The Deck Handbook: Part 10
Staining, Sealing & Maintaining Your Deck

Wood rots. Some woods rot quickly, some rot very slowly, but all woods exposed to the elements are going to deteriorate to uselessness over time. Some composite decks also rot. They're not supposed to, but historical evidence shows that most will. It usually takes longer for rot to set in, and it manifests itself in ways that you won't find in real wood, but eventually decay does begin, and has to be dealt with.

The culprit is water. Water seeps into wood and provides a splendid environment for the mold, mildew and bacteria that consider wood to be better than Ho-Hos as a yummy snack. Even pressure treated wood will eventually succumb. Treated lumber is not sealed against water; it is merely doused with an unpleasant chemical soup that kills mold, mildew and bacteria — for a time. The treatment is literally just skin deep, and it gradually loses its effectiveness over time, which is why you should expect only a 15-25 year life-span from an unsealed treated pine deck.

Unprotected wood also fades and turns gray. Some of this discoloration is caused by the action of mold, mildew and bacteria in the wood, but most is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Visible light, the wavelengths we see with, cause some fading, as do the long infrared waves that we feel as heat. But, their contribution is minor. By far the major players are the short UV rays that comprise just 2% of the sun's total energy output but cause 98% of the damage.

Keeping Water Out
Keeping water out of wood is the job of sealants. For decks, the usual sealant is a penetrating sealant rather than a surface coating like paint. In the past penetrating sealants lasted, with luck, for a full year. Every spring the deck has to be resealed. Not an onerous task, but irritating and messy.

Today's sealants are much, much better. Most paint manufacturers have deck sealants guaranteed to last 5 to 10 years or more. Many are now offering "lifetime" multi-layered sealants that never need to reapplied and extend the life of a pine deck to 30, even 40 years. None of these is terribly expensive. Most of these products can be used by a handy do-it-yourselfer. Once the deck is properly sealed, it does not need to be resealed for a long time; but take the "lifetime" claim with a big grain of salt.

Blocking Ultraviolet
So modern sealants have pretty much licked the water problem. The ultraviolet problem is another story.

No one has yet developed a reliable long-term anti-UV coating. Most last just a few years. Ultraviolet is the solar death ray that causes deck wood to fade and turn gray. Keeping UV from reaching the wood is the second important sealant function and right now it has not progressed as far as the water barrier function.

Consequently, while we are pretty sure that lifetime sealants do indeed protect a deck from water penetration for a long, long time, we see fading and graying after 5 years. This is not good because once graying starts, the only way to fix it is to sand away the old sealant and grayed wood until fresh wood is revealed, then reseal. And, what use is a lifetime sealant if you have to remove it every few years to restain?

So, we pretty much stick with 5-year coatings and renew the coating before any graying occurs. This keeps the deck looking new(ish) for a very long time. How long? We are not sure yet. None of us has lived that long. Some decks built over 15 years ago (when treated pine was still treated with arsenic) still look relatively new after multiple resealings. We suspect that the new ACQ treated pine, if properly resealed every 5 years or so, is a lifetime product.

Killing Mold and Mildew
A good sealant keeps water out of deck wood, and the absence of water inhibits the growth of mold and mildew. But, the microbes are not eliminated, just restrained. Some new coatings include an anti-mocrobial agent. The best known is Microban®, a trade name for a collection of anti-microbial products, which is showing up in everything from tile grout to pet beds and computer mouse pads. The various active ingredients in the product is supposed to be harmless to people and pets, but genocidal to mold, fungus, mildew and the rest of the microbial family. It does not last forever, but can be renewed each time you retreat your deck. We don't think these are strictly necessary in a good sealant that performs its basic function of keeping water out. But, they do no harm, and, who knows, they might even help by summarily assassinating the occasional pesky microbe that slips in despite all precautions.

Adding Color
Most sealants contain small particles of pigment suspended in the solution (or that will be suspended once you stir it to the manufacturer's specifications — hint, hint.) These add color to the deck. The pigment particles collect in the porous parts of the wood, the part we call "grain" and make is a little darker than the rest of the wood that is less porous and absorbs less pigment. This helps contrast the wood grain as well as even out the color of the deck. In many cases stains are used to change the appearance of the natural wood, for example making pine look more like redwood or cedar. But, it is also common to enhance the "natural" color of the deck. Most natural mahogany, for example, is bland, with only the slightest redish tinge. The red color we have come to associate with mahogany is a stain.

Stain works relatively well in sealants. There is some interference with permeability since the relatively large pigment particles are not at all permeable. But, in most cases, this has minimal impact on the effectiveness of the sealant and the enhanced appearance of the deck makes the trade-off well worth it. Some professionals resist stain/sealant combinations, preferring to stain and seal in separate coats. We think this is more work than it's worth.

Routine Deck Maintenance
All decks require maintenance if they are going to last. Maintenance-free decking does not exist.

Even composite decks have to be sealed; although composite manufacturers absolutely refuse to call the sealing products they use "sealants" — because many advertise their products as never needing sealing. Nonetheless, most composite manufacturers while stopping short of recommending periodic coating, suggest that treating the deck every year or so with a "protective coating" to guard against stains, mold and mildew would do no harm. If this sounds like this protective coating it might be a "sealant", you're right, it is. There are many brands of composite sealants, so use the one recommended by the manufacturer of your deck. If you have lost the instructions that came with your decking material, go to the manufacturer's web site or call its help line to find out what "protective coating" is recommended. And, remember, it's not a "sealant", wink, wink!

Wood decks need be recoated less often. New wood sealants are available that last five years and more. But, every deck needs to be, at minimum, inspected and thoroughly washed every year. So, it's best to understand what your deck is made of and the maintenance schedule you should follow for a long-lasting deck. Here is the process we follow to clean and reseal a deck.

Step 1: Inspection and Repair
Visually inspect the deck. Look for loose fasteners. Nails have a bad habit of working loose in wood over the course of a year. Wood shrinks and swells, loosening the nails. Set all loose nails. It a nail does not appear to grip any longer, remove it and drive in a new nail about 1" away. We build our decks exclusively with triple-coated corrosion resistant screws designed especially for the outdoor environment of decks. These rarely work loose, but if you see a screw head sticking up, retighten the screw. Look for decayed wood. If the wood is soft when poked with a screwdriver, or sags when you step on it, it is probably rotten. Replace any rotten deck boards and structural members. Note the spots where the deck seems excessively worn. These areas are candidates for an extra coat of stain and sealant. Look for visible patches of mold (usually black) and mildew (usually green). Mold and mildew is everywhere, so you are bound to have some of each on your deck somewhere. But, large patches often indicate places where cleaning with a fungicide might be called for.

Step 2: Preparation
Sweep debris like leaves, twigs and loose dirt off the deck. Rinse off the deck lumber to cool it off and help loosen heavy deposits of dirt and mud. Rinsing off the deck first will cool the surface and help prevent the deck cleaner from drying too fast to be effective. This is especially important for composite decks that tend to get very hot in summer. Wet down plants and grass around the deck and, if necessary, cover plants, grass, concrete and other areas you want to protect from potential damage or staining. Plastic sheeting at least four Mils thick (a Mil is 1/1000 of an inch) is adequate to prevent incidental damage by high-pressure spray or chemicals. Clear plastic works best because it doesn't allow as much heat buildup and you can better see the plants under the plastic and any water or chemical pools that may build up on top of the plastic. Keep in mind that there is absolutely no deck cleaner that plants actually like.

Step 3: Washing the Deck
Because they are outdoor horizontal surfaces, decks collect a lot of dirt, grime, mold, and mildew. A yearly washing keeps the deck surface looking nice and is a necessary step before sealing or staining. Power washing is seldom necessary and excessive pressure from the power washer may actually damage the deck. General washing with a good cleaner using a garden hose will usually suffice. If your deck is so dirty that a power washing is necessary, leave it to the professionals. They have the equipment and know-how to clean your deck without harming it.

There are many deck cleaning products available. They are all some variety of detergent and their job is to loosen dirt and grime so it can be rinsed away. There are three general types:


Whatever cleaner you use, follow the manufacturer's directions carefully. Some require the deck be wet prior to application. Most recommend that you clean on a day when it is not too hot and out of direct sunlight. Many if not most will damage surrounding plants, which need to be covered and protected. Most cleaners are concentrated and require dilution before use. The amount of time the cleaner must sit on the deck varies as does the amount of drying time before new sealant and stain can be applied. Wear eye protection and closed-toe shoes at all times when using these products.

Apply the cleaner to the deck. Most can be applied with a garden sprayer. Work a small section at a time - not more than 10' x 10' - smaller if this is your first time. Let the cleaner set for the amount of time recommended by the manufacturer — usually between 10 and 20 minutes. After it has set, scrub the deck thoroughly with a good, stiff, natural-bristle scrub brush to work the cleaner into the deck crevices and help loosen crusted on dirt, mold and mildew. Pay special attention to places where there is buildup of mold and mildew or heavy discoloration. Rinse thoroughly using lots and lots of fresh water. You want to remove all traces of the cleaner. Don't forget to rinse the underside of the deck boards and all the structure under the deck. If the deck is still not clean, do it again.

Once the deck is cleaned to your satisfaction, allow the deck to dry for the number of days recommended by the manufacturer of the sealant you intend to use — usually two days. If it rains during the two days, restart the count on the day after the last rain.

Step 4: Staining and Protecting
Deck stain and sealant terminology is confusing. There are stains that are just stains, without any sealant properties. There are stains that are also sealants. These are both usually called "stain" or "penetrating stain" on the can. You have to read the can to find out which is which. You can, especially on a new deck, use a non-sealing stain then cover it with a sealant. But, combination stain/sealants are so good these days that there is no reason to go to all the extra work. Penetrating sealants are classified by how much pigment they contain, and their formulation.

Pigment Classes
There are four general pigment classes: Look for the Master Painters Institute (MPI) Certification
MPI Seal Ensure that whatever sealant you use, it clearly states on the container that it is water repellent and meets Master Painters Institute (MPI) standard #33 for deck sealants. You will have to comb through all the fine print on the can to find this approval stamp, but if it's not there, don't buy the sealant.

A great many heavily advertised deck sealants do not meet this standard, so look for it even if the brand you are buying is well known. For list of sealants tested and approved by MPI, click here.

Water or Oil Based?
Sealant formulations are either water or solvent (oil) based. Water base sealants are easier to use, but most professional sealants are oil based. They work better. There are also epoxy-based sealants, but these are quite expensive, difficult to work with and have yet to prove any more effective than oil-base sealants. Oil-based sealants clean up with mineral spirits or paint thinner — so when you buy the sealant, also buy the solvent.

Applying the Sealant
You can apply most sealants with a brush and roller or garden sprayer. Most pros use a special applicator pad that make the job a little faster. If you spray, you will also want a brush to work the sealant into corners and canvasses and a roller to spread out any puddles. A sprayer is difficult to control, so make sure everything you don't want to spray is completely covered with 4 Mil plastic sheets The sealant will happily stain your patio furniture and concrete patio just as thoroughly as any wood on you deck, so be careful. It's not as easy as the pros make it look.

Two thin coats are better than one thick coat. Do not allow the finish to puddle. To speed up the process, one person can apply the stain or sealer with a sprayer and another person can use a roller or brush to spread puddles and to work the finish into the wood, a process known as "backrolling".

When you are done, rinse off any tarps or ground cloths with the hose before spreading them out to dry. If you used any rags for cleanup of a solvent-based sealant, spread them out to dry completely. Heat generated from evaporating finish on a pile of rags can start a fire. If you are using water-based stain, clean equipment with soapy water. If you are using oil-based sealers, clean with paint thinner or mineral spirits.

Protecting a Composite Deck
The days when composite decks were sold as "no maintenance" are gone. Too many composite suppliers got sued too many times. Now, the most manufacturers will say about their composite decks is that they are "low maintenance" or "lower maintenance" than wood decks. (We are not at all convinced that even that limited claim is wholly true. See: Part 4: Composite Decks. Most composite manufacturers recommend that their products be cleaned and a protective coating applied once each year — exactly the same routine maintenance recommended for wood decks. The coatings are similar to sealants for wood decks, but with a slightly different formulation. Look on the web site of your composite supplier to find out which sealant it recommends. Many have in-house brands that they prefer you use.

Composite coatings, like wood sealants, retard mold and mildew with some sort of fungicide, and provide UV protection that slows fading. While no composite manufacturer yet admits that composites need to be restained every once in a while, the paint companies, like Sherwin-Williams, have produced some pretty convincing evidence that many composite decks will fade to gray in just a few years. Restoring the original finish requires re-coloring. Composite deck stain formulations are not much different from wood stains, and frankly, we feel a good wood stain and sealant would work just as well. However, for the small difference in price, select a stain thatis specifically formulated for composite decking. Most manufacturers suggest the stain be reapplied to a clean deck every two years.

  

Are you ready for your own dream deck?

We can build one just right for your budget. Contact usE-mail us at design@starcraftcustombuilders.com and let's get started.



Need to learn more about designing, planning and building a deck or porch? Try these articles:
  • Can I Do It Myself
    You can always do at least some of your remodeling yourself. How much you can do depends on the extent of the work to be done, how much knowledge you have of building techniques and such things as building code requirements; and the three "T"s: Time, Talent and Tools. Find out what you can tackle yourself and what you should absolutely leave for the pros.


  • The Construction Process
    Once your blueprints are completed, the real work begins. Your project manager works with you to develop a construction process that minimizes disruption to your household while work is in progress.


  • The Deck Handbook: Introduction to Decks
    Learn the basics of deck design and construction using the latest materials and techniques.


  • The Deck Handbook: Domestic Wood for Decks
    By far he most wood most commonly used for decks is pressure-treated pine. But, it is not the only species widely used. Tamarack, cypress and the cedars have found their place in American decks.


  • The Deck Handbook: Exotic and Imported Deck Woods.
    In the ever-widening quest for wood that looks good, is structurally adaptable and resists rot and decay, imported hardwoods have become significant niche players. The most common are Ipe (pronounced "ee-PAY") and the old standby mahogany. Others include Teak, Cumaru and Jarrah.


  • The Deck Handbook: Composite and Plastic Decks.
    decking first hit the market around 25 years ago, it was trumpeted as the best thing to happen to deck building since decking screws replaced nails. hat enthusiasm was short-lived. Within a very few years significant flaws in the material began to surface...


  • The Deck Handbook: Railings, Lighting, Pergolas and Seating
    The feature that brings the most character to a deck is its railing. Deck railings are required in most localities on any deck higher than 36" (24" in some places) from the ground...


  • -->
  • The Deck Handbook: The (Almost) Maintenance Free Deck
    It is entirely possible to build a deck that is almost maintenance-free. It requires understanding why deck fails, a little common-sense, some unlikely deck materials, and a fresh approach, but it is possible. In fact, it costs very little more to build an almost maintenance-free deck than it does to build a standard pine deck. Here's how we do it.


  • Building by Design: The Design-Builder Concept
    A design-builder is a modern form of an ancient approach to building structures — that of the master builder. A master builder of old was a combination architect, engineer and builder, responsible for every phase of building a structure from initial concept to completion. Design-building firms such as StarCraft Custom Builders continue this oldest of building traditions.


  • The Design Process
    If your plans include substantial changes to your kitchen or bath, or another room, or you are contemplating an addition; then a construction plan is required. Learn how your ideas are turned into a concept plan and then a construction blueprint in a three-step process using computer-assisted design.


  • Living Through Remodeling
    Remodeling will disrupt just about every routine you have; including some you are not aware of having. But, this noisy, gritty process doesn't necessarily mean you will be tearing out your hair. With a little advance planning, it is possible to live through even major renovations with your sanity and good nature largely intact. Check out our remodeling survivors guide.