Monday, August 27, 2012

It's raining - time to replace porch column bases

It's raining. A good time to write a post.

A lot has been going on, and we are in the midst of several projects.

We made wooden screens for the front windows in the early summer. I have photos and will do a post.

A good part of the ancient rhododendron died this year, and after it bloomed, I pruned it fairly hard. Then I did soil tests underneath it, which showed that the soil is only borderline acidic, so worked on acidifying and amending the soil. There's a story there, too, at some point.

I am barely keeping up with the crabgrass in the gardens and patio.

We designed a new family bath. We are only just ordering materials for that. Much more to come on that front -- though we're using a contractor for most of it. A MUST for us with all that plumbing and electrical.

But -- the latest -- this weekend, we started work on the porch columns. I love a good porch when it's raining. Ours is divine and we spend most of our time out there -- coffee with the paper, dinner by candlelight -- anytime the mosquitos aren't snacking, that is.

This porch is not original to the house. The original porch went around two sides. But this porch dates back to the mid-to-late 19th or possibly early 20th century.

Three of the column bases had been replaced -- incorrectly, it turns out -- some time ago, perhaps when the porch floor was replaced in the 1970's. Here you can see the tacky replacement bases someone installed by cutting two 2x4's and nailing them down side by side. Ugh. This is not something Martin would have done, I say to myself (Martin, our do-it-yourself hero and former owner of the house for 60 years).

By contrast, the older bases are mitered on the corners -- producing an entirely different and elegant effect, despite the rot.

In the intervening 40-odd years, the remaining three column bases have rotted, and they're bad enough that they've made it to the top of our priority list to replace before winter.

Yesterday, we started investigating that further. We rented two house jacks and bought some 4x4's tall enough to reach the porch roof beam that runs along the tops of the columns.

Here you can see the jacks next to one of the columns.

This one is the worst -- not only is the square part of the base rotted, but the round disc that sits on the square base has collapsed in and parts of that are also rotted.

We decided to start with the rotted column that looked the best, presuming that we'll have to replace the least amount of wood there.

We put a jack and 4x4 on either side and jacked up the beam a half turn. It really didn't take much, and the column was suddenly swinging free.

Fortunately, there were only 4 nails holding the square base to the porch floor, and the wood was so rotted, we could dig the wood out around the nails and pull them. It was amazingly easy to remove.

Turns out that the base was actually constructed like a picture frame, and was hollow inside.

We were surprised, because we assumed the bases were solid, to hold the weight, as the 1970's era replacements obviously are. So in the morning, before renting the jacks, we'd created our own mitred replacement bases out of pressurized wood, from four pieces cut in pie-like sections. Took quite a bit of work to get those pieces cut.

Once we'd cut the wood, the installation went really fast and looks pretty decent. Here you can see our new base installed with the jacks and 4x4's on either side.

That was the easy one, though. The worst has rot through much of the round disc that sits on the square base, and then up into the slightly more decorative next ring, like so, with rotted parts dug out.

I figure the upper ring is not too badly damaged, and I can epoxy that. But we'll have to replace that round disc, and making it doesn't really fit into either of our skill sets, at least not without a lot of trial and error. Today, I went online, trying to find a small woodworking shop that would mill the second, round element.

So, short story -- I did some associated reading and learned -- alas -- that it is important to let columns breathe, and the column and all elements need to be hollow. And, that pressure treated wood is not the way to go, because it will warp and split.

Unfortunately, we'll have to go back to the drawing board and re-create those square bases. I'm sure Capel will be very happy to hear that I did my research AFTER starting the project!

Good news -- the square bits will be easy peasy to make. No answers yet on the discs.

More as we figure it out.
Addendum, spring 2013: The entire story with instructions for replacing bases is tagged with the label "Replace Porch Column Base Series," which you will find along the right-hand side of the main Life at Pugsley blog page.  Or, you can go to the next in the series, about finding replacement bases, here.


  1. When jacking up the beam a half turn, what keeps the pillar from not falling down?

  2. You are fortunate to live in cold country where your rotting problem is minimal. I have similar columns on my house here in beautiful SE Texas, facing west, and the sun, heat, humidity and water-splatter attack them with great vigor. Mine rest on an extension of the poured concrete slab. Over almost 40 years, I have replaced those bases (miter-cut 2X4s like yours) many times and have also had to saw off the bottoms of the columns themselves to remove the rot, building up the base to fill the gap using concrete pavers. Fortunately, the bottoms of all the columns are hidden by shrubbery, so the situation isn't visible to passers-by. Otherwise, my HOA would be hysterical. But this fall, I'm looking at replacing all the columns with new ones made of waterproof composite material. Planning that project is how I ran across your post here.

    I use the same jacking technique that you describe.

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