Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Effects of Light

I was walking past the second parlor a few days ago and saw this going on.  The sun was at the perfect angle to shine through the stained glass transom and onto the peacocks.  While you can see some of the band of blue and gold filtered through the glass in the picture, it's really cool in person.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Restoring & Refinishing Stairs

In my last house, the stairs to the basement were painted black by a previous owner.  I found it hard to tell where each step was, so decided to paint them in a lighter color for the sake of safety.

The problem was, my office and the laundry room were in the basement.  These were areas I needed to use all day, every day.  So, how do you work on a set of stairs while still being able to use them?

The answer is:  skip every other step.

Of course this only really works if you have legs that are long enough to step over the wet steps and probably wouldn't work for homes with small children.  Using the handrail helps for those of us that are fairly short.

Fortunately, we have two sets of stairs in this house, but if I were going to work the only staircase in the house (and all the bedrooms, etc. were upstairs), this is how I would go about it since it allows for a smooth finish across the entire surface of each tread and riser with no lap-marks.

Stripping treads and risers can be done half and half if needed-meaning, the left half or right half of the staircase so that you can use at least half of it during the prep process which is the time-consuming part of the project.  It's better to work the entire length of a riser or tread at the same time for the sake of color continuity.  When you work with strippers and such, your method-or rather the amount of time the stripper sets on the surface being stripped-may vary from one day to the next and sometimes this shows up as a change in the coloration of the wood (ie. the section that was worked one day may show a darker edge than the section you worked the next) when finished.  This is just an observation from my own years of painting and finishing.  So, it's better to strip on entire length of surface at once-if possible.

Either way you chose to strip them, start at the top so that and dripping stripper runs down onto an unstripped surface below.  Not only can you use the run-off to start removing the finish below, this method also keeps stripper from dribbling onto a raw wood surface-one cause for the color irregularities I mentioned above.  

Once you have a section stripped, wipe it down good with mineral spirits.  The mineral spirits neutralizes the stripper and if there is residue from the stripper on the wood, the spirits will cause it to ball up and it can be easily removed with a broom or vacuum cleaner.  Wipe with the spirits until no more residue comes off the surface.  Those blue shop cloths they sell at the big box stores work good for this as they're pretty durable and don't leave behind a lot of lint, etc.

Strip all of the treads and risers before moving on to the sanding process.  In a household that wears shoes all the time, you'll want to cover the stripped treads so that dirt and shoe prints don't get ground or pressed into the raw wood.  Heavy craft paper (sold pretty cheap by the roll at the big box store) comes in handy as it isn't slippery like plastic and is safer.  If you tape it in place, try not to tape it to the raw wood as the tape will likely leave behind a whisper of a residue that will need to come off.  Old towels will work just as well and without the tape residue.

Once everything is stripped, move on to the sanding process.  I like to use an orbital sander attached to the vacuum cleaner hose for this since sanding indoors is such a nasty business.  There will still be dust, but not as much as sanding with only the bag on the sander.  Every little bit helps.  After sanding, vacuum and wipe it all down with mineral spirits again.

When you're ready to start finishing, consider each tread and the riser above it as a set, working the riser first, tread second. 
While the bottom of your shoe will come into contact with the tread, the toe of your shoe is likely to come into contact with the riser above that tread.  That's why you want to work them together as a set.  You'll also want to do the entire staircase, (skipping every other set) in the same working time.  It's mentally easier-and safer-to maneuver an entire set of stairs when the rhythm is consistent than when it is not, i.e. step-skip-step-skip-step-skip vs. step-step-skip-step-skip-step-step-which becomes a trip hazard just from the confusion of it.  (I hope that made sense.)

It's easiest to do this task when the house will be empty for several hours-like while everyone is at work or school-as it gives the finish time to start drying while there is the least amount of  activity.  After everyone else has gone to bed works out pretty well too.

Put old folded towels that are easy to see on the treads that aren't wet.  Leaving something visual like that helps serve as a reminder of where to step.  I usually put some other obstruction at the bottom and top of the stairs to also serve as a reminder that there is work in progress in that area and to use caution.

Although there will be no one stepping on the wet treads, the nose of the treads will also be wet.  Since they protrude over the riser of the treads that are in use, they are vulnerable to being bumped by a toe on the way up and by the back of a pant leg on the way down-especially since you're having to jump over a step to get to the next one and will be descending at a greater angle than usual.

In my experience, the first coat of finish normally takes the longest to dry.  If you can keep from stepping on that coat until it dries, it's pretty much all downhill from there.  Fortunately, even oil based products (which are the only thing we use on wood surfaces) generally dry to touch in less than a work day, so the inconvenience isn't long-lasting.  Subsequent coats generally dry in a couple of hours in our climate.

When the first set of finished risers and treads have cured enough to handle normal household foot traffic, (usually a couple of days after the last coat of finish has been applied) move the towels to those steps and proceed in the same manner as before on the skipped risers and treads.  At this point, I'd avoid the craft paper on the finished treads as it may scratch your newly finished surface.  I'd also avoid anything rubber backed as it may also make marks in the fresh finish.  Something soft without a lumpy texture and preferably cotton, is nicest.  If you do use towels, be sure to also use the handrail as towels on that slick new surface can be slippery.  If the finished treads are well-cured, you should be able to use tape on them for added safety if you want to tape the towels to the finished treads-or if you want to just use the tape as the reminder that will work too.  Even though I haven't tried it, I'm thinking a smooth textured carpet pad might work great.  Should have thought of that in the first place!

Repeat the process on the remaining stairs.  Nothing to it, huh?

 If you are going to use a high gloss on the stair treads, be aware that they can be very slippery.  Once the treads are cured, wash them with a mild dish detergent and water to help knock down the slickness.  Don't ask me why, (and I suspect it's possibly the lime and minerals in the water) but it seems to help-a little.

Anyway, that's how I'd go about it and I'd have to have that high gloss shine like the ones in the examples as it really highlights the grain, movement, and color of the wood.  Aren't these beautiful?

(Original photo from

I probably should add that if there is a landing,you can either work it with the stairs or separately.  Either way, you'll have to work it half at a time, following the length of the boards.  Leave yourself enough room to be able to turn the corner of the stairs at the newel post when you work your first half without stepping into the wet.

If you'll be working the landing at the same time as the stairs, you'll want to plan out the pattern for working the stairs that includes a comfortable transition from the stairs to the landing.

In the example, working the stairs marked with 1 and the 1st half of the landing at the same time will keep anyone using the stairs from needing to be able to do acrobatic splits to get from the dry step to the dry part of the landing.  Use the arrows as a guide to traffic flow.  Make sense? 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's the Little Things...

that just drive ya nuts!

Donnie was working in the library and I was bored with doing prep work for tax time and tired of seeing this ugly little mess on the floor where the previous owners had a stove when they used this room as their "den".  It's been bugging me for 3 years and today I decided that mess was coming off since I didn't have anything else fun or interesting to do.

Under the stove, they had installed some brick veneer and had glued it to the hardwood floor.  When we took the stove out (because it got in the way of where we wanted to put furniture and we want to put a fireplace there one day) we pulled up the brick under it.  The good news was that it came off easily.  The bad news is that they used what looks like carpet adhesive-I think they loved the stuff or there was a huge sale on it somewhere.

So, today was the day that lumpy discolored nonsense came off the floor.  It will look like there has been something done there, but at least it will look-and actually BE clean and cleanable.  Woo Hoo! 

So, here's where today's little project started...creeeepy.

The tools of the day-1 heat gun and one putty knife.

I took a couple of hours so get it all off given that I took a few breaks and wasn't in a hurry.  When I de-funkified the half bath under the stairs, I learned about how well the heat gun works on that adhesive.  Apparently, someone had used it to apply mirror squares to the beadboard wall behind the toilet.  At some point the mirror had been removed and they just wallpapered over the lumpy adhesive and sections of broken glass.  They called it renovated, but I beg to differ.  Anyway, the heat gun worked wonders for getting the adhesive off the wall-as well as the broken glass, so I used the same method on the floor.

Since the removed stove was gas, there was a capped gas pipe right in the middle of what needed to be worked on and I was afraid of what might happen if I got close to it with the heat gun.  Using a little improvisation, I wrapped the pipe in a wet paper towel then covered it with aluminum foil to reduce the heat to the pipe.  Of course as an extra precaution, I kept a fire extinguisher handy, pin removed and ready-not that it would really do more than sneeze at a leaking gas pipe explosion, but ya do what ya can and hope for the best.

All went well and I managed not to blow anything up.  So, here we have one nasty section of floor stripped and rubbed over with mineral spirits and ready to go.

Fortunately, I was able to manage to shake enough tung oil out of the empty can to put a thin coat on it.  You can still see where the tampering was done, but at least it's CLEAN and won't try to rip the legs off the furniture if you scoot something across it.  Bonus!

A word of warning though.  The fumes created by heating that adhesive are possibly toxic-just something you may want to consider if you're thinking about using this method-and if the fumes don't kill you, the smell just might.  The stuff stinks!  (Think burning tennis shoes)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Where Did My Kittens Go?

 Baby Callie

Christmas Callie

Baby Duncan

Christmas Duncan

The Potted Cat

They're both probably about 8 months old now.  Can you believe it?  They're monsters-but they're SO sweet! 

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part VI

Not much left for a lay-person to look at besides peeking into closets, cubby holes, and under cabinets and such.  If there is a basement, check it out to see if you notice a water line up the wall where the basement floods, have a look at the foundation from the inside of the basement, and inspect the joists that are holding up the floor above.  You'll want to note whether there is a subfloor to the floor above.  If you can see daylight through the overhead floorboards, there is no subfloor.

If there are stairs, check that the railing is stable and that the stairs are properly attached to the wall.  The following example is from a wonderful house in our neighborhood that was recently demolished to make way for a parking lot.  While the stairs themselves were solid and didn't pose any danger, it was apparent that they were pulling away from the wall.  In this case, it was a sign that some structural issues beneath the wall needed to be addressed and was correctable, but still something that needed to be considered.

Another thing that I like to do is to give the floors a good stomping.  It usually makes the agent showing the house a little nervous, since many of them assume that because the house is old, you'll fall through.  Well, if I'm going to fall through, I want to know before I buy the place, not after!

The houses we look at have, for the most part, been vacant.  If you are stomping in a house that someone is currently living in, please  keep in mind that this may dislodge any valuables they have sitting around, be respectful and don't break their stuff.

Generally, I start in the middle of the floor where the span between the joists is most vulnerable, then jump and land solidly on both feet-not like a ballerina, that won't tell you anything, but more like an elephant which should bounce the floor surface.  If the floor bounces significantly and everything in the room rattles, you may want to have the cause investigated.  It doesn't necessarily mean foundation problems as construction methods changed during the Victorian era and the bounce may just be caused by a 24" spacing between the floor joists vs. the 16" that came later.  In our house, we have both.  The dining room (and the two bedrooms upstairs in the original house) has quite a bit of spring, but the room is large and the joists are single boards that spans over 17', are set at 24" and unsupported in the middle.  Things shake when you walk in there.  The newer part of the house doesn't spring like the dining room as they are set at 16" centers.  Since there are more of them per room, they provide more support.  Springy floors on the ground floor can be stabilized by blocking between the joists and adding piers to support the center of the floor.  Springy floors are not necessarily dangerous floors.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything else that needs to be checked out as far as condition.  This is mainly to get you started at looking at things and making observations so that you can make better decisions which is all a layman really needs to do.  When I look at houses, I generally take a legal pad, a couple of measuring devices, pencil (which will write in the cold and upside down if need be) and a digital camera.  Most digital cameras have video capability and I use this to walk through the house and property and talk about what I see so that I have more than just a written record of the place when I get home.  A few other useful items are a small screwdriver (to use to investigate the wood decay) and a utility knife.

Some observations I have made while looking at properties and accompanying friends who are looking at properties are that the first viewing of something that really grabs you is usually very emotionally exciting and not the best frame of mind for making important decisions.  Generally I go to get a feel for the house and make subsequent visits to collect information.  Multiple visits also give you a feel for the house and point out areas where function can be improved.  I also like to spend some time on a Friday or Saturday night to see what the neighborhood is like since the agent cannot reveal much of this information.

Once you've collected all your data you should have a good idea of whether this project is right for you, your skills, and level commitment which is different for everyone.  If you think the house is right for you, there are a few other things that would be wise to look into before making an offer.

Insurance-I've come across may insurance agencies that will not insure houses on the Historic Register, houses over 100 years old, houses with asbestos siding and the like.  You'll want to look into who will insure the house and factor in the cost.

Taxes-Get your tax information on the house.

Previous utility bills-some places will provide them readily, other places won't.  Due to lack of insulation, drafty doors and windows, knowing what the previous owners average consumption was can be helpful when considering the budget.

When you've found your perfect queen, it's a wise idea to include a home inspection clause in the offer.  There are so many things that need looking into with older homes and a licensed home inspector knows where to look for problems and can often offer solutions to correct any problems found.  I think they run in the ballpark of $400-$600 but can save you the anguish of finding out the problems with the house after you've already bought it.  Most reputable inspectors will give you a printed breakdown of their findings.  They will also crawl under the house and go into the attic.  If I don't have to crawl under the house, it's worth the cost.  Being inspectors, they are also likely to have a network of contractors that do the kind of work that needs to be done if you don't feel comfortable doing the work yourself.  While the cost of the inspection comes out of your pocket before closing and may not be something you want to spend, it can save you in the long run by not investing in a money pit.  In my opinion, it's money well-spent.

There are several things I assume when buying an old house.  First would be that everything is lead.  You can't really do much about lead before a purchase except make a personal decision about whether or not it is acceptable.  If it isn't, you'll probably want to look at new houses as almost everything that is original in an old house is lead based.  Can you deal with that?

Second would be that if the house has gas heat, the heat exchanger is probably cracked.  Every house I've ever owned had a cracked heat exchanger when I bought it.  If the unit is older, plan on replacing it.  Part of the inspection process can be to contact a reputable HVAC contractor and have the unit inspected.  In some areas, the home inspector will inspect the unit.  In others, they will not.  HVAC contractors will usually have a look at a unit for free since if it is bad, they'll be hoping for the sale of a new one and can give you an estimate of what a new one might cost.  This is useful information to have.

Termites-to my knowledge, termite inspections are required by the mortgage lender before securing the loan.  A clause in the contract that stipulates that the seller pay for termite treatment if termites are found is pretty common.

Plumbing inspections-you might want to have a reputable plumber come out and have a look at the existing plumbing.  Again, this is probably likely to be at no charge.  They will crawl under the house and inspect for proper ventilation, leaks and other irregularities.  You can also include in you contract that the seller be responsible for a certain dollar amount in repairs.  Have the plumber give you an estimate of the cost to repair any discrepancies.

Electrical inspection-same as the plumber.  Get estimates for the correction of anything that isn't right.

Even if you are buying a house "as is" and the seller will not be making any repairs, having these inspections done will  give you an better idea of what you will need to do once the house is yours, and approximately how much it might cost to correct them.  Going into a project informed beats learning by hindsight being 20/20.

Once all of these things are accomplished, you should have a pretty good idea if you're up to the task and if you have the financial resources to accomplish them even if it takes time.  If the answer to both are yes, CONGRATULATIONS!  Git packin'!

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part V

Finally, we get to the fun part.  Other than the fantastic exterior elements that the Queen Anne often has, the interiors are my favorite part.  It's easy to become so enamored over the details that you overlook the function of the house.

Check sinks, faucets, toilets, dishwashers, tubs and showers, and water hook-ups in kitchens, baths, and laundry for water damage.  Discolored, soft, or oddly sloped flooring around these areas can be an indicator of current or previous leakage.  If evidence of leaking is found, try to determine whether or not the leaks are active and whether the damage is caused by inappropriate use, deferred maintenance, or undiscovered plumbing leaks.  These areas will impact the function of the house more than any other interior rooms.  They are also likely to be the most costly to repair.

Inspect ceilings, floors, and walls and if you can, try to determine the building materials of each.  In our area as I mentioned before, it is not uncommon for houses to have tongue and groove wood floors, walls, and ceilings.  Other old houses have plaster and lath walls and yet others that have been updated or repaired have drywall walls.  Since many older houses (especially the ones we look at that have been neglected or have been empty for years) often have wallpapered walls and a common home improvement preference is for painted walls, it's good to know what kind of material is behind the wallpaper.  I'll explain some of the pros and cons of each.

The nice thing about wood walls is that they stay put and don't crack under normal circumstances.  You can also nail into them easily and hang heavy pictures, etc. without fear of breaking the wall.  They hold up to water damage much better than plaster.  Old growth wood doesn't rot as quickly as the the wood we have available today, so it can take a lot of water before the damage sets in.  You can drill into them to insulate or drop runs for new electrical without a whole lot of mess and the holes are easy to plug with filler.  Wood walls were meant to be papered-as were most walls during this era and even later.  In their original state, you will find wood walls and often ceilings with a top layer of paper on top of a layer of cloth that is tacked or nailed to the wooden surface.  The cloth created a mesh-like surface so that the wallpaper glue had something to adhere to.  It also helped smooth out the transitions between each board to give the wall a smooth appearance.

If you are planning to wallpaper, wood walls won't cause much trouble since the patterns in wallpapers help mask irregularities in the wall surface.  If you are planning to paint the walls, you'll need to think hard before considering a house with wooden walls.  The look of painted wooden walls is an individual preference, but if you like the look of a smooth, flat surface, wood walls won't get you there without some effort as you'll either want to line them with a heavyweight liner paper (which requires priming the wood, applying the paper, then priming the paper before you can paint it) or replacing the wood with drywall.  While there is the option of installing a thin drywall over the wood walls, I've never seen a single example of this that didn't look shoddy and cause ugliness around doors, windows, and baseboards. 
In our area where old houses are the exception, plaster is the most common wall and ceiling material.  Plaster is generally a smooth hard surface, but since it was applied by hand in multiple layers, expect to find that it is not extremely flat like drywall. The waves in the surface are part of the charm.  The upside of plaster is that it is an easily paintable surface and generally has a hard finished face that is much harder than drywall.  It resists surface dings and bumps well.  The downside is that hanging pictures and heavy objects can be a challenge as the plaster often crumbles on impact with a nail and it's better to predrill your holes for less damage.  Another consideration it that the area between the lath isn't solid enough to hold screws or nails, so you need to hit lath when hanging.  Hammering a nail into plaster is a good way to break those necessary keys as the lath bounces in resistance to nailing.  Pre-drilling and using screws into the lath will hang light to medium weight objects with minimal damage.

As you can see in the picture, I am removing the plaster and lath on one of the walls in our dining room.  This wall suffered a lightning strike at the chimney and caused a lot of damage to the dining room side of the wall.  Upon inspection, we discovered that there were many areas of loose plaster as a result of broken "keys" (which are the sloppy looking parts that overlap the backside of the lath but are necessary for keeping the plaster attached to the wall.)

Check for cracks in plaster walls as sometimes these may indicate structural issues.  Because plaster is hard and has little give, the visible cracks may just be as a result of the house settling on the property and may have been there for decades or may indicate surface wall failure without being anything to be alarmed about.  If you tap the wall surface, the sound of solid plaster is different than the sound of plaster that is missing its keys. Plaster that is missing its keys will fall off the wall in time and who wants that?  This particular wall was missing most of its keys and was inappropriately patched and covered over with wallpaper.  We removed the plaster and concrete patches from this entire wall.  It's a gritty, messy job that will dry out your skin and hair. 

Raw plaster with old joint compound patches

The plaster that I have encountered has always had a hard white surface, however, the newer part of this house introduced us to a different type of plaster that does not have the smooth hard finish coat.  As a result of time, whatever hard coat it once had, if any, is long gone leaving a gritty, sandy surface behind the wallpaper that regularly creates little piles of sand on the floor.  Most of the house has this problem but is something that can be corrected without learning how to plaster but is messy tedious, and time-consuming.

An area where the plaster was deteriorating and sand kept coming out from behind the mantle.  When the mantle was removed, the whole wall behind it fell to the floor in a pile. 

In larger cities and in the north or where the housing stock is likely to be older houses that have been renovated or updated over the years, drywall is probably more prevalent than it is here.  Anyone that has lived in modern housing is familiar with drywall so there isn't much to be said on the subject that most people don't already know.  It's smooth and flat, easy to repair, not very costly to replace, and is readily available.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part IV

Now that you've had a look at some of the major areas, you can start looking at other things.  Before going into the house to start your inspection inside, take note of the type and condition of any exterior siding, wooden posts and other wooden elements, porch flooring, etc.  Stand at the each corner of the house and look down the house wall from top to bottom for bulges in the house walls.  Bowing or bulging walls can be in indicator of foundation issues or extensive water damage.

When I look at old properties,  I like to go after or during a significant amount of extended rain.  Viewing a property during or just after a good rain can reveal things that you can't see when it's dry.  You can get a good assessment of the land itself during a rain as you will be able to see how the water flows away from the house.  You can see the low points in the yard and see where the water tends to accumulate on the lawn.  If it stops raining while you're making your assessment, you can also determine how long it takes for the water to drain or be absorbed into the ground.  You will also be able to determine whether the gutters are doing their job and if standing water next to the house is a problem.

I made several visits to a property one time, the last after it had been raining for several days.  The entire yard was a swimming pool and was standing several inches deep around the foundation of the house and running under the house through the foundation vents.  After some investigation, I determined that its location on a corner lot and the height of the streets on both sides was causing the problem.  The runoff from both streets was being deposited directly into the yard.  The walk to the front door was standing in a foot of water and being lower than the street, there was nowhere for the water to go.  On previous visits I had noticed that the ground was damp and that the lawn was pretty much entirely mud and weeds, so I was curious as to the cause of the problem.  The house itself wasn't in great shape and since correcting the water problem would involve regrading the entire property, I decided it would be wise to move on.  So, even though it isn't nice to visit a place in the rain, it can be incredibly revealing both inside the house and out.

Many old houses have water spots on ceilings from roof leaks and sometimes its hard to tell if they are old leaks or if the roof is actively leaking.  Older leaks tend to be more heavily discolored than active leaking.  This ceiling is a good example of wallpaper falling due to an old leak.  Notice that the roof failure is around the chimney, the likely cause is improper flashing at the junction of roof and chimney.

This is an example of an active leak.  There is a fireplace directly below the large wet looking area against the back wall.  Again, the culprit is probably flashing at the chimney.  In the foreground, there is a large area around the ceiling fixture that is mildly discolored.  This is also caused by a leak somewhere but probably hasn't been leaking as long as the one above the fireplace because its color is more faint.  There was an upstairs dormer on this house and I suspect the flashing where the wall meets the roof is the cause of this issue.  If you notice, these areas actually look wet.

So, these are some of the reasons I like to visit a property after or during a lengthy period of rain as it helps separate old roof problems from the active ones.

The house that I am demonstrating was built in 1929.  In our area, it isn't all that uncommon for the older houses to be built with tongue and grove pine floors, walls, and ceilings and this house was a classic example.  Being made of solid wood components, deterioration is different than it is with plaster.  With the evidence of considerable water damage over a prolonged period, plaster would have deteriorated and chunks from the ceiling probably would have been on the floor.  Since this house was constructed in wood, rot, mold, and termite damage were major concerns.  This was a water damaged area next to a window and close enough to inspect, so I pulled back the wallpaper and cloth to have a good look at the condition of the wood wall and discovered no damage at all to the wall surface.  While most people are skeptical about wooden interiors and consider them undesirable because you can't just paint them and have a smooth wall, this is one area where they exceed the desirability of plaster.  It was actually a very good house although it did need a competent roofer. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part III

Plumbing comes next.  The reason I address plumbing after electrical is that if there is no heat source, you can't keep your pipes warm and the result can be burst pipes due to freezing.

If the water is on in the house, check pressure, look under the cabinets and see if there is evidence of active leaking, standing water, mildew, etc.  Inspect the handles and faucet to see if there is leaking when turned on.  Fill a sink and flush a toilet and see if the water runs out in a reasonable manner.  If slow, there may be problems in the sewer or septic line or the plumbing vent may be stopped up or missing entirely.

Take note of the type of water lines you see-whether they are plastic, galvanized, etc.  Galvanized pipe coming in as the main water line is pretty common in old houses and is probably very old.   Over time, deposits of lime, calcium and other minerals accumulate in the pipe and narrow the opening for water to flow through and can be the cause of insufficient water pressure.

One thing I like to check is number and location of outdoor spigots.  In older houses where fire can spread quickly due to the some of the construction methods used at the time, having water nearby is always one of my concerns.

Find out whether the house is on city sewer or has a septic tank.  The agent should be able to tell you or you can generally find this in the property records at the courthouse.  In our state, this information is available on-line.  Without doing a lot of digging around in the yard, it will be hard to tell the type and condition of the sewer lines that run underground.  Testing the indoor plumbing can give you a little bit of a hint whether or not things are in order.  Keep in mind, old houses often have their old clay plumbing underground unless someone has encountered a problem in the past and had it replaced.

We were told by the previous owner that the sewer lines had been replaced with code-compliant plastic.  It wasn't until the day of the annual Teapot Historic Tour of Homes when the sewage backed up and ran out under the house that there was a problem.  Of all things, the dining room smelled like sewage and we had no idea where it was coming from.  After some investigation, I discovered the mess under the house and called a plumber.  Yeah, the line was PVC to about 5 feet into the yard, then it was the original clay pipe all the way to the street that was misaligned, broken, crushed and just plain missing in a couple of places.  Replacing septic lines is always an experience and not necessarily a fun one-but imagine all the gossip around town about our stinking dining room!  Small towns gotta have something to talk about.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand, just have a look around and see what can be seen regarding the plumbing.  Sometimes, the water company will turn on the water for a day or a few hours so you can test the plumbing.  It doesn't hurt to ask.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part II

The next thing you'll want to check out is the type of electrical system in place. If the house is still on a screw in fuse box, you'll want to give this some serious consideration. A fuse box usually indicates that the knob and tube wiring is still in place and that no updates have been made. Although someone may have installed new wiring in places, the load is still being carried by screw-in fuses that are designed to blow when the power load is too heavy for the fuse. Pennies behind screw-in fuses that keep blowing are probably one of the most common causes of electrical house fires houses with old wiring. Often, the outlets don't accommodate the grounding plug of many of the items we use today and modern household power usage on these old systems is asking for trouble.  For your larger power-consuming appliances at least, (central heat/air units, stoves, refrigerators, even microwaves, computers, and TVs)  you will want to have a modern 200 amp service installed to run those items.  As you work on the various rooms, you can rewire them and move them to the new service at a later date.  The primary danger in knob and tube type wiring is that it wasn't designed for the heavier usage of modern life.  It's ok for standard lamps and most overhead lighting, but as the load increases, the wires get hot and electrical fire can result.  Bottom line is, take it easy on any old wiring you will be using and don't put pennies behind the screw in fuses!

If there is a central heat and air unit (around here they're gas or electric, so I can't give any information on oil or steam units) you can find out how old the unit is by checking the information on the sticker if it is readable.  I was told that the date of manufacture will be part of the serial number, but I have found it in various places on the tag, so if nothing looks like a month and date in the serial number, check the model number if it's not there either, keep looking.  The date of manufacture is printed on the sticker somewhere.  On our old York units, the mfg date is in a separate area of the sticker.

As you can see in the area circled in red, this particular unit was manufactured in August of 91.  While it works, it isn't efficient and is experiencing some problems that cannot be corrected.  It's well past its life expectancy and will need to be replaced.

This one is newer-June 96, but is also failing as the air function is completely out of service.  The life expectancy of a unit is about 12 years.  At the 12th year, the air went out.  Annual maintenance also comes into play when extending the life expectancy of a unit.  A unit should be cleaned, inspected, and serviced in the spring before the summer season and again in the fall before winter.  Neglecting the annual maintenance tends to cost more in the long run as the unit will need to be replaced sooner.  It's a good habit to get into.  A quality well-maintained unit can last up to 20 years or more.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part I

This week we discovered that one of our favorite houses in town has come up for sale by owner.  It's a fantastic Queen Anne that sits back a ways from the road on a two and a half acre lot in town. 

Some friends who own an antique store that we frequent have been looking for a larger home and have yet to find the "perfect" fit.  When they heard this one was for sale, they called and we went to have a look.  If there was a house in town that I would want to live in besides ours, this one would be it.  But a house can look nice from the street and still be a bad deal.  So, here's a list of some of the things to look for when considering an old house.

One of the most important considerations is the roof.  If the roof is bad, everything below it may be compromised.  In our area as well as many areas of the south, termites are always a concern because our summers are humid and water that gets into the house may stay moist longer than in other climates.

Water runs downhill.  If there's any kind of water penetration, it's going to go into the house somewhere and not necessarily straight down.  A leak in a roof may look like it's coming from a corner, but may actually be coming in from an entirely different angle and running down the trusses until it reaches a nail or other protrusion then drops onto the ceiling below or runs down the wall at a framing point. 

Plaster falling from the ceiling is often an indication of a leaking roof.  Wallpaper falling off the ceiling isn't necessarily an indicator, so while it looks scary, you'll want to investigate further.

Chimney, valley, and wall flashing are some of the most common points of water penetration into old houses. Over time, the old flashing can just deteriorate at the bend and even though the roof looks good and the area look flashed, under the shingle there may be nothing left at the junction.

Check for sagging in the middle of the roof.  This can generally be seen from a distance and can be pretty easy to spot.   An inspection of the underside of the roof from the attic will help determine how severe the problem really is whether it's cracked trusses or possibly a bad foundation.  So...

The next thing to look at is the foundation.  Foundation problems are often water-related as well.  If it's a brick foundation, time and the elements can break down the original mortar between the bricks as well as the bricks themselves.  Failure of the external brickwork doesn't always mean the house is going to fall down any time soon, as the brickwork around the foundation is sometimes purely for aesthetic purposes.

To make a good assessment of the foundation, getting under the house and inspecting the piers around the foundation as well as those supporting the floors will give you a better idea of its true structural integrity. 

This is an area under of what appears to be the foundation for our front porch.  If a person were to give it a little kick, the whole wall would fall down.  It looks quite bad, but in reality, the entire porch is supported on piers from below and this brickwork is merely a cover over the open space between the porch and the ground, much like latticework can be seen on old houses.  It doesn't actually support anything, so an urgent repair isn't required.
Failure of brick pointing-also part of our foundation.  Some of it is clearly from the tampering of the wall during vent installation.  The other is probably moisture related.  There are a few spots like this around the house, but nothing to get in a twist about.   

As you look down the wall you can see where there is a small bow where the brickwork touches the aluminum band below the siding where the whitish streaks are.  Something is amiss here but isn't affecting the entire wall and under pressure, the area doesn't move, but is something that should be corrected if there is any additional movement.

The roof and foundation are the two most important things to consider as failure in these  areas are the most compromising to the house, making any other improvements a waste of time.  From above, roof leaks will ruin the floors, walls, and ceilings, and from below, jacking up part of floors to make repairs may crack walls and ceilings, change the operation of doors and windows and totally undo any repairs you've made.  Making these repairs can be expensive, but are the most important things that need done.

The following information came directly from the Bonded Applicators, Inc. website and helps identify things to look for regarding roof condition.

Warning Signs of Roof Failure

Warning Signs of Roof Failure

Look for...

  1. Shingles that curl on ends.
  2. Shingles that show signs of buckling
  3. Shingles that are missing altogether.
  4. Roof debris in gutters and yard.
  5. Excessive amounts of granules in your gutters.
  6. Frequent roof damage due to winds.
  7. Leaking at roof penetrations, vent pipes, and skylights.
  8. Signs of leaks at wall-ties and chimneys.
  9. Loose metal counter flashings at chimneys.
  10. Age of your roof is 20+ years old.
Here is some pretty interesting information regarding foundation assessment.  Lots of good information on the site on variety of other topics as well.

    Friday, November 27, 2009

    Restoration of a Queen-Introduction

    Growing up, working on old houses was just part of life for our family.  Even as children we participated in taking old houses and making them our home.  Eventually, we ended up as a family of 6, so the old houses provided something newer houses did not-lots of rooms.  Most of the time, we each had our own room, even my baby sister. Back then, our job was mostly confined to stripping wallpaper, choosing the new paper for our own room, and pasting the sheets while Mom and Dad hung them.  I'm not sure if it was those experiences that made me into an old house addict or just something in the blood, but I just love an old house, especially one that has seen better days that I can apply the skills I learned by experience and turn it into something lovely.  I understand that I have a savior complex and tend to favor the misfits and maybe this is a manifestation of that tendency, but to take what most people considers an eyesore and turn it into something they respect-or even to change their thinking about old houses and point out the elements that make an old house special is probably one of the things I find most fulfilling.

    Over the years, many people have asked for advice on the topic of old homes, restorations, what to look for when considering an old home, etc. and these are the questions that I enjoy answering.  I prefer to use the word observation rather than advice as I'm not a qualified expert on anything except my own experiences and research and I feel that since each situation is different and people's needs and desires differ, observation allows for flexibility of choice and advice feels like I'm telling them what they should do.  I hate it when someone tells me what I should do, but for me, observation and providing options are always welcome. 

    Today, I discovered some new friends that have recently purchased their first home, an 1895 Queen Anne, and are ready to get busy making her their beautiful home, so this series-and I hope to have the time and energy to actually make it a series-is to share my thoughts and experiences to help them (and anyone else looking for this type of information) make more informed decisions on their old house journey.

    So, congratulations Emily and Tedd on "The Queen!"  You're in for an interesting and rewarding ride!

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Mini Lumbar Support

    I puttered around this evening and made this little baby.  It's 9" x 12" also lined with a feather/down insert in the medium-weight woven upholstery fabric (on both sides) left over from the bigger pillows.  It's quite firm which is good for support and great for using in the small of your back.  I had to try it out.  Now I'm going to need to make one for myself to use while I'm sitting here at my computer!  I have another one ready to make with red tassels.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Intruder Alert

    Apparently, no one has told this guy that all animals that call our patch of ground "home" have to be neutered!  This is one of our two nightly visitors.  He climbs down out of the trees in the evenings and feasts on pecans that the squirrels have dropped during the day.  While he's out doing lawn clean-up, I wish he'd learn to use the leaf-blower too!

    Playing with Pretty Fabrics

    Actually, I bought these fabrics to make some pillows and such for a charity gala event.  Well....I didn't get them done in time but finally hemmed the last pillow this afternoon.  They turned out nice and are supposed to be products to sell, but Donnie has his eye on keeping them.  He's SO bad!

    I made two tasseled pillows and a square tasseled table topper.  The backs of the pillows (that can be used either side facing out) are made of the same fabric as the table topper so it's all a matching set.  There is-was-a mantle scarf as well, but it had a little incident with the iron on the backside and will need to be slightly altered before it can be finished.  Oh well.  I don't like those faux silk fabrics anyway.  If I remember right, the guy at the fabric store said they were made out of old plastic grocery bags.  Figures.  I'll show it later once I've fixed it.

    The pillows are 20" square, lined, with feather/down inserts and the best thing about them is that if you want to actually use them, you can!  Might want to take it easy on the tassels though.

    The table topper and the backs of the pillows are a chenille with the pattern woven in.  While the soft side is the one that is meant to be facing out, it can be flipped to the backside which has an equally nice pattern on it with a bit more sheen.

    Yeah, we have a bunch of places around here where we could use this particular set.  If they don't sell, they'll be accessorizing our place!

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    Leaves, Leaves everywhere!

    This is totally off the wall, but a tip I thought might be useful to anyone that actually reads here.

    Our yard has 8 huge pecan trees-thus the name Pecan Place.  This year we've been "blessed" with a crop of pecans that I actually plan to do something with besides give them away.  In the past, I've always raked the leaves and filled the big trash cans up to take out to the curb to dump.  With the pecans involved, I have to rake gently and the process is ridiculously time consuming.

    Last year we bought a push mower with a bagger.  This year I decided that I'd test a theory of raising the wheels on the mower as high as they would go and mulch the leaves.  In theory, the draw of the mower would be strong enough to suck up the leaves but leave the pecans.  It works!  Once I've done the initial mowing, I pick the pecans that I can see then run the mower across the lawn again with the bagger-still in the highest wheel setting.  It sucks up the leaves but not the remaining pecans.  If it weren't for the pecans, I might never have thought of this, so that's why I mention them.

    If you run the mulching mower across the lawn once and chop up all the big stuff (this even works when mowing the grass in problem areas too-like bermuda or zoysia for instance) then mow it over again with the bagger, it chops the big stuff into very fine stuff and you don't have to empty the bag nearly as often since more of it fits in the bag.

    This morning, the leaf pickup truck removed a pile of leaves from an area we raked over the past few days.  The pile was about 5' high, 8'wide, and 12' or more long.  The area I mowed using the mulcher and the bag had as many leaves as the pile they just picked up.  With the double mulching, I not only have access to the pecans, but the pile at the street would fit in a kitchen trash can and is far less unsightly than that huge pile.  The real bonus is that it took a fraction of the time and didn't cause any physical pain.  Now if everything in life could be so simple!

    Just a useful tip I felt like passing on.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    The First Step in a New Direction

    As you can see, the last couple of posts have all contained fabrics-whether upholstery or apparel.  The first step to recovery is admitting to the "problem" and my admission is that I'm a fabric freak and third generation at that.

    While clearing out my fabric closet for some upcoming projects, I decided to put the little scraps of things to use and make some pillows.  Originally, I bought this fabric to use as the kitchen drapery for winter but because of the bulk of it and the scale of the original window, I scrapped the idea. It makes great pillows though!

    This is the first one that is complete.  I've only made 3 pillows in my life, so there is some learning curve.  it turned out well, but will be better next time.  I chose a dainty fringe because of the size of this pillow and I like it very much.  There are some larger ones in matching patterns that I'll be working on soon, so perhaps they'll make a nice set.

    One down, twenty-something to go.

    This one is reversible.  The back is some kind of velvety material.  They make a good pair.

     That's not a very nice picture of the back.  Maybe I'll take a new one if I get around to it.  It's delicious to touch!

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Dusting Off An Old Hat

    The weather has been absolutely disgusting for weeks which has kept me seeking refuge inside instead of being outside finishing up the porch painting.  Somewhere in there I got distracted and found myself ogling Victorian style dresses.  Let me just say, it just takes a peek at something lovely for it to begin to snowball, then to grow tentacles, until eventually, you've just got to have one-ok two-well maybe 3-half a dozen-2 dozen?  And so on. 

    Naturally, someone is supposed to take the blame for all things abnormal about one's life and the finger of blame on this one points to my mother (who can blame it on her mother) who introduced me to fabrics by teaching me how to use the sewing machine when I was 8.

    I remember going to my grandmother's house when we were kids.  She had enclosed her front porch to turn it into her sewing room, so to get into the house, you had to go through her sewing room with the stacks of fabrics and trims and the sewing machine out with a half-finished project or two nearby.  I always loved looking at all those pretty colors!

    During my childhood, I always looked forward to birthdays and Christmas because Mom would always make me pretty new outfits.  We really couldn't afford to buy too many new clothes (with the exception of new Toughskins from Sears at the beginning of the school year) so Mom made most of ours.  As I grew older, she began teaching me how to make my own and how to read a pattern and what the terms meant.  A trip to Hancock's with Mom was more exciting than any vacation I could think of!  Oh! The colors and patterns and textures!  And the choices!   It was like swimming in a sea of dreams!

    I remember-and can almost still feel-the velvet flocked flowers on the sheer sleeves of my lavender 8th-grade graduation dress.  This was the first project I did that was a full-length dress-even then I loved them!  They were called a "Granny Dress" back then, although I never saw any of my grandmothers in one.  I was so proud of that dress!  I don't remember what the "pretty girls" wore (you know, the ones with the good hair?) but I don't think they had a dress as nice as mine.

    The next dress (as I'm not typically a dress person) was my wedding dress when I was 18.  It was a simple dress, but notice the similarity in style to the one I did at 13?  Hmmm....same high collar, same high cuffs, same modest cover over the the cleavage?  Apparently, I have a style preference. : )   If I remember right, the cuffs on these sleeves were almost to the elbow and satin covered buttons all the way up.  Ooooo, they were pretty.

    It was several years before I had the time to start sewing again and this time it was when I was about to leave the military.  I was stationed in the Philippines where fabrics were cheap and different than what we find here in the stores.

    My favorite wool pinstripe suit

    So, off to the local markets I went to collect fabrics for my new civilian wardrobe with lots of great fabrics and coordinating colors and patterns.  In the end I dragged back a nice wardrobe that I used for years until I finally turned 30-something and became wider than they were.  Oh dear!

    One of my other favorite outfits with removable bow tie thingy

    So, one to today when I find myself with plenty of time on my hands and a tentacle-growing snowball of a thought that I'm dying to get started on.  This time up, I've got my eye on making a few of THESE!

    Or (make that-AND) these:

    A few of these? But, of course!

    But right now, if I don't get out and paint something-since it is actually a gorgeous day, I'm gonna be in trouble with Donnie.

    Have a good day!