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Epoxy Wood Repair

I introduced epoxy wood repair to Milwaukee on a broad scale starting around 2002 and I continue to use it today. I knew the strength and versatility of epoxies from work I had performed on wooden boats, but it wasn’t until I discovered Abatron Wood Replacement Epoxy, manufactured in Kenosha, that I learned the potential for home restoration. Now I can’t imagine doing the work I do without the power of epoxy.

Prior to using epoxy, I had several techniques for replacing or repairing deteriorating wood on home exteriors. The best option I had was to remove the damaged wood in large sections and replace it with a custom-milled piece, cut from a rot resistant wood like clear cedar. This is a great option when budget doesn’t matter and if large sections need replacement. It is especially easy when the board in question is plain enough that it can be reproduced on a table saw. But for intricate, small, or embedded sections of rotten wood, it could be excessively expensive, and often involved disposing of a good chunk of fine wood in order to replace the rotten spots.

There were, of course, other ways of attempting smaller repairs with wood fillers and “wood bondo,” things, along with thick globs of caulk, I still often see. But at best they are a one or two year solution, as even the best will pop out as the wood expands and contracts seasonally.

The other problem with replacing old wood is that even the very best wood we can get today is not as rot resistant as the wood with which pre-WWII homes in Milwaukee were built. Modern wood is plantation grown, with lots of fertilizers. It grows fast this way but doesn’t develop the qualities of the old-growth forest (now almost completely gone) that was used to create our housing stock. Because this high-quality wood has little chance of being reproduced on a large scale, we should consider the wood used to build our old windows and storm windows, siding, trim, rails, and decorative medallions, brackets and corbels to be a precious, non-renewable resource. In addition to all the practical considerations, saving old wood and the craftsmanship used to shape it is a part of my job that is deeply meaningful and gives me a sense of purpose. My work has in this sense always been mission-shaped, intent on doing right by our old homes and saving the irreplaceable wood used to build them.

Epoxy changed everything about the way I approach old homes. Its ability to help us preserve and repair is momentous, increasing our range of options in a ground-breaking sort of way, while helping fulfill or mission of saving old homes in all their splendor and durability. Since 2002 my crews and I have used thousands of gallons of epoxy, consolidating, rebuilding, and restoring massive column bases, countless windowsills, hundreds of storm windows and window sashes, and even the intricate corbels on the Belvidere that sits on top of Madison’s Mansion Hill Inn (pictured to the left). There is virtually no limit to the size of an epoxy repair. I have personally repaired 12’ columns that have only about half the original wood remaining, the rest filled and carefully shaped with epoxy dough. We have repaired a number of massive, 24” wide columns throughout Southern Wisconsin, and even up to Door County (pictured throughout)

After using epoxy personally, I was not surprised to see Abatron’s list of national monuments and homes upon which their products have been used.

When people ask me about epoxy, sometimes worrying that I’m trying to sell a cheap fix, I can honestly explain that I am providing them with the “Mount Vernon treatment.” This is true to the extent that I personally trained a restorationist who was to become Mount Vernon’s chief of restoration and repair, when he interned with me for a summer.

In the end, the decision to fix with epoxy versus replace an entire feature, piece of molding, or a trim board an siding is largely one of price. Assuming we can get a reproduction made from high quality wood, I carefully weigh the cost of the reproduction versus the cost of the epoxy repair. If the epoxy repair is less expensive, as it often is, then the decision is simple. When the price is equivalent or the epoxy is more expensive, then it is a matter of weighing priorities in consultation with the owners of the home or building. I am not going to replace a $100 piece of molding with $120 of epoxy without having a frank discussion with the person paying for the work. I want to do what is best for the homes, but I respect the limits of people’s budgets. Saving old building and their distinctive elements has to be a communal endeavor where many considerations are given their due. That is another part of working with epoxy that I like: the necessity of a thoughtful approach to the work.

The epoxy process must rigorously follow a set of steps, but in the end it is simple enough that I have taught the process not only to countless employees, but also to a number of homeowners, who elect to do the work themselves. One of the services offered by Artisan Construction and Consultation is DIY Assist, which you can read more about on my website. It goes back to the desire to do right by the house and the community as best we can. Sometimes that means helping someone else do a job I might otherwise want to do myself.

The first step to epoxy repair is uncovering the damaged wood and getting out the wet deteriorated wood. That being said, as I have learned in in-person tutorials from the Abatron technical team, the liquid epoxy with which the process begins can consolidate wood that is quite soft, as long as it is dry. That is an important enough consideration to warrant widespread use of moisture meters. If the wood is too damp, we put a fan on it, cover it up if rain is coming, and wait until the moisture meter tells us it is time.

Because the liquid epoxy does its work best when it can penetrate any damaged or weathered wood, we often drill literally hundreds of small holes in a window sill or a column base and pour cupful after cupful of the two-part liquid into the wood, drenching it if possible.

After the wood had been wetted and consolidated, we mix up a dough that has the consistency of playdoh. This is then pushed into all voids by hand and then shaped to roughly match the original contours. One of the keys to Abatron Epoxy is the combination of the liquid and the dough. The liquid will create a sort of slurry when it meets the dough, providing a monolithic substance that fills large voids, while penetrating into the pores of the surrounding wood. This is why it doesn’t pop out when the wood expands or contracts.

After the epoxy sets, usually overnight, it can be shaped and sanded to match and blend with the surrounding wood. Sometimes it is as simple as using a flat sanding sheet; sometimes it requires the use of custom shaped scrapers and small carving tools. But with enough time and patience, it is possible to remove any indications of the repair by the time the wood is painted.

The epoxy process

This is the rail repaired with epoxy in sequence.  I think it is a good bunch of pictures that capture the way we can take something that is a jumble of pieces and put it back together with epoxy

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