I recently finished staining a deck for one of my clients. As I was doing the work, it occurred to me that there are lots of ways you could mess up a nice deck if you didn't know what you were doing. Since this is one of the top DIY projects for cost-conscious homeowners, I thought I would share a few tips for doing the job right.
The Deck Must Be Cured, Clean, and Dry
Never stain a brand new deck. Fresh wood is not porous enough to accept the stain, because the wood hasn't cured yet. It takes about three to six months for a deck to dry out enough to be stained. How will you know if the deck is ready to stain? Simply dribble a little water on the wood. If the water beads up, you need to wait a little longer. If it soaks in, you're ready to go.
Once the deck has cured, you will need to clean it. You can buy special deck cleaner at the hardware store. This removes dirt and mills marks which would otherwise mar the finish. Follow the instructions on the bottle and make sure to wear the appropriate protective gear. You should also make sure to rinse the deck off very well once it's cleaned. Since you'll be rinsing some harsh chemicals off your deck, be sure to protect the surrounding plants with tarps.
After the deck has been cleaned, you'll need to let the deck dry again. This time you only have to wait a few days. This leads me to my next point...
Keep an Eye on the Weather
The deck needs to be completely dry before you stain it; you need at least 48 hours of dry weather after the initial cleaning. (If the deck is in the shade, you may need wait longer.)
After you stain the deck, the finish needs time to dry completely. This means dry weather for at least 12 hours. Even more if possible. All in all, you may need up to a week of dry weather.
Have the Right Tools for the Job
This is detail-oriented work, and if you're not a pro, you'll probably spend a lot of time kneeling on your deck to reach little out-of-the-way spots. For this reason, I recommend that you get a good pair of knee pads.
I also recommend the special deck-staining sponges available at the hardware store. Technically, the "best" way to apply stain is with a brush; but brushing the stain on is very time-consuming. You can save yourself some effort and still get a good result with a sponge. Buy more than one sponge, since they seem to disintegrate after awhile. I will add that the sponges are really drippy, so be ready for extra splatter.
You will also need all of the usual painting equipment: dropcloths, painter's tape, paint pans, and rags. Get a brush as well, for the finer work.
Deck Stain is Not Paint
Staining a deck is very different from painting a deck, because deck stain is translucent, and it builds up in layers. This means that you need to get the stain right the first time, because if you have to come back and touch up a spot you missed, the new layer of stain will make a blotch over the old layer:
This Stuff Drips Like Crazy!
Not only does stain go on in thin layers, but it's also much thinner and drippier than paint. This means that if you're painting a deck railing, you MUST put down a dropcloth and carefully tape the bottom edges of the railing. Otherwise you'll have permanent drip marks underneath the railing.
Work Your Way Down and Out
It's Worth It!
Asheville's sunny summers and rainy winters can be really hard on decks. It's worth protecting your investment with a good coat of stain. To give you some inspiration, here are some before-and-after pictures of my client's deck. The stain dramatically improved the look of the wood. It was definitely worth the trouble to do it right.