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How to Clean, Seal or Stain a Deck

Updated April 30, 2021

Marc M.

By Marc M.

Sunshine, rain and snow can all take a toll on your deck. Learn how to test the wood and clean your deck, as well as how to stain a deck and apply sealer.

Note

Items may be Special Order in some stores. Product costs, availability, and item numbers may vary online or by market. Paint colors may vary slightly from those shown. Availability varies by market for lumber species and sizes.

Note

Items may be Special Order in some stores. Product costs, availability, and item numbers may vary online or by market. Paint colors may vary slightly from those shown. Availability varies by market for lumber species and sizes.

Testing the Wood

Water beading on a sealed deck.

A water test is the easiest way to ensure that the wood can absorb sealer or finish. Sprinkle water on the deck. If it soaks in immediately, you can seal the deck. If the water beads up or stands on the deck, you may need to wait to seal it. 

Before cleaning, sealing or staining, inspect the deck for safety. Deck Safety and Maintenance will help you prepare your deck from start to finish.

Applying Deck Cleaner

Ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate wood, which causes graying. A wood deck cleaner can help remove dirt, nail stains, algae and mildew. If your deck isn't brand-new, always use a cleaner before applying finish. Lack of preparation is the most common reason why deck stains and sealers fail, so don’t skip this very important step.

Tip

If you decide to use a pressure washer for cleaning, follow the manufacturer's instructions on the type of wood cleaner to use and the distance the spray tip should be from the surface you're cleaning. A fan tip is the best choice to avoid gouging the wood. It's a good idea to test pressure washing on an inconspicuous area of the deck or fence before cleaning.

Cleaning the Deck

How to Stain a Deck

damaged deck boards

When learning how to re-stain a deck, always read the manufacturer's directions for your deck stain and sealer. Drying times differ based on air temperature and humidity. Before you start, check the deck boards for needed repairs to splits or popped-up nails. Here are some additional tips to make the job go more smoothly.

  • Don't apply deck products in direct sun. The finish will dry too quickly and won't absorb into the wood.
  • Use the water test to check your deck every few months to ensure the sealer is still repelling water.
  • Regularly sweep off debris.
  • If you have a brand-new deck made of treated lumber (as opposed to cedar or redwood), wait at least a few weeks before sealing it for the first time. This allows the wood to dry so the stain is absorbed.
  • If you've replaced a warped or damaged board, the new wood won't be the same shade as the rest of your deck. If you want to stain immediately, use an opaque or semi-transparent stain to create a blended surface.
  • An alternative to stains or sealers is a resurfacer or restoration product. These finishes are like a very thick paint that's applied with a brush or roller. They're great for covering deck boards and don't show woodgrain.

Staining the Deck

Staining and Sealing Tips

Redwood patio, wood patio table and wood chairs with lime green cushions.

Before you tackle deck maintenance, staining, sealing or restoration, consider the following: 

  • It’s tricky to work backward. For example, if your deck is currently covered in an opaque stain, it’ll take a great deal of stripping and surface preparation to ready it for a clear or wood-toned stain. It’s easiest to continue with solid/opaque coverage. 
  • The more opaque a stain, the quicker it’ll show wear and weathering. A solid stain might need reapplication every year, while a clear or wood-toned treatment will likely last longer. 
  • Darker colors, particularly solid/opaque and semi-transparent stains, will absorb heat more easily. They could make walking barefoot on the deck uncomfortable. 
  • For a decorative look, select two or more colors that work together for decking, rails, post caps, stencil work, etc. 
  • For high-traffic areas, choose a specially formulated deck stain or sealer to repel water, resist mildew and prevent fading. 
  • When choosing a stain, remember that the finished color varies based on the wood itself. If you’re applying a new stain over an old one, choose a color that’s similar to or darker than the original. Test the color in an inconspicuous area to ensure proper color. 
  • Coverage varies depending on the type of surface and type of stain. A general rule: Two thin coats are better than one thick coat.

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