All posts tagged: Exterior

Fixing the Back of the House: Part 1!



So…I kind of dove head-first into fixing the back of my house.


Quick refresh: it looked kind of like this after the big mudroom addition came down. Not adorable! After removing the vinyl siding, it became very clear that I needed to do something with the door and the window on the second floor, since they’re clearly later additions that are neither functional nor attractive.

So the plan became a classic rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme: I’d tear out the double casement window in the kitchen, replace it with a cheap stop-gap window (down the line it’ll get a nice, enlarged 6-over-6 to match the rest of the house), and split the casement sashes into two individual windows for the second story—one on each side of the chimney running up that wall. As you can see from the pictures, all of this would involve a lot of clapboard patching. Patching clapboard is kind of like patching wood floors or something—you don’t want to end up with an obvious patch, so you need to feather your boards so they vary in length and joints are staggered.

I was planning on re-siding just the top half of this wall to accomplish this, and leave the bottom half intact since the clapboards (especially the green parts) were in relatively good condition, just with a ton of old crusty paint that needed to be scraped and stuff before repainting.


I had this idea that I’d use Peel Away, which is a great chemical stripper that’s widely used in restoration projects. It’s basically a thick paste that you apply fairly liberally and cover with their special magic wax paper and leave for about 24 hours. I decided to do a test sample before committing to the whole wall to see how it would work.


After about 24 hours, you start, well, peeling away. The paste stripper binds pretty well with both the paint and the wax paper, so it all kind of sloughs off in chunks.


So, it worked…okay. Since the green part of the wall was inside the mudroom for so many years, it only seems to have a couple coats of paint on it and the Peel Away worked flawlessly there. The white part, though, has about a billion layers of paint…and caulk…and tar. I guess as boards began to split or rot, a previous owner opted to smear them with tar which is super sticky and probably not the greatest substrate for new paint.

Peel Away is very effective on paint but doesn’t really do anything to caulk or tar, so I was left with decent but not great results. I figured I’d do it anyway and then just scrape and sand a LOT to get things ready for repainting, which sounded like the opposite of fun but short of replacing all the clapboard I wasn’t sure what else I could do.


While I mulled over that, I shifted my focus to replacing the window. I told you, nothing fancy! The idea was to buy a replacement window that would fit in the frame of the old window so I wouldn’t have to do anything crazy like totally re-frame and redo the trim on the outside and destroy my kitchen on the inside and all that.

I found a window that was the right dimensions at Lowe’s, where somebody had special ordered it and then returned it. Since it’s a non-standard size, Lowe’s unloads these at a deep discount…I guess this window would have run about $175 for the person who bought it, but it was mine for about $25! Cool.


Even though I think of this window as temporary, it’s going to be on the house long enough that I figured I could put a little extra effort into making it look better, so I also picked up a can of gloss black spray paint (Valspar brand that said it would work on plastic), covered the glass with paper and tape, roughed up the plastic a little with a sanding block, and hit it with a few coats of paint. I think it looks WAY better and since the other windows on the house are already black, I think it helps it blend a little more even though it’s vinyl.


When it came to actually putting in the new window…I messed up. I measured wrong! So the window that was supposed to fit in the old frame to make my life easier did not, and I didn’t want to go out and buy a new window and eat the (small, but still) cost of the new window that I’d already spray-painted. Doh! So the old frame came out, the old exterior trim came off, and I furred out the framing so the new window would fit snugly. I also managed to install it 100% by myself (turns out it’s kind of hard to hoist a big window into its rough opening, make it level, and screw it into place with only two hands) which I was pretty proud about.

ANYWAY. As you can see, at this point I’d removed a fair amount of the old siding to redo the trim around the new window, and I was finding that taking down the siding intact wasn’t so bad.


I was also noticing more and more that the condition of the old clapboard was not good. This is an area under the window where the siding meets the cornerboards, which was so caked in old paint and tar that it didn’t really even resemble wood anymore. Argh. I actually kind of like when old clapboard houses have that scale-y texture from being scraped and repainted over the years, but this level of disrepair seemed a bit beyond that and not a good candidate for scraping and repainting.


So one thing led to another.


And I took down all the clapboard.

A couple of years ago, seeing the house like this probably would have sent me into major panic mode…but I gotta say, this was all kind of fun and thrilling. Like, oopsie! Now I just have to fix it! No biggie!

You’ll notice that my house doesn’t have any sheathing at all, which would typically be between the studs and the clapboard. In my case, sheathing either came later or just hadn’t really hit Kingston yet…I don’t tend to see it on houses around here that were built before about 1890. My house and a lot of others is just clapboard nailed to the studs.

You might also be wondering what the hell all that brick is about? Well I’ll tell you. It’s called nogging, and was a fairly common practice during the 19th century. Basically the frame of the house would be built, clapboard applied to the outside, and then the wall cavities between the studs would be filled with brick and mortar from the inside before the lath and plaster went up. Crazy, right? It’s not structural—instead it was a form of insulation and pest-proofing, since rats and mice aren’t super keen on chewing through bricks.

The problem with the nogging is several-fold. Firstly, as insulation it has an R-value of less than 1, so it’s not all that different than just having no insulation. Because the walls are already jam-packed with this stuff, there really isn’t any way to install better insulation without removing it all, but access to it is the obvious issue since tearing off all the clapboard sounds mildly insane and tearing out all the necessary plaster inside would be a huge amount of energy and expense and, to me at least—lover of plaster walls—super sad for the house. The nogging is made out of what are called “salmon bricks,” which are basically garbage bricks that weren’t close enough to the heat as they were getting fired, or broke during production or transport…stuff like that. The vast majority of them do not hold up to any kind of moisture—instead, they absorb it like a sponge and then break and crumble, which is not really the kind of thing you want lurking behind your walls!


ANYWAY. It’s the 21st century! We have lots of insulation options now that are better at insulating than garbage bricks. The nicest option is closed-cell spray foam, but it’s also really expensive, and would ideally be done from the inside in a larger application than this to make it worth it. Normal fiberglass bat is also an option but I was concerned about how it would fare on a wall without sheathing—it has a tendency to kind of compress itself and become useless when exposed to moisture and it’s no fun to work with. I read online somewhere about using a combination of rigid foam insulation and canned spray foam, and that seemed like the best option for here.

So I picked up some 4’x8′ sheets that are 2″ thick and supposed to have an R-value of 10. I know 10 is still fairly low but it’s a huge improvement, and I think one that makes sense for a house that will always be somewhat drafty no matter what. Each sheet was about $35 (I used 5 on this wall for both levels) so the price was also manageable.

The process of installing the foam insulation was really simple: measure the width (each was a little different), rip it down on the table saw, and put it in place. They fit snugly enough that no other fasteners were required.


After a bunch of panels were in place, it was time for the Great Stuff! Great Stuff is, well, pretty great for sealing gaps and cracks. I sprayed it around each edge of the foam panels and waited for it to expand and dry. It served kind of a dual function of locking the panels in place and really buttoning up the whole installation.


Before re-siding, I went around and used my handy flush cut saw to remove parts of the spray foam that had expanded past the studs. It’s also easy to cut this stuff with a box cutter. Just make sure it’s dry, because spray foam is a sticky nightmare if it isn’t.


OK! SO! Finally it was time for the magic to happen! I had my pile of boards that I’d removed from the house, and then more clapboards I was hoarding in the basement that came off of the mudroom when I tore that down.

I experimented with a few different methods of trying to safely and relatively easily remove the paint/caulk/tar special plaguing most of these boards, and all of them basically sucked.


Until…the planer!! I bought this DeWalt planer secondhand about a year ago for something else. It’s a really fun tool to own because the gratification is so instant and the transformation is so dramatic! I hooked it up directly to my ShopVac fitted with a HEPA filter (VERY important because there is definitely lead paint involved), put on a respirator and some ear protection, and started feeding boards through.


DUDES. SO EXCITING. Each board took about 2-4 passes, but being able to totally strip down 10 or 12 foot lengths of clapboard in about a minute? Awesome.


So the boards go in one side looking like this.


And out the other looking like this. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.


The ShopVac set-up was very effective, by the way. Small paint chips still escaped but the vast majority got sucked right into the ShopVac and most importantly it was extremely good at keeping the really fine dust out of the air. No system of dealing with lead paint is perfect but I feel good about this one.


The final step in prepping the boards for installation was to run them through the table saw to shave off just the tiniest amount on the bottom of each board where there was still paint, since only the face of the boards got planed.


The actual installation went surprisingly fast and was totally fun and made me feel like a cool wizard. I used this DeWalt siding and trim nail gun (borrowed from Edwin…have I mentioned how great it is to live next door to a friendly contractor?) fitted with 2″ siding nails. The nail gun was essential since I was alone, but even with another set of hands I can’t really imagine nailing all of this by hand. It’s extremely important to use nails specifically for siding—framing or finishing nails will rust.

By the way, I considered adding sheathing and weather wrap but nixed it because I didn’t want to add thickness to the wall and then end up with my clapboards protruding past the elements of the cornice at the top of the wall. I know that might seem iffy but this is how the house was built and I guess it’s been fine so far.


To conserve as much material as possible, I laid out all my available boards in order of size (this was the area for small boards—there was another for medium-sized boards and another for the really long guys). That way I could easily find the piece closest in length to the one I needed and end up with a smaller off-cut. This project generated really little waste, which always feels good!


After selecting my board, it was over to the chop saw to cut it to length! A lot of the boards had really rotted or split ends but were fine in the middle, so I’d usually cut a little off of each end.


The boards are about 6″ wide (they vary) but the reveal is 5.25″. To keep the reveals consistent, I just ripped a piece of scrap wood down to 5.25″ and used it as a guide to correctly place each board.


With each run I tried to pay special attention to where the joints would fall in relation to the previous boards so that they’d look staggered and random. The disadvantage of doing things this way is that you want to get rid of any “bad” parts of each  board, so I ended up with more butt joints than there used to be, but I’m OK with that if it means being able to retain the original boards.


Not bad for wood that’s been outside for 150 or so years, am I right?


I’m so happy with the way this project is shaping up! Wait until you see the top half…it’s not totally done yet (some painting and caulking still to go…) but I think it’s going to look great.

So, am I crazy? I honestly feel like I could do the whole house this way (maybe tweaking some parts of the process)—restoring the clapboard and insulating one wall at a time. Right?

This post is in partnership with Lowe’s! Lowe’s has kindly provided me with merchandise credit, but specific product selections, opinions, designs, and stupid ideas are all mine.

Fence Staining!

If you’ve gone through a major renovation project and you live in a place with seasons, you might know what this time of year feels like. There was a time in my life when fall was my favorite season, but now it’s all stress and craziness and just trying to get everything OK for the impending winter. It’s not like everything comes to a screeching halt in these upcoming cold months, but cold and snow are definitely added challenges that don’t make anything any easier. Multiply that by three houses (yes, Bluestone and Olivebridge Cottages are still in the works…exciting updates to share on both fronts, FINALLY!) and you’ve got yourself one crazy, nervous little blogger person who is me. Hey, October? YOU WERE BANANAS. Hey, November? You don’t seem much different. Just darker.


That’s not really the point of this post, though. The point of this post is my fence. Remember my fence? To review, I used to have a really awful chainlink fence until the nice professional installers from Lowe’s came to replace it with a nice simple wood dog-ear style privacy fence that I love. It was maybe the single biggest quick improvement this house has seen to its exterior bits under my care. Now my backyard is pleasantly private and my house almost looks fancy from the street, which is unusual and thrilling after living with chain-link surrounding my property for 2+ years.


Last year, I built a short (in comparison—it’s still 30-ish feet long) section of fencing to demarcate the front yard from the back, and I stained it with an opaque black stain. Black might seem like a weird, goth-y, ominous, bold, scary, whatever kind of a choice, but I think in this context it works. Greenery, which I keep adding more and more of, looks great against the backdrop of the black fence, and I think the color helps offset the white house by allowing everything else to recede. It was one of those things that I figured I’d try out—worse case scenario, I could spend a day painting over it with a different color, but I ended up feeling glad I trusted my instincts because I really love it. No regrets!


After living with my black fence for a while and really liking it, I committed to doing the rest of the fence to match. I may have underestimated how arduous of a process that would be. Staining both sides of 200 linear feet of fencing (2,400 square feet, with nooks and crannies all the way) is a big job, just in case that wasn’t impeccably obvious to everybody except me.

I started the staining process by working between a roller and a 3″ angle brush. It was taking a long time. One side of each panel took maybe half an hour (more?) and I quickly started to feel like this was a really bad plan that I wish I hadn’t signed up for.


Then Edwin got home, saw me working, and immediately offered the use of his paint sprayer. A paint sprayer! What a guy. So he retrieved it from his basement and brought it over with a slice of watermelon for each of us and taught me how to use this magic futuristic device.

I’ve always written off paint sprayers as being more trouble than they’re worth and a big waste of paint (or stain, as the case may be), but YOU GUYS. It was so amazing. I don’t feel like I can really justify buying one for myself (this is the kind of tool you really don’t want to skimp on, and I guess the good ones are several hundred bucks), but if I ever have a really huge project where it’d come in handy and save me lots of time and money, I’d budget for it for sure.


Holy cow, this poor backyard. I promise I’ve really cleaned it up since this picture was taken. Mostly.

The trick with the sprayer, by the way, is very short, consistent strokes that sort of “feather” in and out at the ends. It’s harder than it looks or sounds and definitely takes a little practice to get into the groove of it, so I’m glad I got to get my sea legs on the fence with a product that’s really forgiving—if I sprayed it on too thick in sections, it was easy to just back-brush the excess and move on, and you can’t tell once it’s all dry. Since the wood is so rough, there wasn’t really any need to back-brush to avoid that sprayed-on finish that can look bad on the siding of a house, for instance.


ALSO! Sprayers are, well, sprayers, so you have to be very cautious of what’s around you when you’re using them! Professional painters actually need additional insurance to use sprayers because of the risk of overspray messing up someone’s car or house or whatever. One area of my fence is very close to the neighbor’s house so I switched to hand-brushing for those sections, but masking off her house with plastic would have also worked.


Anyway! Even with the sprayer, staining the whole thing took several days of 3-4 hour sessions, but I got it done! You can kind of see some lighter spots in this picture so after I was done I just went around and did touch-ups where necessary, and that was pretty much it!


Let’s talk for a minute about this stain? I used about 15 gallons of stain for this project, but the friendly folks at Cabot decided to help a brother out and send me 8 cans on them! So nice. I love this Solid Color Acrylic Siding Stain—it’s such good stuff. This is the same product I used on the other section of fencing last year, which still looks basically like the day it was done. Unlike any stain that I’m used to using, it has about the same consistency as a normal can of paint and the application is the same (you don’t need to wipe off excess or anything, like when you stain a piece of furniture), but it seems to really soak into the wood more than paint would and provides a really nice, totally opaque and totally matte finish. Because it’s water-based, clean-up is just like a normal latex paint and it cooperated beautifully with the sprayer! I think opaque stain is such a great alternative to paint especially when you’re dealing with pressure-treated lumber, which is typically supposed to dry out for several months before being treated especially with normal paint. Even after letting PT lumber dry out for longer than the recommended period, I’ve had a couple experiences now with regular (but high quality) exterior paint flaking and peeling after only a few months, but never with this stuff.

By the way, you also don’t need to prime—in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. This goes right on the wood. According to the folks at Cabot, it can also be used to cover previously painted or stained surfaces too, which is pretty cool. I’ve only ever used it on fencing, but I also wonder if I should be using it on the clapboard on my house, except in white. Since it still allows the wood to breathe, it seems like it would last much longer than paint without peeling? Hmmmmmm. It might be worth buying a gallon just to see how it looks…

The coverage is also really amazing—I was concerned before starting that I’d need at least two coats but it just took one (!) to achieve the deep, even finish I wanted. YAY!

Cabot products used to be sort of tricky to find, but they recently started selling them at Ace Hardware locations nationwide which is great. Cabot for everyone!


This picture was taken while the stain was still drying (which is fast—totally dry in about 30-45 minutes) but check it out! I really didn’t mind the way that the wood fence looked with the black garage, but knowing how it would weather makes me glad I pulled the trigger on treating it this way.


The final piece was staining all the little post caps! These are just these simple wood post caps from Lowe’s that I think REALLY finish off a fence. I think functionally they’re supposed to extend the life of the posts by creating a peaked surface on top for rain and snow to run off of (much like the roof on a house), but aesthetically they also just make the fence look fancier and more finished.

I used the sprayer to get a good coat on the tops of each cap, but ended up staining each one with a brush so I could get into all the nooks and bottom edges and all that.


Post caps have a little adhesive strip inside of them to hold them securely to the posts, but they don’t seem particularly strong so I added some construction adhesive (liquid nails) to them before putting them in place. I placed all of them pretty quickly and then went back around and hammered them down with a rubber mallet to get them level and really set on the posts.


So! Here we were back when I bought the house…


And today! There’s still some serious landscaping that needs to happen even here, but I’m really happy overall with this as a foundation to work off of.


Those garage windows look a little funny because they’re sort of blown out in the photo, but there’s actually a cute ticking stripe fabric on the inside of the windows. I’ve been so busy and just wanted to get SOMETHING up so I rummaged through my extra fabric bin and pulled out this window shade I bought a while ago for a couple bucks (just for the fabric) and it was enough to cover all four windows. It’s just stapled to the door on the inside…it’s like the OPPOSITE of fancy but it looks nice from the outside and more importantly doesn’t expose folks on the sidewalk to the jumbled mess on the inside of the garage…


Also, I wired some lights on the garage! I like them! I don’t love them, but I like them! I ended up ordering the Harbor Sconce from Restoration Hardware during a sale. This is the large size in “weathered zinc”—the finish is kind of super lame and faux-looking in person, but the shape is cute and they look fine and sometimes fine is…fine. The bulbs are LED faux-edison bulbs which I LOVE because they are so super hokey but they really look good at night and the light is so warm and glow-y. The lights are on a timer switch (found at Home Depot) so they come on and off more or less with sunset and sunrise. Boom!

I know people have problems with exterior lights at night from a light pollution and environmental standpoint, but these have been met with GREAT enthusiasm from the neighbors. This is still an urban area, and this is a small under-lit cross-street—beyond just looking cute, a reasonable amount of light at night actually improves public safety, so I’m glad to have done this.


So here was the house about a year and a half ago, all chain-linked and mudroom-ed and white garage-d.


And today! I feel like the absence of the lush summer foliage isn’t making this comparison as dramatic as I want it to be, but whatever. You get the idea! This side of the house has a MAJOR makeover ahead of it, but it’s come a long way! And I really do feel like the black fence and garage go a long way toward sort of visually isolating the house and letting that be the focal point, which is kinda the goal.

In case you’re thinking this, I’m thinking it too: the contrast is TOO stark. It’s this big wash of white, and then this big wash of black, and that is not the intent nor do I think it looks particularly good as it stands. There are two major things that I totally believe will fix this:

  1. The fence and garage need to be softened. Everyone will tell me I’m an idiot, but fuck it: I’m going to let some english ivy do its climb-y thing on that sidewalk-facing side of the fence. I know it’ll spread. I know it’ll be hard or impossible to get rid of. I know it’s bad for the wood on the fence. I want it anyway. I’ll guard it from the house with my life, but the fence needs something to naturalize it into the landscape and I think it also needs that shot of traditionalism that ivy would offer. It would also be nice all winter, and…well, that’s that.
  2. The house needs more black accents! The house itself will stay white, but it’s very traditional for Greek Revival houses to have black (or dark green) windows, shutters, and doors. My window sashes are already black (whatever previous owner did that, thanks a bunch!), but the storm windows are yucky 70s aluminum and the shutters are longggg gone. Spray-painting the frames of the storms will make a bigger difference than you’d think, and I’m determined to get shutters back on this baby! Doing shutters “right” is one expensive endeavor—let me tell you—but of course I want them to all be sized correctly, with period-appropriate hardware and the correct style and all that. Bad shutters are a big pet peeve of mine so it might be a while until I can splurge on that exciting improvement, but let’s all just keep it in the back of our brains, cool?

 This post is in collaboration with Cabot! Cabot generously provided a portion of the products used here but all opinions and stuff are my own, like I do.

Crossfit for Renovators: Concrete Demo


My mother texted me recently to tell me that she was nervous about the back of my house. As far as she or the Internet knows, I still have a sort-of-deck (which was really just the now-defunct mudroom without walls or a roof) with some sort-of steps down to the yard. She was concerned that it would snow and Mekko or Linus would have trouble seeing the boundaries of the “deck” and go walking right off it into a couple feet of snow, like the drunk little toddlers that they are.

“Have no fear!” I told her. “The deck is gone.”

Demolishing the “deck” itself was actually the super easy part. Demolishing all the concrete around it? WAY HARDER. It was something I had on the agenda when I originally embarked on these shenanigans of removing that big addition on the back of my house, but not really the part of the project that I ever considered a big deal. Whoopsie!


Just for reference, this is the back of the house on move-in day about 2.5 years ago. The stairs were removed about 2 years ago, the asphalt driveway was removed about one year ago, and the mudroom disappeared this summer, so all that was left was some funny concrete work back here. It doesn’t look like that much, right? It’s just the steps to the mudroom, the part in front of those steps, the slab area under the fire escape, and the border of that little theoretical herb garden thing. I figured I’d go it alone and have it done in a difficult but satisfying weekend with a rented jackhammer and my manly brute strength.


PSA: When renting tools, I always try to get the biggest bang for my buck—usually tool rental places are closed at least on Sunday, so if you pick up on Saturday and return Monday morning, you usually only have to pay for one day instead of two. The place here (Blue Line Rentals) is closed Saturday and Sunday so I picked up on Friday and figured I’d be fine by Monday morning and only have to pay for a day’s rental which was about $85. This was a good plan, sort of.

The system was this:

Step 1: Jackhammer up concrete in sections small enough to throw into the back of John’s pick-up truck.

Step 2: Fill up John’s pick-up truck probably more than I should, weight-wise. John doesn’t read my blog so nobody tell him, ok?

Step 3: Go dump concrete.

Step 4: Repeat.

I thought I’d maybe go through this process a total of 2 or 3 times to get it all out. Try like 7 or 8—I lost track. That yard spit up way more concrete than I realized was even possible. It was also really hot that weekend. The jackhammer itself is like 70 or 80 pounds, so maneuvering this heavy machine around and picking it up and putting it back down again to give myself a few minutes to lift really heavy rubble into a truck got way exhausting, way fast.


Almost immediately, the sound of the jackhammer attracted a couple of friendly neighborhood youths (who are actually like 20-25) who wondered if perhaps I needed some assistance that I wanted to pay them to provide. This happens with some frequency around here and I’ve gotten pretty good at politely declining, but this time? YES. HELP ME. COOL HAT, BRO.

So me and the youths jackhammered. And jackhammered. And jackhammered. We had a pretty good system going where one person manned the jackhammer while the other two of us moved rubble into the bed of the pick-up. Even with three people working it was REALLY slow and REALLY exhausting and started to get surprisingly expensive as the hours ticked on and the concrete just kept coming and coming. Those dudes probably bought, like, the best weed after that weekend and they totally earned it.


Concrete is VERY heavy and I had a LOT of it. There is the truckload above and about 7 more exactly like it. Bringing it to the dump, where it would then be transported to a landfill and I would be charged by the pound for its disposal, seemed like a very expensive way to get rid of it. So I checked Craigslist.

Great thing about upstate NY? Somebody somewhere always has some kind of hole or something to fill, and they don’t want to pay to fill it. Instead, they wait for people in situations such as mine to offer it up for free, which is how I found Bill.

Bill had posted an ad for free fill material—asphalt, concrete, bricks, pavers, stones, dirt—basically anything like that—because he is building a ROAD. AN ENTIRE ROAD. Not a driveway…like, a ROAD. Bill described his project, I explained what I had, he confirmed like 30 times over that I wasn’t trying to dump drywall or insulation or anything like that on his land, and he gave me the address.


One of the neighborhood not-really-youths and I hopped into the pick-up and headed where Bill said to go. The truck struggled its way up mild inclines and through winding roads, barely accelerating as I floored the gas and struggling to stop as I slammed the brakes. After all the many times during this renovation that I’ve wondered if something I was doing would result in my swift and immediate death, the likelihood here felt more real, somehow. I didn’t want to die moving concrete from my backyard to someone else’s yard. I didn’t want the youth to die. I didn’t want John’s long-suffering borrowed Ford F-150 to be totaled. I wondered who would pick up the couple tons of concrete if it did all come to pass, and whether Bill would ever be able to build his road.


What Bill neglected to mention was that his road was at the bottom of an extremely steep incline. I’m upset that this picture is so super lousy because it doesn’t look that steep, but it was VERY steep.  Bill met us there, and he instructed me to back in from a starting point across the street and reverse as far back as I could go so it would be easier to throw the concrete to area at the bottom of the hill where the road had yet to be formed. As it was, it ended in a kind of miniature cliff, at the bottom of which was a marshy layer of vegetation. Bill and the youth would follow behind on foot, letting me know if I got too close to an edge.

I rode the brakes the entire way down the hill, but between the road-weary tires and the worn-down brakes and the few thousand pounds of concrete in the back, the truck picked up speed on the way down. It was a quick descent, but the road plateaued just long enough that the back tire had space to stop a few feet short of falling into the abyss. I wondered briefly if this was a disappointment to Bill. Maybe the whole thing was a trap? Maybe he wasn’t as interested in my concrete as he was in watching me volunteer to flip a truck full on concrete onto myself and die there at the bottom of his road?


While helping us throw the concrete out of the bed of the truck, Bill explained that he’d bought the land roughly two decades prior to insulate his property from a lousy neighbor he didn’t like, but the neighbor had since died and now he didn’t want the land anymore. Evidently, the road was already a couple of years into production, and so far it was made entirely of the same kind of stuff I was depositing with a layer of shale on top. His long-term plan was to keep building it entirely with locally-volunteered free material and then sell the land to a developer, who would see the road as a big asset and pay top dollar.

I realize that Bill sounds like a crazy person, but he actually struck me as very normal—mild-mannered, appropriately appreciative of my donation to his cause, even-keeled. He drove the nicer version of the truck I was driving, so we talked about that, and he seemed genuinely interested in my home renovation, and told me about an old house he had lived in with a creek literally running through the basement. He told me about the time he got in trouble because some asshole decided to dump construction debris instead of fill and he got a fine from the town and had to clean up the mess. “Can you imagine?” he asked, as if the idea of littering was so much crazier than trying to build a road from my broken bits of concrete.

Bill really seemed like a good guy. I liked Bill. He showed us how to “use the gate,” which was just hooking a length of chain onto a tree, so that we could repeat this process ourselves on subsequent loads without him having to meet us.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch, jackhammering continued. I think this concrete was done in two distinct layers—one circa 1930 and one circa 1970. Both times, whoever did the work indiscriminately threw stuff into it—hardware, machine parts, a bizarre number of small castors, metal rods and wires, auger bits…that’s a different post. Some of it was exciting and some of it was not so exciting and none of it has any monetary value.


I was at this with the neighborhood youths for two entire days. On Monday morning I had to call the tool rental place and tell them that I needed to keep the jackhammer another day, and after working on it some more throughout the day, called in the big guns that evening because I had to get that jackhammer back and there was still a lot to do.

Edgar (the Edgar half of Edwin & Edgar, a.k.a. E-squared, a.k.a. my go-to-contractor-dudes, a.k.a. my neighbors and BFFs and loves of my life) is a demolition BOSS. He actually seems to be good at pretty much everything, but demo is where he seems to become superhuman. Sometimes I witness him do something like this and I feel like I don’t even know why I try to do anything. After spending days now paying for the jackhammer and a few hundred bucks for the help of the neighborhood youths, Edgar had that concrete busted up in like an hour and a half. My job just became dealing with the rubble, which was honestly really hard but I’m not going to complain about it because Edgar’s job was harder and he never complains and when he does it’s in Spanish so I only kind of understand it. He’s the best boyfriend I never had.



While I was off on one of my expeditions to Bill’s road, Edgar also destroyed the deck. Since he knows me, he was careful to pry off floorboards in full pieces with the tongues and grooves intact and set them aside in a pile, as well as stack up all the beautiful old framing lumber holding the thing up.

That’s the mess I was stashing under the mudroom, because I had this idea that maybe if I posted the vinyl siding on Craigslist, somebody would want it and I wouldn’t have to take it to the dump. That did not happen so to the dump it went.


And…this is how things ended up looking. Like the apocalypse. Groovy.


So, I aimed for a beautiful covered porch this summer and ended with a set of three “temporary” stairs which hopefully will only be here until next spring/summer when the porch plan becomes a reality. These things happen! Oh well. Sometimes you have to shoot for the stars and not reach the stars but that’s OK because even though things look worse, a lot of the hard work is getting DONE. It’s all progress, right?

Now, if you’re really using your noggin, you might think to yourself that this order of work seems stupid and wrong. If I was planning on re-siding the top of the house and replacing that door to nowhere and the window, why wouldn’t I leave the mudroom alone so I could stand on the roof of it to do that stuff? Why didn’t I at least leave the concrete and the mudroom floor to use as a stable platform? Shut up, smarty-pants.

Hindsight is 20/20 on this one. I didn’t plan on changing the window/door set-up on the back of the house or re-siding the top half of the wall because I was planning on a balcony up there, but by the time I officially nixed that then this work had already gone down. Oops! So I made my life a little harder. That happens sometimes.

Now that I know what I want to do with this back wall, I’m officially moving forward with Project: Poach Kitchen Window Sashes, Replace Kitchen Window, Remove Existing Window and Door Upstairs, Replace with Kitchen Window Sashes, Re-side Top of Wall, Strip Lower Half, Prime and Paint All Before it is So Cold.  It’s already been intense but also sort of exciting and horrifying and I’m excited to show!

Stopgap Fencing, Which Realistically will Probably be Pretty Permanent

Anyone who’s had the distinct pleasure of using the only functional bathroom in my house can probably confirm that I’m not a huge patron of the stopgap measure. At some point, the space will more than likely get gutted down to the studs and put back together again, but for now it’s…well, it’s wretched. The vinyl tile floor is horrendously ugly and missing or coming up in places, the old paint-covered wallpaper is separating all over the place from the cracked plaster walls underneath, and the shower surround is the same 1950s gold-speckled white formica used on the old kitchen countertops downstairs. My work on it, thus far, has been keeping it clean, hanging a shower curtain, and a couple of hooks for towels. Often I think about dedicating a few days to trying to at least do something about the floor and maybe slap a coat of paint on the walls and re-caulk the tub, but then I think…nah. I’ll get to this space when I’m ready to really get to it, and for now I can just keep apologizing to guests when they inevitably ask where to relieve themselves and I’m left to wonder whether the backyard would be a more luxurious recommendation.


Sometimes, though, you really just have to do something, which is what happened with the old wrought iron fence lining the front and a portion of the side of my property, right next to the sidewalk. I often refer to this fence as “original” but honestly I have no idea. The same or similar style of fencing isn’t all that uncommon in and around Kingston, but it seems to be typically used around public spaces like civic buildings or graveyards rather than private residences, so sometimes I wonder if this fence could have been relocated here from elsewhere.

Who knows. Standing a bit over 3 feet high, it’s a very simple fence that’s relatively light on ornament, with each vertical picket terminating in a rather threatening-looking spike. It has a very creepy cemetery kind of vibe that I just think is terrific, obviously.


Trouble is, the fence just sort of…stops about 20 feet in from the corner, which is part of what makes me wonder if it was moved from somewhere else. Back before I replaced all the chain-link with a nice new wood fence, this stopping point is where the 6′ chain-link fencing began, which was awkward and totally ugly and not nice at all.

There’s about 32 feet between where the wrought iron fence ends and the wood fence begins that I needed to fill in with…something. This is the kind of thing that will keep me from sleeping for months or years. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled at salvage places and on Craigslist basically since buying the house hoping to stumble upon lengths of the same fencing to match, but no dice.


In this circa 1950 photo of the house (which you can read a whole post about here), the solution the owners had come up with then was to patch in this area with a different type of fencing—to me it looks like wood, and maybe is supposed to be a balustrade, like for a porch? I think this is actually a pretty nice answer to this vexing conundrum so I was planning to do something similar, but then I figured I might as well obsess over it forever instead?

I found someone locally who does custom metal fabrication projects and we talked about having the original fence replicated (with powder-coated steel instead of wrought iron), but the only way it would have maybe been within financial reach would have been if he could have sourced the basic components from his suppliers (horizontal rails with pre-punched holes at the correct dimensions and spacing, that kind of thing…) and then just done the work of welding it all together, but he did some searching and couldn’t find what we needed, so that plan was kind of dead in the water.


I have no idea how it took me so long to notice, but back in the spring I was looking more closely at the original fence and took a closer look at the little seal on the gate. Of course it had a brand name on it! I’m dumb.

Want to know something cool? Too bad, you don’t have a choice. Stewart Iron Works Company? It’s still in business! According to the company, it was founded around 1860 (Wikipedia says 1886), and at its peak was the biggest iron fence manufacturer in the world—providing fencing for everything from cemeteries to the Panama Canal to the White House! They did a bunch of other impressive stuff too, like jail cells (notably at Alcatraz and Sing Sing), military vehicles during WWI, furniture…amazing, right? Nowadays the company is based in Kentucky, and evidently a lot of their business stems from historic restoration projects, which is pretty awesome. It doesn’t look like my particular fence is something they stock (although all the components seem to be available in the catalog), but I did have a very nice conversation over the phone with one of their employees who said it should be easy enough for them to reproduce. Which would be AWESOME, correct? Correct.

If money were no object this would be a total no-brainer, but…girl’s gotta eat. My house still needs a LOT of work. Funds are low. As much as I love this fence, there are about 100 things I can think of off the top of my head that I’d prioritize higher than having a perfect replica of my old fence made, and I can currently afford maybe 1.5 of them? So PLEASE, Stewart Iron Works: stay in business another decade or two and I promise to circle back and pursue this for real. Maybe then you can just send me the pattern and I’ll 3D print it.

ANYWAY I had to do SOMETHING because amazingly enough, a 39″ high antique wrought iron fence connecting to a 6′ rusty dusty chain-link fence connecting to a new 6′ wood picket fence all within about 50 feet is not adorable? Even the dirt patch AND falling down addition on the side of the house weren’t enough to make it a good look, if you can believe it.


I searched far and wide (kind of), hoping to find something within a couple inches in height of the original fence, with a similar pattern. Since the ultimate goal is to get an actual Stewart Iron Works fence, it had to also be within the budgetary parameters of free to pretty cheap.

I looked at SO MANY OPTIONS of newer aluminum fencing products, and you know what’s funny? I ultimately just came back to the same exact solution I came to a year ago on the opposite side of the yard! I originally found this “No Dig Fencing” stuff at Lowe’s totally just because I spotted it and figured it was good enough and relatively affordable, but now I’m pretty convinced it actually is the closest thing out there for cheaps to my old fence. Fancy that.

If I wasn’t trying to match something else, I was actually surprised by how many affordable and really nice-looking options for metal fencing Lowe’s has, by the way. I guess it’s all special-order in the stores or online-only (at least at my store it is), but there are all these options seem much, much sturdier than the stuff I used (since they have real posts and bolts to connect everything and all that) and the panels are 6 foot lengths rather than 4 feet, which just looks better for longer spans. I only bring it up because I can see a lot of those options actually looking really good on a historic restoration project and budget-wise it’s totally friendly.


How is this post getting this long?? Back to my fence. This stuff installs so quickly that I didn’t even take any process pictures—it was all done in about an hour, including cutting down a panel for this little return piece as well as the last one at the end so it all fit. The pieces are all hollow aluminum so it cuts VERY easily—I used my Sawzall but a regular manual hacksaw would be easy, too. The little return panel is attached to the wood post with a couple of conduit straps that I spray-painted black, which sounds horrendous but you really don’t notice them.

Anyway, the entire fence is just 4 foot panels, which interlock with vertical posts. The posts stay in the ground with a stake that you hammer in with a rubber mallet. All in all it’s not the most sturdy thing in the world, but I think it’ll be OK

This fencing tends to look a little nutty, I figured out, if you don’t really get everything hammered into place well. I sort of made this mistake on the other side of the yard and it shows, so here I hammered the stakes deeper into the ground and then went back and hammered the posts as far down as I could get them after all the panels were in place. This keeps everything level and the interlocking aspect of how it all fits together isn’t as evident. This also means that the bottom of the fence is sitting right on the ground (and a little underground after I plant and mulch this area), which may affect the longevity of it depending on how good the powder-coating is to prevent it from rusting, but again…I’m not expecting it to last forever.


Anyway! I feel like it’s kind of really hokey but it also looks totally OK?? Like, we’re all sitting here staring at it right now, but in real life you don’t really do that—especially once this area has some plants growing, I really feel like it’ll all “read” as the same fencing and be completely fine, ya know? So maybe it’s not exactly fooling anyone but it’s also the kind of thing that you’d have to be paying more attention than most people really do to notice. Yeah? Not bad for about $300 and an hour or so of work.


To finish off this VERY professional and labor-intensive installation, I connected the new fence to the old fence with…black plastic zip-ties. I can’t really believe I’m admitting this publicly, but I feel like this post is kind of about letting things slide so WHATEVER. It happened and it works and if they break it’s not like it’s exactly difficult or expensive to just throw on some new ones.


Here’s the house back at the end of April…


And here’s where things stood as of a couple of weeks ago! It’s, like, both better and worse at the same time? That’s possible, right? But someday that “after” image will just be another “progress” shot and we can all forget or feel nostalgic for how crazy things look right in this moment.

This post is in partnership with my pals at Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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