All quiet on the western porch

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Almost every summer I seem to spend quite a lot of time working on one of our porches, from building a new porch from scratch off our kitchen door in 2006, to building new screens for the upstairs northern porch in 2007, to doing major reconstruction on the eastern porch in 2008. Earlier this summer I made some new screens for the sleeping porch above the eastern porch.

There are three other porches that need work:

  • New trim molding and screens on the northern porch. This will wait until at least next year.
  • New posts for the front, or southern porch. I’ve made the wooden blanks for these and will complete them later this summer.
  • New steps for the western porch.

I’ve been on vacation this week and I tackled the last job. It’s not done, but this is a progress report.

I’m replacing the steps because, simply, the old ones rotted. At first I thought I could get away with replacing one stringer, a piece of wood cut in a zig-zaggy way to support the steps, and one riser, a vertical piece at the back of a tread, the part you step on. (See a diagram of all stair parts.)

The basic rule of wood rot is that it is always more extensive than you first think. As I opened up the step structure a few weeks ago, I saw that another stringer was just beginning to have rot damage and several of the risers were similarly damaged. Rather than do a patchwork job, I decided to replace the whole thing. In some ways that made the job simpler, but it also made it more expensive in dollars, material, and time. However, I knew that the job would not take multiple months of my spare time like the previous porches did. So far that seems to be that case.

Western porch, circa 1865

Before I get into what I did on these steps, let’s look at the history of the porch. The photo on the right is undated, but I would guess it was taken around 1865, with the house having been built in 1820. The porch in question is on the left. The buildings on the far left are no longer here, but a new back of the house exists and is not in the photo. Also not in the photo, of course, is the fence at the bottom of the steps that I built in 2004.

It’s hard to tell in the photo, but it looks like the steps had railings in 1865, as you would expect. The steps I’m replacing did not have railings and this would certainly be a problem if we used the door, the porch, and the steps. We don’t, and the area right inside the door is a kind of cool area we can stash things in, closed off by two doors. We’re rethinking our use of that area and the door, but it’s not urgent. From a building code perspective, the porch is high enough off the ground that the steps must have a railing.

The steps I’m replacing were clearly not the original ones. Also, we had the porch base rebuilt and the columns replaced about five years ago. It was the ten foot columns that gave me pause and ultimately had me hire a carpenter to do the work.

Wooden columns rot. There are several tricks to delay this, but ultimately they rot. The ones on the porch now are fiberglass, but you can’t tell that now that they’re painted. I felt guilty about this for a while, but new wooden columns would have been very expensive and custom work. I’m now very comfortable knowing that the columns will never rot.

The steps I’m replacing were removed and then replaced when the other porch work was done. They were in fine shape then, but the lack of a railing bothered me. This factored into my decision to rebuild the steps because I could add new posts, railings, and spindles. Attentive readers may remember that I spent a lot of time thinking about and then making spindles for the kitchen porch.

Western porch, 2009

The steps involved with building the new steps were/are the following:

  1. Remove the old steps. I saved a couple of the stringers to use as templates for the new ones. I also saved the one inch thick treads because they are large pieces of wood that I may be able to trim and use on other projects.
  2. Cut new stringers from pressure-treated (PT) wood. I hate figuring out the dimensions of stringers, but that part was easy because I had the templates. Nevertheless I approached the cutting of the stringers with a certain amount of dread. It went fine. Always wear a dust mask when cutting PT wood and try to do it outside. Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly up to your elbows.
  3. With a helper, assemble the stringers with a supporting PT 2×6 at the top part that will go against the porch and another that will go on the ground. My son and I found it easiest to use saw horses to help hold the stringer assembly while we nailed it all together. Predrill the holes for the galvanized common nails so the wood doesn’t split. To also help prevent splitting, slightly dull the tips of the nails by placing the heads on something solid and tap the tips with a hammer. Really, do this.
  4. Move the stringer assembly in place, level it, and attach it to the porch with galvanized carriage bolts. I used four 3/8″ bolts for this. I also put a couple of nails into each corner for a little extra support. Make sure the assembly is set so that water will flow off the steps.
  5. Add some concrete under the stringer assembly to fill any gaps. I also put a couple of bolts into the concrete and the bottom PT piece to hold the stringer assembly in place. Later I’ll neaten this up with some mortar.
  6. Build new posts. I started with some very nice looking non-PT 2x4s and glued them up to make two blanks that were four feet long and  3 x 3 1/2″ around. I then used my table saw to rip the blanks so they were three inches square. I left them unfinished until I …
  7. Temporarily install the posts, making sure they are vertically leveled. The posts were bolted to the right-most stringer.
  8. Determine the position of the top railing. I wanted the railing to be 36″ high in the center of the treads, so I took a scrap piece of wood as a railing surrogate and clamped it to the railings at the same angle as the steps. By transferring marks and careful measurement, I could mark the posts at the exact right cut positions and angles. This is trickier than it sounds, but ultimately simpler than I thought it would be. Take your time on this. You really do not want to screw up the height and angle of the railing.
  9. Miter the posts to the angles you just determined. Again, be careful and take your time. If you have any lingering doubts, re-measure. Make sure you write down the angle from your miter saw. You’ll need it again to cut the angles at the ends of the railing and on the spindles.
  10. Chamfer the corners of the posts. Use a router to nicely shape the corners of the posts, ending before the top and bottom. The rear chamfers (further up the steps) should be higher than the front ones.
  11. Tread cut around post

  12. Prime the posts and reinstall permanently. I pre-prime all non-PT wood before I install it. This stretches out the job, but will make the final paint job easier. In theory, it will also make the wood last longer. Wood rots, did I mention that? Note that each step tread is made from two pieces of wood in my case, so if you are cutting into any step tread to fit around a post, you may have to put the step in place before you install the post. See the photo.
  13. Route and rip the piece for the railing. I started with a very nice 2×4 and then rounded over the corners on the bottom side and then used my table saw to cut 45 degree cuts on the top corners. This gives a nice contour to hold.
  14. Determine the length of the railing and cut it so the ends are vertical when installed. Use the angle from #9. The railing will want to slide down the posts, so use a spring clamp on the railing above a post to keep it in place.
  15. Install the railing with finish nails, predrilling the holes. Use two or three long galvanized finish nails through the top of the railing into the post, and two nails from the back of the post into the railing.
  16. Cut, route, glue, fill, and caulk the steps. This is where I am now. Four of the five steps are installed. I would be done except that we had a thunderstorm today and I’ll have to wait until the steps dry out tomorrow before I install the last pieces.
  17. Sink any nail heads into the wood, fill the holes and any dings with a non-water-based filler, let it dry, sand the filler, finish priming all wood.
  18. Put on one coat of the paint you plan to use on the treads. The trim may only need one coat of white semigloss paint, but the treads will definitely need two.
  19. Compute how many spindles you will need.
  20. Cut, route, fill, sand, prime, and install the spindles. It may be helpful if you clamp a couple of pieces of wood to the top railing and the stair tread to hold the spindles in place and prevent them from moving while you attach them. Previously I would put an exterior screw straight down through the railing on top and used two galvanized finish nails on the bottom, but for this job I’m going to use all nails. The reason is that nails produce much smaller holes that need to be filled. Over time, the larger plugs work loose and you need to refill and repaint them.
  21. Finish the paint job.
  22. Stand back and admire your work. Make sure your relatives do as well.

I have a few other things to do around the steps such as cleaning and repainting the fence, and putting in a brick pad at the base of the steps. This will take care of the problem you see in the middle photo where the rain caused some mud to splash on the lower steps.

Oh, and since I’m going to have new railings and spindles, I might as well take the declining old ones off the upper porch section and put on new ones to match. More fun for weekends in September.


One Comment

  1. “The basic rule of wood rot is that it is always more extensive than you first think.” I totally agree with this, great points in this blog, I am looking forward to your next blog.

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