How-To Stain or Paint a Deck with 11 Keys to Success



By Dave Barnes


Unlock the secrets the pros use to create a beautiful, long-lasting finish by doing it right the first time.



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 dissatisfied with the results. They’re dissatisfied because after all of their painstaking labor the stain doesn’t hold up and, almost over night, their beautiful project again begins to weather from nature’s elements. Dissatisfied because, no matter what they have tried, the result is always the same … a lousy looking deck that always needs a little attention.


The solution, however, is not all that difficult. If you want your deck to look like a pro did it and hold up to the weather, then you have to stain it just like a pro would. That means paying attention to 11 (not 10), but 11 simple keys to success. Eleven keys that, when followed, will guarantee you a great-looking, long-lasting result.


No. 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 put away, nothing will have had a greater impact on the quality of the job than this single point. It can mean allowing that new pressure-treated lumber of your deck to dry out for a few months before staining. It can mean allowing the stain stripper you are using to be left on the surface long enough to break down the old finish before you rinse it off. It can mean taking your time not to slop stain over anything and everything that gets in your way. Or, it can mean waiting to start your project until the weather forecast is favorable. In all cases, during all the steps of the staining process, take your time to do it right!


No. 2—Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

This part you have probably heard before, but I really can’t overemphasize 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 built, or an older deck that’s been in the weather and needs to be restained.

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 wood’s surface. On 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.

If 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, then 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. You can check out a sample of one at


No. 3—Brighteners are Beautiful

In the staining process, no step is skipped more than this one. Yet it is, by far, the easiest step to do and 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. 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 not to use them!


No. 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. These chemicals, if left in the wood, can 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.


No. 5—Stay Away from the Cheap Stuff

All right … the deck is cleaned, dry and ready to be stained. Now is not the time to skimp on your staining product. When selecting your stain, stay away from the cheap stuff! You always get what you pay for, and 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, mildewcides and many of the other materials that make up a gallon of wood stain, so choose a quality product.


No. 6—Look at Waterborne Stains

Water-based stains have become really good products. 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 some are 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, and there are no nasty solvents to breathe. They have significantly better resistance to weather, and the wood doesn’t need to be completely dry to use them. Water-based stains 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. This is a nice feature, in that synthetic products will be far less susceptible to the growth of mold, mildew and algae. If you’re in an area with a fair amount of moisture and humidity, there could be some real advantages to considering a waterborne synthetic stain.

No. 7—Read the Can, Follow 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 ensure that you have all of the right information before you get started, such as; 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 many variations of answers to these questions. Read the label first and get it right the first time.

No. 8—More is NOT Better

Decks are best stained with a semi-transparent product, which allows the natural grain of the wood to show through. This also allows 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 manufacturer’s directions and don’t over-apply these products. If you do, you’ll end up with a beautiful, shiny finish that will probably peel off over time. When too much stain is applied, a film can form, much like paint, which will no longer allow vapor to pass through it. When this happens the end result will be peeling, and that’s a real mess. Only apply as much stain as the wood can easily absorb.


No. 9—The Paint Brush is King

There are a lot of different ways to put the stain down—a sprayer and roller are two popular methods. However, always keep a paint brush on hand. Nothing will work the stain deep into the pores of a board like the agitation and friction caused by a paint brush. So, if you are spraying or rolling on the product, always back-brush it in while the stain is still wet. You’ll achieve much better penetration into the wood.


No. 10—Remember, Take Your Time

At the start of this article, I encouraged you to take your time. Keep doing so all the way until the end. And when your project is finally finished, take a little extra time before you start using it. Let your deck dry out well. Allow the stain to cure a bit before subjecting it to the rigors of patio furniture and foot traffic. You’ve done everything right to this point, so don’t give up at the end.


No. 11—Don’t Forget about Maintenance

One final thought: Don’t forget to do a little maintenance. A little TLC can keep your deck looking great longer. Just as you would wash the dirt off 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 down and the stain starts to show signs of graying or losing its color, it can easily be cleaned up with a little wood brightener and, with the application of a light maintenance coat of stain; your deck can look new again.

That’s all there is to it—eleven keys to deck-staining success. Try these tips on your next project for professional-quality results.





















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