Wooden Soffits (No, you won’t be board)

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Wooden Soffits

(No, you won’t be board)

Editorial By: Tom Cross | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper & Tom Cross

Wood soffits, they’re boards, with paint.  That’s it.  That’s what they are. That’s all they are.  Pretty simple. Right?  That’s why you don’t read anything really dedicated to them.  It’s just fifty shades of peeling paint doing nothing for nobody. It’s something easily covered with clean aluminum or vinyl without any sacrifice to your home’s charm and appeal.

But what’s that I just said? “That’s all they are.” Well maybe that is just an assumption.  An all-too-common misconception.  For to look at your soffit that way is to miss, and thus risk losing, the beauty of the subtle and simple things a wood soffit provides.  The soffit after all, as the transition from wall to roof, is a focal point.  Even when we are not conscious of it.  Our ancestors knew this and took advantage of it throughout history.  Few more so than those Victorians who lathered their wood soffits with corbels, friezes, dentils, cornices and many other details to not just take advantage of that focal point but to make absolutely sure that everyone was VERY conscious of it.

Those applied details aren’t the start and end of it though.  Not even close!  They do make a good starting point though.  It is not hard to find a house where someone has thought the applied details were all that mattered.  Someone with a nice Italianate who has saved their large carved roof brackets while allowing their contractor to remove the other interfering mouldings and trim aluminum soffits around brackets, complete with blocky J-channel.  The brackets are beautiful right?  And that’s it.  Not much else to say. Not much else to feel.

Find that house. Look at that house!  Now, go find a similar building with similar beautiful roof brackets.  But this time with a restored or maintained wood soffit above.  Less clunky and awkward.  You’ll see.  But that is just the start.  There is a good chance this second building will have a livelier paint job than the first.  The beautiful brackets on the house with the aluminum (or vinyl) soffits were likely painted to blend with the pre-finished colour of bland found on that new character-phobic element.  What the wood soffits provides is encouragement, an open mind to colour.  A world of colour.

Even a home built without elaborate ornamentation has more to offer than just an endless world of colour.  Wood soffits are boards. We covered that.  Logically, these boards run parallel to their wall.  This creates a flow, a visual harmony.  There may be a simple v-groove between individual boards that offer subtle detailing further expressing the time and style of your building.  In contrast, modern soffit materials run perpendicular to the wall creating a series of short deep lines that do not flow with the wall but rather attack it head on!

Left: What was found when the original soffits were removed. The Neoclassical project house right…

Wood soffits often lack the venting which is important in a well retrofit home.  It is the one topic on which you may have actually read about wood soffits before.  If you’ve not read about that, such venting can be easily retrofit with either round, rectangular, or running strip vents.  (Just remember that all types require removing the century of birds’ nests, pine cones and poorly blown insulation that are sitting on the top side of those soffits).  Once done however, these venting options can all be carefully painted out to blend into and become a part of your home. 

Modern soffits come with venting too. And they are effective at venting the few millimeters between it and the solid wood soffit they cover.  (If your home already has modern soffit applied, you can bet no one bothered to cut vent holes into the wood).  These modern soffits will also not peel paint if your roof starts leaking into the soffit area.  They won’t do anything at all.  A wood soffit will begin to suffer paint failure, upsetting you and saving you thousands of dollars in structural repairs to your roof deck, rafters and even wall!

A Neoclassical Soffit and Frieze restored by Tom Cross

A wooden soffit is simple board. A versatile board.  It is the foundation of the mouldings and decorations that celebrate the character of your home.  It is the canvas carrying the colours of your personal tastes and sophistication.  It displays harmony with the wall it shelters.  It gives you honesty and truth.  It will not hide if your attic can not breathe or your roof is wounded.  A wood soffit is a board you notice more than you’ve ever noticed.

Article Author: Tom Cross | Owner/operator of Tom Cross Restoration

Tom Cross is an Edifice Guild Approved Restoration Specialist in the province of Ontario. Tom specializes in restoration of wooden soffits. Visit his page on our Guild Resource Directory for your next restoration project in Southwestern, Ontario.

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