Spruce up your deck with a wood stain that lasts

Check your deck for damage and pick the right time to paint

Published: May 02, 2014 03:45 PM

Summer brings barbecues, backyard parties—and sometimes the reality that your deck has seen better days. A quick freshening with a top wood stain that weathered Consumer Reports’ tough outdoor tests may be all it takes to bring your deck up to snuff. Roughly 80 percent of homeowners handle deck staining themselves. But doing the job right includes the right tools, some smart planning, and a little cooperation from Mother Nature. Here’s where to start.
Walk the deck.  Check the deck boards for cracked or rotted areas, which you need to replace. Do a walk-over and feel for any softness or excess flexing, especially in areas that tend to stay damp. Check for popped nails and tap them back below the wood’s surface.  Step on the stairs and press on railings and banisters.
Don’t forget to check underneath the platform that supports the decking, railing, and stairs. If you spot trouble signs such as rot, insect holes, and other damage, you may want to get an inspection by a pro (check the North American Deck and Railing Association for a list of certified deck builders).

Prep it properly.  If the old finish is sound, remove dirt and mildew using a hose and a stiff, nylon-bristled brush with a long handle and a solution of water and dishwashing liquid For tougher grime use 1 quart of bleach to 3 quarts of water. If the finish is faded, peeling, or flaking, you’ll need to remove it with a pressure washer (about $200 to $500 to buy or $50 to $80 per day to rent). Wear long sleeves, long pants, work shoes, rubber gloves, and eye protection. Avoid gouging or splintering the wood by angling the spray, and keeping it 6 to 12 inches from the wood surface.
Decks built before 2004 are typically made of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) lumber, which contains toxic arsenic. Call in a pro if you aren’t sure. And let the pro do the refinishing to capture and safely dispose of any arsenic-laden dust and debris.
Find the right finish. Solid-color stains can last three years or more, but they completely cover the grain. Clear finishes let you see all the grain, but even the best last no longer than a year in our tests. Semi-transparent stains are tinted, show some of the wood grain, and can still look good after two years. Top picks from our tests include Behr Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain, $29 per gallon, and Behr Premium Semi-Transparent Weatherproofing Wood Stain, $37, plus Thompson WaterSeal Advanced Waterproofer, $23, which topped the other clear finishes.
Apply it right. Some finishes now claim to go on over wet wood. But we still recommend making sure the deck has fully dried (figure on roughly 48 hours) to avoid a blotchy finish that fails early. Stick with synthetic brushes for water-based stains, since natural bristles are hollow and can lose their rigidity as they absorb the water. An angled handheld brush works well for balusters and other close work. For rollers, use one with a nap that’s ¼-inch or shorter.
Be wary of the weather. Finally, be sure to watch the weather forecast: Temperatures between 60 and 85° F with no severe dips at night and little or no wind are ideal. Plan on four dry days in a row—a day or two to prep the wood and apply the stain, and another two for the finish to dry. And be sure to avoid staining in direct sunlight or when the deck is hot to the touch; stain that dries too quickly doesn’t stick properly.

—Bob Markovich

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