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How to Properly Stain a Deck

May 17, 2020 by Erik Martin
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Whether it's made of natural wood or pressure-treated lumber, there's nothing quite as handsome and appealing as a well-stained deck. Deck stain seals in the grain of the wood and repels water, preventing mildew, mold, and premature rot.

Staining is often preferred over painting because it can offer a more natural look; plus, stain can cost less than paint, and it's usually easier to restain a deck than repaint it.

Staining is also recommended over sealing a deck. "Sealant doesn’t penetrate the wood like stains. It sits on top like a tinted clear coat," notes Geoff Sharp, founder/president of Sharper Impressions Painting in Columbus, Ohio. "Staining works its way into the wood fibers, has a deeper color, and lasts longer than sealant."

But deck stain doesn't last forever, especially on horizontal surfaces that can take a beating due to foot traffic and the elements. You can ensure a longer lifespan for your deck stain by prepping thoroughly and selecting a quality product and the right kind of stain for your deck's wood.

Types of stain

You can choose between a semi-transparent stain, semi-opaque stain, or solid stain. Any of the three types can be either latex-based or oil-based.

"Semi-transparent stain has become less popular in recent years because it's so thin that not much color shows," Sharp explains. "Semi-opaque is more popular for that natural wood look where you can see the wood graining but also add some color depth."

Solid stain looks like paint and is often available in a wide variety of colors. But once you apply a solid stain, "you can never go back to any other type of stain," cautions Sharp.

Staining natural wood

Cedar and redwood are two of the most durable, beautiful, and expensive natural decking materials. To preserve their natural look, take time to pick the ideal kind of stain.

"I recommend semi-transparent oil-based stains for natural wood, as it brings out the natural grain and looks fantastic," says Richard Hull, owner of Renton Handyman in Renton, Washington, which provides handyman services.

Sharp agrees. "I would always use a semi-transparent oil-based stain for new wood, especially cedar," says Sharp.

Ward Schraeder, a Salina, Kansas–based DIY expert and co-star of HGTV"s "Bargain Mansions," meanwhile, prefers solid or semi-opaque stains for redwood and cedar, as they provide the same "solid finished look that paint can give you."

Staining pressure-treated lumber

Pressure-treated wood is less expensive and more impervious to moisture penetration than natural wood, and it can be stained, too.

"I typically opt for a solid oil- or water-based stain, which provides an appealing finish to treated lumber," Schraeder says.

However, avoid staining treated wood until at least six months after installation, as it may shrink and exude fluids within the first half-year.

Staining steps to follow

To properly stain your deck, the pros advise the following steps:

  1. Clean the wood. "Pressure-wash the deck, unless it's new. This is best left to an expert so you don't splinter the wood or leave wand marks in the wood grain," says Sharp. Also, use a liquid deck-cleaning product or diluted bleach solution to remove dirt, dust, mildew, and old stain.
  2. Secure any loose boards and replace any badly rotting boards.
  3. Buy a quality stain product and test it on one full board. “Let it dry to make sure you like the color and appearance,” Sharp adds.
  4. Be sure the deck is completely dry. "You want two days of dry weather prior to staining, and often 48 hours after staining for it to dry completely," Hull says.
  5. Tape and tarp off areas you want protected from stain drips and spray.
  6. Read the instructions on the stain container carefully. "Some stains call for temperatures 35 degrees and up, while others require at least 50 degrees," says Sharp.
  7. Apply the stain with a brush and roller. "A brush often works the stain deeper into the pores of the wood. I sometimes use a roller to first apply the stain evenly, then brush stain onto the surface," says Schraeder.
  8. Apply two coats if necessary. Follow the instructions on the label. "If you prefer a darker finish, I recommend at least two applications, but let it dry before you decide on a second coat," Schraeder suggests.

What you can expect

A freshly stained deck looks amazing, smells great, and is the perfect spot for entertaining, grilling, and chilling, says Sharp.

"If you use a quality stain, it should be good for five years or longer. But I recommend an annual soft upkeep of cleaning and pressure-washing," says Hull.

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