For decks, I always recommend avoiding paint and opaque stain. Opaque stain is, wait for it, paint. The low-maintenance of lighter stains is a no-brainer to me. Looks great, less filling (of the painter’s wallet every 3-7 years). Here is how to stain a deck: key tips that will help you.
Related: read about my favorite products to stain a deck with: a short summary of Deck Stain vs Deck Paint. Its got all the best deck stains available these days and read about my top deck stains of every type.
Biggest time saver: start your deck prep with a pressure washer: click on my favorite pick one you see here. I’ve had mine for 10 years, and it has paid for itself a hundred times: I just can’t kill my old one: I want to kill it to get a new Sun Joe. “I want you to die, Mr. Bond.”
Cleaning and Brightening: You have read websites saying clean/strip then brighten, then stain. Cleaning yes, but brightening is not a requirement. If you used a cleaner that is like a soap (darkens the wood too), yes you need a neutralizer to alter the pH (make it more acidic in prep for stain), but if you just pressure washed, let it dry and stain it. Brighteners are a good idea for semi-transparent stains when you know you want the beauty of the wood to come through the stain.
But start slow: and use the rotating tip that SHOULD come with every pressure washer, but does not. The rotation protects the wood from gouging, even in the smaller machines. (Choose from various p.s.i., and one has a nice spool to reel in the hose.) Details on how to pressure wash a deck are below.
Need bigger? Washing a truck? Go gas or go home. Honda motor, very pricey, but will pay for itself if you are a pro and if not, you’ll never have major problems with it.
Picking deck stains: We prefer Benjamin Moore deck stains (company website). You will save money by spending more on quality deck stains upfront. Think of future labor savings! We have a post all about the best deck stain.
Short summary of how to stain a deck (full details below)
- The tools you will need are compiled on our deck tools list.
- If your deck was stained before with heavy (opaque) stain or painted: pressure wash (how-to is below—this will do most of your prep—use water pressure to remove chips, etc., but be sure to cover the land with drop cloths.
- If your deck was not treated before or was but with only light (semi-trans or fully transparent) stains, you don’t have much to do: pressure wash lightly. Ba da boom.
- Let the wood dry completely.
- Remove or mask well the door/window hardware you do not want stained (even if you do not spray) and spread drop cloths. This stuff has a mind of it’s own.
- Create a central work area and cover it with cloth and/or plastic
- Cover all your cans when you are not opening or using: this keeps dirt and objects from polluting your liquids, etc.
- Begin staining: Use a roller for very fast results—best to roll small squares with a regular roller cover (click on photo) and then brush into all cracks and grooves well with a very good brush (this is my biggest tip to save you time). This is described further below.
- No need to re-coat if you are using lighter stains, but check the can label. Some stains do not allow a 2nd coat! Others do. But with opaque stains, you may need a 2nd coat (no matter what you saw about one coat stains on TV !)
- Soak brushes and rollers etc., right away until you have time to clean them which is easier than you think.
- Spraying deck paint is explained below as well.
How to stain a deck (big time-saving tip ahead)
—Two basic conditions (and how to pressure wash) in this section—
Stain a deck that is new
If your deck is in good shape (and not pressure-treated wood), go to the painting section of how to stain a deck (below). Lucky you do not need to do any sanding or any prep other than a washing (for new decks only). See below regarding pressure treated wood: be careful here.
Prep for staining a deck that’s beat up
Scraping old paint or opaque stain is very hard work. For that work, I would hire a young person with young wrist tendons: I’ve damaged mine doing the scraping.
If you scrape it yourself, have a good set of scrapers: see my favorites on our deck tool list. You must have a good metal file to sharpen every 10-15 minutes of scraping: yes, that often. Dull scrapers cannot cut a sharp edge that you can sand and later coat. This short video show how to sharpen with a file.
- The pull scraper you see here is all you really need
- This multi-tool is very useful in many ways: my 3rd hand
Tip: We pros try not to do much hard work: we rely on electric tools. We went electric, like Dylan.
Stripping paint from metal and wood, etc., could involve other methods like including a drill attachment or my favorite…
A variable speed grinder you see here. Looks a bit pricey at first, but worth every penny and can be used with diamond cutting blades, etc. Mine has been going great for years of professional work.
Attach to any 4½-5 inch grinder, the very efficient 3M Sandblaster pads (click on photo). Here is a video of how it’s done. Depending on your type of grinder, you may require the universal adapter pad.
This kit is not expensive at all considering the time you save, then you have a great tool that can use cutting blades, etc. You will need an extension cord: an awesome perfect rating.
Start with a pressure wash
Deck wood can be washed with the garden hose (but it’s slow and not very efficient). We use a small electric pressure washer. It’s shown at the top of this page.
Watch a pressure washer in action in the video at the bottom. It’s not essential to have the extra hose, but it’s good to have a long extension cord with a capacity of 15 amps (I can’t get over the extension cord linked in the last section: ratings that could not be faked).
We only use a washer with the rotating tip (called ‘turbo’ tip) prevent damage to wood.
* Don’t intensly pressure wash “pressure treated” wood. We explain why in our other post that discusses whether you should Paint or Stain Deck.
2. How to stain a deck: tools and sequence
Big “tip”: use both roller and brush
How to stain a deck in a very fast, but very proper way. What stain should you use? We cover that in another short post on the best deck stain.
How to stain a deck with a roller and brush
You might think you either spray or brush to stain a deck, but we use a normal 9-inch roller to get the stain evenly were we want it, then use the brush to wet the areas that the roller does not reach. Why?
What takes up all your time when staining a deck is going back and forth between the can and the wood. But the roller holds many times what the brush can hold. So the roller is just doing the heavy lifting—you are still brushing your deck, but your brush rarely gets dipped in the bucket/tray of stain.
For any deck stain or paint:
- Dip roller with a good deal of deck stain (don’t let it drip, just like you would with deck paint)—get as much stain as it will hold—so it’s not dripping.
- Start rolling gently and let the stain come out of the roller, pressing more firmly as it dries.
- Follow up with a brush. (Big tip: you don’t need to put a brush in the liquid—just dip roller, then ‘tip’ out the surface with the brush. See how fast you go? Easy.)
- Some stain will drip through the cracks of the deck but you can catch it in plastic under the deck if you want to try to save it (sure you can re-use it ! I would).
- Repeat steps 1-3.
- The roller, brush, etc., are all on this deck tools list.
Spray that puppy?
Spray painting a deck is many times faster than rolling or brushing, but you have to consider the damage overspray stain will do. You have to be very careful and move all the cars around.
Read our post about DIY airless sprayers.
- The best homeowner paint sprayer today is hands down the Graco Magnum line you see here. It will last a lifetime with proper care.
- The budget choice is the Wagner Flexio 590. It has a very reasonable price for what you get.
- Using a very light stain? I researched garden (backpack) sprayers for this and there are some that of course double in the garden, duh. Read about the 3 sprayers (but they are not all for all stains).
Airless spray tips wear out after many hours of use, and if you buy a well-known brand, like Graco and Wagner, you can easily find tips easily.
Some keys to spray painting a deck:
- Carefully mask what is not getting painted: use plastic, paper, and/or canvas and lots of tape. (See a great hand-masking tool for this in the deck tool list).
- In this video, I show how to use this great 3M hand masker. So usefull and well-made.
- Practice spraying technique first: You can just put water in your sprayer to practice this. Keep the sprayer hand moving at a uniform speed, and when you reverse direction, try to make a quick flick of the wrist (avoids puddles).
- Spraying Oil? Keep the tip of the sprayer wet with thinner: you can use a wet rag or a small can of paint thinner.
- Spraying Latex? Soak the tip in water when you put it down: if you don’t it will clog fast.
- Read about the best deck stain and even if you are spraying opaque stain, it should cover in one coat.
- A short video from Graco is excellent to see how it’s really done well.
Stain a deck made of pressure treated wood
Wait 6-9 months after installation to put any stain or sealer on your pressure treated wood: it’s still wet from the factory and if you don’t wait, you’ll have a big problem later on. I discussed this more fully in our post on choosing whether to paint or stain a deck.
Annual upkeep is not really necessary for most lighter stains. Most semi-transparent just need a quickl pressure wash, then re-apply your product. Read the label to be sure this is right for your product.
Keep an eye on the opaque stain, however. In fact, if you choose an opaque stain, which is cracks much like paint, read the maintenance section, (Section #3) of the post on how to paint a deck.
- Tools? The list of any tool you could possibly need is on our full deck tool page.
- Not enough tools? A complete list of painting tools for all types of painting jobs.
- Not sure about the roller cover? We wrote about it, simplifying all the best paint roller covers and what they are for.
- Don’t like cleaning? Read the best way to clean a paintbrush: you will make them last a lifetime. Read about the easy method in “How to clean paint rollers: like magic!“
Here is a video showing how to do pressure washer paint prep before staining your deck.
Be sure to have all the painter tools that you need
Any questions about how to stain a deck? Let me know in the comments. Remember, how to stain a deck: there is not much need for brush dipping! Just dip when you do corners etc, where the roller cannot reach.