Beautifying Wood with Exterior Full-body Stains
No architectural coating beats stains for bringing out the texture and grain of good quality wood construction.
by Christina Camara
beats stains for bringing out the texture and grain of good quality wood construction.
But as with other products in the coatings industry, customer preferences have evolved.
David Thompson, director of technical services and professional sales at California Paint, based in Andover, Mass., says transparent stains, which highlight the natural wood, were popular in the 1970s. But the thin coating didn’t weather well, and property owners started looking for a longer-lasting alternative. Solid color stains moved in.
The 1980s were the heyday of stains, which were heavily and successfully marketed to property owners looking for a natural, earth-tone look for their homes, condos or apartment buildings. During the Northeast building boom of that time, stain was used almost exclusively, Thompson says.
In more recent years, homeowners have begun to use paint colors to express their personality inside their homes, and that creativity is extending outdoors. Stains now come in a variety of colors and formulas. One option is full-body stains, which produce a heavier film and contain more pigment, much like a thinned paint. The full-body stains will hide the grain somewhat, but will continue to highlight the texture and character of the wood, the main draw of top-quality stains.
Today, contractors are experimenting with combinations of stains and paints on home exteriors — and getting eye-catching results.
Stain manufacturers say that several factors are critical for success. Contractors should understand the environmental factors at the job site, the proper surface preparation techniques, the best products to use and the most effective application methods.
Environmental conditions — It is important to take the forces of nature into account. Coastal conditions may be the trickiest, as the house will be pummeled by winds, rain, high humidity and sun. Full-body stains are particularly attractive for these conditions. Tim Stephens, marketing and communications manager for Akso Nobel, which produces the Sikkens brand, says his company’s full-body stains are known for their micro-porosity, which means they flex and breathe to release vapors but stop moisture from penetrating.
In dry, hot areas of the country, good-quality pigments and absorbers are particularly important to protect against punishing ultraviolet rays. In damp areas, like the Northwest, it is critical to properly prepare the wood surface so mold and mildew don’t creep in. A good primer and acrylic stains are recommended, as mildew will feed on the oils in solvent-based products.
Surface preparation — Prep work can be tedious, but it is essential. When staining raw wood, for example, it’s critical to sterilize it first to provide excellent adhesion and a bright, crisp look, says Kelly Dornbush, owner of Spray Ranger, a Cayucos, Calif.-based company that makes a water-powered spray applicator. Dornbush recommends checking for surface barriers, such as a paraffin-wax water repellant, previous coatings or mill glaze, by sprinkling a few drops of water on the surface to see if it beads up. If so, apply a wood brightener first, and if that doesn’t work, a deck stripper, he says.
Sterilizing is also critical for weathered wood, he says. If stain is applied over gray wood, or wood that is starting to show the early signs of mildew growth, the stain will be applied right over the organic activity, creating a feeding frenzy for mildew. “It’s going to turn into a big, black nightmare,” Dornbush says.
“Cleaning the wood chemically is easy and effective and brings out the colors of the grain, showing the character of the wood, which will be further enhanced by the stain,” he says. “Using a bleach solution also raises the pH of the wood, which is great. The new acrylic finishes such as Wolman’s Extreme or Flood’s Spa-N-Deck love that higher pH — it creates a super adhesive bond.”
Dornbush says his spray applicator — powered by a garden hose harnessed to pressurize a 2-gallon tank — is designed specifically for applying wood brighteners, stripper cleaners and bleach to kill mildew. A garden pump sprayer won’t give you the power and coverage you’ll need, and while a power washer works well in certain situations, the spray can often be too strong, marking the wood, he says. The Spray Ranger is easy to use and gives the wood a thorough bath, taking some of the work out of the preparation process.
Top-Quality Products — Mark Mangan, director of technical services for Coronado Paint Co., says that because stains contain fewer solids than paints, they’re cheaper by about 10 percent, but he recommends buying only the best. Low-quality stains mean a life span of as little as two or three years.
Thompson noted that 85 percent of the cost of re-staining a home is in labor, so the real value of a stain is in how many years of service you can get out of it. Paying a couple more dollars for a gallon of stain will easily pay off if the stain lasts longer.
One premium finish for hardwood, Sikkens’ Cetol DEK, can make decks look like a piece of furniture, Stephens says. When failures do occur with these top-quality products, it’s usually because the contractor has not paid attention to the details and has skipped a step in the prep process. “When you’re using a higher-end product, skipping steps is a bad idea,” Stephens says. “If you do the prep right, everything works well.”
Application Techniques — Mangan recommends “back priming,” or coating the back side of boards before they’re installed, to give the wood the best stability and protection against moisture. Stephens agrees. “The more areas you can coat and seal up, the better off you are.”
Steve Revnew, marketing director with the Sherwin-Williams Company, notes, however, that new substrates are being introduced every day. “It’s best to check with the stain or coating manufacturer regarding the specifics of your project before beginning the staining job.”
Many contractors use airless sprayers to apply stain, but then go back with a brush and roller to work the coating into the surface of the wood. Spraying alone won’t get the stain into the pores of textured wood.
The future — Stephens is seeing contractors mix paints with stains for a new look. For example, he’s seen red-colored stain used on the walking surface of a deck, but green paint for the spindles and handrails, and vice versa. Creative uses of stain are seen in exterior trim work as well. Stephens has seen examples of stained trim with a painted house, or a stained house with painted trim, and he likes the results. He says a stained deck could look out of place on a contemporary house that is completely painted. Mixing the two elements ties it all together.
All stain and paint manufacturers are facing new challenges, and it’s not just in meeting the aesthetic demands of their customers.
Thompson points out that the growth of new synthetic siding materials and the high cost and poor availability of high-grade wood are posing difficulties for the stain industry. Good quality red cedar, for example, is expensive and hard to find, he says.
According to Random Lengths, the market report of the softwood lumber industry, cedar supplies have been tight and prices of shakes, shingles and siding have been at high levels for more than a year. Most cedar products come from British Columbia, and with 27.3 percent import duties on lumber shipped from Canada enacted in the spring of 2002, the cedar industry was forced to raise prices. That resulted in fewer shipments of high-quality cedar to the U.S. and less purchasing by distributors and retailers.
It’s not important to show off the grain or texture of lower-quality wood, so Thompson foresees a trend away from stains and toward 100 percent acrylic paints, which have the best durability of any coating.
The biggest hurdle the industry is facing are the new VOC laws, which have all research and development departments working on overdrive to reformulate their company’s products.
At Sherwin-Williams, older technologies are being replaced with new water-based coatings that can provide resistance to fading, tannin-blocking properties and easy soap-and-water cleanup, Revnew says.
Many in the industry have feared performance will suffer as old, tried-and-true products give way to newer technologies.
Not Stephens. “For our company, the world’s largest coating manufacturer, there’s lots of money invested in research and development. We’re really going to perform as well, if not better, even with the new regulations coming.”