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How to Stain Your Deck

Stains, Technique and Tips for Staining Your Deck
Don't plan on starting any part of the staining process unless you're sure the weather will cooperate.
Don't plan on starting any part of the staining process unless you're sure the weather will cooperate.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Moore

When you set out to choose a deck stain, you've got several options. While there are differences in how they act, your choice will be related mostly to aesthetics -- specifically, color and opacity.

There are four main types of outdoor wood stains:

  • Clear/Transparent -- Sometimes called wood toner, these stains are basically clear sealants. They're either colorless or very lightly tinted, and they're the way to go if you want a totally natural look. This type of stain may not last as long as the others, though, so you may find you need to re-do the process more often to protect your deck.
  • Semi-transparent -- This one's got just a bit more pigment, so you can give your deck some oomph -- but not so much the natural properties of the wood disappear. They still come right through, just with a slight tint. Semi-transparent stains can protect your deck for three years or more.
  • Semi-colored -- Another step up in opacity, semi-colored stains have more pigment, increased coverage, and longer life -- they can protect for up to five years. This stain gives you bolder options in color choice. It also hides more of the natural tones and textures of your wood.
  • Colored/Opaque -- At the top of the opacity spectrum, opaque stains hide your wood with pigment. If you want a red deck that matches your house's red trim, this is probably the way to go. Opaque stains will also protect your deck the longest.

Whichever stain you choose, you'll likely be applying it like this:

  1. With a brush, apply the stain to the more-difficult-to-cover areas like board ends, corners, cracks and in-betweens.
  2. With a brush, sprayer or roller (again, check the instructions on the can!), apply a thin, even coat to just a few boards at a time -- you want the stain to remain wet until you're finished covering the board so you don't end up with dark areas where your strokes overlapped. With each stroke, blend the new stain into the stain you've already applied.
  3. Move on to the next set of boards, trying to keep your application standard as you go. You do not want to over-apply or let the stain puddle. You'll end up with a mottled, sticky mess.
  4. If you finish the boards and find you missed a spot (or five), go back with a small brush and touch-up -- don't repaint the entire board or else you'll end up with a mismatch.

Word to the wise: Do not do any of these steps in direct sunlight or when the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, check the weather forecast before you begin the process. If rain is predicted any time in the next two or three days, hold off.

Now, no matter how well you watch the weather, clean the boards and smooth your overlapping strokes, you will be doing it all again -- maybe in a year, maybe in five years. Typically, newer decks need to be refinished more often than older decks, and of course the stain type, climate and amount of foot-traffic can affect performance, too. On average, though, your typical deck will need to be re-stained every couple of years to stay in prime condition.

Like we said, no small job. But for most, this maintenance is a small price to pay for the summer grilling, the morning coffee, the appeal to future buyers and the neighborhood bragging rights. And hey, you never know, you might even come to look forward to it, sweat, fumes, waiting, washing and all.

For more information on deck maintenance, DIY, and related topics, check out the links on the next page.