14 becoming 56

No surprise that the paradigm of restoration here at 118 Henry Street has a strong scent of Luddism. This is true and, at the same time, not so true. Technological advancement is close to the core of our culture and has, no doubt, propelled humanity to the top of the food chain. The question, “Can it be done?” has pushed, driven, and expressed more improvement and quality in human lives than any other single reflection. I strongly believe and apply the notion that we will exceed what has been done with what can be done. For the most part, this is a very good thing.

In the case of old house remodeling, and, in the world of technology, the question “Can it be done?” might, perhaps, be swiftly followed by “Should it be done?”. A cracked plaster wall should not automatically lead to demolition and drywall. Success in cloning a (single) sheep should not automatically lead to the attempt to clone humans. Yet other decisions are not so clouded. Cast iron water pipes should be upgraded to copper and new drug trials should continue. It’s in this demilitarized zone of technology that the Luddite in me dwells.

This past week has given me 2 good examples of the appropriate use of technology in old house restoration. Of course, the same week has given me the usual number of vexing decisions in the application of the restoration paradigm.

Good Example No. 1: Jower’s Appliances in Clayton, Georgia aka AntiqueAppliances.com.
Thursday thru Saturday of last week, Carole, DeShawn, and I took a mini-holiday in the mountains of northern Georgia. Approximately 3 hours away by car, this most southern part of the Appalachians is a dream for folks wanting to go to the uplands but avoid the over-commercialization of North Carolina’s high country. We spent most of our time hiking and mining for staurolite (see link to the Hackney Farm). But while in the town of Clayton, we ate lunch at a local lunch spot, not much bigger than the back room of my house. When finished eating, we walked across the street to Jower’s.

John Jowers and crew restore old refrigerators and cooking stoves. They can take an old appliance that looks completely irrepairable and make it fully functional again. Their showroom was jammed packed with wonderful examples of their abilities. By replacing materials such as insulation and wiring with modern equivalents and using the latest techniques in metal plating, they use technology to preserve history. Not surprisingly, they do their magic in a socially sensitive way, helping to preserve their way of life in Clayton.

Good Example No. 2: Rotating Laser Level.
Even after all the measurements and diagrams of the upstairs west bedroom, I rented this piece of technological magic this Saturday past to make sure my plan for correcting the uneven ceiling started properly. The apparently simple function provided by the marvel of high technology is an old house worker’s dream: an absolute reference for measurements. Within 20 minutes of opening the carrying case, it was set up, turned on, and there was a perfectly level horizontal line projected in red around the entire perimeter of the room at head height. Absolutely astounding!

Within an hour of opening of the carrying case, I was able to make 20 or so measurements that completely defined the planar geometry of the ceiling and the relative window heights. My previous investigations into the mathematical wonderland of the west bedroom took over 2 hours and over 50 measurements. Interestingly, measuring from the laser line revealed a logic flaw in the prior data. There is a slight, but significant difference in the height of the windows. All in all, the laser level is technology well done and has the 118 Henry Street seal of approval.

Now if I can just figure out how to shim the drywall….

Tempis Fugit

The last week has been riddled with the paradox of a school age child’s summer vacation. The days are so long, it seems they will never end. Yet the close of summer vacation brings the strong impression that it all went by too quickly. What incremental progress we made this week working on 118 Henry Street was hard won. But, in reflection, the week has flown by.

Monday night, we broke out my camping stove to experiment with a paint removal technique. Harvested from the OldHouseJournal.com forums, this particular germ of wisdom recommended removing paint from brass hardware by boiling in TSP (trisodium phosphate) and water solution. An alternate chemical to add to water is lye. Several pairs of the brass sash lifts removed from the windows in the upstairs west bedroom still had 4 layers of paint on them. I had procrastinated about taking the paint off because of my prior (bad) experience using harsh chemical strippers.

After boiling the lifts for about 10 minutes, with some random stirring and picking at the paint, almost all the paint simply peeled from the metal. Only a few, small, paint deposits required rubbing with a green scrubee. The only drawback was a bit of rust, a result of the lifts being brass plated steel. Even still, I heartily recommend this relatively non-toxic, very rapid method of paint removal.

Most of my efforts this week were directed at the next large phase of work in the west bedroom, drywalling over the ceiling. Friday night last, DeShawn and I spent almost 2 hours making detailed measurements of the room. Not only perimeter dimensions, but also floor-to-ceiling, floor-to-top-of-windows, and ceiling-to-top-of-windows. There is a strong visual illusion in the room that causes the viewer to see one of the windows as crooked. Also, it appears that the tops of all the windows are not even. The original builders fell prey to this illusion when they installed the picture molding around the perimeter of the room, running the trim from top of window to top of window.

Results from the 50 or so measurements pleasantly surprised me. My biggest fear was that the windows were, in fact, unevenly spaced in the vertical dimension. Replacing the picture molding and adding a narrow, parallel molding at the joint of the ceiling drywall and wall would be greatly complicated by the windows being at differing heights. Making the moldings visually parallel AND linking the windows would have been a trim carpenter’s nightmare.

Turns out: 1) the tops of the windows vary in height from the floor by less than 1/4″ and 2) the tops of all the windows are level. The strong visual illusion is created by significant variations in the floor-to-ceiling height. One corner of the room is over 3/4″ lower than the highest part of the ceiling. Although it doesn’t seem like much, the discrepancies are made visually evident because of the tops of the doors and windows. Our brains don’t believe what our eyes tell us: “The ceiling’s not level”. Instead, what we see is “The windows aren’t level”.

With the detailed room map, shims can be developed between the final drywall layer and the plaster ceiling to correct the illusion. Once more, Ode to the joys of old house work.

Tuesday night, my middle son, Benjamin (uncle to DeShawn) spent the night. He was a great help in chalklining the joists pattern on the ceiling in the west bedroom. I got up in the attic and drilled small holes thru the plaster, up against the side of several joists. Returning down to the bedroom, we were able to use the holes as guide marks for the joists. Two stepladders, a tape measure, and a blue chalkline later, we have the beginnings of the covering pattern for the drywall.

To quote the Masters of Reality:

When I was young I didn’t know
Summer days seemed 25 years long.
Now I ain’t no wiser,
But I know
That it’s a drag to be alone.

Sowing a Tapestry

Despite the obvious onset of sickness, DeShawn is in good spirits. Last week, one of the teachers at his school had strep throat. For 2 days, DeShawn’s voice has been hoarse and tonight, after his bath, he was clammy to the touch and a little too ready for bed. Looks like tomorrow’s agenda will include a trip to the doctor.

This week’s restoration activities at 118 Henry Street have been pretty low key. We’ve spent a little time upstairs in the (newly christened) west bedroom every evening. Touch up work like puttying nail holes, sanding the rough edges of the wood trim, and inspecting the last of the plaster wall repairs provide a leisurely background to DeShawn’s and my conversation. He’s quite talky and the topics of discussion range widely from superheroes to restoration techniques to scary movies. He’s quite excited that the west bedroom will be his room and wants to help with the remaining work.

Before his bath tonight, he learned how to use the shop vac. As a result of our long car rides, he’s learned to interpret stoplights and the shop vac has color coded on/off buttons: green (go) for on, and red (stop) for off. His use of the buttons was, thus, very natural. His technique with the sucking end of the house needs more work but his enthusiasm more than compensates.

Summer before this, I spent close to 40 hours repairing plaster cracks in the walls of the west bedroom. Not only were there obvious, open settling cracks, but there were equal amounts of crack repair attempts by the previous owner(s) that needed to be un-muddled. Heavy spackling over angular tape jobs, little or no feathering of the edges, and semi-gloss wall paint worked together to create shadowy, abstract shapes across all the walls that appeared and disappeared with the shifting sunlight.

Luckily, the trenches created by wrenching the old tape off was at least 4 layers of paint deep. This allowed me plenty of depth to apply an elastomer sealer to the inside of the cracks, a thin layer of patching plaster for strength and a final layer of finish spackling, nicely feathered. What about the standard dogma of paper tape and 3 layers of spackling? When I studied the plaster in the west bedroom before starting any repairs, almost all were slightly larger than hairline and generally connected to a window or door frame. I gambled that these were all either relatively old or, because plaster is a “living” material, the result of seasonal fluctuations in humidity and temperature.

Warning: the opinions about to be expressed about the art and science of repairing plaster 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.

One year, four seasons later, my gamble has paid off: no new cracks. Some of my early work, that didn’t include the patching plaster layer, has redeveloped the same crack but no new ones. A lot of online advice about repairing plaster cracks includes the caveat that the cracks will ultimately re-appear. The reason being, as previously mentioned, the structural nature of plaster is far from rigid. It swells in high humidity and shrinks in low humidity. But, as long as there is no ongoing structural movement of the house, “aged” plaster shouldn’t develop significant new cracks.

My issue with the repair caveat that the cracks will re-appear, is that the accompanying repair method doesn’t take into account the seasonal changes in the plaster. Dried spackling is an inherently brittle material designed to present a very smooth finished texture. This works great on modern materials designed for maximum uniformity. But these same structural characteristics make it unsuitable for repair of plaster. Patching plaster or real brown coat plaster are the only proper repair materials, in my humble opinion. Spackling is best left for the final finish.

So much of work on an old house is like this. The melding of new and old must be done carefully if the end result includes preserving the original and historical. Simple, taken for granted things like the modern size of a 2×4 wall stud (not really 2″ by 4″), create issues when combined with 100 year old 2×4’s (actually measuring 2″ by 4″). Another example: wood screws used in residential construction prior to World War II were exclusively slot headed. Phillip’s head screws, a relatively recent invention, were used in manufacturing only. Replacing brass screws in an old house like 118 Henry Street quickly becomes an adventure of its own.

This spring, while visiting Carole in Columbia, a renovation company was working on a 1930ish brick house not far from Maple Street. The renovation commenced with removing all the windows, frames and all, removing all the doors, interior and exterior, and demolishing all the plaster walls and ceilings down to the support studs. Original bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets were discarded to the street for garbage pickup. When the demolition was done, the house was completely eviscerated, gutted in every nuance of the word. Not only were the insides gone, all trace of history was erased. The house character and spirit were lost, never to be recovered. As surely as I wonder why the renovation company didn’t simply raze the house and build from scratch, they must wonder why I labor for hours to clean up a single old brass door hinge.