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Build a Victorian Screen House

Updated: Apr. 21, 2020

Escape the bugs in style, whether you're entertaining friends or just hanging out

FH03JUN_05023_022-2Family Handyman

Whether it's the commotion of the house or the buzz of the bugs that's driving you crazy, this airy retreat is the perfect place to get away from it all. It's a modest size (8 x 14 ft.), but the tongue-and-groove vaulted ceiling with exposed rafters creates a spacious feel.The decorative detailing adds punch to the simple design, and it's not difficult to achieve. The posts are store-bought, and the brackets and rafter tails simply cut with a jigsaw.

We designed this structure for easy construction.The walls are a modular design that is based on 30-in. wide openings. The roof has a 12/12 slope, which means every angle is a simple 45-degree cut. The porch roof and main roof are the same size, so all the rafters (except a few short rafters) are the same size.We special-ordered the screens and door to fit this design. And if you want to reduce the size of the project a bit, you can eliminate the porch roof and still have a handsome structure.

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Use cedar for appearance and durability

We made this project almost entirely of clear (knot-free) cedar, from floor to ceiling and even the roof. Its natural resistance to decay and its ability to take a stain well ensure that your project will not only look good but it will last. You could cut the cost of this project by using treated lumber.

A simple gravel bed provides a firm foundation

Mark out a 16 x 16-ft. area with stakes and string. Instead of digging deck posts into the ground, we decided to ‘float’ the deck and screen house on a pad of gravel. If frost should knock it out of level, you can easily relevel it again. Excavate a pad about 8 in. deep, removing the topsoil. Get it roughly square and level, but don’t fuss; you can tweak it later. Our site sloped 8 in. from one side to the other. Find a flatter site if your location slopes more than that. Otherwise you’ll have to regrade or build a retaining wall. Fill the excavation with a 6-in. layer of 5/8-in. gravel (about 8 tons). This is a lot of shoveling, so have the gravel dropped as close to the pad as possible. Roughly flatten and level it with a long board.

Position the treated 6×6 beams (Figure A). Then nail together the outer frame (rim joists) of the deck. Square the frame by measuring the diagonals from corner to corner, shifting the corners until the diagonals are equal. Check the frame for level, adjusting it by adding or removing gravel under the 6x6s as needed. Lay out the joist locations according to Figure A and nail the joists in place, working from the center to each end. The doubled joists and blocking stiffen the deck under the screen house. Also cut 45-degree angled blocks for the corners. Finally, nail a 1×8 cedar fascia around the perimeter, mitering the corners for a clean appearance.

Step 1: Frame the deck support system and joists

Frame the deck support system and joists using Figure A as a guide. Start the decking by laying two deck boards at right angles along two adjacent sides, mitering the corner. Lay the deck boards perpendicular to the joists. Keep them parallel by snapping a chalk line for reference about halfway across the frame.

Picture-framed decking

Picture framing gives the deck a more finished look-there are no raw cut ends. Begin decking with two perimeter boards,mitering the corners and overhanging the trim by 1 in. Screw them to the frame with 3-in. deck screws.Cut the first deck board to length and install it. Butt each deck board to the framed edge and trim the other ends evenly after they’re all installed. Be sure you keep the decking straight. Anything out of line will be especially noticeable where the front wall of the house sits on the deck. Rip the last board to fit, trim the butt ends and then finish with the last two perimeter boards.

Step 2: Cut wall parts to length

Cut the wall parts to length (Figure A). Create the sills by cutting a bevel and a stop on cedar 2x4s with a table saw. CAUTION: You must remove the saw guard to make this cut. Use a push stick to keep your fingers away from the blade.

Step 3: Screw the studs to the top and bottom plates

Screw the studs to to the top and bottom plates following the wall plan in Figure A. Then screw the screen sills and 2×2 cleats in place, using two 29-in. long siding boards as spacers. Toe-screw the center sill into the uprights from underneath. Screw the 4×4 corner posts into place.

Step 4: Nail the 1×6 siding to the cleats

Nail the 1×6 siding to the cleats. Drive 2-in. galvanized casing nails through the tongue and set them flush with a nail set. Trim the last board to fit. Apply construction adhesive to the ‘acorn’ trim pieces, predrill with an 1/16-in. bit and secure them with three 2-1/2 in. galvanized siding nails.

Step 5: Stand the walls and check for plumb with a level

Stand the walls and check for plumb with a level. Add temporary 2×4 angle braces if necessary. Screw the corners together and the bottom plate to the decking with 3-in. screws spaced every 16 in. Stretch a string line along each top plate to check for bows. Use a temporary 2×4 brace to push or pull the bowed wall straight.

The modular design allows you to build the walls quickly

We designed the walls so that the screen openings are all the same size. This simplifies wall construction. Buy good, straight lumber since everything is exposed. Assemble the walls using Figure A as a guide. We chose to fasten members with 3-in. deck screws, but 3-1/2 in. galvanized nails work just as well. If you use nails, be careful not to make hammer marks where they’ll be seen. After assembling the front wall, cut out the bottom plate for the door and screw on a temporary brace until you fasten the wall to the deck. Assembling the 1×6 tongue-and-groove siding while the wall is down simplifies that task (Step 4).

Get some help to tip up and plumb and brace each wall. Complete and stand the back and one side wall. Then build the front and other side wall while you have the open space. Center the back wall on the deck 1-7/8 in. in from the edge. Sight down each bottom plate to make sure it’s straight, then fasten it to the deck. Snap a chalk line to help align the front wall. The top plates have to be straight as well to make rafter setting easier. Set a string line about 1/4 in. out from each end and run a carpenter’s pencil along it to find bows

Step 6: Cut and set the 4×4 wall ties into place

Cut and set the 4×4 wall ties into place (Figure A). Drive 3-in. screws up from the 2×4 top plates into the 4x4s every 12 in. to secure them. Bore a 1-in. diameter hole 1/2 in. deep, then a 3/16-in. pilot hole through the 4x4s at the four corners. Then drive 1/4 in. x 6-in. lag screws with washers through each.

Cedar 4x4s tie the walls together

The 4×4 wall ties substitute as a top plate and also extend beyond the walls to support the porch roof and roof overhang (Figure A). We spaced the 4x4s that support the porch roof at the same width as the end walls (8 ft. 7 in.). This simplifies the roof framing by making all rafters the same length.

The two 4×4 king posts (Step 8) are mostly decorative, but they also make it easier to set the ridge beam. Cut and fit them according to Steps 7 and 8. Before setting the beam, mark the rafter locations on both the 4×4 wall ties and the ridge beam. It’s easier now than later!

Step 7: Measure and cut the 4×4 king posts to length

Measure and cut the 4×4 king posts to length (Figure A). Mark the 1-1/2 x 7-1/4 in. slot and 45-degree bevel cuts in the top. Cut the bevels first with your circular saw. Then cut along the slot lines. Finish the cuts with a handsaw, then chop out the remaining pieces with a sharp chisel. Test-fit the notch with a 2×8 cedar board.

Step 8: Center the king posts on the wall ties and toe-screw them into place

Center the king posts on the wall ties and toe-screw them into place. Plumb them and brace them with scrap 1x4s. Measure and mark the positions of the posts on the ridge beam (Figure A), then slide the beam into position and fasten it with four 3-in. screws. Plumb in the other direction and brace (Step 10).

Step 9: ‘Gang-cut’ your rafters

‘Gang-cut’ your rafters by clamping them together and laying out a 3-1/2 in. deep ‘bird’s-mouth.’ Clamp on a straightedge to guide the base plate of the saw. Cut both sides of the bird’s-mouth at a 45-degree angle, then remove the clamps and finish the cut on each board with a handsaw.

Framing the roof is easier than it looks

Cut out the rafter tails using the pattern. If the rafters aren’t straight, orient them so any bow arch-es up. Then lay out the bird’s-mouth (the notch that rests on the 4×4 top plates). Either mark and cut out the rafters using one as a pattern, or clamp them all together and cut a series all at once. This is an advanced cut; it takes a powerful circular saw, a sharp blade and a steady hand. Either way, cut one as a pattern and set it into place first to make sure it fits.

Step 10: Screw the top ends of each rafter to the ridge

Screw the top ends of each rafter to the ridge with two 3-in. screws, following Figure A. Then predrill and toe-screw the rafters to the walls with three 3-in. screws. Set the rafters in pairs, and work from the wall ends toward the middle. Set the outermost (fly) rafters 2 in. from the 4×4 ends.

Setting the rafters is quick work. Set the rafters in opposite pairs so that the ridge beam remains centered. Set the top of the rafter flush with the top of the ridge beam, and fasten it with two 3-in. screws. Pull the bird’s-mouth tight to the 4×4 and fasten it with three 3-in. screws. It goes faster if a helper works the ridge while you work the walls.

Step 11: Screw a 2×2 nailer to the 4×4 wall tie at each gable end

Screw a 2×2 nailer to the 4×4 wall tie at each gable end. Tack on the drip cap and then cut and nail the gable boards to the rafters and 2x2s with 2-in. galvanized siding nails. Mark and cut each board to make a clean line along the rafter. It’ll show.

It’s easiest to enclose the gable walls before you put on the roof. Start the 1×6 tongue-and-groove siding at a bottom corner and work to the opposite end, checking for plumb every four or five boards. Marking and cutting them accurately along the top will leave a clean line along the ceiling on the inside.

Face-nail the boards and stain the nailheads to match. Fitting around the ridge is tricky;measure to fit then slide in the boards from underneath.

Step 12: Notch the grooved edge of your first 1×6 roof board

Notch the grooved edge of your first 1×6 roof board, cutting it at a 45-degree angle with a utility knife so it fits over the two 4×4 wall ties. Nail it to each rafter with two 2-1/2 in. galvanized nails. Work your way up the roof, making sure to drive the tongues and grooves tightly together as you go. Then install the boards down from the first board, working them around the 4x4s . Continue down to the rafter tails.

Install the ceiling from above

The 1×6 tongue-and-groove roof boards also make an attractive ceiling for the interior. Start your first board tight to the top of the 4×4 wall tie, cutting away a bit of the groove. Align it with a chalk line measured up from the rafter tails to keep it perfectly straight.We set the textured side to the interior, but you can install the smooth side down if you prefer. Although you won’t see them from inside, it’s best to stagger any butt joints for a stronger roof. Periodically measure down from the ridge to make sure that the boards are running parallel.You’ll probably need to rip the top board to fit. Next fill down to the rafter tails, again ripping the final board to width if necessary.

Adding a layer of plywood over the 1x6s stiffens the roof and provides enough thickness so the shingle nail tips won’t poke through. First add the 1×2 fascia trim (Figure A) to the bottom of the rafter, setting it 1/2 in. higher than the edge of the 1×6. It’ll cover the edge of the plywood. Cut the plywood so the edge of each piece falls over a rafter and stagger the seams. Snap chalk lines to mark the rafter positions for accurate nailing. A stray nail will be visible on the interior. Cutting the plywood to fit around the wall ties is fussy work (Step 13). Oversize the hole about 1/2 in. to make the plywood slide on easier. To prevent cracking the rafter tails, predrill and screw the plywood along the lower edge.

Step 13: Mark out the location of the 4×4 wall ties on the 1/2-in. plywood roof sheathing

Mark out the location of the 4×4 wall ties on the 1/2-in. plywood roof sheathing, cut a square hole with a jigsaw and slip the plywood onto the roof. Nail through the plywood and 1x6s into the rafters every 8 in. with 2-1/2 in. galvanized nails.

Building the front porch

First set the porch posts. Measure and mark the post position on the deck Figure A and use a plumb bob to transfer the location to the 4×4 ties. We used a 4×4 metal post plate to slightly raise the post off the deck to prevent rot. Set the posts with two 3-in. metal angle brackets on top and screws through the plate into the decking on the bottom.

Step 14: Cut and install the ridge and first three pairs of porch rafters

Cut and install the ridge and first three pairs of porch rafters following the pattern shown in Figure A, then snap a chalk line from the end of the innermost rafter tail to the ridge. Measure and cut the jack rafters to length (they don’t have to be exact). Cut the bottoms of the rafters at a compound 45-degree angle to sit on the roof and the tops at 45 degrees to meet the ridge. Space the rafters 2 ft. on center and screw them to the roof and ridge.

To prepare for setting the rafters, screw a temporary brace that connects the ends of the 4×4 wall ties. Make sure that the outside width is 8 ft. 7 in. Next set a temporary vertical support (150-1/4 in. long) centered and plumb for the ridge beam to rest on. Cut a 45-degree angle on one end of the ridge beam and leave the other end long. Center the ridge beam on the main roof, check it for level, then screw it into place. Fasten your rafters the same as you did for the main roof.

To prepare for setting the rafters, screw a temporary brace that connects the ends of the 4×4 wall ties. Make sure that the outside width is 8 ft. 7 in. Next set a temporary vertical support (150-1/4 in. long) centered and plumb for the ridge beam to rest on. Cut a 45-degree angle on one end of the ridge beam and leave the other end long. Center the ridge beam on the main roof, check it for level, then screw it into place. Fasten your rafters the same as you did for the main roof.

The short rafters that meet the main roof are called ‘jack’ rafters. The compound angle you cut on the end that rests on the roof may be tricky the first time. To cut it, tilt the base of your saw to 45 degrees and cut along a 45-degree angle line marked on the end of the rafter. If unsure, practice on a scrap first.

This shows you how to set the jack rafters. When you fasten the lower end to the plywood, drive the screw in at an angle so the tip doesn’t poke through the ceiling inside.

Before you remove the braces, screw a crosstie to the backside of the front set of rafters (Figure A). Also cut and attach the pair of decorative diagonals above it.

Step 15: Build the gable backer assembly

Build the gable backer assembly as shown here and in Figure A. Rip a 2×6 at a 45-degree angle, trim the ends at a 45-degree angle to fit flush with the top of the rafters, and screw a 2×4 nailer to the back side (Step 16). Screw a 1×2 to the top edge of the rafters and slip a drip edge on top of the 2×6. Then nail the gable 1×6 siding to the 2×4 and 1x2s as you did on the other gables.

Step 16: Nail 1×6 tongue-and-groove boards to the rafters

Nail 1×6 tongue-and-groove boards to the rafters over the exposed part of the porch roof. Add 3/4 x 1-1/2 in. strips to the jack rafters to fur them out. Then measure for the plywood sheathing, cut it and nail it on. Tack up 1×2 fascia trim to cover all plywood and 1×6 edges.

To install the 1×6 siding for the gable end above the door, use the assembly we show in Step 15 and Figure A, Detail 1. You don’t really need the flashing in this protected area, but we included it to match the other gables. In addition, install blocks cut to a 45-degree angle spaced every 24 in. to keep the 2×4 nailer upright. Run the 1×6 siding as before, except that the top edge doesn’t have to be exact because it won’t be visible.

Only a small amount of the porch roof will be visible, so don’t waste money and time running the 1×6 tongue-and-groove boards all the way across the porch roof. Instead, cover the exposed part and nail 3/4-in. furring strips to the other rafters. Then add the plywood sheathing.

Step 17: Assemble the decorative post details

Assemble the decorative post details and clamp the gable post to the rafter so the bottom of the cap is 3 in. higher than the ridge. Plumb it and secure with 3-in. screws from the backside of the rafter. Butt the 1×2 trim into it.

Step 18: Staple No. 15 felt to the roof and nail valley flashing in the valleys

Staple No. 15 felt to the roof and nail valley flashing in the valleys, cut to overhang the roof edge by 3/4 in. Lay the shingles according to the directions that come on each package. We set the shingles at a 5-in. exposure and used a 1×2 as a guide to keep them even.

Shingle the roof

Don’t stop now! Once the plywood is on, cover it to make it weatherproof. Staple No. 15 roofing felt over all the roof sheathing. Then run an additional strip lengthwise down each valley. Now take a break.

Installing cedar shingles is enjoyable, rewarding work, but it’s time consuming. To speed up the job, rent a 1/2-in. crown pneumatic staple gun and buy a box of 1-in. long staples to fasten the shingles to the roof. Space the shingles 1/4 in. apart to allow for expansion and stagger the joints between shingles by at least an inch. Double the first row and let the edges overhang by 3/4 in. This photo shows you how to deal with the valley.

Setting the screens

We special-ordered our screens to save time and money. You’ll need 15. Ask for a 10-degree bevel on the bottom to fit the tapered sill and order them painted.We painted ours, but it was time consuming. Nail 3/4 x 3/4-in. stops to the 2×4 uprights and top plate to secure the screens.

We also ordered a simple cedar screen door, complete with the hinges and latch set.

Finishing details

Although the drama in this screen house lies in its overall structure, several decorative details add more punch. Up alongside each king post we added 4×4 braces for better looks (Figure A). And to keep the bugs out, we nailed 2×6 blocking ripped at a 45- degree angle between each rafter on top of the 4x4s (Figure A).

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