Design & DIY

Cottage Q&A: Is there a substitute for creosote?

Several logs treated with creosote By speedshutter Photography/Shutterstock

I have three cottages that have been coated with creosote for more than 50 years. Since you can’t buy creosote anymore, I am looking at another coating. What is available that will adhere to the past layers of creosote and will last?Chris Lang, via email

When most people hear the word creosote, they think of the byproduct from burning wood that builds up in your chimney. This type of creosote is hazardous to your health—as is the creosote that was formerly used to coat farm buildings, fences, bridges, and, in this case, cottages. The creosote that’s formed when you distill tar is a powerful wood preserver, but it’s no longer available for residential use due to health risks to humans and animals.

Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to cover up. “Creosote is a difficult substance to handle, and you’ll likely have to do some trial and error to find the right coating,” says Dennis Fiorilli, the director of product excellence for Sherwin-Williams. He recommends first trying an oil-based primer and then a paint appropriate to your cottage’s area and climate.

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For the paint to properly cover the creosote, the siding needs to be weathered, which makes it more porous. Although, after 50 years, this shouldn’t be a problem! You’ll also have to thoroughly clean the surface. For this, Charles Veilleux, the president of Pro Painters Muskoka, recommends pressure washing. “Through the years, dirt, salt, and zinc accumulate,” he says. He adds that in this case, his company would also clean the surface using a sponge and a detergent called trisodium phosphate (TSP), which they’d then let dry for seven days. (Be sure to wear waterproof gloves, long sleeves, and pants, as well as eye protection when using TSP, and never use it close to a lake.)

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Like Fiorilli, Veilleux recommends an oil-based primer, followed up with two coats of high-quality acrylic latex paint. If you’ve done the work to properly clean and prime the wood, this method should work—but testing an area before you do the whole cottage is always a good idea.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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