What You Need to Know About Wood, Wood Stain, the Government, and Value

What is wood protection? Typically people think of wood protection as a means to protect the wood from sun and rain damage. Over time UV rays will continue to degrade wood and water intrusion will eventually lead to fungus, molds, and rot. These are reasonable concerns that drive consumers to want to seal and protect their exterior wood with water repellency and lots of UV protection. However, applying drying top coats to wood is not necessarily going to provide the protection we are really looking for. To understand how to protect wood we simply need to understand why the two things a tree needs to grow and survive (sun and water) become the wood's worst enemy once the tree is cut down.

A wood's natural oil is its defense system. Wood deteriorates when it loses its natural oil which is inevitable once it can no longer be manufactured by the wood. This is important to understand because to protect wood you cannot just protect it on the outside; you need to protect it from the inside out just as a tree would naturally. Ask yourself this – when you get dry skin do you apply a drying coat (something with water in it), or do you apply a conditioning oil? Obviously we apply a conditioning oil to replace our body's oil that has disappeared. Wood works the same way.

One of the many fallacies of “wood protection” is that we need absolute water beading in the rain. We believe that when water beads on the surface it isn't penetrating into the wood. However, beading will only last so long. So then what is your next level of protection? Oil and water do not mix. When wood has non-drying penetrating oils in its interior the oils in wood will naturally repel water. Without interior oils there is not only no second level of protection from water intrusion, but there is no way to protect the wood from becoming brittle and susceptible to insects intrusion and decay. Similarly to applying conditioning oil to dry skin, applied oil to wood will only last so long. Now ask yourself this – even if a stain that claims it lasts 4, 5, or even 6 years really did last that long, how long are you actually getting the conditioning and protection you really need?

If you had not already done so, you may start thinking that the logical solution to wood protection is to use an oil based stain. However, the government seems to have their own opinion of what we need. VOC's (volatile organic compounds) include solvent, thinner, naphtha, and other ingredients that evaporate from stain. The importance of these ingredients has been to thin a stain for easier application and absorption. In an effort to reduce ground-level ozone both the EPA and many states have passed legislation to reduce VOC's. As of December 2015, the national limit is 550 g/l, seventeen states have a 250 g/l limit, and four counties in Southern California have a 100 g/l limit. These limits are pushing the wood stain industry toward water-borne and alkyd based stain formulas as most companies have been unable to formulate oil stains that can perform without these solvents, thinners, and other ingredients.

As a result of government regulations (and to some degree the acquisition of privately held companies by large companies with shareholders that need to be kept happy) we have seen not just one, not just two, but multiple formulation changes for stain lines to keep with compliance (and profit margins). Generally speaking, as new formulas have been brought to market the results in performance have become more and more mixed, and usually for the worse. Every day we hear people talking more and more about how “brand X” used to be a great stain.

Additionally note that not all oils perform equally, just as all cars do not perform equally. Sure we can say a Pinto and a BMW are both cars, and that's about all they have in common. Sure they both have doors, tires, transmission, and a motor, but there is no mistaking a Pinto for The Ultimate Driving Machine. Similarly manufactures of oil based wood stains use a variety of ingredients. Some use cheaper oils and others use higher performing more expensive oils. Remember, you get what you pay for.

Most stains cannot be applied in direct sun and the heat of the day without becoming sticky and tacky. For oil based stains VOC's will flash out of the stain quickly in the heat. The less the VOC's the quicker they are gone. For water-borne stains on a hot day the water evaporates out quickly. Additionally, you are limited to when you can apply stain due to the potential for rain. Typically you cannot stain when rain is expected within 24 or 48 hours, or whenever rain is imminent. This may not be a problem if you live in Arizona, but it seems like rain is always imminent in the southeast or Pacific Northwest, or even the Midwest and northeast depending on the time of year. As a result we have more stress working with tighter schedules worrying about the weather.

Solids are the part of a stain that hang around after everything else has evaporated. Historically (and to some degree today) people didn't want high solid formulas. If there are high solids, then there are lower VOC's. If there are lower VOC's then stain will be thicker and get stickier and tackier sooner. If you read through the MSDS of most stains you will find solids in the range of 25%-60% by volume, 17% - 69% by weight. This means that for every $10 you spend for stain, only $1.70 - $6.90 of it will remain doing what you want and need it to do. Be sure that when you are applying stain you truly understand the difference between what you are paying (cost) and what you are getting for your money (value). If an oil based stain, for example, is 50% solids claims to condition wood, ask yourself how much conditioning are you really getting if part of that 50% that stays around is your surface color, pigments, mildewcide, dryers, etc.

Many stains on the market also present some unforeseen challenges (at least unforeseen to the unsuspecting homeowner at the time of purchase). Most stains require cumbersome preparation and application techniques. Before purchasing stain read what prep is required. Usually all stains will have a requirement that the wood needs to be cleaned. That's simple. Then there will be an innocent note to the effect that previous coatings must be removed prior to application of new stain, or not to apply on top of previous coatings. Translation – any wood previously stained with this product must be stripped, and then brightened (to neutralize the stripper), or sanded before applying new stain. If you ask for help from someone at a store and the answer seems simple, it is recommended that you follow up and ask if they themselves have actually prepared and applied a maintenance coat to wood previously stained with that particular product. If they haven't then what seemed to be a simple process may not be so simple.

Unfortunately, for most stains a stripper is needed for removal. Many of the new formulas are now requiring multiple applications of stripper to remove the prior stain. It has even gotten to the point where on occasion we are using stripper to remove as much of a previous stain as possible to alleviate having to sand through so much of the previous stain that didn't come off. I am not Catholic, but I have been on jobs where we started looking around for a priest and some holy water in hopes of finding a way to get a previous coating off. That's the irony - many stains peel and crack and can come off easy, or you can't seem to get them off at all. This may not be as much of a challenge for a professional who typically strips, brightens, and sands regardless of what the previous stain was, but it can be a nightmare for a DIY homeowner. Congratulations if you have lots of time and some extra money to remove a previous stain every few years. Otherwise, for the rest of us who work long days or rather spend more of our time with friends and family, consider using a quality penetrating oil stain that does not require stripping.

For many of us we spend a lot of time in our outdoor environments. We can also spend quite a bit of money between our decking, fencing, flowers, and landscaping. There is a lot to be said for peace of mind that we can enjoy our hard work and money spent. Peace of mind that you don't have to strip or sand your wood every time you go to apply stain. Peace of mind that you can go spend more time with friends and family after you finish applying stain instead of having to wait around to wipe everything down later in the day. Peace of mind that you don't have to worry that it may be too hot to apply stain today, or that unexpected rain or freezing after an application will ruin everything. Peace of mind that the stain you applied is protecting your wood from the inside out to help it last as long as you. Peace of mind that if you walk on your stain during application you don't have to worry about foot prints being left behind. Peace of mind that if you apply $10 worth of stain, $9.50 of it will stay around conditioning, sealing, and protecting your wood.

This is where we at Armstrong-Clark have made a name for ourselves and becoming a fast growing favorite stain among wood restoration professions. There is one long lasting, easy to apply, and easy to maintain formula that works on all exterior applications whether it is decks, fences, log homes, wood siding, playground sets, furniture, whatever. Our approach is that wood needs what it needs regardless of species or application (although techniques may vary in a few specific circumstances). Only one formula is needed. The only difference between all our colors (including our hardwood stains) is the color of the pigments, type of pigments, and amount of pigments. All other aspects of the formulas are the same. The only thing differentiating our hardwood colors from our softwood colors is the type of pigment used so that color can be retained with such a thin coat of stain. This is why our hardwood colors work just as well on softwoods.

Art Espinoza with Titan Tools has been quoted as saying that Armstrong-Clark oil based stains are “so eeeaaasssyyy!!!” These are high solid, low VOC stains that can be applied outside in direct sunlight in the heat of the day regardless of how hot it is, you do not wipe these stains during application, foot prints from walking on stain during application will blend in during the absorption process, they can be exposed to rain an hour after full absorption into the wood, they do not require stripping or sanding on maintenance coats, they can be applied to wood with moisture content as high as 20%, and freezing after absorption will not harm the stain. Although they are designed for single coat application, in circumstances where a second coat is desired (an allowed) the second coat can be applied wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry. Lastly, with their VOC's below 50 g/l they are not worried that they are going to have to change their formula for a very long time (if ever). This should provide the homeowner with some added piece of mind that the formula they purchase today will still be around when they reapply stain in the future.

Currently the wood restoration website DeckStainHelp.com has our stains top rated including our #1 rated stains for exotic hardwoods like ipe, mahogany, and teak. You may not have heard of us until now, but we have been around a while with our roots dating back to before the civil war. Jake Clark, our President, cofounded the company back in 1989 and is the sixth generation in wood preservation. The fourth generation (his grandfather) started the Flood Company which is now owned by PPG.

Please call anytime if you are still confused, concerned, or otherwise have questions regarding whether or not to use Armstrong-Clark oil based wood stains in your exterior living space and we will be more than happy to make sure you do not have any doubts.

Species and age of the wood will determine final color. Always try a test sample first