Nothing lasts forever. When your deck has seen better days – or begs for an updated look – it’s time to refinish the wood. Don’t even consider simply painting or staining over a peeling or deteriorated solid-stained surface. No amount of cover-up will mask the shape the wood is in, and a new finish will never last on a poorly prepared surface. Not to mention that the only thing you can put over solid stain is, well, more solid stain. Strip down to bare wood, instead, and apply new stain. Since this is a labor-intensive project, you will save tremendously by doing it yourself. The result will look like a thousand dollars.
To Strip or Not to Strip
It’s more than just a matter of looks. Your deck’s stain is its first line of defense against the progression of time. Relentless sun, soaking rain, ice and snow age your deck’s unprotected wood, leaving it warped, split, cracked and rotten. Properly finished and well maintained wood, on the other hand, repels water, is protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and keeps looking good through harsh weather and heavy traffic.
Solid stains are a double-edged sword: They protect extremely well, but fail extremely fast. Almost like paint, solid stain lays on the wood’s surface, forming a physical barrier that blocks the weather better than other stains that soak into the wood. Since it’s full of pigment, solid stain also blocks sunlight better than most transparent or semi-transparent stains. But here’s the rub – it peels away quicker and, when used on flooring, wears away faster. The life expectancy of a solid-stained deck is about five years, but may be even less under high use.
If you’re in doubt about the condition of your deck, try two tricks to help you. First, pour a little water on your wood and watch it for 10 minutes. If it absorbs and darkens the wood, the wood needs more stain. Next, use a putty knife to score an “X” through the stain alone – without cutting the wood – in a few places around the deck. Cover each with duct tape, press firmly to stick the tape well, and rip the tape away. Any color lifted indicates the deck also needs stripping before staining.
Prepare the Deck for Stripping
- Provide protection. Lightly water, then spread plastic sheeting or another protective covering over surrounding ground cover, flowers and plants to protect them during the stripping. Anything you are unable to protect, spray thoroughly with a water hose before, during and afterward to minimize potential damage. Easily overlooked, this simple step will save you frustration and panic. While most strippers won’t actually kill your greenery, they may unnecessarily stress them, leaving wilted or yellowed greenery in their wake.
- Remove debris. Sweep off loose dirt and debris with a push broom. Get down into cracks between boards and remove any accumulation as well. Look for popped-up nails, rotting boards or other damage while you work. Sink nails back into place and repair or replace decking, rails or other parts as needed.
- Deep clean. Spray down the deck using a garden hose with an attached nozzle to create a high-pressure spray. While you can use a pressure washer, it’s harsh on wood. Always set a pressure washer to less than 1,000 PSI and hold the nozzle several feet from the wood surface to minimize damage. The point is to use the force of water to encourage flaking stain to break free as well as remove deeper dirt, grease and grime without roughing up the wood.
Bare it All, Baby
The first choice facing you is to sand or to chemically strip your wood. It’s mostly a matter of preference; chemicals are probably easier on detail work such as railing while sanding may prove a little faster on floors. Large sanders may get away from you quickly and even small sanders may gouge the wood suddenly or leave your wood wavy and uneven. In addition, if your lumber is treated, inhaling sawdust from sanding is hazardous to your health.
If you choose to sand: Start with a coarse grade such as 60- or 80-grit. Work up to a finer grit, following the instructions on the stain or sealant you are planning to use. Increase the grit one grade at a time with each round of sanding. Sweep thoroughly when complete to remove fine wood dust particles.
To apply a chemical stripper: Wipe on with a paintbrush or use a roller for large areas. Coat the wood with a generous layer, in one swipe of the brush, paying close attention to joints and corners. Work in small sections to prevent it from drying too soon. Wait as the color lifts and the surface bubbles, which may take 20 to 30 minutes, then scrub the surface with a stiff-bristled brush or scrape with a putty knife. Take care to avoid damaging the wood as you work. It’s generally fairly soft and easy to gouge at this point.
Work from the top of your deck down, meaning start on rails and finish with deck flooring and steps. Wipe away stain residue, using an old cloth or rag, as you finish a section and move to the next. This prevents the sludge from drying in place. Use an old toothbrush, steel wool, bottle brush or other objects, as necessary, to invade nooks, crannies and recessed areas that are difficult to reach.
Spray the deck again, thoroughly, to rinse away all trace of stripping chemicals, whether fresh or dried. Alternatively, mop with a mixture of half water and half vinegar. This neutralizes the stripper, which may react chemically with the deck cleaner or interfere with future stain. Wait for 24 hours to allow the wood to dry out before inspecting. If you see any trace of stain remaining, either spot-treat with more stripper or sand it by hand.
Finally, clean the wood itself to finish the stripping. The caustic nature of the stripper often darkens the wood and mold or mildew may have found a new home inside the wood’s pores. Read the label closely when purchasing a deck cleaning product and choose a formula suited to your deck’s wood. If you have redwood or cedar, consider using a brightener instead.
Most products require you to begin with a dry surface. Either spray the solution or pour into a bucket and slop onto the wood with a broom or brush. Avoid puddling the cleaner – aim for an even, generous coat. Wait 10 to 20 minutes, then use a push broom or a long-handled scrub brush to scrub across the wood, working in the direction of the grain. Follow with a thorough drench of water to rinse the chemicals away.
Deck Stripping Aftercare
Don’t leave your wood naked for long. Allow 24 to 72 hours for it to air-dry, then apply a sealer or stain. If your wood is cedar or redwood, one of the best options is to prime it before applying another solid stain. Solid stains allow the texture to show through while covering any natural discoloration. Other woods are a matter of choice, although decking professionals often recommend using a semi-solid stain, which delivers good protection and pleasing colors while still allowing wood grain to show through and resisting foot traffic better than solid stains.
To apply the stain, use a paint brush or cloth, overlapping as little as possible to leave a flawless surface. Start with the railing and detail work before working down to decking and steps. Wipe with the grain and work quickly to prevent seam lines. Air-dry the stain as specified in the product instructions and follow with a sealer, rolled on with a long-handled paint roller or paint brush, as required. Use the same sheeting you covered plants with earlier to prevent dripping stain everywhere.
Periodically inspect your deck in the future, especially in the spring and fall. When it shows signs of wear and tear, or fails the moisture test, clean and reseal it. With proper maintenance you may avoid stripping and refinishing your deck for several years, as well as prevent rot and weather-related damage.