What is the best way to stain a wood deck?

If you are wondering what the best way to stain a wood deck is, you are not alone. This is easily one of the most common questions I am asked for which there is no straightforward answer. When a caller asks how to stain a wood deck, I usually start by describing my favorite deck staining method. If that method doesn’t fit the circumstances I will adjust my recommendation from there. Since this is an article, I can take a little more time to get into the various methods.

I am going to limit the focus of this article to the application of Oil-Based wood deck stains and sealers. There are certain caveats to working with water-based formulations. We don’t generally recommend water-based stains for exterior wood. For that reason I am not going to get into water based finishes here. Specifically, I am going to address two types of oil-based finishes; Deep Penetrating paraffin oil-based stains like Woodrich Brand Timber-Oil and Alkyd Oil based finishes like Woodrich Brand Hardwood Wiping Stain .

First, let’s look at about how each type of finish is designed to work, then on to application theory.

Timber Oil is designed to penetrate deep into the wood, occupying all the space, leaving no room for moisture intrusion.

Hardwood Wiping Stain is designed to protect by “cross-linking” to form a protective barrier at the surface of the wood.  It is important to distinguish that this is not a film that forms on the surface.  Film forming products are prone to flaking and peeling. I would generally not recommend them for use in exterior staining applications.

Lets think about why we would want to stain a wood deck.

Knowing the “why” of wanting to stain a wood deck makes it easier to understand “whats” that go into completing the job.



Your wood deck is very likely outside.  This means it is going to be exposed to the elements.  Wood that is left exposed to the elements is at risk of suffering a number of negative issues.  Chief among them are discoloration and rot.  Rot is caused by an excess of moisture and discoloration (greying) is caused by the UV rays from the sun. That makes our goal very simple and straightforward.  First, we must keep water out of the wood. Second,we must protect the wood from the sun if we don’t want it to turn grey or silver.


Oil-based stains and sealers do an excellent job of protecting and preserving your wood for years when installed and maintained properly.  Choosing the proper type of oil-based stain for your project can seem complicated.  The choice can be made much simpler by ignoring all of the benefits of a product and only considering its limitations.

Woodrich Brand Timber-Oil can be applied to any type of wood in virtually any condition however because of the way it works its performance is very limited on dense exotic hardwoods like Cambara, Garapa, Ipe and Teak. We do not recommend Timber-Oil for any exotic hardwoods.

Woodrich Brand Hardwood Wiping Stain performs exceedingly well on dense exotic hardwoods. This stain can also be applied to any other type of exterior wood such as cedar or pressure treated pine. Hardwood Wiping Stain is limited in its performance when it is applied to fresh new cedar or pressure treated lumber. We only recommend Timber-Oil for staining new cedar or pine construction.

So, What is The Best tool to Stain a Wood Deck?

Keeping our goals in mind, we can look at each tool/method and decide which is going to be best suited to your specific deck project. I can tell you from experience most often it’s going to be a method involving a couple tools. I am going to start with a brief description of each tool and probably throw my opinions around a bit too.

Rolling (my eyes)


Most people are familiar with a paint roller – they roll quickly and do a good job with “coverage”.   While I understand why someone might choose a roller to apply stain to a wood deck,  I am against it.  When it comes to applying deck stain, there is nothing a roller can do that another tool can’t do better/faster.


Working quickly with a roller, applying a thin material like deck stain you are probably going to make a mess.  Rollers tend to “fling” thin material when you roll too quickly.  Rollers also do a poor job of carrying thin material.  That means you are going to be doing a lot of dipping and moving with your stain bucket.  I am not even going to talk about the nightmare roller trays could cause you.  Can deck stain be applied by roller?  Yes.  It is not something I would recommend.



When it comes to control, few tools are going to outperform a good ole’ brush.  A brush is invaluable if you need to get into tight places. There is less chance of getting stain on surfaces you don’t want to get stain on.


There are two major drawbacks to brushing stain onto a wood deck.  First, it is slow and tedious.  You have to keep an open stain bucket, pail or pot within arm’s reach the whole time.  Unless you attach the brush on some type of pole, plan to be crawling around on your knees while staining.  The second drawback to a brush application is that it can easily fool you.  A brush does a good job of surface staining the wood. However, it does so without giving the stain enough time to fully soak in and saturate the wood.  Since our goal is to get as much product into the wood as possible, brushing can be a slow process.



You can stain a wood deck with a pad applicator. It is pretty easy and straightforward.  Using a stain pad applicator gives you nearly as much control as you have with a brush.  You actually have more control with a pad applicator on a pole than a brush on a pole.  This means you can do the work standing up which of course is nice.  A stain pad does a better job of pushing the stain down into the wood than a brush. You can move faster and have less chance of an under application of the product.


The major downside to working with a pad is the open stain bucket or tray you have to have close-by.  Another limit is it can be difficult to get into tight places due to the ridged nature of the tool.



Applying stain with a ragging method can be both quick and efficient.  It can be a little messy so you will definitely need some gloves.  There are two basic methods for applying stain with a rag.  For handrails and detail work, simply dip a rag into the stain and then dab and wipe it on. Take care to let the wood soak up as much product as it can.  This method offers a lot of control and it is easy to get into the little nooks and crannies.

The other ragging method, I like to call “controlled chaos”.  It involves pouring the stain onto the wood and then laying it out with a rag.  This method can be very quick but it’s probably not for the faint-hearted.  It must be done quickly. You have to understand how to “read” the wood. Let it tell you how quickly you can move and what areas might need another wipe or excess stain removed.


“Should I spray when I stain a wood deck”? There are plenty of those who say no.  Maybe you heard that spraying results in inferior protection?


Here is a completely different opinion.  In a perfect world, I would use a sprayer for every wood staining project I get my hands on.  Spraying has many advantages over all of the other tools/methods with only one tiny disadvantage; Risk of overspray.


“Overspray” is a described as that terrible moment when stain from your sprayer lands somewhere it was not supposed to.  Some surfaces lend themselves to being easily wiped clean.  Porous surfaces like concrete, stone or mortar suck up the stain and make it very difficult to remove.  There are a number of effective measures you can take to prevent overspray.  Because of that, tool/method is always going to be my first choice.  Wind and project size are the only circumstances I will consider not using a sprayer to stain a wood deck.


How I Prefer to Stain a Wood Deck

Let’s assume that it is not obnoxiously windy.  My preferred method is going to be to transfer the stain onto the wood using a sprayer. I will lay it out using a stain pad applicator on a pole.  I am also going to keep a rag or brush handy for when I get into the tight spots.  Did you notice that I didn’t say “spray the stain onto the wood?”

To apply oil based deck stain you want to use a High Volume / Low Pressure (HVLP) Sprayer.  That may sound fancy or expensive but it doesn’t have to be.  The most common HVLP sprayer is the type you may have used to spray weed killer or insecticide.  I am talking about a pump up garden sprayer, and they work great.  Choose one that has a fan spray tip and you will be all set.

There is no need to pump it up to full pressure. Your goal is simply to transfer the stain from the sprayer and onto the wood.  As long as you have enough pressure to maintain the fan pattern you are in good shape.

The Deck Staining Process

When I am staining the deck boards, I will apply the stain heavily.  The sprayer is used to saturate 3 to 4 courses of boards all the way across the deck.  The deck stain should puddle slightly on the surface. Look for air bubbles to form as the stain soaks in. This is the stain forcing all of the air out of the wood.  After applying stain to that set of boards, go back over them with the stain pad, laying out the stain. The goal is to drive as much product into the wood as possible.  I then transfer any excess stain to the next set of boards I am getting ready to spray.  Repeating this process, going back over them with the stain pad, allows quick movement across the deck surface.

To reduce the need for masking, I do not spray the first 3 courses of boards nearest the house.  Instead, I will just spray a puddle of stain onto the 4th course of boards.  Then I suck it up with the stain pad and then transfer it to the boards nearest the house.  I repeat this process as necessary until I am satisfied the wood has soaked up as much product as possible.

Handrails or Vertical Surfaces

When I am spraying the handrails or any vertical surface, I make several passes with the sprayer.   First spraying the stain and letting it soak in and then spraying again until the wood begins to reject the product  This process lets me know that the wood is saturated.  I will use my rag or a brush to catch drips and cut down on any mess.  When I get close to the house, I will switch to the brush.  Another method is to simply spray some stain into my rag and then use the rag to stain the wood.

Please keep in mind, this was only meant to be a brief description of the process.  This is not a comprehensive How-To article.

Before I finish up there is one more application method that is definitely worth mentioning.  This one is simply not practical for existing construction projects.


If you happen you be “pre-construction” and you are doing the early research you might want to consider dipping.

Dipping is exactly what it sounds like.  You build a trough deep enough that you can submerge your pieces of wood in the stain.  First you fill the trough with stain.  Then you begin dipping each piece of wood.  The wood is submerged until no more bubble come out of the wood.  Then you can either rack it and stack it, or just give it a quick wipe down and install it.  Dipping can be a little messy but the time it saves is amazing.  Plus you get the advantage of applying the stain to all 6 sides of each piece of wood.  Dipping works great for cedar shingles, wood spindles or pickets, and anywhere else you are working with reasonably small pieces.  You can certainly build larger troughs and even dip 16’ or 20’ deck boards.

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