Both exterior paint and solid exterior stains add color to outdoor wood. However, the U.S. Forest Service explains that exterior stains do not completely cover up imperfections on the wood like paints can. Exterior stains also tend to come mostly in natural wood colors, while paints come in a wide range of colors. Stain provides a more natural look and visibility of the natural wood color and grain.
Most modern exterior paint is latex paint, and stains are oil-based or latex-based. All three types of wood coverings coat the wood with a protective layer and some degree of coloring, but each type has its own benefits and drawbacks in the way it looks and behaves in outdoor weather.
Exterior Paint Vs. Solid Oil Stain
Many exterior paints are latex-based, while many popular exterior stains come with a thick oil-base. According to Lowe's website and the U.S. Forest Service, latex paints and stains are more popular than old fashioned oil-based stains. Flexible latex stains resist cracking as wood expands and contracts during temperature changes, while oil-based finishes often crack.
Exterior Paint Vs. Solid Latex Stain
Solid latex stains are flexible like exterior latex paints, according to the U.S. Forest Service. However, since they provide less coverage than paints, old paint or stain may show through them. Solid latex stains may also show lap marks, which happen when the edges of paintbrush strokes overlap and create uneven coloring.
The surface that needs paint or stain can affect whether paint, oil-based stain or latex-based stain will be easiest to apply. Lowe's website explains that paint can go over other painted surfaces with just some light sanding; paint does not need to go onto bare wood. Old paint will show through new stain, so applying new stain to previously painted surfaces requires the extra step of scraping off old paint. All three of these wood coverings can be applied with paintbrushes or rollers. Oil-based stains tend to have stronger fumes than latex-based paints or stains.