How to Stain a Deck

A freshly stained deck

Mother Nature can be cruel. Wind, rain, snow, and sun can damage your deck, leaving it dull, lifeless and even rotting. But if you know how to stain your deck, you’ll have a worry-free platform for barbecues, lounging, and get-togethers for years to come. You’ll need to gather supplies, prep your deck, and stain sections one by one.

What You’ll Need

  • Rubber gloves
  • Goggles
  • Deck cleaner
  • Garden hose or pressure washer
  • Paintbrush with natural bristles
  • Paint roller with extension handle
  • 80 grit sandpaper
  • Painter’s tape
  • Drop cloths
  • Broom
  • Nails or screws and claw hammer or screwdriver
  • Palm sander or handheld belt sander (optional)

How to Prep Your Deck

Person washing deck with a pressure washer
Photo Credit: Brad Noble / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Check the Weather

Staining your deck takes a few days, so check the weather forecast to ensure bad weather doesn’t set you back even further. Aim for days with little to no wind.

Stain your deck when the temperature is between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t stain in direct sunlight, as the stain needs time to penetrate the wood before it dries, and sunlight might cause it to dry too quickly, leading to uneven penetration.

Clean your Deck

Always have a clean surface before working. Remove all furniture and plants from your deck. Sweep off all debris (pebbles, leaves, dirt) from your deck. 

Check for Damage

Check your deck for any damage before staining it. Imperfections and rot can affect how well stain adheres to the wood. 

Look for the following:

  • Loose and rotted wood
  • Rusted nails, fasteners, and hardware
  • Sinking railings and stairs
  • Mill glaze (water beading that indicates the surface isn’t porous), mold, and mildew

If you see any slightly raised nails, use a nail set to keep them in place and hit the other end with the hammer. You’ll drive the nail in without damaging the wood.

For any nails popping out, use a nail puller to pull them out without harming the wood. The holes they leave behind enable screws (which last longer than nails) to take their place.

Replace any broken, warped, or rotting boards. 

Prep the Surface

Before staining, you need to prep the surface. 

Remove any imperfections from the deck’s surface with 80-grit sandpaper. If you stain a large area, use a palm sander or handheld belt sander to significantly speed up the sanding process. Work in the direction of the wood grain. Afterward, sweep the deck to remove the wood dust. 

For more information, check out our wood sanding guide.

Wash the Surface

Having a clean surface to work with is crucial. Even the tiniest specks of dirt can interfere with how durable wood stains are.

Use a pressure washer or a hose with a high-pressure nozzle to clean the deck. You’ll remove any stains, dirt, debris, and mildew accumulated throughout the years.

After washing, give your deck 12 to 24 hours of drying time. A wood deck needs to be dry to absorb stains properly.

Pro Tip: If you use a pressure washer, be careful not to spray too close to the wood surface, or you could damage it. 

Add Deck Cleaner

Deck cleaner penetrates the boards and uncovers dirt that you missed with the pressure washer. Failing to use it will cause the stain to peel. Put on your gloves and goggles before applying.

  1. Mix the wood cleaner according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Use a paint roller to apply it to the entire deck.
  3. Scrub tough-to-reach areas with a brush or broom.
  4. Let the cleaner soak in the wood for 10 minutes.
  5. Rinse the deck with your pressure washer or garden hose.
  6. Let it dry for 24 hours.

Choosing a Stain

There are many different stain colors on the market:

  • Clear: These stains work best for new wood surfaces. Start with a clear stain, then go darker as your deck ages.
  • Semi-Transparent: Also known as translucent stains, semi-transparent stains hide imperfections while still allowing the grain to shine through.
  • Semi-solid: Semi-solid stains cover most of the wood grain but still let some grain peek through.
  • Solid: Because it’s the darkest stain, solid stains hide imperfections quite well. Use it if your deck is old and beaten down from years of use.

How to Stain a Deck: A Step-by-Step Guide

People staining deck railing
Photo Credit: VSPYCC / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Before you start, stir the stain thoroughly and pour it into a paint tray. Apply the chosen stain to a piece of wood and let it dry to be sure you’re satisfied with its appearance.

Apply painter’s tape to block off areas you don’t want stained.

Stain Raised Areas

Tools Needed: Paint roller, drop cloth

Always stain handrails, railings, balusters, and spindles first, as it takes less time to stain them than the rest of the deck. If you stain the floor first, you’ll have to wait until it dries, costing you time.

Put a drop cloth under the railings to capture drips and specks. If any drips get onto the wood, you’ll see them later as you stain the decking.

Load your paint roller with stain and cover the raised areas (both inner and outsides) in long, even strokes.

Stain the Floor

Tools Needed: Paint roller, paintbrush

Ensure you have an exit (like a door or staircase) before staining your floor. You don’t want to stain yourself into a corner.

Starting at a far corner, apply a coat of stain with a roller in light, even coats (moving towards you). Divide the work into small sections to create a more natural brushstroke. Repeat until the entire deck is covered. Dip the roller into the stain if necessary to refill it. 

Use a paintbrush to stain cracks and other areas your roller can’t reach.

Stain the Stairs

Tools Needed: Paintbrush

Use your paintbrush to give your stairs an even coat of stain. Let them, and the rest of the deck, dry for 24 hours before seeing if they need another coat. If so, apply a second coat to fix any inconsistencies.

And you’re done! Clean up your workspace and wait 24 to 48 hours before adding your furniture back.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use a sprayer to stain my deck?

Yes, but doing so increases the risk of overspray. If you use a sprayer, cover nearby surfaces with plastic in case the wind carries the stain towards the sides. 

Can I seal my stained deck?

Most stains have sealers in them to protect against water and UV rays. If you use a stain without sealant, wait 48 hours to ensure the surface is bone-dry before adding a thin coat of sealant.

Should I use a water-based stain or an oil-based stain?

Oil-based stains deeply penetrate wood, but they breed algae and mold and come with harmful chemicals, making the deck dangerous to walk across barefoot. Because of this, many people prefer water-based stains, which are easier to apply and don’t have chemicals.

DIY or Hire a Pro

Staining your deck isn’t the easiest of DIY projects, as it requires a lot of planning. The weather needs to cooperate over several days, you need to have the right tools, and you need to pick the right stain. But when it’s time to use it, you’ll be glad you did.

If you find all this too much, contact a local pro and have them take over. There’ll be no need to plan or buy any tools.

Main Image Credits: b0jangles / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Stuart Kushner

Stuart Kushner is a writer and aspiring product designer based in New York City. When he isn’t writing about home improvement projects, Stuart enjoys heavy metal music, exercise, and trying new food and drinks.