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Gardening | IN THE GARDEN

Patio Bugging You? It's Easy to Fix

September 20, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Remodeling one part of the house usually makes the rest look a little dingy. In our case, it was the patio that looked peaked after our remodel.

The market umbrella was filthy and the furniture, stained a steely blue-gray with blue cushions, didn't go with the soft green trim my wife had chosen for the house.

Termites had gotten into the table and some of the chairs. In a couple of spots, their tunnels had collapsed, leaving cavernous holes.

As with most remodels, there was no money left for new linens, much less patio furniture, plus I happened to like the old, with its lattice-like sides and comfortable design.

Luckily, I found some new products that made their repair possible, and because it's still too early to do fall planting, now seemed like a good time to tackle this project.

Redwood lumber is not the tough stuff it once was. I still have my great uncle's homemade redwood garden bench, which he dated on the bottom. It was built in 1914 and has been out in the weather ever since, but I doubt my redwood furniture is going to last for even 10 years.

Today, most construction redwood is from second growth trees, which are full of white sapwood. Sapwood seems to have few of the natural defenses found in heart redwood. It doesn't resist rot or bugs very well.

The termites infesting my furniture hadn't managed to eat enough to weaken its beefy construction, so I could live with the damage, but I wanted to know if they could be stopped before I sat on one of the chairs and landed on the patio. I suspected that treating them would probably cost as much as a new table and chairs.

I talked to urban entomologist Hanif Gulmahamad of Terminix, and he said my termites were Western drywood termites, Incisitermes minor. He told me these termites need no connection to the ground, so they can be found in furniture sitting on a solid slab of concrete. They happen to favor the sapwood in redwood.

They're the most common termites in Southern California homes. He has also observed them in furniture (indoors and out), classic automobiles (a Ford woody), trucks, boats, pool tables, pianos, picture frames, wood spas, gazebos, power poles (maybe they'll get rid of the ugly pole in my backyard), fences, firewood and (horrors!) even books.

If something's eating your fence or furniture, you can tell if it's the drywood termite by the tiny wood pellets they leave behind. They might look like sawdust, but examine them carefully and you'll clearly see that they are six-sided, barrel-like pellets.

The white-colored termites are hidden inside the wood, but they leave little piles of these pellets in exposed tunnels or beside the occasional pin-sized exit or entry holes made by winged kings and queens.

To start new colonies, winged adults swarm at this time of the year. They are chocolate brown with brick-red heads, about half an inch long from the tops of their heads to the tips of their dark, veined wings.

When their tunnels become large enough (mature 15-year-old colonies can have more than 2,000 members) and are close to the surface, the wood gives way and you can see how much damage they've caused.

As I suspected, treating the furniture with heat, poisons (the termite companies drill little holes so they can inject poisons) and other methods is possible but expensive.

When the termite tunnels collapse, you have a big hole to repair, but I found a new product at the hardware store that works great. It's a two-part wood epoxy paste that can be used outdoors, made by P.C. Woody (PC-Products). It cures hard and strong, but can easily be sanded smooth.

Spoon out equal parts of the two pastes and then mix them together on a piece of board. Using a putty knife, stuff the paste into the holes, and roughly shape or smooth it. The paste sticks to the knife, so you can't do a very good job on big holes (a couple of my patches looked like choppy seas), but after it cures for 24 hours, it is easy to sand flat.

I filled one side of a chair leg that was completely eaten away and a curved corner of the table, and was able to quickly sand the patches to match the shape of the furniture. It is easier to sand than the redwood, which is one of the softest woods.

A few pieces had split off or had fallen off my furniture, so I glued them on with Titebond II, a new, normal-looking wood glue that is water-resistant and can be used outdoors.

While I was doing this, my wife ordered new cushions for the chairs and tried to get a natural fabric top for the market umbrella. She quickly found cushions but had no luck finding an umbrella top locally, so she turned to a mail-order catalog from Home Decorators Collection ([800] 240-6047).

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We had already decided to stain the furniture a dark grayed-green to go with the house trim and the garden. I discovered (by calling several manufacturers) that deck stains work great on outdoor furniture. They cautioned me, however, not to use siding stains because they often contain additives that shouldn't come in frequent contact with skin.

We used a solid-color acrylic latex deck stain that came only in gallon cans, and we managed to use half a gallon on the six chairs and the big table. These latex stains go on like thin paint, but they have so much pigment in them that they easily cover with one coat. They do tend to drip, so cover the patio.

The wood should be clean (I lightly sanded everything), dry and absorbent, one reason this is a good job to tackle in the fall when the air can be so dry. Work in the shade as these stains dry much too quickly in the sun.

When dry, they have a flat, dull finish. They raise the grain of the wood a bit, but lightly sanding with 220-grit paper makes them smooth again. Wipe off the sanding dust with a damp sponge.

The custom seat cushions were a little pricey, but the rest of this weekend project cost very little and we had a nearly new-looking set of patio furniture to go with the remodeled house and addition.

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