Day 2: Applying the Finish

Once a deck is thoroughly dry (after at least three consecutive days without rain), it's time to apply the finish. Wait for a day with no chance of rain and little wind, then drape plastic sheets or tarps over plants, grass, and nearby structures to protect them from overspray.

Here's what you'll need:

• 2-gallon pump sprayer with a fan tip (a different sprayer from the one used for cleaning and bleaching)
•Foam applicator pad with extension pole
•Enough finish to cover decking and railings. Before spraying, mix it all in a bucket to ensure a consistent hue over the entire deck.

When it's freshly scrubbed, even an old deck looks pretty handsome. But the wood won't stay that way for long unless it gets a good coat of finish that repels water, blocks ultraviolet rays, and prevents mildew. (Note: Some tropical hardwoods, like ipe, are so dense that a finish is optional.)

Deck finishes come in three basic types: sealers, semitransparent stains, and solid-color stains. The key difference among them is the amount of pigment they contain.

Clear sealers are pigment free and so let the wood's natural color show through, but they provide little UV protection.

Solid stains have so much pigment that the sun's rays can't reach the wood surface, but they also hide the wood's grain. (Paint has lots of pigment too but isn't suitable for decks because it forms a film that inevitably chips and peels — a maintenance nightmare.)

Semitransparent stains occupy the middle ground between the two, with enough pigment to block most UV rays, but not enough to completely obscure the wood grain. Even within this group, there are different amounts of pigment and transparency; see Deck Defense for more information. The look of a semitransparent stain varies considerably depending on the kind of wood it's applied to. To make sure you'll be happy with your choice, first buy a small sample, brush it on a piece of scrap decking, and let it bake for a few days outdoors.
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