The Farm House Journal

2004 Updates, Part 2

July 20, 2004—In 1961, Gaylord Perry, a great pitcher but a notoriously bad batter, was asked when he thought he’d get his first home run. Perry replied, “Man will walk on the moon before I get my first homer.” True to his word, on July 20, 1969, less than an hour after Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, etc., Gaylord Perry got his first home run. He went on to get five more in his long, celebrated career as a spitballer.

There have been many times over the course of the past seven years that I was sure that man would walk on Mars before the Farm House got done, usually after some action by the Unseen Hand. It was such a big job, there were so many obstacles in our way, and I questioned my ability to summon the organization and energy necessary to see the project through.
 Don't leave home without oneHappily, Lydia and I make a great team, and where my will or energy flagged, she picked me up. We planned carefully, chose our professionals wisely, stuck to our guns, and as a result the Farm House is now structurally complete, with the finish phase now begun in earnest.
 Now, it’s crunch time for me, and I feel very much like a dog who, after a long career of chasing cars, at last catches one. I finally have what I’ve been pursuing all these years, and suddenly I must change my focus from pursuing to doing—a great deal, right now. The house must be mortgageable by a date certain, a date which is not terribly far off. Thus, as much as I love to finish one job completely before going on to another, I need to discipline myself to concentrate first on the functional restoration, and save the purely cosmetic aspects for later. For example, I must get the windows all re-glazed, with the sash moving freely and properly weighted, before I go back and restore the finish to the woodwork and hardware.
 A woman's work is never doneAt the same time, I must keep up with the needs of my foreman and his workers to have the various pieces of finish lumber primed before they are applied to the house. It is now common practice to prime the back of most exterior finish wood pieces to protect them from moisture coming out from the inside of the house and creeping into exterior joints. Now, one cannot just prime the back, because then the lumber will tend to cup towards the unprimed side. This means that pretty much all that siding and trim going onto the new construction has to be primed on all sides. That has proven to be a huge job, but a great exercise for getting my painting chops up. I just found the largest brush I could, loaded it up with paint, and started flailing away. Note the brush pictured to the left. That's the ticket, a brush with short, stiff bristles stacked an inch thick. Later, I found an even bigger brush with shorter bristles. I've gotten so I can do one side of a 20-foot section of shiplap in 2 minutes flat. Who needs a sprayer? Note also in the picture the standard giveaway with purchase at paint stores, a handy-dandy opener for paint cans and beer bottles—a humanitarian gesture, that.
 Lydia has been a big help in the priming, and she has gotten her own painting chops up amazingly. I don’t let just anyone help me paint, but she has become my ace-in-the-hole as far as getting the painting done. As always, I don’t know what I’d do without her.

* * *

August 6, 2004I generally try to be sparing with the pictures, because I want to keep loading times down. Moreover, having more image area than text area creates layout problems in Hypertext Markup Language. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that a more extensive use of images is necessary to support the text of this entry. I hope you will forgive the indulgence, and all the empty space.

I’m rehabilitating the existing windows now, and while they are in remarkable shape for 118-year-old windows, I must admit that now that I’m getting a close look at them, I can see that my original assessment of their condition was overly optimistic. Well, as they say, love is blind.

By the time the Farm House was built, windows were prefabricated in factories and installed as units on site, as they are today, and anyone who’s lived in a pre-World War II house would find the construction of the Farm House windows familiar. They are double-hung (most of them, that is), with sash weights, pulleys, and cords, made of pine—all quite standard.

pinned through-mortiseLa VentanaA closer look, however, reveals some interesting differences. The joints are mostly pegged through-mortises. The peg serves to draw the tenon fully into the mortise, then keep it there even if the glue fails. We saw a lot of pegged mortises in the timber-framed colonial houses of Concord and Lexington on our honeymoon. Well, we saw it in Salem too, in the House of the Seven Gables. Come to think of it, the Farm House has seven gables as well, No, wait, we added one over the new rear entrance. So we’re one better! The pegged mortise is a quaint thing today, but it’s undoubtedly contributed to the windows’ longevity; after all, those Colonial houses were older than the Farm House is today when the Farm House was built. The sash (the moving parts that hold the glass) are quite narrow in profile compared to more modern windows, giving them an elegantly sleek appearance and allowing in more light. The sash pulleys are cast iron, not pressed steel.

Zuz-zuzCuriously, in the upstairs windows, on the upper rail of the inner sash, the glass is carried not in a rabbet (L-shaped notch), as is nearly universal, but in a narrow dado (U-shaped slot). This will be a challenge to glaze.

oyMost significantly for our situation, the window casings (the wood frames surrounding the window openings inside and out) are an integral part of the window’s structure—not mere trim pieces covering an internal frame, as became the norm by the turn of the century—so that if one were to remove the casings, the window would simply fall out, frame and all. This feature is proving to be quite a complication, for some of the frames are loose, and a few are even cracked, and to tighten these frames back up and bring everything back into proper alignment without being able to remove the casing boards can be a bit tricky, especially considering that some of the exterior boards are heavily weathered, dry and brittle.

decayHaving said this, some of the sash on the second floor (again, the moving parts that hold the glass) are unsalvageable. The wood, while not rotten, is so weathered in many cmoxieases that the lignin, the stuff that binds the wood fibers together, seems completely gone. As a result, the wood will not bear working. It turns to splinters and dust under the pressure of a scraper. For these windows, we are having new sash custom-built to replicate the original, which will go into the existing frames. A few of these frames are in such bad repair that it will take more than mere epoxy and screws to repair them; it will take the kind of carpentry skills that only our able foreman can provide.

Again, what a messBut the rest of the window-salvation task is mine. Happily, this is a task at which I have some solid experience; I like windows that work, and I’ve lived in enough places with windows that didn’t to potrzebiehave had ample opportunity to learn how to fix them. Of course, I’ve never had to deal with cracked and loose frames, but our foreman has given me some simple but invaluable guidance on this front. I would have undoubtedly arrived at some Rube Goldbergesque, over-engineered solution, but he advised me that the most effective method was to epoxy the cracks, clamp everything into alignment, drive screws through the outside casings into solid framing members, then let the epoxy cure. As has proven consistently true with the Farm House, the simplest, most elegant solution is the best. It’s the Victorian way.

medicine cabinet frameYes, it’s quite a blessing to have a guy like our foreman around. He loves his work, he’s good at it, and he cares just as much about doing right by the Farm House as we do Best of all, we communicate very well. For example, the subject came up one day at the house of how to treat the casing around the medicine cabinet in the new bathroom. All I had to tell him was, “Case it like a window,” and the next morning, he had built it to match the precise mental picture in my head. I didn’t have to mention scaling down the proportions or the fact that the stool should be flush with the bottom of the cabinet opening. This he knew. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a contractor knows how precious this level of communication (to say nothing of this level of knowledge, skill or speed) is.

NeatoIn other news, Lydia and I are caught up with the priming for now, thanks to another weekend session with the trim boards. We learned an interesting phenomenon: 1-by-4-inch trim boards take as long to paint as 9-inch wide shiplap per foot of length. It’s because one must use a smaller brush. Here, a disbelieving Lydia learns this for herself while I take surveillance photos.

garageWe caught up just in time, for the primed boards are being put to use. The garage and addition are now getting their skin, and the transformation is amazing. The structures have been up for months now, and I’m in and around them most every day, but while I’ve appreciated them on an intellectual level, in my mind they’ve been mere shells of plywood to me, nothing more than the sum of their various parts. Now that they’re getting their cladding, although they are not yet complete, suddenly my mind perceives them as something quite different—as organic, unitary entities. Andrew Jackson Downing would understand completely [see Vol. 1].

tileThe tile in the downstairs bathroom is done, and I couldn’t be happier. I'm very picky about tile, but I can't find one tile out of place, one grout joint out of line. Simply put, the job is perfect. It'’s a sublime feeling to carry a mental image around for years, then see it made real before your eyes.

grassAfter years at the effort, I’ve finally gotten the grass in the median strip (between the sidewalk and the curb) looking like a lawn, weed-free and as green as any lawn on the block. I’ve even got the plumbing cuts pretty much filled in. There remain a few stubborn bare and brown spots, but they’re slowly yielding. I’ve done this as sort of a token of good faith to the neighborhood, an indication of things to come, but until we got water on the property my efforts were confined to rear-guard actions against the seasonal onslaughts of weeds. Once we got water, I was able to put down some pre-emergent herbicide, and this gave the Bermuda grass a leg up. This is all Bermuda grass needs, that and some water and a little fertilizer. Bermuda grass has a bad rap, because it is so invasive, but where it is wanted and can be contained, for my money there is no better warm-season grass. It is wear-resistant, fine-textured, and mown high (2 ½ inches, not the ½ inch usually prescribed) it looks better than anything one can grow well here in full sun. Now, my brother Jon in North Carolina works wonders with Kentucky bluegrass, getting it so green that in fact does start to head a bit towards blue, but that species does not do well in LA inland of the coastal regions. I do plan to use creeping red fescue elsewhere in the yard, because it has a wonderful meadow-like look, and is far more tolerant than the constant shade under the tall trees. One does not even really need to mow it. One does have to mow Bermuda very frequently when it is in full growth, which is a definite consideration here, considering that the area of just this median strip is the same as the entire front lawn at our Culver City house.

meowSpeaking of neighbors, I just last week made friends with a particularly delightful neighbor to the rear of the lot. I think we’ll get along famously, but I can’t speak for everyone in the family.

* * *

August 9, 2004—Welcome to Restorer’s Corner, the first of an occasional series describing in detail a specific procedure useful in restoration work. Today we’ll discuss moldmaking and casting.

As I’ve mentioned several times in these pages, the feet are missing from the upstairs clawfoot tub. We have learned the hard way that there was no real standardization in tub feet; each manufacturer evidently had its own proprietary mounting, so the surest way to find feet to fit your tub is to take the tub with you to the salvage yard. Now, anyone who’s ever tried to move a cast iron bathtub even a few feet knows how unwieldy they are, and while ours is small enough to be lifted by two people, the chances of our actually getting the tub out of the house and back in again without bringing a wall or a stair railing along with us are remote. The obvious answer to our dilemma was to make a mold of the one of the mountings and the surrounding area, take a casting from that, and use the casting to find feet that fit.

For this, I turned to Abatron, Inc., a company I have long relied upon for their excellent epoxy products. They make a full line of excellent materials designed specifically to facilitate restoration work, including several different moldmaking compounds. Because the form I needed to cast is undercut (narrower at the bottom than the top), I selected a two-part polyester compound that mixes like an epoxy into a paste that stays put where it is applied, and cures into a rubber-like substance. These characteristics would allow me to apply it to the tub without constructing a form to hold it, pull it off the tub when cured, then pull the completed casting out easily.

The moldmaking compound took some work to mix together thoroughly, because one part had the consistency of roofing tar and the other of whipped drywall joint compound, but the combination was the consistency of buttercream frosting, which was quite easy to work with.

AbhesiveThe first step in application is to apply a release agent to the part to be molded, a silicone-based liquid that, once dry, would prevent the moldmaking compound from sticking to the tub.

tastyThen, make an initial application of the compound using a brush in order to ensure that it fills in every contour completely. The directions specify a “stiff brush,” and I should point out that the brush pictured here did not quite fit the bill, so I had to take great care to ensure that the compound got everywhere it needed to be. Probably the best solution here would have been to cut the bristles of the inexpensive polyester brush I used somewhat shorter to achieve the ideal stiffness for the task.

dingle burvisThe second step is to build up the compound so that it completely encases the part to be cast (1/4 inch minimum), using a flexible spatula. Again, the tool I used here was not quite up to spec, so more caution was necessary; from this experience I would say that the most appropriate tool would be a standard Rubbermaid rubber spatula.

yecchHere is the completed mold, after building up the compound in, around, and over each contour to a thickness of at least a quarter-inch all over. This is left to cure overnight (it’s best not to be in a hurry when moldmaking).

pancakeswaffleBecause the compound is flexible, the mold is not rigid enough on its own to retain an accurate contour of the tub exterior during casting. It needs a hard shell to provide the necessary rigidity. Ideal for this purpose is Abatron’s WoodEpox, a two-part epoxy putty. After mixing it together thoroughly, make a pancake of it and press it firmly around the cured mold (I applied a bit more release agent around the perimeter, to keep the WoodEpox from sticking to the tub).

puttymoldAfter allowing the epoxy to cure overnight, carefully pry the mold with its shell off the form, and you will then hold in your hand the mold for your casting. In retrospect, my mold was actually not quite complete, for I had neglected to take into account the need to build up additional thickness in the casting. I had chosen gypsum for my casting compound, for it is inexpensive and easy to work with. It needs no release agent, it’s easy to mix, and it cures quickly. Gypsum is like plaster, but harder and more break-resistant. Even so, it needs to be at least a half-inch thick to be strong enough for normal handling.

oopsThe simplest answer would have been to build a rim out of modeling clay, but I did not discover my error until I had mixed up the gypsum and began pouring it in. Happily, I had some aluminum foil handy, so I made a makeshift bowl out of this, and it worked well enough.

casting couchWhen the gypsum hardens after a few hours, it will pop right out of the mold, as mine did. The result: an exact copy of the tub foot mounting, suitable for carrying around to local salvage yards. Neato.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet in the moldmaking game, I can see other Farm House restoration tasks where this technique would be useful. One that springs immediately to mind is the replication of the missing fireplace mantel. Our foreman will likely be constructing this, but there are some details, namely the spoon-carving and corbels, that could prove hard to duplicate by traditional woodworking techniques. Taking molds of these elements from an existing mantel may be the simplest solution, this time cast in one of the Abatron compounds specifically designed to emulate wood.

Just another example of better living through doing it yourself.

* * *

October 4, 2004—Big doin’s, Mouseketeers. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I can prove it. A cursory glance at the Farm House Cam shot at the top reveals big changes to the Farm House; a click over to the full-size picture will show that the exterior skin is just about complete. Yes, those are the original turned posts; seven of the ten corbels (the triangular, gracefully-curved pieces at the top of the posts) are original as well.

yowzaOur foreman did a brilliant job of recreating the original veranda; once the house is all painted, it will take a skilled and schooled eye to detect that it is not the original. This was by no means a simple matter. For one thing, the original veranda was so thoroughly thrashed by the elements that nothing was in its original position.  For another, the structural elements of the new veranda are considerably beefier than those of the old, yielding less space between the floor and the bottom of the roof structure. Thus, getting the new veranda to match the old one took a great deal of skill, knowledge and attention to detail.

If I had a hammerHe built the upper and lower railing sections on the workbench, and our finish carpenters put them in place. Now, the fruits of all their scrupulous work are on display for the neighborhood to enjoy.  It's like a huge piece of fine furniture, and to me it’s simply beautiful. Even without paint and windows, the Farm House is really beginning to shine.

Sit right downThings are happening inside as well. The upstairs closets are all built, and they look very nice. They really dress up the rooms. Curiously, although in a literal sense the rooms all have less open floor space than before, the closets make them look bigger somehow. I think it's because they raise the apparent height of the ceiling by excluding from view the parts where it slopes down to two feet high. The cabinet design is mine, patterned after the pantry under the stairs, but it is the finish carpenters' execution of that design that makes them look so good.

Shortnin' breadThe oak plank floor is installed in the addition, but it won't be sanded and finished until the kitchen is complete. The kitchen cabinets have begun to materialize, and again, it's amazing to me how much bigger the kitchen looks with the base cabinets in. The interior woodwork is nearly complete, the gas is hooked up, and the water heater is in service. The furnaces are installed and waiting for winter.

light 'em upBack to the outside. The grading is done, and soon the driveway will be in. It will be a bit narrow, but wide enough for our minivan, and that's plenty wide for us.  Moreover, if it were any wider, we'd have to take out another tree, and that's something we just don't have the heart to do.

I've been busy working on my projects as well—rehabilitating the windows, painting, and restoring the finish on the woodwork—but I'll talk about that later.

On to 2005 Updates, Part 1

Back to Volume III Home