The deck that was once the centerpiece of an outdoor living area can quickly turn into an eyesore if it is not properly maintained. Rain, snow, sunlight and the wear and tear associated with use all take their toll. Fortunately, there are steps a homeowner can take, from simply sweeping to staining a deck, to keep it looking like new.

The extent of the maintenance, whether performed by the owner or his or her deck maintenance company, will depend on the condition of the deck. Many decks require nothing more than a good sweeping and hosing off at the start of the outdoor living season. Others, however, require more attention. For instance, composite decks require periodic cleaning, but they do not need to be sealed against the elements the way wood decks do. Here's a course of action for a wood deck that needs a lot of TLC.

How to Keep Your Deck Looking Brand New

1. Remove the Old Finish

On many neglected decks, the finish that was applied in past years has begun to peel away. The first step to restoration is to remove that old finish. Use a deck stripper solution and follow the instructions on the label. Here is what is generally required:

  • Test the deck stripper in an inconspicuous spot to see how the wood reacts to it and if it will work on the old finish.
  • Deck strippers contain harsh chemicals, so wear gloves and eye protection. Before starting, wet down surrounding vegetation and then cover it with plastic.
  • Let the solution sit on the deck's surface for the required time stated on the label while keeping the surface wet. Don't let the deck stripper dry.
  • You may need to use a stiff-bristle brush on the deck stripper. Don't use a wire brush because the metal bristles may break off and rust, marring the finish.
  • Rinse as directed. Professionals usually use pressure washers for this step. When used correctly, they do a great job. When used incorrectly, they can take large divots out of the wood. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to avoid damaging your deck.

2. Refresh the Wood

To counteract the harsh chemicals used in finish strippers, apply a wood brightener, which is often part of the formulations of deck cleaning products—often labeled deck restorers. The brightener neutralizes the acids and corrects the pH levels in the wood. It is a simple step that is often skipped. Simply brush or spray on the brightener, let it sit for a few minutes and then rinse. Brighteners lighten the color of the wood and can be used to revive dull, graying wood. They do a good job of removing tannin streaks associated with redwood and cedar decks.

3. Making Sense of Stains

When staining a deck, it is important to keep in mind that the terms “deck sealers” and “deck stains” are often used interchangeably. They have the same purpose, but to be precise deck sealers are clear and are designed to be absorbed by the wood to seal out the elements. Most deck stains are combination stains and sealers. They protect the wood while adding a slight coloration. Stains are available in different levels of transparency, so you can see more of the grain of the wood with some stains and less with others. You should always follow the product's directions when applying finishes, but here are some tips to get you started:

  • Check the weather. In addition to working with a completely dry deck, which could take two or three days if you stripped and cleaned the deck, you will need a few days of rain-free conditions so that the finish can dry properly. Finishes cannot be applied in very hot or very cold conditions. Check product labels for the application window, usually between about 50 and 90 degrees.
  • Protect the surrounding plants when staining a deck, as you did when applying deck stripper. You should also protect the house where it meets the deck as well.
  • Oil-based or water-based finishes? Both are available. Professionals tend to favor oil-based products because they say they last longer and do a better job of being absorbed into the wood fibers. However, some products are formulated with a combination of alkyds, which are used in oil-based products, and acrylics, which are used in water-based products. The result is oil-based performance with soap and water cleanup. Whichever type you choose, make sure it repels water and contains a mildewcide to preserve the wood. The finish should also protect the wood from harmful ultraviolet rays.
  • Apply the finish with a paint pad, working in the direction of the grain. Check the label for time requirements for when you can walk on the finish if a second coat is needed.

Once you have revitalized the deck, give it a good cleaning at the start of the season. You should plan on applying a sealer about every two years, depending on the weather conditions and usage, so that your deck stays looking good as new for years to come.

Fran J. Donegan is a home improvement expert who writes his advice on DIY projects for The Home Depot. He provides useful tips on topics from building a new composite deck to restoring an old deck. Visit the Home Depot to see many wood decking options.