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How to Stain a Fence

Recently, we talked about the cost of building and installing a fence, and the many fence options available to homeowners. One of these options is the classic wood fence. Maybe you've recently installed a natural finished wood fence, or you're looking to breathe life into an old one. Either way, a fence stain is an easy and affordable way to give your outdoor space a new look without spending a ton of money. Learning how to stain a fence yourself will give you the freedom to do this without help of a professional.

A white picket fence is an American classic look, but it's not right for every home. Whether you're dressing up a more modern house, or you just love the look of a classic wooden fence, a fence stain can bring your entire fence back to life. Fence stains are versatile, beautiful, and easy to complete if you know what you're doing.

Here are some steps to take your basic wood fence from basic to beautiful with an easy wood stain project:

Put The Time Aside

Staining a fence isn't the fastest project, and may take a little longer than you think. If your wood needs more preparation, or you run into unexpected issues, a project that you think may take a day or two could last a few weeks. Setting aside the right amount of time for your project is the first step in setting yourself up for success.

Account for Weather

You can't paint in the rain! Before starting your project for the day, assess the weather conditions. Moisture can greatly impact the final look and finish of your project, so make sure you have clear skies and calm winds before cracking open the bucket for the day.

Choose Your Wood Stain

One of the most important steps in learning how to stain a fence is picking the stain correctly. Most people will want to go with a single solid color wood stain, as it is the easiest and least time consuming route. Though, alternating slat colors are also possible if you have the time and energy, or are trying to spice up a solid color house. We'll list a few recommendations later on, but first let's cover the basics.

There are a few different things to consider before you pick the best stain for your project. These are sheen, durability, and transparency.


The most common stains are semi transparent stains. This means that some of the wood grain will show through in the final finish. These stains can be refreshed without re-stripping for many years. You can also opt for a clear coat stain, letting the natural color and grain of the wood shine through completely. An opaque stain acts more similarly to paint, and hides minor surface imperfections.


Sheen is another important factor in choosing the right stain for your project. Exterior paint sheens are all a little different. Just as you would choose between interior paint sheens, not everyone wants the same look to their backyard fence. A semi gloss enamel sheen will create a shinier finish, while a medium satin enamel or satin enamel sheen creates a slightly less glossy effect. For something less shiny, opt for an eggshell enamel sheen or even a matte sheen.


Lastly, you should consider the durability of your stain. Any paint or stain chosen should be graded with exterior furniture durability. It should resist moisture, and stand up to wind and rain. At the end of the day if you wouldn't put it on a patio chair to be left on your porch in the rain, don't put it on your wood fence which is outside in all kinds of weather, all year round. When it comes to exterior surfaces durability is the line between retaining in a few years, and a project that holds up.

Prepare Your Wood Fence for Staining

Before you even think about applying the wood stain, you need to take the time to properly prepare your canvas. Knowing how to stain a fence is only half about the staining itself. The end result of your project will be largely affected by how well you prepared the wood grain for staining before you ever open the bucket or pick up a roller.

You're going to be applying your fence stain to one of two kinds of wood: new, untouched wood, or old wood that has been previously stained or painted. This difference means you should prepare for each process differently.

Starting From Scratch (New Wooden Fence)

Starting from scratch with a brand new wood fence? Lucky you. A blank canvas is the easiest place to start with any painting or staining project. Most likely, you just need to make sure your fence is clean. Still, you might want to do a quick porosity test to make sure the fence stain will properly penetrate the wood.

To test this, spray a small area of your fence with water. If the water beads, then you know it is not ready to absorb the stain, and you should sand lightly, similar to preparation of previously treated wood. If it penetrates the slates, you're ready to start painting!

Starting With Old Wood

Looking to breathe new life into old wood? If you're trying to transform previously painted or stained wood, you need to take some extra steps in the preparation. Slapping a transparent wood stain over old paint will do nothing to help the look of your fence. You need to remove what's already there.

To do this, you will need to strip the old stain or paint off. Using a quality finish stripper, apply to your fence using the company's instructions. Once the stripper is applied, scrub the fence slats with a stiff-bristle brush to loosen and peel off the old varnish or paint from the wood fibers.

Clean, Clean, Clean

Once the wood of your fence has been checked or prepared to absorb new stain, you should move on to cleaning it. Using a high pressure attachment for your garden hose, or even a power washer, thoroughly spray your wood fence. Just the water pressure will begin to remove any remaining dirt or lingering varnish.

Once you are confident your fence is clean, let it dry completely. Saturated or even damp wood will not absorb the fence stain correctly.

Treating Mold or Mildew Stains

If you notice mold or mildew on the wood, extra steps should be taken to clean your fence before you pick up the paint brush. Gently wash away any mold spots with a bleach and water solution and a sponge. The bleach will kill the mold while penetrating deep into the slats. Once done, spray thoroughly and allow to dry completely.

Fill Imperfections

After your fence has been cleaned, old fences may need one last round of TLC. The longer your fence has been on your property, the more life it has lived. This means a normal accumulation of dings and scratches. Minor surface imperfections are common, but if you don't want those imperfections to carry over to the new finish, take some time to fill them.

Just like spackle covers nail holes and dents, wood filler can disguise any minor damage to your wood fence.

Protect Plants and Hardscaping

If you wouldn't paint a room without protecting the floors and furniture, why would you approach the preparation to stain a fence any differently? Before you even open the bucket or pick up a paint brush, grab some tarps.

Cover all hardscaping beneath the fence, and protect surrounding plant life. Wood stain is meant to do just that—stain. So it's not surprising that removing its mark from porous concrete is a chore. Prevent this issue by preventing the accident altogether.

Apply the Fence Stain

The most important part of how to stain a fence correctly is the actual act of staining the fence. Knowing how to properly apply stain and using the right tools for the job is incredibly important to how the end result looks. First, use a frame stir stick to mix your stain thoroughly. Then, grab your application tool You will likely be using either a brush, roller, or a paint sprayer to stain a wood fence.

If using a brush, make sure you are using a quality brush as well as the right technique. Make sure your brush is thoroughly coated at all times and move with and against the direction of your wood's grain. Horizontal wood should be painted left and right, while vertical grain should be painted up and down. Always back brush the stain to ensure proper saturation.

If using a roller, try a medium nap roller cover and saturate completely in the paint. Move slowly, taking your time again to back brush with a wide paint brush to ensure complete saturation into the frame.

Many people choose to speed up the process by using a paint sprayer. Invest in a quality pump sprayer. To apply, follow manufacturer instructions and stand a safe distance away while applying stain. This is a great, faster way to cover larger areas at a time. Still, make sure you are taking the proper steps and back brushing the stain into the wood for complete saturation.

ry, Seal, and Clean

Once the stain has been applied, let dry completely. Do not touch or attempt to apply more stain before one coat of existing stain is dry. Once dry, follow up with a quality seal to increase your fences durability. A quality sealant resists dirt and extends the lifespan of your fence.

Finally, clean up your work space and admire your hours of elbow grease!

Some Popular Stain Options

The same companies that make paint and stains for interior walls and interior surfaces are also in the business of making paint and stains for exterior walls and other exterior painting efforts, like your fence.

Some of the most popular options and brands for outdoor paint and stains include:

  1. Ready-Seal: Quick drying and easy to use, we love the Ready-Seal Exterior Wood Stain, available for $162 on Amazon.

  1. Valspar: Valspar has a good number of options for all types of wood. Try the Valspar All Weather Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer for $184 at Lowes, or pick up this semi-transparent option.

coming soon
  1. Behr Stains and Behr Paint: One of the most popular paint brands, Behr promotions are all over the internet. Despite the best Behr promotions all over the internet, and the efforts of Behr technical experts, they aren't our first pick. Still, they have plenty of options for you to look through.

Save Money—Learn How To Stain A Fence!

Some DIY projects are easier than others, but learning how to stain a fence is one of the most realistic of the bunch. Not only can this at home project breathe new life into your fence, but it can save you a good amount of money. If you're looking to give your backyard a new look on a budget, nothing compares to a fresh coat of paint.

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