how to clean a fence before staining

How to Clean a Fence Before Staining

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Matt Stone

It is important to know how to clean a fence before staining in order to get the best stain job possible. Any dirt on the fence can interfere with the stain’s ability to penetrate resulting in an uneven appearance. Also, mold stains and gray mildew can tint the stain’s final appearance so you don’t get the color you were hoping for. 

Fortunately, there is a method for cleaning a fence in just about any condition before staining. I have used each of these methods in my fence staining company and learned when to use each. I will show you five different methods and tell you when each method is appropriate.

#1 Clean a Fence with a Power Washer

Power washing a fence to clean it before staining

A power washer is a surefire way to remove tough caked on dirt from a fence. Often fences will get dirt on them during the installation process. Also, if there is any bare ground at the base of the fence, rain can splash dirt up on the wood. A power washer is a simple way to remove this dirt before staining.

Pressure washing a fence is not without risks though. Using too much force can damage the wood fibers. These damaged wood fibers will look like fuzz on the surface of the fence when you are done. It is also possible to gouge the pickets, leaving unsightly marks on the fence surface. Read the tips below to find out how to avoid these problems.

How a Pressure Washer Cleans a Fence

Pressure washing (or power washing) uses the force of pressurized water to physically remove dirt from the surface of the wood. It can remove dirt or mud that is caked onto the fence which would be hard to remove with a regular garden hose attachment. 

Great care should be taken to not damage the wood while it is being power washed. See the tips below for advice on how to power wash a fence.

Tips for Cleaning a Fence With a Power Washer

  • Keep Your Pressure Low
    Using too much pressure can cause damage to the wood’s surface.
  • Use a Wide Spray Tip
    I recommend using the 25° or 40° tip to power wash a fence. A narrower tip will concentrate the water in a smaller spot and make it easier to damage the wood.
  • Keep Your Distance
    Holding the end of the sprayer at least 12 inches away from the fence will also help avoid damaging the wood.
  • Follow The Boards
    If the boards on your fence go up and down you should move your sprayer up and down when cleaning the fence. By going side to side you will risk creating visible lines in the wood that may show through the finish stain.
Power washer tips color coded based on size
Power washer tips are color-coordinated based on the spray pattern. I recommend the 25° or 40° tip for washing a fence.

#2 Use Detergent and a Hose to Clean a Fence

If your fence is dusty but doesn’t have any tough caked-on mud, pressure washing may be unnecessary. Gentle cleaning with a detergent or outdoor cleaner may be enough to remove the dirt and get the fence ready for staining.

How to Clean a Fence with Detergent and Hose.

Your first step in this method will be to apply the cleaning chemical to the fence. A pump-up sprayer is often the best way to apply the chemical. Make sure to follow the recommendations on the bottle for diluting the cleaner if needed. 

Spray the cleaner on the fence and let it soak in for a few minutes. Then use a garden hose with a sprayer attachment to rinse the cleaner off the fence. It is important to make sure the cleaner is thoroughly rinsed off to avoid any interactions between the cleaning chemical and the stain. This process is simple and easy on the fence.

Tips For Cleaning a Fence Before Staining

  • Use a Quality Pump-Up Sprayer
    Low-quality pump-up sprayers may be cheap but they are unreliable. Often they won’t work well and just result in frustration. It is definitely worth it to buy a better sprayer. Check out the reviews before you buy.
  • Use a Cleaner Made For Outdoor Cleaning
    There are many cleaners on the market designed for outdoor cleaning. They will often be able to remove light mold stains as well as dust.

#3 Clean the Fence With a Brush Before Staining

a brush cleaning a fence with an up and down motion following the boards

This is the only method of cleaning in this article that does not involve water. The advantage of this method is that you can clean the fence and stain it on the same day. Brushing the fence works for fences that are lightly dirty. 

We often see this if dirt splashes up from the ground onto the fence. Before we stain we use a stiff brush to scrub the dirt from the fence. This method is also fairly gentle for the wood because you can use as much or as little force as you want.

Tips for Cleaning a Fence With a Brush

  • Use an Extension Pole
    Many brushes come with a pole attached or have threads where you can attach a pole. Using an extension pole will save your back from having to bend over as you brush the fence.

#4 Use Bleach to Clean a Fence Before Staining

a bottle of bleach in front of a gray fence

Bleach is a chemical commonly used to clean fences before staining. It does an excellent job removing gray haze from the surface of the fence. You can use either laundry bleach or outdoor bleach.

Older, unstained fences will have gray mildew growth on their surface. If a fence was previously stained but the stain was not maintained you will likely see areas of gray showing through the stain. Either way this gray must be removed for the stain’s true color to show through and look its best.

How to Clean a Fence With Bleach

Like the detergent method mentioned above, the best tool to apply bleach to a fence is a pump-up sprayer. There are special sprayers that are designed to use harsh chemicals like bleach. 

  1. Fill the sprayer halfway with bleach and fill the remaining space with water to make a 50/50 mixture. 
  2. Spray the bleach onto the fence surface and watch the gray disappear before your eyes.
  3. After the bleach has had a minute to soak in, go back and spray additional bleach on any dark spots that remain.
  4. Make sure to rinse the fence well with water after you are done.

Tips for Cleaning a Fence With Bleach

  • Take Caution
    Bleach is a harsh chemical. This makes it important to protect your self when spraying it on a fence. Wear gloves,  long sleeves and pants to protect your skin from exposure. Also, goggles and a mask will keep the chemical out of your mouth and eyes. Read more about bleach safety here.
  • Wear Old Clothes
    Make sure to wear clothes that you don’t mind if they get ruined. If there is any wind, the bleach you are spraying can drift back on you and leave bleach spots on your clothing.

#5 Clean a Fence Before Staining with Wood Cleaner and Brightener

a bag of oxalic acid wood brightener

There are special wood cleaning chemicals on the market today that offer the strongest cleaning ability. This is a very intense way to clean a fence so you should consider hiring a professional if this level of cleaning is needed. These chemicals are appropriate for cleaning wood that is old, gray and dirty. They can help restore even the toughest fence jobs.

Wood Fence Cleaner How-to Video

Watch the video below to see the process in action.

Tips For Cleaning a Fence With Wood Cleaner and Brightener  Before Staining

  • Call a Pro
    Because this method uses serious chemicals to restore the fence you should consider calling a professional to do this work. Even if you plan to do the actual staining yourself, they can help get you on the right track.
  • Educate Yourself
    This cleaning method is the most involved of all the methods listed above. If you are determined to do it yourself, take time to learn more about how to do it. Read the instructions that come with the cleaning chemicals carefully.


Unless your fence is new and free from dirt and wear, you should clean it well before staining. Consider the condition of the fence and select the method that makes the most sense for you. Using these methods you now know how to stain a fence before staining.

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Author: Matt Stone
Matt has worked as a professional painter for over 10 years. This includes much experience with all types of wood stains. He loves to write about wood stains to help others make good choices to protect their homes and make them beautiful.

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