Clean a Bare, Unfinished Cedar Wood Deck With Dish Soap

An Unfinished Cedar Deck—It's Natural AND Green

My beautiful cedar deck on a rainy fall day, unstained, painted, or clear-coated, weathered to a nice gray after about two years. I cleaned the deck annually with dish soap, which usually took part of an afternoon to sweep and scrub everything down.
My beautiful cedar deck on a rainy fall day, unstained, painted, or clear-coated, weathered to a nice gray after about two years. I cleaned the deck annually with dish soap, which usually took part of an afternoon to sweep and scrub everything down. | Source

This is Easy to Do and Won't Spoil Your Entire Weekend like Painting/Staining Will

Just soak, quick scrub with a deck brush, and rinse. Works great!

Restore that natural wood smell at the same time

If your beautiful, unfinished cedar or other natural-wood deck is looking more weathered than you like or has moss, lichen, or other dirt on it, there's a quick and easy way to clean it without wasting money on harsh chemicals. I've done this many times on my own bare cedar deck and get better—and faster—results than when I used commercial deck cleaners. Note that this process may or may not work on decks that have been painted, stained, or varnished--test in a small hidden spot before attempting to use this procedure on those surfaces.

What You Will Need

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A deck-scrubbing brush--a stiff-bristled brush on a stick so you don't have to bend down or work on hands and knees (a stiff-bristled broom may also work).
Dawn®-brand liquid dishwashing soap "with oxy and enzymes" (it's biodegradable and safe for kids, animals and nearby plants).*
A large scrub bucket, such as a 5 gallon bucket.
Possibly necessary: a smaller brush or two to get into corners and crevices.
* Note that other brands of dishwashing soap may work just as well, but I can't recommend them because I haven't personally tried them.

First, Apply Soapy Water to Your Deck

1. Pour a medium amount of Dawn® dish washing liquid into the bucket--about twice the amount you'd use to wash a sink full of dishes: you want to get a lot of soap suds in the bucket (about half water, half suds)!
2. Fill the bucket with enough water to cover your deck surface or as much as it will hold without spilling out the soap suds floating on top.
3. Using the deck brush, apply the soapy water liberally to all surfaces you want to clean. If your deck is very large or if you have a lot to clean, you may need to make another batch of soapy water (repeat from step 1).
4. Wait 10-15 minutes for the solution to soak in and do its work. Make sure the surfaces don't dry out during this time -- use the hose to apply a VERY light mist of water to the drying areas. Apply more soapy water to any areas that start to dry too soon. An overcast day is best for this job.

Tips While You Wait for the Soapy Water to Work its Magic

Tip: This is a great time to get out the scrub brush and big sponge and get the whole family together to wash off deck furniture and cushions, decorations, flower pots and baskets (wash these down on the ground, not on the deck, to keep the deck from getting dirtier), porch decorations, and anything else you've got out on the deck. Even very little kids can help scrub flower pots and boxes. Use the same method of dish soap and soaking/rinsing after waiting 10-15 minutes that you use with the deck.

Trivia: It's good to have children do chores around the house—they will grow up to be better adults if they do.*

Never Pressure-Wash Wood!

Important: Resist the temptation to use a pressure washer on real wood decking or siding!

Pressure-washing may appear to solve the immediate problem(s), but it raises the grain of the wood on the outside, thereby damaging the wood. This makes the wood more susceptible to rot and insects, makes splinters on bare feet more likely, and makes it difficult to stain uniformly if that is what you plan to do.

If you inherited a real-wood deck that was pressure-washed by the previous owners of your house, I recommend sanding off a very thin layer of the top of the wood. This will bring back the new-cedar smell (especially on damp early mornings or rainy days) and solve most of the problems caused by pressure-washing the wood.

After 10-15 Minutes, It is Time to Scrub/Brush Away the Dirt

5. Use the deck brush to brush or scrub the grime right off of your deck—with minimal scrubbing, even the dirtiest, darkest messes should come right off, leaving beautiful natural wood underneath.
6. When you are done scrubbing, either hose off the deck or empty your scrub bucket on a particularly dirty section and then hose off the deck using a mild to moderate water pressure to rinse away the grime and soap. DO NOT use high water pressure! This might damage the wood's natural surface (see important note about not pressure-washing wood).
7. If there are any remaining areas that are dirty, you may need to follow this procedure again and do more scrubbing to get it clean. If all else fails, you might try a small amount of Formula 409® (which I doubt is good for the environment, so use as little as possible).

* http://connectedparenting.com/2010/05/5-reasons-kids-should-do-chores.htm, http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/moms/2013/03/03/why-your-children-should-chores/MFOXxBkHduWAU2WIbR1zAK/story.html, http://www.wisegeek.com/should-my-child-do-chores.htm, and many others.

Smell the Cedar of an Unfinished Deck on a Misty Day

My deck, before cleaning with dish soap. You can almost smell the cedar in the air just looking at the photo.
My deck, before cleaning with dish soap. You can almost smell the cedar in the air just looking at the photo. | Source

Notes:

  • If any dirty areas remain, repeat this process.
  • Warm water may work better, though I use the cold water straight from the hose with excellent results.
  • This process probably works just as well with other outdoor items, like plastic faux-wood decking and wood or plastic outdoor furniture; test in an inconspicuous spot before attempting to clean entire objects.
  • I recommend NOT using a pressure washer on real wood decks, bare or stained, because it causes the surface to become damaged--you can feel the difference by walking barefoot on it before and after, and the damage pressure washers do has been in the news a lot the last few years despite the fact that they are still sold for this purpose. Destroying the wood surface by using a pressure washer is probably going to reduce the wood's lifespan, increase its vulnerability to insects, change how it works with stains and clear-coats if you plan on using them, and probably some other things as well. In any case, the cleaning method I describe above works on bare wood with mild to medium hose pressure or a mop and clear water, which don't damage the deck surface, so pressure washers aren't needed: all you need to do is rinse off the soapy water and grime.

If this process works just as well for you, or on other outdoor objects, or if you have an even cleaner/greener/easier solution, please let me know!

Source

Dish Soap Works to Clean Siding and Roofs, Too

Siding

This method works tolerably well at removing dark spots, dirt, pollution, mold, and lichen from wood house siding and roofs. It also works on some other kinds of siding such as aluminum and steel.

Careful, though: be sure to experiment in a small hidden area before using this procedure on your whole house! You don't want to have to re-paint or re-side your whole house if this doesn't work for some reason!

+ To clean a small section of siding, use a bucket of sudsy water as described above.

+ To clean ALL of the siding, use a clean (preferably new; and mark that it is dedicated for this task) plastic suction-based pump that attaches to the end of your hose and is designed to pull bits of liquid fertilizer or bug spray or whatever (in our case, extremely concentrated sudsy water) up along with the water it dispenses. I can't advise you on how much soap or soapy water to put into the uptake container or what setting to set the hose at: every situation is different and there are numerous models of dispensers on the market. So, a little experimentation will be necessary. Again, DON'T pressure wash real wood (even if it's painted) and don't forget to wait 10 minutes or more to let the soap soak and do its work. Then, use clear water to thoroughly rinse away all of the soap. Tip: Most of these suction pumps have a "clear water only" setting, so you don't even have to reconfigure your hose to switch between these two tasks--or to mist sections that appear to be drying. A cloudy day is best for this task, and work in sections so that you can make sure no soapy water dries on the siding.

Roofs

+ Important: Even if you have a walkable roof, I recommend hiring roofing contractors to clean your roof. Roofs are always dangerous for a number of reasons--best to leave this to the pros unless you can reach the problem areas from the ground or the deck or whatever without needing a ladder.

Have you ever used dish soap to wash your deck and house before? (How green are you?)

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Is your cedar deck stained, painted, or sealed?

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About the Author

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