Refinishing a Wood Deck: An Overview

  • 01 of 08

    Renewing a Wooden Deck

    Wooden table, chairs and fruit and vegetables in plant pots on patio decking in garden
    Brian North/Getty Images

    A beautifully refinished wood deck not only looks great and extends the life of the wood, but it may also help improve the real estate value of your home and make it more appealing to potential buyers.

    The complete refinishing process for a wood deck may involve several individual steps, including: 

    • Inspection and repair
    • Cleaning
    • Power washing
    • Sanding
    • Staining/sealing

    Not all refinishing projects will include all steps; it's possible, for example, that your natural wood deck will not require staining, but just the sanding and sealing stages. 

    Here's an overview of how to perform a professional-looking deck refinishing job in a weekend or two, transforming a drab, tired old wood deck into a vibrant beautiful entertainment area ready for a celebration barbecue!

    Continue to 2 of 8 below.
  • 02 of 08

    Inspection, Repair, and Cleaning

    Weathered Deck Board Background
    BanksPhotos/Getty Images

    The first step in your wood deck refinishing project should be a thorough inspection, looking for any loose surface boards or structural component problems, including rotting or severely split wood. If you do need to replace a damaged or rotten deck board or other components, make the necessary repairs before beginning the overall refinishing project. 

    The exact approach to cleaning a deck will depend on its current finish and what your goals are for refinishing. 

    If you have a varnished or painted wood deck and want a stained wood deck, you must first strip the paint or varnish off the deck surface using a chemical stripper. This will be followed by cleaning and sanding before applying a new stain finish. If you are simply painting, however, the process is relatively simple: clean and sand, then repaint. 

    If your deck is finished with a clear sealer or a transparent or semi-transparent wood stain then you can just clean the surface with a wood deck cleaner before sanding, without bothering with paint stripper. It's recommended that you use an oxygen-based wood cleaner designed to remove mildew stains and graying caused by ultra-violet sun exposure on the wood deck while it cleans the wood of dirt and deposits.


    Continue to 3 of 8 below.
  • 03 of 08

    Power Washing

    Pressure Washer Cleaning a Weathered Deck
    BanksPhotos/Getty Images

    Deep cleaning of the wood is an important step in refinishing, but you must be careful here. Power washing a wood deck can either quickly deep-clean your deck (if you know what you're doing) or quickly ruin your wood deck boards (if you don't know what you're doing). Too much water-jet pressure and you will etch the wood and ruin deck boards. Too little pressure, and you'll get the deck wet but do no real effective deep cleaning.

    Power washers are versatile power tools that can be used to strip paint or even etch bricks. They come in a variety of styles and powers. Here are some tips for cleaning wood: 

    • Use the lowest pressure that still provides effective cleaning. 
    • Pressure for soft woods such as cedar or pine should be at about 500 psi to 600 psi; harder woods may go higher, but no more than 1200 to 1500 psi.

    Power washing your deck safely and successfully is relatively easy if you are careful. Success is a matter of the proper pressure selection, the proper washer tip selection, and the proper washing technique. 

    Continue to 4 of 8 below.
  • 04 of 08


    Man sanding backyard deck
    Hero Images/Getty Images

    Once you power-wash the deck, it is very likely that the wood fibers will be raised as they expand with water. After drying, wood fibers can often remain raised and may cause splinters. If the wood is stained in this condition, the wood will absorb stain unevenly, so you should plan on sanding the wood deck before staining. It is essential for getting professional results and will also eliminate splinters.

    Sanding a deck is easily accomplished using a random orbital sander, but the correct sandpaper grit is essential to good results. A sandpaper that is too fine will leave surface pores packed with fine dust that will prevent stain from soaking in. Sanding with a paper that is too coarse, and damage to the wood may result, especially with softer woods such as cedar. 

    Make sure to sand all surfaces thoroughly, including railings and steps, and sweep and vacuum away all traces of sanding dust before applying stain. 

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Selecting a Wood Stain

    Staining hardwood patio deck
    Chris Bernard/Getty Images

    One of the most important steps in your deck refinishing project is selecting the stain. Like many home repair projects, 80 percent of the work is in preparation. In the case of deck finishing, though, even the most meticulous preparation is worthless if you then choose a cheap, inferior stain that will require you to refinish again in a year or two.

    Exterior Wood Stain Products

    While once it was common to first stain wood, then apply some kind of clear surface sealer over it, today's products are generally one-step applications—penetrating stains that both color the wood and soak in to protect it. There are also simple clear sealers that do nothing more than penetrate and seal the wood without changing the color. Among the products that stain, you will find semi-transparent stains that allow the wood grain to be visible through the stain, as well as opaque stains that color the wood more like a coat of paint, hiding all wood grain. 

    If you go to the big box home improvement store, you'll see many options for exterior wood deck stains and sealers, including both water-based and oil-based varieties. The easy application and easy clean-up offered by water-based stains may be attractive, but most experts agree that water-based exterior stains do not last as long as oil-based products and do not soak into the wood fibers as thoroughly. 

    All stains are not created equal. Some are essentially just paints that lie on the surface of the wood to provide color. These are not very durable and will require frequent recoating. Better products will be penetrating stains/finishes that soak in deeply. And the best of these will be oil-based products. They are a little messier to use and harder to clean up, but the results are worth the effort. 

    Most people find the best results with a quality oil-based, penetrating, exterior semi-transparent stain. You may have to look beyond the big box home improvement center and go to a professional paint store to find this product, but it will be worth the effort and expense.

    Also remember that the actual color of the stain, once applied, may be different than the samples or brochure. Make sure to confirm how the stain will look on your wood species before you buy. Buying a small sample of stain and staining a piece of sample wood is a good idea before you purchase it by the gallon.

    Continue to 6 of 8 below.
  • 06 of 08

    Selecting the Right Brush

    Staining hardwood patio deck
    Chris Bernard / Getty Images

    While large surfaces are stained with paint pad applicators, paintbrushes are required for detail work. It is best to use a natural-bristle brush if you are using an oil-based product, and a synthetic-bristle brush with water-based stains. You will likely need several brushes of different sizes. 

    Natural-bristle brushes usually use ox-hair, horse hair, or pig bristles, and tend to be softer than synthetic-bristle brushes. Those sold as China brushes are made from Chinese hog hair.  Natural-bristle brushes tend to get soggy and limp when used with water-based products, but they apply oil-based stains very smoothly. 

    Synthetic-bristle brushes use bristles that are polyester, nylon, or a blend of the two. The better quality brushes can be used with both water-based and oil-based products, but they are best for water-based stains and paints.  

    Continue to 7 of 8 below.
  • 07 of 08

    Applying the Stain

    Male Carpenter Applying Varnish To Wooden Furniture.
    stevecoleimages/Getty Images

    Staining the deck is where you see all your hard work come together. When staining, start with the handrails and work your way down to the deck boards. Use a variety of brush sizes to stain the small areas, such as handrails, balusters, and trim boards, and finish all the brushwork before moving on the decking surfaces.

    The surface decking boards are best stained with a flat paint-pad applicator. Using a paint pad applicator allows you fast coverage of a large area, helps you easily maintain a wet edge, and results in a nice, even application of stain.

    Key points of stain application:

    • Make sure the deck remains completely dry for about two days before staining, especially with oil-based stains. Any moisture in the pores of the wood will prevent proper absorption of the stain.
    • Select a quality penetrating semi-transparent stain if you want the grain of the wood to show through.
    • Buy a solid opaque stain if you want the finish to look like paint. Do not, however, use standard exterior house paint on deck wood. 
    • DO: Make sure the stain or sealer is water-repellent.
    • DO NOT: Use clear hard finishes, such as polyurethane or varnish, as they will degrade under the sun's UV rays.
    • Use a paint pad applicator for the large flat deck board areas and apply the stain generously.
    • For railings, balusters, and in the spaces between deck boards, apply the stain with brushes—natural China bristles are best for oil-based stains.
    Continue to 8 of 8 below.
  • 08 of 08

    Enjoy the Stained Deck

    M. Eric Honeycutt/Getty Images

    The end result of your hard work is a beautiful refinished wood deck. Using the proper preparation and application techniques along with quality materials will give you a lasting and beautiful end result. ​Fire up the BBQ!