Coastal Carpenter Q&A Archive

Deck stain
Q: What is the best stain to use on an outside deck after it is power washed?

A: If your decking is mahogany, by all means use a product called Sikken. It is made just for mahogany and is excellent. Of the decks we install, 99% are mahogany and we do not always seal them. Some architects call for a sealer and some do not. The wood itself is very rot-resistant and stable. If your decking is some other wood—pressure treated pine, Douglas fir, or red-wood—I would use some water repellent, such as Thompsons. This can be a yearly program, and it is very easy to apply. Just remember to read the instructions, particularly on the Sikken.

Outdoor showers
Q: I live in Monmouth Beach, NJ, and am looking for plans and building ideas for an outdoor shower. I wanted to do a cedar shake exterior with some hydrangea and perhaps wisteria growing on it to provide some additional natural privacy. Any thoughts, ideas, or suggestions you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

A: We typically use western red cedar 4x4s for the post and 1x6s or 1x8s for the boards that enclose them. There are lots of designs that have benches, towel hooks, and privacy entrances that do not require doors. Sometimes—since we use so many cedar shingles—they are shingled outside and the boards are exposed on the inside. The posts can be run long so that a lattice-type roof can be used to grow the hydrangea that you like. Make sure you have good drainage—I have built one that we had to take back out to install a dry well. In our state the plumbing code only allows single-lever controls to prevent scalding. So check with your plumber.

Basement leaks
Q: After heavy rains, my concrete-block basement leaks a few gallons of water where the wall meets the floor. Will a brush-on waterblocking paint solve my problem?

A: We do use a paint for moisture-blocking purposes on the inside of foundations. Remember, concrete is porous, and unless it is treated in some fashion, it will transfer water. I have found paint works only for this type of water transfer—;meaning water coming through the concrete itself.

Window choices
Q: What's the best kind of window for coastal climates—double-hung, casement, or another style?

A: The truth is, it depends on your priorities for function and appearance. The double-hung, true-divided-light look defines tradition in many coastal communities. But double-hungs don't seal out moisture and cold as well as other types, so you'll need storm windows for all-season protection in some climates. Casements will give you the best seal, but because they crank out away from the house, they alter its appearance when they're open. Awnings (which open out) and hoppers (which open in, as with transom windows) can solve particular space problems, but they don't create a complete window opening and, like casements, change the exterior look when they're open. Again, you have to weigh the drawbacks against the advantages.

Trellis maintenance
Q: We love the look of flower trellises on the wood-shingle siding and roofs of Nantucket houses. But when we asked our contractor about doing that on our home, he shook his head and mumbled something about inviting trouble. If that's true, why is it a tradition on seaside cottages?

A: People are willing to trade the hassles for the look. And there will be hassles. I've seen vines, even the ones mounted on trellises several inches off the surface of siding or roofing, burrow their way behind shingles and pry them loose. I've seen ivy grow right through walls and into attics—and look green and healthy on the inside, by the way. In the war against moisture retention, plants are not our allies. They prevent shingles beneath them from fully drying. They provide home bases for insects. So you can expect the wood to deteriorate much more quickly.

Having said all that, I admit my wife and I have a trellis on one side of our Nantucket house. We replace shingles more often on that side and keep an eye out for other threats of deterioration.

Pressure-treated wood
Q: I've heard the government might ban the use of popular pressure-treated wood products for decks. When will new regulations go into effect? What are alternatives?

A: As of January 1, 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency will not allow products with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to be used for wood treatments. That covers what most of us think of when we say "pressure-treated lumber." So builders are scrambling for new approaches, and homeowners can expect to pay more for alternatives.

Many customers already pay a premium for mahogany and other exotic hardwoods that naturally resist pests and rot. Other approaches include the broadening choices in composite deck materials and plastics. I'm researching these products now and will discuss them in a future issue. In the meantime, you have until the end of this year to purchase CCA-treated wood. Check out the EPA's Web site: epa.gov/pesticides/citizens/cca_qa.htm.

Flooring issues
Q: Robbyn McDowell of Solana Beach, California, asked an important question about flooring. Her interior designers cautioned her about wood, warning that the high moisture content of ocean air can cause problems.

A: True, but wood is still a good choice. Almost all of our customers demand it, and some request exotic species and intricate inlays. So we've learned how to be careful. The important thing is to try to stabilize the temperature inside the house during and immediately after installation. If the house is new, run the central air-conditioning to lower the humidity, and make sure windows and doors are closed tightly when you leave for the night. Monitor the moisture content of the wood stock with a moisture meter to ensure it stays in the 6-8 percent range.

When choosing woods, know that density affects the natural movement of the wood when it's exposed to moisture and temperature changes. Softwoods (pine, for instance) will move more; hardwoods (oak, ash, cherry, birch) expand and contract less. Because we know to expect expansion with some flooring, we allow for it with spacers every 6 feet or so.

Painting how-tos
Q: Like many folks, Sheila Kuhn, who lives in Broadkill Beach on the lower Delaware Bay, has questions about paint. What kind do you use? How often will you have to paint? What else should you keep in mind?

A: Sheila, you first have to understand that no matter how good your paint is, you'll repaint a coastal home often—likely every three or four years. It's part of the payback for living close to the beach. Also, your painters should be particular about prep work. Sand down the surface to create a good base for primer. Don't paint when fog's in the forecast, and wait until each coat dries before applying another.

Although there are plenty of high-quality paints, I have had so much success with Benjamin Moore that my crew sticks with that. Use an oil-based primer and either latex or oil-based finish coat.

Shingles and shakes
Q: Hans Wachtmeister, who's renovating a house in Virginia Beach, was one of many who wrote for more specific advice about shingles. How do you get that New England gray instead of the dark brown you see on so many shingled beach houses? And what's the difference between cedar shingles and cedar shakes?

A: Well, Hans, you get that gray color when you use white cedar. Red cedar turns almost black because of the tannic acid content in the wood. I can't tell you how long it will take to get the weathered look, because it's a product of the sandblasting effect of wind and rain; the gentler your climate, the longer you'll have to wait.

And I'm glad you asked about the two terms. People often use them interchangeably, but there's a big difference. Cedar shingles come 14 to 16 inches in length and are 3/8-inch on the fat end. Shakes are much bigger and much harder to work with. They're 24 inches long and have butt thicknesses that range from 3/4-inch to a full inch. True shake siding is rare these days.

French door conundrum
Q: Jean Price, who is remodeling a cottage on the Northern California coast, wrote me with a common concern. She loves the look of French doors, but her contractor has warned that they're prone to leaking.

A: Jean, your contractor is right. Classic French doors will leak more quickly than standard doors because they have a hard-to-seal edge where they fasten together. But you can minimize the risk. First, consider fudging on the pure French door with something like Andersen's Frenchwood Hinged Door. It looks just like French doors when it's closed, but one door is permanently sealed. The other--which is hinged on the stationary door and folds back flat when it's open--has the same weather stripping as a single door. You get a double advantage: weather proofing and a space-saving door that folds out of the way.

Even if you install standard French doors, you can still guard against wind-blown rain by putting storm doors over them. I know, it detracts from the look you want. But at the beach, you get to bend the rules a little. Storm doors give you a screen in the summer and added insulation in winter. We use them all the time on Nantucket, where the design police couldn't be any more demanding.

Perfect decks
Q: Judy Cook, who is building a home in Imperial Beach, California, speaks for a lot of readers when she asks about decking choices.

A: You can get a bunch of right (and different) answers when you're looking for the ideal decking material. For some, it's not even wood but a zero-maintenance synthetic product, such as by Trex. In 2002, I'll talk to professionals who use these products--plus ones that imitate wood siding--and report back to you. But because Nantucket codes require the more traditional real wood, my experience is with that.

"So what's the best type? Whatever lasts without maintenance. (I hate painting and weather sealing.) Many of our customers choose mahogany. Though expensive, it is naturally rot resistant and doesn't require attention. If money is no object, you can pay even more for the best quality fir or redwood.

What do I have on my Nantucket deck? The cheap stuff-pressure-treated yellow pine. It has turned the same gray as all the exotic woods. And while it's definitely rougher in grain and texture than the high-end material, my deck has required almost no attention for 20 years-which satisfies my requirements entirely.