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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2001 > The Importance of Gutters

The Importance of Gutters


These illustrations from a pamphlet, "Copper Gutters and Leaders," issued by Copper and Brass Research Association, New York, 1945, in SPNEA’s Library and Archives illustrate the numerous functional, and occasionally decorative, elements that constitute a gutter and downspout system.


Anyone with an old house knows from experience that water is the number one enemy of preserving the building. Properly directing rain water away from buildings can protect against the damage caused by exposure to water, especially standing water. Gutters, downspouts and sub-surface drainage systems are the traditional means by which rain water is safely conveyed away from buildings. Several different types of gutters have long been used on New England houses, including simple wooden or metal troughs, hollowed-out sections of wood with decorated moldings, and wooden boxes lined with metal that actually form a building’s cornice.

Gutters that do not function properly cause significant damage to historic features, beginning at sidewall clapboards or shingles, but eventually affecting interior structural members. As roof water runs down the side of a building, it can enter the interior through open joints in wooden siding or masonry walls. It can also collect along the foundation and seep into the cellar. Pruning the trees surrounding your house and cleaning gutters at least twice a year, in spring and again in late fall, will prevent accumulated debris from clogging the gutter and downspout, or leader, system.

The pitch (or slope) of gutters is also important: in general, gutters should pitch one inch for every ten feet of length. A running hose placed at one end of your gutter will confirm whether the gutters and downspouts are functioning efficiently. At the bottom, the downspout should be extended several feet away from the building to direct water away from the foundation. Finally, the overall life of wood gutters can be significantly extended by coating the interior trough at least once a year with a mixture of raw linseed oil and mineral spirits. A one-to-one ratio generally works well and will preserve the life of the wood and the exterior paint surface as well.

—Joe Cornish
Stewardship Manager

The Importance of Gutters