Paint Versus Stain

Cedar Siding

I had a question from a client today about how to treat cedar shingle siding. Should they paint it, use a semi-transparent stain, or just what? Or, can the keep the natural cedar look of fresh milled cedar?

In terms of maintenance, paint is one of the worst treatments for any kind of wood siding. That’s because it will soon need to be repainted. Paint is a maintenance item, without doubt. Because paint forms an air-tight film over the wood, moisture that enters the wood from behind or through the edges tends to migrate out through all of the surfaces, including the surface with your finished paint on it. This “pushing” out of the moisture is what causes paint to blister and peel.

Semi-transparent or semi-solid stain colors the wood to some degree and adds a penetrating oil that preserves the wood, but only for a few years. The more light that can get to the wood, the shorter the life span of the stain. The oil dries and vanishes. The semi-solid stain last a bit longer than the semi-tranparent stains, but both require regular refinishing.

I recommend using solid, or opaque stain. It looks like paint, but it does not form that vapor-proof film, so it will not blister and peel. It is as close to a maintenance-free finish for exterior wood as you can get. It comes in every color you can imagine and it will look good for many years.

Often, people fall in love with the look of fresh cedar siding and want to keep that look for their house. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible. The oil in the clear finishes last for only a year or two. Sunlight and mildew quickly attack the cedar, fading it or turning it black.

I hope this information is helpful to you. You might want to get yourself a copy of my best-seller, Designing Your Perfect House. It is chockfull of valuable tips and advice that will save you many times the cost of the book on your house building or remodeling project. You might also like The Well-Centered Home: Simple Steps to Increase Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and Happiness Where You Live. It will show you how to make your home a happy place.

Bill Hirsch | Architect

Bill Hirsch


  1. steve loszewski on September 19, 2008 at 10:44 am

    there’s the option of getting pre-stained siding:

  2. Wood Siding on November 21, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Wood siding is one of the most popular choices for new homes these days. Thanks for the Information.



  3. Mary on March 15, 2009 at 3:15 am

    I want to paint my doors in my house as if they are stained. They are currently painted white. Do they sell a paint that looks like stain?
    Can I stain a door that is already painted? Thank you.

    • Bill Hirsch | Architect Bill on March 15, 2009 at 10:40 am

      In order to stain a wood door that is already painted, you would have to first remove all of the paint and then apply the stain. There are good paint removers on the market that should allow you to do this, but it involves a lot of work. So plan on spending some time doing it. You’ll want to remove the doors from the hinges and do the paint removal in the basement or garage where you don’t run the risk of damaging anything else. But a word of caution. You should only do this if the doors are made of real wood.

      If the underlying material of the door is not real wood, such as Masonite or particle board, then the doors can not be stained. In this case, you could do a faux finish over the paint. In this process, one color of brown paint is applied to the wood and allowed to dry. Then another color of brown is applied and a wood grain pattern is “drawn” into the wet paint. I’ve seen this done with feathers and other graining tools. Incidentally, this was a “high art” technique in Colonial times. Mahogany and other high quality woods were not available, so faux wood graining was done over pine doors to give the look of mahogany. The doors in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia are actually painted in this manner.

      Good luck with your project.

  4. Michael Smith on July 28, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I need advice on whether to use paint or stain on my 1870 farm house siding. I have scraped (old paint) and washed the siding with bleach and done all the calking. I have scraped some down to bare wood, but most of the surface still has paint on it. What do you recommend? Mike

    • Bill Hirsch | Architect Bill on July 30, 2009 at 3:01 pm

      Mike – It sounds like you are doing things right. The prep is the important part in repainting. First I would suggest that you get some expert advice from a qualified paint dealer to be sure you use the right primer and paint or stain. The primer is critical and there may be particular benefits of one product over another because of the age of the wood, how it had been painted in the past, etc. I’m not sure you can use stain over paint. If there is still a lot of paint on the wood, you might have only one choice. After all of the hard work you’ve put in, don’t skimp on the quality of the paint. A couple of dollars a gallon could significantly extend the life of the new paint job.

  5. Claire @ Search for xmas trees on August 2, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Is there a quality difference in appearance between cheap paint (Walmart) versus expensive paint (Lowes)?

    • Bill Hirsch | Architect Bill on August 4, 2010 at 11:19 am

      Claire – There is a difference, but price does not always indicate how much better one paint is over another. But generally speaking, cheaper paints do not cover as well, are harder to clean later, and do not last as long.

  6. Dave on April 17, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Hi Bill,

    Based on you recommendation of solid stain, my follow-up question is…do you need to prime the cedar shakes prior to a solid stain? Reason being is that on one shaded side of my house we applied a primer then 2 coats of solid stain and six years later the whole side is peeling. In addition to that side, we are ready to add an addition to the other side of the house and I am not sure that I am convinced that applying a primer coat to a solid stain is the best method especially when I need to start from scratch to fix the peeling side.

    Your thoughts are well appreciated.


    • Bill Hirsch | Architect Bill on April 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm

      Dave – Sounds like the primer prevented the stain from doing its job of “staining” the wood. The stain simply laid on top of the primer coat. A solid stain should be applied directly to the cedar so it can penetrate the wood. You will actually get better penetration and bonding if you leave the wood exposed to the weather for a month or so before staining. The pores of the wood will open and allow the stain to penetrate a bit better. I’ve heard of painters wetting down the wood and letting it dry to help open the pores for better penetration.

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