A Quick & Cost-Effective Alternative: Practical Differences Between Staining & Painting Reply

My wife and I chose a concrete patio for the backyard instead of a wood deck. I figured that the wood would need replacing sooner than the concrete and with plans to have children one day, a place where they could ride bikes and draw chalk art seemed like the right decision. The contractor we chose worked all day to finish the job. They prepped the site, framed the patio, added fill-dirt, and poured the concrete. Long after the sun set, JR was smoothing out the concrete while one colleague held a flashlight and the other gathered up the mess from the day. JR’s team prodded amazing service from start to finish and the resulting concrete patio looks great to this day.

As JR was leaving that night, I asked if he had any suggestions as to how I should paint the patio. I told him we wanted a color that fit well with the brick and stone on the house. He quickly said, “Have you considered staining the patio? It won’t cost as much and the texture and tone of the concrete should come through. I think that would look a lot better than covering it with paint.” I took his advice and a week later I stained our new patio, and JR was right – it looked great.

stained wood cabinet two tone

Stain reveals the texture of the substrate – like wood grain – in a way paint does not.
Image courtesy of VT Furniture Works

The differences between paint and stain can impact professional painters and the work they do each day, but it’s important that painters know how to utilize these differences to their advantage for each particular job. Here are some of the key differences between paint and stain, along with tips on how professional painters can choose the most appropriate option and make sure its applied in the most effective way possible.

  • Physical Composition.  While both paint and stain contain pigment and bonding agents, the similarities end there. Paint is almost always thicker than stain and can be produced in different glosses, while stain comes in only one gloss. Furthermore, batching is important in the commercial production of stain as there can be slight, yet detectible, differences in stain color from one batch to the next; as a result, trying to match stains after the fact may be considerably more challenging than color-matching paint. As a suggestion, many cans of stain will show batch numbers or production dates. Try to match these parameters as closely as possible to avoid variations. More practically, if you can be complete the job using a single, larger can of stain (as opposed to multiple smaller cans) you will all but eliminate the chance of disparate results after the stain has completely dried.
  • Application.  Paint is often used after a primer has been applied and is intended to sit on top of the substrate. Conversely, stain will soak into the substrate and color the wood or concrete, so it does not require a primer. Additionally, stain typically only requires one coat, as opposed to the multiple coats usually required when using paint. From a cost perspective, stain is less expensive per unit and requires considerably fewer coats (and no primer) to achieve the desired affect. Because staining a surface should cost quite a bit less in terms of both time and cost of materials when compared to paint, when planning or bidding on a stain project, factor reduced time and expense into your bid to make sure you are competitive. This also makes stain a great alternative to offer your clients who are working on a fixed budget or with a narrower time frame.
  • Uses. While some stains are intended for concrete, like the stain used on my patio,the vast majority of stains are intended for use on wood. Stain often reveals the grain or texture of the surface beneath it since it’s absorbing into the surface, not covering it. Transparent and semi-opaque stains both reveal the texture of the substrate. Choosing a stain based on color without factoring in the color and absorption of the substrate can lead to dissatisfied clients. Just as you use draw down cards to verify paint color, gloss, and spreadability, it is often wise to acquire a dried sample of a stain prior to full application, as well. Since most stain is applied to wood, finding an excess piece of the same wood being used for a project should not be a big challenge. In the event that no extra samples are available, try to locate a piece at a hardware store that is not just the same type (pine, oak, etc.) but also similar in terms of grain so that the final color can be seen. Stain will absorb and dry relatively quickly, making evaluation a simple process. Use a small sample from the can of stain intended for the project to make sure you are getting an accurate result. Paint, conversely, will mask the surface grain and texture completely given enough coats and a quality primer, meaning you can choose a paint color with confidence that the end result will resemble the color and gloss indicated on the can (after verifying with a drawdown card, of course).

Paint and stain offer two wildly different results for professional painters. Staining is more cost-effective, both financially and in terms of time of application, which presents professional painters with the chance to increase the profit margin of a staining job as compared to paint work. That said, stain usually only requires one coat and no primer, meaning the painter has little room for error to produce great work. Furthermore, choosing a stain color is substantially more complicated than choosing a paint color, meaning it’s a good idea to properly counsel your client about the effect of substrate color and composition (such s wood grain) on what the end result of a staining job might be. In the end, choosing between staining and painting is more than a matter of desired end result. Click here to learn more about paint chemistry and how different paint material produce different results for professional painters!

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