Easy Steps to Clean, Stain and Preserve Your Deck


The steps are easy, but they do take some time, so be prepared to spend a couple weekends protecting a very important part of your home’s exterior.

One of the first things that I want to do this weekend is to clean and seal my deck. Doesn’t sound like that much fun does it. Well, it’s better than replacing the deck, which is exactly what I had to do last fall. The old deck finally gave into years of wear and tear. Constant exposure to UV rays and rain can cause neglected decks to fade, crack, split and warp. All of those conditions are exactly everything that has happened to my deck over the years.

It was partially my fault, I knew what I had to do, I just had too many other things happening, I would like to blame Shari, but that would be a cop out. Ultimately my laziness made me pay the price, not only in labor but in materials to replace the old deck.

So this weekend, I’m not wasting anymore time or money, I’m preserving my deck. With more that 2 million decks being built each year, to say nothing of all the wood storage sheds, fences, and gazeboes sprouting up like mushrooms, today’s do-it-yourselfer could use some tried and true advice on protecting these backyard investments.

Wood damage occurs when water seeps below the surface of the wood, tearing the fibers apart. Direct sun will, over time, make wood brittle so that even the toughest pressure-treated types can rot and split. Protection is paramount to preserving your wood.

Prepping and Cleaning the Deck

The first step to protection and preserving your wood structure is to make sure the wood is ready to accept a stain or sealer. To find out, determine if the wood is “thirsty”. Test absorbency by sprinkling water on the surface; if the water soaks in rapidly, the surface is ready. If not wait a few weeks and test again. And no, spilling your lemonade is not a good test, just sticky!

Before you can protect the wood, keep in mind that an ounce of prevention begins with a through cleaning. Take steps to remove embedded dirt, fungus and stains. Only after the wood has been cleaned can you begin the staining or sealing process. A gray weathered deck can be revived with a proper cleaning. Black or green stains from mildew, moss and algae, or black tannin bleed that is common can also be removed with a good cleaning effort. Granted, you will be having an Advil moment afterwards, but it is worth a sore stiff back when you price out new decking material.

Of course start the process by removing deck furniture and making sure the kids and pets stay clear of the area throughout the process. Before cleaning, repair any loose boards and sand rough spots with a 100 to 80 grit sandpaper, using a pole sander will make the sanding process go faster and save back and knee pain. Sweep off loose debris and clean between cracks using a putty knife or five in one tool.

Wet surrounding plants and scrubs, cover them with clear plastic, but remove immediately after treating. Before removing plastic, rinse the plastic with water than remove. Again do this after the cleaning process is finished.

A one step cleaner that can be purchased at all home center stores or garden centers will do the trick. Spend a few moments to read the manufactures recommendations and follow them to the letter. After all the manufactures have spent a ton a money perfecting the formulas and cleaning steps that come with each quart of cleaner.

Some cleaners require the surface to be damp before applying, while others require the surface to be dry. Make sure to read the label.

Use a paint roller with an extension handle or a garden sprayer to apply the cleaner to the entire deck, don’t let the cleaner puddle in any one area, in fact you should back roll or spread the cleaner using a roller or a broom to spread any puddles.

Scrub tough spots with a stiff brush or broom, don’t use wire brushes but soft brushes or broom, the stiff wire can break off and cause rust spots.

Allow the cleaner to soak into the wood. Soaking time is usually no more than ten minutes, after the soaking, rinse the deck thoroughly with a hose.

Allow the surface to dry completely at least two days before moving to the sealing or staining process. Wash all tools with soapy water.

Staining and Sealing the Deck

Now you are ready to begin the staining or sealing process. Make sure to choose a stain or sealer that repel water, resist mildew and prevent fading in high traffic areas.

Oil based products tend to retain or hold their color longer, but water based products are more durable and last longer and only require soap and water clean up.

When choosing a stain or sealant there are four categories to choose from, each one contains larger amounts of pigment (the stuff that makes color). The more pigment the less the natural wood grain and texture is going to show through, but the better the protection you are providing for your wood.

  • Clear Water Repellents provides basic protection, but not a lot of UV protection so the wood will begin to gray after only a few months, more of a natural look. Count on using this product season to season.
  • Toner or Tinted Water Repellants, just like a clear, but pigment or color is added. Provides a little bit more sun protection. Is good for restoring a little bit of the original look of the wood if only slight fading has occurred.
  • Semi-Transparent Stains, contain more pigment, will provide subtle color but still allow the wood grain to show through. These products last longer than water repellants giving you a couple more seasons of protection. When choosing a stain, remember colors vary based on the wood itself. If you are applying a stain over an old stain, choose a color that is similar or darker than the original. To allow the new color to absorb into the wood, the old stain should be adequately worn or thoroughly stripped. Do a test patch in a hidden area to ensure color and appearance
  • Solid Stain provides the most pigment or color, and the best protection for wood. It also hides the wood grain, allowing just some of the wood texture to show through. This is best used for heavily weathered wood. Using solid color stain will allow you to not have to repeat the process as often as the other products, sometime lasting as much as 4 to 5 years.

Applying Stain

The process for applying stain is the same for cleaning your deck. The key to staining a preserving the deck is to apply a thin even coat of stain or sealer using a roller with extension handle. Use a two to three board pattern over lapping slightly to eliminate breaks or “holidays”. Two thin coats are better than one thick one which won’t adhere or dry properly.

Do not allow the finish to puddle. Make sure to back roll or brush out puddles. And make sure you allow the deck to dry completely before putting back furniture and allowing kids and pets to use.

Here are a few reminder tips to help guide you through the wood protection process:

After removing all of the deck furniture of course follow these steps.

  • First smooth out rough spots with sandpaper and seal cracks with an all weather caulk. For a large surface using a pole sander will ease back and knee pain.
  • Sweep loose debris such as leaves and dirt and clean between cracks, using a putty knife will help loosen items wedged between the deck boards.
  • Clean the deck with a deck cleaner. Read the manufactures directions.
  • Wet surrounding plants and scrubs, cover them with clear plastic, but remove immediately after treating.
  • Apply products with a roller, garden sprayer or brush.
  • Rinse after cleaning and allow deck to dry at least 24 hours before staining or sealing.
  • Choose the right stain or seal that is formulated specifically for the needs of the wood (high traffic areas, UV protection, mildew resistance, water balloon fights).
  • Determine if you want to see more of the wood grain or more protection. Choose the product that best allows your needs.
  • Don’t apply stain to wet wood, or to surfaces in direct sunlight. Apply product when the surface temperature is between 50 degrees and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • If any wood is in contact with soil or water, use a green preservative that is formulated to protect against rot, termite damage, and mildew, warping and swelling.
  • Apply stain or sealer with a brush, pad or sprayer. Only one coat is needed for protection, but be sure not to leave puddles when applying.
  • Allow your deck to dry at least 24 hours before you have your first barbeque on your properly cleaned, sealed and protected deck.

To know if your deck is ready for a little maintenance, let Mother Nature be your guide. Check your deck after a storm, if the water isn’t beading up, it’s usually an indication that it needs a new coat of protection.

So do yourself a favor, spend a little maintenance time with your deck, it will be well worth the time and money you will save in the long haul. If any of you aren’t doing anything this weekend, I have extra brushes!


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