How to Paint or Stain Wood Fencing

painting a fence
  • 5-10 hours
  • Beginner
  • 750-5,000
What You'll Need
Whisk broom
Work gloves
Rubber gloves
Warm water
Scraper or Wire brush
Basic tools for fence repair
Outdoor primer
Outdoor paint
4-inch paint brush
1-inch brush or angled/cutting brush
Small roller (optional)

A well-maintained wooden fence will last for years and can add an attractive design element to a home's exterior. Most natural wood fences are made from cedar, and while some people like the appearance of cedar as it ages naturally and turns a grayish silver color, most people prefer the appearance of a painted or stained wood fence.

Painting a fence isn’t difficult, but doing the job properly can be time-consuming and repetitive. The work is definitely worth it, as a proper paint job won’t just give your fence a facelift, it will actually extend the life of the fence by protecting it from the elements.

Gather Your Materials

Use good quality paint and primer formulated for outside use. It should contain UV inhibitors and should be designed to stand up to the elements.

When choosing a paintbrush, it may seem like they're all alike, but they really aren't. Cheap paintbrushes lose their bristles and have rough edges that cause blisters. Some are even badly out of balance and will be tiring to use.

Spending a few extra dollars is well worth it to get the best out of your tools and get the best results for your wood fence.

Paint the Fence Before You Put It Up

The time to start painting your fence is before it even goes up. Paint the boards, stringers, and posts before you build the fence. It's a lot easier to paint fence boards lying in your garage than fence boards nailed up in your fence. Plus, this way you can easily cover all four sides.

Don't forget to paint or stain the ends of the boards as well, since the end boards are the open-end, the grain there will be exposed directly to the elements. If left unpainted, moisture will easily work its way down into the boards, rotting them as it goes.

If you’re trying to repaint or stain a fence that’s already installed, it’s not the end of the world. The biggest benefit you’ll miss out on is the easy access to all of the wood’s surface area. If your structure is already standing, simply proceed to the next step.

Prep the Fence

If the fence is already installed, take some time to clean it up before painting. There are probably cobwebs, seeds, and who knows what else in the corners where the spreaders meet the posts. Clean these areas out with a whisk broom and cloth. Wash away any bird droppings on the fence with rubber gloves, a cloth, and a bucket of warm water.

If any paint is flaking or loose, use a scraper or a wire brush to scrape it free.

Excessive moisture from the atmosphere should also be considered and dealt with before applying primers and paints; covering mold or mildew is a bad idea.

Check for any insect damage while you're cleaning up. If you see any signs of termites, have an exterminator come in, or replace the boards that are damaged.

Sand the fence down to remove any burs or splinters, and create a surface that will be as receptive as possible to the application of new paint. Finally, make sure the boards are firmly attached - if any are loose reattach them.

Prime the Fence

Bare wood, particularly outside, should be primed before it is painted. Primer protects the wood and provides a better surface for the paint to adhere to. The methods for applying primers are the same as for applying the paint. Just be sure to let your primer dry completely before you move on.

Apply the Paint in Sections

While you don’t need to be exceptionally careful when painting an outdoor fence, as opposed to an indoor wall, it still helps to follow a pattern or a process.

Work on the fence one section at a time. About five boards per section is a good rule of thumb. This is important because when painting one side of fence and the center, paint gets on the face of the other side. If you wait until you are all done with one side of the whole structure, there will be dried lines or mounds of paint on the unpainted side, which you will have to scrape off. If you work on five boards on one side at a time, you can simply walk to the other side to clean up messy spots and then paint that side of the section.

Start by painting the tops of the boards, the open grain, and then work down the front of each individual fence board and one side edge. You may need to use a small brush to get into the edges depending on your fence design. By following this process, you won't get wet paint all over your hands from the board you just painted when you eventually reach in to paint the edges.

Tip: Slide a thin piece of cardboard under the bottom end of the boards so you can paint right down to the ground and not worry about your brush getting into the grass or dirt.

Sunlight and Temperature

Don’t work in the direct sun or during the peak temperature of the day if it is particularly hot. Direct sun will make the paint dry too fast, and it won’t be able to provide proper protection.

Outdoor Obstructions

If you have tall shrubs growing close to your fence, slide a large piece of cardboard vertically between the fence and the shrub. Position your body between the cardboard and the fence and lean back on the board, pushing the shrub away from the fence. This will ensure that you can get behind the shrub to apply your paint or stain, but it reduces the risk of any branches breaking as the board spreads out your weight. This is a gentler method than simply bending, pushing, or tying branches back forcefully. When you slide the board out, the branches will snap right back.