Radiator Shuffle Update!

About a month ago, I posted about shuffling around a few radiators in the house. We removed exposed heating pipes in the dining room that fed a radiator upstairs and moved them onto the other side of the wall in the pantry. Then we moved the hallway radiator onto a wall in the dining room, and then we moved the original dining room radiator onto a different wall in the hallway. And by “we,” I mean my plumbers. The only part I did was boss people around and pretend I didn’t notice them smoking Newports in my basement.

Apparently, I’m a very “while we’re at it, why don’t we just…” type of renovator. I thought we were pretty much done messing with the radiator plumbing, but then I started looking around the house and thinking about how nice it would be to eliminate more of the exposed heating pipes. It’s funny, because it really isn’t something that bothered me before, but if I had to choose between exposed heating pipes and not-exposed heating pipes, I mean, no contest. Sometimes I see before-and-after pictures of historic restorations, and burying the heat pipes is always such a nice touch. I wouldn’t even have been thinking about any of this if our ceilings were intact and all of that, but while everything was wide open anyway? Seemed worthwhile to explore the options.

exposedpipeslibrary

Here’s an oooollllllddddd picture of the exposed heating pipes in the soon-to-be-library downstairs, which feed the radiator in our bedroom upstairs. They ran up through the floor, right in front of the window casings, and up into the ceiling. Not so great, right?

I actually asked my plumber about losing these pipes a while ago, and he basically said that we’d need to run them up the opposite wall (where the faux-fireplace will be) and then across all of the joists, basically meaning we’d need to drill two 1″ (0r 1.25″, maybe?) holes through each of the 14-ish joists, which just sounded like an all-around bad idea. I get twitchy when the electricians have to drill out a new path for a few electrical wires in the basement, and that’s nothing compared to this. Realistically I guess it would probably be OK, but I get really freaked out about messing with major structural elements like that. So I nixed that idea.

This is the kind of thing where it comes in handy to, like, have a brain and sort of know what’s going on with your house, though.

After we knew we were ripping out the ceiling in the hallway in preparation for the new sheetrock to go up, I started thinking about running the pipes up through a wall cavity in the hallway wall and across the ceiling, parallel instead of perpendicular to the joists. I ran the idea by my plumber, and he said it was a good one, and I felt pretty clever, and we decided to do it.

holesinwall

Sorry this picture is so laughably lousy, but basically I had to cut three very large holes in the plaster wall to the left of the door so that they could snake the new pipes up. The new plumbing is 1″ PEX piping, which is a fairly inexpensive and easy to install plastic piping with some flex, which makes it really good for these types of jobs. The hole in the middle was to expose the fire-stop so that they could drill through that.

When I made the holes, I drew them using a pencil and a level so that they’d be perfect(ish) rectangles, and then cut them out using my handy oscillating tool, which is the only thing I really know of that can make such clean cuts in plaster. These holes will get patched over with drywall and then skim-coated, and you should never know they’re there when all is said and done.

exposedpipesfoyer

Once we decided to remove the pipes running up through the library, I sort of became fixated with getting rid of the ones in the entryway, too. One of them covered part of the door casing (that’s the door that leads to the porch) and the other sort of cut that wall in half—there’s another door to the right just out of frame. Again, totally not something I would even be thinking about….but if the ceiling is open and the wall has huge holes in it…it’s kind of now or never, right?

SO. OUT THEY CAME. NO MORE EXPOSED PIPES.

Actually, that’s not totally true. In the back corner of the hallway, there are still two pipes that feed the radiator in the upstairs bathroom. These will eventually get re-routed, too, but that sort of requires me coming up with a renovation plan for the upstairs bathroom, which just feels sooooo far down the line. At the very least, the pipes will get moved inside the downstairs bathroom walls, but it’s also possible we’ll end up doing something entirely different for heat up there. Anyway, they can stay until I figure it out.

pexinwall

LOOK, TECHNOLOGY! So those four plastic pipes are replacing the four exposed ones I just talked about above. In case you are lost and confused. In case you even care. Is this post even worth writing? Whatever. It’s happening.

pexinceiling

Look at that madness! I know this sort of seems like it’s wrong and shouldn’t work the same way, but it does! So whatever!

Before we put the ceilings up, we insulated these first two bays where the pipes run. As I mentioned in the ceiling post, we didn’t want to insulate the whole ceiling, but insulating the exterior wall and around the pipes seemed prudent.

pexthroughfloor

OK, FOLKS. Let this be a lesson to you. Even if you aren’t doing your own electrical/plumbing/whatever, it ALWAYS pays to pay attention and have some basic understanding of how things work. My contractors probably all hate me because I shadow them pretty closely while they’re working, but it’s IMPORTANT. The photo above, for instance, is how they were planning to connect the newly-plumbed radiators. It’s hard to tell what’s going on in the picture maybe, but basically the original elbow-shaped piece is connected to a new reducer (the black piece) to bring the size of the pipe down from the original larger size (I can’t remember the dimension) to the new 1″ size. That reducer is attached to the PEX adaptor (the brass piece). The end of the length of PEX is basically temporarily expanded with a special tool, slipped over the end of this adaptor, and then quickly tightens and forms a water-tight seal.

So basically the plan was that all of this would be exposed above the floor! You’d see all of this, and about an inch or so of PEX wrapping the bottom of the brass part. Above the floor! NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

reducersolution

Before they could get as far as drilling out the floor and enacting this plan, I asked why we couldn’t just use a 6 or 8 inch pipe of the original size, bring that down through the floor, and then reduce it and transition to PEX below the floor level. The plumbers, adorably, didn’t seem to understand the utility of this plan, but agreed that there was nothing wrong with it aside from them having to go back to the store to pick up some extra parts. So in the end it cost slightly more time and money, but the result is WAY better looking. You’d never know these radiators were messed with! Crisis averted!

pipethroughfloor

Much better, yes? Yes.

I need to pick up escutcheons for all the radiators, but that can wait. Maybe I’ll agonize over that decision, too.

As you might have gathered by this point, another little communication snafu between the plumbers and I is that they HIGHLY recommended reconnecting all of the radiators AND filling the system before the ceilings went up to test for leaks in all of the new plumbing, which I wasn’t really anticipating. I’m glad we did it, since it turned out there were some minor leaks that needed to be fixed. Had I known this was part of the plan, I would have been focused on at least skim coating and painting the spaces behind where the radiators would go in preparation for their install, but I didn’t get a chance to do that. Boo.

The original plan was to try to have the disconnected radiators sandblasted and powder coated and the floors refinished while they were away, which admittedly was a little ambitious, but it looks like that’s not happening! At least this year. I’ve now had two quotes for refinishing the floors and both refinishers have said that sanding around the radiators isn’t an issue at all, so it’s not a huge deal. And as much as I’d like to have the radiators refinished, it can also wait a year or two or three. Maybe at that point we can just spring to have all of the radiators in the house done at once, which would be pretty fancy, so maybe it’s all for the best.

Whatever! I’m just happy that we went for it and buried the exposed heating pipes, some of the radiators are in better locations, and they all still work! All the other stuff isn’t that important. Right now I’m kind of just riding the high of finally having CEILINGS and being *this close* to being able to start painting the dining room and library and putting furniture in and living in, like, a real house! EEP!

All this is a little hard to do, though, when you have…MONO! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, last week I came down with what I thought was some wretched late-summer cold/flu thing, and I did a very uncharacteristic thing and actually visited a doctor, and it turns out I have mono! Like a fucking teenager who kissed too many boys at junior prom. How did this happen? I DON’T KNOW. But it is pissing me off, because I have a lot to do, and it took me four days to write this blog post because I kept falling asleep, and I basically feel like a pile of diseased garbage with internet access. So, forgive me if the pace is a little slow…I’m trying…but I’m also so tired and nauseous and congested and did I mention tired? Like laughably tired. I’m totally worthless.

I have to go nap now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present: CEILINGS!

It’s been a long time coming, so I won’t drag it out: WE HAVE CEILINGS AGAIN! SEE?!?!?!?

diningceilingafter

Backing up *just a touch*, since you know how I like to get into the nitty-gritty of it all…wayyyyy back in December, I got it in my brain that it was high time to see what was going on under the acoustic ceiling tiles in the dining room and front parlor (which we’re calling the library now, I guess!). I don’t even totally recollect my logic with this one…we’d been in the house 6 months, we’d basically JUST gotten heat, I was working on the upstairs office, the laundry room was pretty much next on the list…and for some reason I decided to destroy two relatively functional rooms? And not only that, but remove ceilings in the dead of winter in an uninsulated house? I can’t be accountable for my actions. Going back and reading the posts, apparently I didn’t really know why I did it then, so I especially don’t know now. It just happened.

ceilingbefore

To review: the ceilings both looked basically like this. I was not a fan. The tiles were probably installed in the 1960s or 70s, and then bad crown molding was installed around the edges.

I was HOPING at the time that they’d just been put up over the plaster to add a little heat/sound insulation. I had grand delusions of removing the tiles and finding a pretty plaster ceiling above it, in need of only mild repairs. Hell, there could even be the original ceiling medallions, hiding right up there! Who could know!

missingplaster2

It quickly became clear that the tiles were installed as a quick and easy solution to conceal the original plaster ceilings, which were COMPLETELY trashed. I really wanted to save them, but they were just way too far gone.

The demo of these ceilings was HORRENDOUS. It took days and was so incredibly dusty, and heavy, and generally completely hellish. Even considering the condition of the ceilings, it still felt crappy having to remove so much original material from the house, but we had to do what we had to do.

postdemo

After the demo, things pretty much looked like this. At the time, I was completely delusional about how long it would take to get new ceilings in the rooms. I literally remember telling people that I thought we’d be drywalling in a couple of weeks. All we really had to do was run a little electrical and slap some drywall up. How long could that take? I’d have ceilings in no time!

Man. So untrue. So terribly false. I’m basically the village idiot of Blogland.

First of all, having the ceilings open just seemed to afford more and more opportunities for “invisible” improvements, so what started as just re-running the existing electrical (which was, like, 3 circuits) ended as re-running all the existing electrical as well as adding a bunch of new circuits to feed receptacles and light fixtures and coaxial ports and crap upstairs. We also took the opportunity to do some alterations to the plumbing, which I’m really excited about. Next post! It’s too much to get into all of it right now.

ANYWAY, the whole ordeal seemed to drag on forever. Even though the ceilings were wide open, the walls were not, and there was a lot of fishing wires from the panel in the basement, up through the walls, and across the ceilings, up through the second floor, up those walls, up into the attic, through the attic floor joists, and down into the ceilings upstairs…it was hard work. And since my electrician is both busy and flakey (and cheap, and licensed in Kingston, which is why I keep working with him…), what was really something like a 4-5 day job got spread out over MONTHS. Then we had to get it inspected, which took an additional couple of weeks to schedule…and maybe I added some more things to the plumbing list…it just went on and on.

The plus side of the slowness is that I feel like it really gave me the time to think everything through. So in the end, we’re basically DONE with electrical and plumbing for a while (until the downstairs bathroom rough-in, I guess), which is very exciting. I feel like I really took advantage of the opportunities presented by having no ceilings and I can look back without regrets. I think. I hope.

SO. After months of hemming and hawing over whether I’d attempt to do the ceilings myself (and hearing lots of input on both sides—thank you!), I hired it out. The general consensus seemed to be that this was a job better left to the pros, and since we’re talking about big, important spaces in the house, I REALLY didn’t want to spend weeks trying to DIY this and then end up with bad-looking ceilings, especially after all the work and expense of everything behind the ceilings. Max wisely flat-out refused to be involved, so between all the materials, renting equipment, and at least hiring a second set of hands, it’s not like the DIY option was all that cheap, either.

Part of the serious complication with this job is the joists.  The house is post-and-beam construction, so the wood is hand-milled and irregular. With plaster and lath, a lot of that irregularity can be compensated for by a smooth plaster job. Drywall isn’t really like that, though—it’s rigid but has some flex, meaning that unless we wanted a really wavy ceiling where you’d probably see every joist (and worse, every seam!), it was imperative to level everything out. In the dining room, the archway molding in front of the bay window is only about 2″ below the joists, meaning that dropping the whole ceiling wasn’t really an option. Even if it had been an option, who wants to do that? So the goal was to keep the ceilings as HIGH as possible while still making them as level as possible. Big task. Scary to entrust to a stranger. Scary to DIY. Everything is scary. Hold me.

So I got four quotes, and they were ALL OVER THE PLACE.

1. The guy who swooped in and repaired our box gutters the first time around, Shane, gave me a quote for the dining room and the library. He understood the issue with the joists, and I really liked working with him before, BUT he didn’t seem to have too much drywalling experience, so that kind of scared me. Then he came back with a quote: $3,200. Yikes. Everyone says drywall installation is cheap and fast, so I wasn’t expecting that!

2. Guy #2 I found on Craigslist. He was more of a handyman, but seemed to have experience with drywall. He was also super hot, which is a huge bonus in my book. Unfortunately, he didn’t really understand the issue with the joists, and kept telling me that it should be fine to just shim out a couple small spots and slap the drywall up, which didn’t sit well. His quote for the two rooms: $1,600, including materials. Definitely an improvement, but I didn’t feel like he understood the complexity of the job so I sort of knew I wasn’t going to hire him.

3. Guy #3 was recommended by one of the electricians. Electrician guy told me he was SUPER cheap, had done work in his own house that turned out flawlessly, and he was really friendly and responsive over the phone and showed up when he said he would and all that. I really liked him—he seemed to understand everything I was saying, had good solutions, and was experienced. He assured me before leaving that he’d give me a good price and that he wasn’t the type of guy trying to gut clients. I actually asked him to quote for the two rooms AND the pantry (since it’s small) and skim-coating the old drywall ceiling in the hallway (more on that in a minute). His quote: $7,800. ALMOST EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS. Jesus Christ. NO.

4. Then this guy moved in next door. I introduced myself, and he was really nice, and we’d talk every now and then through the fence. It took me a few weeks to notice that on the side of his truck, there was a decal for his construction business! And it specifically listed drywall as one of his services! So I asked him what he was up to, and if he wanted to come over and give me a quote, and he said yeah, and came over, and took measurements, and talked to me about my concerns, and was generally lovely and confident that he could do a good job. I asked him for the same quote as guy #3 (both rooms, pantry, and downstairs hallway skim-coating), but he said the hallway wasn’t really even worth skim-coating and we should just rip it down and start over. His quote: $1,800 + materials.

I honestly have no real idea how much this should all cost, just to be completely frank. $1,800 still seemed kind of high to me, to be honest, but that was more colored by everyone telling me how cheap drywall installation should be. The whole joist-leveling thing makes the job WAY more complicated, so I’m assuming that was a big factor. It’s not a small job and required several days of work and 2-3 people, so the number actually seemed pretty fair, even if it was higher than I was hoping. Thinking I could maybe save a little bit of money, I asked for another quote for JUST the two rooms, excluding the pantry and hallway, and the price dropped to $1,600 + materials. So for an extra $200, I can have both of those spaces done quickly and by professionals? I mean. OK. And this guy lives next door, which might make things awkward if he does a bad job, but also makes him easy to find and less likely to flake out on me since we see each other almost everyday.

SO. HE WAS HIRED.

ceilinglessfoyer

In preparation for his arrival, I tore down the ceiling in the hallway. This ceiling was already replaced with sheetrock in the early 70s, but it looked TERRIBLE. I don’t really have any pictures detailing that, but I guess this was when drywall was still nailed up instead of screwed into place. There were seams EVERYWHERE because whoever installed it used fairly small pieces of drywall. You could literally see every single nailhead, some of which had been slathered in caulk. There was about a 1-2″ gap between the ceilings and the walls, which had been stuffed with newspapers and paper-taped over. Paper tape doesn’t really adhere to bare plaster, so the tape had all separated over time…the whole thing was just a damn mess. So even though I wasn’t super excited about MORE demo, it was the best option.

ceilinglessfoyer2

The first time drywall was installed on the hallway ceiling, they installed it over the lath (but had removed the plaster). Since the lath isn’t structurally necessary and just added thickness (which was a bummer, because the sheetrock covered the top of the molding around the front door), I opted to remove the lath, too.

What this ceiling taught me is that I never want to hear ANYONE complain about demo’ing drywall. It was literally child’s play compared to plaster demo. The whole thing came down in about an hour and was bagged up and in a Bagster in another hour, and I barely even broke a sweat. The hardest part was taking down the lath and cleaning up all the plaster keys that were hanging out above it, but it wasn’t so bad. Max helped me and we had it knocked out and cleaned up in a couple of hours.

ANYWAY. Then the plumbers did some more stuff with that ceiling opened up, and then it was time for the drywallers to come in! EEEEP!

The drywallers brought in all the drywall first (they overbought by a couple of sheets, but that’s OK…I’ll end up using it elsewhere, I’m sure!), and some 2″x3″x8′ pieces of lumber. Their original plan to level out the joists was to nail 2x3s to a few of the really wacky joists and get on with things.

Once they really got up in the ceiling, though, they realized just how wonky everything was. Some of the joists were off by a good couple of inches, the whole ceiling was sloped, all the joists were bowed in the middle…yikes! So my contractor quickly re-evaluated and went to buy enough 16-foot 2x4s to sister in every joist. When they got back, they ran a laser level to figure out the low point, and then ran the 2x4s *slightly* above that level so that we’d still be able to see the top of the moldings when the drywall went up. They then planed down a couple of really low spots on a couple of joists—it was a negligible amount, so it definitely shouldn’t affect anything structurally or anything like that.

edwin

This is about the point at which I became really glad I hired this out. Yes, it’s a good chunk of change, but I don’t think this is a solution I would have come to by myself, and it literally probably would have taken me weeks and ended up mediocre and I would have been so sad forever. They had the tools and the know-how and enough hands and bodies to get it done.

sisteringjoists

The guys spent almost the entirety of Day 1 working on leveling out the joists, which I was so grateful for! Once the new, straight 2x4s were in place, you could really see how wonky the original beams are—all of the sistering really made all the difference, here. Since I opted to go with a flat fee instead of an hourly rate, I’m so glad they really took the time to do things right.

insulation

I decided to add some R-38 fiberglass insulation just to the exterior walls, basically butting up against the brick nogging. A lot of readers suggested insulating the whole ceiling both for heat and sound, but you actually don’t really want to do that in a single-family home. If the house was still divided into apartments and on two separate heating systems, then yes, but here you actually want the heat to rise in the winter to help heat the upstairs and in the summer so that both floors don’t turn into oversized saunas. There is blown-in cellulose insulation between the upstairs ceiling and the attic floor, which is pretty much exactly how it should be given the house’s current arrangement. If we ever get around to finishing the attic, we’ll likely remove that insulation (that should only be, like, the worst job ever) and insulate the attic walls and ceiling (probably with closed-cell spray foam insulation, because technology).

libraryceilingup

Watching the drywall go up was, like, the most exciting thing EVER. Even before the taping and mudding, the difference in the rooms already felt HUGE. After living in these cavernous, dark spaces for almost nine months, the drywall immediately made everything feel infinitely brighter and taller and more complete. After all that time, I think I sort of forgot how amazing the natural light is in this house. Of course it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place, but getting more of an inkling of how it will look all finished and painted and beautiful is super duper thrilling.

foyerceilingmudded

I’m SO glad we decided to spend the extra time and money doing the hallway ceiling. The guys only used 5 separate pieces of sheetrock (instead of, like, 15, as before!), and it’s all level and smooth and very *slightly* higher than it was before, and it just looks great. The guys taped the seams with fiberglass mesh tape and did 3 coats of joint compound before sanding. I think this photo is after coat #2 of joint compound.

topofarch

I spent a lot of time fretting with the contractor over how important it was to be able to see the top of the archway in the dining room after leveling out the joists and installing the drywall. It was a tight squeeze, but it’s ALL THERE, which is all I can really ask for. Considering it’s been covered up with acoustic tiles, crown molding, and a mess of caulk for the past 40-ish years, it feels really good to be able to restore this funny feature. I need to finish stripping the paint and caulk off of it (I’m definitely not stripping all of the molding, but this is too messed up to just paint), but I think it’s going to look amazing once it’s all done! I tried Peel Away 1 on a section of the arch just to see how it worked, and it works well! Cleaning/neutralizing the stripped wood indoors is sort of a huge messy hassle, but it’s one of those things that’s just going to require a little extra time and care. What else is new!

backofhallwaybefore

One area that I’m particularly impressed by is in the back of the hallway. Only this patch of the original plaster remained in the entire space, and because of the way it curves and slopes and seemed very solid overall, I didn’t want to demo it and try to replicate it with drywall if I didn’t have to. On the last day of work, the contractor brought in a different guy to do the final skimming and sanding on the ceilings and sort out this mess. The new drywall sat about 1/2″ above the placer, and you can see how a lot of a previous skim-coating job had failed and fallen off over the years, and I was just crossing my fingers that they could get it to look acceptable.

backofhallwayafter

WELL. HOT. DAMN. This skim-coating guy was a MAGICIAN. He did this in, I don’t know, a couple hours, and it’s FLAWLESS. It’s so, so beautiful. I keep just walking to the back of the hallway to admire it.

This is when I made the most big-boy decision ever.

You guys, this hallway is really big. Over the stairs, the wall extends, like, 20 feet high. I’ve already done the work of demo’ing non-original walls, opening up original doorways, and stripping all of the wallpaper from the plaster. In the intervening months, several new large holes had to be made in the plaster to run the new plumbing and electric stuff, and now the walls need significant patching and repair and then all need to be skim-coated. Since I spent so much time and effort up in the tiny office teaching myself this skill, and I know I’m technically capable of it, it’s always been the plan to do the hallway walls myself.

Well, after seeing the dope-ass job this guy did on my ceiling in a few hours (which definitely would have taken me days, and probably never looked as good), I asked how much it would cost for him to just skim-coat the entire hallway, upstairs and downstairs. The answer was $500. I debated for a couple of days…and then I decided to go for it.

Here’s the thing. Skim-coating is not fun. I’m OK but not great at it. I’m sure it would turn out fine, but it would also take me weeks and be super boring and messy and exhausting, and that’s a LOT of time to dedicate to something so relatively inexpensive to just get someone else to do faster and better than I can. I can think of about a thousand things I’d rather be doing with that time. I don’t overwhelm all that easily, but the list of projects on this house is a bazillion items long and if throwing 500 clams at this hallway gets it paintable and way more complete within, like, the next WEEK (omg, I know), I’m soooo down.

So that’s that. I’m so excited for the skim-coating wizard to come back and work his magic. I’m excited to not have to do it. I’m excited to clean up all of the drywall dust all over the house without feeling like it’s a waste of time because I’ll just be making more dust for weeks on end.

Oh, and WHAT’S THAT NOW? I ordered a ceiling medallion as a test to see if I liked it.

Choosing ceiling medallions, for whatever reason, has been one of the most agonizing parts of this entire renovation/restoration thing I’m doing. I’ve literally been thinking about medallions since before we even closed on the house, and bookmarking various products for over a year. I think it’s so hard because the house does have so many of its original features intact, but the ceiling medallions are long gone and we don’t know what they looked like. I’ve always felt strongly that the medallions need to look appropriate to the house, which means they should be appropriately Greek, elegant, and grand, but also sort of blend in so that what’s essentially a big piece of foam glued to the ceiling doesn’t end up being the stand-out architectural feature, you know?

I did a fair amount of research on what would fit in style-wise with the Greek Revival of it all, which led me in a more ornate direction than I was originally inclined to go. I didn’t want to go crazy with something super intricate and Corinthian, for the aforementioned reason of wanting it to blend in, but I also feared going too simple would end up looking kind of 1920s and all wrong. Finally I just closed my eyes and hit the order button on this guy at Home Depot (which really has an amazing selection of medallions online, but not in the stores) and hoped I wouldn’t hate it when it came. I chose it because I felt like the size would be pretty grand, and it’s kind of middle-ground on the intricacy spectrum, and it has that acanthus leaf motif which is typically Greek Revival.

Even when I opened the box, I kind of wasn’t sold. It seemed like maybe it was too big and maybe just completely wrong. But then I had Max stand on a ladder and hold it up to the ceiling, and I pictured it all caulked and painted and with a light fixture hanging from it, and now I’m ON BOARD with this thing. I need to order two more, which kind of sucks because of COURSE I picked, like, the most expensive piece of foam on the planet, but I think it’s just right.

I think I’m going to paint it with some watered-down joint compound or something before hanging it, to kind of fake some age into it. It looks a little too new and the pattern looks a little too defined to me.

ANYWAY. WOW THIS POST GOT LONG.

Now that the ceilings are done, next up on the agenda is finishing repairing the walls in the dining room and prepping everything for paint!! AND THEN PAINTING. AND THEN MOVING FURNITURE BACK IN. AND THEN CRYING TEARS OF JOY.

It’s all happening!

Hidden Treasure!

You hear those stories—you know the ones, where people are renovating an old house and they open up a wall and find a bag full of cash or bonds or diamonds or human teeth or something else really cool that had been squirreled away decades before by a previous owner. So pervasive is the idea that when people hear that I’m renovating an old house, 9 times out of 10, they’ll crack a joke about something like that happening.

It could totally happen.

But it probably won’t happen.

I’m much more likely to open up a wall and find black mold or termite damage or live electrical wires threatening to start a fire. If every old house came with a glamorous time capsule, something tells me there’d be more of a market for them.

Sad faces.

Anyway.

banistertoday

Remember how I like to kvetch about the super-60s iron banisters that extend between the front columns and the front of the house? In case you don’t, I’ll do it again. They’re super 60s and totally wrong for the house, and I don’t like them.

I mean, sure, the base of the portico looks like a crumbly mess and the house is covered in vinyl siding and the columns themselves are covered in so many layers of paint that they basically look like alligator skins, so maybe these railings shouldn’t be something I think about a whole lot right now.

But I do think about them. A whole lot. Because that’s how I do. Zero in on something dumb and agonize over it forever.

entry

The picture from 1950 shows the portico (which, as several people pointed out, actually looks like has been entirely rebuilt since then!), and instead of these iron railings, there was a chunky wood handrail with chunky wood balusters. It looks way better.

I don’t know for certain if these balusters are original, either. Several commenters also pointed out that originally, the front porch and the portico may have been wide open, which admittedly would probably be pretty glamorous, at least aesthetically speaking.

If I could do anything I wanted, I’d probably go for it…but the problem is that I fear going handrail-less would present something of a safety/liability concern. I actually had a long, long battle with my homeowner’s insurance company about the fact that there weren’t handrails enclosing the front porch, which they saw as a big liability problem. I had to make the case that the porch likely didn’t have handrails originally, and that technically it doesn’t have to—both national and New York state building code doesn’t require handrails on porches that are lower than 30 inches off the ground. Even with this information, the documentation to prove it (you’d think they’d know that?), and my very adamant insistence that I had no intention of complying with their dumb nerdy request, it was still a huge hassle.

So anyway, removing the handrails that are already there? Probably pushing my luck. I don’t want to lose my insurance, because then getting new insurance is super hard, and it was hard enough to find an insurance company that would insure a house under renovation with a Pit Bull. Insurance companies are generally not fans of either of those things, which is totally unfair bullshit, but it is what it is.

On the other hand, I found out that the original builder of my house was in the insurance industry and his son was a lawyer, so maybe the railings were original after all. Or maybe they didn’t care about these things in the mid-19th century. WHO IS TO SAY.

garage

So this one day, I was attempting to clean and organize the long-suffering garage. There’s a lot of stuff that has been left behind across the ceiling joists over the years…garden stakes, sections of downspouts, a bunch of lumber…I’d never even really looked at it very closely, let alone climbed up on a ladder to try to sort through it a little bit. UNTIL THIS DAY.

balusters1

AHHHHH! Hidden up in the very back dark corner was a bundle of old balusters, tied together with what appears to be an old cable cord!

They’re so pretty. Yes, they have some rot and are covered in flaky old paint, but they seem to be in good enough shape that they could be repaired and put back in use at some point. There are 18 of them, which would obviously allocate 9 to each side. In the old picture, it looks like there are many more and they’re more tightly spaced, but I think it would look OK this way, too. And since the portico floor is below 30″ off the ground, I’m going to go ahead and say that means that I don’t have to worry about current building codes that mandate the railings, if you do need them, to be between 36″ and 42″—which would just look ridiculous on my house. Phew! Using these balusters would actually place the handrail a few inches below the existing one, which would look way better with the house. Then we will all pretend that they were there all along if anyone asks, cool? You’re the best.

closeup

If/when I ever get around to this, I’ll probably still try to build as much of the new handrails as I can in the garage and then install them, all clandestine-like, in the dead of night so as not to draw attention. Because I am a paranoid, nervous person, basically.

House
Tagged:

The House: Then and Now!

Evidently, at some point a few weeks ago, I got drunk at a party. Evidently, I started talking to a friend/acquaintance about my house, and how I’d never seen an old picture of it. Evidently, he jotted down my address to ask his friend what he could come up with. I don’t know who this friend of a friend is, and I recall 0.0% of this event, but this mystery person came through for me!

So last week, I got a photocopy of the assessment record of our house, which includes a photo from 1950! Our house is outside the fancier/more historic Uptown Kingston area, so it’s situated in an area that doesn’t seem to be heavily documented, despite how many cool homes there are in Midtown. We still don’t know the exact year that our house was constructed (we think 1830s or 1840s, based on the style and the post-and-beam construction), or when the additions were put on, or really much information at all…but seeing this picture taken in 1950 nearly brought tears to my eyes. Really.

You see, I love this house so much. I’m putting my blood, sweat, tears, and pretty much all of my money into it. I loved it from the second I walked in the front door, and I love it more everyday as it comes back to life. I don’t feel like this is bragging, because I can’t take any credit for it: it’s a beautiful house, in my eyes at least. Sure, it isn’t a super fancy architectural gem of a Greek Revival mansion. Sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to so many of the amazing structures throughout Kingston. Sure, it had some regrettable things done to it over the years. But honestly? There’s no way we could have bought it if it hadn’t been a little busted, and I feel overwhelmingly fortunate and grateful everyday that I’m the lucky person who gets to restore it. I’ve learned enough to fill a book. My house has taken on a whole personality in my eyes, and all I want is for it to be happy. I’ve never seen anything but potential here, and even after a year of tough, trying renovation and years more ahead, it’s that amazing potential that keeps me motivated. I feel like this is the place where I belong. I love Kingston, and I love this house, and I hope that all the owners after me will feel exactly the same way. It’s a special place.

OK, I’ll stop cheesing it up now. I have feelings, OK?

By 1950, when this photo was taken, the house was likely already over a century old, which is a little hard to wrap my mind around! I know the Europeans out there reading this will laugh, but this is considered a really old house in the States. The fact that it’s still standing with so much original stuff intact is pretty incredible.

The point here is that this isn’t a glimpse at the original house—just what it looked like 64 years ago. Still, lots of stuff happened in that amount of time. Since the photo was taken, the house had two subsequent owners, and then me. The owner during this period had already split the house into 2 apartments (that happened in the 30s).

(UPDATE! According to some new, awesome information, it looks like the house finally has a date—1865! And even better, it was built by the father of the man who owned it at the time this picture was taken. Not only does that mean he lived his whole life here until he passed away in 1962, but that it was in the same family for 97 years! Thank you, Robin, for the amazing information!)

The next owners bought in ’63 and sold in ’74, and we bought the house from the estate of the people who bought in ’74. Amazing, right? I think the fact that it only had three (4, including me) owners in the past century probably has a lot to do with why it wasn’t too wreckovated to be rescued.

OK, enough rambling. LET’S COMPARE PHOTOS, SHALL WE??

house-then

1950.

house-now

2014.

I should really save this post for the winter since that’s when the original photo was taken and the tree wouldn’t be blocking half the house, but I’m too excited! Sorry.

OK, so the first thing I noticed (AND FREAKED OUT ABOUT) is…there are extra windows!! See them? On the side of the house, second windows in from the corner. Upstairs and downstairs, there were windows! I’ve always thought the front of my house was really pretty, but the side…not so much. It’s an awkward mash-up of strange additions, and it lacks the nice balance of the front. I’ve always sort of thought that aesthetically there should be windows there, but there wasn’t any evidence that they ever existed, and additional windows in those two rooms would effectively eat up any usable wall space (the interior walls all have doors and, originally, wood stoves, so there literally wouldn’t have been walls spanning more than a few feet!).

The weird thing about the windows is that I’ve stripped all the paint/wallpaper from our bedroom (which is where the missing window on the second floor would be), and the walls are all the same plaster—there’s no evidence of a window being patched in. NATURALLY, after seeing this photo, I cut a hole in the wall in the downstairs room (which is the future library space) and found….plaster, lath, and BRICK. All of our exterior walls are full of brick and mortar—it’s a type of insulation called nogging that pretty much stopped around 1900. And the walls are really, truly lath and plaster, not just a plaster veneer over old drywall or something. They wouldn’t have filled the walls with brick between 1950 and whenever the windows were removed, because there were better products for insulation by then.

Given all of this, I have pretty much decided that those windows…FAKE! You can see that they’re both shuttered closed. Originally, the entire house would have had shutters, so it would have made a little more sense aesthetically…but I honestly believe that there were never windows there, and the house was built with faux windows on the exterior to provide the architecture more balance (while still allowing those rooms some actual walls!). So crazy, right? The house has always been a little bit fake-y! It makes me feel a little less silly about installing a fake fireplace and new-production ceiling medallions made of foam and all that. If it looks right, maybe that’s just good enough.

This is also good to see, though, because it shows what the original shutters looked like. Getting shutters to look right is a tricky thing since there are a lot of different styles, but if I can ever save up the money to put shutters back on the house, at least I know how they should look.

Obviously this photo was taken before the vinyl siding was installed, so I’m glad to know about this whole fake window thing! I wonder what’s still lurking under the vinyl…it makes me want to rip it off RIGHT NOW. The house looked sooooo much prettier without it, don’t you think? I know the window moldings aren’t very elaborate, but they are THERE and they give the facade so much more dimension—unfortunately, they were brutally hacked off with the installation of the vinyl, which is part of what makes the project of removing it seem like such a big deal. It’s also interesting that the corner boards aren’t wider. Wide corner boards with some decorative molding at the top is typical for Greek Revival…and the fact that this house doesn’t have them makes me feel further that the house started out as much more modest and kind of became a Greek Revival a little later, or just that it was built as a more modest Greek Revival to begin with, without all the bells and whistles that typically go along with that style.

It’s hard to tell what color the house is in this black-and-white photo, but I actually think it was a soft yellow color, not white. At various times, I think the house has been white, yellow, blue, and a kind of minty green. What strikes me more is that the window sashes aren’t painted black, as they are today and as they likely were originally—indicating that one of the two owners after this one seems to have some sense for restoration and preservation of the original appearance. There is some more evidence throughout the house of earlier restoration efforts. My money is on the folks who owned the house from 1963-74, which is interesting because the restoration movement hadn’t really caught on yet at that point. Who knows! I don’t think ANY of these people had children, so I’ve had a pretty impossible time trying to track down anyone who would really know.

The other funny thing about the paint is how the cornice is painted! I doubt it was like this originally, but it looks like the trim is white and the cornice is mostly white with a black (or very dark) edge just on the crown molding. Huh!

Flipping between these photos also shows how many trees there were! I really kind of hate that big tree out front—I don’t know the type but I think it’s ugly and I kind of wish it had stayed about 1/2 the size. But those two trees in the “hell strip” on the side and one on the opposite corner? So nice!! It makes me want to re-plant all of them, and maybe a few more down the street. I mean, who is going to stop me? I think more trees would really give a boost to the neighborhood…it’s a little barren nowadays. The side street, for example, has NO trees at all anymore, which is too bad. I also wish I could convince the city to put in more attractive street lamps, either like they are in the 1950 picture or nice old-fashioned freestanding ones. The huge fluorescent ones at the top of the telephone poles are just so…unfriendly looking at night.

I guess I should address the missing center chimney, since I know people will notice. I’m a little ashamed to say…I did that. The chimney, while beautiful, runs off-center in the house itself and then above the attic floor steps up toward the center of the roofline, effectively bisecting the whole attic. It’s a pretty crazy construction. Over the years, the stepped design had failed under its own weight, causing the chimney to sort of collapse and damage the roof in the process. Somebody added some precarious-looking bracing to hold the whole thing up, but it really just seemed structurally unstable AND would have provided another space for potential roof leaks down the road if it continued to shift over time. When we had the roof done back in November, I made the decision to have the roofers remove the chimney down to the ceiling of the attic, figuring I could handle the additional demo myself and we could reuse the bricks for landscaping (I have a plan! And yes, I know they shouldn’t be near where food is being grown because of the creosote…). This would also open up the attic into one big space, giving us potential to finish the attic someday and actually do something with it.

I still wrestle with that decision, though. You couldn’t see the chimney at all when looking at the front of the house, and it seemed like the benefits of gaining potential attic space, removing a structural hazard, and giving our very pricey roof a better shot at longevity outweighed trying to keep AND repair something that would always be purely decorative (it was unlined and too damaged to be functional). So there you have it. Most days I don’t even remember the old chimney, but flipping back and forth between these two photos makes me a little sick over it, to be honest. I don’t know. I can talk about the logic behind the decision until I’m blue in the face, but at the end of the day, it was original and very pretty and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I’m sad that it’s gone. I guess if that’s the worst thing I do to this house, that isn’t so bad. Sigh.

ANYWAY.

sideporchthen

1950.

sideporch

2014.

One of the stranger and more unsightly aspects of my home is this enclosed porch. I’m pretty much 300% positive that it isn’t original—originally, there would have been a three-sided bay window on the first floor, a window next to it (which is still there in the dining room, but faces out to the porch), and one window directly above that one where that bump-out sits on the second floor. The side porch and bump-out are old, though. I need to write a blog post about it, but I recently gutted the side porch and found brick nogging in the walls at the top and bottom—likely placing its construction pre-1900. It may have even been added when the kitchen was added to the back of the house.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this side porch thing has seen so many alterations over the years, and it’s in TERRIBLE shape. There’s a lot of water damage from roof leaks over the years, and the entire thing is resting on about 9 cinderblocks. The grading on the strip of land in front of the “porch” is all wrong, too, so water drains back toward it instead of away, causing the already weak foundation to have more problems. The bump-out above is sort of a charming detail, but unfortunately you can see that the windows on the sides were removed and patched over at some point, which is super lame. Anyway, the whole thing is sagging and just generally looks pretty awful. They did a nice job when they added it—patching in with a matching cornice and everything—but still…it’s a mess.

I always assumed that the side porch was, at one time, an open-air porch, probably with columns, much like the porch on the front of the house. But I don’t think it ever was! Gutting the interior revealed that there appears to have always been a very low wall in the front across the entire length and a window at the opposite end. So seeing this picture from 1950 is pretty amazing! If that isn’t what the porch looked like originally, I think it’s very similar—basically a wall of glass with a central double-hung sash window to allow for ventilation. The only access was from a doorway in the kitchen. I’m guessing the original function was almost like a greenhouse, allowing the occupants (or the servants, more likely) to grow various plants, start things from seed, that kind of thing.

To restore both the bump-out and the side porch, we’d need to do a ton of work. The structural issues are a real problem (it would need a new foundation and lots of repair work to the rotted parts of the framing), and we’d need to somehow replicate that wall of glass, find 2 six-over-six sash windows (one for the front and one for the side), and 2 more two-over-two sash windows for the sides of the bump out…and even then, what do we really gain? Even in this picture from the 50s, while the side porch is definitely MUCH cooler, it still makes the house look pretty unbalanced and ruins the effect of the original bay window. The vintage car parked in front of it is kind of my favorite part of the whole set-up, but we don’t have one of those.

I think the current plan is to just eliminate it entirely, which I know might be controversial. We’ll need one six-over-six sash window for the upstairs room to replace the bump out, restoring a window to be centered above the existing dining room window that’s covered by the porch. Then we’ll need another six-over-six sash window to restore the bay window. I think we can reuse the existing cornice on these parts to patch in everything we’d need to, and a few hours with a roofer to patch in the gutter. Ultimately it will be cheaper, I think, and go a long way toward restoring the original appearance of the house. The dining room window would be exposed to the outside again, which I would LOVE—this is our south-facing side, so having all that light blocked by the side porch disaster is a huge drag.

I know. I actually want to make my house smaller. I’m basically a communist!

The other thing I like about this picture is seeing how the fence used to be! It’s always been a little puzzling to me that the wrought-iron fence just sort of stops where it does, and I obviously hate that it was picked up by 6′ chain link—yuck. My plan has always been to continue the wrought-iron fence line with something that’s at least the same height, since having the original wrought iron replicated is just not in the cards budget-wise. And guess what? That’s exactly how it was in the 1950s, and it looks pretty great. So much more open. You can see in the wide shot at the start of the post that this shorter fence then transitions at the back to a taller 6′ wood fence, which is also exactly what I’m planning to do. This will keep the dogs out of the side yard (right now the strip is so narrow that it’s easy enough for us to patrol to keep Mekko from running toward the low fence, which she can jump over) and enclose them safely in the back, and a wooden gate will open up to the driveway. I can’t wait to get the fence done, or at least this side. It’s going to make a huge difference.

entry

1950.

entrynow

2014.

Not too much has changed around the entryway, but there are definitely some interesting differences! I love that in 1950, the house still had its hitching post for a horse and the original upping stone—essentially two short steps that you’d climb to get onto the horse. So cool! A lot of houses in the area still have their upping stones out front. It’s so charming. If I ever find one, maybe I’ll just put it back for kicks.

It’s good to see what the foundation of the front steps looked like, since that’s something I’ve been wrestling with. Evidently somebody re-coated them with concrete at some point, but over the years the adhesion of the coating has failed, causing the concrete to fall off in large chunks and expose, I guess, the original concrete underneath (which is much lighter and smoother). It would be easy enough to just chip off the rest of the newer concrete coating, but then what? From the picture, it looks like at least in 1950 there was a kind of bevel detail at the front, and wider concrete bases at the bottom of the columns. The bevel detail isn’t something that ever would have occurred to me, but I think it’s super pretty—definitely something to consider trying to reconstruct. I don’t know exactly how to do that (grey tinted stucco, perhaps?), but at some point I’d like to try. The crumbling situation we have now looks pretty sad, and kind of makes it look like the whole thing is crumbling, even though it’s just a 1/4″ of concrete that’s falling off. The underlying structure seems to be in great, solid shape.

ALSO, the original balusters and handrail!! That’s DEFINITELY something I want to restore at some point. The wrought-iron stuff that’s there now just screams 1960s to me, and they look totally out of place with the house. Yes, it would be another wood thing to maintain and repaint and take care of, but I’d rather have the extra work than do all of this other stuff to the house and still have 60s metal banisters next to the entryway. It would make a huge difference.

Anyway, thus ends the tour! Seeing this photo makes me SO hungry for more. I’m in touch with the research librarian at the Kingston Library to see if she can dig up anything else about the house, and I’m really hoping there are more photos of it over the years. Is there somewhere else I should be looking for this stuff? I do have to go back to the clerk’s office to keep tracking the deeds—I did go one day, but had to leave when I got to 1869, but there are deeds from before that too that I haven’t seen. It’s hard to tell whether the deeds are just conveying the property or an actual house, though, but I’d love to see how far back I can take it regardless!

What do you think about all this? Has anyone ever seen/heard of faux windows on a house of this age? Does anyone notice anything I didn’t point out? Has anyone else been surprised by something in old photos of their old house? Let’s nerd out together!

How to Do Pretty Much Everything Wrong: Front Door Edition!

Warning: this post is full of disappointment and personal shame. I pretty much feel like a fraud of a home-improvement-y blogger, a terrible neighbor, an awful friend, a poor example, a cheap whore…all the bad things.

So here’s what happened.

Don’t you just love a front door? I love a front door. I mean, it’s the first thing you see walking into a house. It sets the stage and the tone. Front doors are important things. You’re welcome for these pieces of valuable information.

housebefore

More than front doors in a broad sense, I really, really love my front door. Doors, rather. Before I even SAW the newel post and the banister and the original interior doors and moldings and windows inside the house, I fell in love with our front door. It has a beautiful knob, great proportions, gracious windows, fancy molding work both on and around it, a transom window above…the whole set-up just makes my heart swell, even after walking through it nearly everyday for over a year now.

I wanted to show this before shot of the house just to show what we’re working with, here. The major problems I see are 1) the stupid exterior light mounted to the molding, right above the transom window, 2) the 50s mailbox attached to the front of the door, and 3)the overall lack of dimension and interest.

I have lots and lots of plans, big and small, for restoring the exterior of the house. It’s a HUGE job—a renovation unto itself, really—so almost all of it has to wait for a while. The good news is that the roof is done an the house looks good, so it’s not pressing. At least whoever decided to put the vinyl siding up had the good sense to keep it white.

paintonpaintonpaint

ANYWAY. Fixing up some doors is a pretty manageable project when compared to, like, tearing off a house-full of vinyl siding and repairing rotted clapboard and missing trim work and all that. That’s a Someday Project. So, at some point in early summer (yes, I’ve been holding out on you…), after I’d finished the laundry room and was itching to get outdoors, I decided I really wanted to give the front doors some attention. They’d been slathered in layers and layers of paint over the years, which left more of an impression of the intricate detail work lurking underneath than a real view. I always kind of knew that the best option for these doors would be to fully strip them down to the bare wood.

This is where things start to go south, FYI. I knew I didn’t want to take the doors down to strip them—either to have them sent off to be dipped (which is a service I can’t seem to find up here for the life of me anyway…anyone?) or to chemically strip and paint them from the ease and comfort of my living room. This would have involved closing off the whole entrance to our house temporarily with plywood, and carrying really heavy doors, and none of it sounded all that fun or practical. The outermost layer of paint was applied very recently (when the house went up for sale), but layer upon layer upon layer underneath? For sure lead-based. I knew this. It wasn’t even really worth testing because…duh.

Now, the responsible way to deal with lead paint is pretty much to not deal with it at all—paint over it and let it be. Since that wasn’t an option here (I mean, sure, it was, but a shitty option), the next most responsible way to deal with lead paint is to chemically strip it, carefully containing and disposing of stripped paint to keep it out of your home/environment. Lead paint actually can be scraped and sanded as long as it is kept wet to contain any particles, and then properly disposed of, but it isn’t really recommended. There is a supposedly fabulous product widely used for historic restorations called Peel Away which is a chemical stripper that’s made specifically to take off TONS of layers of paint and contain the lead, and that was always loosely my plan for the doors.

I didn’t do that. For some reason it got to a point where I was itching to strip the doors so badly that I was willing to make all kinds of bad decisions and own up to them on the Internet rather than order the paint stripper and wait for it to get mailed to me like a grown-up. Go me.

stripping

So, I pulled out my trusty heat gun. And got to stripping. Bow-chicka-wow-wow.

You shouldn’t use a heat gun for lead paint. You shouldn’t really use a heat gun for paint removal generally because of the risk of fire, but you really shouldn’t use it for lead paint. Not only does it release small pieces of toxic paint, but the lead can also vaporize and be released into the air you are breathing as you heat gun. So do as I say, not as I do.

Anyway. I wore a mask. So there’s that? And cleaned things up as I went along. So there’s that? And vacuumed up the pieces with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter…so there’s that? I handled my guilt by telling myself that I don’t have children, I’m not pregnant, and my dogs were safely tucked away in the kitchen throughout the whole ordeal. So…there’s that. I’m about to get lacerated by comments, aren’t I?

Anyway, heat gunning may be bad but it is relatively quick and relatively satisfying. It still took several hours, but it was exciting to see the detail on the doors really reveal itself as I went along. Also, the odor was delicious. 

The other exciting discovery was that, while the top layers of paint were all whites and off-whites, the bottom layer of paint? The original paint color? BLACK. AS NIGHT. I really don’t see any evidence that the doors were ever stained wood, but at this point they need so much repair work that it isn’t really an option anyhow.

This isn’t at all surprising. People think of black as this color invented by sad people in the 90s, but Greek Revival houses generally heavily employed either black or dark green paint in various places: on the exterior of window sashes, on shutters, and on doors. The idea is that the black helps these elements sort of recede, which in turn makes the house look more like a Greek temple—which would have just had voids for windows instead of moveable sashes to protect from the elements and whatnot. Cool, right? I’d pretty much planned to paint the doors black regardless, but knowing that it was the original color made the decision even more of a no-brainer.

post-sanding

After using the heat gun to remove nearly all of the paint, I used my mouse sander to wet-sand the doors, still wearing a mask. Again, not the best plan in the world…but it is what it is. It worked. It’s been a couple months and I’m alive.

hardener

Seeing as the wood on these doors is somewhere around the 150-year-old mark, and some of it was a little rotted and a little dry and brittle, I wanted to give them a little extra boost in the hopes that they’ll last another 150 years without some jokester deciding to rip them out to put something shitty in their place. Anna recommended this Minwax Wood Hardener (please, get your mind out of the gutter!) stuff, which she’s used on window sashes with great success, so I figured I’d give it a try.

You guys, I have no idea what’s in this stuff. Probably cancer. Probably explosions. Probably the brain cells that it kills on contact. I don’t even care, because it’s kind of amazing. You just brush it on (with a brush you’re OK with throwing away). It dries almost immediately. The wood looks amazing—kind of like it’s just been polyurethaned—and it feels…hard. Yes. My wood was so hard. I’d like to tell you more about that, but maybe there are kids out there reading this.

HARD. WOOD. INSTANTLY. I wanted to rub it all over everything.

afterminwax

I know some people will say that the doors looked really beautiful at this point and I should have sealed them and left them as-is. If I were running some hip Brooklyn restaurant, then yes, you would be correct. If I’m trying to restore an old house that already looks a little like it’s falling down? No. There’s also the issue of this being outside, which means Mother Nature, which means rain and snow, which means rot, all of which does not add up to doors that have already seen about 150 winters and some rot and large gaps having a whole lot of future longevity. Sorry, Charlie. Paint, caulk, and wood filler is the answer here.

siliconecaulkandbondo

I used paintable silicone caulk (which should hold up better than latex) to fill in all the voids where water might collect, and Bondo as a wood-filler to reconstruct the rotted corners. Bondo isn’t really recommended as a wood-filler, particularly for exterior wood since it doesn’t expand and contract like wood does, but I know lots of people who have used it on rotted wood with great success and swear by it. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. I buy the type that’s marketed as an auto-body filler, which is pink instead of a more natural wood color: it’s cheaper and I’ve been told it’s the exact same thing, aside from the color, which you’d be painting anyway.

bondo

Bondo is really great to work with. It’s a two-part epoxy that smells like toxic death, but basically you just have to smear it on with disposable tools (I like a paint-stirrer), wait for it to dry, and then sand it into the correct shape/finish. When I need to achieve a certain shape (like reconstructing the rabbet in the inside edge of the door), I like to use a piece of wood temporary to fill the negative space and wrap it in cellophane, which the Bondo won’t adhere to. Once it’s dry, it’s easy to just remove the piece of wood and the cellophane and sand down from there. It’s pretty much impossible to get a smooth finish during the application, but it sands very easily. I like Bondo.

primerpaintsample

ANYWAY. After the doors were Bondo’d and caulked, I primed them. Since I’ve used it so much in the past with great results, I went with Zinsser’s B-I-N shellac-based primer. This stuff is super thin and dries almost immediately, and can go over both latex and oil-based paints as well as seal in unpainted wood so that the knots don’t “bleed” through the paint over time. In my experience it’s always provided a great base for fresh paint to adhere to. I plant to use it on our interior moldings before painting them, just as an added precaution against future chipping/peeling. It’s great stuff…for interior. It even says on the can that it’s only for “spot” exterior work. Maybe I should have read the can. Maybe I should be less dumb.

molding-outlines

One of the things I noticed when I stripped the doors down was that it looked like, at some point, there was some additional molding work on the doors that kind of framed the windows. See the outline? Kind of? It was more apparent in real life. It looks like it had been removed long ago, but all of a sudden the doors looked kind of incomplete without them. And since I clearly like to torture myself and replicate original molding work and it wasn’t so hard to deduce what the molding probably looked like by looking at the moldings on the panels below…why not?

Unsurprisingly, the dimensions of wood I needed were not easy to come by. I figured the molding around the windows probably matched the outer two pieces of trim on the lower half of the doors—sort of an oblong half-oval shape and a very thin piece of molding surrounding that. I found something resembling the thin outer piece (close enough!), but the half-oval stumped me. I thought maybe I’d use my router to make something, but then it occurred to me: base shoe! Base shoe molding is different than quater-round because one side is longer than the other. Maybe if I took one piece of base shoe, and glued it to another piece of base shoe…I’d get the right shape?

half-oval

People, it totally worked. All I had to do was glue the long sides together (I used Gorilla brand wood glue), use painter’s tape to tape it together tightly while it dried, and sand the whole thing one it was dry and the tape was removed.

addedmolding

This was my singular stroke of genius throughout the whole project. I used 3/4″ 18 gauge brad nails along the length of the new glued-together trim piece for some added support, and then I was able to cut them to the right lengths, just like a regular solid piece of trim. I placed a thin line of construction adhesive along the back before using my nail gun to affix them to the doors, and then used the same paintable silicone caulk to fill the voids and nail holes.

I don’t want to self-congratulate too soon since I’m a little concerned that the half-oval piece will separate over time, but so far, it’s holding up great and looks completely legit. I don’t think anyone would ever look at my doors and pick out that the molding around the windows isn’t original. I’m pretty proud of it.

lightpatching

During this, I also filled in the hole where the old exterior light fixture had been installed. This fixture was removed when we had the new exterior lights installed (which are much better placed now, I think! they really illuminate the house beautifully at night), leaving a large hole in the top of the molding surrounding the door. I used my jigsaw to square-off the opening and then screwed a small scrap piece of lumber to the inside of the molding. Then all I had to do was cut a 5/4″ thick scrap piece of lumber to the right size, screw that into place (attaching it to the scrap I’d screwed on inside the molding first…for some reason I don’t have a picture of it—ARGH!), and cover the whole thing in Bondo. Realtalk: I still haven’t gotten to sanding down the Bondo, priming, and repainting this area. Call it dysfunction. Call it distraction. Call it sucking at life. Call it whatever you want but it’s the truth! Excuse me while I go burst into tears.

oldbell

While I was at all of this nonsense, I decided to also replace the doorbell. The old doorbell was actually really cute and understated: the problem was, there were two! Since we’ve pretty much done everything else to take this two-family home back to a single-family, taking the second doorbell out of the second floor was kind of the last thing on the hit list. I’ll admit that I felt a little sappy and emotional with this one…the house has come such a long way in the past year, and having just one single doorbell at the front door as the final nail in the coffin for this house being an on-again-off-again rental for the past almost 80 years felt really exciting.

Changing out a hardwired doorbell is SUPER  easy. The voltage on the cables is so low that you don’t even really need to turn the power off. It’s all pretty self-explanatory.

doorbell

I ordered the new doorbell from House of Antique Hardware (I got the “antique brass” finish). The price is good and I think it looks really cute, but I have to say that the quality is just OK… one of the screws did snap during installation and the button doesn’t work flawlessly. It’s fine, though, and it works well enough that I’m definitely not rushing to replace it unless it breaks. I had to patch in some of the molding with Bondo, which now needs to be primed and painted…I’LL GET TO IT, OK?

transombefore

I also removed this weird situation in front of the original transom window! At some point, somebody added a stationary storm window of sorts in front of the transom (just a piece of glass with some small molding holding it in and a “decorative” center brace…). Not only did it look bad, but it blocked all access to paint or maintain the transom window itself and the surrounding trim. I know this was put in to help with heating, but honestly…the doors are so drafty that I’m pretty much positive it wasn’t making any real difference. What really needs to happen is for the doors to be properly weather-stripped, and maybe a heavy velvet curtain hung on the inside of the house right inside the doorway in winter to keep the drafts out. Since we don’t have a vestibule, I think that’s going to be the best answer to the whole heat-loss problem. Sure, a brand new airtight door would also do the trick, but…no.

mailslot

I also installed a mail slot!! No, it’s not original, but it certainly feels more authentic to the house than the 1950s metal one, and it’s also nice that our mail gets delivered directly inside the house now! Taking a jigsaw to these old doors might have been the most panic-inducing thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so happy with how it turned out. The quality of the mail slot is great—super heavy, super substantial—and the only thing I had to do was swap out the screws it came with for longer ones, since our doors are 2″ thick and nothing is really made for that anymore. No big deal.

afterpaint1

EEP, painted doors! I do want the mail slot to look a little less…new. The brass bits are pretty shiny and I’m kind of just waiting for it to develop a little patina to blend in a little more.

I painted the doors with Benjamin Moore’s Onyx, which is a color I’ve loved for years since I used it on the doors in my apartment! It’s such a perfect black—it’s a little less intense than a true off-the-shelf black paint, but doesn’t have any trace of a blue undertone, which always seems to be my problem with paints that look off-black or charcoal grey on the swatch. I love it. Anyway, I bought a quart of the Aura exterior paint in pearl finish, which is something between a semi-gloss and an eggshell. I was SO EXCITED.

doorsafter

So, the doors look pretty good. Until you got up close a few days later.

bubbling

HOLY BUBBLING AND PEELING. Ugh. Ugh Ugh Ugh. More Ughs.

After all that fucking work…this. THIS SHIT. I’m so unhappy. Hold me.

Admittedly, I did not really research the best primers to use on exterior woodwork…and apparently used one that doesn’t even claim to be good for exteriors. Its also just doesn’t seem like the primer and the wood hardener interacted very well, for some reason, since the paint and the primer both started bubbling almost immediately—not just the paint. Major bummers.

I also think painting exterior stuff black with latex paint when the weather is really hot WITH the sun also beating down on it is maybe just a bad plan, generally. The bubbling is definitely way worse where the sun really hits it…I’m sure it’s getting HOT, which is no good for paint adhesion. Anyway, it’s just all a horrible mystery that ended in terrible sadness. Beautiful doors. Beautiful ruin. All the sadness.

I hate that I have to redo this now. Yes, the hard part is done…all the layers of paint are peeled off, the molding is restored, the mail slot is in, the doorbell is exchanged…but do I have to strip the doors AGAIN? I know the answer is probably yes. This sucks.

One weird discovery I made during this whole ordeal was when peeling off the cheap pine stops that were providing some weatherstripping. The weatherstripping was totally dried out and useless and wayyy past its prime, but what was interesting was the paint underneath—not on the doors, but on the surrounding moldings.

understopblack

BLACK. The bottom layer of paint on the doors AND the enormous molding surrounding it was BLACK.

So…was the ENTIRE door surround black? Not just the doors? Well…

moldingblack

I took my investigation a little bit further by chipping away the old wood filler and caulk between the base of the molding and the tongue and groove flooring that extends about a foot and a half out in front of the doors. I had delusions that I might strip and stain that bit of flooring, but I think I’m more inclined to just repaint it a better grey. This grey it too blue and I’m not a fan.

Anyway, yep…the bottom-most layer is black, even on the outer parts of the molding! Wasn’t really expecting that one…

Before, I was thinking I’d just paint the transom window frame black and the rest of the moldings white and call it a day. Like this poorly done photoshop mock-up:

frontdoorrendering1

Sure, yeah, it’s nice and all. I like it.

frontdoorrendering2

But knowing (or, at least think I’m knowing…) that the whole thing was originally black…do I just go for it? It would be pretty dramatic. Obviously I like DRAMA…I mean, I live for it. This photoshop mock-up is so poorly executed and flat-looking and therefore not very convincing, but maybe it could be amazing if I actually did it? The 50s metal banisters definitely need to go, and the exterior light clearly needs to be swapped out, so try to ignore those. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmm. Decisions.

I guess I’ll finish the doors when the weather cools down a little and hope the paint really sticks this time. Basically this whole thing was a semi-unsafe bummer and failure of a DIY project, but I guess I feel like the heavy lifting is done and all I really have to do is figure out how to make some paint stick. Still, going back and re-doing a job I already tried to do…lame. I guess that’s just how it goes sometimes.

Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? Words of wisdom? Good advice? Prayers for my soul?

Also, to all the lead-fearing folk out there: rest assured I have since procured Peel Away and will be more responsible in my lead abatement efforts from here on out.

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