As we head into Labor Day you’ll see sales and rebates for wood stains. The three-day weekend gives you time to stain your deck, and conditions are ideal as the weather cools and humidity drops. Here’s how to nail this do-it-yourself job.

Check the Forecast

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 for faster drying. Don’t stain in direct sunlight. “The stain dries too quickly and won’t absorb into the wood,” says Rico DePaz, who runs Consumer Reports’ tests of stains and paints.

Pick Your Equipment

• Use synthetic brushes for water-based stains, which is what you’ll see in our ratings. Natural bristles can become limp as they absorb the water in the finish.
• Buy a roller, if that’s what you prefer using, with a ¼-inch nap or shorter to apply a thin-enough layer that adheres to the wood and prevents pooling.
• Pick your stain type. Do you want clear, semi-transparent, or solid. To choose read, "Find a Wood Stain That Lasts." Our wood stain tests found big differences in stains. How big? Among solid wood stains the best scored 74 overall, the worst scored a 12, meaning it looked ratty in less than a year.

Proper Deck Prep

• 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. Sanding a wood deck treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, releases toxic arsenic into the air and surrounding soil. Hire a pro to sand if your deck was built before 2004 and its finish is flaking.
• Sweep the deck clean, and use a putty knife to clean between the boards.
• Use a pressure washer to clean, or apply a deck cleaner. Let it dry, following the instructions on the can for how long to wait before staining.

All Hands on Deck

Directions for staining your deck may vary by stain type and manufacturer, and instructions on the can will tell you the drying time needed. Working steadily, apply a thin coat with a brush or roller. Don’t stop in the middle of a board, or let puddles form—the excess stain will dry on top of the wood and flake off. And keep stirring the stain as you go to keep it well blended.

See 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. Look online for sales and rebates, including the Facebook pages of retailers and manufacturers. We’re seeing $40 rebates for 5-gallon cans of stains and paints at Lowe’s.

Questions? Email me at