Finishing your deck – oil or stain?

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A good deck can make a house a home. In this example, the deck is oiled without any tint.
A good deck can make a house a home. In this example, the deck is oiled without any tint.

Now that you’re done constructing your deck the only thing left to do is to add the finishing touches. Both oils and stains have their own distinct advantages. In this post we’ll have a look at both finishing materials.

A good deck can make a house a home…
A good deck can make a house a home. In this example, the deck is oiled without any tint.
Finishing your deck with an oil or stain is an important step to ensure that your deck will last for years. Untreated wood is vulnerable to cracking, fading, and weathering and attack by fungus and other microbes. Treated timber will also dry and crack over time but will not rot assuming the treatment has been performed properly. Regular application of an oil or stain ensures that decking materials are well protected against the major causes of deterioration.

Decking Oil:
Decking oil is used to protect wood from weathering and UV exposure. Because it soaks into the timber, restoring lost natural oils it significantly reduces the risk of decay. The right oil also greatly enhances the appearance of the deck.

Choosing the right colour
Decking oils vary in terms of colour. Tinted oils provides a richer and darker tone to the wood and are best for lighter shaded wood. Natural (untinted) oils retains the original colour of the wood. Wood valued for its colour is best finished using clear oils because it highlights the deep and rich natural colour of the wood.

Note that you should apply the first coat of oil as soon as practicable after completion. Delaying, even for a few weeks, will cause some permanent discolouration and bleaching of your timbers.

Decking oil application
The method of application depends upon the variety of wood and the type of oil you’re using. In recent years, despite sounding counter-intuitive, some excellent water-based oils have become available. They are very easy to apply and give an excellent finish however, in my experience, need re-coating more frequently than traditional oils. The trade-off is that they are quick to apply so your annual time commitment is probably equal.

This deck has been stained with a light pigment. The colour will not build up on reapplication.
This deck has been stained with a light pigment. The colour will not build up on reapplication.

To get the best results with any oil (or stain) it’s best to experiment by applying the oil on an off-cut from the job to see what the finished effect will be. If you have used a combination of timbers, for example, pine and cedar, make sure you test the oil on both as they will give very different results. You may need to add a tint to the pine and use a clear finish on the cedar.

Go lightly, my friend…
Avoid applying thick coats of oil as the excess oil can attract dust and other particulates. Instead, apply a light coat wait between a week or even a fortnight between coats. This will give the oil time to soak completely into the wood before you apply additional coats.

Wood stains:
Much like decking oil, wood stains also protect wood from weathering, UV rays, and other forms of deterioration. Unlike an oil, stains seal the wood, adding an extra layer of protection against the elements. It is important to understand the difference because you cannot ‘unstain’ timber.

An example of staining. The finish is permanent.
An example of staining. The finish is permanent.

Wood stains are used to permanently alter the colour of the wood. Stains come in a wide variety of penetrating strengths. These strengths allow you to control the depth of colour and tint of the wood.

Wood stain variation
The ability of the stain to penetrate determines the kind of pigmentation it’s able to create. Less penetrating stains provides a solid stain. Less penetrating stains provide the best UV protection but because they don’t penetrate well they fade easily. Deep penetrating stain provides transparent or semi-transparent finish. Deep penetrating stains provide less protection against UV rays but are able to highlight the natural grain and character of timber.
Wood stain maintenance
Wood stain also requires resealing but doesn’t require the same level of maintenance as decking oil. However, your decking is going to be exposed to the weather 24 hours a day and will look tatty if you leave it to long between scheduled maintenance. You should also be aware that regular re-coating will minimise your ‘prep time’ – the hardest part of any painting process.

Wood stain application
As with decking oil, it’s best to apply a couple of coats to off-cuts or excess pieces of wood to test the final look of the stain. You should also avoid rebrushing stain that has already been applied as this will often result in annoying changes in colour depth in that spot. Instead, work consistently in one direction. You should also stain the entire area in one sitting as this will give full colour consistency.

So, there you go! Both oil and stain have distinct advantages. For me, the decision usually comes down to the quality of timber used. If the deck is merbau, teak or jarrah for example, I will want to highlight and enhance the natural beauty of those timbers by using a clear oil. If the deck is pine, II will usually choose a solid colour stain in order to get colour consistency and to provide maximum protection.

Now it’s over to you… oil or stain? Which one will you use and why?

Next up: Freestanding decks… a great alternative!