How to Avoid Fence and Deck Nightmares.
February 08, 2021
By Steve Maxwell
Three steps prevent profit-sapping outdoor wood finishing disasters.
Depending on when during the life cycle of a project you see a particular client call in on your cell, it can fill you with joy, indifference or panic. A call early on is probably good news because you’re getting the job. A call in the middle of the project is usually fine because there are mundane details to discuss. But a call from a client whose fence or deck you built and finished last season could be very bad news indeed. It may well be the start of the fence and deck finish nightmare. No wonder your stomach tightens as you say “hello.”
The fence-and-deck nightmare happens when a client becomes dissatisfied with the stain or sealer you applied, asking you to “do it again.” Three short words, but they sure can do a number on your profit for that job. You can almost eliminate this risk with three key steps taken before the project begins.
Step No. 1: Know your finishes
Finishing outdoor wood so it looks good and lasts long is more difficult than it seems, in part because so many outdoor wood finishing products fail too soon. I know because I’ve been running an outdoor wood finishing trial on different stains since 1990. Sometimes even reliable outdoor wood finishes can still fail prematurely if the surface prep isn’t done right or if application conditions are wrong. That’s why you should never let hope get the better of you and try some new-to-you finish on a client’s deck or fence. Just because “you feel good about it” or your brother-in-law used it is not sufficient. Aim to find several finishing regimes you can trust, then stick to them. If a client insists on you using something you’re not familiar with, have them sign a waiver releasing you from responsibility for the results. Chances are you’ll be glad you did.
Step No. 2: Educate your client
Even the best outdoor wood finishes in the world involve compromises of some sort. They’re far from perfect, and you need to explain this to your clients so unreasonable expectations don’t develop. This is especially important when dealing with picky first-timers. You know the kind I mean. It’s amazing how demanding homeowners can be when they’ve never before faced the reality of having to finish and refinish outdoor wood every two or three years. Educate them about reality before they call you expecting some kind of impossible outdoor wood finishing performance. Make up samples of your outdoor finishing repertoire, then bring them with you when meeting clients.
Step No. 3: Budget for prep
There is almost no outdoor wood finish on the planet that performs optimally without surface preparation. Even new wood needs to have mill glaze removed to prevent or delay finish peeling. Assuming your wood has a moisture content less than 16 per cent (that's a must, so check it with a moisture meter on a fresh-cut end), then pressure washing followed by sanding with a 60- or 80-grit abrasive does the most to optimize the absorption of finish into the wood. And the better the absorption, the longer the finish will last, all else being equal. The problem with prep is that it takes time. You can easily spend more time preparing outdoor wood than actually applying a finishing product. If your client won’t agree to a fence or deck price that covers the cost of prep time, then either get them to do the finish application themselves or walk away. A missed project is always better than a nightmare project.
There are good profits to be made building fences, decks and outdoor structures, but only if you can avoid the surprise of finishes gone bad. Get your finishing system finalized and you probably won’t get one of those dreaded calls from a client you said goodbye to last spring.