Deck Sealing vs staining will always be debatable as both serves the same general purpose – protecting and preserving wood, allowing the deck to serve you for a long time.
Many people think they are the same because of the similar functionality, but they have significant differences that prove otherwise.
In this article, I’ll discuss deck sealing vs staining in depth to help you know and understand the differences.
Deck sealing involves applying a transparent coating over the wood to keep moisture from penetrating the fibers.
The sealant does not alter the wood color and will penetrate or form a film over the wood, depending on the type you purchase.
On the downside, deck sealing does not offer enough UV protection because the sealants lack pigment, which is necessary to block the sun’s rays.
On the other hand, staining involves applying a tinted coating that protects the wood and adds a little color to the grain.
Apart from adding color, the pigment in stains also blocks UV rays, thus protecting the wood from sun damage.
However, stains wear out quickly; thus, you must restain every few years to maintain the deck.
These are the most basic factors to know about staining and sealing decks.
However, you must also know the products you’ll need for both methods and how they work on different types of wood. So, let’s dive in.
What Is Deck Sealer?
A deck sealer is a finish that you apply on wood to lock out moisture that could trigger mold or mildew growth.
It is transparent and ideal for protecting teak, cedar, mahogany, and any other wood with unique features you would like to show off.
It also keeps insects such as termites from attacking the wood, causing it to lose its structural strength.
The clear color of the deck sealers is an advantage and disadvantage. Being transparent means, it doesn’t have pigment to protect your wood against sun damage and UV radiation.
The sun’s heat will dry out the natural oils in the wood, causing it to split, crack, and check. Moreover, the UV exposure will cause the wood to turn gray.
This means that a traditional deck sealer will prevent moisture-related damages, but your deck will still be vulnerable to sun damage.
On the bright side, paint companies have added zinc particles and other UV blockers in their formula to prevent sun damage.
Usually, sealed deck wood starts to lose its color at about six months, but with the tweaked formulas, the time doubles to 12 months.
So, if you want to maintain your wood’s color, you must reapply the sealer yearly to avoid resting time after it loses its protection ability.
Types of Deck Sealers
There are two types of deck sealers primarily differentiated by how they protect the wood.
Penetrating sealers seep into the wood grain to protect against moisture and weathering. Some good examples include tang oil, linseed oil, and natural or synthetic waxes.
You can apply these sealers as they are or use mineral spirits to dilute them, allowing you to apply thinner coats.
Since it penetrates the wood fibers, this type of deck sealer does not crack or peel off, and you don’t have to strip it when reapplying it down the line.
This feature is handy, especially in decks partially shaded and partially exposed to the elements.
If it wears out faster on one side, you can redo the worn-out areas without worrying about resealing the whole deck.
Film-forming sealers sit on the surface instead of penetrating the wood grain.
They are thicker than the penetrating versions and dry into a harder waterproof coating that is scratch resistant.
They also take longer to dry than the penetrating sealers and are more susceptible to cracking and peeling.
- Deck sealers are the best for moisture protection
- They do not change the wood’s natural color.
- They extend the service life of the wood.
- They lack UV protection; thus, the wood color will fade.
- The wood remains susceptible to cracking, splitting, and checking even if you apply the best wood sealer.
- They take longer to dry.
What Is Deck Stain?
Like deck sealers, deck stains protect the wood from moisture that would eventually cause rot, mold, or mildew.
They also have a color pigment that adds some color to the wood grain and protects the wood against sun damage – preventing the wood’s color from fading.
Deck stains, like most finishes, fade over time and should be reapplied every 2-5 years or as often as the manufacturer instructed.
When the stain starts to fade, it indicates losing its protective abilities.
So, if you fail to reapply it, your wood will be exposed and may succumb to the effects of harsh environmental elements.
The opacity of a deck stain can either be semi-transparent, semi-solid, or solid. This is the factor that determines how much grain will show through the finish after it dries.
- Semi-transparent wood stains allow the grain to show through; hence it is suitable for newer woods or woods with unique grain patterns like oak.
- Semi-solid stains have a little more pigment, allowing very little grain to show through. They are ideal for decks that have minor wear.
- Solid stains have a lot of pigment; hence they do not allow the wood grain to show. They are perfect for hiding imperfections on deck boards or when you want a splash of color without painting the deck.
Note: You will get more UV protection from the stains with more pigment.
Types of Deck Stains
Oil-based Deck Stains
This type of stain uses oil as its solvent. It is easier to apply because it penetrates the wood fibers more easily, preventing the wood from warping or cracking.
It also resists peeling much better because it seeps deep into the wood.
Oil stains are ideal for woods such as pine and spruce, which do not have any natural rot protection oils.
They are also perfect for protecting structures exposed to harsh conditions for a long time, such as fences, decks, pergolas, and any other outdoor structure.
Moreover, they are best used in climates that experience sub-zero temperatures in some parts of the year because they handle freeze-thaw cycles better than water-based ones.
On the downside, oil-based deck stains tend to have high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs); hence they are not 100% safe for the environment.
Water-based Deck Stains
Water-based wood stains penetrate the wood fibers but still allow the wood to breathe.
This means that moisture can seep in and evaporate out, reducing the chances of mold and mildew growth.
They are more VOC compliant than oil stains because of their water base, but some products contain toxic solvents like glycol and heavy metals such as zinc.
Therefore, check your product’s label before purchasing if you want to avoid toxic substances.
This type of stain is ideal for protecting woods such as cedar, redwood, cypress, and any other wood that has oils that allow them to resist rot naturally.
You can apply it with a nylon brush, a roller, or a sprayer, and clean-up of tools is easy with just water and some soap.
Furthermore, water-based stains dry faster than oil-based stains, and you can use them to retouch wood previously stained with an oil stain.
- The higher quality products can last up to five years.
- years or more for the higher quality products
- They offer protection against UV damage.
- They have multiple color and tint choices.
- They are the best at hiding wood discoloration.
- The highly pigmented stains hide the wood grain.
- You must apply multiple thin coats to achieve the desired effect.
- Some stains penetrate unevenly, leaving your finish looking patchy.
How to Stain a Deck
The steps to staining deck are as follows:
Step 1: Clear and Repair the Deck
Start by removing all furniture and other decorative accessories from your deck. Relocate everything to your garage or build a temporary shed in your yard to serve as storage space.
- The project will take more than 48 hours to complete, and you must keep it clear throughout that duration. Therefore, ensure that the storage place you choose will provide ample shelter in case the weather changes for the worse.
Next, sweep the deck to remove leaves, dust, and other debris. Start sweeping at the deck’s center and work outward, brushing the dirt over the edges.
Use a putty knife to loosen any gunk trapped between the deck boards and other corners, then sweep them over the edges.
- If you’re staining a new deck, then all the boards and fixtures are still in good shape, and you can skip this step.
However, if you’re staining a deck, you built long ago, you may need to replace some boards and do some repairs before applying the finish.
- Remove old and rickety boards, then replace them with freshly cut wood.
Ensure that the new wood is of the same species as the original decking material to guarantee a uniform appearance after staining.
Additionally, ensure that you attach the new bards using the same fasteners used originally.
Note: If your deck is badly damaged and needs more extensive repairs, I recommend hiring a professional contractor to help you fix it.
- Finally, sand down all rough spots on the decking boards to smoothen them and make any repairs flush with the surface.
- Use an orbital sander to help you finish the work faster, but if you do not know how to operate one, you can sand by hand using sandpaper wrapped over a sanding block.
Sanding by hand will take more time and effort, but it will get the job done all the same.
Step 2: Wash the Deck
Start by covering all plants in the immediate areas surrounding your deck using a tarp or a plastic sheet.
Shielding the vegetation will prevent them from being exposed to the chemicals in the deck cleaner you will use.
You can skip covering your plants if you are using an organic or plant-friendly wood cleaner.
Next, wear gloves and safety glasses to protect your skin and eyes from the harsh chemicals.
Pour your cleaner into a large bucket, then use a long-handled roller or push broom to spread it evenly to all corners.
You can also fill a garden sprayer with the cleaner and disperse it that way if you prefer.
You can apply some deck cleaners to the dry board, but others require you to wet the deck before applying.
Therefore, read the instructions on your product carefully to know what you need to do to get the best results.
Allow the deck cleaner to sit for 10-15 minutes or check the product’s label for a more precise time guide.
After the waiting period, use a stiff-bristled brush to scrub the deck thoroughly, moving it lengthwise along the boards from one end to the other.
Ensure that you pay close attention to corners and other hard-to-reach areas because they hide the most dirt.
You can even use a small hand brush to reach them if your broom is too large.
Hose down the deck to remove all traces of the cleaner and use a push broom to sweep the water back and forth across the boards a few times.
This action will ensure that clean water reaches all the deck parts.
Finally, allow the deck to dry for at least 48 hours before applying the stain.
Limit foot traffic on the deck during this period to avoid getting it dirty or wet, as it will set your project back a few days.
Step 3: Check If the Deck Is Dry Enough
After the deck has dried properly, you can apply any stain you prefer.
However, before you begin the work, you must confirm that the boards are dry enough to avoid absorption problems.
To check if the boards are dry enough:
- Sprinkle some water on small wood sections in different areas of the deck. Ensure that you don’t pour too much water, or you’ll have to wait for the deck to dry again.
You’re good to go if the water takes 30 seconds or less to soak into the wood. If it takes longer or pools up on the wood, allow the deck another 24 hours to dry before repeating the test.
Step 4: Apply the Stain
- Start by staining the handrails or the highest part of your deck to avoid drips falling on finished areas.
Afterward, stain the posts and the remaining parts of the handrail following the same procedure.
Ensure that you cover the underside and edges of the rail and maintain a wet edge to keep the finish’s color consistent.
- Next, stain the deck surface with a brush, a pressurized sprayer, or a paint pad applicator.
The pressurized sprayer will get the job done faster, but you will waste a lot of stain. Moreover, you may end up staining the side of your house by accident, especially if it is too windy.
- The brush will give you better control of the project because you can easily reach even the hidden corners. However, you must kneel or bend for hours during the project.
Choose a synthetic brush like nylon or polyester if you use a water-based stain.
They are the best brushes for this product because they do not lose shape or retain too much product during application like natural-bristled brushes.
If you’re using an oil-based stain, select natural bristled brushes.
- Using a large pad applicator is the best way to go because it will cover large areas quickly and evenly. The only downside is that you will not be able to cover between the deck boards, but you can remedy that with a brush.
In this guide, I’ll discuss how to use the pad applicator.
- Stir the stain a little, then pour it into a paint tray.
- Dip the applicator pad into the stain, then brush it in strokes parallel to the boards.
- Allow the stain to sit for a few minutes, then wipe any excess off the surface with a rag.
- As you apply the stain, start from the furthest end of the deck, working towards the exit to avoid backing yourself into a corner.
- You can apply one or two coats of stain depending on how deep you want the finish to turn out.
Afterward, allow the deck to dry for 24 hours or as directed by the manufacturer before walking on it or putting the furniture back in place.
How to Seal a Deck
The steps involved in sealing a deck include:
Step 1: Prepare the Deck
- Start by spraying the grass and vegetation below the deck with water, then cover them with a tarp or plastic sheet. It is necessary to cover the plants to prevent the harsh chemicals in wood cleaners from destroying them.
- Next, remove all the furniture, potted plants, and anything else that isn’t fixed and store them in your garage or a temporary shed.
- Loosen the dirt between the deck boards with a putty knife or tool that can fit the spaces, then sweep them off the deck.
- Check the deck to see if there are any loose boards and fix them. Also, replace any wood that is too damaged to fix to make the deck look brand new.
Step 2: Clean the Deck
The trick to making deck sealant last long is thoroughly cleaning your deck before applying the finish.
Even a few specks of dirt or debris will cause the finish to fail, whether you are using a penetrating sealant or the film-forming variety.
You can use any regular wood cleaner for this step, which is good since you can find them in local stores.
Whichever product you choose, ensure that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the latter to get the best results.
- Pour the wood cleaner into a garden sprayer to make it easier to use and carry around the deck.
- Clean the railing in sections to have enough time to scrub and rinse before the cleaner dries.
Spray a small section of the railings, allow it to sit for 15 minutes or as indicated on the label, then scrub and rinse the wood before the cleaner dries.
Also, use a stiff synthetic bristle brush instead of a wire brush for scrubbing because the wire brush might leave scratches on the wood.
Repeat this step until all the railings are clean, then move to the boards.
- Clean the deck boards following the same procedure as the railings. Ensure that you clean between the deck boards and corners using a small brush to be thorough.
Start cleaning at the furthest corner of the deck and work backward towards the entrance or stairs to avoid stepping on areas you’ve already cleaned.
- Afterward, allow the deck to dry for about 48 hours before applying the sealer. During this waiting period, you can remove the protective covers from the grass and other vegetation to prevent them from yellowing.
Step 3: Sand and Stain the Deck
Once the deck dries, use sandpaper to remove small splinters and make the surface even.
Afterward, vacuum the dust, then remove any remaining traces with a damp cloth. Give the deck an hour to dry, then proceed with staining.
- Start by applying the stains on the railings, then finish with the deck boards. A paint brush will work best for this step because it can easily reach under the railings ensuring that everything is sealed.
- Work in small areas and keep a wet edge to avoid leaving brush marks in the finish. Remember to check each area for drips after finishing and redistribute the sealer or wipe off the excess with a brush or rag.
- Next, use a paint roller or paint brush to seal the deck boards. As with cleaning, start from the furthest corner and work backward towards the deck entrance.
- Allow the sealer to dry for 24-48 hours or as directed on the product label before transferring the furniture and decor back to the deck.
Here’s a Video on Sealing a Deck:
Is It Better to Stain or Seal Pressure Treated Wood?
Pressure-treated wood is the most durable outdoor construction material.
It has been fortified with chemical preservatives that prevent fungus growth and insect attacks; however, the chemicals used do not protect the wood from moisture or sun damage.
If you use pressure-treated wood to build a deck or a fence, moisture will seep into the wood, causing them to swell.
As the boards dry in the sun, they will shrink, and eventually, the constant changes will cause the wood to crack, splinter or warp.
Furthermore, the wood’s color will slowly fade to a silver-grey. The only way to avoid this damage is by sealing or staining the pressure-treated wood.
However, the finish you choose will depend on the outcome you expect.
Freshly treated wood has a signature green color that stems from the copper component in the chemicals infused into the wood.
Some people are more interested in the wood’s durability; thus, the color doesn’t matter much to them.
However, others get so bothered by it that they consider using colored finishes like paint to improve the aesthetics.
If you’re not bothered about the color of the pressure-treated wood, then sealing it is the best option.
The sealer will make the wood waterproof, preventing moisture from seeping in to cause rot or structural damages like warping.
Also, ensure that you use a sealant with added UV protection because, naturally, sealers have no pigment to block the sun’s rays.
If the green patches bother you, staining is your best option to give the treated wood a better look.
There’s a wide range of stain colors to choose from that will allow you to get whichever finish results you prefer.
On top of changing the color, staining will prevent the wood from turning grey because wood stains offer excellent UV protection.
Does Sealing a Deck Make It Last Longer?
Yes, sealing your deck will make it last longer; therefore, it is a vital part of protecting and maintaining it.
Decks are constantly exposed to harsh elements like rain, sun, and snow. If you leave your deck boards unsealed, they will absorb moisture from the rain and swell.
When the sun comes out, the boards will lose moisture rapidly and shrink, causing them to warp. The constant swelling and shrinking will also cause the wood boards to check.
Combined with the sun exposure, the checks will expand into bigger cracks, which will trap moisture and accelerate weathering.
Checking aside, the constant exposure to UV radiation will cause the wood to turn gray, a color that is far from the beautiful natural wood color.
The best way to prevent all these problems is by sealing your deck to prevent moisture from getting into the wood fibers and causing irreversible damage.
Using a deck sealer with UV protection will prevent the deck boards from changing color. Better yet, using a stain and deck sealer together can protect your deck twice.
The stain’s pigment will enhance the color of the wood and protect it from sun damage, while the sealer will offer added protection against moisture damage.
The result is your deck serving you for much longer with manageable maintenance work.
How Much Does It Cost to Seal a Deck?
Sealing a deck will cost you between $500-$1500, with labor costing you 50% or even more.
The remaining percentage will be distributed between the pricing of the products you will use and other key factors such as the size of the deck, preparation needs, accessibility, etc.
In this section, I’ll discuss all the key factors determining the total cost of sealing a deck to help you budget for it accordingly.
Factors that Influence the Cost of Sealing a Deck
Here are some of the factors that affects the cost of sealing a wood deck:
The cost of cleaning a deck is always bundled together with the cost of applying the finish, but it is different when it comes to sealing it.
Cleaning a deck is the most crucial preparation step because it ensures that nothing interferes with the sealant’s adhesion or absorption.
Therefore, before applying the sealant, you must ensure the deck is spotless.
If the deck is relatively new, there isn’t a lot of dirt, and you can get away with cleaning it yourself and save a few dollars.
However, if there is heavy dirt and stain buildup, you will need a pressure/power washing service to remove them.
If you know how to use a power washer, you can hire one for about $40-$100 per day, depending on your local rates.
If you do not know how to use it, you can hire a pro to do the power washing for you for about $200-$700, depending on the size of your deck.
Labor – DIY vs. Hiring a Pro
The cost of labor makes up the largest percentage of the cost of sealing a deck. It involves the amount of work needed to clean and repair the deck, sand it, and finally apply the finish.
You can save cash by doing the work yourself, but if you have the budget, go with a pro because the results will be better.
Some professionals charge by the hour, while others provide a quote based on the size and complexity of your deck. Depending on the contractor, hourly costs will range from $40-$70.
The whole job will take 2- days depending on the work required before sealing; therefore, keep in mind the state of your deck and how much work it needs before hiring a pro.
The professionals who base their quotation on the size of your deck will charge between $1-$3 per square foot, but the charges can rise to $7 per square foot if your deck has spindles, stairs, or other complex features.
Size of the Deck
Professionals use square footage to price most jobs; therefore, the size of your deck is the most crucial factor to consider when establishing a budget.
A small deck will take less time to clean, prepare and seal; therefore, it is more budget-friendly than the larger ones.
The deck size also determines the amount of product you need to seal it properly. A large deck will need more product, increasing the overall cost significantly.
Price of the Sealant
Most deck sealing projects require at least two gallons of sealant to cover a 250-square-foot deck fully.
A gallon of sealant costs between $30-$80, putting the amount you spend on products at about $60-$160 per project.
This cost will go even higher if you have a deck that is more than the mentioned size; therefore, do the necessary measurements and calculations before purchasing the product.
How Long Will a Deck Last Without Stain?
An unsealed deck will last for years before it becomes too weathered to stand, but the exact number will depend on your area’s climate and whether the wood was treated or not.
The wood you use for decking will also influence how long the deck will stand without protection.
Moisture and sunlight are the most significant factors that cause wood to weather; therefore, if you live in a humid location or a place that experiences a lot of rain, your deck will not last very long.
The constantly moist environment will cause fungus to grow on the boards, and as time progresses, they will eat through the wood and cause it to rot.
If the fungus does not grow, the constant swelling and shrinking of the deck boards as they gain and lose moisture will cause them to swell and eventually warp out of shape, which isn’t a good look for the deck.
If you live in an area with a lot of heat, the wood will turn gray in about six months due to UV radiation.
Moreover, the sun’s heat will dry out the natural oils in the wood, causing it to split and check.
A deck made of pressure-treated wood will remain standing for up to 10 years without staining, provided you reduce its exposure to moisture.
You may not be able to do anything about the graying color, but it will not affect the deck’s structural integrity.
On the other hand, untreated wood will not last that long in harsh conditions; thus, you may only get up to two years of service life from your deck before it starts falling apart.
Softwoods like cedar and redwood have natural oils that protect them from insect attacks and rot; thus, they will last longer but won’t pass the 5-year threshold.
How Long Do You Have to Wait to Seal Pressure Treated Wood?
It is best to wait about 3-4 months before sealing freshly purchased pressure-treated wood.
The long wait is enough to allow the wood to lose enough moisture so that it does not interfere with the adhesion or penetration of the sealant.
The waiting time might be longer if you live in a humid area or an area that experiences regular rainfall.
You may wait up to 6 months because the air in such regions is saturated with moisture making it difficult for the treated wood to dry.
If you want to seal the wood immediately after purchase, I recommend buying treated wood tagged as KDAT or ADAT. KDAT means Kiln-
Dried After Treatment meaning that the wood was dried in a controlled environment to get its moisture content to a workable level before leaving the treatment plant.
On the other hand, ADAT means Air-Dried After Treatment meaning that the pros at the treatment plant arranged them in stacks with spaces between them to allow them to lose moisture naturally.
If you go with the lumber tagged ADAT, it is best to ask for the exact treatment date so that you can know how much time the wood had to dry.
Decks are a significant investment for many homeowners, shaping every home’s exterior look; therefore, it is usual for people to try and find the best ways to protect them.
The most common way to shield deck boards from the constantly harsh outdoors is by sealing or staining them. Let’s revisit…
Deck Sealing vs Staining
Deck sealing will make your deck boards waterproof and maintain the wood color, but it doesn’t offer enough UV protection.
Staining, on the other hand, will enhance color and block UV rays on top of waterproofing.
Both finishes wear out quickly; thus, they require periodic reapplication to maintain the wood.
Thank you for reading this article, and I hope you now understand Sealing Vs. Staining a deck better.
If you have questions or need me to clarify anything, feel free to reach out in the comments.