True Dimensional Lumber Repairs
By Clint C. Thomas, Esq.
“They don’t build them like this anymore,” is a phrase that we have all heard in connection with old houses. Those words take on a whole new meaning after you’ve actually gotten your hands dirty while working on an historic property. Older homes were built in a very different manner from houses that are built today. They were usually framed with rough-hewn lumber, balloon framing was common, and mortise-and-tenon joints were as normal as a nail gun is today.
My family and I have the privilege of living in a Victorian home that was built circa 1890. Recently, I had to make a repair to the side porch where it connects to a corner of the house. Over the years, the deluge of rainwater running off the porch roof eventually caused it to rot along with the skirt that covers the porch’s structural components.
The majority of the original porch floor was unaffected and is still as solid as the day it was first installed. I decided to repair only what was actually damaged so I could retain as much of the original wood as possible. Only the outside six to eight inches of floor had been damaged. Therefore, I made the decision to remove enough flooring to go from the outside edge in as far as the first floor joist. This distance measured 19 inches.
For my first step, I located the first floor joist in from the edge of the porch, and cut a line parallel with the edge of the porch with my circular saw. To do this, I set my blade at a depth to cut through the flooring, but nothing else. I tore out the rotten tongue and groove with a framing hammer, removed all of the old nails and then pried off the original skirt.
I attached a new joist onto the original one using pressure-treated lumber and lag bolts. The original joist did not have any damage, but it was easier to use it as a guide for the saw blade than to try and cut a perfectly straight line along the midpoint of an existing joist.
Next came the hard part. The home’s original porch flooring, like all of the other original lumber in the house, is true dimensional. This means that a 2-by-4 stud actually measures 2 inches by 4 inches, and not 1-1/2-by-3-1/2 inches as is commonly available today. The porch floor was a real oddity because it actually measured 1-1/8 inches thick and 2-3/4 inches wide. It had been milled from heart pine and even after 120 years it still produced a strong smell of sap when sawed.
I wanted to replicate the original flooring to retain the home’s historical character, but I also wanted to improve the finished product to keep it from rotting again. I knew that it would be impossible to purchase lumber in the dimensions that I required. I’ve yet to find any store that sells 1-inch thick stock, and certainly not 1-1/8-inch thick lumber. The easy way would have been to use modern 1-by-4 material, rip it to width on the table saw, and then shim the bottom of it. However, the easy way is rarely the best way.
As I have had to do several times before, I decided to mill my own lumber. This is actually much easier than it sounds and produces a very satisfactory sense of accomplishment.
For this project, I chose to use pressure-treated pine lumber to resist any future rot or water damage. I selected the best looking 8-foot 2-by-4s that I could find at the lumberyard and then set about milling my new flooring.
One tip when selecting treated lumber for this type of a project is to purchase boards that have been stored in the direct sunlight and have already dried out. If you mill wet lumber, it is going to shrink as it dries, making your finished product smaller than what you planned. Another option, if you purchase wet lumber, is to put it in direct sunlight until itdries and then mill it.
The first step was to plane down each 2-by-4 from 1-1/2 to 1-1/8 inch thick. This process was the most time-consuming phase of the entire project because it required multiple passes through the planer. With the help of my daughter, Zoe, we planed seven 2-by-4’s to the proper thickness. Planning them also had the added benefit of removing any imperfections, most of the knots, and made the boards totally flat and smooth. We planed them in their factory-cut 8-foot lengths to maintain as uniform a thickness as possible.
The next step involved ripping the boards to the correct width on the table saw. I am a template nut, and used a piece of the original flooring as a guide to get the exact width. I put the original piece on the table saw between the blade and fence, and then installed a makeshift feather board to keep the 8-foot long piece of lumber from wobbling as I slid it through the saw. When measuring, be sure that the tongue is included in the measurement of the width. It is easy to overlook.
Milling the Joint
After ripping the new stock to a width of 2-3/4 inches, we then embarked on the next step of making the tongue and groove (T&G), which was by far the most difficult part of the entire process. Milling a T&G joint is not that hard by itself. The difficulty is making the joint on the new stock match the one that’s already on the house. Remember, this was a repair, so the new lumber had to abut the original flooring that remained on the porch. The easiest way to ensure that the new joint worked smoothly with the old one was to use a piece of the old flooring as a guide, or template, if you will.