How to Choose the Best Deck Finish

Protect your investment

staining a deck finish

Choosing a Deck Finish

A wooden deck that’s coated with a finish will likely need to be refinished every three to five years (Plus, check out these deck maintenance projects and tips to keep your deck looking great for years). With an entire aisle devoted to finishing products at the home center, how do you decide what’s best?

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The steps involved with using oil based vs. water-based wood deck finishes, and the maintenance required, will help drive your decision. Manufacturers’ claims about how long a finish lasts should be taken with a grain of salt; the life span of even the best deck finish on wood that’s exposed to the elements is unpredictable. As you choose a deck finish, keep these facts in mind:

Oil-based deck finish

  • Easy to apply because of the slower drying time.
  • Penetrates the wood and doesn’t form a film.
  • Takes longer to dry.
  • The wide temperature parameters for application let you apply it earlier or later in the season than water-based wood deck finishes.
  • Doesn’t crack or peel.
  • You can refinish just a small area.
  • Regular cleaning is recommended.

Water-based deck finish

  • Dries fast, making the application more difficult than oil because it’s harder to keep a wet edge.
  • Forms a protective film.
  • Will likely crack and peel.
  • Must be completely removed before refinishing.

No finish

  • Use pressure-treated lumber or a rot-resistant species such as cedar or redwood.
  • No refinishing or the accompanying prep work required.
  • Requires periodic cleaning as needed.
  • Boards will weather to a silver/gray patina.
  • With good airflow, the deck will last for decades.

If you’ve had a deck for more than a couple years, chances are it’ll need some work. After all, it spends 365 days a year exposed to the elements. Check out these 31 tips for repairing and replacing deck parts, and other tips for maximizing your deck, too.

cleaning scrubbing deck for best deck finish

Deck finish prep work is everything

When it’s time to refinish, the first step is cleaning. Pressure washing can loosen the wood fibers and hasten the breakdown of the wood, so don’t do it unless you’re experienced with the proper pressure and angles for cleaning wood. Deck cleaners and scrub brushes are a much safer option.

The remaining prep work depends on the type of finish that’s currently on the deck. You can apply an oil deck finish over an old oil finish with minimal prep and expect good results. But if the old deck finish is water-based and you haven’t thoroughly removed it before applying an oil-based finish, the penetration of the oil-based finish will be blotchy. If you don’t know whether the old deck finish is water- or oil-based, here’s how to tell:

  • If the old finish absorbs water and isn’t peeling or cracking, it’s most likely oil-based. In this case, use a deck cleaner with a scrub brush to clean the surface. Apply your new finish according to the directions on the can.
  • If the old deck finish is cracking or peeling and/or doesn’t absorb water, it’s likely water-based. To remove water-based wood deck finishes, you’ll need to use paint stripper as well as a fair degree of sanding before applying your new finish.
  • For a new deck that’s never been finished, wait a year before applying even the best deck finish. During the waiting period, clean with a deck cleaner and a scrub brush at three to six months, and then again right before finishing.

There are lots of new decking products on the market, and deck building methods continue to evolve and improve. Here are some of the best 15 tips and products for a great looking deck that will last decades.

Brad Holden
Brad Holden, an associate editor at The Family Handyman, has been building cabinets and furniture for 30 years. In that time, he has absorbed so many slivers and ingested so much sawdust that he's practically made of wood.