How Much Stain do I Need for My Fence

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Matt Stone

When you are planning your next fence stain project you might ask yourself, “how much stain do I need for my fence?” It is important to get the right amount of stain at the beginning. If you get too little stain you will need to make an extra trip to the store, or order more online and wait for it to arrive. 

Even worse, some types of stains require keeping what is called a “wet edge.” This means you should not stop staining long enough for the area you are working on to dry. When you resume staining, the spot where you overlap the dry stain will be darker than the rest of the fence making your stain look uneven. A trip to the store is definitely long enough to lose your wet edge.

Having too much stain is also a problem. You will have spent extra money that you didn’t have to. For some prepackaged stain colors, you will be able to return to the store but custom colors will not be returnable. If you do have extra stain, I will give some tips for storing it so you can use it the next time you want to stain your fence.

The best solution is to calculate the amount of stain you need so you don’t wind up with too much or too little. We have created a handy fence stain calculator to make this process simple. Also, In this article, I will show you the method I use in my staining company to calculate how much stain I need for a fence.

Start By Calculating the Size of Your Fence

man using a measuring tape

How much area a gallon of stain will cover is measured in square feet. In order to figure out how much stain you need, you will need to know how many square feet of fence you are staining. 

This is done with simple math. You multiply the length of the fence you are staining by the height.

Fence Length (in feet) X Fence Height (in feet)

This will give you the square feet for one side of the fence. If you are staining both sides (highly recommended) you should double this number. Do this for each section of fence you will be staining and add all the numbers to get the total square feet of fence you will be staining.

Then Find the Coverage Rate for Your Stain

stain can showing the coverage rate for the stain

Most stain manufacturers will print the estimated coverage rate for their stain on the back of the stain can. They will usually give you a range like “200-350 ft2.” This is the number of square feet that one gallon of their stain should cover. It is safest to estimate toward the bottom end of the range. This way you will have plenty of stain to apply a nice thick coat.

Calculate How Much Stain You Need

Divide the total square feet of fence by the coverage rate from the stain can. This will tell you how many gallons of stain you should buy.

Square Feet(ft2) / Coverage(ft2/gallon) = Gallons Needed

This method should work to get you enough stain to do your project with a little left over for touch-ups. For a more detailed description of each step continue reading below.

How To Find Your Stain’s Coverage Rate

If the coverage is not listed on the can or you haven’t ordered your stain yet you may be able to find the information online. You can search for “your stain brand + coverage” and see if you get an answer. 

Stain companies will make a product data sheet about their products (Sometimes it’s called a technical data sheet, PDS, or TDS). This is different from a material safety data sheet (MSDS). This data sheet should list the coverage rate. You can search for these online as well.

If you are still having trouble finding the coverage rate you can use the estimates below. These are intentionally conservative estimates to make sure you don’t run out of stain.

  • For transparent and semi-transparent oil-based stains, estimate a coverage rate of 175 ft2 per gallon.
  • For solid stains estimate you will get 250 ft2 per gallon.
semi-transparent oil-based stain on a wooden fence
This is an example of semi-transparent stain.

Ways to Measure Your Fence

Height: The height of your fence should be easy to measure with a tape measure. Common privacy fence heights are six and eight feet.

Length: There are several methods you can use to measure the length of the fence.

  • Count the sections: For most fences, the sections between the posts will be the same length. Eight feet is the most common distance between posts. You can count how many sections you have and multiply it by the number of feet between each post.
  • Use a measuring wheel: If you own a measuring wheel, you can simply run it along the base of the fence to get the measurement.
  • Use Google Maps: There is a handy measuring tool in Google Maps. First, find your property on Google maps. Switch to satellite view and you should be able to see the outline of the fence.
    Right click on the map and select “measure distance” from the drop down menu. Clicking on two points on the map will tell you the distance between them in feet. Clicking additional points will add more measurements.
    Starting on one end, click on each corner of the fence to outline its perimeter. The total distance will be on the bottom of the screen.
    I have double checked this method with a measuring wheel and found it is accurate to within a couple of feet. This is accurate enough for estimating how much fence stain you will need.

Wood Type Affects How Much Stain You Need

The age and species of wood you are staining and the way it was milled all affect how much stain you will need. This is why stain companies will give a range for their stain coverage rate. You can use the suggestions in this section to determine if you should estimate on the high end or low end for the coverage you should expect on your fence

How Much Stain is Needed for Pine vs Cedar

stain chart showing how much fence stain is needed for different types of wood
This stain brand gives a chart showing their coverage rates on different types of wood.

Cedar has the ability to absorb more stain than pine. Cedar is a very light and porous wood. This means that there are more spaces between the wood cells where stain can penetrate. This ability to absorb stain is what makes stained cedar look so beautiful.

Because it absorbs more stain, you will likely get less coverage per gallon when staining a cedar fence. When staining pine on the other hand, you will likely be able to cover more square feet with every gallon of stain.

Wood Texture Affects How Much Stain Your Fence Needs

Some wood sold at the lumber yard has a rough texture and some will be smooth. Smoother boards will not absorb as much stain as rougher ones. When a board is planed smooth there is less surface area left to absorb stain and many of the pores will be closed. Pine is almost always sold smooth while cedar can come either way.

You can tell which type of texture you have by running your hand over the fence pickets. If it feels smooth like you would expect on a piece of furniture you have a smooth board. If it feels bumpy you have a rough board.

Wood Age Affects How Much Stain Your Fence Needs

An older fence will require more stain than a new one. As wood ages, the pores between the wood cells will open and expand. These pores act like a sponge soaking up wood stain. This means an older fence will be able to absorb much more stain than a new one. This will have the effect of looking like you only lightly stained the fence. In order to get the same stained look as a new fence, an older fence will require more stain.

Now you can enjoy a beautiful stained fence.

Summary

  • Wood Type – determine if the wood specie has a high or low fence stain absorbsion tendency
  • Wood Texture – determine of the boards are rougher or smoother and therefore likely to soak in more or less fence stain
  • Wood Age – Determine the age of a fence for how much it may or may not soak in fence stain.

You can use the three factors mentioned above to determine if you should use the high end or the low end of the coverage range. If you have an old rough cedar fence you will use much more stain than if you have a new smooth pine one.

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Author: Matt Stone
Matt has worked as a professional painter for over 10 years. This includes much experience with all types of wood stains. He loves to write about wood stains to help others make good choices to protect their homes and make them beautiful.

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