Staining Vs. Painting: Main Difference Between Stain & Paint

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Staining vs. painting… One might think they’re the same thing. They both add color to the surface that you are applying them to. 


While staining and painting may give similar finishes, there are some big differences when it comes to staining vs. painting, and knowing the difference between the two is going to help you choose the best finish for whatever you are adding color to. 


So, what is staining and painting all about?

What Is Staining?

Staining is almost always used on wood surfaces, and it is a great finish to use on your deck, cabinets, or other outdoor furniture, though you can also stain your indoor furniture and other wooden items too. 


Stain consists of three main components: pigment, dye, and carrier. 


The pigment and dye are what give the stain its color and that gives it a lot of commonalities to paint. The carrier can be water- or oil-based, depending on what you need to use it for. 


When you stain wood, you are actually changing the wood. Instead of the stain sitting on the surface of the wood, as paint does, the stain is absorbed into the wood. Staining wood is used to change the finish of the material and to protect it. 

What Is Painting

When you paint, you also add color or finish to a surface, but you are painting more for the color than the protection, though you can find paint that is very protective too (especially exterior paint). 


Paint is applied to the surface of a material and superficially changes the look. 

Five Differences Between Staining & Painting

While staining and painting can give you similar looks, they often give wildly different looks and are used for very different purposes. Here are some key differences between staining and painting. 

#1 The Finished Look

Paint and stain are both used to color wood (generally), but they both do so in very different ways. As stated above, and if you think about the names, you can see that painting creates a solid superficial covering of the wood while staining stains it. 


With stain, the liquid is absorbed into the wood, through the pores, and adds color to the wood while creating a semi-transparent look. When stain dries, you will usually be able to see the grain of the wood below. 


For this reason, a stain is better if you want to have a natural look that shows the grain and patterns of the wood below. 


Paint covers the surface of the wood, so it is better if you want to cover what is below. 

#2 Number Of Coats

Stain can be deceptive when it comes to applying it to a wood surface, and it can often be hard to predict just how much you need. 


When you stain wood, the wood is absorbing the stain, so you should plan to apply multiple coats, while you may only need one of two coats of paint. Even if you buy a lot of stains, the wood may be more absorbent than expected, and you can find yourself applying coat after coat without it looking any different. You may have to apply multiple coats after multiple coats before the stain builds up enough that the wood cannot keep absorbing it. 


Paint may only need a couple of coats, but the stain will usually need a lot more. 

#3 Longevity

As stain is absorbed into the wood and paint only sits on top of it, you may think that stain will last longer than paint, but it is the opposite that is true. Paint can last for up to ten years outdoors, but the stain will last less. 


The most common affliction of an outdoor painted surface is chipping and cracking. Most of this is caused by moisture and UV rays. You can mitigate the damage by using oil-based paint, and that will last a lot longer than water-based paint. 


Stain can last anywhere between 1-8 years, but you can ensure a longer life by choosing a stain with more pigment, as the darker hue will stop UV rays from penetrating the wood. Transparent stains may look great and show the natural grain of the wood below, but they offer little protection against the elements. 

Related: How Often Should You Paint Your Homes Interior?

#4 Ease Of Use

When it comes to the application of the two finishes, the stain is a lot easier to apply than paint, and you can get a better finish with stain. 


If you are repainting a deck, it takes some work to remove the old paint first before repainting it and, if you are not proficient in painting, you can have a finish that has dried on drips and bumps. And, if you want to go from paint to stain, you have a lot of work on your hands. 


With stain, you can create a more even finish as the stain is absorbed into the wood. When it comes time to choose a different hue of stain, you can easily do so by sanding the previous stain and adding the new. The same is true if you are moving from stain to paint. 


Overall, staining and sanding are going to give you a more professional finish than painting and sanding will. 

#5 Cost

While you may have to apply more coats of a stain than paint to finish the wood, stain works out the cheaper option overall. 


By the gallon, you can usually pick up stain from $20-$35, while the paint will set you back $30-$60. If we take that at face value, even with the extra coats, stain works out cheaper than paint, but that is not the full story. 


If you are finishing anything that is going to be subjected to the elements, you are going to need to seal and preserve it too. The stain is going to have this property already, while paint does not. On top of the $30-$60 that you are shelling out on paint, you are going to have to add on some sealant or preserver too.


The stain is the all-in-one finish that will cost you less. 

Final Thoughts

There are some main differences between paint and stain, but that does not mean that one is better than the other. While they can both be used to finish the same surface, they are both created for very different purposes. 


Paint may cost more but it will last longer and will hide imperfections of ugly wood while giving you a solid color that can match your aesthetic. Stain can be cheap, easy to apply, and give a natural finish, but you also have less choice. 


Staining vs. painting comes down to personal preference. Choose the finish that will give you the best results, but call in the professionals when needed too.