An online diary about the restoration of my 1921 Colonial Revival style house in Chester, South Carolina.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

The Fourth Dimension

I finished assembling the last window sash from my adventures on Monday. Last night I primed a single stick of window trim to be ready this evening. It went together super easily, super quickly and, thank goodness!, no more broken glass panes. After the assembly part, I caulked the 4 sashes to seal up the window trim.

A side note on technique: I used latex gloves for the first time tonight. They made the job of caulking much less messy and did great things for my caulk-spreading-finger technique. The only down side was the lack of breathability. By the time I was done, my hands were drenched with sweat inside the gloves.

The work tonight seemed to have more the right feel and timbre than this last weekend full of frustration.

DeShawn has stayed with Carole and his mommy, my daughter, Elizabeth in Columbia since Saturday. They went to the beach in Charleston overnight on Monday and from all reports, had a wonderful time. While they were at Fort Moultrie, Carole read the rules from the park signs to DeShawn. One of the rules was that there was no climbing on the cannons or the great earth embankments that shield the gun emplacements. It's very easy for me to see in my mind's eye, DeShawn listening seriously to the "rules" and trying to make sense of them. Carole related how, upon seeing the first embankment, DeShawn immediately began running down the steep grass slope. When reminded not to climb on them, DeShawn retorted, without a break in stride, "I'm not climbing on them. I'm going down them!"

This time he's spent with them has, besides a great emptiness, given me loads of opportunity to work on 118 Henry Street. In retrospect, this probably contributed to my haste and urgency this past weekend.

The rhythm and pace of my work on the house changed when DeShawn began living here. Before, I might go days without doing much or maybe only work on the yard. Then, as the motivation built, I would work, more or less obsessively, for a few days or a weekend, accomplishing large, quantum changes in the house. Finally, again reverting to a less active stage for a bit. This timing allowed me great flexibility to procrastinate or activate as my moods colored the days.

Since DeShawn came, such motivational laziness has not been possible. Although I have, every day, some time to work on the house, the total amount is smaller. These everyday, compact intervals has caused me to be more journey oriented than goal oriented. Planning has replaced daydreaming and, generally, I've been better organized. I'm less manic and more careful, making sure each hammer blow or saw cut or tape measurement is quality.

So, like a kid on Halloween, bag filled with candy, this weekend I was given way too much time. I established goals instead of milestones and, of course, hurried to meet them.

I very much have missed him and am very excited he's coming home tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Thick as a Brick

Not every day of work on an old house like 118 Henry Street is a calm smile of serenity. Like a man walking 50 yards with a broken back, a sprained ankle, and some broken toes, I made it to the top of the road and back today. That is, very slowly with great effort, pain, and difficulty.

I continued to work on the upstairs study windows. Generally, the morning was going well replacing the glass panes in the first of the last two sashes. After much obsessing..ehh..analysis, I figured out that some of the broken glass panes from the last window were caused by the nail brads completely penetrating the mullions from one light into another.

These last two windows face westerly and take the brunt of all the spring rains and the winter storms. They were more "experienced" than their south facing counterpart. After all the old glazing and paint were removed, these two had much more epoxy repair and restoration before being rebuilt. The extra wear and weather damage was most evident on the thin mullions between the glass panes. When freshly built, the wood between the panes is only 1/4" thick or so. After mildew, mold, weathering, paint removal and sanding, many of the mullions lost lots of their thickness.

A 1/2" brad driven into the 1/4" window trim at approximately a 60 degree angle stays inside a 1/4" mullion. However, if the mullion thickness is much less, the brad sticks thru the other side and presses on the adjoining glass pane. The solution was as effective as it was simple: cut a bit off the end of the brads. With the total margin of error being about 1/16" of an each, clipping the point off the brad was enough to suffice.

Even with obsessing..ehh..analysis, solution derivation, and having to prime more trim, things were making headway. With only 3 panes in the sash so far, very slow headway, but headway nonetheless.

Maybe it's because these last 2 windows are not in as good a shape as the others, maybe because I'm trying too hard (read "obsessing"), maybe because the weather's right for yardwork not indoor work, maybe, maybe, maybe....Anyway, this afternoon was an exercise in perseverence and frustration management.

Here's the litany:

1) The millwork store had sent me some 3/8" window trim mixed in with the 1/4" I ordered. When I primed just enough plus 1 stick to finish this window, of course, I didn't notice. With caulking setting up on a glass pane and a mitre cut almost done, it hits me!

2) After finishing one sash, I set it next to the already finished ones. A pane on a sash I assembled Saturday is cracked! How did it crack!?! Unknown, but it has to be replaced.

3) The upper sashes on all the windows have slots on the top row of lights wher the upper edge of the glass pane inserts. On this particular window, the wood above the slot is thinner than the others. Net result: 2 broken panes (!!) from brad penetration syndrome despite cutting their tips.

4) With all those glass panes breaking from brads, bending, and spontaneous cracktion, I had to mix old "wavy" glass and new "shiny" glass on the same sash. Argh! the shortcomings of today will be forever immortalized.

At ten to six, I'd had all the character development I could stand for one day. The last sash for the room sits on the work table upstairs waiting for me to prime one last stick of trim and finish it.

Maybe tomorrow night, I'll mow the grass.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Out from Under the Weather

But not the clouds.

Got a fair amount of work done on the (planned-to-be) upstairs study this morning. I got up about 6:30 in hopes of getting a jump on the day. It's rained 3 or 4 days of almost every week this spring and been unseasonably cool. We don't so much mind the temperatures in the high 60's to low 70's but the lack of sunshine has everyone a bit stir crazy. The rain for this week stopped last night. Today, though cloudy, has been pleasant.

Of the two windows remaining to be restored in the upstairs study, I got the glass panes back in one. Each glass pane takes 8' linear of caulk, 4' of window trim, and 10 1/2" brads. For a complete 6-over-6 window that's 96' of caulk (almost a half tube), 48' of window trim (6 8' strips) and 120 brads. It doesn't seem like that much when it's all put back together.

The bad news for the day is that I've shattered (pun intended) my old record for breaking panes of glass.

The rules for constructing new houses rarely apply to an old house like 118 Henry Street. Floors are not level, ceilings aren't parallel to the floor and corner angles are not increments of 90. When reading books on the various techniques involved in house restoration, you must learn to translate before applying. For example, if you read "Measure the distance....", that means "Cut to fit". Don't worry about the numbers on the tape measure, use an old piece of trim or rig up a caliper out of scrap wood to get the right length. If you read, "Insure that the line is level...", that means "Make all the lines in the room visually parallel". Lastly, if you read "Mitre the corners...", heaven forbid do not assume 90's. "Split the corner angle" is what will work the best.

Almost any "science" used in new construction will be magically transformed into an "art" when applied to work in an old house.

So it is with the window sashes and the panes of glass. The glass "lights" of the windows are approximately 9-7/8" by 13-7/8". The word "approximately" most definitely applies to the original wavy glass from 1921 with the side measurements varying by up to an 1/8". Don't even assume that the panes are rectangular. Similarly for the openings in the sash: approximately 10" by 14" and rectangular only in theory.

On other days and other windows, I've test fitted every pane on a sash before starting the assembly. This is important because the panes may fit partially down into the rabbits and look like they fit. But, when the trim is nailed in place, it puts extra pressure on the trying-to-bend pane and cracks a corner or side. My old record for broken panes was 2 on a window.

This morning, I forgot this step and before I knew it, 3 panes were in with no problem! Why do we assume good luck will continue? By the time I'd finished, I had cracked 5 panes of antique wavy glass. My haste and hubris had destroyed almost a complete sash worth of the old glass. Ah well. Of the glass panes I cracked, 4 can be trimmed and used in the downstairs windows as replacements.

Before stopping work upstairs, I gathered all the remaining old glass panes, the new ones I use as replacements, and the remaining window's sashes. After clearing the table, I carefully test fit every pane.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

What's Currently Cookin'

We bought a stove last night. For all the time I've been at 118 Henry Street, we've not had a cooking stove, just a small microwave. The Hucks' had an electric stove that they were determined to take with them. My determination, pretty much from day one, was to have a gas cooking stove. Like so many of my ambitions and visions for 118 Henry Street, this was not something that could just be "bought".

The kitchen remodel done in the 1970's was very much a snapshot of the stylistic vision of the time. That is to say, dark, mass produced, and painfully bland. The old kitchen chimney with its original thick, cool skin of plaster was completely covered in plywood and drywall. The heart pine floor, covered once long ago with real linoleum, was covered again with a layer of particle subflooring and urine yellow colored vinyl. The original cabinets, sink, and/or counters were completely erased and replaced with dark wood veneer cabinets available at any discount construction supply store. As best I could tell, only a small shelf and the door/trim molding remains from 1921. Even the original panel doors were discarded and replaced with hollow core, veneer door-a-likes. I suppose that, rather than cut the old doors to fit the new floor height, it was "easier" to replace them.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I disliked the kitchen. I flatly hated it. Way too much like the brick ranch ghettos that I had escaped.

The raw capacity of my distaste was most blantantly expressed when I removed that icon of the 1970's kitchen: the stove island. Of course, every remodeled kitchen must have miles and miles of counterspace and volumes and volumes of cabinets. Unfortunately for the design vision of the 1970's, the kitchen at 118 Henry Street was laid out and sized in 1921. Actually, as 1921 kitchens go, it is a large and "modern" one. With all the available wall space taken up with miles and miles of counterspace and volumes and volumes of cabinets, there was only one place to put the electric range: the middle of the floor.

Suffice to say, the Reverend Rufus Morgan, when he designed 118 Henry Street did not design the kitchen to have the cook stove in the middle of the room. As such, the stove island and its hanging cabinets, completely disrupted the walking flow of the kitchen and used up every remaining bit of space.

I attacked the island with a vehemence completely out of character with the reverent, respective demolition I've done to any other part of the house. The cats ran and hid, DeShawn fled to the playroom and was not the least interested in the violence revealing itself in his safe zone. By the time I was done, I was sick to my stomach and the house, clearly, was upset.

The first Mrs. Hucks died of cancer about 3 years before I bought 118 Henry Street. When I was removing the built-up closets in the master bedroom, Lilly Boyd told me she remembered Ms. Hucks very sick in the bed, the closets on either side of the bed's headboard. Alec (Elliott) and Lilly Boyd have lived at 117 Henry Street since the 50's and were good friends with the first Ms. Hucks. Ms. Hucks would bring Lilly and Elliott sweets on the holidays. At the time of my purchase, I asked my realtor why J. B. seemed so anxious to sell the house. "Anxious" as in "jumpy" or "physically agitated". My realtor, an older lady, replied with the pragmatism and practicality of her experience: "Because of the current Mrs. Hucks".

118 Henry Street has always spoken very deeply to me. Carole, my fiance', has no doubt that the history of the house still resides here. We are very blessed that the history has mostly been good. I felt very badly, not so much about the fact that I removed the kitchen island. But more about the anger that I let overcome me. Since that day, no matter how much I shake my head at the repair decisions of any former residents, no matter how short-sighted or tasteless their vision, those days belong to them. Not to me.

What about the stove? We're making arrangements to go pick it up in Uniontown, PA. It, like me and 118 Henry Street, is a relic. We'll know more shortly.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Good and not-so-good Vines

Got home from work last night about 6:30. The grandson and I spent a half hour or so chopping kudzu and honeysuckle vines in the eastern back corner of 118 Henry Street. There's a swale where our property, Robert Turner's property, Kent and Traci Vine's 114 Henry Street and unknown owner's property on West End Blvd come together that is quite overgrown with small trees, honeysuckle vines and, in the last year or so, a bit of kudzu. Since last fall, I've chopped 2 or 3 dozen vines. So far, I've got it in retreat but who knows for how long.

I couldn't convince my grandson to help drag the remainder of the newly felled tree out to the curb. Prowling around in the dark swale with Poppi, hacking the vegetation like some old jungle movie was quite fun. But, this dragging tree limbs seemed too much like work! In truth, I did work up a bit of a sweat despite the cool temperatures.

By the time I'd finished, DeShawn had started climbing on the huge grapevine near the swale. There's an old cedar tree about 20" in diameter and an old poplar tree 2' or so in diameter on the back property line of 118 Henry Street that we share with Mr. Turner. Growing out of the ground next to and up into the branches of the poplar tree is the largest wild grapevine I've ever seen. At ground level, it's close to 8" in diameter and has grown all the way up into the tallest reaches of the poplar. Last year, I would have sworn it was dead, a relic of better years. This year, however, it has sprouted all kinds of new shoots from all parts of its bark.


DeShawn climbing on the grapevine

DeShawn is not the first little boy who has noticed the potential for aerial adventure on the grapevine/poplar combination. There are remnants of an old treehouse about 12' up the tree. On the day we met, Mr. Turner told me that his foster son and J. B. Hucks' son had built the treehouse. I bought 118 Henry Street from J. B. Hucks and had met his son, who, is now, nearing 50 years old.

Watching my 3 year old grandson "helping" me in the yard, glimpsing his monstrous grin when jumping down the flight of stairs, and, especially tonight, seeing him climb up and down on that grapevine reinforces so many decisions I've made: the decision to move 45 miles away from my work, the decision to buy an old house that needs tons of attention, the decision to raise my grandson. What we are doing here is ok.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Work and Vision

Spent this weekend working on areas of the house that have occupied most of my time for the last 20 months: the (planned-to-be) upstairs sitting room and the yard. The upstairs sitting room was originally a bedroom. The family that I bought 118 Henry Street from had used it as a boy's bedroom for 30 or so years. I'm using it as a classroom and laboratory for learning many of the restoration techniques needed to work on the house.

The current milestone for the room is to finish the window restoration. There are four double sash, 6-over-6 wooden windows with brass weatherstripping. The destruction phase of window restoration starts with disassembling the windows down to the frames, removing the weatherstripping, weights and pulleys. Next, removing all the glass from the sashes and stripping all the paint from the sashes and frame. The window sash trim is saved but the middle parting bead and weatherstripping are completely destroyed in the process. Total time for destruction phase: approximately 3-4 hours per window.

The construction phase of window restoration begins with gluing and clamping the joints in the sashes, then epoxy repairs for all the cracks, checks, gouges and other damage. After sanding the sashes and frame, two coats of acrylic primer are applied. Next for the frames, 2 coats of the final color paint. The pulleys are driven back into the slots near the top of the frame and the weights are rehung using cotton sash cord. Brass weatherstripping for the top sash is done at this phase too. Total time for frame restoration to this point: approximately 2-3 hours per window. There's a little more work to be done to the frames during the final assembly of the window.

The sashes still have significant work left at this point. The glass is put back in place using a small bed of silicone caulk on the rabbits. Instead of glazing compound, I'm using a 1/4" window bead trim to hold the glass in place. The window bead is mitered and nailed in place using 1/2" brads. My attempts at using an electric nail gun for this have completely failed, so I'm placing and driving each nail individually; ten per pane. Developing the skill to drive the 1/2" nails less than 1/8" away from the glass panes is a source of great pride to me. A bit of silicone caulk is used to fill any gaps between the miters or between the window bead and the sash rabbits.

After applying two coats of final color paint to the sashes, I cut and nail on the pieces of brass weatherstripping. There are three pieces of weatherstripping on each pair of sashes and four pieces on the window frame. I'm amazed and very pleased at how well the weatherstripping seals the windows from air leaks. Total time to restore the sashes: approximately 4-5 hours per window.

Final assembly of the window consists of hanging the top sash, installing the middle parting bead, nailing in the frame weatherstripping for the bottom sash and hanging the bottom sash. The refinished sash bead is nailed back into place and the final step is any paint touchup that is needed. Total time for complete window restoration: approximately 10-12 hours per window. Total cost per window: $50-$75.

For the upstairs sitting room, I've already done two of the windows completely. The frames have been restored on the other two windows and as of today, the remaining four sashes are repaired and primed, ready for putting the glass back.

Some notes for you readers who may be questioning my sanity for this amount of work and wondering why I don't just replace them:
--The current windows have lasted over 80 years with virtually no maintenance except painting. I would expect them to last another 80 years after the work I've done on them.
--At $50/hour, total restoration costs would be $550-$675 per window. Anyone who has priced quality replacement windows can tell this is not out of line for top quality wood windows.
--The current windows and glass are irreplacable architectural antiques. Why not restore them?

For more information about window restoration, see the link for Historic Home Works in the links column.

Regards the work on the yard, I cut down another tree. My 1/2 acre had 33 trees when I moved in. Many smaller trees were growing in the shadow of larger trees, some were stunted by disease and some had never been trimmed in any way. The 10" diameter, 50' tall pin oak I cut down today is the 12th tree removed. There are still 2 more I'd like to see cut but will need a professional arborist to avoid collateral damage to fences and other trees.

The tree I cut today was rooted not 8' away from a very old pin oak that's almost 3 foot in diameter. Both trees were suffering from the proximity but the smaller tree was much more lopsided and bent. Trees are like any other cultivated plants, they must be thinned and pruned for the healthiest life.

One last event of note for this week was replacing the hot water heater. DeShawn, my grandson, and I had been doing without hot water for over a week while I found time to take off work and be home to call the plumber. The bad news: $500 and the old water heater couldn't be removed from the crawlspace because of the gas pipes hanging too low. The good news: hot water, of course!

Saturday, May 17, 2003


After living at 118 Henry Street for 1 year 8 months, I've finally decided to keep track of my work on the house.

118 Henry Street is my third house. My first two houses being 1960ish vintage, brick veener, ranch, American "tenements". Both boxy, middle class homes were the epitome of mass produced, middle class style and function. Not that I liked either of these other houses, they were just "easy". Easy to find, easy to finance, and easy to forget.

118 Henry Street is a "going home" house for me. Having grown up in a couple dozen "old" houses and never having lived in a brick ranch before buying one, I'm finally comfortable in my house skin after over 25 years of home ownership.