Pressure-treated wood is ideal for most outdoor projects and structures due to its resistance against rot, general weathering, insect damage, and more.
While preservatives help protect pressure-treated boards from nature, you can still brush or even spray-paint the wood for a new look and increased durability.
In this guide, you’ll learn the benefits of using pressure-treated wood, how to paint or stain it, and which is better to achieve beautiful, lasting results.
What Is Pressure-Treated Wood?
Simply put, pressure-treated wood is any wood that’s been chemically treated with high-pressure solutions of water and chemicals.
The extreme force used in this process helps the chemicals penetrate the lumber completely—in fact, most pressure-treated wood will still be damp when it gets to the hardware store.
As the water evaporates, the chemicals in the solution are left behind.
These chemicals are usually copper compounds and act as preservatives to prevent or slow down rot, fungus growth, mold, and insect damage.
For this reason, you’ll only see pressure-treated wood used in outdoor structures.
Docks, wheelchair ramps, fences, garden beds, and especially decks are all common uses for this kind of lumber.
Although the chemicals infused into pressure-treated wood are considered safe in small amounts, they shouldn't be used indoors or around gardens growing plants meant for consumption.
Wear gloves when handling pressure-treated wood, wash your hands after touching it, and only cut it while wearing goggles and a mask. The preservatives can irritate your skin, eyes, throat, and lungs with prolonged contact. Additionally, you should never burn pressure-treated wood.
How To Paint Pressure-Treated Wood
1. Clean your boards
The journey from the lumberyard to your yard can involve lots of pit stops—and plenty of grime. Clean your pressure-treated boards with a good rinse, if nothing else. If needed, scrub with a bristled brush and some mild soap, then rinse again. Older wood might need to be power washed before painting.
2. Give it time to dry
Recently treated lumber will need about 2-3 weeks for all the treatment water to evaporate completely.
3. Use a primer
An exterior primer, one which specifically says it’s fine for treated wood, will help your paint adhere better. Apply using a brush or paint sprayer, although both are ideal for making sure the primer gets to every inch. Allow it to dry.
4. Paint on your first coat
Do not use an oil-based paint, as it won’t adhere well. Opt for latex exterior paints instead. Apply with a brush or if possible, use a spray gun, let it dry, then test if it's ready for its second coat.
5. Apply the second coat
Allow it to dry completely before walking on it, moving furniture, or handling it in any significant way.
How To Stain Pressure-Treated Wood
Oftentimes, staining is preferable to painting pressure-treated wood. This is because there's less preparation to ensure the wood takes it properly and because maintenance and application are easier.
- 1After the wood has dried, select your stain
Oil-based stains are best, as these further discourage moisture while enhancing the wood’s natural grain. Any oil-based exterior stain should work, although you can also choose one specific to pressure-treated wood if you prefer.
- 2Clean the wood
You can pressure wash, scrub, or rinse it—just make sure the grime and dirt are gone before you begin. The older the wood, the more you'll need to clean it. If necessary, use a wood cleaner that's meant for exterior structures. Let the wood dry completely.
- 3Mix your stain
Shake the can well before opening, and stir often while you apply it. Perform a test swatch in a hard-to-notice area to make sure you like the color.
- 4Apply your stain
Use a staining brush or cloth to evenly coat your wood with single strokes (don’t go back and forth, and don’t overlap). Be sure to stain the ends of the boards, as well, and wipe up drips or pooled areas quickly.
- 5Allow it to dry
After the stain has dried, apply additional coats if needed or desired.
Stain Versus Paint: Which is Better for Pressure-Treated Wood?
In general, it's better to stain pressure-treated wood. Simply put, the application process is easier and faster, and treated lumber accepts stains more readily than it takes to paint. Maintenance is also easier since stains can't peel or chip. Best of all, the natural grain of your wood can still shine through.
With that in mind, there are times when painting pressure-treated wood is better. White fences, for example, require paint; there’s no way to achieve that clean, classic look with stain. You also have more color options with paint than stain provides.
In the end, your choice to stain or paint your pressure-treated wood depends on the final look you're after and how much (if any) maintenance you're comfortable doing in future years.
Benefits of Using Pressure-Treated Wood
Painting Pressure Treated Wood FAQs
How long does it take pressure-treated wood to dry out?
On average, pressure-treated wood takes 2 to 3 weeks of mostly warm, sunny weather to dry completely. Heavy rain, cold snaps, and shade will prolong the process.
Can you buy pressure-treated wood that’s already dried?
Yes, you can purchase dry pressure-treated wood. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find lumber that’s already been sitting out long enough to dry, at least some, before it makes its way to the store.
This isn’t terribly common, though. A better option is to opt for kiln-dried treated lumber. It's more expensive but can save you weeks or even months of waiting.
What can you do if you stain pressure-treated wood too soon?
Damp pressure-treated wood won’t absorb stain evenly. This can result in splotchy, discolored areas and reduces the effectiveness of your stain. To fix it, wait for the boards to dry completely before applying your stain again.
Also, you might have to go over some areas more than others to even out the appearance.
Why and when does pressure-treated wood turn gray?
After being exposed to the elements for about three to six months, you'll notice your pressure-treated wood growing discolored. Some of this is due to foot traffic and grime, but some are caused by UV rays breaking down the chemicals in the wood.
This occurs even with untreated lumber, however, and is normal. You can wash it away with a pressure washer and then seal, stain, or paint your wood as planned.
Does pressure-treated wood need to be sealed?
You should seal your pressure-treated structures shortly after installation (as soon as they're dry) and reapply the sealant annually. This keeps the moisture barrier intact and prolongs the life of your wood.
If staining, you can select a stain-sealant combo, then apply sealant on its own annually. Paints will require touch-ups and, in some cases, a polyurethane sealer as well.
Many homeowners wonder if they can safely and effectively paint or stain pressure-treated wood, and the answer is absolutely. As long as the wood has dried completely following its treatment, you can paint or stain it much the same as you would untreated lumber.
While stain is easier and requires less maintenance overall, painting pressure-treated wood with a latex exterior primer and paint can yield beautiful and lasting results too.