The appearance of wood can be modified with the application of an architectural coating. Architectural coatings are surface coverings such as paints and stains applied to a building or exterior structures such as a deck. Coatings are multi-functional: decorative, reduce the effort needed to clean buildings and structures, and provide protection against moisture uptake and helping extend the life of wood. However, coatings cannot be considered as substitutes for preservative treatment. On this page, we explain the basics of different types of exterior wood coatings, and what they can and can’t do for wood.

Types of Coatings – Opacity

Architectural coatings available for wood generally include paints, stains, varnishes and water repellents. There are a number of ways to classify coatings. One common method is to differentiate based on appearance. Coatings are often identified as: 1) Opaque; 2) semi-transparent or 3) transparent.  These terms indicate how much of the natural wood features will be visible through the finish. 

An opaque coating doesn’t allow any of the wood’s natural colour to show through and depending on thickness may also hide much or all of its surface texture. It effectively protects the wood from damage caused by sunlight. It can also help keep moisture out of the wood.  These coatings tend to last the longest. Opaque coatings include paints and solid colour stains.

transparent or semi-transparent finish such as a stain or water repellent may change the colour of the wood, but because it allows the grain and texture to show through, the wood still looks “natural.”  These finishes help keep moisture out of the wood to some extent but there is considerable variation between stains in their ability to restrict moisture ingress. They also help protect the wood from sunlight damage to varying degrees depending on their content of organic UV absorbers or inorganic pigments. The difference between transparent and semi-transparent coatings is also sometimes unclear.  Transparent coatings allow more grain and texture to show through. Transparent exterior coatings labeled as “clear” may still contain some pigment to enhance wood’s natural colour and provide a visual distinction between painted and unpainted areas during application. However, it is important to note that clear products intended for interior use only are NOT appropriate for exterior use, as they will quickly degrade and fail if exposed to sunlight and weather.

There are many transparent products marketed as providing water protection for wood (water repellents) – these might technically be considered wood “treatments” rather than wood coatings as they mainly provide water protection and help reduce checking (splitting), and provide very limited, if any, UV protection.  This means they usually fail earlier than pigmented finishes, but they do help slow down the weathering process by restricting water ingress.  Note that water repellents are often solvent-borne and contain wax which affects the adhesion of subsequent coatings, which means most of these products should not be used as a pre-treatment beneath paint.  However, transparent water repellents have the unique benefit of being the most aesthetically-forgiving treatment when there is lack of maintenance.  In other words, these products don’t change the colour of the wood, so bare patches of wood are not as visible if the coating wears away.

Types of Coatings – Carriers

Another common way of categorizing coatings is by the type of carrier (the base) – products are either water-borne or solvent-borne.  When low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and easy clean-up are important, a water-borne product is the better choice.  Water-borne coatings now dominate the market due to increasing environmental regulatory requirements around air quality and health, and customer demand.  Compared to solvent-borne finishes, water-borne finishes usually have less odour and can be cleaned up with water instead of requiring mineral spirits. Water-borne coatings are generally more flexible (less prone to cracking as the wood beneath shrinks and swells from moisture changes) and more vapour permeable. 

Water-borne paints are often called latex. Solvent-borne paints are commonly known as oil paints.  Also, paints labeled as alkyds are typically solvent-borne (but not always).  Although it is popular to refer to paints as either latex or oil/alkyd, it is more useful to think of them as water-borne versus solvent-borne. Water-borne coatings, particularly acrylics, are generally less prone to fading and chalking than alkyds. The technology for water-borne paints and finishes has advanced significantly in recent years and is now mature to the extent they can match or exceed the properties of solvent-borne products.

Types of Coatings – Film Thickness
Sometimes wood coatings are classified by the thickness of film they form on the surface of the wood.  Paints, solid colour stains, and varnishes are often called film-formers, as these create a layer of continuous material sitting on top of the wood.  Semi-transparent stains, transparent stains, water repellents and natural oils are often referred to as penetrating finishes, since they penetrate through the pores of the wood, leaving its surface texture and pores visible, rather than leaving a thick film on top of the wood. However, all coatings leave a film on the surface – thick for some, thin for others – and the “penetrating” products only penetrate a very short distance into the wood.  Nonetheless, it’s helpful to know if a product leaves a thick film, as this type of product can be more difficult to remove if degraded and requiring refinishing.  This is because their failure modes are different – a thick coherent coating like paint fails by cracking and peeling, whereas a thin-film “penetrating” product such as a stain fails by erosion.

Can Coatings Protect Wood?
Coatings can temporarily protect the surface of wood from sunlight, moisture and weathering, but coatings do not actively protect against decay.  Their purpose is primarily aesthetic. But they slow down the damaging effects of weathering, and do provide some moisture protection, which is a decay factor.  Coatings also help preserve the natural durability of species like western red cedar, by helping to prevent the natural protective agents in this wood from washing out.  The protective benefits of all coatings are, of course, dependent on proper maintenance of the coating.  No coating will last indefinitely, and all need to be periodically reapplied.

Weathering
Weathering is the slow surface degradation that occurs when wood is exposed to the weather. Surface weathering should not be confused with decay (rot) caused by decay fungi, which can penetrate deeply into wood and significantly reduce wood strength in a relatively short period.  In contrast, weathering of wood is caused by UV, water, oxygen, visible light, heat, windblown particulate matter, atmospheric pollutants, sometimes together with some specialized micro-organisms.  Under these factors, wood exposed outdoors above-ground with no coating will quickly change appearance. The colour will change due to the photodegradation, chemical leaching and other chemical reactions; light woods will typically darken slightly and dark woods will lighten, but all woods eventually end up a silvery-grey colour.  The surface will also roughen, check and erode, due to repeated ultraviolet radiation, wetting and drying, and mechanical abrasion from wind-blown particles. Hence the weathered wood will have a “rustic” look.  Some microorganisms and lichens may colonize wood, but the wood’s surface condition does not usually favor decay.  Note that weathering only occurs on the surface of wood, usually to a depth of 0.05 to 0.5 mm.  As long as decay doesn’t start, larger dimension weathered wood will still be structurally sound inside and completely serviceable for years.  In order to reduce weathering and improve the aesthetic appearance of wood, wood exposed outdoors above-ground can be protected with coatings.

Link to articles on weathering at the website of USDA FPL:
Weathering and Protection of Wood:

http://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/pdf1983/feist83a.pdf

Weathering of Wood:

http://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/pdf2005/fpl_2005_williams001.pdf

Acknowledgements

The material was reviewed by Dr. Sam Williams of the US Forest Products Laboratory, Dr. Philip Evans of the University of British Columbia, and Mr. Greg Monaghan, a Specialty Coatings Group Leader at Rohm and Haas, but the final content does not necessarily reflect their views on all points.