Steve Maxwell 2017-09-20 05:42:43
Hand-Eye Craftsmanship Different cultures express craftsmanship differently, and it can be surprising how good some trade workers get with tasks we never see here in Canada. The trowel skills of black South African masons is a case in point. My wife and I traveled to South Africa back in 2008 to pick up our adopted daughter Ellie. We travelled to the city of Durban, and it wasn’t long before I was wandering around home building sites with my camera. This led me to a contractor named Dave Scates. He’d been building in the same Durban neighbourhood for a quarter century. No job was ever more than 5 miles from his home. Ten minutes after shaking hands, Dave was driving me around in his truck, proudly showing me a handful of residential projects he had on the go. There are no tract homes in Durban. Each house is unique and built using traditional masonry techniques that came originally from Britain. All walls – both exterior and interior – are built with clay brick, several courses thick and plastered to create a smooth surface inside and out. Until the mid-1990s, it was illegal for any black man to use a trowel professionally. Building work was reserved for whites, some of whom traveled down from Europe for work. All that changed when laws demanding racial segregation under apartheid were dismantled. This opened the floodgates of labour onto the construction market, causing wages to drop by at least 90%. They’ve been down there ever since. These days you never see a white person involved in construction. The entire home building workforce is black. Contractors like Dave Scates are white, and so are electricians, plumbers and specialized trades. That said, the black workforce brings something surprising to their work. For cultural and historical reasons no one understands fully, black trade workers in South Africa are exceptionally good at using trowels. Perhaps it’s a throw-back to the days when all traditional African homes were made of mud and straw. I don’t know, but the precise, handguided results speaks for itself. It’s beautiful and detailed in a way that goes way beyond what you can accomplish with forms or precast components. The hand-troweled cap of the food court separation wall you see here is what I mean. It was even more impressive in real life than it is in this picture. Results like this are done entirely with handguided work. No forms, no guides. We tend to get narrow minded after a while when we think of manual skills. I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that somewhere out there are people who can do amazing things with trowels, even though it’ll never matter much in Canada. Do you know what I mean? Steve@stevemaxwell.ca OUTDOOR WOOD WISDOM How to choose and apply finishes you won’t regret You don’t have to be a contractor for very long before harsh experience teaches you what’s important. As essential as it is to work productively, to bid profitably and to manage subs wisely, the ability to avoid bad products and materials is also a make-or-break skill. If you put your trust in something and it fails on one of your projects, it can cost thousands of dollars of profits and many hours of time as you make things right. Few manufacturer warranties ever come close to making up for disasters like this, either. Nowhere is this danger more present than with outdoor wood finishes. Choosing and applying products is often like leaping into the dark, and that’s why I decided to shine some light on the subject beginning back in 1990. This is the year I started testing specific outdoor wood finishes in the real world and keeping records. I prepared sample boards, coated them in outdoor products I believed might last well, then put the samples outside for full exposure to the sun, rain and snow over a period of years. This approach takes patience, but the results are gold. Eventually you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I don’t claim to know all the outdoor wood finishing products that perform well today, but I do know specific formulations that are worth trusting. Some of these are clear, others tinted and some opaque. I’m also always adding new products to the program, too. Sometimes I might have half a dozen test boards in the sun, sometimes only one. Why go to all this trouble? More than most building details, outdoor wood finishes have a huge blow-up potential. There are a couple of reasons why. First, they’re usually applied over a large area. It’s more than enough work staining that deck or all that wood siding in the first place, but when results go bad, it’s 3x more work stripping and getting back to square one to start again. Wrestling with this kind of large scale freebie work when you should be doing something that brings in the bacon is a recipe for a bad day. The second reason to be careful with outdoor wood finishes is trust. Every product looks great on store shelves, and labels always inspire so much confidence. But the truth is, many outdoor wood finishes fail quickly even if you apply them perfectly. It’s a shame to ruin new wood like this. And as I’ve discovered, name brands are no guarantee. Some of the worst products I’ve seen have the biggest names and retailers behind them. There are great products out there but there are also imposters. Some kind of testing was the only way I could begin separating sheep from goats. Three Key Lessons on Outdoor Finishes In a nutshell, this is what I’ve discovered: All else being equal, the more opaque the finishing product the longer potential service life it has. A short coating life isn’t necessarily bad if it’s coupled with an easy recoating regime. For instance, it’s not unusual for outdoor oils to require a fresh coat each year. But since oils don’t peel, it doesn’t take long to prep for that recoat. Client education is key because even when done correctly, many outdoor wood finishes demand more ongoing maintenance than some people feel is reasonable. Certain clients are fine with the low maintenance weathered look of a one-time wood treatment. Other clients get irritated as soon as their furniture-grade outdoor finish gets its first scratch. Recommend accordingly. Of all the outdoor wood finishing tasks, finishing a deck is the most common situation you’ll face. It also involves the highest risk because decks are so large and get so much foot traffic. Since I get lots of questions about which deck finish to use and how to fix existing deck finishes gone bad, I keep a web page updated with all the latest information from my testing. You’ll find everything I’ve learned since 1990 at baileylineroad.com/how-to-stain-deckproperly. Limiting the risk of costly call-backs is an important part of turning a reliable profit. Learning to avoid outdoor wood disasters may be one of the most important skills you develop. NEWEST PRODUCT TESTING Superdeck makes an opaque elastomeric coating that has done well so far in test samples I set outdoors in 2014, so when I heard about this company’s Cool Feel technology I added it to my testing program. Their Deck & Dock Solid Coating is a super thick, opaque product, but it’s also formulated to get less hot in the sun than other products of similar colour. You can feel the difference with your hand, but my main interest is reliability and finish life. All else being equal, a wood surface with smaller swings in temperature from day to night should last longer because there’s less expansion and contraction to stress the finish. Time will tell, but Deck & Dock Solid Coating is the kind of modern outdoor finish we’re seeing more and more often these days. It’s very thick, completely water washable and there’s almost no odour. SO WHAT DOES PROPER PREP MEAN? We’ve all heard it before: “Preparation is the key to a long lasting outdoor finish.” But what does this mean? It all comes down to maximizing the ability of wood to hold onto a finish. New wood often fails to allow finishing products to soak in because of surface burnishing from the planing mill and pressure treatment chemicals. Old grey wood allows absorption, but surface fibers are weak and they can let go from the underlying board, letting the finishing treatment peel, too. The best approach I’ve found is to pressure wash outdoor wood as an initial step, then let the wood dry completely before sanding with an 80-grit disk in a 6” random orbit sander. Pressure washing removes all dirt and sawdust and begins to break down surface burnishing. A quick sanding knocks off any loose fibers and opens wood pores so a finish can get a good grip. I know of no other surface prep regime that’s as fast and effective as pressure washing followed by a quick 80-grit sanding. WOOD-FREE CLIENTS If you’ve got an especially picky client who thinks they like wood, consider gently steering them towards composites or plastic wood substitutes for deck surfaces. Though these never look quite as good as a fresh, top notch wood finish, synthetics keep on looking good with nothing other than regular cleaning. They offer much lower risk for you.
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