When you buy decking boards, they are already planed on 4 faces (S4S) and usually have the sharp corners eased (E4E). Depending on whether you are face screwing or using a clip system, there may or may not be a groove routed on the edges. This is a product ready to install right? But is it a finished product? Absolutely not, and this is where many homeowners and even contractors get confused and frustrated.
Whether we are talking about Ipe or Cumaru or even Pressure treated Pine or Red Cedar, these decking boards are not intended to be a finished product but rather a building material that requires additional work during installation and throughout its lifespan.
So that everyone has the same expectations, let’s talk about some of the things that can mar that finished product look, and how you can counter them to get the best looking deck possible.
It’s a Long and Muddy Road
From Forest: Tropical decking boards travel a very long way before they end up in your hands. These boards not only come from trees felled in the Amazon, but they are also sawn into boards in the same area and eventually milled into the S4S, E4E decking board. Following this, the decking boards are loaded onto a truck and driven to a port city, where the decking is loaded into a metal container and put on a ship to go for a very long boat ride.
To Sawmill: Everything downstream of the milling-into-surfaced-boards is going to affect the appearance of the board and what you see when you get the decking for your project. It’s not uncommon for a load of boards to be stacked and unstacked several times before the load ever makes port. In many cases this stacking and unstacking is done by hand and can get messy. Mud and dirt get on the boards in the process, and that is to be expected; however, the fact that this mud then dries and gets compacted and ground into the wood fibers during all manner of transit activities can make it a lot more permanent than your typical mud.
To Ocean: Now think about the moisture content of these boards. As an exterior product, decking is air dried to around 18% moisture content. When the decking is loaded into a metal container, it can be like putting the decking into a kiln as the sun beats down and raises the temperature inside the metal container. At night or when the temperature drops during the ocean transit, the container cools and condensation gathers on the walls of the container; this moisture then drips onto the boards. Then the shipping container heats up again and evaporates the standing water, depositing on the decking whatever minerals or impurities are in the air or on the inside of the container. This leaves water stains, and it is very common to find these stains throughout a pack of lumber that just arrived from a several thousand mile ocean journey.
To Lumber Yard: Once the decking is in this country and at the distributor’s yard, the decking can sometimes sit for months on end waiting to be pulled for an order. It is at this point that even our domestic decking species start to get dirty too. Additional dirt and grime will happen. Lumber yards could clean these boards or have the decking sanded before shipping it out, but inevitably that would be wasted effort as any number of things will add more dirt and gunk when the decking is shipped to your job site.
And finally to You: Now consider the job site. This decking will be stacked, sometimes in the dirt, while it waits to be installed on the undercarriage. Even if the decking boards just sit around on the job site, these boards will pick up additional mud and stains. Now imagine if it rains during installation, and the ground gets muddy or the decking is cover with a tarp. Remember that condensation scenario in the container? The tarp can create the same environment. Now think about what takes place once the decking is installed. You or your contractor and crew will be walking across these boards with muddy boots leaving footprints.
Is it any wonder why we and decking dealers like us don’t clean the mud and grime off our decking before shipping the boards out? We do take pains to present our products in the best light possible, but we also know full well that many things will dirty up the boards after the decking leaves our yard, and we know that any extra work will only add to the cost and lead time on an order. Ultimately, Ipe and Cumaru or decking products like these are NOT finished products. They require additional work downstream from the lumber yard like cleaning and/or sanding.
Rough Spots and Torn Grain
Wood grain has a direction, and wood doesn’t like it when you “go against the grain” (yes, many of our everyday sayings come from the lumber industry). Grain direction is often compared to petting a cat. When you cut with the grain, that means you get a contented, purring cat; when you cut against the grain, that means at best you get a cat who snubs you and at worst some scratches for your trouble. Glad I’m a dog person.
Like our analogy with the cat, wood will fight back when your planer encounters grain going in a different direction, and wood will tear out, creating a rough spot. Remember that wood is organic, and while there is a predominant grain direction, any woodworker will tell you that the grain direction changes often, and you have to stay on your toes and deal with tear out. This tear out is most often found around knots or the swirls in the grain that occur around a knot. Even if your board doesn’t have a knot in it, there may have been one nearby in the log that has caused the grain to jog off in a different direction.
Vertical grain or quartersawn boards will present rough spots as well. The growth rings are now intersecting the wide face of the board at or close to 90 degrees, and grain direction can become a guessing game. Moreover, these fibers are much harder and will often remain raised a tiny bit above the surface of the rest of the board. Deck owners will often complain of this the first time they walk across their new deck in bare feet. Species like Ipe and Cumaru are exceptionally hard too, so these little raised areas can actually be quite painful and even more prominent.
Once again, the lumber yard could sand all the boards before shipping the decking by running the boards through a drum sander; however, this is a wasteful and inefficient solution. Forget about the dirt and grime point above for now, and think about what a drum sander will do to the boards. The drum sander would uniformly reducing the thickness of all of your boards, even the ones that don’t need it, in order to knock down any raised grain. This raised grain could be 10% or 1% of your total deck, yet once we sand 1 board, we have to sand them all so they are the same thickness upon installation.
The more appropriate solution is to sand after the deck is installed. Using something as simple as a hand held belt sander or random orbital sander will knock down those raised sections; while it is reducing the thickness of the board in that one space, it is not noticeable across the whole deck. Here again, decking is not a finished product, and like hardwood flooring, additional sanding and work on site during and after installation is required to get the best looking deck or floor.
After Such a Long Trip, Boards Need Rest
As stated above, tropical decking boards and even domestic decking can travel a really long way to get to your job site. The decking has gone through a myriad of environmental conditions and is just trying to keep up with the changes and trying to find an equilibrium. Not sure why?, use the search bar above and you will find at least 10 articles on wood movement and moisture content.
You must allow time for your decking to acclimate to its surroundings. This may be just a few days – it really depends on the local climate and the journey of that particular lumber. Ideally you should store your decking boards under cover and near where they will be installed so they can come into an equilibrium of sorts with the environment. An installation that is rushed will result in a deck that won’t lay flat and which may crack or buckle later on. So keep this in mind because the chances that you have a few days of free time to just let the decking sit around are very slim. That’s why I say “ideally”. In the end installing your decking following proper spacing will be your best defense against wood movement issues later on. This is not to imply that once acclimated your boards won’t move again, far from it, but starting with a board at rest instead of one which is moving will make any installation go smoother. There will still be some bend and bow in evidence, especially the longer and wider the board is. This is what things like the Hardwood Wrench and other deck installation tools are there for. Perhaps this is not additional work that needs to be done to your decking after it leaves the lumber yard as much as additional time that should be budgeted for the project in order to ensure an easier installation and a more stable deck for years to come.
The Single Trick to the Best Deck
It is safe to say that, of all the issues that arise with a deck, the first one discussed above is the most common and most annoying. Let’s face it, the first impression one gets from a deck is how it looks. Rough spots and bend and buckle, while serious issues, are not noticeable right off the bat. However, a deck that has a lot of dirt and varying color with water stains and mineral deposits looks terrible.
So even after taking into account all of the points above, the single most effective thing you can do to ensure your deck looks its best is to use a deck cleaner and brightener product. There are a lot of these on the market, but essentially the cleaner is a mild abrasive as well as a cleaner that will scour the boards and remove that ground in, baked on dirt and gunk that even a pressure washer won’t get rid of. The brightener product goes on after the deck is clean, and these usually have some kind of acid that will, for lack of a better term, bleach the deck and lighten it and/or remove any graying from UV exposure.
Keep in mind that some of the cheaper products will just use bleach, and this can be harmful to the wood itself and even pose further issues when trying later to apply stains or oils to the deck. The better quality products will use something like citric acid that is much kinder to the wood, and which is not harmful to your plants and soil around and under the deck.
For a new deck installation, once the cleaner is applied, you may well be able to skip the brightener and go right on to oil. It does depend on the state of the boards. If in doubt, let the deck get some sun for a few days, and then see how the color changes after the scrubbing you gave it. The brightener product will aid in blending varying colors on a deck, so it will be up to you whether or not to apply it. Often these brighteners are also used years down the road when a deck needs a refresh. Honestly, this cleaner step gets forgotten a lot, and it perfectly illustrates the point that decking is not a finished product. It is the additional work after the wood is delivered that truly makes your deck beautiful.