As a one-man crew working in a historic district, I often rely on old-school tricks and tools to get the job done. One of them is my trusty water level, which is simply a length of plastic tubing filled with water. It’s a lot cheaper than a laser level or a transit, doesn’t require another crew member to operate it, and can even be used to establish a level around corners. It came in handy last year when Hurricane Irma ravaged Central Florida and brought down a 110-foot-tall oak tree onto a back deck, which I was called in to rebuild.
The original multi-tiered deck had been built around the massive trunk of the tree, so after the tree crew removed the trunk, only the highest tier of the deck remained, severed and 16 feet away from the house. After the stump grinder had done its job, the ground between the house and remaining deck section was uneven and had the firmness of the ball pit at a child’s indoor playground.
After a hurricane in Florida, lumber is hard to come by. Another problem is that in this particular storm, it took three months to have the debris removed from the curb. While county crews are in crisis management, landfills are typically not available for several weeks following a storm, and in this case the city instituted seven-day-per-week pickup runs with bulk haulers; each street just had to wait in turn to be cleared. As a result, the street was filled with downed trees and there was nowhere to haul off the waste. So I salvaged as much of the framing and decking as possible.
I started by installing a new ledger, which was located directly underneath the main entrance to the house and extended out into the side yard, where it was supported by a post bearing on a footing. Then I dug around in the wood chips until I found the other old footings, which were still sound. I built up the four new girders directly over them and loosely assembled the 2x8 frame over the girders.
Next came the water level. After filling the tubing with water (I just clamp the two ends of the tube upright when filling it so that it can burp out the air bubbles), I attached one end to the ledger with a pair of screws, clamped the other end to the upper deck some 16 to 24 feet away, and adjusted the level of the water in the tubing until it was even with the top of the ledger. I prefer screws over clamps because you cannot pinch the top of the tubes closed without ruining the whole concept, but if you are careful and only loosely clamp the tubing to the framing, you can move the water level around with you much more easily.
I jacked up each girder with my 20-ton bottle jacks, resting them on temporary posts as I moved along, until the frame header came into alignment with the water level attached to the upper deck. I started with the furthest girder – the one next to the existing deck. Since I knew the elevation there would not change, I went ahead and cut permanent posts to length and anchored the assembly to their footings.
Because I was sistering some of the joists, I knew there would be some sagging. So when I lifted the interior girders into position and supported them on posts, I had to backtrack to the first girder to ensure I was not lifting the header out of position. At this point, the frame was just floating on the girders, since nothing could be attached until the whole frame was level. But having both hands free and the end of the tubing clamped within reaching distance, I was able to move across the frame and float it into position much faster than reaching for a transit rod at every post. Once everything was level, I went ahead and cut the rest of the permanent posts to length, anchored them to the footings, and finished up all of the framing connections.
Before laying down the decking, a local product called "Florida milled decking" that I was able to order from a local lumberyard to match the existing decking, I installed low-voltage lighting as well as power and water supplies for a fish pond. Because the house was built in 1925, I feathered in some of the salvaged decking to match the weathered appearance of the upper deck.