to the information we have provided here, you may have some questions. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions on wood stain vs. sealer:

Q: How long should we wait before applying a sealer to a new deck?

A: You need to allow at least 30 days of “dwell” time for the preservatives in the wood. After 30 days, if the water forms beads on the deck’s surface, it is too wet to apply sealer. Once the water gets absorbed, you can start applying sealer.

Q: Should we consider the temperature and time of day when applying sealer?

A: You can get the best results if you work on a day when the weather is pleasant, not too windy, and with an ambient temperature between 50°F and 90°F. The morning is the best time to work as the hot afternoon sun can cause the sealer to evaporate too rapidly.

Q: If wood is already pressure treated, why do I need to stain it?

A: Pressure-treated wood is porous. If you don’t stain, paint, or seal it, rain, dew, and snow can easily penetrate the surface, and it will cause the wood to swell and on drying, and it can crack and warp. Also, no amount of pressure-treating can protect the wood from the harmful effects of direct sunlight. Hence, we apply protection from the elements, especially for outdoor wood.

Q: What sort of tools and techniques can I use for sealing a deck?

various painting tools on white wooden background

A: You can use a paintbrush, roller, or paint sprayer for applying finish to an outdoor deck. You can attach your applicators to a long pole to work comfortably in a standing position. If you need to kneel, using kneepads is a good idea.

Work slowly and steadily to ensure ample coverage to the deck. Prevent coating the deck too thickly with each application to avoid blotching and later peeling and chipping. Wait for at least 24 hours between successive coats.

Q: How often should I reapply wood stain or sealer to my deck?

It is best to apply wood stain or sealer to your deck at least once a year. It largely depends on the type of climate in your area, and you can get away with refinishing even every two to three years in less sunny regions. But it would be best if you also considered the rain and snow factor. Hence, if it rains and snows a lot where you live, you need to have a robust sealant on your deck surfaces.

Final Thoughts-

A deck in your garden with wooden outdoor furniture is great to have. Although you can get professionals to attend to the required maintenance, sealing and staining wood is not difficult if you are into woodworking projects.

The information we have provided here about wood stain vs. sealer should be sufficient to enable you to use these two finishes in the best way possible for your woodworking projects.