What Does a Restoration Carpenter Do?

waterville kansas historic victorian house
Historic houses like this one would need a restoration carpenter to do restoration work. Photo by ExperienceLA/Flickr.

Carpenters by nature are well-rounded tradespeople. The essence of what they do is building, so they're good at figuring out how to put things together and how to get the most from a broad palette of materials. They're also superb problem solvers. Turning a set of construction plans into a beautiful home or even a successful trim detail can involve a lot of head-scratching, and often it's the carpenter's skill and creativity that bridge the gap between the designer's imagination and the finished product. Restoration carpenters do all of this with an old-school twist: they apply the same knowledge and craft of building and combine it with the careful study and judicious hand of a conservator.

Specializing in Restoration
Restoration carpenters aren't just trained builders; they're masterful re-builders. They understand traditional construction techniques and how to read the "ghost marks" of a home, such as traces of original structures that may have been modified centuries ago. Some of the primary services of restoration carpenters include:

  • Restoring old windows so they’re relatively energy-efficient yet retain their original materials and detailing
  • Repairing, restoring and replicating detailed wood molding and other millwork
  • Shoring up old structures with minimally invasive and/or invisible techniques
  • Replicating and blending wood finishes
  • Modernizing historic buildings to meet current standards for accessibility, energy-efficiency, safety and other performance factors
  • Dismantling and reassembling homes, barns and other buildings.

Blending the New with the Old
Building restoration can take many forms, from finishing a parlor interior for a museum to creating a new addition that blends with a historic home. In some cases, doing things the "old way" is a must, but in many other situations, modern materials and techniques come into play, providing cost- and time-efficiency, structural performance, and other benefits. The best approach depends on the project. Restoration carpenters and preservationists may use high-tech epoxies and reinforcements to restore wood trim and structural members. They can also call on specialty fabricators to create new materials in the old way, for things like cut nails and hand-crafted window glazing. Historic trim can be milled with modern machinery or it can be hand-planed in a traditional method. It all depends on the project, the budget and how much material is needed.

Finding a Restoration Carpenter
Restoration carpenters and contractors work closely with other restoration specialists, such as preservation architects and historical commission officials. These professionals can recommend local carpenters and builders to talk to. Other good sources are your state or local historical society or landmark preservation agency. Many cities have a preservation hotline for answering local residents' questions about restorations and related subjects. There are also online listings of restoration professionals, such as the Custom Building & Restoration Trades Directory, sponsored by the Guild of Building Artisans.

Updated April 30, 2018.

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