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How We Fixed Our Front Porch

Item #7,864 on our list of things to repair on our $24,000 Victorian house was the front porch. Saggy, leaky, and collapsing is no way to go through life, son. Let’s see if we can fix it with a little effort, some ingenuity, and some elbow grease.

We Lifted The House. Now What?

Once we’d lifted the back of the house enough to keep a pencil dropped in the dining room from making its way thirty feet into the kitchen, it was time to look for new worlds to conquer. Stuff to fix. That’s easy. If our house was a map of the world, it would show a tiny island in the middle, where we set up shop and lived inside the shell of the house, and “Here Be Monsters” all around it, right to the edge where your bank account falls off if you sail that far.

So there was any number of things we should tackle, but we had to choose based on what we could afford, which was not much, and what was most likely to fall on our heads. We figured we had all this leftover lumber and screw jacks and so forth, we might as well keep going, and jack up the front porch while we were at it. Here’s what it looked like when we moved in.

Hmm. Not good. And I can assure you, there’s a lot more not goodness than you can see in the picture. The porch had been slumping for decades, just like the back of the house, and the side of the house, and the top of the house, and the inside of the house, and my courage. The occupants had tried various stratagems to deal with the slumping, all ineffective, or making things worse, take your pick. They also did very foolish things like storing firewood filled with carpenter ants on the porch, and leaning canoes and other detritus against the rotting kneewalls, which began to tip over. Some of the decking was rotted away, so they nailed sheets of plywood over it instead of fixing anything and kept going.

That roof was going to be a substantial problem. As the porch slumped, it pulled the metal roofing down and away from the house. This opened up all the seams, which allowed rain and snow and other bad juju to get in, and rot everything  further. It doesn’t look it in the photo, but if we didn’t fix the porch soon, it might pull right off the front of the house. It would be impossible for us to rebuild it, simply due to the cost, never mind the amount of work it would entail. So we must save it if we can. But it’s curved. We had a rule of thumb in the construction business, back in the day. If there’s a curved line anywhere on the plans, you multiply the estimate by 2. There’s a reason why houses are rectangles.

This is the eave of the porch, over on the left of the first picture.

I don’t know how the bank had the nerve to claim they owned this house, and the audacity to sell it to us. It’s obvious even to the layman that squirrels owned the house, and should have been added to the deed. But that’s what a leaky roof gets you. The wood gets punky, the squirrels find a soft spot, and pretty soon they’re moving in furniture and in-laws and nuts by the bushel barrel. Day 1, standing up to my shins in snow, I covered that hole up, and several others like it. Like this:

The next time someone calls me a regular Norm Abram in the comments, I’m going to re-run that picture. It was quick and dirty, but it got the job done, mostly. The squirrels got really angry, and tried tearing their way through that patch. Eventually I had to build a shelf under it and cover it with rat traps to kill the little bastards and gently corral our bushy tailed friends in Hav A Heart traps and transport them to a farm out in the country where they could run free.

The former denizens saw the concrete step, and figured concrete is infinitely strong, so let’s plop the weight of the roof and the porch on it.

The two large columns aren’t original equipment. The porch was originally a little forest of shorter columns that sat on the kneewall, but the kneewall sagged, started to tip over, the columns started to fall out, and when the porch roof sagged enough, they bought two tall columns at a flea market or something and put them in the opening, sitting on a beam they made that was sitting on the step.

Porches really don’t weigh very much in the scheme of things, but they weigh something. They especially weigh something with three or four feet of snow on top of them, which happens every year here. The steps started to tilt backwards under the weight, and the porch kept sinking.

All that shifting around and leaks and carpenter ants and rodent excavations left the kneewall mostly just a suggestion of a structure, not really doing much, and it completely disappeared on the interior side:

The cat used the lumber as a scratching post, and slipped underneath the deck any time he needed a warm-blooded snack. I figured I’d find some sort of druidical pile of rodent skulls down there when we got going. I wasn’t disappointed

I didn’t wait to fix everything before I tried to make the place look presentable. One year in, the front of the house was at least painted smartly. But sooner or later, the porch would have to be fixed for good. I guess it’s sooner, because I’ll show you how we did it.

[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]

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]

I’ve Got The World on a String

We’ll be moving right along with this project, mostly because we didn’t take many photos. Without photos, I’m forced to remember what I did, which I mostly can’t. I do stuff, and write stuff, and the minute I’m done with it I forget what I did or what I said, and move on to other things. I basically only remember grudges. Oh well.

Here’s where we left off. The porch in front of the door is as solid as the Silicon Valley Bank, so we can move on to fixing the semicircle part. It was pretty evident, as soon as we peeled up the plywood, that everything under there was going to be a total loss. My son was helping me, and asked me how we were going to be able to put the porch back in the right place if we demolished the whole thing. Bright kid.

Back to geometry class. We used a tape measure to determine the radius of the (semi)circle. We measured back from the step, and from the spot where the curved kneewall met the side of the house. The spot where they meet is the center of the imaginary circle we’re working in. We drove a screw into the siding at that spot, and then cut a piece of mason’s twine to the length of the radius. We tied one end to the screw. Bingo, we could lay out anything in exactly the right spot just by swinging the string around in an arc. This got important in a minute.

There’s a hint of and then a miracle occurs in my sequence of photos. Mi dispiace. Everything light greenish in the image is stuff we installed. You can espy the radius timber I mentioned before. It made it about 2/3 of the way to its intended destination. After that, it eaten away by carpenter ants and dry rot. But it was handy to have in place as a target for our repairs. So we supported it, along with the top cap on the kneewall and the curved rail underneath it, until we could underpin it properly. If you wonder if carpenters were more skilled and versatile one hundred years ago than nowadays, you could take a look at that curved rail. it’s a perfect semicircle, and they fashioned it into a curve with a hatchet.

We removed a dozen or two ad hoc concrete block props. Then we dug a footing hole under the post you see at the end of the radius timber. It was nothing fancy. Dig down to get below the frost line (I’m lying. The frost line is five feet deep around here. We went down a couple of feet and got tired and said enough’s enough). We dumped some crushed rock in the bottom of the hole for drainage. The main reason posts heave in the winter is because the soil at bottom of the hole has water in it, so we tried to make up for the depth as best we could by draining it properly. We dropped one of those ready-made mushroom footings you get at the Home Depot on top of the gravel. Then we very carefully measured the distance from the underside of the curved rail framing to the bottom of the pre-made socket in the footing. Once we had the curved rail sitting on top of the post and new footing, we could “sister” pressure treated framing lumber on both sides of the existing timber, and fill in the gap at the end with some scrap lumber. The sistered lumber laps the post, so once we had the height correct, it was easy to attach it firmly. How did we get the height? We matched the slope of the existing porch (down and away from the house) using a level and straightedge. No measuring necessary.

In the last picture, you can see the vertical pine planks that made up the curved wall’s sheathing. They were pretty rotten, and even the cedar shingles nailed on the outside of it rotted up a few feet. It’s hard to make cedar shingles rot, but somehow my predecessors managed it. It’ll all have to go:

We’re approaching the Ship of Theseus level of renovation here. You can see all the sheathing and shingles in a heap over there, and next to nothing left of the porch. We had to make a curved doppelganger bottom sill to match the curved top cap timber. How are we going to do that, asked my bright son. That’s what the string is for, I said. We laid pressure treated boards on top of the rail, and cut the ends at an angle so they made a faceted circle. Then we tied a pencil to the string. and drew the outside circle by pulling it around the circumference. Then we shortened it by the width of the cap, and drew the inside circumference.

We cut the curves on a bandsaw, because my hatchet skills aren’t that good. Then we did it again, only we staggered the seams on the boards to beef it up. We screwed the two curved pieces together on the flat, and they were plenty stiff. We attached them to the posts we had at the house, the radius timber, and at the step, and filled in the spaces with 2 x 4s. We rabbeted out a, well, a rabbet on the studs to accept the curved board you see on the left. We wanted to support the end of the decking so it doesn’t feel like a diving board. We didn’t steam the board to curve it. It was thin enough to pull it into that shape with a pipe clamp, and hold it in place with screws.

The Home Depot had a stack of pressure treated pine 1 x 6 lumber that no one knew what to do with. It was the nastiest looking pile of stuff in the place, and that’s saying something. They were cheap, and I doubt they replaced them after I bought them. We nailed them vertically on the framing. It makes a vaguely faceted semicircle, but shingles will smooth that over. I bought all they had, which wasn’t enough, so there are a couple of regular pine boards on display in the picture. The outside looked like this:

So we’ve essentially put the porch back the way it was when it was built. The framing is more or less laid out the same. The Victorian builders would have liked the pressure treated lumber framing, and hated the pressure treated decking, but other than that, nothing I used would have made them scratch their heads. So we could button it up and get ready for the next century of use:

We bought sheets of exterior beaded board, and bent them around the curve. The original was beaded 1 x 4 pine sticks, but we ain’t got time for restoring that. It looks like the same thing, and when it’s painted, it will match the other end of the porch. Unfortunately, the cat lost several scratching posts, and will have to go around the outside and dig to get at the mousies.

Now we’ve got another problem. The columns have to go back in, and there aren’t enough of them, and the ones we do have are too short. We’re going to have to make some stuff.

[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. You can hit our tip jar if you’re feeling wealthy, because I’m not]

Entasis Saved My Bacon

Alrighty. We needed columns. There weren’t enough of the originals, and the ones we did have were either too short, splitting apart, or both. What’s a mother to do? We couldn’t afford to buy one new column, and we needed at least two, and we had to re-jigger three more. We were going to have to get resourceful, or get used to walking past screw jacks on the front of the house, forevermore. My wife voted for resourceful. We best start making things.

Why couldn’t we use the original columns? Because for the most part, they weren’t there. There used to be a lot more of them. As the porch slumped, they’d tumble out, and the former denizens would throw them away, or eat them, or whatever people do with all the things I need but can’t find to repair my house. Then, as the roof sagged, they’d pull out whatever columns remained, cut them shorter, and jam them back in the openings. When that didn’t answer, they bought two seven-footish columns and jammed them in there to stop (slow) the bleeding. These were carrying too much weight for their construction, and started to split open at the bottom.

Wood columns aren’t usually solid posts. They’re built like a barrel. A series of staves is glued up in a circle, and then the resulting tube is turned on big lathes to achieve entasis. I know achieving entasis sounds like the clinical description of some bizarre sex act, but it ain’t. I’ll try to explain it by cribbing from Wiki:

In architecture, entasis is the application of a convex curve to a surface for aesthetic purposes. Its best-known use is in certain orders of Classical columns that curve slightly as their diameter is decreased from the bottom upward. It also may serve an engineering function regarding strength.

See, that’s no help. I’ll translate for normal people. Real classical columns sort of bulge part way up, and then taper towards the top. There are many, many rules and ratios for determining entasis. I’m not sure it’s really possible to get entasis right, no matter what you do, but it’s very, very easy to get it wrong. I see lots of very weird columns on new faux-colonial houses, and egad, postmodern houses.

I learned all the column lingo and entasis ratios back in school, and filed it in the back of my head where I can’t get at it easily. But I remembered enough to finish the project. There is nothing on the internet as good as books on my shelf for naming parts of a column (there are a lot, trust me), but this will do if you’re at all interested.

It is fun to yell, “Hey, you don’t know your metope from your triglyph, pal,” as you drive past poorly architraved homes, but you’ll mostly get quizzical looks, especially if you forget to roll the window down first. But all the parts of a column and architrave are basically never on display on anything but Supreme Court buildings and similar dens of iniquity anyway. We only need to get a few barbaric proportions close, and it will look OK. I’m just the barbarian to try.

So my son and I had a jolly old time fixing the big columns. We used Gorilla Glue (polyurethane adhesive) to glue the staves back together at their bottoms. We used a windlass to pull them tight and hold them while they cured. At least that’s what I always thought was the term for tying a rope around something loosely, putting a stick through the rope, and turning the stick to tighten the loop. The internet doesn’t like calling that arrangement a windlass. If you try to look it up, it shows you lots of things that don’t look like what I’m describing, including blousy women who look like they raided Stevie Nicks’ closet, telling me about Dollar Tree life hacks. Hmm. Well, I say it’s a windlass clamp, and dare you to talk me out of it.

Once the column glue cured, we cut framing lumber blocks from the trash pile into the shape of the interior void inside the columns. The interior of the staves is not finished into a curve like the exterior is. It was vaguely hexagonal, or octagonal, I can’t remember now, and I can’t check because there’s a porch roof sitting on it.  Once we got the shape right, we put lots more Gorilla glue on the block and tapped it into the base of the column. Then we drove screws through the outside into the block. We fashioned and inserted blocks at the top of the columns, too. The columns were downright sturdy then. Still too short, though.

So we made a torus for the bottom of the column. We cut rough circles out of scrap lumber on the band saw. To make the rough circle a perfect circle, you clamp a disposable piece of plywood with a small peg driven into it to the platen of the band saw. The peg is located away from the blade at the radius dimension of the circle you’re trying to make. You drill a hole in the block at the radius length, sit the hole on the peg, and spin it through the blade to make a circle. Then you chuck a big roundover bit in the router (if you have a 1-1/2″ thick block, you need a 3/4″ roundover), round over the edge, flip it over, and round over the other edge. See, you’ve made a torus from trash. Before any of you math wizards try to correct me in the comments, it’s an architectural torus, not a mathematical torus, which looks like a donut. Believe me, I worked construction jobs for many years and know exactly what both kinds of donuts look like, and how they taste. The wood ones only taste different if you go to Dunkin’ Donuts early in the morning. In the afternoon, they both taste the same.

I couldn’t make the short columns properly. Or maybe I could, but I’m too lazy. You decide if it sounds better for me to admit I’m incompetent or indolent, and call me that. But I’m not going to cut a zillion little barrel staves with compound bevels and glue it all up while it wiggles in the clamps and then turn it on a lathe I don’t own, because they’re too long for mine. I’m gonna cheat.

I went down in our carhole, you know, the one we just lifted, and found a 6″ x 6″ beam left over from 1901. I also found a 5-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ pressure treated beam that had formerly been used as an ineffective prop down there. Woohoo, free columns! Sorta. I still couldn’t fit them in my lathe, which is plenty big for table legs, but not for porch columns. Here’s where entasis saved my bacon.

The simplest way to figure entasis is to make the first third of a column a straight shaft, and taper the top two-thirds. So we cut the timbers at the 1/3rd mark, and I turned them round on the lathe. Then I chucked the top 2/3rds into the lathe, which just fit, turned it round, and then tapered it from one end to the other. Then we cored a big socket in the two pieces, inserted a piece of wooden closet rod, and glued the whole mess up. We turned the bases of the columns, which include a torus and a scotia and an astragal, and whatnot, out of cut-off pieces of the timbers. We did some fancy measuring to make sure all the components added up to the required gaps between the kneewall and the box beam overhead. We added stylobates at the bottoms made from cut-offs from pressure treated lumber. Aren’t you impressed I called them stylobates, instead of plain old square wood blocks? I thought you would be.

Shingling the curved wall was easy and hard at the same time. I let the kid bang a lot of the nails. On a flat wall, shingling is easy because you tack on a straightedge, sit the shingles on it, and nail them to the sheathing. No can do on a curved wall. So we made a story pole. A story pole is just a stick with measurements marked on it. You lay the story pole on the shingled wall on the right, and mark the bottom of each shingle course on the story pole. Then you can move it around the curve as needed to get the courses to line up. The lad did a pretty good job, I must say, and painted the shingles, too, while I painted the trim and the deck. Here’s what it looked like when it was finished

Not shabby. Or less shabby, anyway.

For a while, the feeling of being part of the process made the porch seem more fun to my son than it had previously. He liked hanging around on it afterwards.

The cat had to commute around the side to get at the rodents now, and wasn’t as enthusiastic.

Well that’s it for the front porch. But oh dear, there used to be a side porch, too, and it rotted away and fell off the house years before we showed up. I guess we’ll have to fix that one, too, with whatever lumber is left over. Stay tuned.

[If you’d like to support Sippican Cottage, please recommend it to your online friends, and maybe leave a trenchant comment, or a regular one if you prefer. You can hit our tip jar if you’re feeling wealthy, because we’re not]

Tag: fixing the front porch

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