With contemporary porch columns leaning to high-tech plastic and fiberglass, some homeowners remain true to natural wood. The choices vary from affordable columns made with fir or spruce to high-end hardwoods. Design options for columns range from round to square, rectangular or custom. The choice for wood can depend on money, functionality or aesthetics.
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Turned columns, sometimes referred to as Victorian, maintain a series of circles or profile lines centered between top and bottom square ends. Resembling an overgrown spindle, turned columns are used to dress up and add support to a porch. Typically considered high-end depending on the degree of profile or detail, this type of column usually is purchased in one piece and trimmed on both ends to fit. If you're spending the extra money for turned columns, hardwood such as birch, maple and oak are some of the best choices, and they stain well. If you plan on painting turned columns, beech is less expensive while retaining strength.
Round or Octagon
Round columns are an assembly of six or more pieces with mitered edges. The round shape or exterior profile is achieved by using a molder. The pieces are glued together to form the column. Typically, professionals build this type of column. Common paint-grade woods for round columns include poplar, yellow pine and spruce. All three of these are strong enough to withstand the rigors of weather and weight, and they're affordable. Use oak or mahogany for stain-grade columns. Octagonal columns consist of eight pieces mitered together at 22.5 degrees. With eight sides, they resemble a round column with flat sides; you can make these at home with waterproof glue and nylon strap clamps. Use poplar or yellow pine for economy, and oak or mahogany for traditional high-end octagons.
Square or Rectangular
Almost any type of wood works fine for square or rectangular columns. For economy or paint-grade, use fir or yellow pine. For high-end columns, use hardwoods such as birch, mahogany or white or red oak. As with any type of exterior wood, proper sealing and maintenance is required.
Natural Weather Resistance
Exterior porch columns installed in environments with moist weather benefit from weather-resistant wood. Cedar, redwood and cypress contain natural oils to repel insects and moisture. Redwood tops the list for beauty and cost. The natural straight grain of redwood is strong and durable. Cypress is less expensive and requires more maintenance than redwood, but it's strong and durable. Cedar is the least expensive of the three -- not quite strong as its counterparts. With exceptional weather and insect resistance, it performs just as well as redwood or cypress.
Treated wood typically is made with yellow pine or Douglas fir. Treated lumber is immersed or injected with chemicals that repel moisture. As with any chemically treated product, health concerns should be noted. Pressure-treated lumber can be used for columns; however, typical pressure-treated wood is susceptible to certain forms of deterioration such as warping and splitting, especially when left unpainted. Pressure-treated wood is affordable and strong but typically not a good substitute for better quality wood when it's visible. Pressure-treated wood has small injection sites that make it appear industrial.
Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.