Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Progressive = Progressively Worse

So it’s spring, I gather from the foliage on the bushes. The porch faces north and the sun won’t shine in there until ten minutes before it sets. It’s perfect weather for heavy-ish work. There are no bugs (yet), it’s not too hot, the snow is a memory. Let’s get cracking.

Jacking the roof back up where it belonged was pretty simple. For convenience, we modified our screw jacks by putting a screw on both ends of the posts. I wouldn’t want it to fall on me or anything, but in the scheme of things, a porch roof isn’t very heavy. I didn’t bother to calculate what it weighed like we did out back. We could space the screw jacks out willy-nilly and still not need any pump jacks to lift the roof. We angled the jacks for two reasons. First, we need to work on the porch, and having the posts right up against it makes that much harder. Secondly, the roof is both sagging and pulling away from the main house roof. Angling the jacks both lifts and pushes the roof back toward the main house where it belongs. It’s just geometry from the sixth grade to figure that out. You didn’t have geometry class in the sixth grade? You didn’t go to Catholic school, I gather.

We turned the screw jacks by banging on the flanges with a rubber mallet, and it lifted easily. We pulled a string all the way across the front, and put a line level on the string. I’d like to tell you we jacked up the roof until it was level. In other words, I’d like to lie. We got it close. For the most part I relied on walking across the road out front and looking at it. This is a totally underrated approach to things. If you stop what you’re doing every once in a while, and just look at it, you see much more than when your face is right in it. People should stop and think about all sorts of things before they do them, or at least when they’re halfway through, but they generally don’t. They just keep going. If you ask them what they’re doing, they say, “This is how I go, when I go like this.” This is called being Progressive. The Progressive knows he’s making progress, because the world looks different at the end of the day, and the word progress is right in the name. It must be better. I figure different is just different. You could be making things worse, you know, and probably are if you don’t understand why things are the way they are in the first place. My house is living proof of the concept.

If you look at the first picture, you can see a gap that’s opened up between the post column and its capital as we lifted the roof back into alignment. It was something like four or six inches. Because the roof is curved, the gaps were even higher out front, because of tangents or cosines or differential equations or something else the nuns tried to pound into my head that I’ve forgotten. When the roofline looked straight, and parallel to other horizontal lines on the house, like the roof and window openings and so forth, we stopped lifting and started scratching our heads in earnest.

Carpentry on old houses, and many other aspects of life, have two competing chores. One chore is to figure out what kind of weirdness people have been up to in the last, oh, I don’t know, 75 years or so, and figure out how to get rid of it. The other chore is to search for the ghost of what was there in the first place, and see if you can restore it. Looking down into the hole in the deck I made, I kinda figured I’d need a new, more powerful ouija board to contact the ghosts of the original house. My house is built like a Mouse Trap Game. It certainly has plenty of mice in it, too. What in the barrelling bejeezus is going on here? I dunno, keep yanking stuff off, son, and we’ll keep Poiroiting.

OK, the green stuff I understand. It’s fir decking. It’s great stuff. If they had taken care of it, it would have lasted centuries. The roof leaked, everything got wet and stayed that way, the carpenter ants in the firewood they piled there ate the framing, and the underpinnings turned to dust. Covering it with plywood allowed people to walk over it while it wasted away. Progressively.

I know the original builders had a lot of constraints on them, but they’re weren’t dumb. The porch is 120 years old, and still standing, sort of. They did pretty good working with what they had. The concrete front step was a very substantial pile of rocks and concrete. It had two sockets formed in it, where the end posts of the kneewalls were located. Beautiful. Large framing timbers stretched from the house to the posts, and eventually, like the spokes in a wheel, they stretched around an arc to a post on the curved wall. Between these large timbers, smaller infill joists were hung, parallel to the front of the house, to support the decking boards and give you good nailing. All of it was gone, or half gone, at least, and in their place was seven tree forts holding hands. Everything less than 100 years old would have to go. My son and I pulled fifteen or so concrete blocks out from under the porch. They were being used as props under the sagging framing. Someone had been crawling under there and adding one from time to time. I tried to understand the mindset of someone who would rather crawl around in a spider’s Xanadu than fix the damn thing, but it gave me a headache and I stopped. After a while, the entire curved wall was just sitting on concrete blocks, with no footings or vertical structural members left. Yeesh. Let’s fix it.

I’m skipping ahead here with this picture above. I’ll explain the framing on the left side later. It happened days later. But as you can see in the photo, the porch between the step and front door couldn’t wait while I took pictures of it. Unless I told my wife to climb in and out of a window with the groceries, we have to get it back in service ASAP.

So we put new, pressure treated posts  in the sockets on either side of the step (you can see one in the photo), attached the original timbers from the house to the posts, took out the bits of ticky tacky ladder framing you saw two pictures ago, and put in pressure treated joists running perpendicular to the timbers. Then we laid what are called 5/4 by 6 PT decking to finish. They’re an inch thick and 5-1/5″ wide, and pretty sturdy. We spaced them slightly apart to let any extraneous water pass through instead of collecting and making trouble.

You can tell the sun is going down by the low angle of the light, but the path to the front door is back in service. We’ll get to the restoration of the curved portion in our next installment, right after I double the estimate, of course.

[To be continued. If you’d like to support Sippican Cottage, recommend it to your online friends, leave a trenchant comment, or a regular one if you prefer, or hit our tip jar if you’re feeling wealthy]

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