Q: Our home, built in 1993, has four wooden columns leading up to a portico. We are in the process of having them painted but found that wood in at least two of the columns is rotted. We do not know whether the columns support the portico but assume that they do. How can this be repaired?
A: Sometimes columns like yours are just wrapping around a post that’s doing the real lifting, said Christian Kelleher, owner of the Craftsmen Group (301-277-3700; thecraftsmengroup.com), a company in Brentwood, Md., that specializes in historical restoration projects. In that case, the critical issue would be whether the post is intact or also decayed. The best way to determine that would be to snake a borescope — a device that has a tube with a lens that’s linked to a camera — into an opening in a column base.
If there is a post and it is intact, your problem is mostly cosmetic. Using a two-part epoxy resin, a repairman could stiffen the rotted wood and fill any gaps. Injecting the wood first with a borate preservative will help prevent more rot.
Kelleher said that three column repairs, each involving work about the size of a hand, would cost about $2,000, provided a crew is at the house doing other work. If repairing the columns was the only task, his company would not take on the job because it would require about five trips to the house or short bursts of work — too many trips for too little work to justify fitting it into the schedule.
Many painters have experience with epoxy consolidants, however, so you might ask the painters who are working on your house to do this. But first determine whether there are intact posts hidden inside. Home inspectors and pest-control companies often have borescopes, which are also used to inspect for termite damage and other hidden issues.
If there is no intact post at the center of each column, epoxy isn’t enough to solve the problem. Stephen Ortado of Historic Structures (202-437-7567; historicstructuresdc.com), another Washington restoration contractor, said that if the columns are load-bearing, his approach would be to cut out the rotted wood and patch in a “Dutchman” — new wood that is carefully shaped to match the column so that, when painted, it looks as good as new and keeps out moisture. He compared shaping the replacement pieces to re-planking a boat: “They will be tapered, rounded and beveled to make a tight fit.”
In a follow-up email, he said that if the rot is confined to the two columns shown in your photos, he thought it would take about six hours of carpentry work, at $125 an hour, to dig out the rotted wood, apply a water-based preservative to the interior of the columns and fit in new pieces. Then he would recommend an oil primer and two topcoats of finish paint, at $85 an hour for a painter.
Q: My condo has hardwood floors from about the 1930s. Two areas of the subfloor have broken, leaving me with holes in my floor. How can I repair these, or what kind of contractor can I hire? Even if the repairs don’t match the floors exactly, they would still be preferable to what is now a safety concern.
A: Flooring with interlocking “tongue-and-groove” shaping along the long edges of boards has been around for a long time, but “end-matched” floorboards that also have this shape on the ends dates only from the 1920s and ’30s. Before this enhancement, carpenters had no choice but to place all end seams over a floor joist, the framing that supports a floor; nailing the wood down there was the only way to keep the pieces aligned. But with the new end-matched style, they sometimes took a chance that the interlocking ends would add enough stability from board to board even if there was no joist underneath to support the joint.
That’s what appears to have happened on your floor. One picture shows two sets of boards that meet end to end, and these joints line up too closely to assume that there is a joist under each of them. Luckily for you, this probably means that there is no underlying structural problem to address. It isn’t as if a subfloor or floor supports rotted away.
When this is the case, Joe Fugere (240-472-9719; 123joeclean.wordpress.com), a contractor in Hyattsville who specializes in repairing old floors, says he sometimes tries to lift an offending board by driving in a screw and using it as a handle to pull the wood up, just enough so he can drive a pin at an angle into the edges of the adjoining boards. This is usually enough to keep the loose piece level with the others, he said. “You can’t do a polka on it, but it will hold,” he said. His minimum charge, $100, would cover the cost, assuming he has a place to park without getting a ticket.
However, after looking at the pictures you sent, he noticed that the loose boards are close to walls and that their edges are rough. Both of these make replacing the boards a better option. He would fit in a support board, nailed through the intact boards on either side, and then fasten the new piece to that. He would also sand and finish it before installing it. Because there is a lot of fuss work involved, the price would probably be several hundred dollars.
Or, if you have access to tools, you might want to do the repairs yourself and take as much time with the details as you need to achieve a look that you find acceptable.
To find replacement pieces of the same width, try shopping at a store that specializes in used building materials, such as Community Forklift in Edmondston, near Hyattsville and Bladensburg (301-985-5180; communityforklift.org). For about $1.50 a square foot, this store sells vintage flooring in a variety of widths, in bundles that tend to range from 10 to 25 square feet and as loose pieces. Buy at least one extra piece in case you goof up.
To remove the old pieces, drill through and then use a jigsaw or chisel to split the boards so you can lift out the wood. Look below and make sure there is no rotten wood underneath. If a joist is close by, nail or screw another piece alongside it to support the replacement piece. Or if there is no nearby joist, maneuver a support piece through the opening and then attach it by drilling through adjoining floorboards or using a nail gun, as a professional would, if you have access to that.
To fit in each replacement piece, trim the bottom part of the grooved edge. It’s easy to do on a table saw, but if you don’t have access to one, you can improvise by repeatedly slicing with a sharp utility knife. Clean up any dirt or debris on the underlying edges of the existing floor, and dry-fit the replacement piece. If the board is too thick to match the nearby ones, remove it and sand it. When it fits nicely, finish it to match the surrounding floor. When that is dry, dribble in a little wood glue along the grooved edge, lower the new piece in place and screw it in place. Countersink the screw heads and smooth wood filler matched to the floor color over them to mask them.