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How to Stain a Deck: 10 Steps for Refreshing Your Favorite Outdoor Space

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The weather’s getting warmer, the trees are greening and blooming, and the neighbors are firing up their barbecues — it’s finally deck season. But when you head outside to spruce up your space, you can’t help but notice that your own deck has lost its luster. Maybe the color isn’t as rich or vibrant as you remember, or the stain is looking patchy and uneven. Either way, it’s time to stain your deck.

Rick Fuller, a top real estate agent in Antioch, California, says that cleaning and staining a deck is one of the easiest ways for a seller to improve the home’s outdoor presentation. “Improving curb appeal and landscaping has one of the highest rates of return,” he says. “Often, decks fit into the curb appeal category.”

If you’re on a tight budget or just love DIY, staining a deck is a fairly easy project to tackle. The key is to have a detailed game plan at the ready. And, lucky for you, we’ve prepped your step-by-step guide on how to stain a deck. It’s chock-full of pro tips, product recommendations, and insight from experts who could probably do the job blindfolded (not recommended).

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Step 1: Gather your supplies

Paige NeJame is the owner of CertaPro Painters, which stains and refinishes dozens of decks in the Boston area each year. She recommends gathering the following supplies to pull off a DIY deck stain:

  • Paint pole and paint pads
  • Paint tray
  • Paintbrushes
  • Painter’s tape
  • Power sander and/or sandpaper
  • Deck cleaner and brightener
  • Putty knife (to remove items from between deck boards)
  • Stain/sealer ($20-$120 per gallon)
  • Drop cloths or plastic sheeting
  • Garden hose
  • Pressure washer (optional)

NeJame estimates an approximate cost of $200 for all materials. Not bad, considering homeowners pay $540 to $1,050 on average for professional deck staining.

Pro tip: If you live in a neighborhood where multiple people have decks that require regular maintenance, it might make sense to share the cost of purchasing some of the bigger-ticket items, like a power sander and pressure washer, and then take turns using them as needed. Alternatively, you can rent power tools from hardware stores like Home Depot or Lowes.

Step 2: Clear the deck

Before you bust out the brushes, start with a blank canvas. Remove all furniture, grills, potted plants, and other items from the deck. Next, sweep off any leaves, loose dirt, and debris. If there is any landscaping surrounding or underneath the deck, cover it with plastic sheeting or tarp to protect the plants from pressure washing and cleaning products.

Pro tip: Use a putty knife to remove any leaves, twigs, or other debris that are stuck in between the deck boards.

Step 3: Inspect the deck

Start planning prep work by evaluating your deck’s age and condition. If your deck is relatively new, the prep will probably be minimal. If it’s an older deck that’s showing signs of wear, discoloration, or deterioration, you’ll have to do some extra work to make sure the stain is applied correctly.

The first step in determining the extent of prep work is to inspect your deck, keeping an eye out for these red flags:

  • Warped or broken wood planks
  • Split or decaying wood
  • Popped nails and broken or rusty screws
  • Loose railings or handrails

Pro tip: For a complete list of what to look for, use this 10-Point Consumer Checklist from the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA).

Step 4: Clean the deck

Unless your deck is new, you should thoroughly clean it before you sand and stain. There are dozens of effective deck cleaners that you can buy online or at your local hardware store. Check out these top-rated products:

  • DeckWise Deck & Wood Cleaner + Brightener Kit (available on Amazon)
  • Behr Premium All-In-One Wood and Deck Cleaner (available at Home Depot)
  • Spray & Forget SFDCH04 House & Deck Outdoor Cleaner (available on Amazon)
  • TSP Deck Cleaner (available at Ace Hardware)
  • Olympic Premium Deck Cleaner (available at Home Depot)

After mixing the cleaning solution according to the instructions, apply it to the deck with a roller or a sprayer. Home Depot recommends letting the cleaner sit for around 15 minutes, spraying the deck with water as needed to keep the wood wet while the cleaner does its job.

Pro tip: While waiting for the cleaner to soak into the wood, check for mill glaze, a glossy-like film that prevents the stain from permeating. The telltale sign of mill glaze is if the water beads up and doesn’t soak into the wood. You can remove this film by lightly sanding or scrubbing the area until the water is absorbed.

After the 15 minutes is up, use a scrub brush (like this top-rated long-handled brush from Amazon) to work the cleaner into the wood. Once you’ve removed all dirt and residue, rinse the deck with a garden hose.

If your deck is large or particularly dirty, consider renting a pressure washer to blast away the grime faster than a manual brush. If you’ve never used a pressure washer before, check out these tips before getting started.

Allow the deck to dry completely — usually between 24 and 48 hours — before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Sand the deck (optional)

Sanding isn’t a hard-and-fast requirement, but if your deck still has a rough texture and you prefer a smoother, silkier surface, you may want to sand the wood before applying the stain. This process removes loose wood fibers from the deck so the wood can more easily absorb the stain.

The easiest way to sand a deck is with a random orbital deck sander. If you can’t find one to borrow, you can rent one from your local hardware store. Before getting started, check out this quick tutorial from Ace Hardware.

Pro tip: Not sure if your deck needs to be sanded? Try the “tape test.” Affix a strip of tape on the deck and then pull it off. If wood fibers come off with the tape, it could benefit from sanding.

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Step 6: Select a stain

Now, it’s time for the most important step in this project: choosing a stain.

Types of stains

HomeAdvisor breaks down deck stains into four main categories:

  • Transparent stain: This type of stain seals and protects the deck without changing the color of the wood. This is a good option if the deck is new or in good shape and you want the natural grain of the wood to show through.
    One to try: Valspar Pre-Tinted Cedar Naturaltone Transparent Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
  • Semi-transparent stain: A semi-transparent stain will add a hint of color to the wood while still showing the natural grain. This stain is a good choice if you want to complement the color of your home or hide minor imperfections in the wood while still retaining a rustic, natural look.
    One to try: Valspar Pre-Tinted Cedar Naturaltone Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
  • Solid-color sealant: This type of stain has more pigment and completely covers the wood grain. It’s a good choice for older decks with more signs of wear, as it can give the wood a vibrant, like-new appearance. Solid-color sealant is the way to go if you’re going for a more dramatic look and still want to keep the wood protected.
    One to try: Rust-Oleum RockSolid Tintable Resurfacer
  • Restoration paint: For an older deck with more advanced signs of aging, apply restoration paint to protect the wood while also strengthening and covering the damaged areas. Restoration paint is similar to solid-color sealant in that it covers the grain of the wood and offers a variety of vibrant color options, but it has a thicker and stronger consistency.
    One to try: Cedar Naturaltone Smooth Solid Color Exterior Wood and Concrete Coating

When selecting a stain type, weigh in how it will look over your deck’s current stain. If you have a clear or semi-transparent stain, you can apply that same type again or opt for a solid-color stain. But if you already have a solid stain, you can’t go back to clear or semi-transparent without first removing the existing stain.

Best-selling deck stains

Below are some of the overall top-rated deck stains, according to testing by Consumer Reports:

  • Behr Deckplus Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain (available at Home Depot)
  • Behr Premium Semi-Transparent Waterproofing Stain & Sealer (available at Home Depot)
  • Benjamin Moore Arborcoat Solid Deck & Siding Wood Stain (available at Benjamin Moore)
  • Cabot Solid Color Acrylic Siding Stain (available at Lowe’s)
  • Olympic Elite Advanced Stain + Sealant In One Solid (available at Home Depot)

CertaPro Painters’ go-to stain is Benjamin Moore’s Arborcoat Translucent Oil Stain. “Most people like letting the wood grain show through, but you can choose a stain with more pigment if you want more coverage,” says NeJame.

Choose one stain or opt for a two-toned style

When choosing a stain color, consider the color palette of your house’s exterior — the trim, siding, and other elements — and the surrounding landscaping. Ideally, your deck should blend in with your home and not distract from it.

Top agent Fuller often sees homeowners staining some sections of the deck and painting others for contrast. “They might paint the vertical elements, like the rails and handrail, but keep the lateral wood stained,” he says. “For example, a white paint contrasted with the transparent stain really brings out the beauty of the natural wood grain.”

Pro tip: Before you start staining, be sure to test the stain on a spare piece of wood to make sure you like the result.

Step 7: Check the weather before you stain

Weather is a critical factor in the success or failure of a deck staining project. According to Consumer Reports, the best time to stain is after several days of no rain, with at least two more days of dry weather in the forecast. Ideally, the temperature should be no lower than 50°F and no higher than 90°F, with low to average humidity.

Pro tip: It’s best to stain in the morning or late afternoon, as direct midday sunlight can cause the stain to dry too quickly, leading to uneven results.

Step 8: Gather some helpers

For any DIY project, particularly staining a deck, the old adage “many hands make light work” rings true. Recruiting some helpers can help speed up the process and alleviate some of the pressure — not to mention, help you beat the clock if the weather is fickle.

Pro tip: If you’re working in tandem, one of you can roll on the stain while the other focuses on spreading out any puddles and making sure it’s applied evenly and consistently.

Step 9: Apply the stain

Finally, it’s time for the main event! Follow these steps to ensure a successful application of the stain:

  • Plan an entry/exit point. Avoid literally painting yourself into a corner and decide ahead of time where you’ll start and stop, so you can always have a path to get on and off the deck without stepping on wet stain.
  • Protect walls with painter’s tape. If your deck comes into contact with any exterior walls or siding, apply painter’s tape to prevent any unwanted stain marks.
  • Prep the stain and paint pads. On a drop cloth, open the stain and stir it with a paint stirrer. Pour the stain into a paint-pad tray. Attach a paint pad to the paint pole and make sure it’s tight and secure.
  • Apply stain to vertical sections. It’s best to start with the railings and other vertical elements and work your way down. Use a paintbrush and move in long, even strokes.
  • Apply stain to the deck boards. Dip the paint pad into the tray and begin spreading the stain across the deck in two to three boards wide sections. Use a paintbrush for any smaller areas that you can’t reach with the pads, such as between boards.
  • Allow plenty of dry time. Most experts recommend allowing at least 24 to 48 hours for the stain to dry completely before replacing furniture and walking on the deck.

Pro tip: One coat is often enough, but if you want a darker color or want to hide imperfections, apply another coat. Wait at least four hours between each coat.

Step 10: Restain your deck periodically to keep the wood healthy

“If you don’t periodically maintain your deck, it could eventually start rotting and deteriorate beyond repair, requiring you to replace boards instead of just stain them,” says Fuller. “A poorly maintained deck could also attract pests like termites and cause a safety hazard that could turn off buyers.”

How frequently you’ll need to stain your deck depends on the climate where you live, the type of wood your deck is made from, whether or not your deck is covered from the elements, and the type of stain you’re using. As a general rule of thumb, a deck could benefit from a fresh stain every two or three years, but yours could need it more or less often.

Renovating? Check your home value first

How much is your home worth today? In as little as two minutes, HomeLight can provide you with a preliminary estimate of value in preparation of your plans to renovate, remodel, or make repairs.

Header Image Source: (Clayton / Unsplash)