When to Stain a New Cedar Fence- How Long to Wait Before Staining New Cedar Fence

Getting the perfect stain finish on a new cedar fence always comes down to the timing of the finish application and that you you should know how long to wait before staining new cedar fence. You may have premium products and know all the techniques to stain a fence. However, the whole project will fail if you apply the finish at the wrong time. So, let me tell you When to Stain a New Cedar Fence to get that perfect, even finish.

Generally, you must wait 4-8 weeks after installing a new cedar fence to stain it. This duration is enough to allow the wood to lose excess moisture that would interfere with the stain’s penetration into the wood. 

If the cedar is pressure-treated, you must wait 4-6 months to give the lumber enough time to dry for staining. However, you can stain the fence immediately after installation if the treated cedar wood was kiln-dried before purchase.

In this article, I’ve explained the importance of timing when staining a cedar fence. I’ve also included a detailed, step-by-step guide on how to stain a cedar fence correctly.

By the end, you will know what happens if you stain too early and how to tell if the cedar is dry enough to stain. So read on for the full info.

Do I Need to Stain a New Cedar Fence?

You don’t need to stain a new cedar fence because cedar wood contains oils that protect it from the inside out. In addition, the wood has a beautiful reddish-brown color that doesn’t need wood stain to make it stand out.

Unfortunately, cedar’s oils and color do not last forever. In about 6-12 months, the red color turns silver-grey due to constant UV exposure. The oils will last longer, taking about 15-20 years for the outdoor weather to dry them out completely.

That said, I always recommend that you stain a new cedar fence to maintain the wood’s red color for years. Moreover, the stain will also keep the cedar oils from drying quickly, ensuring that the fence remains protected for up to 40 years.

If you like the idea of a fence with a weathered grey look, you can skip the wood stain. However, in that case, I recommend applying a clear sealant over the wood to prevent the natural oils from drying out.

What Happens If You Stain Cedar Too Early?

When to Stain a New Cedar Fence
Image of a Cedar Fence

Wood stain penetrates the wood fibers to protect them from the elements. So, if you stain cedar early before it dries completely, the stain won’t work correctly. Let me explain.

When moisture is still in the wood, the stain won’t have space to penetrate the fibers. And as a result, the finish will sit on top of the surface, just like paint and clear sealers.

At first glance, the wood stain won’t seem so bad sitting on top of your cedar. The wood’s color will intensify and may even look like you envisioned. However, since wood stain wasn’t designed to sit on the surface like paint, it won’t last long.

As soon as rain or running water touches the surface, all the stain finish will wash off. And if the product penetrates the wood, it will appear blotchy and unprofessional. So, ensure that you allow your cedar wood to dry for about 4-8 weeks after purchase before you stain it.

A blotchy finish isn’t the only problem you’ll encounter when you stain cedar too early. There are two other complications that you will face during prep and after you finish applying the stain.

  • You Will Have a Hard Time Prepping the Wood

The most crucial step before you stain any wood is preparation. You must wash the surface and then sand it to ensure the finish turns out uniformly.

So, if you wash cedar wood with a lot of moisture within its fibers, you will add even more water to the structure. That’s where the problems start.

First, the wood won’t dry properly. Even if you let it sit in the sun for 24 hours, it will only lose the moisture added while washing. However, that duration won’t be enough to allow it to lose the excess moisture content that was in it in the first place.

In addition, sanding the surface will be more challenging because the oils and water in the cedar will clog the sandpaper. You may remedy this by switching to fresh sandpaper every few minutes, but you’ll soon run out of sandpaper.

  • The Stain Will Take Longer to Dry

Even if you prepare the cedar and apply the wood stain, the finish will take forever to dry. Here’s why.

For a wood stain to dry, its solvent must evaporate fully. And since there’s a lot of moisture in the wood, the finish will remain tacky for up to several weeks after application.

What Should I Do If I Stained Cedar Too Soon?

The remedy for staining cedar too soon will depend on the color intensity of the stain you used.

If you have used a light-colored stain:

  • Stop the application immediately and then allow the wood to dry completely. Afterward, reapply the stain, but use a darker finish this time to hide the flaws of the first attempt.

If you have used a dark stain:

  • Use sandpaper or a chemical finish stripper to remove the layer of stain. It is crucial to remove the dark stain because it shows flaws more obviously than lighter ones.
  • Afterward, allow the wood to dry and then reapply the finish correctly.

How to Stain Cedar Fence

Before we dive into the procedure for painting a cedar fence, Let me tell you what products you need to use.

There are several wood staining products out there, and choosing one can be a little daunting -especially if you’re still a newbie to wood stains. So I’ve compiled a quick guide to tell you which stains work best on a cedar fence.

How to Choose the Best Stain For Cedar Fence

  • Select an Exterior Grade Wood Stain

When looking at the wood stain, ensure that the manufacturers label it as an exterior product. Such products are designed to withstand harsh outdoor elements and will be perfect for the cedar fence because it is constantly exposed.

Look for products with added UV protection, mold, and mildew resistance for the best results.

  • Select the Product Base

There are several types of wood stains, but the two main ones are oil- and water-based.

  • Oil-based stains soak deeper into the wood and harden over time, thus preventing water from penetrating the wood. In addition, this type of stain adds a rich color to the wood with fewer coats, which means you won’t need to buy too much product. It is more durable than most wood stains and is one of my favorites for outdoor projects.

One thing to note about oil-based stains is that they dry very slowly. Many see this feature as a disadvantage because it makes the staining project last longer.

However, slow drying is an advantage because it gives the product enough time to self-level. It helps prevent brush marks and blotchiness in the finish.

The downside of an oil-based stain is that it produces a strong odor which can be pretty uncomfortable. However, you won’t feel the effects too much because you’ll use it outdoors, with plenty of fresh air.

In addition, this product has high VOC levels; hence it is not too environmentally friendly.

  • Water-based stains do not soak as deep into the wood as the oil-based types. For this reason, you require more coats to achieve a rich, deep color. These products also dry faster than the oil types, which is excellent if you want to finish your projects quickly. However, you’ll also need to work quickly to avoid brush marks and a blotchy finish.

Unlike oil stains, water-based stains are easy to clean up with a bit of soap and water. In addition, they contain no VOCs and don’t produce an odor, so you don’t have to worry about contaminating the environment as you work.

But on the downside, water-based stains are slightly less durable than the oil types and require more frequent reapplication to maintain the finish.

  • Consider the Opacity of the Stain

The opacity of a stain refers to how much of the wood grain you want to see after the finish dries. And wood stains come in four opacity levels.

  • Solid stains are designed with a lot of pigment, producing the most opaque finish. They hide most of the wood grain, and the pigment protects the wood from UV damage. These stains last 4-5 years before needing a maintenance coat.
  • Semi-solid wood stains contain some pigment but not as much as the solid types. These products add color to the wood, allowing some natural grain to show through the finish. Like the solid variety, semi-solid stains provide excellent UV protection and last 4-5 years before needing a maintenance coat.
  • Semi-transparent stains are the most popular because most wood stains fall into this category. They deepen the natural wood’s color without obscuring the grain. In addition, they provide Excellent UV protection, especially if the manufacturer added some additives to fortify them. Semi-transparent wood stains need a maintenance coat in about 2-3 years.
  • Transparent/clear wood stains add no color to the wood, but you will notice a slight increase in the intensity of the natural wood color. It allows every little wood grain to show through the finish because it has no pigment. In addition, its UV protection is more minimal than the other stain types – unless the manufacturer fortifies them with a UV dispersal additive.

This type of stain is usually best if you want to protect the wood from moisture damage without altering its natural color. However, remember that it is not as durable as the others and requires a maintenance coat annually to keep the finish vibrant.

 Best Stains For Cedar Fence

Now that you know what to look for when selecting a wood stain, here are three products I’ve used on outdoor cedar structures with excellent results.

  • DEFY EXTREME Semi-Transparent Wood stain

This water-based product will give your cedar fence a beautiful matte finish. You can apply it with a brush or an airless pump sprayer, and you’ll notice its color materializing in 24 hours.

The manufacturers of this product fortified it with zinc nano-particle technology that acts like sunscreen for your cedar wood. The particles disperse the harmful UV rays, preventing your cedar fence from greying.

I also love that it offers better resistance to fading and lasts a season or two longer than most water-based stains.

The best thing about this DEFY EXTREME wood stain is that maintenance is a breeze. You do not have to sand off the old coat before applying the maintenance coat.

All you must do is brighten the wood with DEFY wood brightener, followed by a single maintenance coat, and you’re good to go.

This product comes in seven colors, but I love using their “cedar tone” version for my cedar projects to intensify the natural color of the wood without altering it. On the downside, you must reapply this product more frequently than my other favorites.

  • READY SEAL Exterior Wood Stain

This oil-based product is the most durable choice for outdoor cedar fences because it is a stain and sealer in one. It comes in eight colors, including natural cedar, which I always use on my outdoor cedar projects.

Even though it’s oil-based, this READY SEAl stain does not require thinning before application. In addition, applying a maintenance coat is quick and easy because you don’t have to sand off the old one before applying the fresh one.

I love this product because it costs less per gallon than other products with similar features. This makes it ideal if you want a superior product on a tight budget.

I recommend using READY SEAL Exterior stain if you’re a beginner because it requires no back brushing. It also won’t leave runs and streaks, even if you’ve never applied wood stain.

Note: This product appears quite dark immediately after application, and it will take up to 14 days for its actual color to materialize.

  • #1 DECK Premium Wood Stain

This semi-transparent water-based product will leave a beautiful flat finish on your cedar fence. It contains no VOCs or strong odors, making it one of the best choices if you’re looking for an environmentally-friendly product.

The UV protection of this stain is top-notch; hence you don’t have to worry about your fence greying over time. Moreover, the application is easy with a brush, but I love using an airless pump sprayer to get it on the fence quickly and without brush marks.

Even though the #1 DECK Premium stain is durable, it is not as durable as my other favorites and needs reapplication at least once a year to keep the finish vibrant.

How to Stain Cedar Fence

Step 1: Measure the Cedar Fence

Before buying wood stain, determine how much stain you’ll need by measuring the fence. Multiply the fence’s height, depth, and width to get the total area,  then take them to the paint store.

  • While at the store, read the label on the product container to know how large an area a single container will cover. This is how you know the number of containers that will be enough for your fence.
  • The coverage area indicated on the product label is usually accurate if you’re brushing on the stain. However, you’ll use more stain if you apply the finish with a sprayer. So, ensure that you allow for additional wastage.

Note: Always round up your calculations to a higher number. It is better to purchase more products than not enough.

Step 2: General Preparation

When staining a fence, the stain will inevitably end up on your clothes and shoes and ruin them. So it is best to wear protective gear to avoid the issue.

  • Wear old clothes with long sleeves under a pair of coveralls, and then put on work boots and rubber gloves to protect your skin. If you’re using a sprayer, a pair of safety glasses and a mask will help protect you from overspray.

If there’s vegetation around your cedar fence, you must protect it from damage caused by chemicals in the wood stain.

  • Use a light-colored sheet to protect shrubbery and larger plants from wet stains. For smaller shrubs and delicate plants,  cardboard boxes will do the trick if you use ropes to hold them away from the fence line.
  • DO NOT use black plastic sheets over your vegetation because the sun’s heat will kill them. Also, ensure you water the plants before covering them, so they don’t dehydrate.

Step 3: Wash the Fence

Wood stain always penetrates better into a clean and well-prepared surface. So ensure you wash the cedar fence to remove dirt and grime before putting anything on it.

  • Use a scrubbing brush and a soap-water solution to remove visible marks and dirt on the surface. If there’s mildew on the fence boards, adding a little bleach to the cleaning solution should take care of it.
  • Use your regular garden hose with a spray nozzle attachment to make it easier to rinse the fence quickly.
  • After washing, allow the fence to dry for 24 hours, and then use a moisture meter to check if it is dry enough – 12% moisture is the figure you should see on the meter. Depending on the weather in your location, you might have to wait more than 24 hours for the fence to dry after washing, so patience is critical.

Step 4: Apply the Stain

The pigment in wood stain tends to settle at the bottom of the container, so you need to stir it first to re-mix the ingredients before putting it on the fence. If you miss this step, the finish won’t turn out evenly.

  • Pour your wood stain into a large bucket to make it easier to stir without spilling the product. DO NOT shake the stain container because it will only introduce bubbles into the finish.
  • Use a clean wooden stick or a coat hanger to stir the product until all solid settlements are evenly dispersed in the emulsion. Afterward, you can apply the stain using a brush, roller, or airless pump sprayer.

If you’re using a brush:

  • Start applying the stain at the top and work your way down toward the bottom. Follow the direction of the wood’s grain and back brush every pass to ensure an even application.
  • Use a 3-4 inch flat brush to stain the flat wide fence timber panels and a smaller 2-inch angled brush to color the narrow spaces between the fence boards.

If you’re using a roller:

  • Fill a paint tray with some stain, then load your roller with the product.
  • Cover as much of the fence with the stain as possible with one pass. Afterward, go back over the stain with a brush to fill missed spots and even out the finish. When you go back in with a brush, follow the direction of the wood grain for the best results.

If you’re using a sprayer:

  • Load some stain into the machine, then spray starting at the top of the fence and going toward the bottom. Ensure that the sprayer remains 10-12 inches from the fence during the process to ensure even application.
  • Move the sprayer vertically to apply the stain along the grain and overlap each pass to avoid leaving bare spots.

Note: Avoid this method if you’re working on a windy day because you will waste too much product to overspray.

  • Allow the first coat of wood stain to dry for the duration specified on your product. The specified duration is only accurate in temperate conditions, but you may have to wait longer if the atmosphere is too cold or humid.
  • After the first coat dries, you can add a second coat if you want the finish to appear a little darker. You can also halt the process after the first coat if satisfied with the results.

How to Maintain a Cedar Fence After Staining

Knowing how to stain a cedar fence is great, but the most important part is how well you take care of the fence afterward. If you look after it, the finish will last decades, but neglect the fence, and you’re looking at frequent reapplications. Nobody wants that.

So, here are four easy things you can do to maintain your stained cedar fence.

  • Clean the Fence Regularly

Allowing dirt to sit on the fence for too long could lead to discoloration, reducing your curb apparel. So, basic cleanings like removing loose dirt and debris will help maintain the finish’s luster for a long time.

Aim at thorough-cleaning the fence at least once a year, using an appropriate wood cleaner for the best results. Several wood cleaning products are on the market, but they all have the same primary function – removing dirt, algae, and mold.

  • Perform Repairs as Needed

Cleaning the cedar fence will help keep it beautiful, but only if the entire structure is in good condition. So, regularly look for loose or splintered wood boards and repair them appropriately.

Also, replace rusty nails and screws because they are usually the source of discoloration of the timber.

If you notice rot on some wood boards, replace them with fresh ones and then apply stain to match them to the rest of the fence. Do this frequently, and you’ll never have to worry about repair costs down the line.

  • Avoid Pressure Washing the Fence

Cedar wood has a soft, delicate surface that could easily get damaged by a pressure washer. If you prefer this cleaning method, set your washer to the lowest possible setting to avoid damaging your fence.

So what damages am I referring to?

First, too much pressure can dent the soft cedar, causing your fence to look dated even if you installed it recently. Moreover, the pressure may remove some of the finish leaving the wood vulnerable to harsh outdoor elements.

I recommend using a simple garden hose with a sprayer nozzle to clean your cedar fence safely. This way, you get the proper pressure to remove dirt without damaging the fence.

  • Calibrate your lawn sprinklers appropriately.

Ensure that you set up your lawn sprinklers in a direction that prevents the water from constantly hitting the cedar fence. Constant exposure to the water will create a breeding ground for mold and mildew, eventually causing rot.

Also, watch for climbing weeds that may become attached to the fence and cause damage.

How Do I Know If My Cedar Fence Is Dry Enough to Stain?

It is hard to tell whether your cedar fence is dry enough to stain just by looking at it – unless you can see moisture dripping from the boards.

But on the bright side, three simple tests can help you determine whether to stain or give the fence more time to dry. These are:

Using a Moisture Meter

The moisture meter is the most accurate and fastest way of determining the moisture content in your cedar fence. All you need to do is place it on the wood surface and get a quick reading.

Moisture meters come either as pin-type or pinless gadgets. Let me tell you a little about each of them.

  • Pin-type moisture meters have one or two prongs protruding from one side of the gadget. To take a reading, press the prongs into the wood and keep them in place until the meter display settles on one number.
  • On the other hand, Pinless moisture meters have a sensor pad that reads moisture content when you place it on the wood surface. They can read moisture content to a depth of about ¼ – ½ inch without breaking the surface. This type of moisture meter is the best for taking quick readings and works best if you’re testing a large fence.

Using the Water Test

Another way to check if your cedar is dry is by spraying water on different fence boards. If the water rolls down the fence pickets, there’s still too much moisture in the cedar. However, if the wood absorbs the water, it is ready to accept the wood stain.

You must be extra observant when using the water test to get accurate results. So, note how long the cedar takes to absorb the water before staining the fence.

If the wood takes 10-20 minutes to absorb the water, it is still not dry enough to accept the stain. When this happens, allow the fence to dry for 24-48 hours and then repeat the test.

Only stain the cedar fence if the water disappears into the wood immediately. And remember not to use too much water during the test because the cedar will absorb all of it. Do that, and you will have to wait longer for the wood to dry before repeating the test.

Using a Black Plastic Bag

This plastic bag method should do the trick to avoid getting the fence too wet with the water test.

  • Tape small black plastic bags on different cedar boards on the fence. Ensure that there are no spaces for air to get under the plastic.
  • Leave the bags on the wood for 2-3 hours, remove them, then run your hand over the wood.
  • If the wood is damp from condensation, it still has some moisture. Therefore, you must give the fence more time to dry. Only stain the fence when the wood is completely dry after removing the plastic bags.

How Many Coats of Stain Should You Put On Cedar?

Generally, two coats of stain are enough for cedar structures. The first coat will seep into the wood but won’t offer enough coverage or color. So, you will need to apply a second coat to increase the vibrancy of the finish and improve coverage.

That said, the total number of coats you will need for cedar will vary depending on your stain. Some stains will give you a perfect finish with two coats, while others require three coats for proper coverage.

If you don’t know the number of coats you’ll need, the product’s user instructions should guide you.

Even though stain manufacturers recommend an ideal number of coats, you don’t have to follow them constantly. Sometimes, you must use more or fewer coats than recommended if it suits your vision.

Nevertheless, it is best to remember that wood stain is designed to penetrate the wood’s fibers. So if you use a few coats, the wood will absorb it all, and the finish will look dull and faded.

On the other hand, if you use more coats than the wood can absorb, you’ll end up with a tacky finish.

Is It Better to Oil or Stain Cedar? 

Both wood oils and wood stains offer the best natural finishes for cedar wood. They maintain the wood’s color and make it pop without obscuring the wood grain.

However, even though the finish results of both products are similar, wood oils and stains are very different and are better suited for some applications than others.

Wood oils are oils obtained from natural sources. For instance,  the popular tung oil is obtained from the nuts of a tung tree, while linseed oil is a product of flax.

Nevertheless, you can also find some of these natural oils mixed with synthetic additives and solvents that make them more durable and hasten drying time. An excellent example of such an oil is the popular Danish oil.

On the other hand, wood stain combines pigments dissolved in water, a light oil, or a petroleum-based solvent like mineral spirits. Its primary purpose is to add a slight tint to the natural wood color and make the grain pop more.

To understand whether it is best to oil or stain your cedar, you must first understand the difference between wood oils and stains in depth. So, let me break it down for you.

Wood Oils Vs Wood Stains

  • Dry Time

Wood stains dry faster than wood oils because they have a lighter flow and contain fewer oils. In addition, stains cure based on the evaporation of solvents, while wood oils depend on oxidation to harden into a protective film.

On average, you can recoat a wood stain in 2-4 hours, but you need to let the oils dry for 12-24 hours between coats for the best results. So, if your project is highly based on time, staining your cedar will be much quicker than oiling it.

  • Durability

Wood oil is stronger and more durable than wood stains primarily because of how they dry.

Wood oils dry by oxidation, meaning contact with oxygen in the atmosphere causes them to harden into a compact film that protects the wood. An oil finish can last up to 10 years on cedar, protecting the wood from scratches and dents.

On the other hand, wood stain dries when the solvents in its formula evaporate. After drying, all that’s left on the surface is the pigment that adds a tint to the wood’s color.

This pigment won’t protect the wood for a long time – a stain finish will need maintenance every two years to keep it vibrant.

  • Cleaning and Maintenance

An oil finish is easier to clean and maintain because it is sleeker and glossier than a stain. The sleekness of the finish allows it to repel dirt and makes it easy to clean with a damp rag.

On the other hand, wood stains are slightly more textured than oils; therefore, dirt and stains stick to them easily. Consequently, you will have to clean the finished wood frequently, which could wash off the finish and cause it to fade prematurely.

The only way to make a stain finish easy to clean is by applying a glossy clear sealant like polyurethane over it.

  • Safety

Wood oils are natural and are, therefore, safer for the environment. They do not produce harmful VOCs and are safe to use on or around food-prep areas.

Nevertheless, some oil-blend finishes contain synthetic resins and solvents, making them less safe around food. A few good examples of such products are Danish oil and boiled linseed oil.

On the other hand, wood stains are completely synthetic; therefore, I don’t recommend using them on or around food-prep areas.

Water-based stains are the most environmentally friendly regarding VOCs because they emit no VOCs. The oil-based stains contain many petroleum-based ingredients and are, therefore, more harmful to the environment in large quantities.


Staining a cedar fence is ideal for adding a bit of pop to the wood without hiding its color and grain. As long as you have a premium outdoor stain, you’re well on to improving your home’s curb appeal and maintaining your new fence.

However, the trick to a lasting stain finish on a cedar fence is not in the products or techniques you use to apply it. It all comes down to the timing of the application, so I wrote this article to tell you

When to Stain a New Cedar Fence

Overall, knowing how long to wait before staining a new cedar fence will result in a perfect finish and enhanced protection for your structure. You must apply the stain finish after the wood attains a moisture content of at least 12%. This means allowing your new cedar fence to dry for at least 4-8 weeks before you apply the stain finish.

Give the wood 4- months to dry properly for a pressure-treated cedar fence. However, you can paint the new fence immediately if it’s made with kiln-dried treated wood.

Thanks for reading this article, and I hope it has helped solve your problem. If you need clarification or have more tips to share, please reach out in the comments below.

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