Your Home Outdoors

How to Stain Your Deck (Just in Time For Spring!)

The funk of a long winter doesn't stand a chance.

March 11, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Purchasing a home comes with a myriad of to-dos, some more urgent than others. Since moving into our house, we’ve done everything from stain the floors and rewire the outlets, to rehab the staircase and replace the countertops. Because we moved during winter, our work has largely been concentrated indoors, but all it took was one nearly 50 degree day recently to switch all of that focus and attention to our backyard space. First on the list out there? Staining our (well-worn, well-loved) deck.

I would classify myself as someone who is pretty DIY savvy and willing to figure out how to do just about anything myself, so the idea of staining the deck in our sunroom ourselves really doesn’t scare me away. It helps that I’ve “been there, done that” a bit too—the deck at my house growing up was a bit of a problem child, and I helped my father tend to it (I’m serious, it was very delicate and picky) nearly every summer. One of the biggest lessons I learned when it comes to staining a deck is—like with almost every home project you do—it’s all about the prep work. Nail that, and you pretty much can’t mess up the rest of the process, resulting in a richly-stained deck that levels up the beauty of your outdoor space and will last you for years to come. Looking to tackle staining your own deck? Follow these easy steps and you’ll be on your way to hosting outdoor BBQ’s in no time.

Make Any Repairs

If you’re considering staining your deck, it’s probably safe to assume that it already has a few years of wear and tear under its belt. If that’s the case, the first thing on your list should be to set aside a weekend to do any repairs. Remove any furniture or decor from your deck before getting started. Then, take a good hard look at your deck and tackle any issues that could prevent you from using and enjoying it over the next few years. Sand down splintered boards (80 grit sandpaper works best for this), hammer in any nails that have heaved, and reinforce any wobbly railings around the perimeter. The more you can fix and perfect ahead of time, the less interruptions you’ll have once you get going.

Prep and Clean

Next, you’ll want to give your deck a good cleaning. Outdoor environments are unpredictable, and things like pine needles, plant debris, and excess dirt can all impact how well stain adheres to your deck—not to mention how professional your job looks when finished.

Start by sweeping any debris from the surface of your deck, taking the time to also concentrate on cleaning between the boards, too (you can even run something thin, like a putty knife, between the cracks to make sure they’re free of dirt and grime). You’ll want to protect the area around your deck, too. Tape off any spots where your deck interacts with the siding of your house to prevent it from soaking up stain, and throw plastic sheeting or a lightweight bed sheet over any nearby plants to shield them from chemicals.

Next, apply a heavy duty cleaner to any of the wood you’ll be staining, including the stairs and railings. Work quickly or with a partner (most cleaners need to stay consistently moist and soak into the wood for about ten minutes) to coat the deck and scrub the cleaner into the wood using a deck brush or push broom. This process will ensure the wood is squeaky clean and ready to absorb the stain, eliminating things like scum, mold, or mildew that could make for an uneven application. Once you’ve cleaned the deck according to the package instructions, you can rinse the cleaner off the wood using a high-powered garden hose or pressure washer.

Check the Weather

Your next order of business is to find the right day to actually go about staining your deck. For starters, the wood on your deck will need at least two days to totally dry out post-cleaning—stain can’t adhere well if even a little of that moisture is still present, so if you’re unsure whether your deck is ready, there’s no harm in granting the wood an extra day to dry out completely.

Beyond that, you’re going to need a few clear days in your forecast in order to begin work. Temps should range between 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 degrees Fahrenheit and—perhaps most importantly—there shouldn’t be a rain cloud in sight. Ideally, you’ll want to stain on a day that is only partially sunny, too—direct rays can cause the stain to dry too fast, resulting in an uneven look.

Get to Staining

Begin staining your deck using a quality deck stain, starting with the highest points (like railings) and working your way down. For smaller spots, you can use a flat paddle brush with firm bristles meant for staining. Once you get to the “floor” of your deck, you can switch to a stain pad outfitted with an extension pole (picture: a Swifter for deck stain), keeping the brush handy to work the stain onto problem areas, like deep graining or the cracks between boards.

Typically, one coat of stain achieves ample coverage, but you can apply another after 24 hours if you desire a richer color. Once completely done, allow the stain to dry undisturbed according to application instructions (typically 48 hours). At that point, you can then deck out your deck (see what I did there?) with all your favorite outdoor furniture and accessories and get down to the very serious business of enjoying all your hard work.

Protect Your Time Investment

Make a point to give your deck a little TLC throughout the year, just like you clean and maintain your home on a regular basis to keep it looking its best. Be sure to rid the boards of any standing water or debris (which can stain the boards or cause them to warp and prematurely age), and swiftly clean up any food spills or leaking oil from a grill. You can also protect your newly-stained deck from scratching and excess wear by finishing it with a sealer or decorating the space with a colorful outdoor-friendly rug made from recycled plastic.

Have you been considering re-staining your deck? Let us know about your plans below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Suburban_Dad
  • Medora Van Denburgh
    Medora Van Denburgh
Writer, Editor and Stylist


Suburban_Dad August 31, 2022
Looks great. Some tips are to choose a stain that is easy to re-coat. Doesn't require completely removing the old stain, pressure washing, sanding, etc. In a year or two when its looking dingy you can just rinse with the hose or broom then re-coat. MUCH EASIER. Or call a local professional company
Medora V. March 20, 2021
I won't say you've given me a kick in the pants, but your article is a bit of a kick in wherever it is in the brain that the feeling of being overwhelmed hangs out. I've needed to attend to my deck for a couple of years now but am held back by the recollection of what an impossible job it was the last time.

There's too much heavy stuff on the deck (full wood rack, firepit, massive jardiniere) to haul it somewhere else, so I moved everything to one side and did the part that had been cleared, then reversed the process. My principal problem was getting all of the pine needles, etc., out from between the boards. They're so close together that the putty knife didn't make any headway; I even tried the power washer and couldn't remove all the debris. A lesser, but significant, problem is that the deck is where the kitty door opens onto; keeping the cats from getting stain on their paws and tracking it around was a challenge. But, ultimately, my reluctance to do it all over again is that the results didn't seem worth the effort. I had purchased the product that was supposed to give the best protection to the wood and last the longest, but the deck began looking dingy after just one winter. I imagine you're going to say to sand the entire surface, which makes my heart sink--so I'm hoping you'll mention the amazing trick I hadn't thought of.