Apr 9 2009

How to Stain Your Deck Like a Pro


Having spent my entire adult life working with paints and stains, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that homeowners who stain their own decks, for the most part, end up at the conclusion of their project, dissatisfied. Dissatisfied, after staining their deck, that their deck didn’t turn out looking as good as they thought (or hoped) that it would. Dissatisfied that after all of their hard work, all their pain staking labor, the stain doesn’t hold up and, almost over night, their beautiful project again begins to weather from nature’s elements.

Dissatisfied that, no matter what they have tried, the result is always the same…a lousy looking deck that seems to always look like it needs a little attention.The solution however, is not all that difficult…if you want your deck to look like a pro did it…to hold up to weather like a pro did it…then you have to stain it just like a pro would…and that means paying attention to 11 (no not 10, but 11) simple keys to success. 11 keys that, when followed, literally guarantee you of a great looking, long-lasting result but, when overlooked, can result in a disastrous conclusion. Beginning with…

1. Take your Time…

I can’t stress this point enough…with every step of the staining process…from the beginning to the end…take your time. When the project is completed and your tools are all cleaned up and put away, nothing will have had a greater impact on the quality of the job that you have done than this single point. It can mean allowing that new pressure treated lumber that you just built your new deck with to weather for a few months to dry out before staining…it can mean allowing the stain stripper that you are using to be left on the surface long enough to break down that old finish before you rinse it off. It can mean taking your time to not slop stain over anything and everything that gets in your way or it can mean waiting to start your project until the weather fore cast is favorable but, in all cases, during all the steps of the staining process, take your time to do it right!

2. Preparation…Preparation…Preparation…

This part you have probably heard before but I really can’t over emphasize its importance…preparation is key to the final result. All wood needs to be cleaned well before staining, whether it’s a brand new deck, that you just had built, or an older deck that’s been out in the weather and needs to be re-stained. Brand new lumber needs to be cleaned to remove “mill scale”, which is simply a crushing of the grain in the wood that takes place during the milling process and, left un-cleaned, can prevent stains from properly penetrating into the woods surface.

woodcleaner-smallOn an older deck, dirt, graying from the sun, mildew and old stains all need to be removed prior to staining. Sodium Percarbonate cleaners, also known as oxygenated bleaches, are a great choice for this step. They are highly effective at cleaning the wood yet they won’t harm plant life and vegetation. Best of all, they won’t hurt you either…their soapy consistency won’t burn your skin.

stripper1gal-smallIf there is a build up of old stains on the deck then the job gets a little tougher but not impossible…instead of a sodium percarbonate cleaner you’ll need to use a stain stripper. Strippers are a little more caustic so follow the directions carefully, but they work great and will remove most weathered stains in a single application.

Lastly, if there are small spots of stain that wouldn’t come off during the cleaning process, once the deck has dried, they should sand off fairly easily using a palm-type sander. Left on the deck, those spots of stain will show through the new finish and detract from the deck’s final appearance. Some stain manufacturers offer a free instructional DVD to help walk you through this entire process…they’re a terrific tool to use to be sure that you do it right the first time. Here’s an example:

3. Brighteners are Beautiful…

brightener-smallIn the staining process, no step is skipped more than this one yet it is, by far, the easiest step to do and it will have a dramatic effect on the final results. Brighteners are easy to apply, they help open up the surface of the wood to improve penetration, they neutralize any stain strippers that were used, and they restore the appearance of old weathered wood to the way it looked when it was brand new. Now that’s a lot of things for one product to accomplish but brighteners will do all of that so don’t skip using them.

And remember I said that they are easy to use…simply spray them on, wait a few minutes, and rinse them off…no scrubbing, no “elbow grease” needed…no reason to not use them!

4. Rinse like Mad…

Use lots and lots of water after using any cleaning chemicals. In spite of the fact that some of these chemicals can seem safe and harmless, they all need to be rinsed off extremely well after they are used. Left in the wood, these chemicals can y resurface over time and begin attacking, and breaking down the new stain so, once you are done cleaning, rinse the deck like mad to get all of the chemicals out of the wood.

5. Stay Away from the Cheap Stuff…

Alright…the deck is cleaned, dry, and ready to be stained…now is not the time to scrimp…when you go to buy the stain that you plan to use, stay away from the cheap stuff! You always get what you pay for…better ingredients cost more money. If you expect premium results then you’ll need to buy a premium product. There is a difference in quality when it comes to resins, pigments, mildecides and many of the other materials that make up a gallon of wood stain so…stay away from the cheap stuff if you expect it to last.

6. Take a Look at Waterborne Stains…

epoxy-smallWater based stains have gotten to be really good products, so, if you have been reluctant to look at them in the past, don’t be reluctant any longer. Air quality regulations have forced manufacturers to really focus on these products and I believe that they are now better, more durable and longer lasting than conventional oil-based alternatives. Besides, they offer some real advantages to the user…they clean up with soap and water, there are no nasty solvents to breathe, they have significantly better resistance to weather, the wood doesn’t need to be completely dry to use them, they dry more quickly than solvents, rain is not as big of an issue with them and they are much easier on good old’ mother earth.

In addition, some of the waterborne stains are synthetic as well, such as the Defy deck stains. This is a nice feature in that synthetic products will be far less susceptible to the growth of mold, mildew and algae so, if you’re in area with a fair amount of moisture and humidity, there could be some real advantages in you considering a waterborne synthetic stain. After all, you wouldn’t use oil based products on your house…why would you use them on your deck…

7. Read the Can…Follow the Directions…

Every manufacturer’s product can be a little different so always read the label for directions. It only takes a few minutes but it will insure that you have all of the right information before you get started. How many coats of stain to apply…how long to wait between coats…how long to wait after cleaning…how long to allow wood to weather. There are any number of variations of answers to these questions and more…read the label first and you’ll be likely to get it right the first time.

8. More IS NOT always Better…

Decks are best stained with a semi-transparent product…these types of products allow the natural grain of the wood to show through, allow the wood to naturally breathe vapor through it, and, when weathered, they are easily cleaned off and reapplied. But don’t be fooled…with semi-transparent stains, more is not better. Pay attention to the manufacturers directions and don’t over apply these products…you’ll end up with a beautiful, shiny finish that will probably peel off over time. When too much stained is applied a film can form, much like paint, that will longer allow vapor to pass through it. When this happens the end result will be peeling and that’s a real mess so…only apply as much stain as the wood can easily absorb.

9. The Paint Brush is Still King…

There are a lot of different ways to put the stain down with…sprayer and roller being two popular methods…but in the end, keep a paint brush at hand as…the paint brush is still king! Nothing will work the stain deep in to the pours of a board like a agitation and friction caused by a paint brush so, if you are spraying or rolling the material on, always back-brush it in while the stain is still wet and you’ll achieve much better penetration in to the wood.

10. Remember…Take Your Time…

I told you at the start of this article to take your time…keep taking your time all the way through till the end. And when your project is finally done…take a little extra time before you start using it. Let your deck dry out good before putting it back in use…let the stain cure out a bit before subjecting it to the rigors of patio furniture and foot traffic. You’ve done everything right to this point…don’t give up at the end.

11. How about a Little Maintenance…

Oh yes…and one final thing…don’t forget a little maintenance…a little TLC…a small amount of effort can keep your deck looking great longer. Just as you would wash the dirt off of your car, wash down the surface of your deck every now and then to keep leaves and dirt from doing damage to the finish. If things start to break and the stain starts to show signs of graying or loosing its color, it can be easily cleaned up with a little wood brightener and, with the application of a light maintenance coat of stain, your deck can look new again.

So that’s it…that’s all there is to it. Eleven keys to deck staining success. Go ahead and try them…try the eleven keys for yourself…see what the results are when you set out on your next project to do it like a pro. You may just surprise yourself!

*Helpful Tips

You can really speed the process up by using a scrub brush on the horizontal boards. These brushes can be found in the cleaning section of most home improvement stores. Get the type that can be attached to a 4 foot extension pole and now staining the surface of the deck will go nearly as fast as mopping your floor!

When staining the deck rails take care not to splatter stain on the deck surface below as it will most likely leave unsightly darker spots when you are done. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to cover the deck below the rails as you work. I use the cardboard from the box the stain came in and cut out notches in the cardboard so it will fit snugly around the rail posts.~

19 Comments on this post


  1. Ross said:

    How can you fix a poor stain job?
    The deck was stained a week ago, but it was over applied and there are drip marks under the railings. Is there a way to fix that – or do I have to start over and strip it and reapply the stain correctly?
    Perhaps a light wash with mineral spirits or spot cleaning the over-applied areas….
    Thanks for your help

    September 5th, 2009 at 10:16 pm
  2. Jeanne said:

    A couple of years ago I pressure wash my deck. I didn’t really know what I was doing. It didn’t feather or anything but now it won’t hold the stain. It takes it but come Spring I have large areas of missing stain. Last year I stripped it, re-stained it, and again this Spring, I have missing areas of stain. This is a large deck, so I don’t want to keep going through this. Can you help me? Jeanne

    June 10th, 2011 at 4:16 pm
  3. administrator said:

    I do not believe it is the pressure washing that is causing this but the stain brand you are using. Is it Behr or Sherwin Williams? They peel on everyone.

    June 11th, 2011 at 10:13 am
  4. Jon said:

    @Jeanne: like the prior comment, it’s not the pressure wash that is causing problems. It is either the preparation, the application, the post-app situation or the product applied. For preparation, be sure you do not scour the deck with the pressure washer; you only want to clean it and remove any loose paint/stain. Let it dry thoroughly, at least 24-48 hours depending on your heat, sun and humidity. Wet wood is bad to stain. For product, be sure you are using a deck stain and as the author noted a good quality semi-transparent stain is best. Solid stains and any paints will just peel off immediately due to standing water, foot traffic, etc. Only apply when the weather will be dry for at least 24 hrs. afterwards — see the product’s directions. After application, allow it to dry thoroughly 24-48 hours before walking or allowing any kids, pets or furniture/pots on it. Even after that, be gentle with it until it sets up for a few (dry) days. These are a lot of requirements, and it can be hard to find the right days to do the work in some climates, but these are the keys to success and there is no reason if done right the stain job should not last you 2-3 years.

    June 19th, 2011 at 10:05 pm
  5. Tara Wilson said:

    Help! My contractor did a great job building my red cedar deck, but he was horrible at staining it! He used a roller and you can see the overlapping roller marks ALL over both levels. After the 2nd coat, which he applied within an hour of the first coat on a hot sunny day, he said the marks would go away with a third coat. We are now still looking at roller marks, 3 coats of stain that have drip marks and brush strokes at various places along the edges and it looks like I got a paint job instead of a stain to enhance the cedar! I will be fixing this myself – is the best solution for a beautiful finish to strip it all and start over? Thanks for any advice you can give.

    July 9th, 2011 at 6:40 pm
  6. administrator said:

    All new wood needs to be prepped before staining. Best to use a wood deck cleaner and a wood deck brightener to “open” the wood pores so the stain can absorb properly into the wood. In addition certain stain brands do not penetrate very well at all into new wood. Behr or Sherwin Williams are two of the worst.

    At this point you have no choice but to strip it all off and start over. It will be difficult since your contractor compounded the issue by adding more coats. I would start here on this link to get you going with the proper products. Make sure to read the articles: Deck Stain Help

    July 10th, 2011 at 12:50 pm
  7. Mike Darrish said:

    I need help! A contractor cleaned and restained my pressure treated pine deck a few weeks ago. He used Flood CWF UV5, an oil based product. The deck previously had Cabot 3000 Natural stain, also an oil based product, about 3 years old. He pressure washed and let it dry, but did not strip the deck. As a result, the previously worn areas look OK, though there are already some areas that are very dark gray, almost black (algae living on natural resin?) The worst problem, though is that in the areas where the deck was shaded and had a lot of the previous stain left, I have a tacky film. It won’t dry. The contractor is out of business and I am on my own. In the areas that were worn, water doesn’t bead up at all like it did with the Cabot for about 18 months. I want to remove all old and new staind and start over. I am considering sanding the deck. I was advised that a stain stripper would remove the solid stain from deck posts and the stucco on the house. What do you recommend?



    September 22nd, 2011 at 2:11 pm
  8. administrator said:

    Deck Stain Strippers do not remove solid stains or paints. I would strip off what you can then if needed sand the rest.

    September 22nd, 2011 at 5:42 pm
  9. Anne said:

    Will deck strippers, cleaners and wood brighteners hurt vinyl siding?

    November 18th, 2011 at 9:02 pm
  10. administrator said:

    No they will not hurt vinyl siding.

    November 19th, 2011 at 6:59 pm
  11. Bob said:

    We built a new redwood deck last spring, and we coated it with a clear product called “top secret coatings”, or “super marine paints”. They offer 50 a year guarantee for their paint products and a 10 year guarantee for their clear products. The products cost almost $500 for a 5 gallon bucket. Now, the coating has already peeled off and it’s obvious we will have to re-surface this spring. We have tried to contact them, but they will not respond to us. Have you heard of these people?

    February 3rd, 2012 at 8:25 pm
  12. administrator said:

    I feel bad for you but you definitely got taken advantage of!

    There is no miracle cure to deck maintenance. 50 years? The wood itself typically has a 20 year lifespan. Sorry but deck stains will only last 2-3 years on horizontals and longer on verticals and those are the good stains. Best to choose a penetrating stain that is easy to maintain when needed.

    February 3rd, 2012 at 11:50 pm
  13. Taylor said:

    I’m about to build our deck and was going to stain the boards before installing. The wood has already née even dried to a 19% moisture content, is there any reason to not stain before installing? I plan on using Superdeck’s semi-transparent stain for pressure treated lumber. Thanks.

    March 19th, 2012 at 12:20 am
  14. administrator said:

    You can stain before installing but there is not need too. Stains really only need to be applied on the exposed sides. Super Deck is an average stain and has a tendency to darken or turn black in color after exposure for a couple of years. There are better products available. Here is a review. Super Deck Stain Review

    March 19th, 2012 at 10:20 am
  15. Taylor said:

    Can you recommend a stain?

    March 20th, 2012 at 1:02 am
  16. Francisco said:

    I’m planning on building a ground level deck and I have two questions: I have checked the treated decking sold by HomeDepot and Lowes and they all come already with a factory-applied cedar-color acrylic stain on it. Although I like the color it is specified that it is not water repellent. If I want to use Defy, should I have to remove this stain first? Better off, should I just go to a local lumber shop and buy non-stained treated decking and then apply Defy?

    My second question is: I have read that for ground level decks it is important to seal or stain the bottom side of the decking to avoid absorption of humidity from the ground. I assume it wouldn’t hurt to do it. I could put Defy on the bottom side before installing the decking and then apply the final coat on the top side after installation. What is your opinion on this?


    March 28th, 2012 at 4:56 pm
  17. administrator said:

    Absolutely without a doubt do not buy the pretreated wood from Home Depot or Lowes. It will fail quickly and will be very difficult to fix. New wood is not very absorbent. Make sure to apply a wood cleaner and wood brightener to prep the new wood and then apply just one coat of the Defy.

    No need to apply to undersides of decking unless it is upper level for appearance sake. Your wood is already treated for rot and decay so applying the Defy to the underside will not help.

    March 28th, 2012 at 8:38 pm
  18. Bob said:

    Which types of deck cleaners, brighteners and strippers should I use to be safest with my landscaping? I can use tarps to cover the bushes right next to my deck. But, it seems like the process will rinse all the chemical into the soil.

    May 9th, 2013 at 1:18 pm
  19. administrator said:

    I would look at the Defy products or the Restore A Deck products.

    May 9th, 2013 at 5:25 pm


Subscribe Form

Subscribe to Blog