Can You Paint a Log Cabin? Don’t! Do this Instead

Paint is usually used to protect what’s underneath.  We started painting cars to prevent them from rusting.  Now we use paint to make things beautiful.  It adds color, personality.

So painting a log cabin should be a good idea right?  Shouldn’t it protect the logs from weathering?  And wouldn’t it make my cabin more beautiful?  Whether or not paint would make your log cabin more beautiful is a matter of personal opinion.  I and many other log cabin owners would say “no way!”  But you may feel differently, and that’s fine.  As for the other question, will paint protect your logs on your cabin from weathering?  The answer is no, it won’t.  Paint doesn’t protect logs like it does other things.  In fact, it will cause your logs to rot.  So don’t do it.  Don’t ever paint a log cabin.  Instead, stain it.

Why Can’t You Paint a Log Cabin?

In reality, you can.  There’s nothing stopping you.  If you’re dead set on painting your log cabin, then do it.  But there’s a real danger if you do, so if you want your log cabin to last longer and you don’t like to throw away money, read on.

Here’s the deal.  Logs are a little different from other building materials.  Even dimensional lumber like stud 2x4s can be painted.  The difference is that logs contain moisture.  Quite a bit of moisture in fact.

You see, logs are much thicker than dimensional lumber.  And they contain the full tree, not just a cross section like most lumber.  So these logs start out with a lot of moisture in them.  Giving them a year to dry out is great, but it doesn’t get rid of all the moisture.  Plus, there’s a certain amount of moisture that will always stay in the logs.  So even when you’re constructing a log cabin, the logs contain moisture.

In fact, even if you have a log cabin that’s been standing for 20 years, your logs aren’t totally dry.  They’ll absorb moisture from the air.  So in more humid seasons, they’ll take on more moisture.  In dry seasons, they’ll get dryer.  They’ll reach a good steady state with the air around them, but they’ll never be totally dry.

So what happens when you paint them?  Well, paint is really good at keeping moisture out, or in.  By painting the exposed logs on your cabin, you’re preventing the logs from being able to breathe.  So the moisture that’s inside stays inside.  Logs actually need to be able to breathe, not just while they’re drying out before construction, but during and long after construction.

Both latex paints and oil paints will end up damaging your logs.  Your logs will actually rot from the inside out.  What about polyurethane coatings?  Don’t use any coating that makes a hard glossy shell on the outside of your logs for the same reason.  Anything that prevents the logs from being able to breathe would be a mistake.

But what about keeping the rain, wind, and sun from destroying your logs from the outside?

A good stain with an appropriate clear coat will do the job while still allowing your logs to breathe.

Do Logs Really Rot When Painted?

Yes, absolutely.

You see, when you use paint on your logs you trap in all the moisture in your logs.  That moisture just sits there inside your logs.

Think about what happens when a lot sits on the moist ground.  If you’ve ever rolled over a log that’s been laying on the ground for a few years, you’ll remember that the underside was really decayed.  That’s what’s happening inside your logs when you trap the moisture inside.

And when the logs rot, what happens?  Think about it.  If one log gets soft it won’t insulate well.  It’ll get weak.  In fact, it could easily be broken busted up allowing in wind and rain.  Now think about what would happen if lots of logs on your cabin were rotting out.  Your whole cabin could lost its structural integrity and have to be completely rebuilt.

If you catch rot earlier than that, you might be luck and just have to replace a handful of logs.  But that’s a difficult and really expensive process.  You have to remove the old log sections making sure that you removed all of the rot.  Leaving any behind is just going to cause it to spread.  So you have to make sure you get it all.  Then, you have to get a log cut just right to replace the missing sections.  Imagine the cost involved to do this for several logs on your cabin.

And once that’s all done, then you have to sandblast your whole cabin to remove the paint that caused the problem in the first place.  Once the sandblasting is done, you have to go back and stain it.

Let’s just do things right in the first place by not painting your cabin.

What Should You Do Instead?

Stain works completely different than paint.  Instead of a coating that seals your cabin logs, like paint, stain actually soaks into your logs giving it a nice color while preserving the natural grain of the wood.

Stain has a lot of advantages over paint for log cabins.

First, it doesn’t seal moisture out or in.  It protects your logs by repelling a lot of the moisture from rain, snow, frost, and dew.  It really just make the wood more resilient against the elements.  But it does it without sealing the outside of your logs completely.  This allows your logs to breathe, letting out the moisture that’s trapped inside your logs.  Yet by repelling moisture, it actually keeps most moisture from getting in.  So your logs stay dryer.

Dryer logs means less rot.

Logs are made of organic material, so they will eventually break down.  But this process is quickly sped up by moisture.  Trap the moisture inside, and you get more rot.  Allow your logs to breathe and you’ll get decades more out of the logs on your cabin.

So now that we know that stain is better, let’s talk a little about what to use.

There are both oil and water-based stains available for log cabins.  What I recommend is actually to buy your stain locally.  And if you buy online, buy one that is known to be high-quality in your area.  Some stains the perform well in dry climates can lead to mold in warm, humid climates.  So you can’t just get a one-size-fits-all stain.

That said, there is one recommendation I will absolutely make.  Get a stain that’s made for log homes.  These stains will perform the best.  The shelf-brand stains at your local home improvement stores won’t be nearly as durable as the top-brand log home stains.  This isn’t always true, but when it comes to log cabin stains, you generally get what you pay for.

If you’re concerned about which stain to buy for your climate, you can run a Google search and find some good resources online.  But I also recommend you call a log home builder in your region and ask their advice.  They will know best which stain is ideal for your climate.

That said, here are some good brands of log stains.

  • Permachink
  • Sansin
  • Sashco
  • Sikkens
  • TWP

Even Sherwin Williams makes a log cabin stain that costs less than most of these other brands and appears to be really durable.  But this article isn’t a breakdown of the top stain manufacturers.  You’ll have to stay tuned for that.

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