Why is my deck stain peeling and how do I prevent this from happening? This a common question and occurrence for many exterior wood deck owners. Homeowners love their wood decks and patios and nothing ruins the outdoor experience more than an ugly looking peeling deck. In this article, we will look at the main reasons for deck stains failures, how to fix them, and how to prevent the stains from peeling in the future.

Did Not Prep the Deck Properly:

Improper prepping of the deck is the number one reason that a new decking stain will fail. In general, the better a deck stain penetrates into the wood the better it will perform. Here are a few examples of improper prepping.

  • Grayed deck was not cleaned with a wood deck cleaner prior to application of finish. The use of a quality deck cleaner will not only remove all the dirt, grime, and graying but it will make the prepping process much easier. Never use household bleach or chlorine based deck cleaners. This will damage the cellular structure.
  • Old failed coatings were not removed with a deck stain stripper. You should not apply a new coating over top of an old coating that has failed by peeling or wearing unevenly. This will prevent you new coating from performing properly as it will be subjective to the continual failure of the old stain.
  • The use of a wood brightener was not used after a deck cleaner or stain stripper. It is very important to use a brightener to neutralize the caustics of a cleaner or stripper. Failure to use a deck brightener will leave the wood in a high pH state. Decking stains will fail faster if the wood has a high pH balance.
  • Applying a water-based stain over top of an oil-based stain or vice versa. Many stains will not adhere to different brands or types of stains. If switching a brand or type of stain it is best to remove the previous coating as much as possible. This will give your new coating the ability to adhere and penetrate into the cellular structure.

Deck Sanding:

Sanding the deck to a super smooth surface such as a hardwood floor causes penetration issues. Wood decks are not the same as interior wood. The more porous the wood is the better the stain can attach to the interior of the wood. If you sand we strongly suggest that you sand with paper of 60 grit or less. In addition, it would be best to use a deck cleaner and brightener to remove the sand dust when done.

Wrong Type of Stain or Sealer Was Used:

Always use stains and coatings that re specifically designed for exterior wood decks. Coatings that are too thick or unable to penetrate the wood will fail much faster and will be difficult to fix in the future:

  • Never apply a polyurethane or varnish type coating to horizontal wood. It will peel, turn yellow, and will require heavy sanding to fix.
  • Interior stains such as Minwax will not work on outside decking. They will be prone to mold and mildew while offering zero UV protection
  • Exotic hardwoods such as IPE require coatings that are able to penetrate into their very dense cellular structure. Make sure to buy a brand of stain that is specifically designed for these wood types.

New Decks:

Just because a deck is new and free of dirt and old coatings does not mean it is ready to be stained. All new decking should be prepped to remove the mill glaze. This allows the stain to penetrate. This can be accomplished with a deck cleaner and deck brightener.

More Stain is Better:

Very common mistake here. Homeowners believe that if they apply another coating or two that the stains performance will increase. It is actually the exact opposite or less is better. In general, you want to apply as much stain as the deck allows to absorb into the wood. Coatings that are over applied will film "on top" of the surface instead of "in" the surface. Film forming coatings are much more prone to peeling and wearing.

Poor Quality Brand of Decking Stain:

There are many deck stains available today but one thing is certain, they are not all created equal. Do some research online for deck stain and reviews. You will find that many of the different stains brands have a history of failure and poor performance. Do not believe ridiculous deck warranties either. The best deck stains are typically not bought at your local Big Box store but rather online or at your higher end specialty stores and lumber yards.

Penetrating vs. Film Forming Stains:

Penetrating stains will always outperform stains that dry or "film" on top of the wood. In general, the better the deck finish penetrates, the better the performance. Many stains claim to penetrate when they actually do not, Be wary of water-based semi-transparent acrylic wood stains such as Behr and Sherwin Williams. They claim to penetrate when in actuality they are thin versions of paint.

Best Practises for Deck Stain Performance:

  • The better you prep the deck, the better a stain will perform. Do not skip steps and strongly consider stripping off old coatings first prior to reapplication.
  • Penetration is king! The better the stain penetrates into the wood the less chance of peeling and wearing
  • Do not over apply!
  • Read all manufacturer's application directions.
  • Research the brands of stains thoroughly.
  • Choose a deck finish that allows ease of reapplication in the future. All stains fail eventually and choosing a coating that requires minimal prepping for reapplication makes future maintenance much easier!

If you have any questions about your deck project please ask below in our comment section.

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  • We will reply to your comment shortly
    Kenneth Bova · 07/24/2021
    My stain is peeling. Do I have to sand it down to the bare wood. Some part of the railing never peeled and looks ok. 
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    Maria McAughey · 05/23/2021
    Do you need sealer after you stain the deck
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    mike sullivan · 03/24/2021
    does it help to prime a deck before staining? I have to stain every one or two years
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    Cheryl · 05/22/2020
    Ok so this is my second attempt at posting. For some reason my post was never published online although I received an email confirmation of my post.And, I never received a reply after emailing asking about this. I hope this second attempt works.

    I Summer of 2017, we got a cedar deck. We stained in the 2018 (water based). My husband barely sanded, and used a deck cleaner prior to slapping on as much deck stain as possible. Last summer and this spring, the deck peeled greatly. We did not stain again in 2019. We now know we should probably have sanded more and applied less stain. We want to fix this. Do we sand first? Since the deck was never sanded well, do we use an orbit sander with grade of sandpaper of 60-grit? 80-grit? After sanding, is that time for the whitener prior to staining?
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      The Sealer Store · 05/22/2020
      Post some pictures and what stain brand and type of stain was used prior?
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    Monica · 04/26/2020
    An oil stain was applied onto a previously water-stain deck. Prior to the oil stain application the deck was cleaned and sanded. Now the oil stain flaking off in areas where it is exposed to sun. What product should I use to remove both the stains and start over?
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    Bob · 04/15/2019
    I have a brand new deck (treated wood), installed May 2018 and allowed to dry out for 11 months. Unfortunately, I hired a deck sealing/staining contractor who absolutely wrecked the deck by improper preparation and staining methods. (For what its worth, he "cleaned" the deck with a power-sprayer and then returned in less than 24 hours to stain/seal - wood could not have been dry enough - then he sprayed the deck twice with very uneven application and came back to "touch up" thinly sprayed areas...creating more problems). This was done last week and the stain/sealer is already peeling in some places. The contractor used Behr Premium Transparent Waterproofing Wood Finish tinted for a "Chocolate" color. We have had another reputable company come out to advise us as to a solution and he said he would have to: lightly powerwash, heavy sanding, apply a semi-transparent oil based stain once deck demonstrated below proper moisture level for product used (moisture meter to be used). Is this the appropriate/best method to solve our problem? Any advice?
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    Kevin · 08/21/2018
    What if the deck was previously stained but they didn’t prep properly and it’s peeling the customer wants another stain on it after it has been prepped is it ok to put another stain different colour over top
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      The Sealer Store · 08/21/2018
      If you remove all the previous coatings, then yes.
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        Kevin · 08/21/2018
        So all of it has to come off? What if it all doesn’t come off
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    Kevin · 07/25/2018
    How long after finishing the brightener step do I have to wait before I start staining?
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      The Sealer Store · 07/26/2018
      Depends on the brand of stain you are using but typically a couple of days.
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    Kathleen Reagen · 07/15/2018
    I am very frustrated. 4 years ago I completely sanded off all previous stain off of my 20 year old deck. I prepped accordingly (cleaner, brightner), waited the allotted time to dry and applied Defy Extreme stain. I reapplied two years later, going through same process. Well, now the whole deck does not repel water, gets dirty quickly and this winter, after the snow melted, the stain just flaked away. Ugh. I’m beginning to think Defy Extreme is not really meant for EXTREME temperatures in Minnesota!
    • We will reply to your comment shortly
      The Sealer Store · 07/15/2018
      Hello, it is normal to have to redo the deck every 2 years when using the Defy Extreme.
      • We will reply to your comment shortly
        Kathleen Reagen · 07/15/2018
        Why doesn’t the stained deck repel or bead up water? It just soaks in, thus creating a dirty, mildewy look. Also, made mistake, we redid the deck last year, not two years ago. If I wanted to use another stain, do I need to completely remove the Defy Extreme stain first?
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          The Sealer Store · 07/15/2018
          It is not designed to bead water but shed water. Beading water is bad for wood as it 100% seals it. This creates issues with internal dry rot. It should not be dirty when you apply. That would mean the prep was not fully done. If you want to switch brands, you will need to strip it off.
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    Grace · 05/25/2018

    For the last 10 years, trying to stay consistent, I have been using Thompson Natural Waterproofing/stain, reapplying every 2 years. I generally prepare by stripping, cleaning and power washing. This year the entire deck has peeled and faded almost completely. Considering a new product, any recommendations?
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    The Sealer Store · 10/05/2017
    Cornelia Ruth Watts:
    What is the best brand of deck stain to use??

    Try Armstrong Clark.
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    Cornelia Ruth Watts · 10/05/2017
    What is the best brand of deck stain to use??
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    The Sealer Store · 07/01/2014
    No the behr needs to be removed and switch to a better brand.All of their products are poor quality.
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    Nathaniel · 06/30/2014
    I preparing to re-stain my deck. It is not in terrible shape but was last coated with behr semi-stransparent redwood. It is peeling in a few places, possibly due to preparation issues. You posted an article on maintaining the deck by cleaning and re-staining annually or semi annually. Does this apply to the behr product? I always thought it had to be completely stripped to allow the new product to penetrate. Also, I have seen some pretty bad reviews on the Behr stripping and cleaning products as well as the stain. What are the main short-comings of these products? Thans.
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    The Sealer Store · 05/13/2014
    Tery, it should not as the kit does not contain bleach.
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    Tery Blase · 05/13/2014
    If I use the Restore a Deck kit, will it bleach out the stain I used (Olympic Maximum Stain & Sealer in One)?? I spent many, many hours staining the underside of the deck and am afraid it will streak the underside as it drips through the deck boards. We have a sitting area under the deck so it is very visible.Thanks!!
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    The Sealer Store · 05/09/2014
    Carla, you cannot fix by adding more product on top of the paint. You would need to sand off all the old paint first.
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    carla · 05/08/2014
    Hi the deck is approx. 12 yrs old, I would need a name of a company that carries a finish that will penetrate well. I have been painting the deck every two yrs.
    The stain just peels. Thank you
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    The Sealer Store · 04/28/2014
    Stripping will not remove a solid color stain. Sorry but you will have to sand.
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    Lois Haen · 04/28/2014
    We did everything wrong staining our deck, now we have a peeling mess. I pressure washed it 3 times being careful not to damage the wood. I still have over 50% of continuously peeling stain. I thought about using a stripper, but I am concerned about damaging our air conditioner, pool filter and pump and also the pool which is partially under the deck. For many years we have used oil based stains, but our local big box store told us they only had water based now. It had been 4 years since the last staining so we thought it should be okay to switch. We used Cabot solid color water based stain (2 coats) over 2 years. Can you suggest the products I could use. I would prefer not to have to sand 725 sq.ft. of deck.