The inevitable is bound to happen -- your deck will age. But you can determine how gracefully it ages.
"It's not maintenance-free to put wood outside," says deck designer John Breiling. "When you spend $10 to $12 per square foot of deck, you want to care for your wood. It can be tough when you live in a climate that goes from soaking wet to dry in a short amount of time, but caring for your deck is a true investment in what you've already spent."
Whether your deck is already old or was just installed, these pointers will help extend its life.
1. Treat your deck like your kitchen floor. Pat Coughlin, manager of brand development for Flood Co., a manufacturer of stain products, says people often think of a deck as self-cleaning, when in reality it needs to be cleaned as much as your kitchen floor. Coughlin recommends major spring and fall deck cleanings. At these times you should inspect for damage, clean off debris with a hose, sand splinters, and use a stain remover to lift any grill or dirt stains. Throughout the year, keep an eye on your deck. Brush off fallen leaves for better air circulation and so leaves won't rot and leave mildew. If your deck surface is near the ground and air circulation is limited, cover the soil with a polyethylene barrier topped with decorative rock to prevent moisture damage underneath. Clean between decking board cracks and use pot feet to keep potted plants elevated.
2. Clean your deck surface before you stain. George Domedion, director of technical services for the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, says one of the biggest mistakes people make is underpreparing their deck surface before applying stain. Always remove existing deck coatings and start with a fresh surface. A good stiff brush and a deck wash removes stains and washes away dead fibers without hurting the ability of your deck to soak up a new stain. Or use a pressure washer. However, Domedion recommends hiring a professional for this, so you don't accidentally strip the soft grain of the wood. If any areas of the deck have started to splinter or crack, sand them down until a new layer of wood shows through. Read the stain manufacturer's directions, so you prepare the deck surface effectively.
3. Let the deck dry completely before you apply stain. If you've just finished cleaning your deck, wait two or three days before you apply a stain. Give a new deck made from pressure-treated lumber several days to acclimate before you stain. "Even if you touch the wood and it feels dry, you can' trust that," Domedion says. "If you use a stain when the deck is still wet, the oil won't penetrate the wood, and the stain will sit on the surface, instead of seeping in." When you stain, cover as much of the wood as you can, including the ends.
4. Understand how a product performs. Reading labels carefully may sound like a no-brainer, but people often buy a product without understanding how it will perform, Domedion says. For example, if you buy a clear stain, your deck's natural beauty will shine through, but you'll have to restain every 12 to 18 months. If you use a semitransparent or tinted stain, you should only have to restain every three or four years. Stains with pigment in the oil are more resistant to UV damage. Think of a pigmented stain as having a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30, and a clear stain as having an SPF of 9. You can use exterior paint on your deck boards, but it isn't recommended. Paint sits on top of the wood and never penetrates, so it only provides a thin layer of protection that breaks up under heavy foot traffic. If you want to use paint, apply it only to balustrades or railings. As always, clean the surface to remove any dust or mildew before you apply the paint.