April Abode: Monticello is getting a woodwork facelift, and your home can, too

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Monticello's balustrades are being recreated to Thomas Jefferson's specifications. In your own home, the rules are simpler: Avoid rot by properly maintaining your historic wood details. Photo: Virginia Hamrick Monticello's balustrades are being recreated to Thomas Jefferson's specifications. In your own home, the rules are simpler: Avoid rot by properly maintaining your historic wood details. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

What might have been Thomas Jefferson’s original vision for the Monticello rooftop railings is almost restored.

Years ago, when the balustrade on TJ’s mountaintop home rotted away, it was replaced with a new design. Last year, working from paintings, sketches and notes, architectural firm Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects was able to re-create the original design. And Charlottesville’s Gaston & Wyatt is in the process of remaking and installing the balustrades atop the little mountain. The north-facing railings are nearly complete, and the south-facing side is about halfway done.

“In between the [upper and lower boards] is sandwiched pickets,” Gaston & Wyatt VP Keith Cutts says. “On top of them, they are sharpened to a point, per Thomas Jefferson’s instructions. All of that is put together with wrought iron nails that were provided to us by Monticello…which is essentially how Jefferson intended it to be put together.”

For Monticello, several factors—wood rot, a failing deck, faithfulness to the original design—influenced the decision to scrap the existing balustrade and completely remake it. But how should the average homeowner make decisions about restoring or replacing historical wood details?

In the first place, he should try to preserve the wood and avoid rot.

“Every architectural detail or component has a different situation and would be treated differently, but the number one thing from keeping a piece of wood from rotting is proper maintenance,” Cutts says. “If your paint is chipped or chipping away, you should be sanding down to raw wood and re-priming and painting.”

Rot doesn’t necessarily mean historic wood is done for. The trick is catching the problem before it becomes serious, according to carpenter Gary Lettan. “You really don’t know until you see it happening,” he says. “And you have to detect the source of the problem.”

Fortunately, Lettan says “there are a lot of ways of going about saving embellishments.” A minimal amount of rot can be sanded away and crafted into the original shape using epoxy filler, for example.

“With the epoxy-based products, which are the consistency of playdough, the idea is you scrape away and remove the rotten material as much as possible, pack it in the void and use hand tools and sanders to cut it back down to the profile,” local woodworker Todd LeBack says.

To determine the extent of wood rot, LeBack says an ice pick or knife can be inserted into the work piece to plumb its depth. And homeowners should make sure to get opinions from multiple contractors.

It’s not economical to have a small amount of woodwork completely redone, so that’s where the epoxy comes in. If none of the wood is salvageable, LeBack says you can find most of the historic dies used to create details in the Albemarle area from Gaston & Wyatt.

If the specific profile you need isn’t available, it’s possible to recreate historic wood details using router bits and hand saws, LeBack says, but the process can be costly. Alternatively, you could go with a slightly different design that still preserves the historic character of the piece and the overall look and feel of the home.

“People tend to copy what’s already out there,” Lettan says. “If you can’t copy something, you usually change the whole room so that you come close to what’s there, as long as your continuity continues through the whole house.”

LeBack agrees and says that fortunately you can usually come close to the original with what’s commercially available. Or, you could rely on luck.

“I was working on an old farmhouse, and they took the old plaster off the wall,” he says. “They actually found the molding plane that was used to make some of the trim on the house. They made the historic trim with the exact same hand plane.”

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