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Homeowner's Guide
Failing Stain

Deck staining is an exciting way to bring a new life to your deck and make it last as long as possible. In this article, we will detail common issues that cause stain failure, what to do to ensure you get the most life out of your deck, environmental issues that lead to stain failure, and how long you should expect your stain to last. 

Weathered Deck
Stained Deck

To read more about our deck staining and preparation process, please read our article on deck staining.

Identifying Common Issues For Stain Failure

In our experience, we find there are eight main issues, other than improper maintenance, that lead to stain failure.

  • Pressure washing at improperly high pressure:

    • This can cause the wood fibers to fray or turn into fuzz. These fibers are not fully adhered to the rest of the wood and will release from the wood before anything else will, leading to peeling or flaking prematurely. These areas should be sanded relatively smooth to prevent peeling or flaking within the first year. 

  • Delamination of wood:

    • Gray, weathered decks are not fine to be stained as-is. This graying is caused by the breakdown of the surface lignin of your wood. This decayed wood will not hold to the rest of the board and it must be removed. Pressure washing will remove this thin layer completely and reveal the layer underneath, which will hold the stain much better as stain soaks into the board underneath it. Having stain soak into a board in good shape will ensure the project lasts much longer than if the stain soaks into decayed, gray wood which is far more likely to separate from the main board, resulting in peeling stain with the delaminated layer still attached.

Delaminated Wood

Wood delamination in Madison, WI. The gray weathered boards need the decayed lignin layer removed to hold stain properly.

Wood Cleaning Service

Delaminated wood on the right and properly prepared wood on the left. Stoughton, WI.

  • The deck is improperly ventilated:

    • If a deck is built too low to the ground or has improper ventilation (i.e. floor boards being tightly packed together), there will be moisture trying to escape upwards through the floorboards. This will cause the stain to peel quickly as moisture will push the stain upwards and it will eventually tear, resulting in large peeling layers of stain with no delaminated wood attached to the bottom.

  • Too much moisture in the deck boards:

    • If the deck was recently washed or there have been extremely hard rains, you should likely wait 1-3 days to stain the deck to prevent too much moisture from being in the wood. One day is generally appropriate if the weather is warm and the deck is exposed to bright sunlight. If there is proper ventilation or the rain was short-lived and mild, this is not a cause of serious concern. Dry decks hold stain better than wet decks. Damp decks are acceptable if you are using a high-quality, water-based stain. 

  • Large cracks or gouges:

    • Large voids can lead to spot failure of the stain. If the area being stained is in poor shape, do not expect the stain to hold up well over time.

Rotting Deck Board

Hole in a wooden board due to rotting. Proper maintenance and regular staining can prevent this. The wood near this hole will not hold stain properly. Waunakee, WI.

Rotting Deck

The area surrounding this hole in the board is prone to spot failure of the stain. The rest of the deck should hold stain well, but this area will need more attention. Waunakee, WI.

  • Rotting wood:

    • Rotting wood can be stained, especially if the rotting is mild and caught early on. Before getting the board replaced, consider using a product such as Sherwin-Willaims Deck & Dock. This product is extremely thick and can prolong the life of rotting wood significantly. Do not stain rotting wood that you cannot reliably walk or jump on without it breaking. That board should be replaced immediately. 

  • Exotic Hardwoods & Composite Decking:

    • We do not recommend our services for either exotic hardwoods or composite decking. These projects require specialty coatings and we do not guarantee these projects will last. Please contact your manufacturer for recommendations.

  • Improper preparation:

    • To ensure the project lasts as long as possible all wood must be cleaned, any organic growth must be removed, and the decayed lignin layer should be removed. Any failing previous coating must be removed, but the non-failing coating can stay unless you are using an oil-based stain, which requires extra attention. The deck can also be treated with oxalic acid to remove tannin extracts, mill glazing, and nail bleeding before the new stain is applied.

This deck was full of failing stain. After proper prep work and a lengthy staining process, two coats were applied and the deck lasted for multiple years before stain failure inevitably began to occur again. Verona, WI.

Deck Maintenance 

Things to avoid:

  • Shoveling snow with anything other than a plastic shovel can remove the stain and damage the wood underneath. 

  • Salt can break down stains and sealers and bleach wood.

  • Snow sitting on the wood all winter can lead to moisture getting into the wood, which is not desirable. 

  • Outdoor rugs can trap moisture and promote the growth of mold and mildew, damaging your wood. 

  • Bleach or vinegar should be used for short durations for cleaning and must be removed quickly and entirely as they can leave residue and break down coatings and the cellular structure of the wood beneath.

  • Paint is not recommended for deck floors as it cannot tolerate foot traffic and is not formulated to breathe like a stain or sealer.

  • Improperly high-pressure washing can lead to a variety of issues with your deck and any pressure washing should be done professionally to avoid serious damage.

  • Putting furniture back on a deck within 7 days of the deck being stained can lead to tearing of the stain and prevent proper curing.

  • Foot traffic either by humans or pets should be avoided if at all possible for the first 48 hours after the stain has been applied.

Algae Deck
Cleaned Deck

Without regular maintenance, decks will grow mold, mildew, and algae. Getting your deck properly pressure washed and treated with either oxalic acid or sodium hypochlorite will eliminate and delay future regrowth. Oshkosh, WI.

Environmental Issues Leading to Stain Failure

In the upper Midwest, there are a variety of environmental issues leading to the premature failure of stains that are unavoidable. Here are a few unavoidable issues that lead to stain peeling and the eventual need to restrain your deck. 

  • Snow

    • Snow sitting on the deck for too long can lead to moisture getting trapped in the wood as the melting snow will lead to moisture working itself down into the wood and the snow on top preventing evaporation from occurring. 

    • Shoveling with a metal shovel can cause damage to the wood and must be done carefully. 

  • Freezing & Thawing

    • During seasonal transitions, there will be many weeks where the daytime high is above freezing and the nighttime low is below freezing. This leads to expansion and contractions of the stain and the wood, which can tear the stain and lead to moisture getting beneath the stain, causing peeling. This is exacerbated during periods where the daily high temperature is 40 degrees or more than the daily low temperature. 

  • Heavy rains & shade

    • In the northern hemisphere, the north side of houses gets very little direct sunlight during the daily cycle. If your deck is on the north side of the house, heavy rains will not evaporate quickly, leading to a prime environment for organic growth such as algae, mold, lichens, and mildew. This growth leads to issues with the wood rotting and rotting wood will not hold stain as well. 

Moldy Deck
Peeling Deck

Two examples of decks on the northern side of homes having stain failure. On the left, the wood is covered in algae and mildew due to moisture and little direct sunlight, and on the right, the deck receives plenty of water that does not evaporate quickly enough to prevent stain breakdown and deck rot. Middleton, WI.


Because there are so many factors to consider when estimating the life of a stain, it is extremely difficult to accurately guess the number of years your stain will last. Our rule of thumb is that one coat will usually last two or more years, while two coats can last three or more. However, a decks usage, location, age, and many other variables will affect this estimate dramatically.


One important thing to consider is the transparency of the stain you are using. All things considered, a solid stain will last longer than a semi-transparent, which will last longer than a clear sealer. 


Having EcoWash prep and stain your deck with a solid stain, along with proper maintenance on your part, should result in the stain lasting as long as it possibly can. However, your deck stain will not last forever and will need to be redone eventually as the environment will slowly degrade the deck stain. While you may be eager to use the deck right after it has a fresh coat or two of stain, please exercise caution and make sure not to damage the stain.

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