How to Clean a Deck

A person cleans a wooden deck with a pressure washer.

Hell yeah, it’s time for another deck party! Now you get to invite half the neighborhood to your home and all you really want to do is invite the three or four people that you actually like and get along with. You don’t want to offend anyone though, so you have to invite the frickin’ Johnsons and the Mahoneys and those crabby old bastards across the street and down two houses. After all, they invited you to their dog’s wake. Fair is fair. And you know damn well the Johnsons are gonna bring their three screaming kids that like nothing better than to spill shit on your deck and draw on things with their Popsicles. Oh yeah, it’s gonna be fun. And in preparation for this blessed event, it’s fallen upon you to make the deck sparkle and shine for the neighbors. But, hey, no worries. That just means you get to get out of the house for a while. And you know what? Deck cleaning really isn’t all that hard. It’s gonna take some time, but at least you don’t have to wrap the pigs in a blanket.

Turns out your deck looks like crap because it’s outside and it’s made of wood. Wood fades over time. It’s not your fault; it’s just what happens. The constant barrage of rain, UV light, foot traffic, hail, snow, bird poop, etc. takes it’s tole on a wood deck, especially if it’s unprotected. Wood is also porous, which makes it good at soaking up stains. This is why you should clean a deck every 1–3 years, depending on use. Many people think that pressure washing is the only way to achieve a clean deck. Untrue. In fact, I strongly advise against pressure washing. It’s just not good for your wood. What pressure washing does is strip the top layer of wood off your deck. For obvious reasons that’s not good for it. It also makes your deck look fuzzy from the little bits of wood that are torn up but still attached. For those of you out there who are not hell bent on the idea of pressure washing a deck, I put together this article on wood deck cleaning. It’s safe, natural, and effective. It takes a little more time, but the results are worth it.

Cleaning Decks Naturally

  1. handy smurfGather all your gear together. As Papa Smurf would say, smurfaration, smurfaration, smurfaration. In other words, be prepared. Gather everything together you think you’ll need right away so you’re not constantly running back to the garage for things. You will need: a broom and dustpan, a hose and spray nozzle, a bucket, deck cleaner, a stiff-bristled hand brush, a stiff-bristled long-handled brush or push broom, a tool box, stakes, and a few tarps or reusable plastic sheeting.
  2. completely empty deckClean everything off the deck. And I do mean everything. The last thing you want to be doing is tripping over things while you’re trying to get this done. If you need, get someone to help you with the big things like deck furniture and grills. Take all kids toys down to the yard. Remove any potted plants including the ones on the deck rail and any that might be screwed down. Take down any bird feeders, wind chimes, decorative lights, everything.
  3. blue tarp over deck itemsUse protection for the things below. There’s a good chance you have some things around and under the deck that you don’t want damaged. Grab your stakes and tarps or plastic sheeting that we talked about earlier and cover up anything you’re worried about. Usually it’s gonna be things like shrubs, flowers, and other delicate plants that might get hurt from hard spraying water. Put stakes up around them, being careful not to damage the roots, and put a tall stake in the middle so the water falls off instead of pooling. Drape your protective barrier over them.
  4. sweep off clumps of debrisSweep the deck and use your hose. There’s gonna be some big chunks that you want to get rid of first. Use a broom to sweep up any clods of dirt, cigarette butts, dead leaves, and anything else that would look better in a garbage can. Since some of it will inevitably come back down and onto your deck, sweep slowly and carefully so you don’t raise a dust cloud. Next, give every little bit of exposed wood you can see a real good soaking. The more water the better; it’ll make your job easier later.
  5. utility broomGive the deck a good scrubbin’. This is the part we’ve all been waiting for. In the bucket you so thoughtfully brought out earlier, mix up a cleaning solution. Oxygen bleach is a great natural deck cleaner. It’s perfectly safe, too. Find one that is made of sodium percarbonate, as it works well on organic stains, mold, mildew, and algae. Or, if you already have it, mix up a good solution of organic laundry detergent and water. Scrubbing with the grain, start from the top and work your way down. Use your hand brush for the railings and small bits, and use your long-handled brush for the deck floor. Rinse well as you go.
  6. old fashioned clockAllow your deck to dry a little, and then a lot. Give the deck a day or so to dry enough that you can see any spots you might have missed while cleaning. They will be nearly impossible to spot on wet wood. Once you’re satisfied with the cleanliness of your deck, let it dry anywhere from three days to a week if you plan to apply a deck stain. Start over if it rains. If you are wondering about an environmentally friendly deck stain, check the bottom of this page. If you’re gonna leave your wood natural, allow a few days of dry time before putting all your stuff back. Remember to uncover your plants ASAP.

Dangerous Deck Cleaners (and some good ones)

The two most common substances used as deck cleaners are regular household bleach and trisodium phosphate (TSP). Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is, in a word, dangerous. It is very caustic and aside from causing skin and eye irritation, it also causes health concerns such as irritation to the mucous membranes and lungs. It is especially bad if you suffer from asthma or emphysema. Besides all that, chlorine is known to cause atmospheric ozone loss and was listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the 1990 Clean Air Act. TSP is no gem either. This stuff causes difficult breathing, coughing, sore throat, irritation of mucous membranes, low blood pressure, skin burns, bloody stools, diarrhea, and vomiting. Yeah, baby, sounds fun. TSP also throws extra phosphates into the environment, which does wonders for our water systems. An abundance of phosphates can cause an abundance of algae in our lakes and rivers. An abundance of algae can cause a severe diminishment of dissolved oxygen in the water. This can cause fish kills. So, do yourself and the world a favor and get yourself a good, safe deck cleaner. Here are some suggestions: Hy-Tech House Wash, Exterior PROx Nontoxic Deck & Patio Cleaner, Bio-Wash Woodwash, or Wolman DeckBrite Wood Cleaner.

Natural Deck Sealers & Deck Stains

bottle of soysealSoySeal Wood Sealer is a soy-based deck sealant that is also great for docks or any other outdoor wood. It is environmentally friendly and non-toxic, it has no caustic fumes, and it is biodegradable.

can of natural deck oilBio-Wash Natural Deck Oil is a blend of protective natural oils that saves your wood from UV rays and causes water to bead away. It is good for most outdoor wood surface and comes in several shades.

bottle of defy deck stainDefy Deck Stain for Hardwoods is an MPI Green Certified stain for cedar, redwood, mahogany, and other dense woods. It protects wood from UV rays and is water resistant and safe for use inside and outside. It’s not cheap, but you can find Defy Deck Stain on Amazon.