Bamboo makes for great building material because the poles are sturdy, easy to build with, and the bamboo plant is one of the most sustainable on earth. The main drawbacks to building with bamboo, though, are how to maintain it and protect against weather, UV rays and fungi.
In order to protect and maintain bamboo, it is important to protect it from weather, moisture, and sunlight. The best way to do this is to seal it with a wood sealant.
How you build when using bamboo makes a difference, too. For example, it’s important that even if you seal the ends of your bamboo poles (say, for an outdoor fence), that the bamboo doesn’t actually touch the ground. This will significantly stretch the lifetime of your bamboo.
Preventative Maintenance for Long-Lasting Bamboo
Bamboo can easily last 20 years or longer with the proper maintenance. I prefer to take a preventative, rather than a reactive approach to maintaining my bamboo, whether it be a bamboo fence, bamboo chair or bamboo house.
Here are some of the things I do to make my bamboo last longer.
Note: The preventative techniques mentioned below are in addition to using dry bamboo that is of the proper age and has been treated to withstand boring beetles and termites. Whenever using bamboo in a project, be sure it is pretreated.
Keep Bamboo Off the Ground
One of the best things you can do to help your bamboo last for a long time is to keep it off the ground. Bamboo is technically a giant grass, and while it loves to grow in water, dried bamboo poles are susceptible to rotting or growing fungus.
In warm, tropical regions like Hawai’i, it is a good idea to place a barrier or a foundation underneath your bamboo so that it doesn’t have contact directly with dirt and soil, this prevents excess moisture from ruining your bamboo, over time.
Start with a stone or concrete foundation, then place your bamboo on top of that when building.
Keep Bamboo Covered
One of the drawbacks to using bamboo outdoors is that it doesn’t stand up very well to UV rays or rain. If you want your bamboo fence or bamboo projects to last longer, put them in a well-shaded area where they won’t be receiving excess sunlight.
If the bamboo is to remain outside for prolonged periods, plan on giving it a good roof to keep the rain off of the bamboo. Direct contact with rain can turn even the best treated bamboo into mush in just a few short years, just like wood rots if left out in the elements for too long.
Whenever building with natural materials, keep this mantra in mind “A long lasting house needs a good hat and some good boots.”
When Should I Clean Bamboo?
I advise cleaning your outdoor bamboo yearly, at least. You can certainly clean it more often if you see it is getting excess dirt and build up (such as if it is near a busy road). If the color of your bamboo is looking off or faded, this is a good sign that it’s time to clean it as well.
What Should I use to Clean Bamboo?
For heavy duty cleaning of items that have layers of build-up, reach for a wood-grade cleaner (look for one at a hardware store). Wood cleaners ensure that the detergents will not affect the sealant or wax used to protect your bamboo, while still helping to remove the dirt.
Make sure to read the instructions for the water-to-detergent ratio before applying. If there is a lot of grime, leave on for several minutes before scrubbing off.
If it’s a large outdoor item (back to the bamboo fence idea, here), I might not worry about being too aggressive with my cleaning. Why? Because after I thoroughly wash it, I will apply some new coats of sealant and make my bamboo fence as good as new!
When I do a deep clean, I apply a strong detergent and scrub the fence down with a rough scrubbing brush. Then, I use my hose or power-washer to spray everything off in one easy go. It’s necessary to scrub with a brush to get all the small spaces where the poles line up together to really get it clean.
How to Clean Interior Bamboo
Hopefully, your indoor bamboo items don’t have caked-on dirt, but they can still get pretty grimy over time. I clean my bamboo tables and chairs with just a simple detergent and water.
When I’m feeling particularly determined, I get an old toothbrush to scrub even the smallest spaces where the bamboo slats meet. Then, I get a microfiber towel and dry each and every area. I stretch the towel taunt and run it through those tight edges on the furniture, too.
Bamboo can easily grow fungus if it remains damp, so I avoid this by drying it well after a cleaning.
Protect Your Bamboo From Weather
Sun, rain, humidity and basically all tropical weather can wreak havoc on your bamboo. The best way to prevent this is by sealing it with a wood protectant.
There are a few products that you can use. Iʻve used tung oil for a number of years to maintain decorative bamboo in a local restaurant for a number of years. However, Iʻve found the best product for sealing bamboo is Total Wood Protectant (TWP).
TWP Wood protectant
The first and foremost reason that TWP is the best is because it protects against UV, which really does affect the longevity of your bamboo, weakening it over time. Tung oil doesnʻt offer the same type of protection.
I like TWP sealant because it does double duty as a seal and a stain so you can enhance the natural color of the bamboo at the same time as you keep out moisture and prevent sun damage, too.
Most hardware stores will have several stains to choose from, depending on what color you want your bamboo to have at the end. I like to go natural and keep with the original tones of the bamboo.
You can also pick up a gallon of TWP on Amazon, because itʻs not always available locally.
If you’ve sourced your bamboo from several different suppliers, you may have some different tones, you can even these out and create a more unified look with a slightly darker stain.
How To Apply Wood Protectant
Check the Weather
Now, before you start applying the stain, you should check the local forecast. While you cannot control the weather, this can be a good indicator for if you should hold off for a day or two. There are three reasons:
1. You need the bamboo to completely dry after being cleaned
2. You need dry weather in order to apply the sealant
3. Very humid weather (or very cool weather) also impacts the sealant drying properly.
Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned your outdoor bamboo, allow it to dry completely – yes, even those little crevices. Sometimes, this takes 18 hours if it’s a warm and sunny day, but more often, it takes closer to 48 hours.
Remember: if there are any wet areas it will affect the integrity of the sealant!
Before you start applying the TWP, rub your bamboo down with some sandpaper. This shouldn’t be an aggressive sanding, just enough to help your stain soak in a little better.
When you have a lot of bamboo to seal (like a bamboo fence) this can take a while. I have some friends tell me that they bribed their kids with some ice cream for every 30 minutes of sanding – the whole fence was done in no time!
Now, wipe down the area with clean, dry cloths to get the dust from the sanding off, and you’re ready to start applying the stain. You could spray it on or apply it with brushes, whatever you have available. The important thing to remember is that it needs to dry between coats.
Three coats of seal is ideal –any more than that isn’t actually doing anything, you’re just giving yourself more work. But, any less and you risk some small areas that may not have enough sealant, or tiny spaces between the bamboo that are exposed.
Although some stains advertise 24 hours between coats of stain, this doesn’t usually work for me, because of the humidity of Hawai’i. Always check the stained bamboo, feel if it is sticky to the touch, before adding another coat.
Closer to 48 hours has been the timeframe for me. It might seem time-consuming, I only stain my bamboo every three years, and it really does make it last so much longer.
Protect From Pests
There are two types of ‘pests’ to keep away from your bamboo: insects and fungi.
To protect your bamboo from a type of fungi that makes wood decay, keep your bamboo dry and look into some natural oils which prevent the growth of fungus.
Cashew nut oil and Neem oil both have been shown to prevent fungus for nine months up to several years. Cinnamon oil and Cedarwood oil can be helpful, too, but you’ll need to apply them more often.
Termites love to eat all things woody; including bamboo. This is why it is important to seal the ends of your bamboo and avoid putting it directly in the ground. If you’re making a bamboo fence, there should be a foundation or barrier that prevents termites from accessing the bamboo.
Also, be sure to treat any bamboo you use with a mixture of borax/boric acid. This treatment displaces the edible sugars in bamboo with inedible chemicals. You can learn more about this process by checking out this other post describing the process.
Bamboo is an awesome building material, but it does require maintenance. If you take a preventative approach, by sealing, and protecting from UV rays, a bamboo fence or other outdoor structure can last for decades.