Friday, October 22, 2010

Porch Rebuilding

When we bought our house, we knew that the porch was not in great shape. One side of the porch is significantly, uh, bouncier than the other. The dryer, for whatever reason, was plumbed to vent directly under that corner of the porch. The fact that you can look underneath and see flagging supports, buttressed joists, and other patchwork fixes does not inspire confidence. Last fall we had a significant chunk of one of the posts replaced with new wood, because it was rotted through and through, and we didn't fancy having the porch roof collapse after a heavy snowstorm. The front steps leading up to the porch are a terrible hack-job of carpentry, and the hand rails on either side wouldn't survive a swift kick.

Of particular concern is the paint on the decking, balusters, railings, and posts: it is cracking and chipping all over the place. Seeing as the house was built in 1916, it is almost certain that at least the lowest coat is lead-based. The railing is just about at the height of Brynna's mouth which, needless to say, makes us nervous. Properly stripping and lead-abating all those spindles, the posts, the decking, and the rest would be the work of an army for the next five years. It is just as well, the bottom section of just about every single baluster is rotted through and through. Here's one that I ripped out, quite literally, with my bare hands:

See what I mean?

I guess I can't fault the balusters all that much - they are nearly 100 years old, and clearly the purple paint job was not very well done. They are most definitely finished, and not worth salvaging. Neither is the decking, nor the framework underneath, nor the steps attached to it. The posts are in decent shape, as are the upper decorative railings and the roof itself.

So, we have resolved this fall to rebuild the porch. In a way, the dilapidated state of things makes our choices pretty clear: tear out anything suspect and build new. Our carpenter and I had already agreed on recycled plastic decking, so that it need never be painted again. The frame underneath would get a few new footings and joists 12" on center for additional rigidity. The load-bearing posts will get stripped in place to bare wood and refinished properly.

(This is a job that I would gladly undertake on my own. It's within my capabilities, would give me great satisfaction in the doing and in the observing, and would let me make good use of and expand my tools. Alas, I have gradually come to accept that ability and opportunity are two very different things and, if I want this job started and finished in the next ten years, I really will have to pay someone else to do it)

A sticking point, however, were the balusters. It turns out that our railings are a lot lower than code requires these days, so we could find no suitable replacements in any catalog that were short enough that offered even a similar-looking profile. Our carpenter shopped it around to a handful of places, and came back with costs averaging about $50 each. Considering that there are 80+ spindles to replace, that comes to a rather eye-popping total.

When our carpenter's latest lead didn't pan out, I took matters into my own hands. I yanked one spindle free, scraped it clean of most of its paint, and measured it out. As an engineer, creating models of existing parts it something I'm rather experienced at. Besides, I had just recently bought a set of 12" Mitutoyo dial calipers second-hand from a guy in the area, and this gave me a fine excuse to use them. After sketching out the key dimensions on paper, I created a detailed model of the part in Pro/E, a CAD package I use daily. From this I created a 1:1 drawing, which I then sent to several area woodsmiths for a quotation.

One wood turner not far from Concord responded favorably and, after some back and forth about this and that detail of form, construction, and material, etc., we came to a deal that was about half what we had been seeing. The new balusters will be nearly identical copies, authentic to the time period, plantation-raised mahogany that should well last another 100 years. I considered that a few hours well spent!

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