How Do I Know if my Deck is Dry Enough to Stain?

How Do I Know if my Deck is Dry Enough to Stain?

Before you start staining a deck, you need to ensure it’s 100% dry, otherwise the stain may not seep into the wood’s pores properly when you apply it.

But how can you tell if a deck is dry enough for staining, and how much drying time is enough drying time for a wet deck?

In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to know if your deck is dry enough to stain so you can get the job done right. Let’s dig in!

KEY TAKEAWAYS:
  • You can sprinkle water on the wood surface, measure moisture content with a moisture meter, or use a black garbage bag to accurately assess how wet a deck is.
  • Usually, it takes deck boards 48 hours or more to completely dry after a power-wash or rain storm, and a handful of factors collectively determine adequate drying time.

How Do I Know if my Deck is Dry Enough to Stain?

Refinishing Deck

1. Sprinkle Water on the Surface

Sprinkling water on a wood deck to assess its wetness may seem simple—and it is—but it’s effective too.

Especially if you don’t want to buy a moisture meter or deal with plastic bags, this is a great way to accurately gauge how wet a deck surface is.

Basically, if you sprinkle some water on wet wood and beads form shortly thereafter, this is a sign that the deck isn’t dry enough to stain.

If the deck surface was dry when you sprinkled the water, the water beads would’ve been quickly absorbed by the wood pores.

Be sure, there are instances when this method of gauging wood moistness isn’t ideal, but most of the time it can be relied on.

2. Use a Moisture Meter

Using a moisture meter is the best way to gauge how wet a deck is, but you’ll have to use it a few times to get the hang of it.

Take readings at different parts of the deck so you can clearly see how it’s drying.

A deck will dry at the edges first, and after sufficient time has passed the entire surface will be dry.

A moisture meter works best on a warm day with minimal humidity; too much humidity can cause incorrect readings.

You can find a great moisture meter for around $30 so I highly recommend picking one up to make your job easier.

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3. Use a Bag Covering

The bag-covering method is the most complicated of the three, and while it can tell you whether or not a deck needs more time to dry, it can also produce misleading results if it’s used when ideal conditions, i.e. dry weather with plenty of sunlight, are absent.

Basically, you take a large trash bag and cover a small section of deck board edges with it.

Leave the bag there for 2-3 hours.

After such time has passed, if you find condensation inside the bag or on the deck surface, this indicates it’s a damp deck that still needs time to dry.

How Long After Pressure Washing to Stain Deck?

restaining a wood deck - woman staining wood deck with a roller

Once a deck has been thoroughly power-washed, it’ll be at least 48 hours before it’s completely dry.

Of course, a variety of factors collectively determine how long it takes a deck to dry, including how much water was used, the deck’s age, the material, recent weather, the extent of wear, and the deck’s size.

48 hours is the average drying time, but it’s not uncommon for decks to need at least four days (96 hours) of drying time before sufficient dryness for staining is reached.

Lastly, if your deck doesn’t get a lot of UV rays in sunny weather because of trees or other sunlight-blocking elements, it’ll take longer for your deck to dry after power washing.

How Long After Rain Can I Stain My Deck?

After it rains, use any of the moisture-testing methods described above to assess how moist the deck wood is.

Of course, you may not have to do this. If, for example, it’s only a light shower that lasts 5-10 minutes, the deck wood should be dry in 2-3 hours.

But if it’s rained all day, and at some points heavily, then you need to ensure the deck is 100% dry before you begin staining which can take over 24 hours.

It’s hard to keep a deck from getting wet in the rain, and often what’s needed to accomplish this is more trouble than it’s worth.

Therefore, if it starts to rain right before you apply stain, be patient and wait till you can apply stain later in the best possible conditions.

Looking for a deck stain for your deck? Check out these deck stains for old decks or these semi-transparent deck stains I love!

What Affects Deck Drying Time?

Amount of Water

When pressure-washing a deck, you should be aware of how much water you’ve used at all times, as this task can waste a ton of water and elongate the wood drying process if you’re not careful.

Essentially, if you pressure-wash only to remove caked-on grime and other erosive elements that can prevent stain from taking and drying properly, the deck should dry in about 48 hours; then it’ll be dry enough to stain.

To ensure you don’t waste water or waterlog the deck, use the pressure-washer to dampen the wood surface; then scrub with deck cleaner to remove the grime.

Sure, this will take some elbow grease, but it can yield very attractive results later on.

After you’re done scrubbing, power-wash to remove any leftover dirt and debris.

Age

An older deck may take longer to dry if the pores in the planks can no longer absorb water well. If most decks last 10 to 15 years, expect a deck older than 10 years to take longer to dry.

A new deck, on the other hand, will dry quickly because it’s able to repel and absorb water, especially if it’s made of pressure-treated wood.

Material

Softwoods tend to dry quicker than hardwoods, mainly because they’re not as dense.

That said, if you water-log a softwood deck, it may take longer than usual (48 hours) for the deck to be completely dry, since softwoods are very porous and therefore they naturally retain a lot of water.

Plus, some are naturally moist, and these species (when wet) take longer to dry, of course.

Still, most decks are made of softwoods these days, since they’re economical, naturally rot- and weather-resistant, and long-lasting when maintained properly.

Recent Weather

Has it been raining non-stop day after day? When it finally stops, your deck will need at least 48 hours of uninterrupted drying time before it’s ready for stain.

It’s no secret that unpredictable weather conditions can complicate deck staining, but if you wait for a 2-3 day stretch of good weather you won’t have to worry about a wet deck after applying deck stain.

Wear

If the deck lumber is showing signs of considerable wear, chances are it’ll take longer to dry once soaked, since it’s generally weaker and therefore slower when absorbing water.

Size

Obviously, a 500-600 square-foot deck is going to take longer to dry than a 300-400 square-foot deck (the average deck size).

In addition to the overall size, the thickness of your boards can also cause it to take longer to dry.

Tips to Make Your Deck Dry Faster

Use a Heat Gun or Hairdryer

It’s possible to use a heat gun or hairdryer to speed up the deck-drying process, but before you do this you need to be aware that expediting the wood-drying process in this way can damage the wood and reduce its ability to take stain well.

Specifically, wood that’s been directly heated tends to have a weaker outer layer, which can lead to an uneven finish and possibly even a re-stain.

Don’t Over-Wash

Again, if you don’t soak the wood to the point where it’s wet through and through, it shouldn’t take longer than 48 hours to dry.

Being conservative with your water usage when pressure-washing a deck is not only good for the environment but can help you achieve fantastic results from staining.

What Happens if You Stain a Wet Deck

Peeling & Flaking

Applying deck stain to a wet deck is probably going to result in peeling, flaking, or both.

Essentially, the wood stain mixes with the moisture in the wood pores, and this mixture doesn’t dry as pure deck stain does.

Also, deck stain is weakened once it mixes with moisture, so when it’s finally dry it won’t stay on the surface for long—eventually it’ll peel or flake off.

And if you apply deck stain properly—but you try to expedite the process with a heat gun, or if the stain is exposed to too much direct sunlight for hours on end—it’s likely you’ll end up with the same negative results.

Surface Damage

Staining a deck that’s wet can actually damage the wood’s pores, weakening the boards overall.

Moreover, a damp, stained deck is prone to mold, moss, and algae growth, all of which are erosive elements—but more on that later.

Poor Protection

One of main reasons why deck stains are applied is to ensure some added protection against the elements; this is also one of the main reasons why deck paint is used.

But if a stain mixes with too much moisture before it dries, it’ll be too weak to protect against the numerous erosive elements that exist in any outdoor space.

It’s best to use multiple coats of deck stain, but you need to refrain from over-staining for the same reasons you refrain from staining when the deck is wet.

Fading

If the first and second coat managed to stay on even though the wood was wet when they were applied, and the stain didn’t peel off after the first few days, it’ll probably quickly fade to the point where it’s no longer visually appealing.

At this point, you’ll have to remove the stain and redo the whole staining process.

Fungus

A damp deck that’s been stained recently can be a breeding ground for all kinds of funguses, mold, and other growths that not only harm humans but damage wood structures of all kinds.

Can You Stain a Deck When It’s Humid?

Yes, you can stain a wooden deck when it’s humid out, but if it’s especially humid then the stain may not dry properly and cause problems later on.

Of course, the same problems power-washing and rain cause are also caused by too much humidity.

So if you wake up on the day you were hoping to stain your deck and you can feel a heavy humidity, it’s best to wait for more favorable conditions.

Finally, above-average humidity not only affects wood before stain is applied; it also affects it as the stain is drying, so wait until the weather forecast shows a few consecutive days of normal humidity before you begin your deck staining project.

Here are some great tips for staining your deck!

What Season Is Best for Deck Staining?

The best season to apply deck stain in is summer, specifically the early part; the early part of fall is the second-best season.

In early summer, the rainy weather that persists throughout spring subsides, and it’s not blistering hot yet.

And as far as sunlight is concerned, a stained deck can get more of this in early summer, and it won’t be the kind of intense, direct sunlight that’s common throughout mid and late summer.

The ideal circumstances for deck staining can align in early fall as well, but during this time you’ll have to keep an eye out for falling leaves and similar debris, something you won’t have to do (most likely) in the early summer.

Final Thoughts

To recap, there are three tried-and-true methods you can use when you need to determine whether or not a deck is dry enough for wood stain.

  • Method one involves sprinkling water on the deck to see whether or not the wood absorbs it.
  • Method two involves using a moisture meter to determine moisture level in the wood.
  • Method three involves using a garbage bag to see if condensation collects on the boards.

All of these methods can provide a conclusive answer eventually, but the most accurate by far is the moisture meter method.