Q: I have a Victorian on which the porch and stairs are in dire need of replacement. The stairs are treated lumber, so I know they aren’t original. The porch lumber, while original, is so dried and broken I can’t make out the material.
What porch and tread material would you recommend to restore it to its Victorian roots? I see some stairs and porches in the neighborhood that are stained a dark finish. Is that appropriate to the era? Should I stain or paint?
A: Rebuilding the entry stairs and front porch is probably the single biggest thing you can do to enhance a Victorian home. If it’s done right, even a small cottage screams elegance.
Over the decades, original stairs and porches that have not been maintained will fall into disrepair. The ravages of wind and water take their toll on the exposed wood. Once-grand features are reduced to a patchwork of loose and dried-out boards.
The original material is probably Douglas fir, which is often mistaken for redwood because it takes on a reddish hue with age.
Someone in the past was forced to repair the front steps, probably because of rot. The use of pressure-treated wood tells us that whoever did the job probably did it with little attention to historical detail, opting instead for utility. We encourage you to reverse that. Your challenge is to restore the character of your entry while complying with modern building codes.
We’ll discuss materials and finishes a little later, but first you’ve got some planning to do. Because the staircase has been redone in the past, the first thing we’d suggest is that you try to determine what the original looked like. We notice that you live in Alameda, Calif. Two good resources are the Alameda Historical Museum and the Alameda Victorian Preservation Society. The museum may have a picture of the house and the society has members who can advise you about the most likely facade, if pictures are unavailable.
Once you decide on the look, get a building permit. Building inspections will ensure that the structure is sturdy and safe. Our experience with Alameda’s building inspectors is that they are knowledgeable and helpful.
We’ve often spoken of Kevin’s restoration of his Mansard cottage, also in Alameda. The most significant thing he did on the exterior structure was to rebuild the stairs and porch railings.
When he bought the property, not much had been done since 1879. The occasional paint job, but that was about it. The entry was a shambles: stair framing rotten, the moon entry dry and peeling, and the stepped-down sides to the staircase tilting in opposite directions. It looked like a scaled-down version of the Bates Hotel. A new staircase and a fresh paint job gave the house new life and landed it a role in a film about Alameda’s Victorians.
We recommend you use clear cedar for newel posts. The posts will be set in the ground in concrete and will be subject to moisture and the possibility of dry rot. Cedar is naturally resistant to bugs and rot. Use clear heart redwood if cedar is not available. Either way, be prepared to lay out some cash for this lumber.
Before setting the posts, saturate the ends to be placed in the ground with a good wood preservative. Once you remove the existing treads and risers, take a good look at the stair framing. If stair framing needs to be repaired or replaced, use 2-by-12 pressure-treated boards for the stringers and pressure-treated material for other framing members. This also protects against bugs and rot.
Use clear Douglas fir for the rest of the structure: stair treads, risers, handrails and balusters. Avoid redwood or cedar here. Fir is much stronger and takes a finish nearly as well.
Some of the existing material is probably salvageable. We’re thinking primarily of the porch deck. It’s probably dry and cracked. To reinvigorate it, first sand it down to the raw wood. A belt sander works best for this. Start with 60-grit belts and work up to 150-grit belts for a paintable finish. Next, saturate the decking with linseed oil to restore the moisture in the wood.
As for the finish, use paint, not stain. Prime all sides of all new wood before installation. This is especially critical for stair treads and risers. We’d suggest two full coats of primer on the sides not exposed to the weather to prevent moisture from wicking into the wood. Exposed surfaces should be finished with a coat of primer, then a split coat of primer and finish paint mixed 1 to 1. Finally, apply a full coat of finish paint.
This is a lot of work. But do it right and the rewards will last for years, and your house will be the prettiest painted lady on the block.
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