Less progress, more process

Finally got the first coat of primer on the window sash trim tonight. I was sickly on Monday after we got home from work and school. DeShawn was sickly on Tuesday after we got home from work and school. Consequently, it wasn’t until last night that I was able to finish up all the repairs to the trim. Wood, like human skin, tends to dry out over time. Roughly a 1/4th of the pieces had split from the constant exposure to the heat of sun in summer and the dry, arid air of winter.

All of this sash trim was “professionally” stripped of paint by a Charlotte refinisher using chemical strippers based on Peel-A-Way stripper technology. Many people, both professional and seasoned amateurs, have very good things to say about Peel-A-Way. Indeed, there are specific projects where it’s process and application are uniquely adept. My experience, with run-of-the-mill “get the old paint off the old wood” stripping has not been so positive.

One of the holy grails of old house rejuvenation is finding the “perfect” way to remove paint. Skulking the restoration/remodeling forums on the internet reveals the passion and depth that homeowners manifest as they pursue the ultimate solution for the problem of removing layers upon layers of potentially toxic paint. Complex discussions of paint type, numbers of layers, ease of use, toxicity, and end result go on and on. Ultimately, everyone has their favorite, with no “perfect” chemical or technique applying to all situations. Yet the passionate discussions continue.

Note: the opinions about to be expressed about the art and science of stripping paint are simple observations based on my limited experience at 118 Henry Street. In no way, do I warrant any generalizations of these methods to your house, lifestyle, asthetics, knowledge, experience or morals.

My opinions on the subject are a bit wishy-washy. After 2 years of almost constant paint removal of some kind or another, on some kind of wood or another, my definitive paint removal solution can be summed as “It Depends”.

The fastest way I’ve found to remove paint from flat surfaces is a heat gun, scraper and respirator. The best technique I’ve developed for using a heat gun and scraper is to bubble the paint using the heat gun, let the paint cool back to being brittle, then scrape with a high quality carbide scraper. Using this technique, I can strip 4 layers of paint from all the flat surfaces on a normal size door in less than 2 hours. The down side is the extreme toxicity of the paint fumes. Thus, the respirator and very good ventilation. Wood that has an especially low moisture content (not uncommon in an old house), may require care to avoid scalding or burning the surface.

For curved or molded surfaces such as custom trim or window mullions, a chemical based stipper, steel wool or pad and gloves works best for me. The key here is letting the stripper does its chemical thing and sit long enough to have the proper effect. This kind of stripping is not production oriented like the use of a heat gun, but is gentler on rounded surfaces. Again, the downside is a degree of toxicity. Neutralizing the surface after stripping is also a factor.

Although Peel-A-Way is very non-toxic and easy to apply, my unhappiness results from the unpleasant changes it makes to the wood itself. The extremely low Ph (alkalinity) of the chemical darkens most wood significantly. And, while on the wood or being removed, the combination of very low Ph and moisture cause the wood to soften and the grain to raise. This causes many small gouges and splinters even when removing the chemical paste with plastic tools. My sash trim is yellow pine with a relatively large grain and has a profile with a rounded edge. Where the grain intersects the profile at a low oblique angle, the softening and moisture of Peel-A-Way caused the grain to separate and large chunks of the profile to be lost as the paint was scrapped by the refinisher.

I also tried to use Peel-A-Way on a window sash with much the same results. There was a distinct disadvantage in time of removal and wood change on the flat surfaces when compared to using a heat gun and scraper. On the milled side of the mullions, Peel-A-Way softened the wood to the point of deterioration after just a few hours, resulting in all the paint being removed but the wood being “hairy” with raised grain.

The heat gun and scraper are definitely going to remain in my bag of tricks. I’m still looking for the “perfect” chemical stipper though. The next heir apparent is RemoveAll. When I start the destruction of the upstairs bathroom, I will get a gallon, use it and publish my surprise or disappointment.

Midweek reading on the progres-o-meter is on the “+” part of the dial but no where near pegged, for sure.

The Sins of the Fathers

DeShawn and I spent most of the weekend at Carole’s house in Columbia. With only a few days left of spring and the official beginning of summer fast approaching, these last 2 days have been hot and muggy.

Before leaving on Saturday morning, I barely managed to make the milestone of having one of the pair of sashes completely painted. The final coat of semi-gloss “sawgrass” tan on the interior facing side of the sashes was totally dry and cured when we returned home to 118 Henry Street today. The heat in the upstairs of the house bakes the paint to a hard, shiny finish. It was a close call this afternoon not to put the last coat of paint on the other pair of sashes. But, in the final decision, mowing the lawn won my attention. The weather forecast for next week includes more rain and the grass would be unmanagably tall if I waited another week.

The lawn mower was in the first set of tools purchased when I moved to Chester 2 autumns ago. It’s a relatively high power push type, moving along at a pace determined solely by the driver, with no self-propulsion. I almost bought the ultimate in yard exercise machinery, an old fashion mower with the spinning curved blades. The prospect of hand sharpening the blades, however, caused me to hesitate. And, a mulching mower is important when 20+ trees with leaves are part of the landscape.

Acreage at 118 Henry Street is about 0.5 with rough rectangular dimensions of 100’x200′. Assuming the mower cuts about a 20″ swath, that’s about 2 miles of pushing a mower up and down the hills in my yard. It takes about an hour and a half at a good walking pace, so that sounds about right for the distance. With the cardboard box, packing materials and all the pieces on the driveway, Kent Vines had come over to watch me assemble the mower when I brought it home. He asked me if it was self-propelled. When I replied in the negative, he sincerely and graciously offered the use of his riding mower should I ever need it. Poor Kent had no idea at the time about the madman newly nextdoor with the nefarious plan for self abuse.

Carole lives in an old house too. Almost a perfect example of tidewater folk architecture, her little house with wooden clapboards and tin roof is undoubtedly over a hundred years old. One of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, it was originally a farmhouse with no indoor plumbing. It’s easy to think of history in terms of the famous people and grand deeds recorded by the victors of human wars. But real history is about how everyday was lived by the normal people of the time. Carole’s house on Maple Street is a time machine back to the ordinary, everyday farm family around the turn of the century.

Carole at the Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower Birthplace, Sherman TX

431 S. Maple Street, Carole’s old farmhouse

We created two significant piles of yard debris on Maple Street this Saturday. There’s a terribly old and huge liveoak tree at the back of Carole’s yard that’s over 3′ in diameter and probably 250+ years old. Unbelievably, within 6′ of the big oak, had grown up a magnolia tree. Although 10″ in diameter, it wasn’t very tall and was heavily leaning in an attempt to get some unfiltered sunlight. Carole said that it had been there for as long as she could remember. It took me about 20 minutes to get it on the ground and about 2 1/2 hours to get it cut up and moved to the side of the road for next week pick up. Pile #1 is approximately 20′ long, 6′ deep, and 5′ high.

In the ensuing clear cut that followed the magnolia tree, we created Pile #2, appromimately 10′ square and 6′ high. Pile #2 was created from bushes, vines, 2 or 3 dozen small trees and anything other leafy plant standing higher than 3 inches tall that was in my way. The “reclaim Carole’s backyard” project had originally started last summer. Even though I did have a mattock, not much happened on the project until I bought a chainsaw. This weekend saw the most of it done. There’s still a sizable area behind some wire fence that will get down before winter.

Despite the quantity of yard debris we generated this weekend, Carole and I made time to stop by her, and my adopted, parents today. Jean and Deucey have been married since the dawn of time. She’s in her early 70’s and he made it to 82 this year. Deucey was mixing up some spray insecticide when we arrived and Jean was at the sink, washing an early season round of cherry tomatoes. After visiting a bit in the kitchen with Mom, I went outside to check on Deucey’s garden spray operation. He had just finishing spraying the tomato plants and had stepped on a fire ant mound in the garden. Several ants had bit and stung his sandaled feet. We talked while he cleaned off his right foot and applied alcohol to the stings.

South Carolina is not as bad as Florida but we do have our share of insect species. A large part of every summer is spent fending off the mosquitoes, killing the fleas, avoiding the fire ants, spraying the aphids, and, well, you get the picture. Of course, battling the fire ants was most of what Deucey and I discussed. Shortly, he grabbed a shovel and we determined to find some queen ants. He and I were walking the yard looking for mounds like two kids off school for the summer with nothing better to do. All this at 92 degrees in the noon day sun. After digging up a half dozen or so, we got distracted by some buried bricks and while we dug them up, he giggled about a treasure marker.

Deucey has worked hard for over 70 years, most of it physical work, outdoors, in construction. Although the years have taken their toll, and especially the last 4 or 5 have been hard on his mind and his health, you and I would be blessed and proud to find ourselves at 82 years old with his stamina and energy.

There is an often repeated joke that Satan used to live in Columbia, South Carolina. But he moved to hell to escape the heat.

Return to Normalcy?

The stove is side project #7. The other side projects are:
1) A metal and wooden medicine chest for the upstairs bathroom circa 1930. Purchased from an antiques mall in Lexington SC.
2) A metal medicine chest for the downstairs bathroom circa 1935. Found in a pile of material taken from a recently remuddled house.
3) A brass, hanging “pan” light fixture circa 1925 for the downstairs, summer or guest, bedroom. Bought from an architectural salvage shop.
4) An oak table for one of the studies. Found by the side of the road in Charlotte.
5) An small, oak school chair for the side porch. Purchased from a Salvation Army style second hand store in Cayce SC.
6) A door for the under-roof access hole cut by the previous owners in the closet wall of the (eventual) upstairs study.

Side Project #6: Under-roof access panel

The side projects are opportunities for skills education separate from the cirriculum imposed by the actual restoration of 118 Henry Street. I’ve learned how to clean and polish brass, how to frame and drywall an wall opening, and several other ancillary techniques working on them. I’ve also learned how to procrastinate on house work by focusing on the side projects when I need a break from the wall/trim/door/window restoration work. So far, the status of side project #6 is complete. The status of side project #5 is abandoned; the chair will be used as-is with no repairs or decoration. The status of the the remaining side projects is “incomplete in various stages.”

The stove became a side project when I realized it could not be used in its current state. Although I haven’t had the gas sub-system pressure tested, there is one burner valve that is loose and, potentially, could leak. Rather than pay a plumber to tell me it won’t pass a pressure test, it makes more sense to pay an appliance restoration specialist to make the whole stove usable. No worries, the “move kitchen wall” sub-project will need to be done first anyway.

Each new project on an old house is like the surprise in a box of Cracker Jacks: you never know what you will ultimately get. It’s no wonder that everyone I’ve met or talked to that has an old house is very laid back. The Type A personality would go NUTS with the circuitous progress and pace of old house restoration.

Crystal Olive Stove

Some information about the stove:

There are four burners on the bottom and the oven is mounted up top. It’s mostly made of black cast iron with some sheet metal. It weighs between 250 and 300 pounds. It’s 67″ tall, 39″ wide counting the two wing-like extensions on the sides, and 36″ deep.

It was made by the Olive Stove Works in Rochester PeeAay and it’s a “Crystal Olive”. From the markings on the castings, it was cast on November 16, 18, and 20 of unknown year. On the main cook surface, cast in the metal is “No. 180”. Unknown at this time if this is a serial or model number.

A Google on “Olive Stove Works” reveals:

–The University of Delaware has an Olive Stove Works catalog dated 1912 in their “Food, Dining, and Entertainment” exhibit.
–The Olive Stove Works Foundry is listed in the “Pennsylvania Iron Furnaces and Iron Works Name Index”.
–H.C. Fry, born 1840 in Lexington KayWye, was director and stockholder of the company from 1879 thru 1922.

The next step in side project #7, the stove, is to re-assemble and, in detail, photograph it. The photos will be sent to the stove restorers for appraisal and estimate.

Work continues on the windows in the upstairs study. Each evening, we get another coat of paint on a pair of sashes. Each sash has 2 coats of acrylic primer on both sides, 2 coats of white semi-gloss latex on the “outside” side, and 2 coats of light tan, “sawgrass”, semi-gloss latex on the “inside” side. Pity the poor owner, who, in another 80 years, has to strip the paint from the windows in the next cycle of restoration.

One last note of interest, DeShawn’s birthday is November 19th.