newly constructed unpainted wood deck

Kendall "aka Renos"

Founder, Lead Instructor of Renos 4 Pros and Joes and Bathroom Update Guide

Should You Stain Deck or Rails First?

A few days ago I started a deck staining project. I was watching the weather closely in the days leading up to the project. And then, as I could have predicted, the weather changed again. I ended up having to do the project a few days early on short notice.


Each deck staining project is a little different. And as I rode to the jobsite I once again asked  myself the age-old question, “Should I stain the deck or rails first?”


In most scenarios, it is best to start by staining both sides of the handrails first and then stain the deck floor and stairs afterward. The reasoning is simple. Time. It takes less time to stain the handrails first and deck floor second because you don’t have to stop and wait for the paint to dry to finish the first coat. If you stain the deck floors first, then you have to stop and wait for the stain to dry on the deck floor. The wait is necessary because you have to stand on the deck floor in order to paint the inner side of the deck handrails. And if the paint or stain on the deck floor isn’t dry yet, you will leave footprints and damage the paint finish. 


The deck handrails have two sides. The inner side, which is closest to the deck floor and outer side, which is on the exterior of the perimeter of the deck. In order to access the interior side of the handrails, you have to stand on the deck.


If you paint the deck floor first it will still be wet when you finish painting the last board. you will have to then wait for the deck floor to dry before you can paint the inner side of the handrails. You do have the option of painting the outer side of the handrails first which will allow more time for the deck floor to dry. However, depending on the speed and technique that you use to paint the handrails this still may not be enough time for the floor to dry.

Deck Staining Order

Additionally, when painting handrails there will be drips and specks of paint that fall from the handrail in the process. Because the deck floor is wet you won’t be able to cover it with a drop cloth to protect it from any drips. this means that you will have to try and correct any drips as they happen.


Trying to correct and address paint drips as they fall on the deck floor as it dries is not ideal.  As the stain dries it becomes tackier and a brush or roller will not glide over the paint as smoothly as it did when you first applied the stain. As the stain dries it should not be disturbed in order to avoid negatively impacting the finish.


If you plan to paint your deck slowly then staining the deck floor first may not be an issue for you.  but when the time comes to stain the handrails you will still have to pay close attention and make sure that you clean up any drips or thoroughly cover the deck floor before you begin.


How to apply stain to a deck floor

There are several options when it comes to applying stain to a deck floor.

Staining Sponge

The first option is to use a staining sponge or a stain mitt. This method will allow you to easily control how much staining you apply by regulating the amount of pressure that you apply with your hand. However, some stain products are thicker than others and may not be as well suited for this type of application technique.

Deck Paint Brush

You can also apply stain to a deck floor using a paintbrush. Using a larger brush allows you to work more efficiently because you can cover a larger area in less time. By using a larger brush you help ensure a more uniform stain coverage and finish. Applying deck stain with a paintbrush will allow you to conserve the amount of stain that you use. The stain goes on thin with a brush so you will likely need at least two coats. My favorite paintbrush for painting decks is the Linzer 5-inch Paint and Stain Brush (click here to see it on Amazon). 

Paint Roller

Some prefer to use a paint roller to apply stain to a deck. this method will require a few additional supplies. You will need a roller tray a paint roller frame and a paint roller nap. The shorter the nap the smoother the finish will be. Depending on the spacing and condition and style of your deck boards you may also need to use a paintbrush in order to get good paint coverage where the deck boards meet.

Airless Paint Sprayer

Last but not least you can apply the deck stain with an airless paint sprayer. Spraying the deck floor with an airless sprayer is by far the fastest way to apply the stain. However, it’s advisable to have a roller handy to go back over the deck boards to ensure even coverage. 

Now for the not-so-fun part. Using this method will require that you rent a paint sprayer.  Additionally, you should also double check and ensure that the tip that you use is it good condition and not worn out. The paint sprayer will use more stain than the other methods mentioned above. Using the paint sprayer also has the steepest learning curve.  You will also have to clean out the paint sprayer thoroughly for returning it to the tool rental store. You will need to run water through the unit until the water comes out clear from the sprayer as well as the priming tube.


How to apply stain to deck handrails

When painting deck handrails you will have essentially the same options for applying the stain as you do when you paint the deck floor with the exception of the paint roller. However, the paint roller may still come in handy for painting the top of the handrail.


If you choose to use a paintbrush to paint the handrails make sure to keep a wire brush handy. You will likely have to force the bristles into crevices between the spindles and pickets. This causes some of the bristles to get gummed up with paint and or lay in a different direction. If this happens simply brush out the bristles with the wire brush.  after you’ve been painting for a while with the brush you may notice that paint begins to cake up on some of the bristles. This is normal. Take time to rinse the brush out and re-wet the bristles and brush it out with the wire brush. now you’re ready to start again.

Airless Paint Sprayer on Deck Handrails

As you probably would guess the airless paint sprayer is also the fastest way to paint the handrails. Using airless sprayer to paint the handrails will save you even more time than you saved on the deck floor. The reasoning is simple. Painting the handrails is very tedious work. You have to brush each spindle or Pickett separately. And frequently you may have to paint each side of each picket separately.  Then you have to be able to paint the horizontal deck components that are attached to the pickets. This requires you to jam the brush into the crevices on each side of the handrail where the picket is attached. You have to do this at the top and the bottom of the picket.


Your main concern with working with the airless sprayer is overspray. you want to make sure that you don’t get paint on the shrubs walkways walls or anywhere else paint shouldn’t go. But once you’ve masked everything off and taken the proper precautions you can spray very quickly and move on to the next thing.

Deck Staining Tip (BONUS)

Bonus: If you’ve read this far I want to reward you with an invaluable deck staining tip. Whether you’re painting a new deck or an existing deck  it’s very easy to get leaves and stems and sticks wedged between the deck boards. If you paint over them it looks terrible. Do yourself a favor and clean your deck thoroughly before you begin staining. Sweeping off the deck or using a leaf blower is a no-brainer. But you should also keep a tool like a five in one tool handy during cleaning and during painting. the five in one tool can be used to clean out the crevices in between the deck boards. It can also be used to force out excess stain that may bridge in the crevices between two deck boards. Following these two small steps will help ensure a uniform look to your freshly stained deck.


Hopefully, you’re able to pick up some helpful information and insight from this post. Good luck with your project and have fun out there.