Slow to stain means waiting to see a nice fence puddle

September 28, 2002|By ROB KASPER

THIS WEEK'S rain was a godsend. It washed dusty streets, cleansed the stale air and perked up drooping trees. It also reminded me of a few tasks I had failed to perform. A gutter had a hole in it. Who knew? Moreover, the sagging backyard gate reminded me that I had neglected to stain the wooden fence in the back yard.

As a result of my failing to stain, the rain had saturated the fence. This was bad form for fences, a sign of shabby home maintenance standards.

A properly maintained wood fence will repulse water, refusing its advances, sending the moisture on its merry way. A sure sign that a fence or a wooden deck comes from a proper household is the appearance of beads of water on the wood's surface. This means the fence has been provided with enough protection, either by paint or stain, to keep moisture from invading its pores. This invasion, if left unchecked, will lead to rot and ruin.

This morning, for instance, in the better back yards of the Baltimore area, the properly maintained fences have small puddles sitting on them, resembling the small pools of water found on the hood of a freshly waxed car. Out in the back of my house, however, there are no fence puddles, no evidence of rainwater resistance. Instead of turning it away, my parched fence had lapped up the rainwater. The gate alone seems to have picked up about five pounds in water weight.

I have no excuse, other than laziness, for my failure to stain. Unlike many of the unpleasant jobs associated with keeping up a home, I find staining to be pretty entertaining. It does have to be spread out over a couple of days. But you get to suit up in heavy, rubber gloves and goggles, and you get to shoot the stain on the wood with a sprayer. There is also the immediate gratification that comes from seeing the wood look better almost instantly.

In my time, I have stained both fences and decks. In theory, you can apply stain on wood without cleaning it first. But in reality, my decks and fences have been so grimy that the first step in the process has always been squirting them with a liquid deck cleaner. This cleaner, which you buy in hardware stores in big plastic jugs, is rough stuff. It has bleach in it, and if, as I have done, you leave an open jug of it sitting on bare wood, it will leave a mark - a "ring of fire" on the wood. You also have to protect any vegetation, critters or children who might wander near your free-fire zone. Once you are suited up and squirting, it is a kick to watch the mildew vamoose from a patch of grubby wood. With a little scrubbing the wood grain reappears. For reasons I am not sure of, I find the sight of wood grain greatly soothing. That is probably why I buy wood stains that are clear, even though ones that are semitransparent or tinted provide greater protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

After its bleach bath, the wood must rest for at least 24 hours before it is ready to accept the finish. Which is good, because selecting a jug of wood finish at a hardware store is like picking a brand of shampoo at a drugstore: There are too many choices. You could spend the day reading the fine print on the labels.

It turns out there are two basic types of stains - water-based or oil-based. I lean toward the water-based because I find it easier to clean up and it is more accepting of wood that is damp. Oil-based finishes, I have been told, penetrate deeper into the wood than the water-based ones, but they require the surface of the wood to be almost bone dry when the finish is applied. Water-based seems to appeal to beginners, oil-based to the veterans.

This summer I felt I was ready to break from my water-based past and use oil stain on the back fence. The weeks of hot, arid weather had dried out the wood in the fence. After I cleaned it, the parched fence would have welcomed the oil stain.

But as often happens with home repairs, I was slow to put my plan into action. Instead of stain, the thirsty fence drank the rain. Now I will have to wait a week or so until things dry out. Then I can clean up the fence and spray on some stain.

Finally, when the next rain comes, I can mosey out to the back yard and proudly watch puddles form on my fence. Life doesn't get much better than that.

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