Whether you have an expensive piece of outdoor furniture, a beautiful wood patio, piece of wood art, or a stunning log home you are going to want to keep the piece protected. While wood can be strong, if not properly protected, the wood can also weather and wear quickly, so protecting your wood project in the right way can be the difference between years of use and enjoyment, and quick fading or cracking. Wood stains and sealers provide protection for wood projects, such as preserving the natural color, protecting against UV rays and repelling water. However, there are times when it is better to use a wood stain, and times when it is better to seal the wood. How do you know when to stain versus when to seal wood?

The Basics: Staining vs. Sealing Wood

Before we dive into the pros, cons and uses of stains and sealers, it will be helpful to understand the basic difference of wood stains and sealers. Both stains and sealers are designed to protect the wood, although in different ways. Using either choice is better than nothing to protect your project, but using the right product will be much more effective than others. Here is a quick breakdown of wood sealers and wood stains.


Wood sealers are usually a clear or transparent finish that coats the surface of a product. The main benefit to wood sealer is water repellent, which can be a huge issue for outdoor wood like those used in outdoor furniture or wood decks. Unwanted water can lead to fungal growth, wood rot or cracking, so having a product that can repel water is a big plus. Sealers are generally easy to apply, and do not require much training or expertise.


Instead of sitting atop the wood like sealers, stains penetrate the wood, often containing pigment that physically changes the color of the wood. Stains give great protection against harmful UV rays, which can cause the wood color to fade and turn gray, as well as split or crack. Stains also have water repelling qualities, as the stain does not allow water droplets to penetrate the wood. Applying stains is a bit trickier than sealers, but it can last longer and look more professional.

Deep Dive: Sealers

As we discussed above, wood sealers protect against moisture, but they also help protect against insects, mildew, mold and rot. Most sealers are liquids that go on clear and dry clear, which allows the natural wood grain to shine through. Sealers do not generally have a pigment, which keeps the natural look of the wood preserved, but also does not protect against UV rays and sun damage, which can cause splitting, cracking or discoloration with time.

So how do you know if your wood project has been sealed? If you pour a small amount of water on the wood, it will bead on the surface instead of being absorbed into the wood if it a sealer has been applied. Since there is no pigment, it is hard to tell if there is sealer on the wood otherwise. If the water does not bead on the wood and is absorbed quickly, it is time to reseal the project.

Types of Sealers:

There are a few types of sealers to consider with your wood project, based on the use of the wood project and the type of wood. Penetrating sealers are sealers that go into the wood grain to enhance it. These include tang oil, linseed oil, hemp oil and waxes, which are mixed with mineral spirits or vinegar, and are ideal for woods such as teak, cedar and mahogany. The benefit to penetrating sealers is that they offer protection against moisture and weathering, and can be applied without sanding or stripping a previous layer. You can also touch up worn down areas without refinishing the whole wood project.

The other type of sealer is coating finishes, which provide a harder surface. These include shellacs, lacquers and varnishes. Coating finishes are very scratch resistant and are more water resistant, but can be susceptible to cracking or peeling. You might see this type of sealer on a wood boat.

Deep Dive: Stains

Wood stains protect the wood by penetrating the wood to protect against moisture, precipitation, rot, mold and mildew. The color pigment or tint also helps protect the wood from UV rays and sun damage. Stains can be water or oil-bases, ranging from semi-transparent to opaque, meaning users have a lot of control over the final appearance of the wood project. A stain can enhance the color of the wood and make the project more consistent. However, stains fade over time, especially in high-traffic areas such as decks or outdoor furniture, and will need to be reapplied every few years.

Types of Stains

There are several types of wood stains, which can be used differently based on the project. Wood toners may be nearly clear with slight hints of wood tones; these need to be reapplied more often, typically each year. Semi-transparent stains allow the wood grain to show through while still adding pigment colors, lasting about 2-3 years between applications. Semi-opaque stains hide much of the wood grain beneath wood pigment; however, these last longer and should be reapplied every 3-4 years. Solid or opaque stains have the riches color and hide the grain the most. These last the longest, needing reapplication about every 4-5 years.

Finding the Right Products

Are you searching for the right stain or sealer for your wood project? Regardless of your project, the team at Lovitt’s Coating can help you find the right products for your job. Contact our team today to get started.