There are many differences between staining an item or painting it. First, the chemical makeup of paint and wood stains is distinctly different as are the circumstances of their use. The choice of either for interior and exterior use will depend on the type of wood it is intended to cover. Rough surfaces will look better with stain while smooth surfaces will look better with paint.
There are similarities in paint and wood stains. For instance, both can be either oil or water-based. Stains also come in gel form as well. Oil based stains are less environmentally friendly but if you are staining indoors it is important to ensure you have ample ventilation (which, of course, is important when painting indoors also).
Relatively new to the marketplace are gel stains. This type of stain is the consistency of a thick paste, so it does not penetrate into the wood like thinner stains or paint. The advantage of this stain type is that the natural wood grain tends to shine through more clearly and without blotches – which often occurs with oil and water-based stains. Finally, stains enhance a wood-look where paints can change the mood and color completely.
Paint is mostly oil-based or latex. Oil-based paints are most often used for interior paintings while latex is the preferred type of paint for a home’s exterior. The reason for this is that latex paint resists fading and is also weather-resistant in all types of climates.
There are other differences in paint and stain as well. Stain soaks into the wood while paint acts as a film that lays atop it. Too, paint is much more expensive than a stain. Surfaces that are going to be painted generally need to be primed in advance which is extra time and effort. Staining a surface requires little to no preparation. Stains also act to enhance the substrate (surface) and accent the fact that it is a wood surface. Paint provides an altogether different outcome.
Finally, stains are easier to maintain. That does not mean they last any longer because there is no evidence of that. Stained exteriors, fences, furniture or other materials will require regular maintenance the same as if an item has been painted. Latex is generally preferred for exterior painting because it weathers better than oil-based paint and is more resistant to fading and chalking. Latex paint is preferred for all climates, but particularly for harsh climates found in all parts of the country.