Man v. Pergola: How to clean, stain and seal a wood pergola

Build a wood pergola: Check. Maintain a wood pergola: NOT check. 

wood pergola

Man vs. Pergie. We partnered with Thompson’s WaterSeal on this project. As you’ll see by the comedy of errors forthwith, the story is 100% MyFixitUpLife.

Come with me on my journey as I make almost every mistake possible bringing this un-cared for pergola back from the depths of dinge. However, this story has a happy ending. I learned a lot and want to share it with you.

The main challenge through every phase of this project was extremes in body position. It seems that either the piece you need to work on is far away and requires working with a long handle (both inefficient and difficult), or it’s right above you and the long-handled tool is in the way.

The key, which I’ll show you below, is to be smarter than the pergola is confusing.

Here’s the story.

wood pergola

Anything that lives outside needs a little TLC from time-to-time.

This 8-year old pergola has seen less than 8-seconds of maintenance, unless you consider rain as a cleaning. It has an existing finish—I pre-stained the parts before assembling the pergola—over a rough-sawn texture. Like anything that lives outside, it’s gathering dirt and the finish is wearing. In short, it needs some TLC.

wood pergola

Protect or remove any items you don’t want detergent or stripper to get to.

One thing I didn’t have to do three times was protect the ceiling fan. Deck stripper and detergent would do a number on the finish, so I removed the blades and encapsulated the housing in a contractor trash bag.

wood pergola

Take care to seal up the top with some serious tape.

Bag it up and make extra sure the bag is sealed. I used Gorilla Tape for a solid lock.

wood pergola

This is me making my first mistake.

This mistake is commonly made. I didn’t read the product label carefully enough and chose the wrong product for my application. I’ve literally done videos on this topic and it still snuck by me.

I thought the product I chose would strip the finish, but that’s not what it’s made for. Instead of a deck stripper, I used a detergent/wood brightener, Thompson’s WaterSeal 3-in-1 Wood Cleaner. That’s sort of like washing your car with a dry rag. Funny thing is, I have lots of pictures of me applying and pressure washing this off.

Well, funny if you’re not the guy who spent a whole day doing it.

wood pergola

What I really needed to break down the existing coating was THIS!

To remove an existing coating, you need a stripping product. This one works well. I have used different strippers on this same stain for other jobs and they do not break down the finish as well as this Thompson’s WaterSeal Maximum Strength Deck Stripper did. I can’t prove that, but I saw it happen with my own eyes.

Also, the face shield. This job is un-doable without it. More on that later.

wood pergola

Applying Thompson’s Water Seal finish stripper with a paint roller.

Applying the stripper is the first step in bringing this pergie (VIDEO: see how to build a wood pergola) back to like-new vibrance. I found using a thick nap foam roller and an extension want was the fastest way to do this job—until later when I figured out a better way, which I’ll show you below.

This also points up why the face shield is vital—eye and skin protection. Applying this material overhead requires extra care because it’s liquid, meant to strip paint, and drips are inevitable because of this thing called gravity.

I applied with the roller doing each side of three rafters at a time. I then re-wet it with a garden sprayer, then I scrubbed it with a deck brush, then rinsed with a pressure washer.

This is an actual photo of me doing this the least efficient way possible.

wood pergola

Another photo of me both out of position and working waaaaay too hard.

Deck strippers work best when you let them chemically break down the stain, then—while still wet—you hit it with a stiff bristle brush. This is easy enough on a deck. But a pergola, not so much. You’re either too far away to work efficiently or you’re too close to use the tool at the proper angle. Which led me to…

wood pergola

I did not want this to be the solution. I tried it for a while until I figured out the Zen of this project.

This worked, but it was not fun. I have, however, used Quickie brushes like this on deck spindles and it is a thing of beauty.

wood pergola

Suddenly, night turned to day as the the wood reappeared in its glory.

Wait, what? This stuff works great. Maybe I can pull this off after all. Note, however, the library of ladders.

wood pergola

Ladders are where I went wrong—at the outset. I’m starting to see that now.

Note the ladder. The Thompson’s WaterSeal Maximum Strength Deck Stripper has worked and now I’m on to the Thompson’s WaterSeal 3-in-1 Wood Cleaner. I’m finally doing things in the correct order—but I’m still up and down a ladder a million times and moving stuff around like crazy.

The light has not gone off yet for how to do this better. But, I’ve moved from being seriously bummed out to surviving. Next stop: Thriving.

And, I have pretty much locked on to something else I think is helpful. Having help is great for a job like this. There are lots of things to do—re-wetting surfaces, moving things around, filling the pressure washer with gas, enjoying a lovely day outdoors with someone you love—that two people can do better than one lone wolf.

wood pergola

I’m starting to like this. When it works, it’s fun.

With the stripping and cleaning vision quest behind me, I move on to our compost bin and grill platform. There’s something enticing about seeing dirt and grime that took so many years to accumulate you can barely see it being washed away in minutes.

wood pergola

Thompson’s WaterSeal 3-in-1 Wood Cleaner brightened our grill platform almost instantly.

Applied with a garden sprayer to weathered wood with no finish on it was—as internet memes say—incredibly satisfying. The wood emerged from seasons of schmutz with near zero effort.

wood pergola

Time for COLOR!

As much as a start and stop journey as this has been—and I haven’t unlocked the pergola code yet either—the beauty of a wood pergola is that you can change its look. Unlike a pergie made out of something else, a wooden structure can be updated and improved.

Quick tip: I used several gallons of Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Stain Transparent in Acorn Brown. First, shake ‘em up. Then, grab a bucket and pour in a little from each can to mollify any possible color variation between cans.

wood pergola

You don’t know it, but I’m close to figuring out the Pergola Code.

I tried a roller to apply the stain, but on small surfaces like posts and rafters, there was too much squeeze out and I was staining the lawn as much as the lumber. Plus, with the rough sawn texture, the stain flowed into the billion nooks and crannies much better from a brush. It was also easier up top where everything is close together.

wood pergola

The secret is 2×6 boards.

Carpenters call this a ‘staging plank’. I made mine out of 2×6 boards.

I chose the height by using my height as a benchmark. In other words, measure from the rafter bottom whatever your height is, then add four inches. This is where the top of the 2×6 gets screwed to the post.

It was perfect.

I could use the deck brush at pretty much the optimum angle, pivot my body, not bump my head and reach nearly everything with the paint brush. And I could slide the work platform almost anywhere I needed it and reach about 85% of the boards from there. No moving ladders. No up and down.

So now that I could move around freely and quickly, I could do what I came here to do: De-dinge this prized pergola. I used Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Stain. It’s ‘transparent’ which means that even though it has a tint—Acorn Brown—the wood grain can show through, which I like.

The tint gives a color I dig. And, as an ‘all in one’ the stain is also a sealer so water beads off this bad boy like never before.

And I wish all coatings went on as well as this does. The rough-textured wood drank it in, but I can say that it covered in a single coat. That’s impressive. Water beaded up as soon as it was dry. Nice.

And even though I’m breaking my own arm patting myself on the back for figuring out the mystery of the pergola, it pays to be extremely systematic during this phase. There are so many adjustments—post to girder, girder to rafter tails (scroll cuts on the ends), rafter tails to rafter bodies (in the center of the span where the ceiling fan is), and then up to the purlins (the 2x4s on top) —that it’s almost inevitable you’ll miss or skip something.

What worked for me was to apply color from the bottom up (posts to girder), then the outside in (rafter tails to rafter body). Being systematic is important for all of this process, but you really want to be sure you get the color on everything.

And there you have it. I can’t wait to put the furniture back and wait for the perfect summer night for some advanced relaxing and enjoying.

Code: Cracked.

wood pergola

Remember this?

The Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Stain went on in one, easy-to-apply coat. It saturated the material and instantly, deeply brightened the color, look, and feel of this treasured backyard space. It repels water like gangbusters.

Now, about the grass we chose for a pergola base. There’s no amount of magic that can bring that back I’m afraid to say.

wood pergola

The secret of revealing—and protecting—the beautiful wood within. Pergola makeover: Done.

Cracking the Pergola Code continues.






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