Log railings are something we get asked about from time to time. To be honest, in the restoration business, we mostly hear about them when the railings are deteriorating. The main problem with log railings is that in most cases they are out in the weather, which can lead to wood rot. By being out in the weather (by this I mean rain), they are allowed to soak up a lot of moisture. High moisture is the key ingredient in rot and a recipe for disaster for any wood.
The crux of the problem is that it is incredibly difficult to keep the moisture in log railings at an acceptable level. The tops of posts are the most vulnerable place for rot on a set of log railings. These tops extremely vulnerable to rot because the end grain is facing up, which allows water to collect on top of the posts. On a micro-level, the structure of wood is a series of straws going from the top of the tree to the bottom. When placed in service as a log railing post, these ‘straws’ allow water to make its way down through the end grains at a much higher rate than through the cross grain. The ‘straws’ are standing straight up just sucking up the rain.
The second vulnerable spot on log railings is the top edge of the bottom rail. Here, there are a series of holes facing upwards where the spindles pass through. As one can imagine, when it rains, water follows the contour of the spindle and through capillary action, it flows right into these holes and soaks into the bottom rail as well as the end grain of the spindle itself.
The third area of particular vulnerability in log rails is the post base when they travel through a deck and support the structure. Again, we have end grain in a potentially moisture-rich environment. In summary, we generally see the first signs of rot in these vulnerable areas.
What can I do to extend the life of my log railings?
There are three things that I recommend homeowners do to extend the life of their log railings.
Use caps on the top of the posts. These are available from a number of different outlets on the web. The nicest ones I have seen are made of copper and fit snugly around the top of the post. It is important to glue them on rather than using screws. This helps ensure that moisture can’t penetrate into the end grain around the screws.
At the bottom rail, we recommend drilling a ¼” hole up from the bottom into each larger hole coming from the top. What we are doing here is giving the water that will inevitably make its way into this hole a place to go and drain out the bottom.
We recommend “stand-off” post bases. These create an air space between the end grain of the post and the ground or footing. By placing these post bases between the bottom of the post and the ground, air is allowed to move through this area and dry out the post.
Doing all these three of these things will add life to log rails.
The last important thing to do is to keep a good finish on the railings. The fact that they are typically out in the sun and rain makes it very important to keep good finish on the railings. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Railings have so many surfaces and contours that they are a real pain to apply and keep stain on. None-the-less, it is important to keep a quality stain on them, which is part of the solution to maintaining and extending the life of the railings.
Do what you can and then . . . accept reality.
Now that you know why log railings are particularly vulnerable to deterioration and what it can take to extend their life, you may have a decision to make — log rails or not? You may already have log railing on your house and are wondering whether to maintain, repair or replace them. Here is what I tell people: Unfortunately to some degree, homeowners need to think of log rails as disposable. Left on there own, pine rails will fail in three to seven years. I have even seen Cedar railing last as little as ten years.
If you are considering owning log railing that you know will be out in the weather, be aware of these facts. If you are OK with the disposable nature of log railings, then I recommend them. If not — I would stay away!
Matthew Edmunds – Edmunds and Company Log Home Restorations, LLC 76050 McKinley Road Washburn, Wisconsin 54891 877-378-4403 firstname.lastname@example.org WE REPAIR AND RESTORE LOG BUILDINGS Find out more at : www.restorelogs.com