How to do craftsman architectural details like porch columns? Look at the classics. The most distinctive element in this bungalow house is the craftsman columns adorning the generous porch facing the street. How we make this time honored detail makes the house. In the day, these craftsman details were aptly named because a craftsman carpenter would craft them from small pieces of wood and hand nail them with an eye to proportion and frugal use of material. Painters would preserve the work in near-toxic paint. Those skills seem lost in the production of houses these days, some for good reason, but our builders now have new materials and methods that make labor savings and durability the more prized attributes. Still, the look of these columns are essential to building even a new bungalow. We take a look at how modern craftsmen build the better, more efficient craftsman bungalow porch column.
Perhaps in the reverse order that you might suspect, the house and roof are constructed first by a lightning fast framing crew who leave the job site holding up the strong porch beams with “deadmen,” or 2×4 temporary posts that stand up the porch day and night in wait for trim carpenters to place the real columns. Tim, our Master Carpenter, surveys the work done by the framers and checks the beam and porch for level and divergence. Minor deviations are tolerable because he will be covering most of the framers work with more precise trim material. He judges how much shimming he can do and if he needs to correct any previous out-of-tolerance work first. With plumb bob string lines from the beam, he marks where the column centers will be based on the architectural plans, the built work and what he thinks will look best. A lot of measuring is involved to divide the porch length correctly and space the columns evenly once he determines how far in from the edges the outside columns will be. And after all that, he steps away to the street, turns and looks back to the house with the eyes of a potential purchaser or a critical visiting auntie who wants to find anything wrong to talk about. He creates a mental picture of how his work will look. He particularly looks at how the columns will divide the view of the back wall of the porch. The columns must grace the house, not block the windows and doors. He does not trust the architect’s sketches or blueprints (often called the funny papers by the trades) Rightfully so. How could the architect predict how all the thousands of contractor decisions and material purchases that are involved in a house construction really will look in the end? In this case, the architect was correct in his number and placement of the columns. The Master Carpenter will concede to the design…in general.
Having specifically placed the columns, the carpenter gives the porch over to some hand picked masons to lay the concrete blocks of the column base. The first masonry crew who did most of the house brick work, had tried to build column bases on what they thought were the column details. This first work was removed as unsatisfactory. The new masons measure once and measure twice. They know the dreaded Tim will check their work. The dimensions of the block base are kept to an easy 16″ by 16″ square footprint. These dimensions are dictated mostly by the size of a Concrete Masonry Unit (cmu) which is nominally 16″ by 8″ by 8″. They lay the brick from top to bottom in their measurements, a tricky proposition that gravity does not allow easily. Tim has given them a rough height. He in no way means that the measurement is rough. Far be it. He only means the rough material of cmu shall be at a certain height which he has calculated based on the known sizes of his finish materials and a certain tolerance for error. He sets the rough material height a bit higher than perfect dimensions would suggest, since he knows he can cut the trim material to fit, but he cannot stretch it. Knowing where the cmu will have to top off, the masons start laying the block carefully on a strong mortar bed set directly on the foundation spread footing so that the actual height of a cmu and a standard mortar joint will course out correctly at the top dimension. Tim returns to check the mason’s work. The tops have to be sanded with a block rasp to remove the coarseness and get a level bed for the cast stone bases, but he approves… roughly.
His journeymen set the trim board on the bottom of the porch beams, which involves moving the deadmen around and keeping an eye on the weight of the building and avoiding potential cracks in the bead board they have already put on the porch ceiling. Meanwhile the Master turns a trusting back to his journeymen while he concentrates on the first finish material of the column to be placed. It is a precast concrete pad 24″ by 24″ by 3″. It must be level to the eye. It must look strong like it can hold up the house better than a couple 2×4 deadmen. The architect, builder and carpenter had discussed the thickness of this material and had gone to other houses to look at their column bases and weighed various sizes in their discussions until they could come to a consensus. 3″ looked best. The 24″ was chosen to cover the finish stone that will be laid over the 16″ block. One might set the base an equal 4″ around the 16″ cmu column, but there is no guarantee that the string lines or the masons’ work would be exact. Tim checks and rechecks the dimensions of his columns and determines that he will set the 24″ finish base where it should be for the column and ignore the bases. The various setbacks from the 24″ base to the 16″ cmu can be mitigated in the stone work itself. The trim is less forgiving.
Permacast Craftsman Columns were purchased off the shelf. Unlike their wood forefathers, these cast plastic shells will weather our Little Rock humid climate without rotting or warping. They come in standard 52″ lengths with a 16″ base and a 9″ top. Molding is applied on top of that. Tim has made the finish opening between the beam trim and the base a little less than that for tolerance sake, so he has to measure each one and cut to length. But first, he must find square. On a tapered column, this is not a quick task. Having acquired the knowledge somehow through trial and error and then finally asking someone, he knows to mark the center point of each column face at the top and bottom. Drawing a line between the two center points, he has the center line. He can cut square from this line and can plumb the column itself on each face without having to do trigonometry on each column face. With a lift of a 2 ton house jack, he nudges the beam a bit higher and lifts the column into place making sure it is plumb, square, and beautiful. Lowering the jack, the column is set. The molding is added to trim it all out.
A fieldstone that matches the porch floor is applied to the concrete block for its rustic appeal. However, before the steps can be finished and the columns painted, a spring robin moves in to build a nest. Nature approves the construction, but paint will have to wait.