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No matter what you use or how you apply it, deck stains will wear in a just a few years. Clint Austin /


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I have a deck problem, and I’m likely not alone. My staining job didn’t last forever. After just a couple of years, I am facing bare wood and waterlines.


I come from a family of professional painters, starting with my late father. Three of my brothers followed him into the trade. I did not. I find painting mentally and physically painful. Maybe it’s unresolved father-son issues when I once painted with him during high school and college summers. Maybe it’s the ache I get in my hand after using a brush for just minutes.

Or maybe I’m just like most other people. Painting, or staining, is just one of those chores you want to push off until neighbors or your partner start leveling the stink-eye at you for your sorry-looking painted surfaces.

The last time I stained our front wooden steps and back deck, I consulted my brothers. They offered good advice then, so I called one of them this week for a refresher on the basics of deck staining.

The first thing my brother warned was a phrase he’s learned over the years: “Don’t oversell a deck.” That means even the professional, with all the latest and greatest products, can’t guarantee you a lifetime coat. At best, a deck stain will last one or two years, Eric said. If you have rails, or verticals, they will last a bit longer.


Luckily, I saved the extra stain from the last time and am hoping I just have to touch up some bad spots. I made two mistakes two years ago.

I didn’t properly prepare my front steps. A bush grows near them, and I didn’t realize how much sap had dripped onto the bare wood. It created a barrier for the stain, and it didn’t hold. I’m hoping some of the stain got into the heart of the wood and I can aggressively sand the flaky spots and hope for the best.

We had a faulty gutter above the back deck that created a rain line on the boards close to the door. Along with foot wear, those areas are worn clear of any sign I ever stained them. We fixed the gutter.

August is a good time to think about staining because of limited rainfall historically. Check your forecast. We tend to get more rain in the fall.

Along with those lessons, Eric offered the following advice:

- Keep in mind you should wait to stain a new deck made of treated wood. It needs to weather to allow for absorption. There are some new treatments that allow immediate staining. A simple test to see if your deck will take stain is to dribble a bit of water on it. If it pools, so will your stain.

- Eric does not recommend using solid stains. The heaviest product he uses is a semi-transparent. “You want it to wear off, not peel off,” he said. He uses oil-based products. He hasn’t found a decent latex product for decks. Because I learned from the professionals, I know to not use a cheap stain. Ask your favorite retailer what they have in the mid- to high-price range and why it's better than the cheap stuff.

- Sand or power wash your deck to remove that top barrier. If you do this and can’t get to staining for a few weeks, you’ll have to sand again. The surface has likely broken down. “You’re staining over dead wood,” Eric said. And be careful with that power washer. You don’t want to chew up your wood.

- If you wash your deck, let it dry for two days before staining. If you want to get technical, use a moisture meter to poke into the wood. It will tell you whether it’s safe to paint or not.

- If you have graying or black spots on your deck, use a deck wash to brighten it up and even out the color.

- If you want to stand up while staining deck floors, get a brush that will attach to an extension pole of broom handle.

- Apply stain to just a few boards at a time and cover the entire length. This will help you avoid lap marks in the middle of your deck. When doing the railings and spindles, make sure you brush out any drips or streaks.

- Don’t be afraid of marring your deck after you’ve finished the job. Like I said, the surface has a very short lifespan. Enjoy it, and try and forget that you’ll be back on the job in a few years.

I’ll get through this. And so will you. But I can’t relax just yet. That old, weathered, backyard fence keeps staring at me as I lay in the hammock admiring the deck.

Mike Creger
(218) 723-5218