Should I use Paint or Stain for my home’s exterior?

Many homeowners understand that exterior painting results in freshening up the look of your home, but did you also know that applying exterior paint or stain to your home protects the wood from decay and harsh weather?  Let’s dig in:

Stain and paint not only beautify your home, but they also protect it.

New England’s climate is notoriously harsh to our houses. Boston summers tend to be hot, causing the sun to fade and degrade our homes. Because our winters are cold, windy, and wet, our homes take even more of a beating. Applying a paint or stain every 5-7 years is integral to maintaining the integrity of the wood on your South Shore and Boston-area home.

What will happen if I don’t paint or stain my home’s exterior?

If wood is left raw, it will gray and rot.  Paint or stain protects your wood siding and prolongs its life.

Which is better for my home’s exterior – paint or stain?

Paint sits on top of the substrate, and stain seeps into it. Here are the pros and cons of using paint versus stain on your Boston-area exterior:

Staining your home’s exterior

Because stain seeps into the wood, it’s more protective than paint that sits on the top of the wood.

Solid stains look almost identical to paint but are more protective to the wood because they seep into the porous wood fibers.

Gray stained wood with chart comparing stain types


Different woods stained different colors
The amount of pigment in the stain and the type of wood you’re staining helps determine the finished look.

Stain comes in varying degrees of pigments – each shows off the underlying wood a bit differently

Transparent stain:  Your wood grain shows completely and a transparent stain will allow the wood to weather to its natural color.  Lots of Clients choose this if they want their cedar shingles to weather to a beautiful “Nantucket Gray” on their own, remembering that reapplying a transparent stain is an annual affair.

Semi-Transparent stain  The wood grain shows but there is now a hint of color – a nice compromise if your wood is in good shape, but you still want a hint of color.

Semi-solid stain:  The texture of the wood still shows, but the wood grain is harder to see.

Solid stain:  This stain has the most pigment so the wood grain is covered almost completely or completely.  This is a good choice if the wood is not in good shape and/or you want your home to look like it was painted.  Remember though, any coating, whether you’re using stain or paint, will not be able to hide all the imperfections of wood, especially wood that needs replacing.

Stains tend to wear off gradually, while paint, because it sits on top of the wood, can peel or flake off.

The appearance created with stain brings out the natural grain and patterns in the timber.

Staining bare wood:

If you have bare wood, you are starting afresh and can choose any stain you want, depending on the amount of pigment, color, and protection you want the wood to have.

Good idea:  Stain the cuts and underside of the wood if you are installing it new to offer more protection to the wood.

Staining over the previously stained wood:

If your home is currently stained then it’s easiest to stick with the level of pigment that you already have.   Penetrating stains can’t be applied over a film, so stick with the same level of pigment you had before or go darker.

Staining over oil-based stains:

Water-based stains will cover over oil-based stains you’ve previously applied, but oil-based stains cannot be applied over water-based stains.

Can I stain over paint?:

Most people who have a painted house, keep painting it to maintain it, but if your house has many coats of paint on it, we become concerned with the weight of the paint.  If the paint becomes too heavy, it may “unbond” from the wood and the thick paint coatings could fail.  Therefore if we paint another two coats over a thick layer of existing paint this “bundle” of paint may become even heavier and fail un-bond from the wood.  In these instances, we might consider adding stain over the paint.  While the stain will not absorb into the wood (the paint film will prevent this), the thin pigment of the stain will act as a thin color coating over the existing “heavy” layers of paint.

If you need to stain something that has been painted to see the wood grain again, we can chemically or mechanically remove the paint before applying the stain.  This is an expensive and time-consuming process might be considered for a historic home renovation or if a homeowner has a beautiful front door and want to uncover the wood grain on it.

Wood painted red
Paint can help hide wood grain, but wood imperfections can still be seen.

Coating your home’s exterior with paint:

Paint sits on top of the wood and can hide imperfections better than stain can. This means if the wood on your home is old or not attractive, the paint will help cover it up.  No paint is perfect though – if your wood needs replacing, paint cannot make it look new.

A coat of paint is only as thick as a piece of paper, so after the paint cures, if there are imperfections in the wood beneath the paint, they will still appear.






Paint comes in more colors than stain and comes in a variety of sheens from flat to glossy.

Different paint sheensWe recommend the following sheens for your exterior home, but will paint whatever sheen you like!

Exterior doors: Semi-gloss paint

Exterior trim: Satin paint

Exterior clapboards: Flat or Matte paint

Note:  Paint always needs to be applied to surfaces that have been previously primed or are already painted.

What makes paint glossy?

Simplified, paints are made up of resin (the “glue” of the paint) and pigment (the color).

The more resin in a paint, the shinier the paint is.  The resin adds durability to the paint so the more resin in a paint, the more durable the paint will be.




Girl with chalk on her hands
Chalking occurs when the protective resin from the paint wears away – the “chalk” that’s you see on your hand after you rub you hand over your exterior siding or trim is the paint’s (non-protective) pigment. Chalking is an indication that your exterior needs painting.

Over time, as the glossy and protective resin in the paint wears away and what’s left on your home’s exterior is just the (non-protective) pigment.  This is why, when it’s time to repaint your home, you can often rub your hand on your home’s exterior and your hands appear to have chalk on them – this is the pigment that’s left after the resin has worn away.  If you’re wondering if your home’s exterior actually needs painting, take our 20-second quiz.






Can I paint over stain?

Yes, painting over stain is very common and because the paint sits on top of the wood, the previous stain that’s been absorbed into the wood does not get in the way of the paint.  In fact, the stain that has already absorbed inside the wood fibers might even protect the newly painted wood better than a painted board that hasn’t been previously stained.


White with beige shutters Georgian Colonial home in Duxbury MA
This Duxbury home is STAINED Sherwin Williams’ Alabaster White – you’ll notice that from afar, it’s hard to tell if it’s white stain or white paint.

How do I know if my house was previously painted or stained?

If your coating is fading:  Likely it was previously stained.

If your coating is peeling, cracking or flaking:  Likely it was previously painted (or incorrectly stained with a solid stain).

Best bet:  If you can flake off a piece of the previous coating and bring it to Sherwin Williams (Hanover, Pembroke, Hingham, Quincy, Stoughton, Plymouth, Braintree) they will be able to examine it to see if the coating is paint or stain.

What type of wood are you coating?

Soft woods, like pine and cedar, easily accept any penetrating stain. Other woods are more finicky.  You should apply a test patch so you understand exactly how the stain will look on the wood you are staining.

Important: the more porous the type of wood or surface you’re staining, the more stain you will need to coat the surface thoroughly.

How worn or old is the wood on your home or deck?

On older wood, you may need to help hide the imperfections of the wood and therefore choose a stain with more pigment or decide to paint it to help hide the wood’s imperfections completely.  Again, if a piece of wood is ugly, painting or staining it will not hide all of the imperfections – that wood probably needs to be replaced.

Important:  You should never paint over wood rot.  Any rotted wood needs to be replaced prior to coating it.  If you are replacing wood, take the time to coat all 6 sides of the woods (including cut ends) to best protect it.

I’m ordering new doors – should I order a pre-primed or factory-finished door?

Yes, factory-finished doors are quite durable and will have a long life, so go ahead and order the door with a factory primer or primer plus finish coat.  If the finish paint doesn’t come in a color you like, order a pre-primed door and we can finish it with a color you prefer.

I’m still confused, how do I know what to choose for my home’s exterior?  Paint or stain?

If you want an expert opinion, CertaPro Painters offers quotes and will specify the correct stain or paint formula for your unique project and vision

If you’re doing the project yourself and want a professional opinion (for free), email [email protected] with some photos, and we’ll give you our 2 cents.

You also might like:

20-second quiz:  Does my home’s exterior need painting or staining right now?

Staining mahogany decks

What is the “best” paint?

Choosing a color that’s historically accurate for your exterior paint or stain