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If your shabby old deck has become a source of shame, there’s usually a fix short of replacing it. Assuming the structure is sound, your deck can be restored. Depending on the desired look, you can spruce up a worn-out deck with a new stain or paint-based protective seal.

A deck rejuvenation project like this can be done in two days, but for homeowners who choose to apply stain, it’s best to spread the work over two weekends to ensure the wood is completely dry before you apply the stain. You also need a clear weather forecast, as a paint-based sealant coating requires 48 hours to dry before being exposed to rain or extreme humidity.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Sprucing up a Worn Deck

By doing the work yourself, most decks can be rejuvenated for a lot less than the cost of replacement—and certainly for less than hiring a professional. The following are some techniques you can use to give an old deck a new lease on life.

Inspect and Prep the Deck

Photo by Laura Moss

Steps:

  • Begin by inspecting the entire deck. Pay special attention to any part that’s in direct contact with the ground, such as the posts, stair stringers, or joists that are at ground level. If you can sink the tip of a screwdriver into a post or joist, it means you’ve got rot.
  • Remove any damaged deck boards and cut off the rotted portion—all the way back to the centerline of the nearest joist.
  • Use deck screws to reattach the good end, then cut a piece of like decking to fill the gap, and screw it to the joists.
  • Check the handrails and balusters, then replace any damaged sections. Use a 5-in-1 tool to remove large splinters and reset raised nailheads with the nailset and hammer.

Protect the Surroundings

Photo by Laura Moss

Steps:

  • Tape plastic sheeting over the siding from the decking up to about waist height. Cover or remove anything beneath the deck as well.
  • The level of lawn and foliage protection depends on the type and concentration of the chemicals you choose.
  • For weak solutions and “plant-friendly” cleaners, mist the plants beforehand so the chemicals won’t get absorbed by the leaves after using the cleaner. Powerful corrosive agents can burn leaves on contact—in that case, you should cover nearby plants with plastic sheeting.

Clean Decks that Weren’t Previously Stained

For decks that are not stained, a good scrub is the next step. While there are abundant deck cleaners on the market, a DIY cleaning solution will work just fine.

Here’s a deck cleaner you can make yourself. Recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory, it’s good for mildew and dirt.

Ingredients:

  • 1 qt. sodium hypochlorite solution (household bleach)
  • ⅓ cup powdered laundry detergent
  • 3 qts. warm water

Steps:

  • In a 5-gallon plastic bucket, add the bleach and detergent to the water
  • Then, brush the cleaner onto the deck.
  • Rinse thoroughly, per directions below, and allow the deck to dry overnight before applying a finish.

Apply Stripper to Previously Stained Decks

Photo by Laura Moss

For previously stained decks:

  • Fill a pump sprayer with the recommended stripper and suit up with protective gear, including goggles, rubber boots, and gloves.
  • Working in 20-square-foot sections, saturate the deck boards and handrails.
  • Let the stripper stand for 15 minutes, then use a push broom or brush with synthetic bristles to work the stripper into the coated areas.
  • Watch your footing—wet decking is slippery.

Rinse the Deck

Photo by Laura Moss
  • Affix a 40-degree fan tip to a pressure washer and set it to spray between 1,500 and 2,500 psi for pressure-treated wood. For non-pressure-treated wood like redwood, pressure washing is still recommended. If you’re worried about gouging the wood from the power sprayer, use a scrub brush and gentle cleaning solution instead.
  • Wearing your protective gear, work from an inside corner outward, using long, controlled strokes to push the stripper or cleaner off the ends of the boards.
  • Keep the tip about 6 inches from the wood’s surface and repeat several times until the runoff changes from foamy to clear.

Sand Everything Smooth

Photo by Laura Moss

Steps:

  • Once the wood has dried, don a dust mask and use a sanding pole and 50-grit paper to roughly scuff the entire deck, including the handrail and balusters. Always sand with the grain.
  • Sweep or vacuum any dust.

Test the Surface on Decks that Were Previously Stained

Photo by Laura Moss

To check for any residual sealant:

  • Pour a capful or two of water on different surface areas—high traffic and low traffic, shady and sunny, exposed and covered, new and old.
  • The water should soak into the wood quickly, in less than a minute.
  • If it beads up, you’ll need to strip and sand those areas again, then redo the water test.

For Staining

Once all of the repairs have been made and the deck is clean, it’s time to apply a protective finish. Clear finishes and transparent stains are fine for new wood, but for older decks, using a semi-transparent stain is commonly recommended. The grain still shows through, but the pigment gives the old wood a clean, uniform color and helps any new wood blend in.

The pigment also provides extra protection from the damaging effects of the sun and will last longer than clear finishes. An advantage of stain, unlike paint, is that stain is absorbed by the wood and does not form a film on its surface, so it will not peel or chip.

Before stain can be applied, the wood must dry, or it won’t absorb the finish. Three or four consecutive days without rain is enough time in most climates. (When in doubt, check with a moisture meter; when it reads 15 percent or less, the wood is ready to coat.) Sweep the deck clean before applying stain.

Stain the Railings

Photo by Kristine Larsen
  • Using a synthetic filament brush slightly wider than the deck’s boards, apply the stain full-strength in the same order you scrubbed: top rail, balusters and posts, bottom rail, and then the decking.
  • Brush up drips and runs immediately. For an even color, stir the stain frequently during application.

Tip: Finish all four sides of each baluster before moving on to the next one.

Stain the Deck

  • Brush the deck’s boards one at a time with long, even strokes, working with the grain.
  • Keep a wet edge to avoid lap marks, and immediately brush out any pools of stain.
  • For extra protection, a clear water repellent can be applied after the stain dries.
  • When you’re finished, let the deck dry for at least two days before replacing the furniture or walking on it.

For Applying a Paint-Based Protective Seal

  • Once the wood is dry, fill any gouges, holes, and cracks deeper or wider than ¼ inch with a paintable acrylic caulk.
  • Use a putty knife to scrape off the excess, then allow the caulk to set until it skins over, probably 30 minutes.

Coat the Balusters

Photo by Laura Moss

Steps:

  • Use a small roller or a brush to coat all the vertical surfaces with the solid-color sealant.
  • If your deck requires more than one gallon, combine equal parts from multiple cans to ensure the color is evenly mixed.
  • Once the seal dries, look for any missed gaps or cracks, fill them with caulk, and reseal them when the caulk is dry.

Cut in

Photo by Laura Moss

Before coating the deck, use the paintbrush to work the paint into the gaps between deck boards, which will be hard to reach with the thick resurfacing paint

Fill in the Field with Paint

Photo by Laura Moss

Steps:

  • Use a corded drill/driver and a stout mixing paddle to thoroughly mix your resurfacing paint, blending batches if you have more than one.
  • Working from a back corner, use a heavily saturated roller and slight pressure to push a bead of the paint ahead of the roller into the surface cracks—in one direction only.

Note: Using a thick-napped roller will not work. Do not roll back and forth, as it will peel the coating off.

Break the Film

Photo by Laura Moss

The coating is so thick that it will span the gap between boards on most decks.

  • Run the 5-in-1 tool along the gaps to break the film, letting the excess drip down along the edges.
  • Allow the first coat to dry for 4 to 6 hours. When the surface is no longer tacky, start the second coat.

Cover problem areas

Photo by Laura Moss

For cupped boards, use a small roller and go across the width of each board to apply the coating.

Apply Finish Coat and Fill Cracks

Photo by Laura Moss

Wait to apply finish coat until dry weather is expected for 48 hours post-application. Apply the finish coat in the same manner as you applied the initial coat, covering all surfaces. Take care to fill any visible fissures and cracks in boards.

Tip: Using a 4-inch roller on the second pass does a nice job of filling any remaining cracks because it fits perfectly between the edges of the boards.

Smooth the Finish

Photo by Laura Moss

Optional: If you want a less textured finish on the handrails, use the chip brush to back-brush the second coat while it’s still wet.

Now comes the hardest part: Allow the finish coat to dry for at least 24 hours before walking on it, and four days before placing any furniture on it. Oh, and make sure to not let it rain for 48 hours after you finish.