Home

Ask the Builder: Lost Building Secrets That Prevent Wood Rot

BY Tim Carter TIMEJuly 1, 2022 PRINT

Hours before I began to write this column, I was backing my car into a parking spot at church. Just ahead of me was an older garage on the church campus that was being remodeled. New vinyl siding is being installed, and my guess is all of the trim is going to be wrapped in pre-painted aluminum coil stock.

New trim boards had been installed around the garage door because the remodeler had enlarged the opening. I was aghast to see he had placed the bare cedar trim boards in direct contact with the asphalt paving and the soil at the building corner. In his defense, this garage had been built too low to the ground decades ago.

wood trim installed the wrong way
This is the wrong way to install wood trim unless you’re building in the center of the Atacama Desert. It’s touching the ground, and soon it will start to rot. (Tim Carter/TNS)

I think the original builder has just poured a concrete slab just an inch above the ground around the garage. Such a sad mistake (as Queen Cersei says to Lord Stark in “A Game of Thrones”).

My sweet wife had walked ahead to get out of the blazing sun as I stopped and took photographs and looked closely at what was going on. As I turned and walked across the macadam driveway, my tiny gray cells started to fire off, asking all sorts of rhetorical questions:

Why didn’t this remodeler use treated lumber for the trim boards, as he undoubtedly knows they’ll soak up water over time and rot in just a few years? The aluminum coil stock will not prevent water from getting to the wood.

If he had no choice but to use cedar, why didn’t he paint the wood on all sides and edges with a minimum of two coats to make it really hard for water to soak into the wood?

Did the church building committee write the specifications for the job, and how could they have missed this glaring error? I’m not on this committee by choice because I’m allergic to drama.

My mind then drifted to how lucky I was to grow up in Cincinnati, surrounded by older homes built by builders and carpenters who treated their trade as a vocation, not a job. They passed down to apprentices decades of building experience and what they knew about how to prevent wood rot.

One building technique you’ll often see in older homes — and I’m referring to ones built it the late 1800s and early 1900s — is the top of the foundation was often two or more feet above the ground. This kept the wood siding well out of the splash zone of falling rain.

This technique also saved money on excavation, as the basement holes didn’t have to be as deep. Tall foundations like this also had room for operating windows to be incorporated into the foundation, allowing ventilation and light into the basement spaces.

By the time I was at the church door, I was relating all of this to the current building code. I then thought about the great writing of J.R.R. Tolkien in his “Lord of the Rings” book series. He wrote, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.”

So much accumulated building knowledge is taking the path of the ring. The current building code allows wood siding to be extremely close to the grade around homes. I constantly do phone consultations with people that have water streaming into their homes because the top of the foundation is far too close to the ground. When this happens, it can be hard to achieve great sloping positive drainage away from a foundation.

I thought about some landscapers and clueless homeowners who pile mulch up in planting beds, creating dams that allow water to leak into homes.

I pondered why grade schools and high schools don’t teach home improvement and the basic science of what is going on inside and outside your home. Can you imagine the magic of doing a year-long experiment in grade school where children just take untreated pieces of lumber and lay them on the ground for months? In the spring they examine them and note how they’ve started to rot.

If you feel the same way I do about all of this, it’s time for you to get active. Once a month you need to attend your school board meetings and speak about this void in the curriculum. Give real-life examples of why boys and girls all need to be taught how things work in and around homes. This knowledge is invaluable.

It’s unacceptable that all of this cumulative knowledge might shift from history, to legend, to myth. This is why every word I’ve ever written is stored on my AsktheBuilder.com website. It’s there for you and for all those unborn in the future so what I know does not pass out of all knowledge.

Tim Carter
Subscribe to Tim's FREE newsletter at AsktheBuilder.com. Tim now does livestreaming video M-F at 4 PM Eastern Time at youtube.com/askthebuilder. (C)2022 Tim Carter. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
You May Also Like