Read this before you replace your grungy old deck
There might be some beautiful wood hiding there.
I spent the first five years of living in my current house with a gremlin on my shoulder. In this case, that gremlin was our deck. It was wobbly, weathered, and covered with deck mold. I was advised that it was too far gone, that it had to go.
I knew the “smart” thing to do was to just replace the deck. The cost to repair it and the work involved would surely “not be worth it,” and a complete replacement is doable by handyfolk, as demonstrated in this great deck-building series by Sarah at Ugly Duckling DIY.
But geeze. That was a lot of wood to throw in a landfill. And some wood removed from the deck in a separate project seemed to be perfectly fine when used in my deckwood dump cart. There just had to be a way to save this thing, I thought to myself.
So naturally, I procrastinated. And in the end, I’m glad I did.
See the full adventure in the video above. Or read on below.
The first issues were with safety. When a deck is a couple feet off the ground, that’s one thing. But ours was high in the air, with rocky boulder walls on two sides and 10 feet of nothingness above the ground on the other. That added immediate urgency to all of the safety issues — and removed a considerable amount of fun when using the deck. (I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to relax when standing feet away from a potential fall injury at any time.)
Problem number one was that the deck railing was unnervingly mobile. It deflected at least two inches when rocking forward and back. Even if it wasn’t really at risk of breaking, this surely didn’t meet serviceability standards.
Not that you would’d want to lean against it anyway — problem number two was that the railing was two low for code, by a couple inches. The top was the height of a tall bar stool, which did little to prevent someone from tipping backward over the edge.
Problem three was another code issue. The spindles were too far apart, meaning a kid could easily squeeze their head through the gaps. Aside from the horror of a 10-foot fall in the worst case, it’s still no fun to be constantly telling your child, “Stay away from the edge!” in the best case.
The fourth and final issue was the least important from a safety perspective but was otherwise the most apparent: The wood was moldy and weathered. Even 5 years earlier, it seemed to be too far gone. It had sat without protection for too long already, it seemed, and would almost certainly need to be replaced.
I was advised by someone I trust (and shall not name here, because 99 percent of the time, this person is right, and I mustn’t burn that bridge!) that this combination of factors meant the deck wasn’t worth fixing. So, “knowing” that a huge, expensive project lay ahead, my wife and I held off on doing anything with it, planning to eventually make it one of the yearly expensive projects.
Then, one day, I found a video from Ron Hazelton.
“You know, sometimes a deck like this looks so bad, it seems like there’s just nothing that can be done with it,” Hazelton says in his YouTube video, “ How to Clean, Renew, and Seal a Wood Deck in One Day.” “But restoration of this deck is not only probable, but it’s virtually guaranteed.”
“Surely, he can’t be talking about a deck like mine, could he?” I thought to myself. Then the pictures of the deck he was talking about rolled on screen.
Yup. That looked like my deck, alright! Turns out there was still hope for the gremlin on my shoulder yet.
So we got to work.
First, we got supplies. Old Grey, my rusty project pickup truck, came in handy here, especially when we had to haul some 16-foot boards. (Check out Next Level Carpentry’s long-board-in-a-short-truck hauling trick for how we pulled this off.)
Next, we drove in the loose screws on the deck. This seemed like a good thing to get out of the way to reduce tripping hazards during a period of increased activity (especially with the coming safety concerns).
Then we started working our way around the deck railing, removing the old wood and installing the new. We did this section by section to limit the areas that were active fall hazards.
This process included cutting new railing posts, since the old ones were too short to be reused, and reinstalling them with deck tension ties. These were not cheap, and they were tricky to install in the angled portion of our deck. (The Fine Home Building YouTube channel has a great tutorial on how to install them.) But the posts were rock solid after installation, far more so than the previous version’s running a bolt through the post and securing it through just the deck method.
We then reinstalled the top deck railing. One board was fairly weathered here, even by my standards, so that’s where the 16-foot board I mentioned before comes in. (When cutting the miters, I didn’t want to screw up that board, that’s for sure!)
Finally, we were able to reinstall the spindles. Lucky for us, the old spindles hadn’t been trimmed down when they were originally installed, so we could reuse them.
And with that, the repair portion of the project was finished. All that was left was the most time consuming part: The cleaning and restaining.
Hazelton recommended using a brush and cleaning agent on the deck. We instead opted for pressure washing. The biggest factor here was that we had been looking to get a pressure washer for other needs and figured this was a good a time as any to put a new one through its paces. We ended up going with Ryboi’s ~$100 electric pressure washer. This machine came highly recommended by Young House Love, which my wife loves, so we decided to give it a try.
And it worked great. Other, larger machines might have blasted through the deck more quickly, but this one still had a good mix of power, price, and storage ability. (There’s no worries about maintaining a gas engine nor how to protect it from freezing and busting open in the winter, for example, because we easily fit it into a tote and crammed it into a corner of the heated basement.)
The cleaned wood looked stunning.
It looked so good, in fact, that I started having second thoughts about our stain choice. My research suggested that the Consumer-Reports-approved Behr Deckplus Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain was our best bet. But it was completely opaque and would completely hide this fine-looking wood. “Should we have gone with a more translucent option?” I asked myself. I decided against that though because this stain was still supposed to last longer precisely because of that extra protection from the sun, and I didn’t want to be doing this project any sooner than I had to.
And so again, I got to work. I used a brush in the cracks between boards, as well as any knots or other rough spots on the wood. For mass coverage, I started with a pad but switched to a roller and found that to work better. The real winner here though was the paint glove. This wearable tool let me dip my hand in the paint and wrap my whole hand around the spindles to quickly cover them. (My arm wanted to fall off after each coat, I’ll admit, but I think that would have happened with a brush, too!)
I’ll admit that my first color choice was a mistake. We originally picked Redwood, and BOY OH BOY did that look red. It did not dry darker, as I had hoped. Switching to Padre Brown meant adding a third coat, but it was a far better choice than staring at the wrong color for years. My friend Nick ended up coming through in a pinch and helped out with that extra, unplanned painting. (Thanks again very much, Nick!)
By the time I got to the staining, we were well into October. It was raining every other day, which made it tough to find time when I wasn’t working and that the stain would have time to dry after each coat. So my super-bright headlamp was a superhero here; it allowed me to work after darkness fell in the early evening. I wouldn’t have been able to finish the project without it.
In fact, I finished things up on a Sunday night, and here’s what the deck looked like later that week:
I had barely beaten the snow!
Was it worth it?
Most of the repair work was basic, tedious tasks, such as drilling holes and driving screws. The brackets were intimidating, though looking back on them, they now seem really simple. I don’t think they’d be an especially huge hurdle to someone who wants to complete this, especially if you don’t have any complicated angles like I did. The cleaning and staining was especially monotonous, but otherwise totally doable for the average person.
Costwise, we spent around $500–700 all in, pressure washer included. This is not cheap. But it’s still far cheaper than completely replacing the deck. A fairly handy person could likely be hired to do some of the more intimidating work here and still provide a decent cost savings over a complete deck replacement.
It did take a long time to wrap up. I lost a decent amount of family time and added a decent amount of stress to our lives because of the work involved. But what’s saying we wouldn’t have had the same or more stress added from the huge costs of replacement?
With that in mind, I absolutely think this project was worth it for us. Every time we go out there and our son plays near the railing, I smile as I remember when we would have been saying, “Stay back!” but no longer have to. And even when we’re not using the deck, I still get to see a fine-looking structure out our sliding doors at dinner.
The deck has transformed from a gremlin on my shoulder to a trophy on my shelf. Though I’m in no hurry to collect any more trophies like that one for a while…
Wisconsinite Andy Reuter writes and creates films about whatever DIY project is holding his attention at the time. For more, follow him on Instagram, find him on Twitter, or subscribe to his channel on YouTube. Find early access to videos and behind-the-scenes stories by becoming a member on Patreon.
Any Amazon Affiliate links above support this channel. Thanks!