How to Stain Your Deck

big deck
While a big, beautiful deck is a lot of fun, it does require some regular maintenance. chuckcollier/Getty Images

Coffee in a private oasis on a cool, spring morning, summer barbecues with friends, value added to a home you may eventually want to sell. Having a deck is a luxury for many of us, those who have a yard, the right climate and oh, right, the energy for regular maintenance.

For all their relaxation potential, wood decks are not care-free. These structures take time and labor to keep in tip-top shape. Without regular maintenance, the wood can decay, grow mold, weaken and literally fall apart.


And so there's the ritual of staining, best undertaken in spring or fall (because weather counts -- more on that later). Some people look forward to it, though it's not a small job. The process takes at least a weekend, often more, and requires know-how, elbow grease and, ideally, some help from a few of those friends who come to your barbecues.

Staining involves multiple steps, and several factors affect what exactly your own staining process will involve. Still, there are basics that tend to apply across the board, and at least one thing is universal: You can't just grab some stain and jump right in.

There is the dreaded "cleaning" that has to be done. We'll talk about that first.


Clean, Strip and Brighten Your Deck

Pressure washing
Before you can stain your deck, you need to thoroughly clean it. Pressure washing is a good way to go. BanksPhotos/Getty Images

The pre-staining stage of the project is a crucial one. It prepares your canvas for what will doubtless be wood-deck work of art once you're done. The typical process looks like this.


We'll call it cleaning, but it's not your simple soap-and-water job. This initial step, which of course has multiple components, aims to remove any flaws, mildew and contaminants that can ruin (or at least deter from) the final look of your project.


Cleaning typically begins with sanding away imperfections, repairing lightly cracked or loose boards, and replacing heavily damaged or decayed ones.

Next comes spraying or wiping a wood-cleaning product onto the entire deck, one small section at a time because you want it to still be wet when you work it in with a stiff-bristled brush. You'll leave it for at least 10 minutes, and then rinse with a regular garden hose or pressure cleaner (on a low setting).

All clean? Let it dry thoroughly. This could take a couple of days.


If your deck has been stained previously, and you're adjusting the color, you'll need to remove the old before applying the new or else the new finish won't "take" the way you want it to. This is also your chance to eliminate any old-finish flakes or stray wood fibers.

Wood strippers are intense products, so remember to wear your protective gear, including eye goggles, mask and gloves.

Brush on a heavy layer, and let it sit until the old finish starts to come up (you'll see it bubble). This will usually take about a half hour, after which you'll begin scraping it off with a flat-edged tool, like a putty knife. Use an old towel or T-shirt to wipe finished spots as you go. Then rinse well.


While not strictly necessary, wood brightener is a great way to bring out the original look of the wood you loved so much you built a deck with it. Cedar and redwood benefit from a brightening product especially, but it can make any wood look fresher and has the added benefit of removing rust and mildew.

Some products want you to apply when the wood is wet, while others want it dry. So be sure to check the manufacturer's instructions.

Wipe (or spray or brush -- read the instructions) an even layer onto the boards and let it sit for about 15 minutes, keeping it constantly wet with a spray bottle of water or a hose with mist setting. Then, rise well, and let it dry.

Seriously, let it dry. You're going to be staining next, and you want to apply stain only to completely dry wood. If it takes a day or two, wait it out.

Clean deck? Check. Smooth, stripped, gleaming boards? Check. Totally dry? Check.

Now, it's time to stain.


Techniques and Tips for Staining Your Deck

staining deck
When it's time for the actual staining process, be sure the weather will cooperate and allow the stain to dry according to the manufacturer's recommended drying time. LisaInGlasses/Getty Images

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/yransparent: 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.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • How to Choose the Right Exterior Wood Stain. Benjamin Moore. (July 24, 2012)
  • Outdoor Deck Cleaning and Staining Guide. DIY Network. (July 19, 2012)
  • Stain Your Deck. True Value. (July 19, 2012)
  • Staining Your Deck. Cabot Stain. (July 19, 2012)