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Deck Maintenance Buying Guide

A deck is a special part of your outdoor living space that should last for years. Keep your wood deck looking its best with the right cleaners, sealers and stains.

deck maintenance buying guide

Deck Cleaning Materials

wood deck maintenance

If you have an existing wood deck, strip the stain and sealer from the surface.

After the deck is free from existing stain or sealant, use a cleaner specifically designed for wood decks. Deck cleaners work with chemical muscle. You'll typically find one of these active ingredients:

  • Chlorine bleach, which appears on the label as sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite. These chemicals eliminate mildew.
  • Oxalic acid is especially effective at removing tannin and iron stains — a particular consideration with cedar and redwood decking.

Some people prefer biodegradable products that are free of bleach, acid and phosphates, making them a safer choice for use around plants and pets. Read the ingredients list thoroughly to determine if the product you're considering is a natural choice.

Good to Know

For a composite deck, use a product formulated specifically for composite decking, or use dishwashing detergent and water. Wood deck cleaners are too strong and may cause composite materials to fade.

Choosing a Deck Stain and Sealer Product

choosing a deck stain or deck sealer

Sealers and stains are either water-based or oil-based. Water-based products offer easier cleanup and less odor; oil-based products tend to penetrate deeper for longer-lasting stain.

There are four main options for deck stains: clear, toner, semi-transparent and solid / opaque. As a general rule, older and more weathered wood requires a solid or opaque stain to cover imperfections. Most sealers provide waterproofing and sealing protection. The best sealers penetrate the wood deeply to provide the most protection. Look for an oil-based product mixed with latex for easy cleanup.

Color and tint options vary according to product - whether a stain, sealer or combination product - so refer to your product's specifications for more detail. However, the general color / tint options are:

  • Clear finish provides basic protection and allows the wood to turn gray naturally, without splitting, warping, cupping or cracking.
  • Wood toners are similar to clear water repellant, but with a hint of color to maintain or restore the natural beauty of wood. They provide similar levels of protection against splitting, warping, cupping and cracking.
  • Semi-transparent stains are subtle and show the grain and texture of wood. These stains contain pigment that protects against sun damage better than a clear preservative. Oil-based semi-transparent stains provide the most protection, better color retention and longer life.
  • Solid / opaque color stain provides a rich color while showing the texture of the wood. These stains are also good on fencing and outdoor furniture. Some are suited only for vertical surfaces, so check the label when shopping.

An alternative to stains or sealers is a resurfacer or restoration product. These finishes are like a very thick paint. Applied with a brush or roller, they cover deck boards and do not show wood grain. Tints can be added to match your home exterior or deck railings.

Good to Know

The frequency of re-treating or re-coating varies by product. Read the label for guidance.

Deck Maintenance Considerations

deck maintenance considerations

Before you tackle deck maintenance, cleaning or restoration, consider:

  • It's tricky to work backwards. For example, if your deck is currently covered in an opaque stain, it will take a great deal of stripping and surface preparation to ready it for a clear or wood-toned stain. It's easiest to continue with solid / opaque coverage.
  • The more opaque a stain, the quicker it will show wear and weather. A solid stain might need reapplication every year, while a clear or wood-toned treatment will likely last longer.
  • Darker colors, particularly solid / opaque and semi-transparent stains, will absorb heat more easily. They could make the deck uncomfortable for barefoot walking.
  • For a decorative look, select two or more colors that work together for decking and rails, post caps, stencil work, etc.
  • For high traffic areas, choose a specially formulated deck stain or sealer to repel water, resist mildew and prevent fading.
  • When choosing a stain, remember that the finished color varies based on the wood itself. If you're applying a new stain over an old one, choose a color that's similar to or darker than the original. Test the color in an inconspicuous area to ensure proper color.
  • Coverage varies depending on the type of surface and type of stain. A good rule of thumb: Two thin coats are better than one thick coat.

Deck Maintenance Accessories

deck maintenance accessories

Your deck maintenance shopping list will contain more than just cleaner and sealer. These products may make the job easier:

  • A pump-action sprayer to apply cleaning solutions. You can buy one labeled deck sprayer or garden sprayer, but don't use it for spraying your garden after holding deck cleaning chemicals.
  • A stiff brush on a long handle for scrubbing. Don't use one with metal bristles, because it might damage the wood.
  • A paint roller on a long handle for spreading stain or sealant. Look for a 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch nap.
  • Paintbrushes made to apply the stain you have chosen.
  • Plastic tarps to protect nearby plants from overspray.
  • Tape to mask areas that you don't want to stain.
  • Sandpaper to smooth rough surfaces.
  • Protective gear such as gloves and eye protection.
  • Garden hose for cleaning and rinsing.
  • Pressure washers to quickly remove dirt, mold and mildew with more power than a garden hose.