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Issue #283 - June 2004
Perk Up A Porch
3 simple ways to improve your home's curb appeal
Nothing says "welcome" like a front porch - unless it happens to be an old porch that has fallen into disrepair, or one of those tacked-on afterthoughts with spindly posts you sometimes see on newly constructed houses. One sure remedy for either situation is to give your front porch a "facelift." In this article, we're featuring three projects that do just that.
Composite Flooring - The first improvement is to install tongue-and-groove flooring made from a durable, low-maintenance, weather-resistant composite material. And the best part of all - it looks just like old-fashioned porch flooring.

Post Cladding - The second upgrade is to add cedar cladding to "beef up" the 4x4 posts that are typical on many porches. This will make them look more like architectural porch columns.

Porch Railings - Finally, we explain how to build a simple railing and add decorative trim that integrates it into the columns.


One dramatic improvement you can make to a front porch is to install new flooring. For this project, I wanted to re-create the feel of an old-fashioned porch. If you look at the Photo at top, I think you'll agree this painted flooring gives it that warm, inviting appeal of yesteryear.

A Solid Foundation - Aesthetics aside though, the floor must be solid without any "give" when you walk on it. That stability comes from the footings and framing beneath the porch (Illustration, below).

If you're working on an existing porch, you'll have the perfect opportunity to examine these structural elements firsthand - after you tear off the old flooring. To shore up the framework, you may have to replace rotting boards, add bridging to take the "bounce" out of the floor, or perhaps "sister" a new joist to one that's sagging.

Depending on the condition of the porch, you may want to hire a contractor to do this work. That's also a good idea if you're adding a new porch, as building the structure of a porch can be a fairly complicated process.

Installing the Flooring

That will free you up to concentrate on the most visually appealing elements of the porch - like the flooring. On this porch, the flooring runs perpendicular to the house (Illustration, below). In a nod to the olden days (and to ensure a rock-solid installation), I used tongue-and-groove flooring. But not just any old tongue-and-groove flooring, mind you.
To minimize maintenance and create a durable, weather-resistant surface, I used a composite material called Tendura Classic (Photo 1). It's a mixture of wood fibers and plastic (hence its longevity), which you'd never guess by looking at it. Tendura looks so much like traditional wood flooring that it's actually used for historical restorations. That made it ideal for this project.
Photo 1
PHOTO 1 - For a durable, low-maintenance surface, we used a pre-primed composite called Tendura Classic for the tongue-and-groove flooring and half-round trim.
Starting Square - The key to making sure the floor will be square to the front of the house is to carefully lay out the the first strip of flooring. If it isn't square, the rest of the boards will also be "off," compounding the problem as you work your way across the porch. The Box below outlines a simple method for starting off square.
Start Square - Stay Square
To square the first flooring board to the house, I used the concept of a “squaring triangle.” It’s based on the fact that a triangle with a 3:4:5 ratio will yield a perfectly square 90° angle in one corner.

Start by laying out two “legs” of a triangle (one 4’ and one 3’ from the corner of the porch). If the distance between these points is 5’, the board is square.

After installing about every three or four boards, measure between the last board and the end of the porch at several points along the board. The measurements should be the same. If not, make a very small adjustment in the next board.
Before installing the first board, you'll need to rip the groove from the edge of the piece (Fastening Detail, Front View). This produces a square edge, to which you will later attach a half-round trim piece.

As for the length of the board, there are two things to consider. First, to allow for expansion (yes, even composite material expands), you'll want to leave a 1/4" gap between the end of the board and the house. It's also a good idea to allow for an ample overhang on the front of the porch (Edging Detail). This way, if the porch framing is out of square, the overhang will make any discrepancy less noticeable.
With that in mind, position the board so its cut edge overhangs the side of the porch. This board and the one that's installed next are simply face-fastened with screws, creating a solid backstop for subsequent pieces.

A Tool You'll Need - To install most of the remaining flooring, I rented a pneumatic floor nailer (Photo 2). It drives a fastener at a 45° angle through the tongue and into the joist. To operate it, set the nailer right on the flooring, and then strike the plunger with a mallet.

Using the nailer, installing the boards should go smoothly and quickly. As you work your way across the porch, some boards will have to be notched to fit around the posts. Here, a wood cleat will help support the flooring (Photo 3).
Photo 2
PHOTO 2 - A floor nailer drives nails at an angle into the tongues of the flooring.
Photo 3
PHOTO 3 - A cleat attached to the post supports notched boards.
When you get to the opposite end of the porch, rip the tongue off the last board (again, for the half-round trim). As before, face-fasten the last two boards. Then attach a half-round trim piece on the three sides of the porch perimeter and a strip of quarter-round next to the house.

Just Finishing - To finish off the floor, I painted the Tendura, which came pre-primed. It's important here to use the type of paint recommended by the manufacturer.

Post Cladding

Typically, 4x4 pressure-treated posts are used to hold up a porch roof. They're strong enough for the job, but they just look skinny. One way to achieve a more proportional look is to wrap the posts with 3/4"-thick cedar boards. That is, to clad the posts.
To clad the posts on this porch, I used a three-step process that involves cladding the lower posts, adding a decorative mid-cap, and installing the upper cladding (see Illustration below).

Locking Rabbet Joints - The cladding is assembled with locking rabbet joints. This is a strong, durable joint that, when glued with exterior glue, stands up to the worst weather.

Locking Rabbet/Open Mortise & Tenon Joints

Start with Lower Cladding

Essentially, the cladding is a "box" that's built around the post. For easy assembly, it's built in two L-shaped sections that fit around the post.

The size of this box is important. You don't want it to fit too tightly around the post. If the post twists, the joints - strong as they are - could "blow" apart. The solution is to build in a "fudge factor" - that is, a gap between the box and the post to accommodate possible post movement.

Most of the cladding work is done in the shop. Using the dimensions shown in the construction view, go ahead and rip the cladding pieces to width (4-7/8" in my case) and crosscut them to length. Next, cut the locking rabbet joints. Then, make each of the two L-shaped halves by gluing two pieces of cladding together. At this point, you're ready to transport the cladding to the job site and install it. This is a simple, three-step process.

Just a note here. To ensure that the porch railings will align with each other once they're installed, the face of the post to which you attach the first L-shaped section of cladding is important. This face is, in a sense, your "true north." The idea is to attach that first L-shaped section to that same relative face on each post.
Add the Mid-Caps

To create a visual "break" between the upper and lower cladding, I added thick mid-caps to the posts. Each mid-cap is a frame made of 1-1/2"-thick cedar (Mid-Cap Assembly). Like the cladding, the idea is to make two-L-shaped sections, and then assemble them around the post.
Once again, making mid-caps that would withstand the weather was high on my priority list. So this time, I used open mortise and tenon joints to assemble the mid-caps (see mid-cap assembly, below).
To shed water, the mid-caps are beveled on their upper face. Cutting these bevels is easiest to do if the mid-cap is completely assembled. The problem is the two L-shaped sections of the mid-cap have to fit around the post, so you can't actually assemble it until you're at the job site.

The solution is to glue two pieces together to form the L-sections, and then temporarily join the two L-sections with screws. (Fig. 1, below). Be sure to keep the screws out of the path of the saw blade. But just in case, it's best to use brass screws. That way, the blade won't get damaged if it accidentally nicks one of the screws.

Now you can go ahead and make the bevel cuts on the table saw (Fig. 2). Of course, you'll need to disassemble the mid-caps before installing them on the posts (Fig. 3). After gluing the halves together, simply toenail them to the post.
Figure 1
FIGURE 1 - In order to cut the bevels on the top face of each mid-cap, temporarily assemble the two unglued joints with brass screws.
Figure 2
FIGURE 2 - Once the mid-cap is assembled, tilt the saw blade 10°. Then, after attaching a tall fence and featherboard, make a beveled cut on all four faces of the mid-cap.
Figure 3
FIGURE 3 - To install the mid-cap, remove the screws to separate it into the two L-shaped sections again. Then apply exterior glue, fit the sections together, and clamp the joints.

Install Upper Cladding

The final stage of converting a porch post to a column is to install the upper cladding above the mid-cap. It's almost identical to the lower cladding: 3/4"-thick cedar, locking rabbet joints, and L-shaped sections that wrap the posts. The only difference is that here, I routed a decorative chamfer on all four edges. This detail isn't added to the lower claddings because trim pieces will cover those corners once the railings are installed.

Porch Railing

A porch railing is required by most building codes. Therein lies a dilemma: How do you construct a protective barrier that looks and feels more like a friendly leaning rail?

This cedar railing does that well. It has a simple, straightforward design. Combined with some simple trim pieces, the railing integrates quite nicely with the porch columns.

Railing Basics

The Illustration below provides a quick overview of the railing. Note how the upper and lower rails (2x4s) are connected by 2x2 balusters. A 2x6 cap provides the crowning touch.


Rails - Cut the rails to length to match the distance between the columns. As a decorative detail, I routed a 1/2" chamfer in the bottom edges of the upper rail and top edges of the lower rail (Top Rail Detail).

Balusters - As for the balusters, it's just a matter of cutting them to length. Here, routing a 1/4" chamfer on all four edges helps to "soften" the look of the balusters. The top and bottom ends of each baluster are fastened to the rails with a screw and a nail. The screw makes for a solid connection, and the nail prevents the balusters from rotating.

Rail Cap - Although it's installed after the trim blocks, there's no reason the rail cap can't be made in advance. It's 1-1/2" shorter than the rail below it because the cap fits against a 3/4" trim piece on each end. Wide bevels cut in the top face of the rail cap provide a comfortable hand rest (Photo 4). And grooves routed in the bottom create a drip edge.
PHOTO 4 - After installing a tall auxiliary fence and featherboard, tilt the table saw blade 5° and then rip a wide bevel on both edges of the rail cap.
Time for Trim

Once the railings are constructed, it's time to install them on the porch. This is where the trim pieces I mentioned earlier come into play.

The trim pieces do two things. First, they add depth to the lower part of the column. And second, they capture the ends of the railings, providing a solid connection with the columns (Railing Assembly).

All the trim pieces are made from 3/4"-thick cedar. Two of these pieces form an L-shaped corner assembly that covers each corner of the column (post trim). It's assembled exactly the same way as the post cladding - with locking rabbet joints. The remaining pieces are just blocks of wood attached to the columns one piece at a time.
The sequence of attaching the trim pieces is important. It involves attaching the first few trim pieces, and then using them to register the railing as you slide it into place (decorative post & rail assembly). Add the remaining trim blocks to complete the job.
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