The way I see it…

cracked caulkNow that I have your attention! I wanted to share a few thoughts on caulking around cabinets, trims and moldings. It has been almost nine years since I moved to Middle Tennessee, and I can still hear the most famous lines from my builder’s representative about the amazingly poor job they did caulking our home. “It is because the house is settling”. Or “it’s due to the weather, don’t worry, it goes away when the weather warms back up”. So Mr. Builder, you mean for six months out of the year I get to live in a house that looks like it is coming apart at the seams? “You will get use to it new homeowner, that’s the way it is in Tennessee”. Really, well I never did get use to it, because I knew it was just an excuse for poor workmanship and using caulk that does not match the environment in which we live.

So let’s look at these two Mr. Builder talking points and clear a few things up. One benefit with the type of work I did in my before life is you do get a good understanding of how loads should be carried through a building. First, the most misused term in the building industry is the word settling. The word settling refers to the downward movement of a load. In fact, the intransitive verb of the word means to come to rest or to sink gradually to the bottom. So if the house is settling, does this mean your foundation is moving? Typically speaking, a framed house with wood siding and drywall interiors can probably handle up to 1/2 inch of differential foundation movement, but even 1/4 inch of uneven settling is enough to cause cracks in masonry, tile, or plaster. So if all you have in your new home is caulking that is cracked and no cracks in the drywall or problems with your doorjambs, chances are if you did have settling, it would have produced more than a bad-caulking job. Further, since Mr. Builder used the term settling, and the term settling refers to the downward movement of a load, then why is it that my caulking is cracking in a horizontal fashion? (You probably get where I am going here)

Now the weather explanation. We do have some weather swings in the mid-south but really not much different than what is faced by the buildings I have seen in similar places around the country. So, Mr. Builder, if the weather is causing the caulking in my half a million dollar home to fail and looks like my granddaughter applied it with a fork, isn’t there a product that can be used to avoid this problem? The answer to that question is yes, but here are my observations on mid-south caulking.

  1. Caulking is not a substitution for correct measurements. Many times, when I have seen bad joints, the trim carpenter did not do the job correctly. This required the painter to fill joints that had not been cut to the correct length with caulk.
  1. Inside corners on trim and crown were mitered and not coped and the correct angle of the corner was not taken into consideration leaving too large of a gap between the adjoining trim. It starts with the framers. If the wall is not straight, then the drywall is not straight, and so it goes. Trim carpenters are in a hurry and since many are using MDF, most do not like to cope an insider corner. Combine the lack of coping with the lack of proper measurement and you are going to have a gap filled with caulk.
  1. The caulking was applied when temperatures were below 40 degrees. When houses are under construction, many trades are on the site at the same time and it is difficult, depending on the stage of the build, to regulate temperatures and meet the builder’s deadline. Some products, such as caulk, do not perform well outside their specified application range.
  1. Finally, cheap and quality do not fit in the same sentence. The bottom line is Mr. Builder has decided to use a caulking product that costs less and does not meet the requirements he is blaming the problem on. If Mr. Builder knows the building is going to settle and he knows weather is going to be a factor, then why isn’t he using a product to handle these requirements? Better yet, if you know it is not going to work and is going to fail, then why caulk it in the first place?

Well, I did make it into a new decade this year and most of us old gray haired folks know the answer to that question. In this day and age, it is all about doing it cheap and fast, not about quality and craftsmanship. If Mr. Builder had used a high quality elastomeric caulk, this problem would never have existed. Instead he opted for an inexpensive painters caulk, which is fine in some applications, but not in our area where it is dry and cold in the winter and warm and humid in the summer.

I built this mission style wainscoting over 5 years ago and there is no cracks because an elastomeric caulk was used.  As you can see it is highly detailed and has plenty of corners to contend with.

I built this mission style wainscoting in January of 2011 and there are no cracks because an elastomeric caulk was used. As you can see it is highly detailed and has plenty of corners to contend with.

A high quality elastomeric caulk solves the problems of cracking and separation as this type of product has great adhesion to almost all surfaces and can stretch. Although there are many different elastomeric caulks on the market, the one I have had great success with in our area is called Big Stretch. It is a high performance water-based sealant with fantastic adhesion and superior elasticity. It spans gaps up to 2” wide and stretches 500% of original size without cracking. Big stretch is manufactured by Sashco, which has been around since 1936 and has its headquarters and manufacturing just north of Denver Colorado. By the way, I get no financial support from Sashco, I am just an old guy who likes using products made in the USA that work well.

Generally speaking, elastomeric caulks have been around for a long time and are used in all kinds of applications where some building movement may be anticipated and various substrates need to be caulked. They are especially important for us in the mid south as our homes expand and contract with changes in temperature throughout the day and in different seasons. Sealing compounds must be able to adapt to these changes without losing adhesion or cracking. A true elastomeric caulk will do this easily. It will also outlast most caulking types on the market.

So what is the cost differential?

A 10.5 ounce tube of Big Stretch will caulk approximately 26 lineal feet with a ¼” bead. The materials cost for one tube is around $6.00, so to caulk both sides of a piece of crown molding in a 10 x 12 bedroom would require a little over 3 tubes of caulk at a cost of about $20.00. To do the same bedroom in a typical painters caulk would be less than $10.00. Now you see why Mr. Builder uses the cheaper product and writes into the contracts they are not responsible for cosmetic fixes during the warranty period.

So how do I fix the problem?

You must first remove all off Mr. Builder’s caulk with a utility knife or a painters 3 in 1 tool. If Mr. Builder left you with joints that are a ½ inch deep or deeper, or a ¼ inch wide, you must use a foam-backing rod to help fill the gap.

Re-caulk with an elastomeric caulk and smooth the bead with water and a foam brush, beading tool, or your finger. Press the product firmly against both sides of the joint for best performance. Apply when surfaces are dry and surface temperature is between 40°F and 120°F. Clean up any fresh product on surfaces and skin with soap and water. Tightly reseal tubes with plastic wrap and a rubber band. Store between 40°F and 90°F. Repaint with exterior latex paints after 4 hours and interior latex paints after 24-48 hours (more for humid conditions). Wait at least one week for oil-based paints.

So there you have it. Mr. Builder could have spent a few extra bucks on the front end to avoid all the problems on the back end, but you know the story on that one. Cheap and quality do not belong in the same sentence.  The photos in the gallery below shows trim work I have completed and was properly caulked using elastomeric caulk. No cracks for years now; so I have gotten use to it.