How to Prep Your Deck for Wood Staining

Start with the best product for the job, the right brush, and these expert tips

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As we approach Labor Day, you’ll begin to see sales on wood stains. The three-day weekend gives you time to stain your deck, and conditions are often ideal as the weather cools and humidity drops.

We've got expert tips for nailing this do-it-yourself job. Plus, check out the list of best wood stains in our ratings from brands like Behr, Benjamin Moore, Cabot, and Olympic—all of which stood up to our weathering tests.

More on Paints and Wood Stains

To test wood stains, CR's engineers apply two coats to pine boards, then place them on the roof of our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. They face the boards south and angled down, like a roof, to intensify the effects of the sun and weather for up to three years.

One year of testing tells you how a stain will do after a year on your deck or about three years of weathering on vertical surfaces (siding or fences), as you'll see in our wood stain ratings.

CR's Guide to Prepping Your Deck

Don't start unless you have a window of dry weather.

It’s best to stain wood when it hasn’t rained for several days and the forecast calls for at least two days of dry weather between 50° F and 90° F, with low to average humidity, to allow the stain to soak in and dry properly.

Don’t stain wood that's in direct sunlight. “The stain dries too quickly and won’t absorb into the wood,” says Rico de Paz, the engineer who runs Consumer Reports’ tests of stains and paints.

Pick the Right Equipment

Choose your stain type. Do you want a clear, semi-transparent, or solid stain? Our wood stain tests found big differences in performance. Among solid wood stains, the best earned an Overall Score of 80 (out of 100); the worst scored a 12, meaning it looked ratty in less than a year.
Use synthetic brushes for water-based stains (that's the type we test). Natural bristles can become limp as they absorb the water in the finish.
Buy a roller if that’s what you prefer using. Get one with a ¼-inch nap or shorter to apply a layer that adheres to the wood and prevents pooling.

Prep the Surface

Use a pressure washer to clean or apply a deck cleaner at least a day before you apply the stain. Let the wood dry, following the instructions on the can for how long to wait before staining.
Wet plants and shrubs near the deck, cover with plastic sheeting, and clear the deck.
Sand splintered spots wearing a safety mask to avoid inhaling the dust. Hire a pro to sand if your deck was built before 2004 and its finish is flaking. (Sanding a wood deck treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, releases toxic arsenic into the air and surrounding soil.)
Sweep the deck clean and use a putty knife to clean between the boards.

Then Start Staining

Directions for staining your deck may vary by stain type and manufacturer. The instructions on the can will tell you how much drying time the product needs.

Apply a thin coat with a brush or roller, working steadily to keep the coverage even. Don’t stop in the middle of a board or let puddles form, because the excess stain will dry on top of the wood and flake off. (Plus, it'll look splotchy.) Stir the stain as you go to keep it well-blended.

CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of some of the best wood stains in our rankings (listed here in alphabetical order, not in rank order).

Or browse our wood stain ratings of solid, semi-transparent, and clear sealers to help you match the stain to the job. Click on the "Features & Specs" tab to find out how well a stain resisted cracking, color change, dirt, and mildew.

Best Wood Stains From CR's Tests

Home Content Creator Haniya Rae

Haniya Rae

I​’m interested in the intersection between design and technology​—whether for ​drywall or robotic vacuums—and how the resulting combination affects consumers. I’ve written about consumer advocacy issues for publications like The Atlantic, PC Magazine, and Popular Science, and now I’m happy to be tackling the topic for CR. For updates, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@haniyarae).