We recommend using an oil-based fence stain on all wood fences. These stains will penetrate into the wood and protect it from moisture, UV rays, and mold. While there are many brands of stains out there, some are definitely better than others.
We have tested many different brands of fence stains in our backyard to see how they compare. I have been using the best performers from these tests in my professional fence staining company for years. I want to share with you what I have found to be the best oil-based fence stains for wooden fences.
Keep reading for the full review below.
Our Top Picks
How We Test Our Fence Stains
We put all out wood stains through our application test. This means we apply each stain to cedar fence pickets to see how easy they are to apply and how well they penetrate the wood. We also assess the initial appearance of the stain on the boards. We are looking for an even color with a rich look.
I also take into account my experience with my professional painting company. We have applied hundreds of gallons of stain from many different brands to fences and decks. We have learned which products work really well in our area and I am able to pass on that information to you.
Table of Contents
The Best Oil-Based Stain for Your Fence
Best Overall: Ready Seal
We chose Ready Seal brand fence stain for our top overall pick because it is extremely easy to apply, has a great initial appearance and is not finicky about the temperature. It is weatherproof in hours so there is no need to worry if it rains after you are done.
Best for New Fences: Wood Defender Transparent
Wood Defender transparent stain is a great choice for new wood fences because it pairs nearly as easy application as Ready Seal with more color choices. You can really highlight the grain of your new wood with the rich transparent colors offered in this product.
Best for Old Fences: Wood Defender Semi-Transparent
Wood Defender semi-transparent stain is a great choice for old wood fences because it comes with strong semi-transparent pigments that cover up imperfections in weathered boards. It is also very easy to apply.
Best for a Rich Finish: Cabot Australian Timber Oil
Cabot Australian Timber Oil (or ATO) is designed to protect wood while looking great at the same time. It has a more lustrous appearance than the other stains in this list. This gives the look a beautiful depth that is hard to beat.
This product will be a little more difficult to apply than the others listed above.
What to Look For in an Oil Based Stain
Not all oil-based fence stains are created equally. Choosing a brand that uses high quality pigments, offers full penetration into the wood, and offers the color choices you want are all important considerations for finding the best stain for your fence.
High Quality pigments
We recommend using a fence stain with high quality pigments. The finer that the pigments are ground, the easier they will fit into the little pores in the fence wood. Some types of pigments are better suited for long term outdoor exposure than others.
When a stain is tinted at the paint store to match the color you want, the pigments being added are called universal pigments. They are used for all different kinds of paint and stain products and have to be a jack-of-all-trades type pigment. They will do well in most settings. The main advantage of these pigments in that you will get many color options.
On the other hand, stains that are premixed before they arrive at the store will have more flexibility to use pigments specially designed for exterior stain use. These pigments will likely last longer than universal pigments. The downside is that you will be limited to the colors offered from the manufacturer.
Fully Penetrating vs Film Forming
Some oil-based stains will completely soak into the wood while others will create a film on the surface. This film will be similar to the clear coat that is used on interior wood. Penetrating stains will have a flat appearance when applied correctly. Film-forming stains will often have a bit of a sheen.
I usually recommend using the penetrating type of stain because it will be easier to maintain in the long run. The film created by the film-forming stains will interfere with additional coats of stain. A Penetrating stain will not have this problem
The only reason you may consider using a film forming stain is because they can give the wood a little bit of sheen. This gives the color a deeper, more lustrous look. Just know that in addition to interfering with additional coats, the film on the surface of the wood may have issues with peeling as it ages.
Do Oil-based Stains Require a Sealer
I do not recommend putting an additional sealer on top of oil-based fence stains. The oil in the stain will act as a barrier to moisture entering the wood. Since oil and water don’t mix, once the pickets have absorbed the stain, water won’t be able to soak into the wood. You should see water bead up on the surface of a stained fence.
This moisture protection does not require a separate sealer. The sealer would create the same issues with maintenance and peeling as the film-forming stains. When you go to apply a new coat of stain in the future, any remaining sealer will block the new stain from absorbing into the wood.
There can be a vast difference in color options available between brands. Some brands that use specialty pigments may only offer half a dozen while those using universal pigments may have over 100. If you are looking for a very specific or unusual color you should look for a brand that offers many color options.
The highest-quality pigments are usually added to the stain during the manufacturing process. That is why many stain brands will come with several prepackaged colors. This is different from most paints which have their pigment added in the store. Stains that are able to be tinted in-store will have the greatest amount of color options but will not have the highest quality pigments available.
For this reason, choosing a stain can be a trade-off between getting the best quality product or getting a greater color selection. If you are happy with the more common available colors I would suggest getting one of the prepackaged colors off the shelf. If you really need to get just the right shade, however, you can go with a tintable stain.
Shopping online also will give you more options. For example, Wood Defender uses the quality pigments found in prepackaged stains but offers over 20 color options between their transparent and semi-transparent lines.
The transparency of a stain refers to the amount of wood grain that the stain allows to show through. The more transparent the stain, the more wood you will see. These transparent stains are great for highlighting the beauty of cedar and any new wood.
Semi-transparent stains will cover up more of the wood. They use more or stronger pigments to achieve this look. This can be a great way to cover up minor imperfections in the wood surface. Also, these more opaque options will be less affected by the color of the wood underneath it.
If you are going for gray, black or any color that is not a natural wood color, you should use a less transparent stain to keep the underlying wood color from affecting your final look.
VOC stands for volatile organic compound. These chemicals can be hazardous and you should avoid exposure to them as much as possible. This should include wearing the proper protective equipment when using oil-based stains. These stains can be high in VOCs but there is quite a bit of difference between brands. You can check the safety data sheet for the brand of stain you are using if you are concerned about its VOC content.
For more information read about VOCs here.
There are so many quality fence stains on the market today. You should be able to find one that fits your situation and needs. By following the advice in this guide you should feel comfortable knowing that your have chosen the best fence stain for your fence.