Porches & Rails – Part of the On-Going Preservation/Restoration in Rocky Mount, NC

If I were younger, if I’d won the lottery, I would save and restore this bungalow that I found while driving around. (Sorry, I don’t have the address), but this was another love at first sight for me. I have expensive taste as you can see when you think of spending the money to give this fabulous bungalow a new life. The condition of the deck and porch railings in this photo are typical of these old places; rails completely gone or broken. Besides the roof, the porch deck and balustrade usually need attention. Adrienne Copland took off her railings to repair, replace and paint in her recent restoration on Howell Street.

I love the research and found an article by Mary Ellen Polson in an Old House article that gives tips on best practice and materials for restoring porches. It may be more information than some of you want, but it is all part of the world of Preservation. We all hope to learn something new everyday. Why not something about restoring porches!

Sue Cole Perry’s Beautiful Home on Rose Street has these handsome porch balustrades

“Sometimes balustrades are turned on a lathe. Consisting of top and bottom rails and the connecting vertical balusters or spindles, balustrades typically outline the perimeter of the porch and are exposed to weather. Balustrades built from dense, old-growth wood can survive for well over 120 years. That’s why it’s always preferable to repair an old-growth balustrade and its component parts than to replace it.

Balusters fail sooner than the supporting rails, and are more likely to have been replaced. If the balusters or railings are loose, examine points of attachment for rusted fasteners, split wood, or decay. If the fasteners have failed but the wood is sound, remove the attachments, along with any peeling or alligatored paint. (Test for lead first; if you find it, follow lead paint protocols to remove it.) For balusters nailed or screwed in place, reattach them using hot-dipped galvanized or stainless-steel nails or screws, setting the heads below the surface and filling in with wood filler or epoxy.

Where wood is decayed, remove it and refill voids using a two-part epoxy such as those made by Abatron or West System. Allow the patched wood to cure, then sand smooth, taking care that it mates perfectly with adjoining parts. Prime all elements before reattaching, then seal and paint.

When balusters or railings are missing or too far gone, it may be possible to find new ones from a specialty supplier, or have them custom-mill new parts to match. A mill may already have the correct profile; otherwise, the mill may need to make new knives to make an authentic replica.

Photograph From Article Was Provided By Western Spindle)

Historically, porch deck boards were milled from Douglas fir, cedar, or other rot-resistant wood. Once planed and sanded, boards were a standard 7/8″ thick.

It’s all but impossible to find wood of the quality used in a century-old rail, so save as much of the original as possible, even if ends are rotted. Bottom rails tend to fail first; top rails usually have a beveled top to shed water. Before removing a section of balustrade for repair, note how rails are fastened to posts at either end: mortised, braced, or simply nailed or screwed? Save hardware and reuse it, or use stainless-steel screws, countersunk and filled.

When I place my hand on a brick wall it is to honor those who built the wall; the fine craftsmen who’s work still stands. I have new respect for all who restore and preserve as much of the original parts of a house as possible; the lengths restorers go to save the authentic soul of a house that includes porches and rails.

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