by Daniel Heath
My family’s homes in New England are old and made of wood. Most dated before 1840 and several are pre-Revolutionary. The houses’ legacy included lore about their maintenance, and I have experience with restoration of wood houses required every few generations, from straightening stone cellar walls under a jacked-up structure to replacing hand-hewn beams, and normal maintenance.
Exterior wood on our old houses endures in the northern climate, and a good paint job should last ten years or more, just as the paint cans advertise.
Our house on Gates Road is re-educating me. My previous house in Cleveland Park, built in 1926, was clad with stucco and trimmed with wood. After 60 years the wood showed some deterioration. Acceptable for this humid climate, I thought, knowing that Wardman, the esteemed builder, had used quality wood.
My current home is much older, larger and entirely wooden. Acceptable, I thought, since Mount Vernon was even more comprehensively old, large and wooden, overlooking the resources available to maintain George Washington’s home.
Little did I know of the challenges of maintaining a very large old wood house in this region. The house is one of the oldest houses in the area. According to former neighbor Ted Silvey, who would be 118 years old if still alive, the original house was built in the early 1700s and burned to the ground in 1806, when the central part of the house was rebuilt on the old foundation. It has been remodeled, altered, extended, reduced and extended more over the years. Sawmarks and other clues for the forensic architect seem to support this story.
Ted said the property was a farm, and deeds of neighboring lots appear to have been spawned by this tract, with the last three lots having been developed in the 1980s. One legend said the farm was owned, and the house built, by a Georgetown shipwright, and the pillars are old masts encased. Another said this farm supplied dairy products to the White House.
Legends apart, the house certifiably was home to the families of Frank Knox, FDR’s wartime Secretary of Navy, Cleothiel Smith, pioneering woman architect and urban renewer, and Wild Bill Hickok’s great-granddaughter.
Previous owners’ challenges with the house are not known to me, but I suspect wood house vulnerabilities in this region have increased in recent decades. The older parts of the house hold up better than the newer parts. Have materials used in wood houses changed? Is the wood and paint different from older versions? Could lead-based paint have gripped wood better than modern paints? Can new technology to address the new vulnerabilities of wood houses?
Here are several lessons inspired by this old house:
Lesson one: Old wood vs. new wood
The endurance of the commonly available exterior woods appears inferior to the old wood on this house. I was showing examples of this to a Latino painter recently who struggled in English to explain the problem, with which he was familiar: “The old wood is from big trees,” he said, meaning the cell structure of old growth trees possesses different characteristics from modern factory-farmed forest products.
Many modern wood varieties available locally differ from the original woods used on an old house. Recently-made solid wood window sills on my house are deteriorating while the old ones receiving the same sun and rain are fine. A carpenter friend told me the woods may be called by the same name, but grown on the other side of the world, their characteristics and performance in Washington’s climate can differ importantly.
Inferior types of wood have been renamed, like the fish that appear on menus to replace the familiar over-fished species. Some venerably-named exterior woods act like sponges. Fine wood shutters of twenty years are now fit for kindling, whilst ones more than a century old and fastened together with wooden pegs endure, though maintained the same.
Old wood can be bought from Community Forklift in Bladensburg and other recyclers of building materials salvaged from old houses. However, inventories are unpredictable, and patience is necessary.
Lesson two: The staying power of plastic
Polyester clothes have been making a comeback, according to a recent fashion report. Today’s plastic fabrics not only feel and appear more natural than in the disco era, but they are integral to the popular sports and outdoor activity clothes and even couture. So too with building materials.
We don’t see much vinyl siding in Forest Hills, but PVC and other plastic materials are quietly replacing natural materials on houses in our neighborhood. The reasons are similar to those for clothes: practicality and appearance. PVC wood handles the weather without deteriorating as quickly as wood, is easy to maintain, and looks perennially new.
As a fabric snob, I’ll mildly object that flawless PVC wood trim looks artificially good, without grain, knots, or the dignity of aging. It is wood on botox, objecting to natural processes. However, the demands of an antique wood house increasingly favor artifice in service of an old house’s essential declaration – that of endurance. Plastic wood, used strategically, helps the old house resist being a dependent of repair, a domicile junkie needing a fix (literally), high on the American short-termism of finance and political cycles.
Some of these materials are recycled and have smaller carbon footprints than imported wood, even from Canada. Sustainability is especially achieved if used materials are acquired from Community Forklift or Craigslist leftovers. Through plastic, the old house thus makes its rightful statement of endurance instead of conspicuous-consumption maintenance.
Lesson three: Stain over paint
Paint would not stay long on the exterior of this old house. Every two years it required repainting by various professionals, using all the primer and topcoat permutations except illegal leaded. The problem was not excessive inside moisture or the other usual causes. After purchasing 1,000 gallons from our local Duron paint store, the local Duron factory sent a young chemist to the house. She took samples and reported the results of spectrometer analysis: mill glaze on the siding from improper cutting of the wood causing the wood cells to be sealed and resisting the grip of paint, which is just glue with pigment.
Unconvinced, I sought the solution in another modern product. “Vinyl is final” but I cannot cover the old house with it, nor Hardieboard cement planks. Eventually a new product worked – not plastic, but opaque stain. I watched a cousin paint his New Hampshire barn with stain that looks like paint.
Sure enough, this type of stain does not flake or peel or crack. It gradually wears off but, as a bonus, repainting is easy. No primer, and the all-important preparation requires no scraping or burning of old paint, but simply washing.
Gradually stain is replacing paint on the old house. And I intend to find out if George Washington used a type of whitewash rather than paint as we know it today.
The old wood house certainly provokes an education. The advertising slogan “Better things for better living through chemistry” may have referred to polyester clothes (the film “Better Living Through Chemistry” has quite another subject), but some new products surely can help an old house thrive in old age.