Interior or exterior? Latex or oil-based? Choosing the correct stain isn't as easy as simply plucking one off the shelf of your local big "big box" home improvement center, according to paint and painting industry experts.
Latex stains or "acrylics" are water-based. They clean up easily with warm, soapy water and give off little odor during application. This makes them an excellent choice for interior applications where there is little exposure to the elements.
Oil stains or "alkyds" are oil-based. This makes them more durable than oil-based stains and thus preferable for exterior applications. They require mineral spirits for cleanup and have a strong odor during application, so they need to be applied in a well-ventilated area.
The greater ease in applying latex stains tempts some painting contractors to recommend them for outdoor applications. This is usually for their benefit and not yours, and you would do well to seek other options before signing on the dotted line.
For example, a quality siding stain will have milder blockers and fade resistors that allow it to withstand the elements and constant sunlight. An exterior decking stain will contain all that plus scuff resistors and special binding agents to keep it from wearing away under foot.
Semi-transparent, semi-solid, or solid? Consult an expert!
Whether latex or oil-based, not all stains are made to the same specifications. Different chemical compositions affect durability as well as how they're absorbed into the wood, and there are at least three different kinds of each.
- Semi-transparent stains enhance wood's natural beauty by highlighting its grain and texture.
- Semi-solid stains contain more pigment and alkyd. This tends to hide some grain and texture but increases UV resistance and overall durability.
- Solid stains obscure even more grain and texture but thereby finish to a smoother surface, which is preferable in some applications and decorating schemes.
Of course, transparent stains will allow more natural wood color to come through. Conversely, opaque stains can support more pigment and so are available in a wider variety of colors than their more-transparent counterparts. As a rule of thumb, paint experts recommend more-transparent stains for a casual look and more-opaque stains for a polished and formal appearance.