The Farm House Journal

2005 Updates, Part 2

May 19, 2005---I'm here at the Farm House as I write, taking advantage of our new Internet connection to post a dispatch from the field. Yes, we finally got that installed, and the phone line as well, thus completing the Farm House's links to the world outside.

I said I'd write again once I'd completed the finishing of the kitchen cabinets---well, now that I check what I wrote, I see that I actually didn't say that, but it was implied---but when I implied that, I had no idea that the job would take quite so long. When the cabinet installation was being completed, I was wholly occupied with the task of getting the house past the final inspection, so I didn't inspect the cabinets too thoroughly. Everything looked fine and ready to stain in an eye-level inspection, and so I bid farewell to the installers, highly relieved that they were done at last. When I started my work on them, however, I started to find parts that were decidedly not ready to stain. They had cut down the bottoms of the doors and the tops of the drawer boxes with a portable table saw, and while they did a remarkably clean job with such a coarse tool, it was clear they had used a dull blade, because there were kerf and burn marks everywhere. I had to take time to sand these out as well as possible without changing the dimensions of the doors, and then I had to lacquer the drawer box tops to keep them from splintering later.

owieThis was just the beginning of my journey of discovery. At every turn I found more problems that I had to fix, from sticking drawer fronts to chipped veneer, so it was over a month before I got to the point where I was ready to stain. When I applied the stain, I discovered many, many places where glue splatter and the like had blocked the stain from penetrating the wood, and it took a long time for me to figure out what to do about that.

At last, now, I am in the final stages of the varnishing. Just a few more coats on the 29 door fronts and edges and I'll be done with this ordeal. But I'm tired and sore and cranky right now, so I just had to take a break, and I figured I could at least make myself productive by writing to you all, after the fashion of these new-fangled blogs that are all the rage.

turn on the bubble machineI've done the varnishing in stages, from least to most crucial, knowing that I'd get better as I went along. I made all my mistakes on the insides, where they wouldn't show, moved to the outside of the carcases (what the actual cabinet boxes are called), then the drawers and door backs, and now the door fronts and edges. I messed up my shoulders doing the insides (you would too, on your back crammed completely inside a lower corner cabinet, trying to apply varnish evenly to the back wall), made my knees sore running up and down the ladder doing the carcase outsides, and now I've been suffering as quietly as I can manage through the long days working on the twelve drawers and 29 doors. I get here in the morning, sand the previous night's varnishing, vacuum it all, let the dust settle, tack-cloth everything, then varnish until about 10 PM or so. It was in the middle of the sanding that something short-circuited in my brain and I knew I must sit down for a while before I went beserk. It's not my fault---I'm under the influence of volatile organic compounds. Did I mention that I must work with everything closed up to keep dust off the work, and it's been hot here lately? I have to towel myself off constantly to keep sweat off my work.

But I have gotten better and better as I've gone along, and the door fronts are coming along nicely. When I'm done and the cabinets are back together, this will all have been well worth it. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

fruleeOf course, the cabinets are not all that we've been doing. Lydia has helped, priming the walls of Mom's room and doing the lion's share of the digging of the trench for the underground conduit to carry the phone and cable lines from the telephone pole to the garage side door, where the lines running from the house emerge. That trench was a good 66 feet long, and thanks to Lydia we got it dug in one afternoon. She's a game girl.

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June 7, 2005---The cabinets are finished, no pun intended. Well, okay, pun intended. I've said previously in these pages that most of the tasks involved in my part of the Farm House work are fairly easy to do, requiring just some basic skills, a little knowledge and a lot of patience. After two months at this one task, however, I must admit: this was hard.

We who like to work on our homes rely heavily on places like Home Depot and Lowe's, and on our local hardware and paint stores. Both Culver City and Pasadena can claim several excellent hardware stores, and Culver City has a phenomenally good paint store where I get most of my paint. When it comes to stains and clear finishes, each of these places has a confusing array of choices that seems quite comprehensive. The sad fact is, however, that when you boil those choices down to the essentials, they don't really have much. They certainly didn't have what I needed.

Paris HiltonSurface finishing, the craft of applying protective and decorative coatings to wood, drywall and the like, may well be the most mysterious and misunderstood of all the home-improvement crafts. The typical experienced construction professional has the knowledge and experience to build an entire house by himself and do it well, but more often than not, he knows no more about painting it than Paris Hilton (I was going to say "Joe Doakes" or "John Q. Public" here, but I figure using her name will increase my search hits). Even cabinetmakers generally have no more knowledge of staining and finishing than the average Home Depot employee. I think this is because painting contractors are the absolute last to come in on a project, after everyone else is completely done, so there is no opportunity to observe their work or exchange information, as there is with all the other crafts.

I have collected enough knowledge on the subject from my own experience to know when I started to contemplate the task of finishing the kitchen cabinets that I didn't know enough, so I referred to my library of home-improvement wisdom for assistance. Happily, I had the good fortune to have the book Understanding Wood Finishing, by Bob Flexner. Everything one needs to know about the subject is right there in that little book, and I recommend it unreservedly to every living human being. Even if it is your firm resolve never to stain nor finish so much as a tongue depressor, you will find useful knowledge therein. You will learn how to care for all your finished surfaces, including by extension your car's paint. Flexner is at the top level of the finishing profession, has a thorough understanding of finish chemistry, and is a concise, cogent writer. He authoritatively debunks the many myths about wood finishing that are widely printed as fact in other books, and gives you nothing but the straight poop (I was going to say "straight dope", but Lydia has asked me to avoid anything that might be taken as a drug reference). It was from his book that I learned how to select the proper stain and varnish for the job.

Lydia decided upon cabinets made of nicely-figured maple, and requested a dark cherry stain with a gloss finish for them. She made these choices innocent of the knowledge that a dark finish on maple is a bit tricky to achieve. Properly finished, stain-grade maple shows great depth because of its dramatically irregular grain. However, this dramatically irregular grain makes it tricky to stain, especially with a dark stain, because it takes the stain irregularly. Using a pigmented stain, the kind generally available at stores such as Home Depot, results in a blotchy, unsightly mess, because a pigmented stain is essentially a very thin paint which sits on top of the wood. The pigment collects heavily in some parts of the grain, and not at all in others. This can be controlled to some extent by the use of a pre-stain conditioner, but it makes anything but a very light stain impossible. To stain maple any darker requires a dye stain. While some of the stain available in stores is a combination of pigment and dye, none of the stores carries a straight dye stain.

xA dye stain, as the name indicates, actually dyes the wood; instead of sitting on top as a pigmented stain does, it penetrates all of the wood to some extent. It still colors wild-grained maple unevenly, but this serves to bring the dramatic grain patterns into sharper relief, enhancing the appearance of depth. Dye stain mostly comes in powder form; one mixes it with the appropriate solvent before use. I chose the water-soluble type because it is the most fade-resistant, and the easiest to apply by hand. One simply wipes it on with a rag or sponge (I used a terrycloth-covered sponge), then wipes off the excess. This method of application gives one a great deal of flexibility; if it goes on too dark, subsequent application of clear water will lighten it; if it is too light, one re-applies it and does not wipe it off. This flexibility is especially useful in evening out particularly wild areas of grain. The most difficult part of staining wood is achieving even coloration over the whole of the work, and water-soluble dye stain makes this a mere matter of patience and attention to detail. When I had finished staining everything, I came back the next day and noticed that the entire right bank of cabinets was darker then the left bank. With another stain I might have been in for a lot of sanding to correct this, but with the dye I used all I had to do was wipe down the right bank with clear water. Another nice feature is that it is effectively transparent; unlike pigment stain, there is nothing on the surface of the wood to obscure the grain.

Regarding the choice of finish, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use oil-based varnish, but the question remained: what kind of oil-based varnish? Polyurethane is the most resilient, but from previous experience I knew it had other characteristics that were less desirable. It is a bit milky in appearance, it dries very slowly (allowing a lot of time for dust to settle into it), it has very little UV resistance, and it is extremely difficult to sand (all varnish must be sanded between coats). After some research, I determined that phenolic resin varnish would be the best option. It's nearly as resilient as polyurethane, has the highest UV resistance, is somewhat easier to sand, dries much faster, and is transparent. The problem was in finding a phenolic resin varnish appropriate for interior use. Spar varnish is phenolic resin varnish, but it is formulated for exterior use; it has a lot of oil in it to keep it flexible so it can accommodate the expansion and contraction caused by changing conditions; it never sets up firmly enough for use inside.   Unfortunately, I was not able to find the kind of varnish I needed locally either, not even at the paint store. Happily, Woodworker's Supply, a catalogue and Internet concern, did: Behlen Water White Restoration Varnish. They also had the dye stain I needed. By the way, I have no idea why the varnish is called that; it's not white, and it's not water-based.

wWhenever one stains or paints anything large with custom-mixed colors, it is important to ensure that he has enough of the same color to finish the job before he begins. It is extremely difficult to mix precisely the same color twice. Now, I had absolutely no idea how much stain I would need to finish the cabinets, but I had already decided to use this same stain elsewhere in the house, and dye stain once mixed has an indefinite shelf life, so I decided to mix up a whole mess of it---17 quarts of it, to be precise (four gallons plus the quart I made initially to test the color). As it turned out, it took only about a quart to stain all those cabinets, so if anyone needs some Dark Wine Cherry dye stain, let me know.

aThe staining went well. It took a while to do everything inside and out, and as I mentioned I had to do some adjustments, but it was all quite easy. The only problem was that in various places throughout the cabinets glue splatter or squeeze-out had interfered with the penetration of the wood by the stain, in some places completely. This was undetectable before I stained, because the glue was not on the surface of the wood, but deep in its pores. I was fortunate in that most of these areas were out of direct view, but there was one extensive area that was right at eye level. The usual solution for such situations is to touch up the problem areas in the finish phase, using paint or tinted varnish. This seemed a fine answer for the out-of-the-way areas, but I was skeptical of my ability to touch up the eye-level area inobtrusively, so I racked my brain trying to come up with a way to get the stain to penetrate those areas. I thought perhaps I could dissolve the glue enough to get at least some of the stain in, making touch-up easier, but none of the solvents I had worked.

I had just about given up when I made one last desperate try. I lined up all the solvents I had and brought the full candlepower of my logic to bear on the situation. I quickly zeroed in on acetone as the only solvent I had that could possibly work, but I had already tried it without success. Then I recalled that acetone mixed well with water. In fact, I've used this property to dry out wood quickly so that I could paint it. When I saturate wet wood with acetone, it mixes with the water, and the mixture evaporates much faster than water does by itself. It occurred to me that if the glue blocking the stain is soluble in acetone, then acetone should be able to pull the water into the blocked areas, and the stain along with it. So I flooded the area with acetone, then with the stain. It worked! The only unfortunate part is that I didn't take closeup pictures beforehand to document my neato discovery.

kdOnce I was done staining, I removed all the doors, then as I mentioned I applied the varnish in stages, beginning with the visually least prominent parts (the cabinet insides) and finishing with the most prominent (the drawer and door fronts). This gave me plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the working characteristics of the Behlen varnish in places where any missteps would be hidden from public view. It didn't take long to get up to speed with it; as varnishes go, it's very easy to work with. It levels itself extremely well, eliminating brush marks more or less completely, and I had no problems at all with sagging or running. The only little problem was that it is a bit thick, an unavoidable characteristic given current clean air regulations, so at first I had problems with gaps in the finish unless I was careful in the extreme to make sure I had thoroughly wetted every square millimeter of the surface with varnish. I soon learned to correct this with the addition of small amounts of Penetrol (Home Depot does have this) and just a dash of Hasco mineral spirits (available at a Fine Paints of Europe dealer; regular old paint thinner isn't particularly effective here). I don't exactly know how Penetrol works, because it is itself a fairly thick, oily substance. Its apparent effect is to lower the surface tension of the varnish. Varnish tends to resist bonding with its cured self (which is why sanding between coats is necessary), so if one does not aggressively push it into the surface with the brush it won't flow over it by itself. Penetrol helps to counteract this tendency without thinning it appreciably. The Hasco mineral spirits, which is much more potent in its solvent characteristics than regular old paint thinner, does thin the varnish, but I added it only in small amounts in order to fine-tune the viscosity to the characteristics of my brushes.

The right brush is as important to the success of a varnish job as is the varnish itself. The best bristle material for varnishing that is generally available is white China bristle, followed by black China bristle, but more important is the construction of the brush. A varnish brush must not be of the kind where the bristles are merely chopped off at the end; it must be the kind that is hand-assembled, so that the naturally-flagged end of each bristle is at the tip. Here's one place where split ends are a good thing. It should also have a rounded or chiseled tip, not a flat one, so that one can bring as many of the bristle ends as possible to bear on the surface without having to press too hard, and thus unevenly.

flurmFor this job I used the best-quality Purdy white China Adjutant, a stock Home Depot item, in both the 1-inch and 2-inch sizes. These represent a great balance between quality and cost; they are just as good as they need to be to do a good job, and no better. The only complaint I have with these brushes is that they are not as thick with bristles as they should be, so they have more give than they should, especially for varnish application. This is why I thinned the varnish a bit. The Adjutant is an angled sash brush with a "pencil" handle, because this is easier on my wrist and hand, but many people prefer straight brushes with fatter handles.

By the way, ox hair is supposed to be even better than white China bristle for varnish, and Purdy does make mixed ox hair/white China Adjutants. Home Depot doesn't carry them, but my paint store does. I don't recommend them, because they are not constructed to Purdy's usual standards. I have two, and the ends of the bristles on both are uneven. This tends to offset the advantage of the ox hair over the white China bristle. Brushes of better quality than the Purdys are hard to find nowadays, because most professional painters use spray guns for everything.

bAfter I'd put a few coats of varnish down, I touched up the remaining problem areas where the stain did not penetrate completely. I waited until then because the varnish is amber-colored and thus alters the color of the stained wood. By waiting, I could see the exact color I needed to match. My original plan was to tint the varnish using an oil-based dye stain the same color as the water-based stain I used, in order to maintain the transparency of the finish. This definitely did not work, because the result was a brilliant red varnish. Enter Plan B, using the oil-base pigments I have been using to tint the exterior primer.

aOh, how I dread opening up one of those pigment cans! When you open up a bottle of ammonia, pretty soon the whole room smells of ammonia. Similarly, when you open up a can of red pigment, pretty soon the whole room is red. At least, that's how it seems. A little of this stuff goes a long way, and just the process of opening up a can, mixing it up, and getting a few drops out of it can take two hours, most of a roll of paper towels and a quart of paint thinner by the time you've cleaned everything up. I had a great deal of trouble mixing up a batch of varnish colored to match the finish, and I wasted nearly a pint of varnish in the process. I know the principles of color theory by rote, but I don't understand them intuitively, so my first attempts to match by eye failed spectacularly. I finally had to close my eyes and do it logically: start with brown, add a little red, test, and then adjust from there. The result looked like bloody crude oil, but it matched well enough. Working in my favor was the wild grain, which causes the eye to accept small irregularities in the finish uncritically. I used a premier-quality sable artist's brush to apply the varnish, which gave me a great deal of control. I needed every bit of this control, because the pigmented varnish was not clear, so any variation in its thickness made the repair quite obvious. The artist's brush allowed me to put down a nice even overlay to mask the problem areas quite effectively. From then on, all I had to worry about was putting down some nice, even coats of varnish.

TAfter I was all done, and had the cabinets back together and adjusted properly, I found myself relieved that they had actually come out the way Lydia wanted them to, and happy that she had wanted them that way. Static pictures cannot capture the remarkable depth of the grain in the maple. I think Lydia's choice of a dark stain and a gloss finish brings out the beauty of the maple better than any other combination. She has great instincts.

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owJuly 22, 2005---I've been placed on the 15-day DL with a sprained ankle. It's my right ankle, so I can't drive while the cast (a big Velcro boot, actually) is on, which the doctor says will be six weeks. This has necessarily put a crimp in my Farm House activities, but it does give me a chance to bring you all up to date.

You may have noticed that the Farm House Cam shot at the top of the page encompasses a wider angle than usual. That is because I no longer have to shoot around the construction fence. We were able to take the fence down once we'd replaced some damaged sections of fence surrounding the property and put locks on the gates to the back yard. Now, the front yard seems twice as big as before. Just for fun (as Lydia likes to say), let's do a little compare and contrast (as my eighth-grade English teacher loved to say). Here's a panoramic view of the front yard on March 11, 2004, the birthday of both my brother Jon and, fittingly enough, Charles Eastlake (whom I shall discuss in a later posting):

Now, here's the same view taken on the seventh of this month, the birthday of no one I can think of:
Neato, huh? I find it remarkable how much bigger the front yard seems without that squalid fence bounding it. Without that fence it's a great deal easier to tend to the grass in front, or at least it was before I gimped myself up.

foofyOur foreman has installed the hardware in all the new doors, and it looks beautiful even before I've restored the knobs. Gary and Joe's escutcheons are indistinguishable from originals. The restored lock bodies work like new after nothing more than a good cleaning, polishing and lubricating. Let's hear it once again for Victorian engineering.

Magic ChefThe major appliances have all been installed in the kitchen, so technically it is fully functional, although we won't be cooking much until we finish painting the room. Isn't that a great old stove? It's Lydia's dream stove, a 1937 Magic Chef with six burners, two ovens, a huge broiler and a warming oven.  Believe me, she'll make full use of its many facilities. It's one of the earliest ones made with thermostats and pilots for the ovens, and it's in excellent mechanical shape. When Lydia first saw it installed, she first fell to her knees and wept quietly. Then, she embraced it and said softly to it, "I love you, and I know in time you'll learn to love me." This baby is even heavier than it looks, and when all six burners are fired up, it must put quite a strain on the floor joists.

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Another red
              OctoberNovember 8, 2005---Congratulations to the Angels for their second consecutive West Division Championship. This has a special significance to me as a longtime fan, because this is the first time in their history that they have followed a championship season, either Division or World, with one in which they have won more games than they have lost. Thus is the last vestige of their curse at last broken. Sadly, they fell victim to a different curse in the Championship Series, the Rotten Umpire Curse, but this is a curse shared by 28 other Major League teams.

It may seem off-topic to discuss the Angels here, but they are so inextricably woven into the fabric of our life that they have relevance to every aspect of it. I can measure the progress of the Farm House work in terms of the Angels. As I was first priming the doors leading to the back yard, I was listening to them playing 2004 Cactus League (pre-season) games. I was just glazing the last of the refurbished windows when Jarrod Washburn served up that gopher ball to David Ortiz, bringing the 2004 season to an end. I was putting the last coat of varnish on the interior sides of those doors to the back yard, after first having stripped them of their coat of primer, as the Angels clinched this year's championship. Finally, I was finishing the painting of the hallway to the first-floor bathroom when the Gray Sox were magnanimously granted a 28th out by Umpire Doug Eddings, who apparently had an epiphany, or perhaps an acid flashback, after having called Shameless John Pierzynski out swinging on a ball out of the strike zone. In the postgame press conference, Eddings was heard to mutter something about finding a penumbra in the Official Rules that justified his having decoyed the Angels off their defensive posts before changing his call, the consequence of which was to put the ball, which by then was rolling around somewhere in foul territory, back in play as the players were heading back to the dugout.

ZowieIn other news, I have finished the first floor of the addition and sealed the basement floor, and so we are now officially, if minimally, resident in the Farm House. I have been working far too frenetically this past week and a half to have taken pictures of the completed kitchen yet, but I do have one of the bathroom.

Lydia and I are very pleased with the way the bathroom has turned out. The tile man did a perfect job, and our foreman hit all the details precisely in his execution of the woodwork. We wanted a bathroom that met our particular needs precisely, which was to be thoroughly modern in function and easily accessible while conveying an atmosphere of comfortable timelessness, and this I believe we have achieved. In fact, we have achieved this in the entire addition. The old part of the house flows effortlessly into the new part, and for this we are honestly quite proud.

I will post more pictures of the addition as time permits.

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