As work began on reassembling the porch balustrade, we realized there were pieces from two different jigsaw puzzles that we were trying to fit together.

In puzzle box #1 was the design of the porch we had demolished a few months before. There were six balusters on the front (east side, on the left in the photo), and four on the south. At the corner, the top railings joined at a 45° angle. But nothing matched; the east top railing was clearly original -- thick, old redwood. Above the four balusters on the south were two boards glued together to match that thickness (once we took it apart, we discovered that there was also plywood used to shim it up to matching height). And finally, there was a long wall, where there was no effort to match the top railing with the height, color, or style of the wood elsewhere -- see detail inset photo.

My original plan was this: I would restore 13 balusters (see part II), the bottom railings, and that top railing on the east. Since none of the top railings on the south were original -- or even salvageable -- I asked Berry's Sawmill in Cazadero to mill a plank 18 feet long (and weighing over 250 pounds). This, I thought, would give me one loooonnng interrupted top railing of new redwood for the entire south side. Over the corner, it would join at 45° with the (restored) top railing. Under that I would attach seven balusters and calculate the width needed for a wall long enough to meet the posts at the appropriate point.

Ah, the best laid plans...

As before, it was architect and preservation expert Mark Parry who set me wise. He first pointed out that the blueprints showed 12 balusters on the south side, not the 7 (or so) I was planning to use. To me, the blueprints couldn't be trusted on details like this; the blueprints also showed ten balusters on another section, but there were nine instead. There were also examples where windows became doors, exterior elevations didn't match the floor plans, and so on. Surely Brainerd Jones was just doodling in enough balusters to fill the picture, I thought. And besides, it was moot; two of the pudgy little columns were damaged, so we didn't even have enough to put 12 on that side.

Contractor David Jessen also began raising questions about the bottom railing. What was I planning to do on the south side? The existing bottom rail was only long enough for six balusters. (See part I -- although four columns were visible, two more were found hidden inside the corner!) Did I have any more century-old redwood rails laying around the place? Exactly how big did I want the shingled corner box, and how would the bottom rails attach to it?

With the pile of unresolved issues growing, Mark, David, and I met in early October to discuss options. We magnified the online copy of the blueprints to highest resolution, then unrolled the actual original paper. Mark pointed out details that I had completely missed -- that there was a cap on the corner box, and a matching reveal on the wall section. By no means was the top railing supposed to be one long slab of wood.

Still the cynic, I. Was there any evidence that the railing was actually built like that? There was no square cap on the corner that recently existed, which would've meant that the top railings were once joined to the corner flat, and not at a 45° angle. And besides (I continued to argue), all of the top railings, including the badly-made ones that were thrown away, were exactly 11 ¼ inches wide -- there was no evidence that wider pieces once capped the corner and the wall section. Then David's recent question came back to me: Did I have any more century-old redwood laying around the place? Why, yes -- yes, I did, in fact.

In the corner of the garage where we found the extra balusters there was also an unusual thick plank of old redwood leaning against the wall. At 80 inches long and 13 ¾ inches wide, its dimensions didn't match anything else around the house. Because one end was cut at 45° angle, I wondered if it was the original south top railing that met over the corner. But there was no sign that balusters were ever connected to its underside, so the original purpose remained a mystery. Now it came to me that I was looking at it upside-down -- if the pointy-end faced west instead of east, it would probably match the angle where the porch meets the house. The three of us carted the board from the garage and laid it on the porch floor, its angle towards the house wall. It fit perfectly. Here was the oversized cap for the south porch wall. The blueprints were indeed accurate, as architect Mark Parry predicted.

We now saw clearly how the puzzle was supposed to fit together. And sadly, we decided that it was best that new top and bottom railings be constructed for both sides, as well as the missing corner cap. Back to Berry's Sawmill for more wood.

(Below: constructing the new wall from pressure-treated plywood, as well as the new corner support)

A ripple of other plan changes followed. If we were now accepting the blueprints as gospel, then all seventeen balusters needed to be pressed into service, not just the 13 I was expecting to use. Two that I had deemed unusable because of damage and had been using for glue and preservative tests now had to be restripped with hustle. David would create new end-blocks for the balusters with the worst knocked-off corners, as he pointed out that visitors would see the damaged sections more than any color difference of new wood. Philosophically I was uneasy that we were slipping away from preservation and into restoration, but I know David's advice was absolutely the best, in this situation. He also created a corner cap of appropriate size by gluing together two pieces of otherwise construction-grade redwood that is absolutely remarkable craftsmanship.

Except for repainting the damn floor, the porch saga is over. We considered an awning over this corner, but can't see a way to install one over these irregular angles. We'll watch what happens with the rains this winter, and might revisit the issue. But for now, the work is completed, and decades of mistakes undone; once again you can see a view of Comstock House that looks exactly as it did in 1905.


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