The Ugly Truth About Staining Your Old Deck

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell
1 / 2
2 / 2

After three decades of watching people struggle to maintain a finish on their wooden decks, I’ve come to realize something. If you want something fancier than a weathered wood deck, successful deck staining boils down to one rare personality trait. How well can you keep your enthusiasm under control?

While it’s oh-so tempting to open up that new can of stain and slap some onto the cracked remains of a long-dead finish, that’s a recipe for disaster. If you do this there are two reasons why your deck will look crummy again in 6 months or less:

1. Most deck stains don’t work all that well even if you do apply them properly.

2. You need to delay gratification for a few painful hours while you deal with all that peeling, worn out stain and tired looking grey wood.

The trick involves finding a deck stain with a proven track record, and  doing the prep work simply, effectively and in the least possible amount of time.

The best way to start depends on what you’ve got. If your current deck finish is just starting to show age wrinkles around the ears, then you’re in luck.  Act now. All you need is simple top-up maintenance – a light sanding and another coat or two of finish.

Light sanding is crucial because it removes those tiny bits of loose stain that are just starting to let go around wood knots, and it slightly roughens the remaining firm deck surface so new coats stick long-term. Don’t sand right through the existing finish, just scuff the surface. That’s what you see here.

A variable speed random orbit sander spinning a 100-grit disk at half speed is ideal for this job. Go over the whole deck lightly, sweep or vacuum off the dust, then brush on a coat of the same stuff that was applied before. One thing to remember: too many coats of stain causes peeling, even on otherwise well-prepped wood. One top-up coat will probably be enough, two at the most.  

If more than 10% of your deck surface is peeling or grey, it’s time to get serious. Start by rolling on a generous coat of water based deck stripper to loosen as much of the old finish as possible. Let it sit, then remove the goop with a pressure washer. Today’s best strippers are safe around plants, though they do tend to foam up in a way that reminds me of the bio-digestion pond at a pulp and paper plant. Despite a great deal of concern from the head gardener at our house, I’ve never killed plants with deck strippers labeled as garden-safe.

Use a pressure washer (the power of a gasoline unit is especially valuable) to clean the wood after 20 or 30 minutes. You might need to apply more stripper and wash again if any old finish remains after the first assault. Do patches of grey wood remain? Deck brighteners that I’ve used eliminate this problem very effectively.

When the wood is completely bare, let it dry for a couple of good days before sanding with a 60-grit abrasive in a random orbit sander running full blast. Why sand now and not before? Two reasons.

A stripper and pressure washer always removes old finishes faster than sanding. And when it comes to deck stripping, faster is definitely better. But stripping and washing do have their side effects, nonetheless. By the time your deck is stripped, washed and fully dry, it will almost certainly show fuzzy fibres of wood sticking up.  If left alone, these always lead to a rough finished deck surface, but that’s not all. Fuzzy fibers also short-circuit your finishing efforts because they lead to premature peeling. Since they don’t have a firm grasp on the underlying lumber, fuzzy fibers break loose in time, bringing your new deck finish with them. Sanding off the fuzzies is fast and easy. One quick pass over dry wood and its gone. Just be sure to wear a tight-fitting dust mask as you work.

There are more deck staining details than I have room for here. That’s why I maintain an in-depth webpage on deck staining and refinishing. It’s free and I keep it updated with all the latest information about deck stains that work, prep techniques that save time, and alternatives to finishing.

Above all else, stay patient. Don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you. A long lasting deck finish depends on it.

Learn for free at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page. 

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368