Not surprisingly, most serious problems are the result of water leakage. Although
any leakage will eventually cause problems, the two places where leakage seems
to wreak the most havoc are in the belldeck or in the base of the spire or dome.
Such leakage will find its way into the most critical structural parts. Furthermore,
since these flat areas are usually not visible from the ground, problems go unnoticed
for years. Traditional timberframe structures are particularly susceptible to
rotting in such cases because water will collect in their mortices. Often, these
timbers will look sound to the casual observer, but will have been rendered hollow
tubes by such rot. This will often cause a phenomenon in which a structurally
sound spire sits precariously upon a rotted belfry.
Another common problem is rot where the weathervane shaft enters the spire or
dome. Often, such spires were built with a central mast into which a hole was
drilled to accept the weathervane shaft. On all but the finest steeples, this
penetration point was never properly sealed. Over the decades, only a tiny amount
water infiltration was needed to cause harm because the water collected at the
base of the hole with no way to disperse.
Moderate leakage in the main body of a spire can sometimes last for decades with
minimal harm. This is because such water can generally disperse into the open
and well ventilated area of the spire. People often see some slate or shingles
missing from their spire, and call me for that reason, but usually a few missing
spire slate will not have caused problems, and then I will discover unseen problems
with the flat areas.
Although we all love to believe that the craftsmen of yore were infallible,
it is not so. The raising of steeples with 19th century technology is a wondrous
feat, but some historic steeples are poorly built or have design or engineering
flaws. One common flaw results in a steeple that leans backwards. This is caused
by the fact that while the front of the steeple sits directly on a wall, the
back sits on a wood attic truss, and this has sagged over the years. This is
a delightfully easy problem to fix. Sometimes, steeples are simply built too
lightly to carry their own weight or the windloads. Other problems involve
exterior wood parts being installed in such a way that they do not shed rain
Since galvanized and stainless steel fasteners were unavailable, the builders
of 19th century steeples used iron nails. Not infrequently, a steeple in otherwise
good repair will start dropping otherwise sound exterior wood parts as their
nails evaporate into rusty dust.
It seems that since steeples are difficult to inspect, some amazingly sloppy
work gets done. We see paint just slapped on unprepared surfaces ( see painting
philosophy) We see sheet metal work that leaks and does not shed water properly
at the drip points( see roofing) We see rotted timbers repaired by simply scabbing
2x10 lumber over them. We see carpentry repairs in which bare pine parts are
simply nailed up and painted.
Frequently, when a church hires a roofing co. to re-roof their church, the
roofers will simply nail their flashing up to the sides of the tower. ( see