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Applying Stain to Your Cedar Pergola or Gazebo

Apply stain to your cedar pergola

So you have decided to apply stain to your new Western Red Cedar Pergola or Gazebo. Western Red Cedar has a reputation for holding finish exceptionally well, and for good reason too. After all, Western Red Cedar is pitch and resin-free, which means there’s nothing to interfere with the bonding of your finish. Here are a few tips to help your pergola stay beautiful for many years to come.

Before you build your pergola or gazebo

Decide first if you have the building skills required to design and construct your own pergola or gazebo. Whether the answer is yes or no, don’t forget to consider the cost of applying a quality finish.

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The best time to stain western red cedar is before installation. Not only does this allow you to work in a safe, comfortable position it has the added benefit of allowing you to apply a finish to all six sides of your wood before installing them, thus ‘protecting’ every surface of you pergola.

Store it in a dry place, off the ground. Only use use top quality Western Red Cedar that has been dried to approximately 15% moisture content. This is the optimal level of moisture to accept your finish. If left unfinished and exposed to the elements (even for just a few weeks), Cedar’s ability to hold your stain stains will be compromised, so don’t delay, and keep it out of the elements!

Stain choices for your cedar pergola or gazebo

Walk into any home do-it-yourself paint and supply store and you are bound to be inundated with finish-stains. These products provide protection and also dress up the wood’s surface, enhancing cedar’s natural colours and textures or changing its face altogether. Three common choices are solid-colour stains, semi-transparent stains, and transparent stains.

Solid-colour stains act as a barrier between the elements and the wood, forming a film around the wood. Semi-transparent stains are ideal when you want to maintain western red cedar’s natural finish without weathering. Semi-transparent stains penetrate the wood’s pores, to varying degrees based on product. Transparent stains enhance the wood’s colour and act as an invisible protectant.

We have experimented with many name brands, and in our opinion, a couple have stood out: Cabot Stain and Sikken’s.

Both of these companies offer an opaque stain as well if your desire is to ‘colour’ your pergola.

Don’t forget to test the stain!

Before you start applying your stain to the entire pergola, test your stain choice to make sure it has the desired effect. The post skirts supplied with your pergola are a great opportunity to do this. Test various stains and colours on the inside of the post skirts. These won’t be seen when the assembly is complete, and will help you decide on your stain choice a lot more definitively than some arbitrary ‘colour guide’ on a sample rack.

Brush or rag for applying stain?

I will confess to have a bias here…. both! While it is easier to apply stain with a rag over large, smooth surfaces, only the brush will work effectively on the end grains: cut ends and notches. So use both. Using a brush will give you the most control. Brush application (natural bristle) is the preferred method because it works the stain into the wood fibres and cells more effectively. To avoid lap marks, make sure that the leading edge is kept wet and that the wet stain is brushed into the wood. A very good method is to brush the stain over an area, and then follow up with a rag to catch any puddles or drips. Any stain left to sit on a surface will soak in more than surrounding areas and appear darker. So brush, and… rag off. Work in small manageable areas. Try this technique: brush with one hand, and keep the rag in the other. Brush an area with the stain, and follow up with the rag. It won’t take long until you have developed a rhythm and the job will be done in no time.

While stain brands recommend a drying time of 12 to 24 hours, allowing the cedar to dry between 24 and 48 hours ensures that it is completely dry before you handle it for assembly.

There’s always the low-maintenance option of letting your western red cedar outdoor projects weather to a beautiful silver grey. But if that doesn’t suit your personal palette, follow these tips for a beautiful finish that will last for many years!

Enjoy your Pergola!

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About the Author

Greg Bailey is a partner at Outdoor Living Manufacturing Ltd, a value added forest company specializing in do-it-yourself western red cedar kits. He has been in the forest industry for over 30 years and an owner at OLM for over 10 years.

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