Deck Refinishing for Painters

According to a 2014 survey by American Painting Contractor, 70% of professional painters offer deck refinishing services. At first that number surprised me, but then it made sense. For decades there’s been a steady downtrend in the amount of home improvement work people do themselves, and since decks get ratty regardless of whether their owner feels handy and ambitious or not, someone’s got to refinish those decks. Painters are stepping up to the plate because there’s money to be made. Just be careful. Deck refinishing involves more potential pitfalls than most other painting work because it’s fundamentally different. Understand the key deck refinishing essentials I’ve discovered over 25 years of finishing outdoor wood and it could save you from that sinking feeling you get when a job goes wrong.

Choose Clients Carefully

Since there’s more to go wrong technically with deck refinishing than regular painting, it means you have to be pickier about the clients you choose to work with. And not only pickier, but also more clear about what you can and cannot accomplish with an old deck. Most interior walls can be made to look great if enough time is put into patching them before painting. Not so with an old deck. There really is no way you can turn an old barn board deck surface into something that looks like a dining room table. Be clear about what you can do, and even understate your case while sizing up the job. Better to delight the client with more than they expected, rather than disappoint them with less. See The Five Deck Refinishing Clients (page 13) for insights on the kind of people you’ll be dealing with.

Wash Before Sanding

Every ratty deck needs basic cleaning work before any new finish can go on, and the combination of pressure washing and sanding is very powerful. Apply a water soluble stripper if there’s any remaining finish, pressure wash the deck, then let it dry for a couple of good days. No matter how careful you were with the pressure washer, some fuzzy surface fibers will have been raised. These dried fibers are easy to knock off with the right kind of sander. One pass and they’re history, leaving behind a surface that’s perfect for refinishing. A washed and sanded surface imparts the greatest absorbency of anything you can do to wood. And all else being equal, deck finish life is directly proportional to wood absorbency.

Make Surface Wood Absorbent and Strong

Most wood is a poor candidate for outdoor finishing. New, planed lumber is especially bad because it’s not absorbent enough because the planer that milled the wood burnished
the surface. Finishing liquids can’t penetrate deeply enough into the fibers to resist premature peeling. Old wood is absorbent, but it’s surface fibers are already partially loose.
New wood finishes will peel prematurely as they pull surface fibers off with them.

According to a five year study conducted by Akzo Nobel across North America, the most absorbent wood surface is bright surface that’s been sanded with a 60-grit abrasive.
That’s pretty coarse for most homeowners, but an 80-grit is almost as absorbent and more practical for real-world decks. A walk-behind pad-style floor sander does a good job
on large areas. My favourite hand-held sander for deck work is a 6” random orbit sander with an angle grinder style motor. I’m still using my venerable Porter Cable 7336 after
20 years, but any similar model will work great.

Educate Clients About Deck Finish Choice

There are four main types of deck refinishing products out there, each with strengths and weaknesses. Explain the pros and cons with your clients to help them choose:

The best of these make decks look like a piece of furniture, but usually require complete stripping and re-application every 3 years. Looks great, but challenging to keep up long term.

These last the longest – about 5 years – but they hide wood grain. Tough and durable, but eliminates wood character.

These offer no surface film, but they’re ideal for old decks that have started to develop weathering cracks.

The best of these offer “new wood looks” for about 12 to 18 months. Stripping, lightening and reapplication is required to maintain bright, new wood appearance.

These impart a weathered wood look to new lumber, evenly and quickly. They require no further applications. Easy to live with, but more of a barnboard appearance than some people like.

Don’t Undercut Yourself

If you don’t have a lot of experience refinishing decks, build more time into your estimate than you think. Prep takes a long time, but so do the little deck things that might creep up: loose boards needs to be reattached; rain shuts you down before lunch; it got windy so you couldn’t brush anything on because of dust.

Refinishing decks isn’t for every painter, but it can yield good money if you get good at it. And besides, one of the benefits is that you get some fresh air and sunshine in your life. pp

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