4 and a half

Today was a day of “firsts” for 2004.

Our first winter storm blew thru the Carolina’s over the last 24 hours. Sleet and frozen rain cover the grass and sidewalks about a 1/2″ thick. The streets are shiny with an icy glaze. The school systems are closed in Charlotte so DeShawn and I will work/play at home tomorrow.

Funny how warm it was yesterday. The sun was very warm and temps in the 60’s. We were outside almost all day. DeShawn rode his bike and played “monster” while I finished most of the excavation at the rear of the back bedroom.

The southwestern corner of our backyard is within a few feet of a hilltop and the yard slopes down toward the back of the house. Ground water moves from the hilltop straight down the slope to hit the back of the house at the back bedroom wall. In 1921, I’m sure the house stood up on the foundation well above the grade line. At the time, they probably didn’t have a problem with ground moisture in the crawlspace under the bedroom and kitchen. 80 years and the accumulation of about a foot or more topsoil has created such a problem for us.

With all the rain, last spring brought us a phenomenon called “rising damp” where the soil under the house is so moist that the walls and timbers began to take up water. For days on end, the room smelled of musty dirt. The groundwater problem was made worse by 3 redtip bushes that the PO’s (previous owners) had planted right outside the bedroom windows. The roots of the redtips penetrated the weakened foundation and sill, allowing even more moisture to get under the house.

Before Thanksgiving, I removed the redtips, pulling up all their roots and cutting them off at the house wall. And, after leveling out the ground behind the bedroom, dug a diversion ditch to catch some of the groundwater and direct it around the corner of the house. A half dozen wheelbarrows of dirt later, this temporary solution looked terrible but did help dry out the crawlspace quite a bit. Ultimately, the foundation and sill need to be repaired from all the moisture damage and previous termite infestations. The next step towards this project was to complete the excavation down to a level slightly below the sill on the foundation in this area. Thus yesterday’s work.

Though not quite deep enough and still in need of enlarging a bit, we removed 8 wheelbarrow loads of dirt and clay from the area and got the drainage headed in the right direction. Even still, for all practical purposes, the back of the house is resting on the ground because of settlement on the weak foundation. Finally got enough soil removed so that I was able to pull up the siding and see the old clapboards and feel the sill. Check out the upper right corner of the newly finished floorplan to see where we’re talking about. Around lunch time today, the sleet changed to rain and I used the opportunity to see how the drainage was working back there. It’s definitely much better but unfortunately still looks like a big, square hole in the yard.

This work, like so much of what we’ve doing on 118 Henry Street, and on Carole’s house since the autumn, feels more like maintenance than real restoration. It was VERY satisfying to get some of Carole’s electrical problems straightened out. (By the way, her newly functioning back porch light works great!) However, it all seems more like “repair” than “restore”.

While DeShawn napped today, I worked in the upstairs bathroom, continuing to strip paint from the woodwork. Stripping the flat trim with a heatgun and scraper goes very quickly and by the time he woke up, I had done the window trim and the base board under the sink. Not much longer and we’ll have to remove the tub, commode and exposed water pipes to finish stripping paint. Very satisfying work and the first “real” restoration work of 2004.


Bathtub and toilet in the upstairs bathroom


Looking into the linen closet of the upstairs bathroom

Junebug vs. Hurricane

(Hopefully) you’ve been checking for updates to 118 Henry Street, wondered what happened and (wishfully) wanted some more. The short answer to the “what happened?” is we lost our internet connection for 5 weeks or so. Well, that’s not exactly the true story. while it took only 1 day to terminate internet service with the local telephone company, it took the local cable company 3 weeks (no joking) to decide that the special mail offer didn’t apply in Chester. And, oh by the way, there is no cable modem service AT ALL in Chester. Subsequently, we lost our position with the phone company and got on the “approximately 2 weeks” reconnection list. Note to self: in a small town, don’t terminate your current internet service provider before you’re sure your new internet service provider can deliver the goods.

With a renewed and stable internet connection comes a new side project in the restoration of 118 Henry Street; by end of year, our online diary will take up residence in a new location complete with domain name and, gasp, photographs. No matter how slowly, the wheels of fate do indeed continue to grind.

For a bit after losing an internet connection, work continued at a largely normal pace. Progress continues on the upstairs west bedroom despite finding a section of wall plaster that had loosed from the lath. A few drywall screws reattached and stablized the surface and patching plaster make relatively quick work of the crack. This time of year, with the leaves coming off the trees, the room is bright with sunlight continuously after 10ish or so in the morning until sunset.

De-Construction continues on the upstairs bathroom. All the paint has been scraped from the walls. About 1/3rd of the woodwork (not counting the window sashes) remain to be heat-gunned and scraped of paint. This last week, we removed the carpeting from both the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms. God bless PO’s (previous owners) everywhere.

Just this weekend, we removed the carpeting from yet another room. Work in the dining room revealed more of the house’s heart pine floors in beautiful condition. DeShawn has always called this room “the Green Room” because of the lime/avocado green paint that the PO’s applied to the walls, woodwork, doors, built-in china cabinet (including brass drawer pulls), and windows. The green was somewhat tolerable with the grey/tan carpeting, but now, the reddish orange pine floors make the walls look like the color of glowing green pea soup.

The only carpet remaining in the original house is on the stairs and the hallway. Before we can take this up, I will need to have 5 door thresholds made to replace the ones discarded on carpet installation. Made of yellow pine, the thresholds are 4″ wide and almost 3/4″ thick. Strictly custom lumber yard. The floor in the rear addition is carpeted (of course) and, unfortunately, directly on the subfloor. We’re going to have to leave it be for a while longer.

Speaking of the addition, the latex sealer/coating the PO’s had put on the flat roof began de-laminating this summer. It lasted a whole 2 years. This is probably pretty good considering that latex sealer is not recommended for builtup bituminous roofs. Funny thing, it won’t stick. Like most projects at 118 Henry Street, at least half of the time is spent de-constructing past efforts at repair or improvement. A 6 hour Saturday to remove the old latex coating with a pressure washer, and a 4 hour Sunday to apply an appropriate fiber based coating will get us thru the winter. A return engagement with the fiber based sealer next summer will set us good for 4 or 5 years. Sooner or later, I’ve got to tackle the flat parts of the reverse dormers that are also coated with the white latex.

We completed one of the side projects this weekend in addition to the carpet removal. Last summer, I rescued a table from the side of the road. The table’s PO’s had apparently used it as a shop table. There are several saw cuts in the edges of the top. Looks like a very bored dog chewed at the feet too. Old house, new furniture? Not on your life. I’m not so sure we should own expensive antiques, just old stuff. Anyway, finally got all the old finish sanded off of what appears to be maple(?) wood. We refinished with white pickling stain applied like paint. Carole will put the finishing touches on it, most likely, stenciled morning glory vines and flowers.

I had to buy a new orbital sander to finish the table. A couple of weeks ago was some kind of sun flare or moon phase or planetary alignment that caused several of my most used tools to fail miserably. Scratch one shopvac. Scratch one orbital sander. On the injured reserve list, the string trimmer (again), and, sigh, the lawn mower. Did I mention the chainsaw? The final tally was: new shopvac, new orbital sander, parts for the trimmer, water in the gas for the lawnmower, and fouled spark plug for the chainsaw.

Last weekend, I finally trimmed up the magnolia tree in Carole’s side yard. Easily 60′ tall and definitely 3 1/2′ in diameter, big and old are appropriate adjectives. This task has been on the honey-do list for a good bit as several limbs at the 30′ level touched the roof of her house. Said limbs provided squirrels a quick trip to her attic. Twelve hours over 2 days, 6 of which in the tree, are only the first part of the squirrel solution. Next is to repair the holes the rats with furry tails chewed in the roof eaves to get into the attic.

Random notes for those interested: 1) Lucinda Williams, 2) The Power of Full Engagement.

Next weekend is the annual Hillarity Street Festival in Chester. We will be preparing all week for our big city guests. Preps include mowing the grass (last time this year!), fixing the grill (a must if hotdogs are really on the menu), and cleaning house (like normal people do…not like house restorer’s do).

Invisible Sun

DeShawn and I worked upstairs for about 2 hours tonight. At first, my intent was to continue working on the ceiling shims in the west bedroom. Before going to bed last night, I made some measurements from the level reference line (thanks again, wonderful laser level!), to the shims already in place. The goal being to double check that the new ceiling height would be the same, and hopefully level, across the length of the room. Measuring every couple of feet along the wall, parallel to the shims/joists, I discovered that the ceiling is as much curved as it is unlevel. At the high end, there is a distinct bow, from the highest point, along the wall to the middle of the room, with most of the “unlevelness” in this half of the ceiling. From the middle of the room to the low end, there is much less variance.

The net consequences for my shim job is that the shims don’t have to be as long as I originally designed. Not only does this mean less work on the remaining shims, but, of course, it means additional work removing length from the shims already in place. Such is the learning curve in my continuing education on old house restoration. This evening, after a couple of confirming measurements, I went to remove the extra length on the 5 sets of shims already screwed to the ceiling. Only then did I realize that my drill was at the office. No surprise that it should still be there. It only took me 7 days to remember to take it to work.

These type of self-induced setbacks would have totally frustrated me 2 years ago when first setting up shop at 118 Henry Street. Now, with the hardknocks kind of wisdom from those 2 years, its very easy to redirect my energy at any of the 999 other tasks that can be done. It took me less than a minute to mentally switch gears from the ceiling shims to the electrician induced hole in the bathroom wall. Standing on the sides of the clawfoot bathtub, I could reach the hole, near the ceiling. After raking away the loose and broken plaster, I began pulling off the ragged paint surrounding the roughly 6″ hole. The paint came off in large, continuous sheets, likely the result of the previous owners painting directly onto the plaster surface.

In the overall order of room restoration, the upstairs bathroom is next on the list after the west bedroom. Over the last year, I’ve begun some of the demolition and prospecting as a prelude to dedicating all my time to it. I’ve removed the paneling in the closet (to be replaced with beaded board to match the downstairs bathroom closet), stripped the paint off the pine floor in the closet, and removed the window sill to see how much work will be needed inside the bottom of the window frame.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I did a timed paint stripping exercise where I stripped 4 layers of paint from half one of the door frames with a heat gun and carbide scraper. Turns out, I stripped about 6 1/2′ feet of door frame in about 20 minutes. Extrapolating to the whole bathroom, 5 hours to strip all the wood trim, not including epoxy repairs or finish sanding. Seriously, for flat wooden surfaces, nothing strips faster than a heat gun/scraper combo.


Upstairs bathroom original paint and hole courtesy of the electricians

This evening, the paint was coming off the wall so easily, I couldn’t resist trying some oldfashion elbow grease scraping. With minimal pushing on a 3″ scraper, sheets of paint 8-12″ long, 6-8″ wide and 2 layers thick were falling to floor every few seconds. Within an hour, a quarter of the total wall surface to be refinished was down to the original paint (a pinkish peach color) on the original plaster surface. At this rate, ALL the paint to be removed from the room will be gone in 8-10 hours, including trim, windows, and walls. This seems outlandishly fast to me after almost 2 years in the west bedroom. There are only 2 possible explanations: either there is now a warp in the time-space continuum on Henry Street or maybe, just maybe, I have learned something after all.