Why Cedar Turns Grey, and What You Can Do About It

why-cedar-turns-greyAs you probably know from reading the A1-Fence blog and website, we’re big believers in the benefits of Northern White Cedar. All of our wooden fences, pergolas, and gazebos are made out of it.

However, cedar that is destined to live outdoors needs some special care and attention. Specifically, it needs to be treated with a good wood stain. Otherwise, your nice cedar color will fade to a dull, nasty grey.

Why does this happen? There are two culprits: water and sun.

Water erodes the outer layer of the wood cells that are still alive and well in a plank of cedar. They are busy producing the natural oils which gives cedar its nice color and smell.

Then the sun’s UV rays come in to dry out those oils. UV rays can also fade the colors of just about anything over time. That’s why as I evaluated the best stain brand for a cedar fence I spent a lot of time looking at how well any given stain resisted the sun’s UV rays.

Then water moves back in. Now it’s eroding dead cell tissue, producing wood rot. It also turns your fence into a breeding ground for mold and mildew, which finish the job of changing the color of the wood.

How long do you have before your cedar fence starts to turn grey? It depends.

Some people have seen trouble start in less than six weeks. Others can wait a year or more before they see problems.

A fence that lives beneath full shade in dry conditions is going to last longer than a fence that lives in full sun, or a fence which is exposed to several months of heavy rain or snow. Full shade can’t protect a fence from water, and can actually contribute to mildew and mold. Thus a great deal depends on how wet your fence gets.

To be on the safe side I recommend taking care of the staining process just as soon as your cedar “dries out.” This is a process that takes about 5 weeks under normal circumstances.

The good news is that you can repair the damage if your fence has already gone grey. It just takes a little bit of effort on your part.

First, you will need to pressure wash your fence. You will then need to apply a wood brightener. We recommend the Restore-a-Deck Brightener (and all of their products actually). Then you will need to protect the fence from future damage by applying a good wood stain and sealer.

This process works just fine for any cedar product: fences, decks, pergolas, gazebos, and any wooden patio furniture that you may have.

And remember, you should reapply your stain every 2 years. If you do, your cedar should keep looking nice as long as the fence stands!

If you’re thinking about installing a gorgeous Northern White Cedar fence in your back yard, call us for a free estimate. We serve Monomonee Falls, Fox Point, Whitefish Bay and the rest of the Milwaukee metro area.


  1. TERY says:

    We have a cedar fence, more than 30 yrs old and the wood is still good so would like to use it. The stain we used to refurbish it was a linseed oil stain that is not available any longer plus so we are using a different stain and changing the color of stain. We will be sanding all the boards down before applying the new stain. One cedar provider indicated that we would have to allow the boards to ‘age’ 10 days after sanding them before we restain them. Is this true?

  2. Rhonda says:

    Q: I have six cedar post, two on my front four on my back porch. They have turned a beautiful natural blonde color that I would like to keep. How do I stop the aging process? Thank you.

  3. Julie Earl says:

    Our Cedar fence should be installed by November 10th.
    We wanted to seal it right away so it wont turn grey over the winter.
    We are older and looking for the quickest way to apply the wsterseal.
    Should we use a sprayer, roller or brush??

  4. Claudette Keyser says:

    My husband and I are considering buying a home that has cedar siding (shingles). Parts of the home have the nice brown-red coloring, other areas are a darker faded grey.
    Does the color change mean those shingles are rotted? Is it possible they just need to be cleaned and stained? How do you know when the siding is completely damaged by the weather?

    • Atlas Builders says:

      My first concern if it was me.
      Are those cedar shake shingles fire rated?
      Then I check to see if they have a lot of previous hail damage.
      Go to YouTube to know what to look for.

  5. Gail Raffier says:

    My red Cedar sign is starting to gray but it has been sealed already . What could I do with it ?

  6. Russell settlemyre says:

    I have some dried cedar slices that has turned gray.can I get the natural color back ?

  7. Lesley Simpson says:

    We have a very large cedar deck – 3 levels actually that we just cleaned. We did not use the product brand you recommended It came up very nice and clean. But my husband likes the look of the natural aged cedar and does not want to stain it. However, I am curious as to what the Brightener would do…as the deck is lovely and clean now, but flat looking in colour. What is the difference with the deck wash and brightener – the cleaner was a 2-part oxygen activation process

  8. Brad says:

    Hi, thanks for the great blog post! It was very helpful. Question for you, we just had our cedar fence installed about 5-6 weeks ago, and it’s been raining quite a bit in the Chicago suburbs. I’d like to get it stained toward the end of Nov, hoping for a mid 40-degree day. that gives it almost 7-8 weeks to dry (will this under 50 degree temp be a problem?). Do you think this is letting it dry for long enough, or would you recommend waiting until spring to stain it? I’m trying to avoid our fence turning gray. Thanks in advance for your help!

    • A-1 Fence says:

      It’s best to contact the lumber yard directly where the cedar was sourced and ask them if their stock of cedar is ready to stain “immediately.” Most cedar these days come out of the lumber yards dry enough to be stained immediately. However, if you want to be safe than sorry it’s best to let the wood dry for one full season. In your case, I would just wait until spring. It won’t turn gray in that short period of time and if by chance it does, you can just use a brightener as described in this post.

      • Brian Mumford says:

        The article was very helpful and just what I was looking for. The subdivision I live in has a lot of wood fencing which is gray and falling apart. Our association has finally replaced some of the pieces that literally fell off the fence, but they’re replacing them again with unfinished lumber which is already starting to turn gray since last summer. As new pieces come in, do you see a problem with me suggesting that they first store them in an old barn to dry out and finish (in the event they’re not ready to be treated)? Or is a lack of sunshine a bad idea even if they’re out of the rain? I figured if they started treating them going forward we could eventually turnover all the fencing and save a lot of money in the long run. Rumor has it the last estimate to replace all of the fencing was something like $100,000, so we’re likely wasting money long-term.

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