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A beautifully detailed piazza on a Shingle Style house.

Porch Upkeep Tips

by Gordon Bock on May 1, 2012

in Millwork and Shutters

ABOVE: A beautifully detailed piazza on a Shingle Style house. Photo courtesy Western Red Cedar Lumber Assn

Exterior millwork—wood that can rot—needs maintenance and occasional replacement. If this summer’s projects include a punky porch, you’ll appreciate these guidelines.

Regarding porches of the Arts & Crafts era, the good news is that they’re not entirely made of wood! Concrete and stucco, stone or bricks may form the deck, piers and posts, apron, or balustrade. But beams and rafters are wood, and in parts of the country, many or most other porch elements are, too.

DESIGN DETAILS
What these porches lack in ornamental balustrades, they make up for in novel details, especially in their relation to the roof. The source of the design vocabulary is unclear (except for, say, those bungalows with Alpine chalet details). Creativity is part of what makes these porches so appealing. If you lack evidence of what may have been lost, try this: (1) study existing porches (local or in books) on similar houses; (2) get ideas from the elementary shapes of plane geometry, not in complex curves or classical elements; (3) derive design motifs from structural devices made of wood (mortise-and-tenon joinery is the standard), or even lumber itself in the form of flat boards, timbers, and logs. Then, (4) exaggerate.

Simple construction is often balanced by exaggeration and whimsy, as with extra elements that appear to bear a load: secondary beams, post headers, etc. On this balustrade, there’s not a turning in sight. Photo: National Archives Associates.

Simple construction is often balanced by exaggeration and whimsy, as with extra elements that appear to bear a load: secondary beams, post headers, etc. On this balustrade, there’s not a turning in sight. Photo: National Archives Associates.

A prime example is the oversize, under-eave knee bracket. Millwork catalogs were ready suppliers of brackets, often made of square lumber measuring 5 in. on a side—wood aplenty to hold up 30 inches or so of overhang. It’s relatively easy to copy or re-create a bracket on a table saw, if you keep the oversize dimensions in mind.

STRUCTURE
The basic arch spanning openings between piers or columns is often plain. While naked timbers or heavy planks were used in some houses, it was also common to carry over the late-19th-century practice of boxing in a single 6″ x 6″ timber or multiple 2″ planks with 1″ trim. This may have held up fine for 80 years, until the roof started to leak, allowing the water to collect in the box (and you know what happens then). When boxed beams have to be repaired or replaced, maximize ventilation inside the void by leaving the top open, except for screening to exclude animals.

This bungalow has shingles, beams, rafters, balustrades, piers, deck, and stairs of wood. Photo: National Archives Associates.

This bungalow has shingles, beams, rafters, balustrades, piers, deck, and stairs of wood. Photo: National Archives Associates.

Turned or staved columns do appear on bungalows that have one foot in the classical world, but the archetypal (wooden) support for an Arts & Crafts porch is a bit of carpentry variously called a pier, a battered support, or, in some early literature, a square-taper column. Such elements could be ordered from millwork catalogs, but they were often site-built by the builder’s carpenters. As period manuals noted, although it’s possible to build piers by mitering the edges of 1″ boards at 45 degrees, then assembling them like a box, a sounder joint results from a combination miter-and-butt joint.

Many Arts & Crafts porch piers stand not on the porch floor but on waist-high masonry or wood pedestals or low walls. The caps of these pedestals, which also form the bases of piers, should be pitched to shed water. Moldings at the bottom of the pier, even if original, are better eliminated as they collect moisture and contribute to rot.

Wooden elements on a stucco bungalow include knee brackets and fancy-cut rafter ends, as well as rake boards and under-eave soffits. Photo: National Archives Associates.

Wooden elements on a stucco bungalow include knee brackets and fancy-cut rafter ends, as well as rake boards and under-eave soffits. Photo: National Archives Associates.

PORCH DECK
Many an Arts & Crafts porch floor is of tile or stone set in concrete, the wonder material of the 1910s, and a continuation of the foundation masonry. However, when bungalow and other houses do have wood decks—and many of them do—, those eternal porch- carpentry choices and maintenance issues usually apply. Most porches of a century ago were floored with boards 3″ or 4″ wide. Don’t use wider boards, which increase the chances of wood movement, cupping, and gaps. (And vertical-grain or quarter-sawn lumber, the most durable for porch flooring, is almost always milled in widths 3 inches or less.) Flooring thickness was customarily a full 1-1/8″ thick; using stock as close as possible to this hefty dimension will add longevity.

Should the floorboards be square-edged and butted together, or edge-matched—that is, tongue-and-groove—like an interior floor? Both methods were used historically and both have pros and cons. Square-edged boards are potentially less expensive, and the slight gaps between boards promote air and moisture movement from the underside of the porch, a good thing for durability. On the downside, some say the gaps that open up between butted boards look less refined than a more seamless, tongue-and-groove floor but, more importantly, butted boards have to be face-nailed to the joists, which leaves fastener heads prone to the weather and potential rusting. Conversely, edge-matched boards can be blind-nailed, which hides the fasteners from weather and sight, but that means that providing under-floor ventilation is even more critical. Be sure to keep shrubs at least a yard away from the porch perimeter, and use open lattice as a skirt to finish off the bottom of the porch (or no skirt at all).

• • • •

About Arts & Crafts Porches

Unlike a Victorian porch—an umbrage (or shaded area) that wraps around the house proper—the Arts & Crafts porch is an integral part of the house. Often tucked under the main roof, the porch was an outdoor living room. Porches “should be equipped with all that is necessary for daily use, so as to avoid the carrying back and forth of tables, chairs, and the like,” recommended the book Craftsman Homes.

Arts & Crafts porches also break with the Victorian model in that they can be very deep and often very large in proportion to the building. Bungalows may be as much as one-quarter porch. • Holistic design further connected porch and house through their details. Consistent with the modern drive for new forms not based on history, square-edged, flat-board carpentry shows up on Arts & Crafts porches; in rarefied examples, no element has been turned or molded.

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