Wooden fence being painted with yellow handled paint brush from left to right


Different types of fence treatment - Pros and cons


When you've spent time and money, either installing a fence yourself or getting a fence installed (or even re-installed!), you know how important it is to keep it well maintained. A well-maintained fence can easily see you through ten years. But well-maintained is the key here; there are numerous minor things you can do to ensure that your fence is maintained, but the best thing to do is to regularly coat it with a good quality fence treatment.  


But how do you know which treatment is best? Here are some pointers.


Why treat your fence?


Green stained wooden fence in semi-dilapidated state with panel loose and fallen


While the obvious answer is that you’re treating your fence in order to make it last longer, it’s helpful to understand how it degrades and what you can do to stop those things happening.


The most common problems that timber fencing faces are:


UV degredation

The UV elements of sunlight damage the lignin fibres in the surface of the wood and cause them to split. Over time, this weakens the surface, which falls off, which then exposes parts underneath, which then become damaged, and so on.

Too much moisture

When wood gets too wet and isn’t allowed to dry out, it starts to rot and quickly falls apart. This can be caused by persistent wet weather on improperly protected wood or ground contact with untreated timber.

Wet-dry cycles

While it tends to be better for wood to remain relatively dry, a lack of protection creates wet-dry cycles that have a similar effect to how potholes are formed in roads. The dry wood absorbs moisture when it rains, which swells the wood, which causes cracks to form, which then causes more water to be absorbed in the next wet-dry cycle, and so on until you have serious problems with your fence.


When your fence wood isn’t properly treated, it quickly becomes the perfect ground for mould, algae, and insects. After all, these organisms break down fallen trees in nature so we can’t expect them not to do that!


Ways of stopping these threats


Man spraying wooden fence panels with spray gun


The key, then, is using the right type of treatment to stop the wrong kind of nuisance. Treating fences isn’t too dissimilar to treating any kind of external wood. The aim is to coat it (or soak it) in something that creates a barrier between the wood itself and the outside. In short, you’re looking to reduce the exposure of the wood to the elements.


There’s no one most effective way to create that barrier, there are simply different types of treatment for different environments.


The broad ways treatment types are categorised are:

  • Oil-based
  • Solvent-based
  • Water-based


Let’s look at the pros and cons of each one.


Oil-based fence treatment


Wood panel fence with gaps being painted with slightly darker stain colour


Oil-based treatments are likely one of the oldest forms of treating wood to help preserve it. Ancient Greeks soaked wood in olive oil to try keeping water out fairly regularly. The theory is that oil soaks into the wood, and the hydrophobic properties of oil keep any water from penetrating the wood and rotting the fibres.


This works, and treatment with things such as Boiled Linseed Oil also tends to make wood look beautiful and healthy. But the persistent problem with traditional, ‘raw’ oil-based finishes is that they don’t always contain anti-UV properties and often need to be re-applied regularly. The upside, however, is that they tend to be relatively cheap for coverage and also quite environmentally friendly.


That said, more recently there have been advances in oil-based treatments that include various antimicrobials – so these could be perfect for your fence if you’re concerned that runoff treatment could contaminate areas around your fences (such as vegetable gardens).



  • Easily applied
  • Usually environmentally friendly
  • Tends to be lower cost
  • Tends to be good for wood


  • Needs to be reapplied more regularly than other types
  • Can’t be applied when there has been wet weather
  • Doesn’t always have UV resistance
  • Shows the grain of the wood, which is something you may want to avoid if you’ve got a fence with varying wood qualities and repairs


Solvent-based fence treatment


Wood panel fence being painted with dark wood stain


The next advance with wood preservation came in the form of mixing oil-based treatments with solvents. The solvents slightly thin the oil and allow it to penetrate deeper into wood so that you don’t have to re-apply as frequently. Solvent-based treatments have a reputation of being quite effective but until relatively recently, solvent-based treatments were more likely to come with potentially hazardous additives.


The additives were certainly harmful to the microbial life that may want to get at your fence, but it also had the effect of being potentially harmful to everything around it.



  • Penetrates deeper than pure oil-based treatment
  • Requires less frequent reapplications compared to pure oil-based treatment
  • Tends to give a distinctive ‘high gloss’ finish


  • Can be harmful to you and immediate environment
  • Oil makes cleanup difficult


Water-based fence treatment


Pale wood fence being painted with yellowish wood stain


Traditional painters & decorators will swear by oil-solvent finishes as the only way to achieve a great finish. But that’s because it used to be the only way. Original water-based finishes and treatments left a lot to be desired, but advances in the last few decades have meant that water-based treatments beat out the others in almost all categories.


Water-based treatment is now the most often-used treatment for fences and exterior wood. The water is used as a carrier for a mixture of non-toxic preservatives and antimicrobials. The fundamental way this works is that the water (carrying the preservative mixture) soaks into the wood and then dries out, leaving the preservatives embedded deeply into the wood structure.


These are often combined with varying amounts of materials that “polymerise” (that is, dry to a hard shell) – and this has the effect of repelling water when fully cured.



  • Usually environmentally friendly
  • Can be applied soon after wet weather
  • Easier cleanup
  • Is able to hide the wood grain on degraded or patched panels
  • Usually doesn’t need to be reapplied for a number of years


  • Has historically tended to be a bit pricier than solvent alternatives (but is now frequently about equal in price)
  • Sometimes needs more coats to achieve the final finish


So which one's best? 


While there are pros and cons of each type, the different use-cases mean that there’ll be a particular option that’s best for you – often even a particular brand treatment within the broad categories.


While there are pros and cons for each type of fence treatment, which one is best for you depends a lot on exactly what you want to get out of it. Even within the broad categories of oil, solvent, water-based, different brands result in different end results.


To find the best treatment for you, browse our range of available fence treatments and order online today.