Inspect Your Deck for Damage

Homeowners often overlook deck maintenance needs that go beyond the occasional stain job. Termites, animals, water damage, erosion and any ground movement can all lead to a weakened deck, and you need to look for warning signs to make sure your deck stays safe.

Decks wear out, and when they do, it’s not just another DIY project -- it’s a safety issue for your family. Here’s our five-point deck maintenance checklist for checking your deck for damage and determine if a fix is in order.

Boards

Floorboards experience the greatest wear and tear, and they’re the last thing you want to fall apart while you or someone else is standing on your deck. Get down and really look at the surface of each board. Wetness and moisture rot the wood over time -- even in specially treated boards. Look for signs of stress, from curling to cracking to straight-up rot. And if the wood seems to stay wet for more than a day, you may be in for future trouble. Many major deck problems are obvious; this step is just a reminder to pay attention to your deck on a regular basis.

Supports

Bring a flashlight along and check the supports holding the deck up. This is where termite damage can really take root, and you’ll need to determine if erosion has made your supports less grounded than they used to be. In some parts of the country, you’ll want to check for bite marks, too, as certain animals may start chewing into the supports and weakening them. This is also when you’ll be checking the joists holding the flooring to make sure they are intact.

Nails, Screws and Bolts

Your various fastening hardware can all pop out or shake loose over time, which makes your deck unsafe in two ways: The nails, screws and bolts aren’t holding the deck together the way they’re supposed to, and they can get stepped on easily, causing potentially severe injury. Wearing gloves, make your way around the deck and tighten any nails and screws you find that have worked their way out, even partially. If any have gone missing, and you don’t have spare hardware of your own, you should purchase and nail or screw in replacements right away.

Ledger

The ledger board holds your deck to the side of your house, and when decks fall apart, the ledger is usually the problem. Depending on your deck setup, you may actually need to remove a board or two to take a look at the ledger, so you may want to leave it to professionals. If the ledger isn’t fastened correctly to a rim joist or concrete, then the deck is a dangerous place to be. Just like any other part of the deck, the ledger can rot or become unfastened. The important difference is that the ledger is holding the whole thing in place!

Handrails

Lastly, you need to inspect the railing, and every post in the railing. You don’t want to find out you’ve got a loose railing when you lean on it one day. Termite damage, cracks and shifting over time can all loosen up the railing and expose weaknesses. It needs to be able to support the weight of several people, especially if it’s the sort of rail you and your friends and family might sit on.  

All Hands on Deck

While it’s not as easy as building a birdhouse, the thought of building your own deck need not lead to a panic attack. A simple, free-standing square deck for the backyard -- a place to grill and chill -- can be completed over a weekend.

A deck that’s not attached to a house doesn’t require deep footings, a warehouse of tools or any sort of spatial wizardry. All you need are building materials, hardware and basic tools found in most any home workshop. A flat piece of ground doesn’t hurt either, unless you enjoy moving and leveling mountains of dirt.

This particular model is based on the idea of constructing the deck first and, with the help of friends who may be paid in burgers and beer, moving it to its permanent foundation.

1. Frame It

Purchase four pieces of straight, pressure-treated, 2-by-6-by-12 lumber. A 12-by-12 deck is just large enough to offer comfort, though you can build to any dimension you wish. Measure all four pieces to make certain they are exactly the same length.

2. Nail It

Sit two boards perpendicular to each other on their 2-inch sides. Connect with 2-inch nails or wood screws. Repeat this process until you have a 12-by-12 square.

3. Measure Twice

Measure diagonally from corner to corner. If your lumber was correctly sized, the measurement will be exactly the same and your frame will be square. If the measurement is off, you can throw a fit, or adjust the framing by adding spacers. Or both.

4. Bring in Reinforcements

Screw reinforcing angle brackets into all four corners of the now-square frame. The brackets add considerable strength. Choose the galvanized versions (this goes for nails and screws as well) as they don’t rust. They cost a bit more, but it’s more than worth it.

5. Opposing Joists

Nail joist hangers onto the inside edges of two opposing sides of the frame. The hangers must be directly aligned with each other lengthwise, and should be no more than a foot apart. Variations aren’t acceptable, unless you want a deck with big gaps in it.

6. Hangers Meet Joists

Whip out your tape measure and determine the distance between the joist hangers (they will be 11 feet and change). Cut 2-by-6 joists to fit, slide them into the hangers, and secure with nails.

7. You Can Dig It

Pay a visit to the site where your deck will rest. Bring along a shovel, plenty of gravel, and at least 12 concrete blocks. Place a wooden stake in the ground at each corner of your 12-by-12 square.

Dig a square hole every 3 feet around the perimeter of the square, and layer with gravel. Place the concrete blocks atop the gravel. All 12 blocks must be level with one another. Add or remove gravel as needed until they are.

8. Strength in Friends

Contact your large friends and enlist them to move your deck frame to the concrete blocks/supports. You’ll need to jockey the frame around a bit to make sure it is centered. The weight of the deck and strength of your friends will dictate how many people you’ll need -- you’re on your own on this one. Safety first!

Once centered, attach the frame to the concrete blocks with 90-degree angle brackets.

9. Hit the Floor

Cut 1-by-6 lengths of lumber for your deck flooring, and lay them perpendicular to the joists. The easiest way to keep them straight is to install the two outermost pieces and install inward. Screwing the flooring to the joists with wood screws is one option, although a pocket-joinery tool designed for decks (with screws of the appropriate length) makes for a much more attractive deck. It all depends on your skill level.

Rather than cutting each piece of flooring to an exact length, and attempting to line it up perfectly with the edges, it’s best to cut them a few inches long. Go ahead with your installation, and then slice the protruding ends square with a circular saw.

10. Accessorize

At this point your deck is functionally complete. Let the lounging and grilling commence. You might also consider adding skirting boards over the pressure treated lumber, staining/painting the flooring or building planters or rails. All optional.

Spring Composting 101

The sun is warmer, the ground is softer and green leaves are starting to poke out everywhere you look. It’s time to get healthy soil back into your yard and garden for spring planting, and compost will give your seeds and seedlings the nutrients they need.

What Is Composting?

Compost is decayed plant matter, and composting is the process that helps speed up the breakdown of organic matter. Composting has become a fairly popular practice in the last few years, with even urban gardeners starting mini compost bins in their apartments. Starting your own compost pile provides a two-fold benefit: You have a use for all those lawn clippings and fallen leaves, and your garden gets free, high-quality soil.

The Receptacle

Composting can be done in a large bin, or you can keep it in a pile. You’ll want to keep your pile around 3 feet wide by 3 feet high by 3 feet deep, as any larger will slow down the composting process. Find a location that is conveniently located near your garden, but keep it away from wood fences and walls, as your wood will decompose along with the rest of the pile!

You’ll want an area that has good drainage and gets sunlight (heat will speed the process). You can buy a container, or make your own. One simple solution is to buy a large heavy-duty plastic trash can and drill aeration holes throughout.

The Ingredients

The key to healthy compost is keeping a balance between carbon-rich material and nitrogen-rich material. A good rule is to use two-thirds carbon-based (or brown) materials and one-third nitrogen-based (or green) material.

  • Carbon-rich materials include: branches, stems, dried leaves, bits of wood, brown paper bags, egg shells, sawdust pellets and coffee filters

  • Nitrogen-rich materials include: manure, food scraps, green lawn clippings and green leaves

  • Non-compostable materials include: meat products, rice and bread products, ashes and lime

The Maintenance

Once you’ve picked a spot for your pile or bin and collected some ingredients, it’s time to start composting.

  • Layer: Start your pile with a layer of twigs and/or straw to allow good drainage at the bottom, and build your pile by alternately layering nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. Adding a layer of manure will help jumpstart your pile.

  • Keep things small: Chop up compost material as small as possible; greater surface area for decomposers means quicker breakdown of matter.

  • Cover your pile: If you don’t have a bin with a lid, cover your pile with a tarp.

  • Keep it moist: Make sure your pile stays moist (but not soggy), by watering occasionally or by letting the rain do the work.

  • Aerate your pile: Turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks to ensure the compost gets the oxygen it needs to break down.

Putting Your Compost to Good Use

The time it takes for your compost to be ready to use depends on the size of the pile, the ingredients, the temperature, precipitation, etc. However, if you keep your pile small, finely chop the material and turn it often, you can have beautiful compost in as little as three months. It should look dark brown and crumbly, but not powdery, and you shouldn’t be able to recognize the original materials that went into it. Once it’s ready, incorporate your compost into the soil when preparing for each planting season.

Sprucing up Your Spring Lawn

The first hints of spring find the aisles of nurseries and garden stores stacked high with pallets of fertilizer, weed killer and plant food. Winter is exhausting both for people and lawns, but it’s best we don’t let premature enthusiasm spoil our dream of a gorgeous expanse of green grass. The hours spent mowing, trimming and pruning will come soon enough. Preparation comes before action.

We humans can barely wait for the sight of a lush and inviting back yard. While we may be filled with manic energy at the very thought of spring, our long-dormant grass is still stretching and yawning. Which means slow and steady is the best policy.

Avoid the Rush

Early spring is a time for basics; intense yard maintenance on wet soil causes damage and compaction. Clean up stones, sticks, leaves and debris. Pick up roofing shingles that blew off during winter storms. Break out the rake and remove rotting vegetation. Spread grass seed over bare spots. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, go ahead and aerate. Avoid being too vigorous too early, though. New grass is beginning to germinate. Opening up the soil and exposing it to sunlight could retard growth and encourage weeds.

Does Your Soil Pass the Test?

Now is also the time to check you soil’s pH level. For maximum grass growth, your soil needs a neutral pH level of approximately seven (rated on a scale of one to 14). Soil scoring below seven is acidic and might require the application of lime. A score above seven indicates excess alkalinity, which is usually cured by the introduction of sulfur.

Testing is achieved by taking soil core samples from several areas of your lawn. Test kits can be purchased for home use, though most agricultural extension offices provide results for a minimal charge.

Fertilizer Facts

Contrary to popular belief, early spring is a terrible time to fertilize your lawn. Fertilizing earlier makes grass grow quickly, but it prevents the establishment of a deep root system (helpful during summer droughts). In most locales you shouldn’t even think about spreading fertilizer until late May.

Controlling Weedy Interlopers

Weeds are the bane of the backyard gardener’s existence. But going on the offensive too soon is counterproductive. The rule of thumb is to lay down a broadleaf herbicide (if needed at all), and only after your lawn has been mowed twice.

The exception to this rule is crabgrass. If you had it last year, you’ll have it this year. Crabgrass re-seeds itself (the nasty gift that keeps on giving). Applying a pre-emergence herbicide before crabgrass shows its snarky face should halt germination. Do this by mid-April for best results.

Don’t Drown It

It’s tempting to water your lawn as soon as possible. Don’t. Unless you live in a desert, spring rains provide ample moisture. Keeping the sprinkler system off until summer allows grass to develop natural heat and drought resistance. In most cases, lawns require only an inch of water every seven to 10 days.

The Kindest Cut

Your lawn wants a trim, not a shave. Mow the grass to a height of 2 inches on the season’s first cut (to eliminate fungus), but after that leave it at 3 inches. Longer grass facilitates the growth of deep roots, and the shade it provides is a natural detriment to weed growth.

While many people bag lawn clippings, seeking to replicate the look of the 18th green at Pebble Beach, it is best to leave clippings on the ground. Grass clippings are food for your lawn, providing about 25 percent of its fertilizer needs. 

How to Build a Shed in Time for Spring

Jump-start your spring cleaning by building a simple shed to help reduce household clutter. This small, do-it-yourself project is an inexpensive option for your storage needs. Keep in mind: the larger the shed, the more time and money required to construct it.

1. Planning

First you’ll need to decide on an area suitable for the structure. Choosing a level area is ideal, since it will reduce the amount of labor required to prepare the ground. Placing the structure in close proximity to your home will make it easier to transfer items from your abode.

2. Foundation

Simple sheds do not require an elaborate foundation. Construct a support system by placing concrete cinder blocks on a level surface. The blocks should be spaced no more than 4 feet apart to provide adequate support for the structure.

3. Floors

To construct a solid floor, use 2-by-6-inch floor joists covered by 3/4-inch plywood. Since there will be lots of moisture outside, we recommend using pressure-treated lumber. The extra money spent is well worth it, as the building will last longer. Assemble the floor joists on top of the cinder blocks to form a square. Place additional joists between the two sides of the square every 2 feet for additional support. Join the floor joists by using 16D nails or securing with 3-inch exterior wood screws. Cover the floor joists with pressure-treated plywood, and secure using 8D nails or 1 1/2-inch exterior wood screws.

4. Walls

Keep these things in mind as you construct your wall:

  • Use 2-by-4 pressure-treated lumber to construct the shed walls.
  • Plan for door and window dimensions.
  • To drain properly, the roof must be sloped. A common method used to achieve the slope is to build the front wall 4 to 5 inches higher than the back wall.

5. Rafters and Roof Deck

Install the rafters across the roof -- spaced 2 feet apart on center -- using 2-by-6-inch lumber. Place additional blocking in between the rafters over the front and back walls. Cover the rafters with pressure-treated plywood, secured with exterior wood screws.

6. Wall Exterior

Use pressure-treated plywood, textured plywood or siding to cover the wall exterior. Install the material square across the bottom while following the angle of the roof at the top. Secure the siding with 1- to 1 1/4-inch exterior wood screws.

7. Dry in the Shed

Prevent the shed from leaking by installing asphalt roofing. Cover the roof area with tarpaper, starting from the lower end and working your way to the top while overlapping each row by 6 inches. Complete the roof by installing asphalt shingles or rolled roofing over the tarpaper. Rolled roofing is the least expensive and easiest-to-install roofing material.

And there you have it! A simple, space-efficient shed that’ll save you a lot of hassle. Job well done.