Restoring a Historic Porch with Custom Details
Photos by Matt DunkinFront porches are a lovely feature of older houses, hearkening back to a time when many people would sit out on them and socialize with their neighbours who were walking down the street or going by in carriages or on horseback.
Many historic front porches are bearing up well if they’ve been taken care of. However, many more need work and that puts today’s builder in a bit of a bind. Over a century ago when these porches were being built, readily available wood was larger in dimension. Nowadays, rehabilitating a historic porch so that it retains its historical integrity rules out getting your lumber from a big box store, or using stock handrails.
On a recent project, my clients were adamant that the lumber used to restore their porch had to be authentic. As they walked around their neighbourhood, the porches that had been redone with newer more readily available materials all began to look alike – less like the original porches they were replacing and more like one another. In this article, I’ll give you a window into the process by which I rehabilitated this porch by looking at the details that reestablished its historical integrity while ensuring the porch endures far into the future.
The porch was in a sorry state when we began. The rotting tongue-and-groove pine decking had been covered with spongy aspenite and then covered with outdoor carpet. Needless to say, it was saturated with the rain that fell around the edges of the porch, and the moisture had been wicking up into the three 8"x8" solid turned posts, creating considerable rot. The original railing had fallen off years before and had never been replaced. We carefully took dimensions from the parts of the existing porch that were still in place, like the skirting and the rotting decking boards. While stripping some paint away, my clients uncovered the tell-tale profile of the handrail and foot rail, so we at least had those details to guide us. As for determining the railing’s spindles, we scoured the neighbourhood for intact porches to guide us in deciding their dimensions. I then prepared a scaled drawing of the porch facade to give my clients a sense of how all of the pieces would come together proportionally.
Sourcing lumber in custom sizes takes some strategic planning in advance. Each piece we were seeking was an unusual size: the skirting, for example, was exactly 1" x 4" and the handrail was milled out of 4"x3" stock. Most mills will roughsaw their lumber to be planed down to standard sizes, so a custom order requires enough forethought to get the mill to rough saw it to your specs first so that it can be dried in advance. When it’s dry, the mill can plane it down to your finished dimensions. Otherwise, the mill has to plane it out of larger material, adding to waste and cost. It’s a good idea to contact mills to see what lead times they need to put together a custom order for you. I worked with Wilson Forest Products in Madoc, Ontario to put together this order of solid eastern white pine, but there are many other options around the country.
Time for Repairs – Water and time have taken their toll on the old deck structure. Dunkin’s clients wanted to renew the structure, but didn’t want it to look like all the other typical porches in the neighbourhood.Worst Enemy – An outdoor structure's worst enemy is water. The bottom of this post was wet for years and now shows heavy signs of damage.
During the removal of the decking, the porch roof needed to be supported so I installed pieces of 2x10 as bases or feet for diagonal supports made of a t-shaped assembly of 2x6s notched to meet the header. Stakes held the bases from moving during construction. A piece of 6-mil plastic strung across the diagonal braces allowed plenty of light but kept rain at bay, even allowing me to set up a chop-saw under its shelter in some nasty downpours. When removing the old porch decking, we realized how poorly constructed the framing was, and had to begin from scratch with new footings and entirely new framing.
Clues From the Past – Even though much of the deck was not original, Dunkin had to keep his eyes open for clues, as he wanted to maintain the heritage aspect of the porch. This notched post, made to accept the original handrail, gave him something to shoot for. Helping Hand – While the decking was removed, supports did the heavy lifting, supporting the porch roof.
Slope and Managing Water
When rebuilding a porch, or any outdoor structure, it’s helpful to spend some time thinking about how to mitigate the effects of the inevitable rains that will slant in to fall on the railings or decking. If water sits anywhere on your porch it will create damage, loosening paint and affecting the integrity of the wood beneath. If it is exposed to end-grain, it will wick into it and begin to rot. But if it is given a way out, it will drain away and not be a problem.
One of the key details of older porches is that they were intentionally canted a couple of degrees to shed rain and melting snow that fell on their surfaces. (A related detail is that the decking should run at right angles to that slope, so that water doesn’t get trapped in gaps between the boards.)
Instead, it has the opportunity to run down and out. We kept the direction of the original framing running parallel to the length of the porch, so that the decking would run at ninety degrees to that slope. The slope was 1 ½" over 6 feet.
I had a couple of neighbours who expressed concern that the porch wasn’t level, and I had to explain the method to my madness.
Prime Then Install – The 5/4 pine decking was primed before installation to protect it from the elements, and prolong the life of the deck.Clean and Tidy – A mitre joint finishes off the decking ends. The decking ends help protect the decking boards.
The decking I installed was a 5/4"x4" tongue-and-groove pine, which I primed on all sides before installing to seal the decking from excess expansion and contraction from variations in ambient humidity and periodic wetting. I fastened it with 2 ½" galvanized finishing nails nailed into the tongue. I ran one piece of decking that I bullnosed around the perimeter of the porch so as not to leave the cut ends of the decking exposed; I connected it to the decking by inserting the tongue into a groove that I routed into the decking ends, and mitred the joints at the corners.
Remove the Rotten Wood – Dunkin used a straightedge to guide his circular saw as he made cuts around the perimeter of the post. Once the saw did its job, Dunkin grabbed a handsaw and finished removing the rotten section of wood.
For a relatively small house, the three turned posts were sizeable, at just over 8" x 8" square. As I mentioned, there was significant rot, which meant I had to cut off the bottom 18" of the post to get past the damage done over the previous century by moisture being drawn up into them. To cut them off accurately, I clamped on a guide for my circular saw to cut through the perimeter of the post and then finished the cuts off by hand. Using a chunk of rough-sawn 10x10, I used a circular saw and chisel to hog off the extra width and then a thickness planer to dress it down to just over the required thickness, calculating a bit of leeway for shrinkage as the timber dried out. I decided to create a shallow ¾" mortise-and-tenon joint to join the old post and new bottom using a router and a template bit with a template guide screwed to the part I was routing. I then connected the new post bottom to the original post with construction adhesive and toenailed with 3 ½" spiral finishing nails. The reason the original posts had rotted was that they were in contact with water from the deck. My solution was to use a CPS7 Simpson Strong Tie composite plastic stand-off base, which I mortised into the post bottom to create a gap between the post and the deck and would later cover with quarter-round. I lagged the stand-off base to the pressure treated post below with a ½" diameter x 6" lag screw and fastened it to the post with epoxy as I slid it into place. I covered the back with a piece of pine glued in and sanded flush. To finish the connection between post and bottom, I created a piece of beading with a round-over router bit, mitred at the corners around the joint and caulked it to prevent water penetration.
Large Mortise and Tenon – The new, lower portion of the post had to be fastened to the existing post. For this, Dunkin first attached a plywood template to run his router bit against and routed a ¾" deep mortise in the underside of the existing post. He then attached a second plywood template to the top of the new post bottom, and routed the mating tenon (below). Thirsty Wood – To keep water from wicking into the end of the post, Dunkin attached a plastic stand-off base to the decking, then mortised the underside of the post to accept the plastic base. Quarter-round trim will hide the gap (below). Camouflage the Joint – To hide the seam a bead was installed between the old and the new sections of post. Caulking helps steer water away from the wood.
There were no commercially available newel posts that would match the dimensions or style of the original porch, so we borrowed some details from the posts themselves. I traced the originals and, with input from my clients, added in a spherical finial on top then used a photocopier to scale them down to the pine 6x6 size I thought would fit with the scale they needed to be. I took my sketch and 6x6s to the masterful Peter Goodwin of Goodwin Creations, a local custom woodworker with a penchant for turning wood. His General International lathe will accommodate length of up to 8', so these 5' newel posts were not a problem. The resulting posts fit beautifully in with the scale of the railings and the style of the original posts.
Go the Distance – Working from a sketch, Peter Goodwin turned a custom post to match some of the classic details. It is touches like these that really brought the original feel of the porch back to life.
Using the original marks left from the old handrail as a guide, I set about with table saw and router to recreate a replica handrail. The original design had incorporated a sloped top to shed water, a scalloped side to create an easy grip, and a plough to contain the balusters. I cut the plough first with a couple of passes with a dado blade. The closest router bit I could find to scallop the side of the handrail was a 3 ½" Cove Raised Panel bit, which worked nicely. Finally, I cut the sloped top on the table saw and sanded the surfaces flat and eased the edges. The foot rail was simpler with its top sloped to shed water. I ripped the balusters out of wider stock and gangplaned them on my thickness planer to the exact dimensions I wanted at 1 ¾"x1 ¼". I cut a birdsmouth in the bottom of them on my mitre saw to straddle the shallow inverted ‘v’ of the top of the foot rail. I installed them by toenailing them into the foot rails and handrails with a spacing of 2 ½". In the plough beneath the handrail, I cut spacers and nailed them into place to maintain that spacing.
I set ½" diameter by 5" lag screws into the posts at foot rail and handrail height but left them protruding by just over an inch. Next I routed a dado into the ends of the handrail and foot rails that would just allow the lag screws to fit in. The railing sections fit down onto the lag screws and, with one toenailed hidden screw on either end, are completely solid but can also be removed if needed. I caulked the top of the joint where the handrails meet the posts to keep water out.
Keeping It Simple – Unadorned balusters and skirting added a simple touch to the overall look of the porch. Secure the Rails to the Posts – After a 5" lag screw was installed in the post a mating notch was routed in the ends of the rails. Coupled with a pair of toenailed screws, this joint will keep the rails fastened for many years to come.
Skirting and Stairs
The skirting was substantially sized full 1"x4" pine mounted vertically with a 1x6 top and bottom horizontal frame – it will keep larger animals out but allow for adequate ventilation of the area beneath the porch. Stairs take a beating from the elements because they are fully exposed so I placed two 6" sonotubes down four feet to prevent wracking of the porch from frost heaving and the horizontal edges of the stair stringers I covered in strips of rubberized asphalt flashing to prevent water damage and rot. The slope of the stairs is gentle with a generous tread created by 2x6 and 2x8s with bullnosed leading edges and ends so they would be comfortable places to sit and enjoy a conversation with passersby. The final step when all the pieces were assembled was to prime and paint all of the components before the plastic was taken down.
Conversational Pace – The slope of the stairs is gentle with a generous tread. The stairs also have bullnosed leading edges and ends making them comfortable, inviting and ready for a conversation.
Sometimes we get trapped in the convenience of building using commercially available components. This project highlights the opportunities to use some creative techniques and custom materials to create a fully unique project with basic woodworking tools. This porch restoration has recreated a sense of connection between the house and street, much to the delight of its owners and neighbours. I give much credit to the vision of my clients and their uncompromising approach to maintaining the beauty of the past. With some careful attention to the details, it promises to offer lasting beauty and durability for many years to come.
Matt's woodworking projects are often realized in improvised outdoor spaces near the homes he renovates. His writing is really a ploy to slowly recoup the cost of his English degree.