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DIY tips on repairing a battered old garage

(Walter Grane)

I purchased a piece of property that has a 150-year-old garage in bad shape. It’s got a dirt floor. The roof is shot. It leaked so badly that in some places the wood roof sheathing is completely missing. The rafters that support the sheathing seem undersized and are not rotted for some reason. It’s a sorry-looking garage and I wonder if I should just tear it down and start over. Is there hope in a situation like this? What do you look for to decide if it’s too far gone? If I decide to just repair it, what would you do to restore it? — Walter G., Granite Falls, Minn.

Your first sentence contains a valuable clue that would help me guide my decision. That garage was built a long time ago. If the exposed rafters are not rotted and most of the other framing and siding is in good shape, that tells me it probably was framed with old-growth timber that’s nearly impossible to find. Much of that wood is naturally rot resistant.

For that reason alone, I’d do everything possible to salvage this historic and noble structure. I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to history and historic buildings so I’m not always objective in these situations.

You need to do a close inspection of the framing and make sure that there’s minimal rot. I’d also take a good look at the foundation to make sure it’s still in great shape. Then check the garage walls for plumb. Use a plumb bob for this, as it’s not a good idea to just put a 4-foot level on different wall studs.

Even if the structure is leaning one way or another, you can often rack it back into shape and get it plumb with minimal effort and time. Once plumb, you just install some new diagonal bracing to hold it in place.

Here’s what this garage is whispering in your ear: It has withstood brutal, heavy snows for well more than 100 years. It’s been punished by fierce windstorms, and it’s still there. Some modern garages I see built won’t make it 50 years. While the roof rafters may appear undersized, they probably are not. The lumber species may be a super strong one.

You can bolster the rafters by installing secondary horizontal framing members called collar ties. These help strengthen the roof. If you already have major collar ties that span across the base of the rafters sitting on top of each side wall, you can add slanted framing members from the collar tie to the rafters much like you see in modern trusses. These will stiffen the roof rafters, too.

If you decide to save this garage, I’d suggest you invest the small amount of money and be sure you put a minimum of 30-pound felt paper under the roofing. This underlayment will do a great job of protecting the structure. If your budget can handle it, the best underlayment would be the modern ice and water shield membranes. Put this on the entire roof covered with a great shingle and the roof might last another 100 years.

I’ve got no issues trying to bring this garage up to modern-day standards. If you decide to install a concrete slab in the garage, I’d do several things. First, I’d put a floor drain in the garage to catch any melt water that might come off your car or truck in the winter.

Be sure to install a great vapor barrier under the concrete slab. The best ones are cross-laminated. If you can’t afford that, then put in at least a 6-mil vapor barrier. This product will keep moisture from the soil from entering the garage and rusting all the metal you store in there.

Extend electricity to the garage for all sorts of reasons. Follow all codes so it’s safe and don’t under power it. If you plan to use power tools and even electric welders, do the calculations so you have all the power you’ll need.

Since it’s a detached garage building, I’d consider a WiFi garage door opener. This way if you forget to close the garage door, you can do it remotely from anywhere you have an Internet connection, including your smart phone from across the world!

When you go to repaint the exterior, be aware there’s a great chance you’ll have to deal with lead paint. Don’t just scrape away or use a power sander recklessly. You can contaminate the soil, your family and yourself. Follow all the recommendations at the EPA’s  Web site about how to deal with lead paint on exterior surfaces.

If this were my garage, I’d take extensive photos and video of each step of the restoration process. Future owners of your property will really appreciate seeing the makeover happen and they’ll appreciate knowing where buried and hidden things might be in case they need to service these things at a future time.

Be sure to include a cool time capsule in the concrete floor. Make it out of a waterproof sturdy plastic jar and bury it with just an inch of concrete cover in a corner of the garage. Mark the outline of the jar in the wet concrete and put this in the wet concrete: Time Capsule – Placed XX / XX / XXXX (the date you pour the slab). Future owners will one day open it and have a great time looking at a newspaper, coins and any other period items you place in the jar. A time capsule is a great fun project to build if you have young children.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. Contact him through his Web site:

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