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    5 Expert Tips for Staining a Deck

    Here's how to protect the beauty of your wood

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    deck staining
    The best wood stains in CR's tests last three to five years.
    Photo: iStock

    Water can take a toll on a wood deck’s finish, whether it’s pounding rain or piles of snow. You can tell whether your deck stain is still protecting the wood if it repels water. If it doesn’t, it’s time to stain again.

    Consumer Reports tests dozens of solid, semi-transparent, and clear stains to find out which last longest. The worst look awful in a year. The best should last three to five years.


    CR’s test engineers apply two coats of stain to pine boards and place them on the roof of our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. We face the boards south and angled down, like a roof, to intensify the effects of the sun and weather for up to three years.

    One year of testing tells you how a stain will do one year on your deck or about three years of weathering on your home’s vertical surfaces (siding or fences), as you’ll see in our wood stain ratings.

    For an aging deck with splintered wood, applying a solid stain may buy you a few more years. The stain will hold the splinters in place and fill in small cracks.

    Before you stain, do a safety inspection using the 10-point checklist from the North American Decking and Railing Association. Then follow the tips below for staining your deck from the paint pros at Consumer Reports.

    You can also check out our wood stain buying guide to learn more about the different types of wood stains. And CR digital members can view our full wood stain ratings.

    1. Check the Forecast

    Wood stain won’t adhere well to damp wood and can crack and peel. Apply stain to dry 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. Low-to-average humidity promotes faster drying. Staining in direct sunlight can also be a problem because the stain will dry too fast before the wood is able to absorb it. If your staining project is in direct light, try to pick a time of day that will allow the stain to be absorbed and dry before the sun hits it.

    2. Prep the Surface

    The wood needs to be free of dirt and stains for the stain to adhere properly. Start by sanding splintered spots, wearing a safety mask to avoid inhaling the dust. Sweep the deck and use a putty knife to clean between the boards. Clean the wood by applying a deck cleaner. Or use a pressure washer, but if you do, keep in mind that the wood will need two to three days to dry.

    For a deck built before 2004 that’s flaking, we suggest hiring a pro equipped to safely remove the finish, dust, and debris. That’s because before 2004, most decks were made of lumber pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to fight rot and insects. Sanding this wood releases the toxic arsenic into the air and surrounding soil.

    3. Use the Right Brushes

    Synthetic brushes are ideal for working a water-based stain into the wood. Natural bristles, on the other hand, are hollow and can lose their rigidity, going limp as they absorb the water in the finish. Prefer a roller? Use one with a nap that’s ¼ inch or shorter. That lets you apply a thin layer of stain that adheres to wood without pooling.

    4. Match the Stain Type to Your Wood

    Each type of stain has its advantages, and the type of stain already on your deck will affect your choice. “If the wood is coated with a solid stain, you can’t apply a semi-transparent or clear stain over it,” says Rich Handel, CR’s test engineer who oversees our wood stain and decking ratings. Solid stain plugs up the wood pores, preventing a semi-transparent or clear stain from soaking into the wood. “But a solid stain can be applied over any type of stain.”

    5. Apply Thin Coats

    If you’re using several gallons of stain for your project, first mix them together to be sure the color is consistent. Then use long, smooth strokes to stain two or three boards at once. Apply solid stains in thin coats and semi-transparent stains or clear sealers in even thinner coats. This prevents puddles that don’t soak into the wood and cause the stain to flake off when dry. Whatever type of stain you use, apply two coats to ensure there are no missed spots and to get a more uniform finish.

    3 Top Wood Stains From CR's Tests

    To see how well different types of wood stains perform, check out CR’s full wood stain ratings. Besides individual ratings for each of our test categories, our Features & Specs section will tell you if a stain is good at resisting cracking, fading, dirt, and mildew. CR digital members can read on for reviews of three of the best wood stains in our ratings.

    Home Content Creator Haniya Rae

    Haniya Rae

    Haniya Rae is a former home and mattress reporter for CR. Previously, she wrote about consumer advocacy issues for The Atlantic, PC Magazine, Popular Science, and others.