Tips for Staining a Fence

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If your to-do list includes giving that old fence a fresh new look, these tips for staining a fence will help you do the job right.

While seemingly simple on paper, a lot of time and energy goes into staining a fence. You need to choose a stain, gather tools, do the prep work and monitor the weather, all before the actual staining takes place.

But this is one project that’s almost always worth it. It helps prolong the life of the fence and gives it a clean, fresh look. These tips for staining a fence will help anyone who has a similar project in their future.

Prepare the Fence

As with any wood finishing job, the prep work matters as much as the actual application of the finish. If you want a nice even finish, you have some work to do first.

Make sure any new fence sections are completely dry. The pressure-treated wood many fence panels are made from starts out soaked to the core. If the wood isn’t dry, the stain won’t penetrate.

You’ll also need to wash dirt, mildew and streaks from old wood fence sections, preferably with a pressure washer. For stubborn stains, consider a fence cleaning solution. Again, allow the fence to dry completely before moving on to staining.

Choose a Good Stain

Staining a fence is a lot of work, so it’s important to purchase a high-quality stain that will last as long as possible. There are two main varieties: water-based and oil-based. Each has its pros and cons.

Water-based stains penetrate well while allowing the fence to breathe. This means any moisture trapped inside the wood will escape. Water-based stains also look brighter with deeper color, and they’re typically much less noxious because of their low volatile organic compound (VOC) content. And water-based stains can be applied over previous oil finishes.

Oil-based stains don’t penetrate as well, but the layer of protection they add lets them last longer.

The oil is more resistant to precipitation. However, oil-based stains will not adhere to prior water-based finishes, so DIYers who aren’t sure of the finish on their old fence should opt for water-based stain. Oil-based stains also contain much higher levels of VOCs which can be harmful to users.

Wear the Right Gear

Staining is messy, back-breaking work. The right gear makes it easier. Make sure to have a few good pairs of chemically-resistant gloves (latex or rubber) to keep hands clean and stain-free.

Next, avoid wearing any good clothing. Old vacation t-shirts and ripped jeans are a great choice since they’ll inevitably catch a stain drip or two. A pair of old sneakers or hiking boots are also a good idea.

Folks who are particularly susceptible to VOCs should wear a respirator, even if they’re using water-based paints. VOCs can cause airway irritation, headaches, lightheadedness and other reactions.

Cover Plants and Other Items

The object is to stain the fence, not the plants, furniture, grill and central air conditioning units near it. Protect these with plastic drop cloths. Canvas cloths are better quality and reusable, but stains are typically thin and can run through them.

Also, canvas can be too heavy for delicate flowers, whereas plastic won’t weigh them down as much. Don’t leave plastic on plants too long, especially on hot days.

Choose the Best Tools

There are three main tools used to stain a fence: a sprayer, roller and brush. Base your choice on personal preference and the space you’re staining.

  • Sprayers apply stain over large areas quickly. They’re excellent for large privacy-style fences with lots of square footage to stain. However, they can be cumbersome in tight corners, and overspray is always an issue.

  • Brushes are almost always a necessity. They’re helpful for pushing stain into tight crevices or wiping up globs or runs.

  • Wide rollers are handy for closely-set pickets and posts. Smaller rollers can help stain individual pickets and areas low to the ground.

All these tools are available at local paint supply stores, home improvement centers and online.

Look for the Right Weather Window

There’s an element of luck with any outdoor staining project that revolves around the weather. Choose a day free from rain or high levels of humidity. And it should be semi-pleasant, between 50 and 80 degrees with low wind.

Here are some tips for choosing the right weather window:

  • Many stains are rain-ready in four to eight hours, but it’s best to wait for a few days of dry weather. This helps ensure that the fence is dry before starting and they’ll be time for additional coats, if necessary.

  • Avoid staining in direct sunlight. The sun will dry the stain too quickly, preventing it from penetrating the wood enough to protect it properly.

  • Hot weather can sap productivity, making a fence staining project drag on and on. Wait for early or mid-fall rather than the dead heat of summer.

  • Colder temperatures are worth avoiding as well. Wood contracts in the cold, shrinking pores and preventing optimal stain penetration. Stains also take longer to dry in the cold. This can cause potential penetration or appearance issues, like drips or runs.

Apply Even Coats

This part of the process is relatively straightforward, but the technique will depend on the tool chosen.

  • Sprayer: While maintaining an even distance from the fence (between six and 10 inches, preferably), spray the fence in an up and down motion. Be sure to overlap the previous passes to prevent dry spots, uneven application and missed spots. Angle the sprayer into corners, although it’s okay to back off slightly to avoid applying too much stain.

  • Brush: Dip just the first three-quarters of an inch of the brush into the can and lightly tap off any excess stain. Apply the stain to one picket or slat at a time with up and down strokes. Be sure to overlap previous strokes and maintain a wet edge. Once the bristles start drying out, dip them in the can for more stain.

  • Roller: Pour stain into the bottom of a paint tray. Load the roller by lightly dragging the stain up the tray and rolling it in the stain. Apply it similarly to a brush, in up and down motions, but cover as many slats as possible without wasting stain.

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Tom Scalisi
Tom Scalisi is an author and writer specializing in the construction and home improvement industries. His career in the trades spans over 15 years as both a contractor and a commercial building mechanic. Tom has written for several blogs and magazines including bobvila.com, thisoldhouse.com, levelset.com, and more. His first book, "How To Fix Stuff," was published in May 2022. In addition to his professional life, Tom is also an avid baseball fan and coach. He lives in NY's Hudson Valley with his wife, their four children, and two dogs.