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A well-built deck will give you years of service and enjoyment, especially with proper maintenance. The outdoor elements, and even normal usage, give wood a tough beating. Rain, wind, snow, and constant exposure to the sun take their toll.

Deck maintenance is a task where little things can go a long way. Simply sweeping and removing debris, for example, minimize the chances of rot causing structural damage. And if you do need to make repairs, doing so quickly will keep a localized problem from becoming a major reconstruction task.

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Because you get used to seeing the deck change slowly, you might not remember to clean or refinish it regularly. Make a written calendar to help you stay ahead of the dirt and grime.

Once a year, tighten loose fasteners and check for damaged wood. Most rot occurs in areas that are not easily visible, such as under the decking and at the bottom of posts. To check for rot, poke the lumber with a screwdriver. If it slides in easily, there’s a problem. Check joists and beams, too. They’re not as likely to rot but are subject to cracking.

Before you decide to make extensive— and expensive—changes to your deck, consider the easiest solution. Cleaning and refinishing can give a drab deck a fresh, new look. Many neglected decks mildew, cover with algae, or take on a dingy gray hue. But these conditions are usually only skin deep, and a good cleaning will remedy them.

You’ll be surprised how much bigger a clean deck looks—and you may change your mind about making major modifications. TSP is caustic, so wear rubber gloves and eye protection.

Cleaning Your Deck

  • Sweep the surface once a week— more often if the weather requires it.
  • Scrub the deck with warm water and a mild detergent every month. I If simple washing does not do the job, or if you want the deck lightened so you can apply an attractive finish, purchase a deck cleaning product.
  • If the wood is in very bad shape, use oxalic acid mixed with water. Scrub the area with a stiff, natural-bristle brush; rinse, allow it to dry, and repeat if necessary. Wear protective clothing; oxalic acid is caustic.
  • To clear away all the dirt at once—alon with any debris, dirt stuck in joints, or loose paint—rent a power washer (with 1,200 pounds of pressure). Use a fan tip so you won’t tear up the surface, and follow the safety precautions. Used improperly, a power washer can damage the surface of lumber.

Removing Mildew

A slimy black surface indicates mildew, which rarely causes a structural problem but is unsightly and gives off an unpleasant odor. Clean a mildewed area with a bleach solution, and improve the ventilation so the wood can dry out when it gets wet.

Removing Moss And Algae

Mix a solution of 1 ounce laundry soap, 3 ounces trisodium phosphate (TSP) or a nonphosphate TSP substitute, 1 quart chlorine bleach, and 3 quarts water. Brush it on, let it sit for five minutes, and rinse.

Hiring Professional Cleaners

You can find deck-cleaning companies in the Yellow Pages in many areas. Call around for prices and get a list of references. Visit decks the professionals have cleaned and finished—decks made of the same lumber as yours. If vou find just the right finish and color vou are looking for, ask the companv to do the same for your deck.

Wet And Dry Rot

Sitting moisture is the worst enemy of wood. It’s the primary cause of wet or dry rot.

  • Wet rot is black and spongy or has dark brown strands.
  • Dry rot is lighter in color but just as soft; it actually thrives in moist conditions.

Take steps to ensure that the wood can dry out, or see that it is completely covered with paint. Cracked paint allows water in and makes it hard for the moisture to evaporate— a dangerous combination. Often, the best prevention is as simple as sweeping away collected leaves so that air and sunlight can get to the wood.

Rot weakens the wood and is a structural problem that requires immediate attention. If a rotted section is small and not weakening a structural member, you might be able to get by with an application of epoxy hardener. Most rotted boards, however—especially beams, joists, and posts—need replacement. When replacing rotted wood, use pressure-treated lumber.

Patching Surface Damage

You may be able to repair small areas of surface damage (no more than about % inch thick) by cleaning them out and patching the area with an exterior-grade wood putty or an epoxy patching compound (it’s actually harder than the wood).

Fill holes with exterior wood putty. Vinyl spackling compound and ready-mixed wood filler won’t stand up to outdoor stresses or exposed standing water. “Plastic” fillers may not bond well with the surrounding wood. Use only filler designed for outdoor use. Push the filler into the hole with a putty knife, leaving a little excess. When it’s dry, sand it smooth and apply a finish.

Wood-Eating Insects

Thin channels drilled along grain lines indicate the presence of wood-eating insects, such as termites or carpenter ants. Because they like to eat in darkness, most of the damage is usually done by the time it’s visible. Check for insect damage by rapping on lumber and listening for a hollow sound or by sticking an awl in suspected boards. Inspect any lumber near or touching the ground, especially pieces that are attached to the foundation. Repair a damaged section as discussed below. Then call an exterminator.

Replacing Damaged Decking

Damaged decking can be dangerous. To replace it, locate the joists on each side of the damaged area. Drill a starter hole and use a keyhole saw or saber saw to cut out the damage flush with the joists. Fasten a cleat to the side of the joist, flush with the bottom edge of the decking. Cut a new piece of decking, scrub it with a solution of 1 cup baking soda and 1 gallon water to give it a weathered look, and fasten it to the cleats.

Replacing Reams And Joists

This is a job you can tackle yourself.

  • First tack a piece of 2×6 scrap under the damaged section.
  • Set a screw jack (preferred to a hydraulic jack) under the 2×6, and support it on a concrete block. Set the jack on another 2×6 on the block.
  • Raise the jack until it touches the 2×6.

Cut 2x braces to span 3 feet beyond the damaged section on each side, and fasten the braces to both sides of the beam or joist with lag screws.

Repairing Railings And Stairs

Deck railings and stairs can prove challenging to repair because their fasteners are often hidden. Because they receive almost constant use, they are often the first part of a deck that needs attention.

Repairing Railings

Loose posts and balusters might crack or come out altogether, so solve the problem while it is a quick fix.

POSTS: Railing posts handle a lot of abuse, and they often come loose because they are anchored only at the bottom.
Some railing posts are anchored to an end joist or header; stair posts are often tied only to the stringer and stair tread. Here’s what you do to repair a post: First try tightening the existing fastener. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to employ more extreme measures.

  • Drill pilot holes in the base of the post and countersink or counterbore the holes.
  • Drive hefty screws into the stringer and tread.

LOOSE BALUSTERS: If you can twist a baluster easily by hand, it means that you need to reinforce it with one of the following methods:

  • Drill a pilot hole angled up into the rail or down into the tread, then drive a screw to stabilize the baluster.
  • Hide the work by gluing the sliver back in place. If you fill the recess with putty, it will be visible unless you paint over it.
  • For added strength, use several screws at different angles.
  • If you can, crawl under the stairway and drive a screw through the stringer and into the post.

To avoid making a chiseled recess, tighten the rail with shims and glue.

  • Use cedar shims—as wide as or wider than the baluster—or cut thin wedges out of the same species of wood as the baluster.
  • Dribble glue onto both sides of the shim, let it soak in for a minute or two, and tap it in, using a block of wood to avoid marring the surrounding area.

replacing a baluster: Remove a damaged baluster by sawing it in half, then twisting it loose with a pipe wrench. Getting a baluster to match can be difficult. You may find a matching baluster at a good lumberyard. If not, call around to find a woodworker who can duplicate balusters.

Treads And Risers

Evaluate the condition of your stairs by having someone walk on them while you watch closely. You may be surprised to find that some of the treads flex noticeably. If so, you should solve the problem right away.

squeaks: You may be able to live with squeaking deck stairs, but a loose step is potentially dangerous. If there is no major flexing but a step makes an annoying squeak, you can usually solve the problem quickly.

  • If the squeak comes from the front of the tread, drill pilot holes and drive screws down through the tread and into the riser.
  • If the rear of the tread squeaks, work from underneath the stairway and drive screws up through the tread and into the riser.
  • To fix from above, tap glue-coated shims into the joint between the tread and riser, and trim them flush when the glue has set.

loose treads: If the treads are very loose, a stringer may be damaged, or it may have moved outward so it no longer supports the tread adequately. You have to get under the stairs to fix this. If the area beneath the stairs is covered, remove two or more treads and risers to get under it. For extensive repairs, it may be less trouble in the long run to cut out any sheathing or covering to give you access.

A sagging or cracked stringer can be reinforced by attaching 2x4s running vertically up from the decking or by attaching a strip of 3/4-inch plywood to the side of the stringer with lots of screws. Treads on a closed stringer whose treads are set in dadoes are often snugged into the dado with vertical and horizontal wedges. Sometimes just hammering the wedges back into place will do the job. If the treads and risers are pulling out of the stringer, use pieces of 3/t-inch plywood to provide new support. Drill pilot holes for all screws, or you may crack the stringer.

To support sagging treads, install a carriage brace (at right). Construct the brace from 2x6s and install it along the length of the stairway, in the middle.

Replacing a tread or riser: To remove a tread or riser, work carefully to avoid splitting adjoining boards.

  • Remove any trim first.
  • Use a flat pry bar (above right) to pry in several directions. If you can get underneath, you may be able to tap the piece loose. You can often pry up the tread, then hammer it back down in order to pop the nails up.
  • If the pieces do not respond to prying, saw a riser in half lengthwise.
  • Replace treads with the same wood. For maximum strength, make sure it’s as free of knots and as close-grained as you can find.

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