Do Decks Have to Be Stained?

We’d love to give you a clear-cut answer so you can be on your way to either staining or enjoying your new deck. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules with regards to whether decks have to be stained.

What we can do is help you make a decision. It’ll depend on three main factors: the type of wood you used, how you want your deck to look, and how much work you’re willing to put into maintaining your deck.

What’s the Point of Stain Anyway?

Most decks – and virtually all structural components of decks – are made out of pressure-treated lumber. Pressure-treated lumber is chemically treated to be resistant to rot and insects. But the chemical treatment doesn’t protect it against water.

Stain protects wood from water. Without stain, water seeps into the wood and causes it to swell. Then as it dries, it shrinks. This constant cycle of swelling and shrinking will eventually cause the wood to crack, twist, and bend, and your deck to fall apart sooner rather than later.

Wait a minute. If stain can protect and extend the life of a deck, why would anyone choose not to stain their deck? As mentioned earlier, one of the factors is how much maintenance you’re willing to do. Some people don’t mind letting their deck weather naturally if that means less maintenance. They’ll simply replace their deck earlier down the road.

Another factor is the type of wood you used for your deck. If you opted for something unique and chose a dense hardwood like ipe, you have less reason to stain because these “ironwoods” don’t absorb as much water and are therefore more resistant to water damage. Without stain, you’ll still get a great 50 years out of them, at least. That’s why many public boardwalks near the beach are made out of ipe – they can last for decades with little to no maintenance.

Cedar and redwood are the two other common deck woods. They’re naturally resistant to rot and insects, and more resistant to water damage than pressure-treated lumber, though not as resistant as ironwoods. Again, you can choose to stain these woods and extend their life, or let them weather naturally and expect a shorter service life.

The other use for stain is to add color to your deck. All woods – and everything under the sun, for that matter – will fade from UV rays. And unless you like the silvery gray color of faded wood, you might want to re-introduce color to your deck with stain.

Is Staining and Sealing the Same?

Let’s say you decide to stain your deck. You go to the store and see products labeled as wood sealers and wood stains. You wonder: what’s the difference?

A sealer protects the wood from water but doesn’t add color. A stain protects the wood from water and adds color. However, sometimes you’ll see products labeled as “clear stain” or “transparent stain” which are basically sealers because they don’t add color to the wood.

Comparison between clear, semi-transparent, and solid wood stain.

Besides clear stains, you’ll find semi-transparent stains and solid stains. Semi-transparent stains add color without covering the wood grain. They penetrate into the wood and do not form a film on the surface of your deck.

Solid stains add color to the point where you can no longer see the wood grain. They are film-forming. So in a way, solid stains are like paint, and they share the same weaknesses in that they eventually chip and flake off the surface.

To Stain or Seal a Deck

We suggest starting with a sealer before moving onto a semi-transparent stain. In the first few years, your wood still has its beautiful, natural color so adding color isn’t necessary.

As the color fades from the sun, you can switch to a semi-transparent stain. Semi-transparent stains are easy to work with. They don’t cause a flaky mess that looks terrible and is difficult to remove like solid stains do.

It’s a good idea to wait a few months before staining a brand-new deck. There’s bound to be moisture still inside the wood, and you want to “age” the wood and let the fibers loosen up a bit so that it can take the stain. If possible, stain the wood before putting your deck together. That way you don’t have to wrestle with tough-to-reach spots.

How Often Do You Re-stain a Deck?

Maybe you’re asking whether you have to stain a deck because you dread the idea of setting yourself up for a lifetime of staining. Well, it’s true that you have to keep up with the staining, except it may not be as bad as you imagined.

The key is to choose the right stain and sticking with the same product so you can do quick touch-ups without having to strip out the old stain. A semi-transparent stain – at least beyond the first few years – is the way to go. Clear stains wear off too quickly, while solid stains cause a flaky mess and are a pain to re-stain.

Depending on the kind of weather you get in your area, you would be re-staining your deck every 2 to 4 years with a semi-transparent stain. There’s no need to strip the stain if you’re using the same product. Simply clean your deck and re-apply the stain.

Here’s how to check if your deck needs to be re-stained: pour water onto your deck and see what happens. If the water beads up, your stain is still intact. But if the water soaks into the wood, then it’s time to re-stain.

It’s Up to You

So do you have to stain a deck? Perhaps the best answer is: it’s up to you.

Is the type of wood you’re using resistant to moisture? Do you like the weathered look of wood, or do you prefer its warm colors? Would you rather extend the service life of your deck, or do less maintenance? You can work out a decision by asking yourself these questions.

Have Fun Out There!