A Multi-Purpose Origin
Many historic homes originally used rafter tails as a design feature and part of the exterior's beautification. By extending beyond the edge of a home's exterior, rafter tails created a soffit space, and supported ornate beadboard that added to the artful look of these historic homes. Rafter tails often had a radius cut in the end for an added visual touch. Rafter tails also had a functional purpose; they held the original wood gutters in place.
Wooden gutters have been around since colonial times, and often had the dual purpose of catching water at the eaves of a building while providing various moulding buildups which created attractive design features.
During my years of working on historic homes and buildings, I've had the privilege of seeing these features up close, and have marveled at how they were designed and originally built. It's no wonder why people today see the value in restoring the look of historic homes!
The Impact of Time and Weather
Over time, more modern and inexpensive unified systems—like aluminum gutters—came into play, and the craftsmen who built or maintained these old wood gutter systems watched as their skills became obsolete. Although large soffits protected the rest of the home's exterior—like wood windows, siding, and porches—it was the rafter tails, wood gutters, and fascias that took the brunt of the weather. Rafter tails, wood gutters, and fascia needed the care and maintenance of skilled craftspeople to keep them in good repair. Wood can behave like a wick by soaking moisture into its interior grain, which then causes decay. It's unfortunate that extensive damage can occur not only from decay but also from neglect. In some cases, internal decay can happen all the way up to the wall of a home, spreading more than two feet. Impressive! This doesn't happen overnight though, and takes many, many years to occur.
Quick Fixes Can Be Problematic
In many cases I've been called out to repair rotten rafter tails, only to find modifications which have already been done in an attempt to solve the problem. Homeowners will often have a gutter company remove the original wood gutters and replace them with an aluminum version. During this process, the notch in the tail is cut plumb, because the size of modern aluminum gutters have a greater depth than original wood gutters. The result? New aluminum gutters do not fit in the notch. For a lasting repair or replacement of rafter tails, gutters, and fascias, be sure to follow the correct steps or hire a skilled contractor with the knowledge and materials to get things just right.
Rafter tails, wooden gutters, and fascia improve the appearance and function of many historic homes in our region. With proper maintenance and care, these features can be rightfully preserved.