Repainting a Deck: How to Prep and Paint for a Long-Lasting Finish

bright colored deck

It is no surprise that natural wooden decks are vulnerable to a whole array of problems ranging from insect infestations to splintering.

You need to paint your deck so that it not only looks good but also stays healthy.

A beautiful, weather-resistant deck is just a few steps away.

With hard work and patience, you can refinish your deck with a beautiful, hard-wearing paint or varnish.  

Exterior Paint or Wood Stain?

exterior paint or wood stain

When you set out to repaint a deck, you have a big decision to make.

Should you use a strong exterior paint, or should you apply a durable external stain that will protect and preserve the natural beauty of your deck’s wood planking? 

Either finish can produce a beautiful, long-lasting finish, but your choice will determine exactly what steps need to be taken.

Applying a painted finish is a much different process than varnish, even if the end result is the same.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both finishes.

Wood Stain

  • Enhances the natural wood grain.
  • Excellent weather resistance.
  • Cheaper than Paint.
  • Requires more frequent reapplication.

Exterior Paint

  • Variety-can be mixed to any color you want.
  • Lasts longer than stain..
  • Hides natural beauty of wood.
  • Up to three times more expensive than wood stain.

Don’t Paint A Brand New Deck

brand new deck

If you have a brand new deck of untreated wood, it can be difficult to resist the urge to paint it right away.

However, if you paint your deck too soon, you will end up having to refinish it soon.

Fresh lumber has a covering of “mill glaze”.

This is a thin, waxy coating on the surface of fresh lumber, caused by the heat of sawmill blades melting the natural sugars and oils in the wood.

Pine and cedar sold for decking and fencing are pressure treated to prevent fungal rot and deter termites and other wood-eating pests.

Fresh from the lumber yard, these chemicals can prevent stain or paint from adhering correctly. 

Ideally, you should wait around a month after a brand-new deck has been built before starting to paint or stain it.

In that time, weather and sunlight will cause the excess pressure-treatment to evaporate from the surface of the wood and the mill glaze will break down.

Steps to Stain a Deck

staining deck

1. Pressure Wash Your Deck: This is the first and last time you should be using a pressure washer on your deck.

2. Once you have stained your deck, a pressure washer, even on a low setting, can strip stain and blast paint right off of your deck.

Even if a pressure washing doesn’t cause visual damage, it will cause hairline cracks and chips in a finish that will eventually allow moisture and wood rot to penetrate the surface.

3. Many hardware stores sell special deck cleaners or wood brighteners that can be mixed into a pressure washer.

Though these products work, detergent can work just as well. 

4. Let the wood dry for a day or two. Most durable deck stains are oil or solvent-based, and they will not absorb well if your deck is still wet from pressure washing.

Wood is absorbent, so even when it is dry to the touch, there could still be too much moisture beneath the surface.

5. Do not sand your deck. Sanding the surface of your deck will fill the pores of the surface with sawdust and make it harder for stain to penetrate.

Remember: Stain means in, paint means on.

Stain works by penetrating the surface of wood, drying to perform a protective barrier on the surface of the wood.

6. Stir your chosen stain and begin brushing it on.

Work in long, straight strokes, overlapping the edges of each stroke lightly.

You do not need to apply more than one coat.

The first coat will penetrate as far as the stain is ever going to go. 

Additional coats of stain will sit on top of the wood, not penetrate it.

Though it will look darker, the excess stain will quickly wear away, and you will end up with the color of the first coat. 

7. Allow your deck to dry up to 48 hours before using it.

Penetrating stains dry from the outside in.

Within an hour, your deck should already feel dry to the touch.

However, there will be liquid stain just below the surface of the wood.

If you walked across the deck at this point, you would have stain come off on the soles of your shoes, as well as create unsightly discolorations on the surface of your deck.

Steps to Paint a Deck

painted deck

1. Pressure wash your deck. This is the first and last time you should be using a pressure washer on your deck.

Once you have painted your deck, a pressure washer, even on a low setting, can blast paint right off of your deck.

Even if a pressure washing doesn’t cause visual damage, it will cause hairline cracks and chips in a finish that will eventually allow moisture and wood rot to penetrate the surface.

Many hardware stores sell special deck cleaners or wood brighteners that can be mixed into a pressure washer to cut through mill glaze.

Though these products work, detergent can work just as well.

2. if your deck was already painted or stained, apply a chemical stripper.

These are harsh chemicals and should be handled with gloves.

Apply the stripper following the manufacturer’s directions.

Once the stripper has loosened the old paint, use a metal paint scraper and a wire brush to remove the old finish.

3. Sand your deck. Paint sits on top of your deck. It doesn’t soak into it.

A smooth, clean surface is much better for adhesion of paint and primer.

Loose splinters and cracks in the wood can often lead to paint chipping, and an uneven painted surface just looks ugly. 

4. Prime your deck. Exterior paint is durable against wear and weather, but it won’t bond well to bare wood.

You should buy an exterior-rated primer.

While more expensive, the formula required to withstand years of sun and rain is much different than interior primer.

Interior primer is not suitable, in any way, for use on decking. 

Also, make sure you don’t buy a self-etching primer; these are acidic coatings meant to bond with steel or iron and will destroy the surface of your deck.

5. Paint your deck. For most projects, a paint roller is fine.

If you have an exceptionally large deck, airless paint sprayer will allow you to cover more area evenly and quickly, but can waste a large amount of paint in the priming and cleaning process.

Like all painting jobs, your goal should be even coverage, not total coverage. 

It is far better to cover a deck in two or three thin coats than to glop all the paint on in one thick coat.

Thick coats of paint are prone to wrinkling as they dry, and often fail to level out, leaving runs and puddles in the finished paint.

6. Wait 48 hours. After your last coat of paint, the deck will look and feel dry to the touch.

Paint dries from the outside-in, so from the time the deck feels dry, you should wait at least two days before walking on it.

Modern acrylics should be totally dry by this period, but are overall less durable; if you chose oil paint, it will continue curing for several weeks before fully curing.

In either case, placing barbecue grills or patio furniture on a freshly painted deck can leave marks.

There’s no easy way to rush curing paint.

Should I use oil or acrylic paint?

backyard deck

Choosing the right paint depends on whether you prioritize colorfastness or long-term durability. 

Oil Paints

Oil paints are all-around more durable than acrylics.

Because they are solvent based, the paint penetrates well into the surface pores of the wood.

This creates a strong physical bond with the wood, which stands up better to foot traffic, scrapes, and wood naturally swelling/shrinking due to heat and humidity.

Oil paint is also easy to touch up with a fresh coat.

The only disadvantage to using oil paint is how it handles the sun. The color will fade quicker under direct sunlight than acrylic.

Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints are water-based, not solvent-based.

They sit on top of the wood; the pigment and binder in acrylic does not penetrate like oil paint or wood stain.

As a result, acrylic paint is much easier to chip and wears quicker under foot traffic and rough weather.

The only upside to acrylics are the UV blockers and other special additives in exterior-grade paint.

Even as they wear away, most acrylics will have nearly the same color as the day the paint dried.

If you simply want your paint to last and use the deck heavily, oil is the way to go.

If you want your deck to always look freshly painted, don’t use your deck regularly, and are OK with the need to repaint it every other summer, acrylic is the way to go.

Get Started!

You now have all you need to get started on that painting project! Plan accordingly and get painting!

Jennifer Bell is a freelance writer, blogger, dog-enthusiast, and avid beachgoer operating out of Southern New Jersey.

She writes for Superior Deck and Fence.