How to Stain a Deck: An Easy Guide

Staining a new deck or an existing deck is an excellent way to protect your investment from UV damage, mold, mildew, and rot. It will help preserve the surface for many years of enjoyment. If you’re unsure how to stain a deck, don’t despair. We have all the information you need.

In this article, we explain the difference between sealing and staining, how to prepare and clean a deck for staining, selecting the right stain, and how best to apply a stain. We provide tips on staining, maintenance, and how to dispose of unused stain. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a better understanding of how to protect your deck and your investment.

How to stain a deck

Deck Sealing vs Staining

Deck sealers are transparent or clear liquids that protect the wood from moisture damage while displaying the true color and grain of the wood. Most sealers protect against mildew and mold and have additives to prevent graying, splitting, checking, and other UV damage. The sealer penetrates deep into the wood grain to protect it from the elements and insects.

Deck stains also protect the wood from the elements, mold, mildew, and rot, as well as UV damage. Stains, however, contain tint or color pigment and enhance or alter the wood’s color and obscure the wood grain. Stains are available in clear wood toner with a hint of tint, semi-transparent, semi-opaque, and solid or opaque options.

Use deck sealing for woods with rich color or grain, like cedar, cypress, redwood, teak, and mahogany. Stain woods for more consistent color, or to mask or hide imperfections. Ideal for pine, spruce, fir, plywood, OSB, and pressure-treated lumber. Check out my post Deck Sealing vs Staining: What’s the Difference? for more information.

Prepare Deck for Staining

Determine if the deck needs to be stained by sprinkling water droplets on it. If the water beads up, the wood is still protected. However, if the droplets soak in, it’s time to apply stain to protect your investment better. Preparing a new deck for stain is slightly different from preparing a deck for restaining.

Staining a new deck, whether cedar, pine, or pressure-treated, should be done as soon after construction as it starts to absorb water. Pressure-treated may take a couple of weeks to dry enough to absorb the stain. It also should be stained with a product designed for pressure-treated lumber. The stain will protect the wood from surface cracking, checking, mildew, and rot, and prevent the color from fading.

Readying a new deck for stain is relatively easy. Remove any furniture or planters that may have found their way onto the deck. Check that screws and nails are all set properly, and sand any rough spots. Wash the deck clean and allow it to dry before applying a stain. Tape plastic or paper over areas adjacent or touching the deck that might get splattered during painting, it saves on post-cleanup. That’s it.

Preparing to stain an old untreated deck or reapplying stain to a deck requires a few extra steps. Clear the deck of furniture, planters, toys, BBQ, and everything else. Sweep the deck clear of debris. Reset nails or screws, assess and replace damaged boards, and scrub off any oil, grease, or juice stains, and then tape paper or plastic to surfaces you don’t want stained. If the stain is different from what was previously used on the deck, you may have to strip and clean the surface and apply a restorative or brightener.

You’ll need a plastic bucket, stiff synthetic bristle brush (long and short handle), soap or detergent, and water for cleaning an existing deck. If you have to remove old stain or sealer, use plastic or tarps to protect plants and other surfaces, and protective clothing is also recommended. Depending on the task, a stripping agent, mildewcide, brightener, or restorative cleaner may be required. Check out How to Restain a Deck Without Stripping for more tips.

Clean Deck Before Staining

Power washing deck

Before staining a deck, it should be cleaned. A new deck only needs a light wash down, unless it is covered with tree pollen, in which case soap, water, and a scrub brush may be necessary. Older decks often need significantly more attention than a simple hosing, especially if the stain is flaking, the wood color is faded or graying, or there is mildew darkening the surface.

Test the moisture content of the wood using the water droplet test to see if it repels or absorbs moisture. High traffic or high exposure areas of the deck may absorb moisture while shaded and low traffic surfaces don’t. For uniform stain coverage, or if changing from a sealer to a stain, oil-base to water-base finish, or if you don’t know what the previous deck treatment was, removing the old stain and reconditioning the surface is suggested.

stain stripperSelect an exterior wood stripper and follow the instructions on the container. Some need to sit on the surface for 10 to 15 minutes, others 30 to 40 minutes to emulsify the bond holding the stain to the wood. After rinsing the stripper off – it may take several rinses, apply a wood brightener or conditioner.

It will open the pores of the wood and often remove tannin stains that darken the wood. Brightener or conditioner will neutralize the chemicals and needs to sit for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the product.

pressure washer deck cleanerOlder decks, or decks that haven’t had much ‘TLC’ over the years, may need a stronger cleaner. Look for one that is formulated to remove dirt, pollen, mildew, algae, grease, pitch, and other organic or oxidized material. A separate mildewcide may also be necessary if the cleaner doesn’t contain one. There are eco-friendly products and those that are harsher and more caustic. Read the instructions and select the product that is best suited for the deck condition.

Apply and scrub the stripper-cleaner in from one end to the other, and in a way that won’t trap you. Use a stiff-bristle synthetic brush, roller, plastic watering can, sprayer, or power washer to apply the product. The manufacturer may recommend rubber or latex gloves, goggles, a respirator mask, and other protective clothing.

deck cleanerYou may wish to use a deck cleaner with a pressure washer if the deck surface is dirty or dark with algae or mildew. Rent, borrow, or buy a pressure washer. Gas-powered are louder and often more powerful than electric washers and can damage softwoods if not used properly. Apply deck cleaner to the wood using a brush or sprayer before pressure washing.

It will loosen the dirt and make cleaning easier. Use the tip that produces a 40° to 60° angle. Move the stream in a fan motion, keep the tip about 18-inches away from the surface, and don’t focus on one area, or it may damage the wood.

Once the deck has been cleaned and conditioned, it should dry for 24 to 72 hours depending on the instructions, and so it will absorb the stain better.

How to sand a deck
If the surface grain is raised or ‘furry’, it should be sanded. Make sure all nails or screws are set first and use a 60 or 80-grit paper. If you use 100-grit or higher, the wood pores will close and not absorb the stain as well. Use a belt, palm, orbital, or sponge block and lightly sand the rough surfaces of the deck.

Note: An industrial floor sander will take too much off and may miss uneven areas.

Choose the Right Deck Stain

Selecting the stain that is right for your deck, and that complements your home may be a challenge. Choosing between oil or water-based, clear or wood-tone, semi-transparent, semi-opaque, or solid-opaque stains multiplies the options and increases the difficulties.  My post Oil vs Water-Based Deck Stain: What is the Difference explains the options and may make the selection easier.

Use a clear or wood-tone finish for new decks or ones that have cleaned up well to protect and display the wood color and grain – it’s not suggested for pressure-treated lumber. Use a semi-transparent to see the grain and enhance the wood color if it has faded or isn’t uniform. Semi-opaque stain masks some of the grain and most of the wood tone. Solid or opaque is almost paint-like in color but soaks into the wood better than paint.

Deck StainWhen selecting a stain, consider the wood color, grain, and age. Some stains will enhance, and others will obscure, changing the visual texture of the wood. As wood ages, it darkens at different rates, so using a semi-opaque may provide a more consistent tone, and also hide damage and other imperfections.

Select a color or tint that blends or complements the deck, home, or landscape. Test the stain on a scrap piece of wood or an invisible location on the deck. Let the test piece dry and then determine if it is what you expected or want. Try to get a sample or pint-sized trial tin, so you don’t have to buy a full batch until you know it is what you want. A quality stain will cost more and last longer than a cheap one.

Oil-based stainOil-based stains are often suggested for harsh climate conditions as the oil provides deeper protection, especially for pine, fir, and hemlock, which don’t have natural oils. Water-based stains are good for woods like cedar, redwood, and cypress as they contain oils that naturally protect against rot. Formula changes by manufacturers are leveling the field, but oil is still preferred for climate extremes.

Purchase the amount of stain you need to complete the job, with a little bit left possibly for touch-ups. Stains can deteriorate and change color if left on the shelf too long. Additionally, many manufacturers change the formula as they attempt to comply with environmental and safety requirements. So, what you saved for the next staining job may not be the same formula as the new product.

Apply Deck Stain


How to stain wood deck

Apply stain to dry, clean wood. A brush will give the best results as it works the stain into the wood grain better than other options. Work the stain into exposed plank ends and seams for extra protection. Follow the manufacturer’s directions – some stains need to sit for several minutes before the excess is wiped or brushed off. Choose a day with no rain forecast for several days, and that won’t be too humid.

When staining cedar use a clear or ‘cedar’ tint and brush it into the grain. Make sure the ends of all planks, including seams, are well covered too. It is recommended that the underside of the cedar be sealed to minimize moisture transfer upward through the plank to cause the exposed stained face to flake. Apply a second layer of stain if the water test doesn’t bead up.

Pressure-treated lumber should be stained after it has cured or dried – often 6 to 8 weeks after installation. The water splash test is a good indicator if it is ready for stain or not. The pressure-treated colors in my area are green or olive and brown or natural. A more opaque stain will mask the green tones, while the brown or natural work well with a tinted semi-transparent. Use a paintbrush or roller to apply the stain. Seal the ends and all cuts to prevent moisture absorption. A second coat should be applied if the one coat doesn’t pass the spray test. Apply another layer of stain 10 to 12 months later to reinforce the seal. It should be good for 2 to 5 years after that.

With a Brush

For the best results, use a synthetic-bristle brush for water-based stain and a natural-bristle brush for oil-based stains. Use a deck paintbrush that is wide enough to do a plank at one pass. If you need to stand, use a brush with a screw-in handle and attach a longer handle.

Stain 2 or 3 boards at a time and work from one end to the other, and brush the stain on following the grain. Work the stain into the wood grain and over the sides of the deck boards. Do not leave puddles as they will be darker and may flake. As you complete one section of the 2 or 3 planks, begin the next application about 6-inches further along, and brush back into the completed section to blend the sections, so you don’t leave lines of thicker stain.

With a Roller

Deck staining

Use a pole extension on the roller with a 3/8-inch nap to save your back and knees. The roller works more quickly than the brush but leaves a thicker coat of stain on the wood. The thick stain will dry darker and will more likely flack or peel. Roll the stain on 2 or 4 planks at once, and work with the grain from one end of the deck boards to the other.

Combining the roller with a brush will speed the brush work up, but slow the roller work down. However, back brushing the stain into the grain and plank edges will result in a better finish. It works the stain into the grain and results in a more even finish and greater protection for the deck.

With a Pump Sprayer

A pump-up garden sprayer is another, all-be-it messy, alternative if using clear or semi-transparent stain. The additional pigment in semi-opaque and opaque stains gums up and blocks the nozzle. Control of the sprayer is paramount to its use. You don’t want too much stain on the boards, and you don’t want to be cleaning windows, siding, or the car, as well as yourself when you’re done. Since the sprayer only delivers the stain, it is essential to back brush the stain into the grain.

With a Deck Pad

Staining a deck

A paint and stain pad with a 6-inch wide bristle-faced sponge and a threaded handle is another application option. The handle accepts an extension pole and will be easier on the back and knees. The bristles work the stain into the grain and make for quicker task completion. Unfortunately, the sponge can be damaged by worn, splintered, or rough planks. It also doesn’t bend to conform to cupped planks.

Stain Disposal

Saving stain may sound frugal, but unless you’re planning to use it within 12 months, and are storing it above freezing, get rid of it. There are several options available for disposal if you have any stain left over after preserving your deck. Use it to preserve other outdoor wooden surfaces or structures. Check the label for disposal directions or contact your local disposal organization for their options. Alternatively, check with family, friends, local theater, church, or Habitat for Humanity groups and give it away.

Deck Staining Tips

Staining a deck commonly needs to be done every 2 to 5 years, depending on the climate, wood, and stain used. Although it is a chore, it makes the deck look better, improving its longevity and your opportunities to relax. Staining can be done by yourself, or with the assistance of a friend or two – more hands make for less work and a quicker finish. Here are some helpful tips to remember when staining your deck:

  • Remove everything from the deck, so you have full access and nothing to trip over.
  • Use plastic or paper to protect what walls and windows etc from stain.
  • Clean the surfaces to be stained. Use cleaners, strippers, conditioners as required.
  • Check the forecast for the best time to stain, and for the stain to dry. You can cover it with a tarp to protect the new stain if the extended forecast never works.
  • Use natural bristle brushes for oil-based stains and synthetic bristles for water-based stains.
  • Buy quality stain for the type of wood to be protected.
  • Test the stain on a scrap piece of wood or someplace invisible on the deck.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions when applying the stain.
  • Start with railings and work across rails and down spindles.
  • Stain deck boards from one end to the other following the grain.

How to Maintain Deck Stain

Maintaining the deck stain is also about maintaining the deck. Clean any debris off the deck, so the wood doesn’t have moisture sitting on it. Shovel or sweep snow off the boards too. In the spring and fall, gently wash it with mild deck soap and a push broom or pressure washer on a light or medium setting. You don’t want to wash off the stain.

Touch up spots where furniture or other items have scarred the wood surface. Make sure screws and nails are properly set after each cleaning too. Replace any damaged or rotting boards as soon as they are noticed to prevent further rot or injury. Ensure there is airflow under the deck to remove moisture and prevent rot, fungal growth, mold, and insect damage.

Protection from moisture is the main reason for applying stain, so make sure anything that is left on the deck allows airflow. Planters should be raised off the deck with blocks or wheels to prevent moisture from damaging the planks. The same should be done with other items with closed bottoms left on the deck.


Cleaning, conditioning, and staining a deck will extend its life, your enjoyment, and your investment. It protects the deck from weathering, mold, mildew, and rot. Selecting the best stain for the wood type, climate, and wood condition are important considerations, as is choosing a tone or color that compliments your home or landscape.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to select a stain, prepare your deck for the stain, how to apply it, and then maintain the deck to extend the life of the deck, and the stain. If you found this article helpful, please share it with others who may find it of value. As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

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