How to Refurbish or Rebuild a Small, Wooden Front Porch --- Part II Planning and Purchasing
Now that you've demolished or disassembled your porch, it's time to decide on a few important points:
- Do you like the layout of your porch? Do you want to change the shape, the number of steps, or the height of the porch?
- Do you want to add any accessories like railings or pillars?
- What color do you want your new or refurbished porch to be?
If the foundation of your porch is still in good condition, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. However, adding square footage to your porch is easy to do at this point. When planning your new porch or adding on, ensure you don't exceed your city's maximum size for building without a permit. If you have to rebuild your porch completely, drawing a plan before beginning will help you visualize the layout and prevent any disastrous surprises like missing footings, sloping surfaces, or sections that sag under the weight of your guests. A piece of graph paper, a pencil and a ruler are all you need to for a good plan; nothing fancy. Start by drawing a scale outline of your porch and mark the locations of each footing. Position each vertical footing such that at least one joist runs perpendicular to the deck planks every 4 feet.
Now is the time to take careful measurements of the existing structure and take stock of your reusable materials. If placing new footings, don't forget to measure the height in addition to the distances. Knowing the height of your posts will save on purchasing excess materials. It will also help you determine the depth of your footings. The taller your posts, the deeper your footings need to go.
Make a careful list of new materials you will need as well as the lengths. Lumber yards and hardware stores sell a variety of lengths of wood and the closer you can get to the size you need, the fewer cuts you will need to make. Don't forget to add brackets and screws to your list of purchases and cement if you're pouring new footings.
Physically lay out your foundation
Even the most comprehensive paper plans won't prepare you for every eventuality and some people have trouble visualizing the three-dimensional results based on a two-dimensional design. In addition to drawing up a plan on paper, you may find it helpful to lay out the footings and joists with some stakes and string. Drive the stakes into the footing locations and use the string to mark the horizontal locations of the joists.
This method also helps you determine the clearance above the ground. Whether the surface you're building above is dirt or cement, if you're building a wooden structure, make sure there is a gap between the grade and the bottom of your structure. When wood sits directly against these surfaces, it will absorb any water that doesn't have a chance to dry, causing rot. Leaving a gap will allow the grade and your porch to dry after rain or snow and prevent the wood from sitting on a wet surface.
For those areas where you can't avoid wood meeting the grade, i.e. where posts meet the footings and brackets, use pressure treated wood, redwood, or cedar, as discussed in Part I. Although the wood should not be sitting directly on the grade around the footings, this is the point at which the porch is most vulnerable because the wood stands on its end---the cross-cut grain; sits snugly against the bracket, leaving no room for air circulation; and is in an area where plant debris and dirt will collect, but can't easily be cleared.
Purchasing your new porch color
A trip to the hardware store is in order, even if you're only refinishing as opposed to rebuilding, you'll still need to drop in to pick up some supplies; specifically the new color for your porch. As mentioned in Part I, using paint for outdoor surfaces like a porch is not a long-lasting solution to protecting your wood surfaces. Instead of paint, choose a waterproof stain for exterior surfaces. Now some people may be reading this thinking: "I really had my heart set on a blue porch!" Have no fear, the stains available in the store aren't limited to boring, wood-colored stains seen on your grandmother's dining room table.
Exterior stains come in three forms, transparent, semi-opaque, and opaque. If you like the natural look of wood and want to show off the grain, choose a transparent stain; if you prefer a surface that looks painted, choose an opaque stain. A semi-opaque stain works well for surfaces that still show some of the previous colors, or to disguise the fact that you're using different species of wood. Keep in mind that the opacity of your stain has a direct affect on the lifetime of your wood. Transparent stains do not protect your wood from sun damage to the same degree that an opaque stain will. If you're torn between showing off the grain of your wood, and protecting it from intense sun, go with a semi-opaque stain. Like interior paints, your local store can mix up any color stain you want. If you want that blue porch, you can have it!
So why a stain instead of paint? While paint sits on the surface of the wood, the grain absorbs the stain, allowing it to resist rain, snow, ice, and sun much longer. By choosing the right materials, your porch will enjoy several years of good looks and durability. You can also ensure a longer life for your porch by making sure the end cuts---the area that wicks up water the easiest---is stained, and if it's vertical, is capped or covered to prevent standing water from being absorbed into the wood.
Pouring your footings
Once you've made your trip to the hardware store or lumber yard for supplies, you can build your footings. As part of your plans, you will have decided on a depth for your footings based on the height of your posts. Use a post-hole digger, or trowel to dig down to the depth you've determined for your footings. You can pour your concrete directly into the holes, or you can use the cylindrical, cardboard concrete forms available at most hardware stores. Using a form isn't necessary, but it does give you a uniform diameter and an even surface to check that your footing is level. If you choose not to use a form, check that the brackets are level before the concrete sets.
Keep your level close at hand, you'll need it a lot during this part of the process. Mix only the amount of concrete you can use immediately. Even if you've dug out all your footings, set the forms and checked that they're level, pouring more than two footings per batch is going to make you feel rushed. Work slowly and carefully to ensure each footing is as strong as it can be, free of air bubbles, and, of course, level. Once you've poured your concrete into the hole or form, chop the wet concrete with a trowel to make sure the concrete settles all the way to the bottom and doesn't contain air pockets. Carefully push the bracket into wet concrete so the horizontal surface floats just on the surface of the concrete. Check that the top of the bracket is level.
Let the concrete set completely before attaching any posts. Don't try to rush the process, give your footings at least 24 hours to set, even if the concrete bag advertises "quick drying." Take this opportunity to grab a cold drink and put your feet up, or, if you're itching to keep working, begin refinishing the wood you'll be reusing.
If you've set aside wood that you want to reuse on your rebuilt porch, you'll need to patch any holes you won't be reusing, sand all the surfaces, and refinish with a waterproof stain. Using a small spackling knife, press wood filler into any fastener holes you don't plan to reuse. If your porch was put together by eye-balling the screw locations, none of your boards will line up with the pre-drilled holes. Consider filling all the holes and re-drilling so you don't have to go back to fill and stain any additional holes after you've refinished and reinstalled all your planks.
Once your wood filler has dried, sand all the surfaces. You can manually sand each piece---if the original balustrades are turned, you'll need to sand by hand---but this could take an eternity and a half especially if the original surface still has paint or stain remaining. A palm sander is light, agile, and the right size to cover 2 by 4 planks or 1-inch balustrades. If the surfaces are still covered in paint or stain, start with a coarse sandpaper like 60-grit or 80-grit. Remember to sand along the grain of the wood, holding your sander flat against the surfaces to prevent gouging.
When you're finished sanding, use a damp cloth or air compressor to remove the dust from the wood. Staining is a straight-forward process, but with an entire porch-worth of material, you're going to be doing a lot of it so set yourself up with a comfortable workspace that doesn't require you to bend over too far or sit on your knees for long periods of time. If you don't have a designated workbench in a well-ventilated space, set yourself up with a card table or saw horses in your yard or driveway. If you're using your outdoor furniture, make sure to cover it with newspaper or a tarp to protect it from drips.
Lay out your pieces, new and reused, with enough space between each board so you can turn them without touching the piece next to it. If your surface is solid, like a table or bench, place small spacers under each end of the boards to prevent your freshly stained surface from getting ruined during the drying process. Pour a small amount of stain into a pan rather than working out of the bucket. This will keep your stain clean and prevent drying. Using a sash brush or foam poly brush (those nifty sponges on a stick), paint one side of each board with a thin layer of stain. Turn each board and continue staining until all six sides are coated. Allow each board to dry for the manufacturer's recommended time before applying the second coat. Once your second coat is fully dry, the surface of your porch is ready to be reassembled!
Before you reassemble the surface of your porch or begin building your foundation, it's important to choose fasteners that will last as long as your newly refinished wood, or new materials. Some readers may be wondering why you can't just use nails to secure your foundation and porch surface. Screws, especially galvanized or coated screws are more expensive than nails, but you won't be saving any money by using nails. Wood expands and contracts and over time, nails will begin to work their way out of the wood. Alternatively, screws anchor themselves into the wood and they won't pop up and cause loose boards. Additionally, coated screws won't corrode or bleed into the wood. Your local hardware store will carry a range of sizes and colors of coated deck screws. You may need to purchase multiple screw lengths for the different surfaces you're securing. While 3-inch screws may work well for securing joists to posts, and surface slats to joists, they may be too long for fastening balustrades to the railing. Ensure screws don't poke through the wood, especially in areas where people will be putting their hands and feet.