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Can a Gray Fence or Deck be Stained?

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Matt Stone

If you have an older fence or deck that has turned gray you may think it is too late to have beautifully stained wood in your backyard. The truth is that fences and decks can be restored to their original condition and transformed with quality outdoor stain. There are several methods for removing the gray surface on the wood creating a perfect canvas for staining any color that matches your style. Read below to find out more about this process.

What Causes Fences to Turn Gray

Old Fence Without stain that has turned gray
This fence is ready to be bleached and stained. Look below to see the results.

When a new cedar fence or deck is installed the wood always looks so stunning. The natural warm red tones in the wood make a great backdrop for your outdoor space. Unfortunately, the wood will quickly start losing its natural beauty and steadily transition to a dark gray color. There are several factors that contribute to this process.

  • UV Rays: Wood is an organic material and is susceptible to damage from UV rays. Just like UV rays from the sun can damage our skin, the wood cells on the surface of a board will be harmed.
  • Moisture: Water causes wood to rot and warp. Over time, exposure to moisture will weather the surface of any boards left outside.
  • Mildew/Mold: Mildew is a fungus that grows on organic matter like the wood of your fence or deck. It can cause a gray color or even brown and black spots.

The good news is that all this gray discoloration is on the surface of the wood only. There is still good wood just below this layer of gray. Once this layer is removed, the fence will look like it is new and ready for a fresh coat of stain.

How to Remove Gray From a Fence

A fence restoration professional has several methods for removing the gray layer on top of a fence. These methods can be classified as chemical or physical.

Power Washing

The first method to physically remove the gray from a fence or deck is to power wash the wood. The high-pressure water will remove the top layer of wood cells and reveal the bright new-looking wood underneath. One benefit of this method is that it involves no harsh chemicals and is very environmentally friendly.

The downside to power washing a fence is that it damages the wood. The intense force of the water strips off the outer layer but also will do some damage to the layer underneath. For this reason, a fence should only be thoroughly power washed a couple of times during its lifespan.


Sanding is the second method for removing the gray layer from wood. This method is often used on smaller decks or fences because it can be very labor-intensive for larger surfaces. This method also avoids harsh chemicals and does not damage underlying wood layers like pressure washing.

There are two main cons to sanding a fence or deck. As alluded to above, it can be hard work to sand such a large area. There are tools you can buy or rent that make the process go faster. The second drawback to sanding is that it will close up the pores in the wood. This will decrease the amount of stain that the wood can absorb. Because less stain can get into the wood it will likely have to be re-applied sooner.

Bleach Wash

Applying laundry bleach is the first chemical way to remove gray from the surface of the wood. Concentrated bleach can be mixed with water and applied to the fence or deck with a pump-up or battery-powered sprayer. The bleach kills the mildew on the surface of the wood and lightens the appearance of the wood. The process is nearly instant and you can watch the wood transform before your eyes. The wood will need to be rinsed after the bleach is applied.

One benefit to using bleach instead of the physical removal methods mentioned above is that it does not significantly damage the wood or close the pores. It is also very effective at getting the gray out of small nooks in the wood that are hard to reach with a sander or power washer.

There are several downsides to using bleach listed below:

  • Bleach can damage nearby plants (not to mention your clothes) if you are not careful.
  • Bleach is a harsh chemical and you must take care not to get it on your skin or breathe it in.

Oxalic Acid Rinse

Oxalic acid, also known as wood bleach, is a chemical that brightens wood. It is also effective for killing mold and mildew. It is often used in conjunction with an all-purpose cleaner. This two-part chemical process followed by a rinse is the most effective way to remove all the gray from a fence and restore it. This is the preferred method for fences that have been neglected for a while and will be more challenging to restore.

The cons of Oxalic acid mirror those of bleach. It is a harsh chemical and the surrounding plants and the person applying it should all be protected.

Fence stained with wood defender cedar tone fence stain.
This is the same fence shown above after being bleached and stained.

Tips For Staining After the Gray is Removed

#1 Keep in mind that as fences age the pores in the wood will slowly open up. This means that an older fence will absorb more stain on average than a newer fence. This means that it may take more stain to saturate an older fence. This also means that an older fence may appear to be a darker color than a newer fence stained with the exact same stain. This is because it is also absorbing more pigment along with the stain.

Weathered wood it not such a bad idea if you plan to stain the siding. Loose fibers and the roughened texture absorbs penetrating stains better.

Paul Fisette University of Massachusetts

#2 When staining an older fence or deck the boards have often been damaged over time. Stains come in different levels of transparency that have more or less ability to hide the underlying wood. Often with older fences, it is best to choose a semi-transparent fence stain to cover some of the imperfections in the wood.

Getting Your Fence or Deck Restored

Hometown Painting provides free estimates for fence and deck restoration in the OKC Metro. We would be happy to answer your questions about which method would be best for your fence or deck. Please give us a call at (405) 202-7945 or fill out the form on our contact page.

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Author: Matt Stone
Matt is the owner of Hometown Painting. He has worked in the painting and construction trades for over 10 years. He has a passion for teaching homeowners so they can make the best paint choices for their homes.