Can You Paint or Stain Composite Decking? Here’s the Answer

Composite decking might seem too good to be true – it never fades, lasts forever, and resists scratching and UV damage. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. If you have an old composite deck or have moved into a home with a deck that you simply don’t like, then you may be wondering if you can paint a composite deck.

You can paint or stain a composite deck. There are many products on the market that make paint and stain specifically for composite decking. While older generations of composite decking take stain better than newer material, most types of composite decking will take stain or paint.

As with any material, whether it be regular lumber or composite, proper surface preparation and application are critical. You can’t use any type of stain with any type of composite decking.
In this article, we’ll go over products you can use to stain or paint your composite decking, as well as methods you can use to bring your composite deck back to life on your terms.

Can You Paint Composite Decking

What is Composite Decking?

Composite decking is a mix of plastics and wood fibers. There are two main types of composite decking. The first features a mixture of plastics and wood fibers throughout. The second has a wood fiber core with a sheet of plastic wrapped around it.

Don’t confuse composite decking with plastic decking. Plastic decking – or PVC decking or lumber – is just that – 100% PVC and is not considered composite decking because there are zero organic compounds within it. We won’t be covering plastic decking in this article.

One of the main components of composite decking is actual wood. The wood used are wood fibers or even sawdust, which is a product of wood manufacturing. These fibers are mixed up with various resins and plastics to form a composite of organic and non-organic material.

Types of Composite Decking

The main difference between our types of composite decking is those products that are capped and those that are not. Capped composite decking will have a plastic outer layer around the piece of lumber. Non-capped composites don’t have this layer, allowing the wood fiber mix to be exposed.

Capped composite decking claims to be more durable as it presents solely a plastic surface to the elements. On the other hand, some people prefer non-capped composites because they behave like traditional lumber and will weather similarly to real wood.

When it comes to staining, it is very difficult to stain a capped composite decking material. The plastic capping is not porous, so the stain cannot penetrate. Painting is an option, but the stain will not work. Non-capped composite decking can be stained and painted.

Can You Paint Composite Decking?

Painting composite decks

You can paint composite decking. Many composite decking types will accept paint just as traditional wood decking would, but the key is to ensure you get the right type of paint.

Not all types of materials will accept paint in the same manner. Capped composites have a plastic film face of varying ingredients. Some are polypropylene or polyethylene. These are common plastics that can be found around your house. These are more easily painted than PVC, which is more difficult to paint.

PVC capped composites require latex paint that is PVC friendly – it will say on the can if it is compatible with PVC. If it is too dark or doesn’t have enough reflectivity, it will heat the PVC too much and cause it to break down.

Pay close attention to what your decking is made from because that will dictate the type of paint you purchase for your composite planks.

Can You Stain Composite Decking?

Composite decking can also be stained and is often a better option than paint. The composite deck stain will only work on the decking that is not capped. A film of PVC or other plastic product acting as a cap over wood fibers will not allow the stain to penetrate.

Older Trex decking, for example, is not capped and can be stained. You can use the same type of stain you would use for a traditional wood deck for a non-capped composite deck. Follow the directions as if you had a wood deck, including surface prep, priming, if necessary, and application.

Oil-based stains are ideal for both wood and composite, non-capped decking. They penetrate the plank better, protect from rain and UV damage, and last longer than water/acrylic-based stains. They are more noxious to work with, but since you’ll be staining outdoors, it becomes less of a factor.

Is It Better to Paint or Stain a Composite Deck?

The advantage of staining your composite deck over painting is that you’ll have more options for choosing a stain color and type than paint. The best type of paint to use is high-end acrylic latex paint. However, that paint is not specifically designed for composite decking. On the other hand, there are stains designed for composites. Thus, staining is preferred.

Paint will hide the wood grain of your decking if you have a type that has faux-wood grain. It is also your only option for altering capped composite decking. Since you cannot stain capped decking, your only way to spruce it up is to use exterior latex acrylic paint.

In general, paint has more solids in it – small pigment particles that give the paint its color and reflect light. Since there are more solids, the paint is considered to be more durable. However, when you add in weather, UV light, and foot traffic, the durability of paint can change.

While paint may be “thicker”, with more solids, remember that it may act differently when exposed to weather, UV light, and foot traffic. Paint lives on the surface of composites, while stains penetrate. A penetrating stain is ideal for exterior surfaces as it provides more protection to the wood even though the product itself is “thinner”.

If you have capped composite decking and are forced to paint, make sure you prep your surface properly and choose your paint carefully. Textured paints for extreme exterior environments can be an option or paints with very high amounts of solids.

Best Paint For Composite Decking

Can you paint trex

You can use any type of exterior wood deck paint for non-capped composite surfaces, including Trex. As mentioned above, this type of decking behaves similarly to traditional wood, accepting the same types of paint.

Latex acrylic paint for exterior surfaces works best. It is a water-based paint that is very easy to work with, cleans up easily, and is relatively safe to use. For your composite deck, you’ll want extra quality acrylic paint. The more expensive it is, the more acrylic it will contain. The acrylics – or acrylic resins – make the paint heavier and more durable.

Cheaper acrylic paints have vinyl mixed with acrylic. Vinyl is not as durable, is lighter, and will result in a lower quality surface for your composites. It will likely peel and chip much sooner than a higher quality acrylic, whether your surface is capped or not.

Unfortunately, the type of paint recommended for your composite surface does not come cheap, but there are many options to choose from. Any large manufacturer will have a premium line of exterior acrylic paints and most will suffice just fine, but expect prices in the neighborhood of $60 per can.

Be careful of other products that might seem like paint for decking but has a different name. For instance, products like Behr’s Deckover are a mix between a stain and a paint. While these types of hybrid products might seem adequate, you still need to read the fine print. If it says interior/exterior, then you might want to stay away.

Finally, not all exterior paints are acceptable. You need paint that is compatible with horizontal surfaces. Typically these will be labeled “deck” paints, but maybe not. You have to carefully read the label to ensure the paint is for a flat surface.

How Long Will Composite Deck Paint Last?

Once you paint your decking, expect that it will likely be a fairly regular maintenance requirement. If you keep it clean, minimize foot traffic, and lack extreme weather, then expect a life of 2 to 5 years.

If you have extreme weather and temperatures, or you enjoy throwing lots of parties that will see significant foot traffic on your deck frequently, expect to recoat fully after two years and spot patches before that time.

Best Stain for Composite Decking

The best stain for composite decks is an oil-based, solid, or semi-solid stain. Oil-based stains have smaller molecules than water-based stains and will penetrate the wood fiber mix better than water-based stains.

cabot composite deck stainThere are tons of products to choose from when it comes to composite deck stain, and Cabot brand oils typically are rated among the best. You want a deep penetrating oil. This will result in the best protection for your composite deck.

Remember that only certain types of stain will work with composite decks. Sure, you could get a water-based stain to work on your capped composite deck, but be prepared for it to wear off within a year. Why? Water-based stains rely on adhering to wood fibers. Capped decks don’t have wood fibers on the surface, so the stain won’t stay and will peel quickly.

Water-based stains can work for composite, non-capped decking. They leave a thin film on the surface of the decking. Cleaning and light sanding with 220-grit sandpaper will allow you to apply a water-based stain. But is it recommended?

While water-based stain has better elasticity than oil-based stain and decent UV coverage, they still only provide a much thinner coating than oil-based. Therefore, for areas that experience foot traffic, you want the thickest type of stain possible, which is not a water-based stain.

P3 – only certain kinds of stains will work on certain types of composite

How Long Will Composite Deck Stain Last?

Many users will claim that a good oil-based stain lasts for about 3 years before you need to either completely restrain or touch up. Don’t expect to go much longer than this, as oil-based stains are known to fade slightly faster than water-based stains.

If you live somewhere with tons of rain or have lots of traffic on your composite surface, then expect your surface to have a shorter lifespan. Similarly, composite surfaces exposed to the constant sun will also degrade faster and probably need restaining in less than three years.

While three years might seem like a short time, keep in mind that the surface of your deck is a very hostile environment to stains and paints. As a horizontal exterior surface, it experiences every element that comes from above – rain, leaves, snow, and people. No stain on a deck will ever be a permanent solution.

How to Prepare a Composite Deck for Painting or Staining

If you want to stain or paint your deck, the most critical component is preparing your surface to accept the paint and stain. Many composites will need to be scuffed or have a waxy outer layer slightly removed to accept paint or stain. Otherwise, the surface is too smooth and you’ll have a failed painting or staining on your composite planks.

Step 1: Clean the deck surface. Typically, soap and water with a gentle brush is all that is needed to clean your capped composite deck boards. If you have non-capped composites, then you can use any type of deck cleaner commercially available.

staining composite decksTry and use the cleaning product that matches the stain or paint you are going to use. For instance, if you are using a Thompson sealing product, then use Thompson deck cleaner. Follow the directions to the letter to activate any warranty that the product may offer.

Step 2: Use pressure washer to clean the deck surface. Some stains or paints may recommend against this step, as it can raise the wood fibers and damage them if the pressure is too great. On the other hand, using a power washer on a low setting can remove stubborn dirt, mildew, and other stains that will obstruct your desired paint and stain.

It is critical to remove all dirt and stains before covering them up. Dirt that gets covered by stain will not provide the proper adhesion to the stain product and peeling in that area will result – it is far more valuable to risk power washing and remove dirt and stains than to not pressure wash altogether.

Step 3: Sand with high grit sandpaper. For capped composites, it is still recommended that you use 220- grit sandpaper. Gently roughing the surface will help stains penetrate better and will help paint adhere more easily.

When sanding, do not use a belt sander. You risk melting the plastics in the composite and degrading your composite planks. Use an orbital sander at low speed and lightly sand all areas of your deck. Don’t hover too long over any one area, as you risk destroying your planks.

Step 4: Prime, if necessary. Most stains are self-priming and do not require any type of primer. While they require cleaning products, they don’t need a primer as oil-based stains rely on penetration, which primers would block.

Some water-based solid color stains may require a primer, but if that is the case, any type of wood grain – even if it is fake – will be covered. Painting your composite surface may require a primer, but many brands are “self-priming”. It is easier to buy a self-priming exterior paint, as it cuts down your work time and costs.

1. Get your application tools ready. A roller is ideal for either paints or stains because you can stand up and use a roller extension.

2. Most products will call for a roller, but some prefer to use a brush to apply to the whole deck because you can control the overlap marks more easily. Either way, applying these products in direct sun is never recommended as they may dry too quickly and result in an uneven coat.

3. Buy the paint or stain. Ensure you have enough. Pay attention to the coverage area on the can. If you have a 10×10 deck, then you’ll need at least 100 plus square feet of coverage – for one coat.

Painting a Composite Deck

Can you stain composite decking

When painting a composite deck, you’ll follow the same steps you would use when painting a traditional wood deck.

1. Apply painter’s tape to the edges of your deck if it is attached to your home. Cover any shrubbery nearby that you don’t want to get paint on.

2. Start at a far corner and start by using your roller. Use long strokes back and forth, making sure to use uniform pressure as you roll.

3. You will need a brush for railings and corners. When using a brush, ensure it is compatible with oil-based stains, if using. Cheap brushes from the dollar store, which are usually nylon, will lose bristles and fail.

Investing in a few good brushes will save you tons of headaches later on and are worth the price.

1. Apply in the shade, if possible. Direct sunlight can play havoc with wet paints, especially on a really hot day. Wait until morning or evening, or during a shady part of the day, to apply – if possible.

2. Re-apply after the deck is completely dry. For paint, 2 coats are highly recommended. Most brands require a second coat, which will go on much more quickly than the first coat.

3. If possible, paint the undersides of your deck boards, too. Covering every part of your board will ensure they last longer.

Composite Deck Staining

Composite deck staining can result in one of the best finishes possible for your composite deck. There are hundreds of colors to choose from as well as various opacities to fully or partially coat your deck.

1. After prepping your deck for staining, including taping around the edges of the deck and covering surrounding landscaping, test out the stain to make sure the color is as desired. Also, make sure your composite planks are completely dry before staining.

2. Start by staining your railings and balusters first, if necessary. Stain downwards to catch any runs that you might get. Ensure the stain applies the same to both the composite decking and your railings if they are a different material.

3. Use a staining pad with an extendable handle to apply stain to the wood. Use a brush to get into places the pad cannot access.

4. Re-apply if necessary. Some stains require only one coating as too much stain won’t penetrate and sit on the surface of the wood. In these cases, the stain will peel or chip prematurely and your stain will fail.

5. Make sure you’ve chosen a day that is not too sunny or hot as this will affect the drying of the stain on the wood. You want a good, even dry, that will ensure the look of the stain. If it dries too fast, the stain can look blotchy and uneven.

What Else Can I Use for Composite Decking?

You have other options when covering your composite planks. From marine paint to rubberized coatings, you can alter the surface of your deck dramatically if you want.

composite deck stain reviewsRubberized surface paint has rubber in it and is urethane-based paint that provides extreme protection from surface wear and weather.

One of the main drawbacks is that it will change the look of your decking dramatically.

While it may last for a very long time, it will change your deck to a glossy, industrial sheen that many may not like.

trex deck sealerEpoxy paint is another option for your deck. It is similar in characteristics to rubberized paint, except it uses a small number of epoxy resins to form an incredibly strong topcoat over your composite surface.

Yet again, this will dramatically alter the look of your deck as it will cover the original “grain” of the plank and create a gloss more typically found around a pool deck.

staining trex deckingTextured paint is a more common alternative to the options mentioned above, as most major manufacturers offer an enamel textured exterior paint for horizontal surfaces.

Enamel provides a tough exterior shell, and combined with texture, provides a great, slip-resistant finish. The downside is that with enamel paint, the UV resistance is poor.

Should I Paint or Stain My Composite Deck?

You should paint your deck if you have capped composite decking. Staining is thinner and won’t penetrate the capped plastic composites, so providing a thick layer of paint in two coats will result in a longer-lasting finish for your planks. Remember to use the highest quality exterior latex deck paint available.

If your decking is uncapped, you should stain as you would a standard wood deck. An oil-based stain would be able to penetrate the board, providing superior moisture resistance, increasing the lifespan of your composite boards, and refreshing the color.

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