4 ways to spruce up a wooden deck

Deck looking a little run-down? Here's how to revive it

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer


1 comment

The best time to appreciate the beauty of a wooden deck is exactly one minute after the last screw has been driven. It will be a lovely sight, with fresh lumber gleaming in the sun, perhaps accompanied by the heady perfume of fresh-cut cedar. Get a good look now, because in short order, no matter what you do to protect it, your deck is going to hell in a handbasket.

Sorry for the downer, but it’s true; horizontal wooden structures like decks — and paints or stains applied to them — just don’t have a chance in our climate, where standing water, ice, snow, sunshine, and thousands of footsteps constantly work to degrade the surface. To this end, there are many specialized rejuvenating products on the market. Is one of them the youth tonic for your tired old deck?

Cleaners and washes

To remove mould, mildew, and algae — in addition to good old dirt — deck cleaners are applied, scrubbed, and rinsed to give your deck a better appearance. What cleaners won’t do is make a weathered deck look newer or remove old wood stain or waterproofing agents (for that you need a different product). Sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) is one common ingredient in many deck washes and, if not applied — and removed — correctly, can cause a fuzzing of the wood’s surface or give it an odd whitish look. So avoid the temptation to brew up your own bleach-based cleaner and stick with the premixed formulations.

Other cleaners, so-called oxygen bleaches, are based on sodium percarbonate which, when added to water, produces hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate. It’s a good combo, as hydrogen peroxide works well at killing mould and mildew, and sodium carbonate acts like a detergent, scrubbing away the dirt.  From all reports, oxygen bleaches appear to cause less damage to wood than chlorine-based bleaches.



These products, many using oxalic acid as the effective ingredient, are designed to remove discoloration from tannin bleed (common with cedar), rust marks from fasteners, and old stains that have failed. They’re applied with a pump sprayer and scrubbed with a brush, then removed using a hose or pressure washer (see below). Some manufacturers advertise that brighteners will not harm plants that have been wetted down; others recommend covering all plants in plastic to protect them. Because brighteners work by basically disintegrating a thin layer of wood, they can help lighten weathered wood, but no matter what claims are made on the label, they will not make a deck look brand new again.


Used to remove paints, stains, or waterproofers, these products are similar to their furniture-stripping cousins — harsh and nasty chemicals that must be meticulously applied. For starters, plants must be covered, siding protected, and furniture moved or covered. Oh, and cover yourself: Wraparound eye protection, rubber gloves, and shoes that can handle corrosive chemicals are all a must. Strippers, especially gels, must then be brush-applied over one small area at a time (two coats are sometimes necessary) then removed with a pressure washer, taking care not to contaminate water sources with runoff, or splash caustic chemicals where they don’t belong. Some products also need neutralizing with a second product. When you consider the work required to strip handrails and pickets, it might be easier just to build a new deck.

Mechanical means

Ironically, while many cottagers use a pressure washer to rinse off cleaners and brighteners, and then credit the chemicals for their renewed decks, many pros feel they obtain the same results using only the sprayer — no chemicals required. But be warned. In amateur hands, there’s no faster way to destroy a deck’s surface — leaving it fuzzed, patchy, or covered with deep grooves — than to bungle a -pressure-washing job. Either hire a pro, or practise before attacking the main deck.

For those of you seeking deck perfection, I am sad to say that the only way to completely restore a deck to its youthful glory is to countersink all the fasteners and sand it down. That’s right, just like you’d refinish a hardwood floor, with a high-powered drum sander and an edge sander. Though professionals do it all the time, it’s a tough job, and should not be performed on pressure-treated wood. And here’s the rub (pun intended): Not only is sanding time-consuming and expensive, but if your cottage is anywhere in Canada, you’ll need to do it again in a couple of years. Hip, hip, hooray.

While a young-looking deck is admirable in theory, the realities of keeping it that way can be onerous. Maybe you’re better off following my lead when it comes to deck maintenance. Start by holding your head high with your eyes looking straight ahead. Then keep on walking until you’re off that deck. And never, ever, look down.


Need some inspiration for your next outdoor project? Check out a full episode of Decks, Docks and Gazebos below! 

This article was originally published on July 2, 2005

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Jul. 17, 2013

8:14 pm

Power washing , no cleaners or brighteners or chemicals to wash into the earth. Yes , if you get too close you can lift the grain and get some fuzzy boards but if you start in an area that is maybe covered by a BBQ or table and get a sense as to how close you need get the washer wand you will figure it out. I tried to keep the wand about 6 inches from the boards and kept it moving in 3 foot passes Just took 20 years of dirt moss and filth off our deck and it looks like we built it two months ago.. Can't wait to do the dock next ...again no cleaners just lake water as we have only a gravity running water system..have fun!

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