"You can't buy beams off the shelf," says Michael Spehar, owner of the Building Company, who works on Eichlers out of his San Jose base. "You need to use an architectural-grade beam that has less chance of warping or twisting. If you use new wood, it will shrink back within a year, and it will pull away from the house."
Beam replacement should be left to the pros, particularly when beams are structural. Plus, there's nothing easy or safe about working on ladders with saws and other heavy power tools.
Gomes says he uses an eight-step process to replace beams:
1) Before any cuts are made to remove damaged material, he sands all the paint off that area and marks the portion to be removed.
2) Braces the beam where needed to ensure that nothing collapses.
3) Slowly makes the cuts (not an easy task on a ladder).
4) Matches the removed material to an aged material of the same type of wood, such as Douglas fir.
5) Carefully measures and cuts the new material.
6) Makes sure pieces match up perfectly and makes adjustments as needed.
7) Seals the cut area, and then attaches the new beam to the old. Fills and sands as needed.
8) Installs a custom galvanized metal cap, and primes and paints beam and cap.
"It's a lot of work to make everything look like the original, but I can usually get one-and-one-half to two beams done in one day," Gomes says.
Judy Buchholz, a Streng owner in Davis, recently hired Gomes to repair and replace several rotting beams. "We wanted to maintain the architectural integrity of the home, and Joe was so knowledgeable, and instructed us on what needed to be done," Buchholz says.
"Working with a crew of one or two men, he completed the job meticulously, added a protective cap to each beam, and painted [the beams] to look like the original. We couldn't be happier."
To prepare and paint yourself, carefully prep the surface by scraping and sanding. Fill in cracks with a quality paint-able caulk, apply two coats of premium primer, and then top with two coats of quality exterior paint.
For his work on Strengs, Gomes' usual fee is $400-450 per header to repair a damaged end. To replace an entire Eichler beam, Larson says cost is around $2,500, but price can vary depending on the project's complexity. The Randall-Klinck beam-replacement project cost the couple $3,000.
Experts agree that an ounce of prevention, which includes caulking, filling, and painting, is worth a pound of cure. "I recommend looking at [the condition of] your beams once a year, before winter, because that's when you get all of your wet weather," Spehar says.
"Keep the beams painted every two years on the top, sides, and bottom," Larson adds. "Too often people paint only what they can see, and they forget the top. Big mistake. That's where the water damage begins."
"Homeowners will often slap on a 30-year paint," chimes in Gomes, "and assume they are done with maintaining beams for 30 years. Not so. You still have to keep tabs on the structure. If you see the wood open up, add caulk and repaint it."
Our three experts all point out that year-round vigilance of your home's entire moisture barrier is the best first step in preventive maintenance. "Get accustomed to walking around your entire house and looking at each surface," Larson says. Caulk or fill any small areas that need attention.