Should I Stain, Seal, or Paint My Wood Fence? What is the Difference?

Cedar Fence? Pine Fence?

Cedar and pine are the two most popular choices for wood privacy fences. Others would include cypress, spruce and white cedars.

In this article I will focus on cedar (western red cedar) and pressure treated pine (southern yellow pine) because those are the 2 workhorse materials we used for over 35 years.

To keep your new fence looking great and to keep it that way for years to come I recommend using a high quality stain like Sherwin Williams, Pittsburg Paints and even the box store brands Home Depot, Lowes, Menards are pretty good. Popular Stain Colors 

What’s the Diff? Stain | Sealer | Paint

Paint is a top coat. It WILL flake and peel off over time. It will need to be scraped off, cleaned before a new coat is applied. Think of the old clap board houses with thick layers of paint needing to be repainted.

Stain will soak into wood with color and will show some wood grain.

Sealer will coat the wood with a protective coating (layer).

Why Does Wood Fencing Turn Gray?

Lumber to build wood fencing is a natural product and it is susceptible to the elements of sun, rain, heat and cold. So what’s the deal with my fence turning gray?

The gray color on exposed wood is a weathering process. It is like a sunburn on the wood surface. It is only as deep as the thickness of a piece of paper. In fact, you could take a 100 year old barn wood and sand a little off the top to see the natural color underneath. The best way to see this is to crosscut a piece of grayed out lumber and look at the edge cut. You will see only a very thin layer that weather out from the sun and the rest is natural color. Stains help keep the sun’s UV rays from damaging the wood turning it gray.

How Long Before My New Fence Turns Gray?

Great question! The graying out of the fencing is the sun’s UV rays damaging the top layer, like a sun burn. So how long before it GRAYS OUT?

Again it will depend on the part of the country you are in and how strong the sun is and the months of harsh sun. So a fence in the spring will go thru the full summer sun while a fence built in the fall will have less sun on it thru the winter and then full sun in the summer.

As a rule of thumb it takes about 6 months for the graying to begin, and about 12 to 18 months for a full gray out.

Do I Have To Stain My Fence?

NO! You don’t have to stain your fence. Staining your fence will keep it looking nice for you and your neighbors. So what happens if you don’t stain your fence…it turns barnwood gray. It will not hurt the structure or integrity of the fence, it just will not have that nice clean look.

So if you want to get that fresh new fence look again, just hit it once a year with a pressure washer to knock off that thin layer of sunburn (gray). It will take another year to gray out and you can just hit it again with pressure washer.

Will Sealing My Fence Prevent Warping?

In my 35 plus years running a fencing company I have heard all of the manufacturers claims. In the early 1990’s they even tried using a paraffin base to prevent warpage. Not only did it not prevent warping,  it created a mold issue problem and was quickly discontinued.


Like your body all wood is composed of cells and the cells hold water. The cells are not of a uniform consistency so when the wood cells dry out the wood twists, warps, and grain raisings. This is a natural characteristic of ALL LUMBER! Cedar lumber will have a more consistent striation of cells than pine and that is why Cedar has less warping on average than pine. (NOTE: Cedar still has warping issues!)

Sealing your fence will encase it with a protective coating from the weather, but it will not stop it from warping, no matter what the manufacturers claims are. Using a color stain with a built in sealer is a great way to protect your fence and make it attractive, but NOTHING WILL STOP THE NATURAL CHARACTERISTIC OF WOOD TO WARP OUTSIDE IN THE WEATHER.

Stain vs Sealer | What is Better

Staining your natural wood fence will add color and still reveal the character of the natural wood grain. The stain actually soaks into the wood (into the cell structure). An analogy I like to use is hot dog mustard dripping on a white T shirt. You can wash that all you want but the color is set in! That’s the same way it is for fence stain, it soaks in to your wood fence and may fade some but will always remain.

Sealers will coat the outside layer to seal and protect your fencing.

The lines of delineation between stains and sealers are closing in. Most stains for wood fencing will have built in sealers that both color AND seal the wood fibers.

Most sealers for wood fencing will have color options.

So what you need is an outside wood stain with sealer

What Are the Most Popular Colors for My Wood Fence?

Since this site covers all the United States and so many temperature zones you will need to check with your local paint stores for their recommendations on the best stain results for your specific fencing.

The most popular colors our customers used were lighter colors like Honey (looked like a new wood color for pine) and also the Red Cedar Tone color for cedar and pine. Keep in mind that this is STAIN and you should be able to see the wood grain.

Did you know that the same color stain may look different on pine and cedar? That’s right! So take a scrap piece of your wood fence picket to sample the different colors. Use a sharpie to write down the name next to the test stripe. Once it has dried you have a good idea how it will look on your fence.

Will a Clear Coat Stain Keep My Fence From Turning Gray?

In a word… NO! The sealer will seal the wood. Clear sealer will still allow the sun to penetrate thru and turn your fence barnwood gray.


One of my customers tried clear seal on their deck. After a year the deck still turned a barnwood gray. When they pressure washed the deck to clean it turned to a pasty washed out gray.

How Much Stain Will I Need?

Check your paint manufacturer for coverage rates. Normally figure on getting about 300 square feet per gallon of stain coverage. How much total stain will you need? An average 6′ wood privacy fence of 200 linear feet (6 x 200) = 1200 square feet. Now double that (inside and outside) for a total of 2400 square feet. Divide total footage by 300 (average gallon coverage) to about 8 gallons.

The first time you stain the fence you need 2 applications so 16 gallons. At $40 per gallon that is $640 in stain.


Brush, Roll, or Spray Application?

Be careful when applying stain on your fence. Darker colors are less forgiving, so if you overcoat an area using darker colors may turn really dark. One of my fence customers hired a handyman to spray their new fence. While has was staining the fence he stayed a little to long in one spot and made it way darker than the rest of the fence! So be careful with darker colors.

Most of my fence customers were happy with lighter colors and the honey color or natural fresh wood color were the most popular.

If you have the patience your can brush paint your way thru the summer! Rolling is faster but you will still need to fill in the edges and corners with hand brush. I prefer the power sprayer to stain the fence over a weekend. Since the first time it needs 2 coats, by the time you finish the first coat you will be ready to start a second coat.

10 Year Maintenance Schedule -Wood Privacy Fencing

Conclusion Stain vs Sealer vs Paint

If you like the barnwood gray fence color you do not have to stain your fence. If you want to have a clean decorative look be sure to use a stain that will soak into the wood. Use the stain that includes sealer in the mix to add an extra level of protection.

The first year you will need to put on two coats of stain for a good base. That is front and back, and front and back again. This should last you for about 3 years.