A Guide to Stripping or Refinishing a Deck
Spare a moment or two to think about your hard-working deck. It lives outside in all kinds of weather—the sun bakes it, rain and hail pound on it, snow melts and freezes on it, and we won't even mention what birds do to it. Refinishing decks can help them bounce back from all this wear and tear.
Many modern homeowners have converted to composite decking such as Trex. These durable materials last a long time and require little upkeep, outside of occasional cleaning. But they're expensive, and they don't all top the environmentally-friendly list.
Wood decks, on the other hand, maintain that natural outdoorsy appeal many people prefer. However, considering the elements wood decks face, it’s no wonder they start to look weathered. Boards can warp or crack and the surface of the wood may begin to look gray or bare.
Luckily, making your wood deck look as good as new is a job any handy person can tackle DIY style.
Just make sure you have the right tools, equipment, and products (chemical strippers, a pressure washer and an orbital sander are ideal), and give yourself enough time. If your mother-in-law is showing up in two days, that's too short a window.
Each step in the process takes between 30 minutes and a few hours, so if everything goes exactly according to plan (when does that happen in home improvement?), you may be able to complete the project in a weekend. If little things come up to slow you down, the full process of stripping and restaining a deck can take a week or more.
Refinishing a deck is a two-stage process. The first step is to strip off the old finish and clean up the wood. The second is to paint, stain, or finish the newly cleaned surface. However, you may find you don’t need to completely refinish the surface, opting for a fresh resurfacing instead.
Step 1 - Plan and Prepare
For any long-lasting finishing job, you need a well-prepared surface. Depending on the state of your deck, this can require different steps to accomplish. However, the end goal is the same—to create a clean, smooth surface.
While planning, take a measurement of your deck in order to accurately calculate how much stripper and stain or paint you’ll need. Multiply length times width to calculate the square footage and consult the back of the stripper, cleaner, and stain labels to find out the coverage area of the products.
Choose water-based products for easy cleanup and preservation of nearby plants.
Even though the stripper may not be toxic, protect your plants with plastic or tarps. You don’t want to leave your plants covered for too long, so place the coverings just before beginning work and remove them promptly afterward.
Stripping a deck is a messy job. You’ll be removing years of grime along with any chemicals you previously applied. Plan accordingly by dressing in long sleeves and pants. Wear a hat to protect your hair and scalp from the harsh effects of the chemicals. Also wear goggles, waterproof gloves, and a respirator.
Make sure to have an adequate supply of paint trays and liners, rollers, brushes, and other materials to minimize trips back and forth to the paint center.
Also plan to keep the family and pets off the surface while you work. Block off access for the safety of children and pets as well as the integrity of the project.
Step 2 - Clean the Deck
You’ve probably already evaluated whether you actually need to stain the deck, but it’s worth mentioning most stains protect the surface for between one and five years. This is a job you will repeat if you remain in the home.
If water beads up on the surface, you’re probably good to wait another season before tackling a deck refinishing. However, if you have patchy spots where the finish is wearing off, restaining might be in order.
If your stain still looks pretty good, but you need a bit of additional protection, you don’t need to strip the deck before restaining. Instead, you can just clean the surface and roll on a new coating of stain. To decide if you need to strip the surface, look at the quality of the finish.
If the stain is thinning, but all the boards are in good condition, you can apply a new coat of stain without stripping. However, the stain won’t cover up the damage of worn boards or repair flaking stain or paint. If your deck is showing a lot of wear, you’ll need to strip it and prepare the wood before adding more stain.
Either way, you’re going to clean the surface of the deck and surrounding structures you also plan to stain. If you plan to strip the deck, use a pressure sprayer to clean every surface first, but skip the deck cleaner.
Start at the top and work your way down. Then work across the surface of the deck.
If you’re not planning to strip the surface, a deck cleaner will remove grime and debris efficiently. Start by sweeping off the surface.
Follow the directions on the bottle to use a deck cleaner. Typically you just apply it directly to the surface. Then use a push broom with an extension handle to brush the cleaner into the wood surface.
After it sits as directed on the label, rinse the cleaner from the deck, working from one end to the other. You can use a hose or a pressure washer.
Whether you’ve used a cleaner or are going straight to the pressure sprayer in preparation for stripping, ensure the proper setting on your pressure sprayer and keep the nozzle one to two feet above the surface of the decking. Too much pressure will damage the surface of the wood and you won't get the finish you’re hoping for.
If you’re not stripping the surface, move on to Step 5.
Step 3 - Apply the Stripper
A stripper is a product that loosens paint or stain, allowing it to lift off the surface of the wood. Directions vary by product, but typically it requires simply applying, allowing it to work, and removal.
The most important thing to note about working with strippers is you will need to keep the surface damp at all times.
You can apply the stripper immediately after using the pressure washer to clean the surface, while it is still wet. If the surface begins to dry, rewet it with a garden hose before beginning.
Caution—Don't apply strippers when the sun is glaring. This is a job for an overcast day, early morning, or late evening.
The easiest way to apply a stripper to the surface is to roll it on using a paint roller with an extension handle. If you're using a stripper on overhead wood, like a pergola, apply to that location first.
Same goes for deck railings. Roll the stripper onto the deck and let it do its work. Start in one corner of the deck and apply the stripper to all surfaces.
Place the stripper in a paint tray for easy access and reapply it to the roller frequently. Work the stripper over the surface from one end of the deck to the other.
Note: Ensure the surface remains damp at all times, even if you need to stop applying to rewet an area. Once a stripper is applied, use a mist setting for light application. You don’t want to overwet the surface, watering down the effects of the stripper.
When all surfaces are covered, allow the stripper to sit while it works. The only thing you need to do while you wait is make sure it doesn’t dry out.
Most strippers require between 15-45 minutes. You’ll be able to see the progress when the paint or stain begins to lift from the surface of the deck.
The directions are different for each product, but most say to simply wash away the stripper and debris with a garden hose. You can do this, but a power washer will do a better job and get the job done faster. Always move the spray with the grain of the wood rather than across it.
If it doesn’t appear to be removing all the build-up from the deck, use a rough-bristled broom to further loosen and lift old materials from the surface. For very stubborn paint and stain, move the pressure washer closer to the wood surface to strip it away.
Note that both the bristled brush and the pressure washer can result in lifting wood fibers. This is a common occurrence, so try to minimize it and then move on to Step 4.
However, if you still have patches of the original finish, you may want to repeat the process of stripping and rinsing before moving on.
Once you’re done with the stripping process, rinse and remove plastic sheeting from plants as soon as possible.
Step 4 - Sand the Surface
Allow your freshly-stripped deck to dry completely. It’s best to leave it overnight or even for a few days in the sun. While you wait for it to dry, replace damaged boards and any loose screws or nails.
You’re creating a smooth and clean surface for your paint or stain so take the time to properly prepare the surface or you may be disappointed in the final results.
Once the deck is thoroughly dry, use relatively coarse sandpaper (80 grit) on your orbital sander and go over the entire deck, working with the grain. Hit it again with a finer-grit paper for a smoother finish.
This will get rid of any lifted fibers caused by pressure washing as well as any residual finishes, and leave you with a smooth surface and wood fibers that are open and ready to receive the new finish.
Step 5 - Apply a Brightener
If you use a stripper, you don’t need a separate wood cleaner. However, whether you’ve chosen to clean for a restain or stripped the surface, apply a wood brightener.
This is an essential step that not only removes graying and makes your wood look fresh and new, but actually balances the pH in the wood and neutralizes any strippers or cleaners remaining on the surface.
Applying a wood brightener is easy and quick. Many people choose to use a sprayer to apply it. You can also roll or mop it on. Read and follow the product directions. Most state to mix the brightener with water and apply. Then allow the brightener to work for around 15 minutes, reapplying as necessary to keep the surface wet.
Use a hose or a pressure washer to remove the brightener. It takes a while to remove all the product so keep spraying until it no longer produces suds on the surface of the deck.
Allow your wood to dry thoroughly. This may take a few days.
Step 6 - Apply Your Finish
Finally, all your hard work is about to pay off. It’s time to add your protective coating, whether that’s a stain or a paint.
Roll the deck finish onto your deck using a paint roller on an extension handle.
Some people like to use oil-based stains or paints because they think they last longer. While that may have been true in the past, modern water-based stains and paints are just as tough as oil-based options. They are much easier to clean up too.
Allow your freshly coated deck to dry thoroughly before resuming activities.
All deck strippers can be hazardous. Read and follow the manufacturer's directions and always wear rubber gloves and eye protection to protect yourself from splatters, especially when working overhead.
Avoid staining your deck in direct sun or in the heat of the day. The sun or the heat will dry the stain too quickly and you'll end up with a poor finish.
Use caution if using a ladder to reach overhead areas. Make sure it is securely placed and ask a friend to help hold it in place if you have any doubts.
As you can see, stripping and refinishing a deck is a straightforward (if time-consuming) job. Take the time to do it right and you'll end up with a lovely 'new' deck.
If you try to speed up the process, you'll end up with a patchy looking deck that you'll need to refinish all over again—maybe next year.
In the meantime, protect your skin and the wood on your deck by learning 5 Ways to Create Shade on Your Deck. If you have railings on your deck, check out some additional pointers on Wood Deck Railing Finishing Tips.