When Bob DuBree's company, Creative Contracting, finishes a deck, and the deck is wood, he recommends that clients have it stained. “Quite often, if it's a wood deck, we'll offer to do a clear finish, because we think it's an important part of the process,” DuBree says. Sometimes Creative Contracting employees do the staining; sometimes the job's subcontracted to a painter. Staining adds about $5 a square foot to the total cost. Because it's new, little or no preparation is required, meaning the job can take anywhere from one hour to several, depending on the complexity of the design. Stairways and rails add labor hours, particularly if the railings are to be painted.

DuBree says he's careful to specify in his contract whether or not staining is included. “We don't assume,” he says. “We pose that question right up front.”

Preventive Medicine Applying some kind of finish can lengthen the life of a deck and improve its appearance. So for contractors completing a deck job, the first question is, to stain or not to stain? Then, if staining, color or clear?

When clients hire Dutchess Building Specialists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to build a deck, painting and staining is not included. Owner Brian Altmann says the decision to apply a coating at the end of a job is up to the client, but he's happy to refer them to a painter.
courtesy Dutchess Building Specialists When clients hire Dutchess Building Specialists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to build a deck, painting and staining is not included. Owner Brian Altmann says the decision to apply a coating at the end of a job is up to the client, but he's happy to refer them to a painter.

Brian Altmann, owner of Dutchess Building Specialists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says the decision is entirely up to the client. “We don't offer any painting or staining,” he says. “We're not in the painting business. We could do a professional job, but they could get it at a little bit less expense from a painting contractor.” If clients inquire, Altmann says he'll refer them to the local painting contractor he uses.

Part of the reason he doesn't automatically include staining, Altmann says, is “to keep costs down.” Staining will add roughly a thousand dollars to the price of a typical deck. Another reason is that clients sometimes prefer to do the staining themselves. In that case, he hands off copies of a Consumer Reports article that ranks brands of stains. “We recommend stains with pigment in them,” he points out. “Because it's been proven that pigment surpasses the clear preservatives in overall protection.”

Clear or Color? Not everyone agrees with Altmann. Kellen McAffee's business, Park City Deck Stylists, in Park City, Utah, does nothing but treat decks. Nine out of 10 decks in the neighborhoods where he works are wood —most frequently cedar or redwood. The primary purpose of a sealant, McAffee says, “is to protect the deck.”

Aesthetics are secondary. Sealing decks, he says, keeps water from entering the wood and, by so doing, prevents damage from UV rays in the summertime.

“A lot of the stains we use are clear, with no pigment,” he says. “The approach we take is to keep the deck looking as natural as possible, so you can enjoy the wood, not the stain.”

Bob Brisbois, owner of E.B. Painting Co., in Hudson, Mass., has treated many decks over the past 13 years. The sales advantage of pigmented stains, Brisbois points out, is that “people want to see that somebody did something [to the deck] — even if it doesn't last two years.” His suggestion is to use “something that's going to sink in,” he says. “If you don't use that, you'll get a million cracks.”