Choosing the Right Caulk for the Job

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Caulk is the answer to many of the household problems we face. Whether it is sealing drafts to conserve energy or closing off gaps that allow moisture entry into your home, chances are good that on occasion you turn to caulk. Even the best carpentry has small gaps or cracks in it that will from time to time need the attention of caulk. It may be around windows, doors, sinks, or cabinets that such cracks occur, but caulk can solve a lot of potential problems by sealing those gaps.

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The only problem with caulk is the dizzying selection and trying to determine which caulk is the best for the job at hand. Using the wrong caulk can cause premature failure, resulting in a need for repeat repairs. A lot of the issue with choosing caulk is trying to decipher the claims made by manufacturers; in an effort to pump their product up, many have just made its purpose confusing. A good way to start understanding which caulk works for what purpose is to determine the base polymer, which should be one of four things: latex, polyurethane, rubber, or silicone. Each of these polymers have different features, such as ease of smoothing, with what it will bond, and if it is paintable, all of which goes hand in hand with whether or not it will work for your projects around the house.

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A basic overview of each type of polymer is as follows:
  • Latex caulk (also known as acrylic caulk, vinyl caulk or sealant) is water-based and easy to use. There are less chemicals in this type of caulk so getting it on your skin is not a big deal and it can be washed away with soap and water. It can also be painted.
  • Polyurethane caulk is non-corrosive and resists tearing while still being able to stick to most anything. It is excellent for outdoor work and for bonding materials that are not of like kind, such as wood to concrete. This caulk is not UV resistant, however, and should be painted to prevent sunlight from breaking it down.
  • Rubber caulk is made with rubber compounds of a synthetic nature. These include nitrile, styrene, isoprene, and butadiene. Rubber caulk will also stick to a plethora of surfaces but has been known to melt Styrofoam. This caulk also has a strong smell and is highly flammable so it should be used outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.
  • Silicone caulk is known for its flexibility regardless of temperature as well as its waterproof nature, which makes it favored for use in bathrooms. It bonds will with nearly any surface and resists the growth of mold and mildew. It is available in two forms, those being neutral cure (good for metal and wood) or acid cure (good for non-porous surfaces but corrodes metal and damages certain plastics).
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Once you've decided which caulk to use for the projects at hand, all that is left to do is clean the area of application and lay your caulk bead. If old caulk and soap scum are present, these can be removed with a caulk remover or knife and then the area should be cleaned to remove residue. Once your cleaning solvent has dried, be sure you are using caulk in an even, consistent manner and take care to smooth the bead when you are done. Smoothing the bead is not just for aesthetic purposes; it also forces caulk into the recesses of the area you are trying to fill. Once the bead is smoothed and dry with any messes cleaned up, your caulk work is done!

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