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Do It Yourself: Inspect wood deck for safety every year

Sun., May 13, 2012

Q. I have an elevated deck made of treated wood. It is about 15 years old and I worry about it collapsing while occupied and injuring someone. The deck is about five feet off the ground because our house is on a slope. How can I tell if it is safe?

A. You should check the deck thoroughly at least once a year for signs of rot or insect damage. The supporting posts, railings and steps are probably the weakest points, but you should also check the joists and decking. A simple test for weakness in wood is to jab it with an ice pick or sharp awl. Be sure to test supporting posts close to the ground, where water is likely to do the most damage.

Pressure-treated wood is usually southern yellow pine, which is very strong and tough when undamaged. If the wood in your deck was properly treated with preservative, it should still be holding up well. If the point of your test tool doesn’t make much impact on the wood, it is probably still strong. If the point sinks easily into any part of the wood, it is a sign of weakness.

Also check for rust or corrosion in the bolts or fasteners that hold the steps to the deck platform and check the condition of the wood in treads and risers with your test tool. Wiggle the railings to make sure they are strong and solidly supported. If the decking was nailed down, as it often was on older decks, look for protruding nail heads that might cause tripping. Pound protruding nails back into the wood or pull them and replace with deck screws. Also check the decking for splinters, rot and severe cracking.

Badly damaged decking should be replaced, and if you find signs of weakness in the supporting structure, steps or railings, have the deck examined by an experienced deck contractor and repaired if necessary. Even if your deck passes a safety examination, the wood should be protected against future damage with a waterproofing sealer or stain. Semi-transparent stains are recommended for treated wood by most experts.

Q. I have so-called popcorn ceilings in several rooms. The coating has fallen off in several places, not too large, and exposed bare drywall. I’d like to patch these areas instead of stripping the popcorn, which I know is difficult and even dangerous. Can you help?

A. Popcorn ceilings can be patched, but it’s tricky and the results might not please you. One caution is that popcorn ceilings installed before about 1978 might contain asbestos, a health hazard if fragments are breathed. If you suspect you have asbestos popcorn, you must use extreme care not to disturb existing popcorn when making the patches. For more information in dealing with asbestos, visit and enter Asbestos in Your Home in the search space.

You should also be careful in selecting your patching product. Texture-patching compounds are sold in aerosol cans and in small plastic tubs. Non-aerosol compounds are usually applied with a brush or spatula. Aerosol patching sounds easy, but it often isn’t. If you choose an aerosol, you should practice first on cardboard or scrap wood. Brush-on products are easier to control and texture, in my opinion, but it still helps to do some practicing before tackling the ceiling. Among leading brands of patching materials are Homax, RustOleum and Zinsser. Ordinary drywall joint compound is also sometimes used.

One of the biggest problems, in addition to matching the texture of the existing popcorn, is to match the color. Most popcorn ceilings are white, but there are many tones of white. Some compounds can be touched up with paint to improve the match, and in the worst case, you might have to paint the entire ceiling after patching. Painting a textured ceiling with water-based paint can be a disaster, since the water might soften the popcorn and cause it to fall off. The best bet is to gently roll on a coat of oil-based primer before using latex finish paint. Be sure and protect floors from drips and spills. Walls should also be protected if the patching area is near a wall. Finally, carefully read directions for the patching product.

Questions and comments should be emailed to Gene Austin at Send regular mail for Gene Austin to 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422.

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