Beads of water, not sweat, are deck-duty reward

The Baltimore Sun

Last weekend, in search of satisfaction, I water-sealed a wood deck. Call me Mr. Excitement but, in my view, few tasks can match the sense of well-being, the feeling that you are making progress on life's slippery slope and the opportunity to gaze at wood grain that this chore delivers.

Why do you water-seal? Because a neglected deck, exposed to sunlight and weather, can crack and splinter, and the color of the wood can fade. You also do it because the deck needs you, because you have a little time on your hands, and because, regardless of your true moral status, completing this task makes you feel virtuous.

This is a two-part operation. One day you clean the deck, usually getting it good and wet. A few days later, when the wood is dry, you apply the sealer. The cleaned wood is supposed to be much drier than Lindsay Lohan. That means, once it has been washed, the wood has to go at least 48 hours without drinking anything.

The most time-consuming part of this job is the preparation.

First you have to make sure the wood is ready to accept your ministrations. The readiness test is simple. You sprinkle some water on your deck. If the wood soaks up the water, it needs treatment. If it doesn't, and you still hunger for a chore, go clean the basement.

You have to dress up and button up for deck duty. No exposed toes or bare skin, unless you want to run the risk of having a new, permanent "freckle" on your body.

The cleaner that you apply to the wood is strong medicine. You can buy a can of this stuff at any hardware store. Or you can make your own cleaner by mixing 2 cups of bleach to 4 cups of water. I got that recipe from various deck maintenance Web sites. Reading these sites also revealed that there are strong feelings out there about how to clean your deck.

Some deck sites say feel that using chlorine bleach is acceptable, while others, notably Tim Carter's, advocates using only oxygen bleach. Almost everyone online warns against using power washers, saying they can damage the wood. I found a good step-by-step guide that was pretty free of propaganda. It was on the Lowe's Web site.

To clean my deck, I used a can of a brightening solution I bought at a hardware store. I used the store-bought stuff because this deck, on a beach house in Chincoteague, Va., was really dirty. Moreover, I have a bad bleach moment in my past, a laundry-room incident in which the crotch of my favorite pair of jeans was destroyed by a direct dose of chlorine bleach. Since then, I rarely pick up a bleach bottle.

For men living with women gardeners, another action that is absolutely necessary in the deck-cleaning routine is covering her deck plants and nearby shrubbery with plastic sheets. If you fail to do this, the vegetation touched by the cleaner could come to a cruel end. But their destruction will be nothing compared with the treatment you will receive in retaliation for killing your mate's prized plants.

Having made the required sartorial and matrimonial preparations, I worked in small sections of the deck, applying the cleaner and scrubbing the wood with a soft brush. Then I rinsed off the scum with water from a hose.

Rinsing off the cleaner was a joy. It did not, I confess, match the exhilaration that comes from rinsing soiled soap suds off the hood of your car. But it was close.

Next I did what I do best: nothing. I waited 48 hours for the wood to dry.

After the wood dried, I uncorked the sealer. Deck sealers, like hair dyes, come in a variety of tints. Your choice, it seems to me, boils down to how much damage you want to cover up. Clear water repellent provides less protection against weather but shows off the natural grain of the wood. At the other end of the spectrum, a solid stain provides more protection but hides the grain. In between are tinted water repellents and semi-transparent stains.

I chose clear water repellent, applying it with a paint roller. The wood soaked up the liquid like a thirsty desert traveler. That, coupled with the mental gymnastics of not painting myself into a corner, was gratifying.

At sundown, I stretched out in a deck chair, cold beverage in hand, and gazed at the shimmering wood. The next morning I got an even bigger charge when, after an overnight rain, I saw perfectly formed beads of water sitting on the wood. My deck was glowing and was repelling water.

It was the best of both worlds.

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