Friday, May 8, 2009

Bracket and Corbel Restoration

As is often the case with historic houses, key architectural elements are often long gone or in deteriorated condition. Such is the case with our Knox Hill Project house. In our case the Decorative Brackets or Corbels as they are often called were long gone probably in the 1940's when the house was "updated" with new siding.

We know from looking at other similar houses in the area that our house likely had Tin Brackets over a wood base. Unfortunately these are almost impossible to find and while there area few companies that will custom create these brackets the cost is upwards of 5-7000.00 (more than we paid for the house itself) . That expense was not an option . Several homes in our neighborhood have wood brackets and we considered duplicating one of them in new wood.

However as luck would turn out we were able to acquire 4 wooden salvage brackets from a house built during the same era as ours. I am a firm believer in using historic salvage materials whenever possible as it is environmentally friendly ( these things normally wind up in a landfill) and it is a more historically correct application than new construction brackets that you might buy at say a home improvement store. Since these brackets are off the house you can more easily work on repairs than if you were on a 20 foot ladder.

One thing I always advise a homeowner using salvaged wood materials. Often these salvaged items can have carpenter ants or termites so BEFORE you bring them in your house to work on them I advise they be placed in Plastic garbage bags and Sprayed with a good insecticide and kept in those bags for several days before you bring them in. This sill assure that everything is dead and you wont be bringing unwanted guests into your house.

Now our brackets needed work. Most salvage items will need repair work and the level of repair work may vary from bracket to bracket. The first thing you should do is thoroughly vacuum the items with a shop vac. This will remove any debris, coal dust or loose paint. I them recommend wiping them down front and back.

Since you will hopefully only doing this restoration once. You should thoroughly remove the paint as this will insure a good paint job that will last for years. You should first scrape the brackets with a putty knife to remove anything loose. Then you come to the stripping stage and there are two options. Heat Gun or chemical stripper. Now the heat gun 'may' seem like the easy option but it is very easy to set 140 yr old wood on fire with a heat gun so as a general rule unless you have extensive experience using one, itB is best to use a chemical stripper like Parks liquid strip or any good paint remover.

Any old bracket will have lead based paint on it and it is important to wear gloves and a mask when removing paint. Once the paint is removed you will then need to sand the brackets with a palm sander as well as hand handing. You don't want this to look like new bracket and people often "obsess" about getting it "perfect". If you get it perfect" people will look at you house and go "boy , they must have spent a mint having those new brackets made". What you want them to say is "Oh you are so lucky to have all your trim and it looks like its been well maintained over the years."

Repairs may vary. On some where you simply have a gouge to fill, I recommend using auto body filler. This works well and when painted till blend perfectly. One thing I advise doing is taking
a small drill bit on a dremel tool and drilling a series of small homes into the wood are you are filling. That way the bondo can "key" into the wood and is less likely to pop out with temperature and humidity changes. Larger repairs may involve cutting a piece of wood to fill the area or on larger areas you can use special epoxies that are for just this purpose. I personally like to cut our wood replacements fill pieces where possible and screwing and expoxy the two together

Paint: Now when you house brackets were originally put on the house they were attached, then painted. That means that the back underside is not protected and when water gets under it, Say due to bad caulk job, the wood can rot from the underside out. I recommend you paint ALL sides of the brackets at least two coats as this will ensure that if water gets behind the bracket it wont attack the wood. We used 4 colors on our bracket. Now the brackets had a simple wood "square block Trim" on the front these were in terrible shape or missing so we elected to use new ones which are slightly nicer. We painted both sides and these were both bonded and nailed to the bracket. We also carefully caulked the edges to prevent water from blowing under the appliques and causing any deterioration in the future. Proper Prep is everything on good restoration and the "details" may seem time consuming but will save you a great deal of time in the future.

Because we were looking to showcase the decorative we elected to stencil the sides with a period Victorian stencil design. This ads architectural interest and from the street looks like "cut outs" that you might see on brackets painted a contrasting color.

We also took detailed measurements and photographs so in the future when we add the new construction carriage house and connecting Second Empire Tower to the main house that we have the same style and size brackets on the new construction so the two blend seamlessly. In fact the new brackets will be strategically "aged" by using sanders to soften the edges and a occaiosnal hit witha happer so they will look like well maintained originals and match the old ones.

In a future installment we will cover the installation.


Mary.O said...

I am so impressed with you ability to turn a somewhat unkempt piece of wood into a beautifully designed/painted work of art.

Great job. I'm sure these corbels are going to make great additions to your home! I hope you will take pictures once they are installed.


Paul Wilham said...

Thanks Mary and yes we will have a followup post on the installation. Just an FYI the stencil designs are part of a collection we are developing that we plan on releasing later this summer. The stencils,both interior and expterior, are all based on historic style designs or actual original stencils. Part of the proceeds from sales will be donated to historic preservation efforts.