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how to stain a pergola

How to Stain a Pergola - A Complete Step-by-Step Guide

An outdoor patio pergola can be a beautiful addition to any backyard or outdoor living space. But without proper protection, the wood of a pergola will quickly weather, warp, and deteriorate when exposed to the outdoor elements. Applying a high-quality wood stain is crucial for preserving and enhancing a pergola.

Staining a pergola may seem daunting, but it can be simple if you follow the right steps. This complete guide will walk you through everything you need to know to properly prepare, stain, and seal a wood pergola to keep it looking like new for years.

dark stained pergola with outdoor furniture

Key takeaways 

  • Proper preparation is crucial - clean, brighten, sand, and repair wood before staining for best results. Allow new wood to dry out first.

  • Oil-based stains offer the most protection by penetrating deep into wood pores. Popular brands are Penofin and Messmers.

  • Maintain an even, steady brushing motion when applying stain. Work systematically from one end to the other.

  • Choose stain colors like natural wood tones, semi-transparent, or solid colors depending on the look preferred.

  • Maintain yearly cleaning and touch up localized worn areas. Plan to completely re-stain every 4-7 years for longevity.

Why Should You Stain Pergolas?

Applying a wood stain serves multiple important purposes:

  • Protects the wood from UV damage, rot, and insect infestation
  • Provides water repellency so moisture beads on the surface
  • Adds color and visual appeal with various tint options
  • Allows the wood grain to show through for a natural look
  • Prolongs the life of the pergola compared to unfinished wood

Staining also seals and preserves the original texture of softer woods like cedar that can crack over time when left untreated.

While paint provides a thicker surface coating, stains are preferred for most pergola projects for their ability to penetrate deep into the wood pores. This guards against cracking, peeling, and flaking off over time.

Choosing oil-based stains offers the best protection for outdoor wood structures. The oils soak into the cellular fibers of the wood rather than just sitting on the surface. Popular oil-based options include Penofin and Messmers, praised for their durability.

For a vibrant, long-lasting pergola stain, always apply some type of sealant or topcoat after the stain has fully cured. This locks in the stain and adds a protective barrier against moisture, mildew, and UV rays.

Now let’s go over the complete step-by-step process for prepping, staining, and sealing your pergola properly.

outdoor living today breeze pergola with fire table and outdoor furniture beside pool

What You'll Need to Stain a Pergola

Staining a pergola is straightforward when you have the right supplies on hand. Here are the recommended materials to complete the project:

Stain and Topcoat

  • Exterior wood stain - oil-based is best for protection and longevity
  • Sealant/topcoat - spar urethane, varnish, or wood sealer
  • Stain brush - 4-6 inch bristle brush for applying stain
  • Rags - lint-free cloths for wiping excess stain
  • Painter tape - for edge masking

Prep Supplies

  • Pressure washer - for deep cleaning wood prior to staining
  • Sandpaper - 80-100 grit to lightly scuff the surface
  • Paint scrapers - for removing loose paint or stain
  • Wood brightener - removes graying and rejuvenates wood
  • Dust mask - protects from inhaling wood particles

Optional Supplies

  • Spray gun - for spraying stains over large areas
  • Paint roller - speeds up the application on flat surfaces
  • Wood conditioner - pre-stain treatment for softwoods

Check the weather forecast before starting your pergola staining project. Cooler temperatures between 50-70°F will allow the wood stain to properly penetrate into the wood. Avoid staining in direct sunlight or if rain is expected.

Now let’s go over how to prepare old or new wood before applying stain.

Preparing a Pergola for Staining

Proper preparation is crucial for achieving great results in staining a pergola. Here are the key steps:

Inspect the Wood

Carefully examine all wood surfaces. Look for cracked, warped, or rotting boards that need replacement. Inspect joints for any gaps that need caulking.

Check for nails or screws sticking out that should be hammered down flush to prevent snagging and splintering when scraping.

Also, note the condition of any existing stain that needs removing. Test different areas using a paint scraper to see if the old finish peels or easily scrapes off.

Clean and Brighten the Wood

Thoroughly clean all wood surfaces using a power washer to remove dirt, mildew stains, cobwebs, and other debris. Let the wood fully dry for at least 48 hours afterward.

For gray, weathered wood, apply a wood brightener after power washing. This removes tannins and brings back the natural color tone.

Sweep away any standing puddles, sawdust, or loose particles. Wipe down with a tack cloth to pick up any remaining dust.

Sand Away Rough Textures

For smoother stain penetration, lightly sand the wood using 80-100 grit sandpaper. This opens up the grain and allows the stain to soak in better.

Focus sanding on areas of rough-sawn wood, visible milling marks, or surfaces with raised wood grain. Be careful not to round over edges or soften detailed wood profiles.

Vacuum up all sawdust after sanding so it doesn't get stuck in the stain finish.

Remove Existing Finish

If stripping off all old stains or paint, work in sections using a paint scraper and wire brush to efficiently remove the existing finish without damaging the wood underneath.

For partial removal, use 80-100 grit sandpaper to scuff up areas of old stain that are still adhering to the wood. This allows for proper adhesion and bonding of the new stain coat.

After scraping, brighten the naked wood with a wood brightener solution to restore an even, clean surface for staining.

staining a wood pergola

How to Apply Stain on a Pergola

Once the wood is fully prepped, you're ready to begin applying the pergola stain. Here are some application tips:

Brushing vs. Spraying Stain

The most foolproof method is using a high-quality stain brush to manually apply the finish. This allows getting stains into all cracks, crevices, carvings, joints, and hard-to-reach areas.

For very large pergola projects, consider using an airless paint sprayer for applying stain. This speeds up the process but make sure to back-brush spots the spray missed.

Staining Wood Slats and Beams

Use a 4-6 inch bristle stain brush, applying in smooth strokes following the wood grain pattern. Maintain a wet edge as you work to prevent lap marks and blotchiness in the finish.

Angle the brush diagonally when coating pergola slats to get full coverage around all sides. Periodically wipe away excess stains from the brush bristles before continuing.

Staining Pergola Posts

When applying stain to round pergola posts, slowly brush back and forth in a spiral motion from top to bottom. To reach all surfaces, carefully rotate the post as you work downwards.

Use a small trim pad brush to coat post finials and decorative details. Check for drips and smooth out runs.

Achieving Consistent, Even Coverage

Maintain a steady brushing motion and uniform coating thickness as you stain all wood surfaces. Work systematically from one end of the pergola to the other.

Periodically step back to check for uneven coloring, missed spots, or blotchiness. Catch these areas with extra brushing before the stain dries.

Letting the Stain Penetrate and Dry

Allow the first coat of pergola stain to soak in for 15-20 minutes before wiping away any excess with a clean rag. This enables deep penetration into the wood pores for maximum protection.

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the dry time before applying a second coat. Many oil-based stains require 24-48 hours of drying. Repeat for additional coats until the desired color depth is achieved.

pergola stain color options with paint brush

Pergola Stain Color Options

When selecting a stain color, it's also important to consider the overall design and style of your pergola. Our buying guide for pergolas provides tips on choosing colors and finishes that complement your home's architecture and landscaping. The stain color should enhance, not overwhelm the pergola.

Here are some of the most popular staining color options:

Natural Wood Tones

For a subtler look, select natural wood tones in lighter wood shades. These showcase more of the natural grain and texture. Some top colors include:

  • Redwood
  • Pine
  • Light Oak
  • Birch
  • Driftwood

These are ideal for pergolas made of redwood, pine, or fir.

Semi-Transparent Stains

Adds light color while allowing some wood grain to show through. Top color choices include:

  • Teak
  • Pecan
  • Mahogany
  • Chestnut
  • Walnut
  • Cordovan Brown

These work well on most wood types and are widely versatile.

Solid Color Stains

Opaque stains cover wood grain to achieve a bolder solid color for maximum transformation. Some go-to shades:

  • Forest Green
  • Navy Blue
  • Black
  • Gray
  • Dark Brown

Covers better on smoother woods like cedar rather than heavily grained types that require extra coats.

Here is a quick breakdown of recommended stain types for different pergola woods:

Wood Type Recommended Stain
Redwood, Pine, Fir Natural wood tones, semi-transparent
Smooth woods like Cedar Solid colors
Heavily grained woods Natural, semi-transparent


man power washing a pergola

Maintaining and Touching Up a Stained Pergola

With proper care and maintenance, a stained wooden pergola can last for 15-20 years before needing to be completely refinished. Here are some maintenance tips:

Annual Cleaning

At least once a year, give the pergola a deep clean using a power washer and brightener solution to remove dirt, mildew, and other buildup that can eat away at the stain. Allow the wood to fully dry before reapplying stain sealant if needed.

Spot Touch-Ups

Inspect for damaged or weathered sections that need localized sanding and staining for an instant refresh. Touch up protective topcoats if worn away in areas.

Overall Refinishing

Plan to completely re-stain and seal the entire pergola every 4-7 years depending on wear. This maintains both the color and protective qualities of the finish.

Here is a quick breakdown of the pergola maintenance schedule:

Task Frequency
Clean with power washer & brightener Yearly
Inspect for damaged areas Yearly
Spot-treat repairs as needed As needed
Apply fresh protective topcoat Every 2-3 years
Completely re-stain pergola Every 4-7 years

Proper prep work is key to achieving great results when it's time to refinish the pergola. Follow the steps earlier in this guide for cleaning, sanding, and topcoat removal prior to applying a new stain. Consider switching to a new color for a fresh new look. 


1. Should I use stain or paint on my pergola?

When it comes to pergolas, it is generally better to stain rather than paint. Staining allows the natural beauty and texture of the wood pergola to shine through, while painting may cover it up.

2. What type of stain should I use?

For a wood pergola, you can use a variety of stains such as semi-transparent, transparent stain, or even a solid stain. The choice depends on your preference for how much of the wood grain you want to show through.

3. What are the benefits of staining a wood pergola?

Staining a wood pergola can enhance the wood’s natural beauty, protect it from weather damage, and prolong its lifespan. It also helps to seal the wood surfaces from moisture and UV rays.

4. Can I stain a cedar pergola?

Absolutely! Cedar pergola kits are a popular choice for staining due to the natural beauty of the wood. Staining can bring out the rich color and highlight the wood grain of a cedar pergola.

5. Can I stain a pressure-treated wood pergola?

Yes, you can stain a pressure-treated wood pergola. However, it is recommended to allow the wood to weather and dry.


Staining and sealing a wood pergola can seem like an overwhelming task. But by following this step-by-step guide, you can protect and beautify your pergola properly for lasting enjoyment and curb appeal.

The secret is taking the time to thoroughly clean and prepare the wood before applying high-quality penetrating stains and sealers. Ongoing maintenance and touching up worn areas as needed will keep your stained pergola looking freshly finished for years of backyard shade and elegance.

Previous article The Best Wood for Pergola: A Complete Guide for Homeowners
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About The Author

Andy Wu - Resident Expert

Andy Wu - Resident Expert

Andy Wu is the resident backyard products expert and hails from Atlanta, Georgia. His passion for crafting outdoor retreats began in 2003.

As a fellow homeowner, he founded Backyard Oasis to provide top-quality furnishings and equipment, collaborating with leading manufacturers.

His main focus is on sheds and generators!

In his spare time he like to hike the tallest mountains in the world and travel with his family.

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