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Elements of a Porch

With the popular old-house restoration movement is in its fourth decade, manufacturers are creating traditional millwork elements from high tech materials, and engineering better systems.

A porch is often a significant feature on a period house. It is also one of the most difficult to maintain. Anyone who has ever been the owner of a vintage wood porch knows the drill: scrape, patch, repair, and paint, and when you’re finished, start all over again.

Thankfully, many manufacturers of high-tech porch parts—posts, columns, turned and fret-cut millwork, porch decking, and even ceiling boards—finally “get it.” (The ones who work in wood always have.)

It is now possible to construct a reasonably authentic porch from fiber-reinforced polymer columns, hardwood composite fretwork, cellular PVC trim boards, and engineered porch planks, complete with half-round edge nosing.

Before you pull out the century- old balusters and decking on that rambling verandah, though, consider this: many of the materials designed for exterior porches come with a five-year guarantee. That may be music to the ears of homeowners who move every 3.7 years, but it isn’t very long in the lifespan of an old house, especially one with a porch built from old-growth vertical grain hardwood. And there is still no substitute for a well-designed, skillfully assembled porch with authentic details. It pays to know when to pick apples, and when to choose oranges.

Chicago Foursquare porch, posts with inlaid mosaic glass

On a Chicago Foursquare, posts on the newly reopened porch are inlaid with mosaic glass, giving the impression of double columns. Photo courtesy Greene & Proppe Design.

Some elements tend to give more trouble than others—especially columns, which are widely available in reproductions that closely resemble the real thing, especially after a few coats of paint. Turncraft Architectural, for instance, recently introduced square, tapered Craftsman columns in fiberglass-reinforced polymer. Load-bearing columns in all the classic styles usually cost about one-third as much as wood columns.

On the other hand, if you need to replace a porch post that has turned millwork details like banding or chamfered edges, wood is probably the way to go—especially if the bad column matches several sound ones still on the porch. The same thing goes for sections of balustrade or individual balusters, although you can find more than two dozen baluster profiles in PVC in styles suitable for Georgian, Colonial Revival, and Victorian-era homes.

A three-season, Prairie style porch from Touchstone Woodworks

A three-season, Prairie style porch from Touchstone Woodworks, made of mahogany panels and well engineered for longevity.

As for purely decorative elements like flat-cut fretwork, there are good options in both solid and engineered wood. Some millworks companies, for example, offers thousands of patterns in woods like poplar, cedar and, at extra cost, cypress. Other trouble spots include porch ceilings and floor boards.

A number of companies offer an engineered beadboard that is more uniform (i.e., squared edges, knot free) than conventional beadboard made of wood or plywood. While a long-lived wood like mahogany or cypress is traditional for porch floors, another option is Tendura, an engineered composite of wood and plastic designed for use on covered porches.

old-fashioned screened front porch

An old-fashioned screened front porch built using Vixen Hill’s system becomes a sunroom when the screens are replaced with glass.

In the end, it comes down to a balancing act between looks and ease of care. While some engineered materials look no different from wood once they’re painted, others do. If the new element will be in an easily seen position (i.e., head-height decorative trim), make sure you like what you see before you buy.

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