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Maintaining the Gutters on Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Maintaining the Gutters on Your Historic House

Maintaining the Gutters on Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

Gutters are critical to the health of your historic house. Gutters prevent roof water from saturating the sides of your house and channel the water away from your foundation. Excessive roof water penetrating your foundation can cause lots of problems. Water can leak into your basement, causing minor flooding. Water that gets into your foundation can freeze and cause foundation settling, cracks and mortar deterioration. If enough water builds up on the outside of your foundation, hydrostatic pressure can cause your foundation wall to bow inward and even collapse.

Although gutters are an ancient concept for directing water where you want or need it to go, many early houses had no gutters at all. Some of the higher-end historic houses had gutters built into the eaves. Water is the most damaging force to your house, so if your historic house did not have gutters originally, you should add gutters and downspouts to divert water away.

Roof Deck Gutters

Roof deck gutters, sometimes called "Yankee gutters," are rare today in Wisconsin. These gutters were generally used on the earliest modest two-story houses with wood-shingled roofs. A roof deck gutter consisted of a 2 x 4 board laid on its edge on the roof deck, up 6 to 24 inches and almost parallel to the eave but slightly angled toward the outside corner of the roof. This diversion strip allowed rain water coming down the roof to flow to the corner, where a round metal flange went through the eave and connected to a round downspout. The 2 x 4 board was covered with metal flashing that came up under the wood shingles above the roof deck gutter board.

While these gutters did channel water to the downspout, they tended to rot and leak around the metal flange to the downspout. Most roof deck gutters were abandoned after 1920 when asphalt shingles became popular. Homeowners would remove the roof deck gutters, shingle over the area and add new gutters to the eave edge. As a result, if you have a roof deck gutter on your historic house, it is quite rare.   

Box Gutters

Many higher-end historic homes still have their box gutters. Built-in box gutters are literally metal-lined wooden boxes built into the eaves of a house. They are lined with lead, tin, terne metal or copper and have crown moldings on the front. Box gutters channel water to a metal flange at the end of the gutter trough and into a downspout. In Wisconsin, box gutters are also referred to as "Yankee gutters." If your house has box gutters, you should hire professional roofing contractors to repair them or install new ones.

If your historic house has box gutters, you may find some of these common problems:

  • Water leaking due to failed solder joints, an eroded metal lining or holes caused by falling tree branches or hail damage.
  • Rotting wood due to water leaks and ice damming.
  • Eave settling, which causes the water to pool in certain areas.
  • Insufficient size to handle the volume of water.

If your box gutters are leaking, you can temporarily repair them with gutter caulk. However, the source of the leaks should be fixed properly as soon as possible. Repairing leaks in the metal is done in several ways. Once the location of a leak is discovered, the leak can be repaired by soldering a new metal patch to the area. However, it is often necessary to reline the gutters.

The best way to reline a box gutter is to remove the old metal lining and install a new one. Once the old metal is out, repairs can be made for settling and wood rot. Many sheet metal fabricators can make the metal troughs in the shop, and your contractor can install them. The best gauge of metal to use is 24 ounces or higher. This means one square foot of the metal weighs 24 ounces, which is thick enough to withstand the elements.

Another way to handle the failed metal lining is to glue EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer)  synthetic rubber sheets onto the cleaned metal. If there is no sagging and this is done well, the re-lining can last another 20 to 30 years.

Some elastomeric coatings are available that can be applied over a pre-installed mesh glued to the cleaned metal. These products are brushed or sprayed onto the metal trough. This repair can last 10 to 15 years if done properly.

Hanging Metal Gutters

If your historic house originally had gutters, they were most likely metal hanging gutters. Metal hanging gutters were available throughout the last half of the 19th century right up to 1940. They came in eight-foot sections and could be soldered or screwed together. Hanging metal gutters are one of two main types: half-round gutters and K-style gutters. These two types are described below.

Half-Round Gutters. Half-round gutters are the oldest type of hanging gutter in Wisconsin. Early versions were made of lead that was wrapped or hammered around a 4- or 5-inch diameter round pole. During the Victorian era, manufacturing processes made it simpler to produce half-round gutters. They were hung off the eave with metal straps and attached at the ends by round downspouts.

Half-round gutters were often too small to handle the volume of water coming off the roof. The hanging straps were flimsy and the gutter tended to roll forward. Water often shot over a half-round gutter instead of pouring into them. Half-round gutters sometimes obscured the architectural details on the fascias of the eaves.

The half-round gutters available today are much improved over their historic counterparts. If you know your historic house originally had half-round gutters, you should keep this style on your house. Modern half-round gutters come in 5-, 6- and even 8-inch sizes. You should use at least a 6-inch gutter for your house. Downspouts for 6-inch half-round gutters should be 4 inches in diameter. Also, stronger hangers are available for half-round gutters today. Rigid cast and stamped metal bracket hangers are now available that hold the gutter in place. These hangers are usually secured to the fascia instead of the roof deck. Half-round gutters come in aluminum, copper, stainless steel, and galvanized metal. They can be factory-painted or painted on site to match the color scheme of your house.

K-Style Gutters. K-style gutters were invented in the 1940s and became the standard gutter we use today. They are made of heavy-gauge aluminum and have a crown molding profile on their front face. The front faces of the gutters are offered in several different designs that are intended to look like a molded fascia. Once installed, K-style gutters look like they are part of the eave. K-style gutters have a variety of brackets and straps to connect them to the eaves. You can choose round or square downspouts depending on the look you want.

K-style gutters can be cut onsite in any length, which makes them seamless. The lack of seams makes them less prone to leaking. Factory colors are available or you can paint them to match your color scheme.

Gutter and Downspout Maintenance

The key to good roof drainage is to keep your gutters clean. You should remove debris from your gutters twice a year. You can prevent some debris buildup by using one of the many devices that are designed to keep debris out of your gutters.

You should also make certain your downspouts are effective at directing water from your gutters to the ground and away from your foundation. Install downspout ground extenders that lay on the ground and are at least six feet long. If you have a pitched grade away from your house or retaining walls, you can connect your downspouts to an underground drain pipe that comes out of a retaining wall or hillside. It is illegal to tie your downspouts into the city drain sewers.

If you don't have a retaining wall or enough pitched angle away from the foundation, you can run underground drain piping to a pit in the middle of your yard. You should hire a professional landscaper that has experience with drainage solutions to design and install this drain piping.