Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On not falling down stairs

That paint job is disorienting; one needs all the help one can get not
to nose-dive from the attic.

P.S. - Thanks, T&M!!

Doors day 3

Well, sorry for the delay in posting - so much going on over the weekend, we didn't have time to report!

But, because Tim and I are that dedicated to our home renovation, we did spend a lovely, if late, evening on Friday night scraping paint off the three doors, with pretty awesome success:

Although there are a few areas left to touch up with the citri-strip, these babies are pretty much ready for sanding!   Now, they are safely stored in our storage unit, waiting for an evening when we can finish that touch up and get them sanded and prepped for staining.

We do have an open question:  We have a bunch of door and window hardware that we need to depaint.  Any recommendations for a good remover for that job?  Any tips and tricks for restoring 1870s metalwork?  Also, thoughts on what the appropriate finish for those?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Slow going

Sometimes going slow is a good thing. We like to meander off to whereever we're going by bike. Four times walking speed is about ideal for us, and we can (as you can see) haul just about everything we need. Here's the trailer loaded up with vacuum cleaner (we're prevacuuming with the shop vac, but following up with the home machine, and the home machine is better-equipped to get the cobwebs and dust out of the joists, down in the basement.

Sometimes, though, going slow is just slow. Below, the before-and-after for a 2-hour "soak" with Citristrip, and a half-hour of scraping.

Is it any wonder that during those two hours we got had a painter come by to measure and estimate?

Open Letter

Dear Mid-Century Homeowners,

Painting all your woodwork was NOT a good idea.

That is all.

The 21st century homeowner

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Well, that job's jobbed

Before on the left. After on the right. (yeah, I should've taken the picture with the outlet tester proudly showing no red, two yellow lights!)

Puzzle for the day: how in the heck did they break the receptacle like that?

Practical question: what to do about the deep-mounted box? Shim out the outlet so it's flush with the faceplate?

Update: The setback really isn't deep enough to use a box extender (they're designed so you can put a new layer of drywall over an old wall and not remount the boxes 1/2"-5/8"). Evidently there are purpose-made spacers for this task, but there are craftier solutions: You can wrap a length of #14 copper wire around a small screwdriver to make a coil tube, or you can cut a drywall anchor to an appropriate length to use as a spacer. Our local hardware guy just recommended loosening the receptacle-to-box screws and tightening the faceplate-to-receptacle screw to pull the receptacle forward, but I'm leery of relying on the plastic faceplate as the main structural support for the receptacle. (Imagine 200 cycles of plugging and unplugging the vacuum cleaner; no way that such a solution would last.)

Because stripping paint all day wasn't good enough...

We decided to haul a bunch of doors back to the dorm and set them up to strip, since it's spring break and we've got our whole hallway to ourselves!  To protect the hall, we first laid down two layers of plastic, and then a thorough coating of old RedEyes.  Thanks, RedEye! 

We had dinner, packed the wee ones off to bed, turned up the volume on Part I of the season finale of Top Chef so we could hear it in the outside hall, and started off.   Here's where we are after the first coat of stripper has been applied and scraped:

Yes, we are insane and decided to do three at a time, since that's what will fit in our hallway.  Hey, we have twelve to do, and this is the only week we can spread out like this, so we're taking advantage of it!  If we can get these three done, we'll consider it a good week at the dorm.  Then, we have to figure out how we can continue with project door restore when we no longer can occupy entire hallways.....

If you are wondering what doors these are, - the two that are less-stripped (more paint) are 1) Varro's room to the hallway and 2) Varro's room to Nelly's room.   The last picture shows one of the library doors, which is 7 feet tall and super heavy, and also apparently much less painted, because that one is stripping beautifully! 

Also, for those of you who are looking for the right tools, these became my new best friends last night:  the two edge paint scraper (use cautiously, but it works like magic), and the plastic butter knife.  Yep, the last works like a charm on loose paint in the curvy bits of trim, and doubles to remove all the junk that accumulates on your magical two-edge paint scraper!  This project moved light-years faster when we started to arrive at the right tools.  A week and a half ago, we started Varro's room using two 1.5 inch plastic putty knives.  After wearing out 4 of those in one weekend and making little progress, we decided a new strategy was needed.  Tim did yesterday's house project with two metal putty knives, and he brought those home to work on the doors.  I tried out the two-edge, and it conveys a clear advantage over even the metal putty knives, as long as you don't get over-enthusiastic and start scraping off door!  (I did put a slight scrape in one of the doors, so word to the wise.....)

The last thing we need to find is an easier way to attack the curvy bits, so we're looking into that. Stay posted. 

Oh, and Nelly and I have been reading the BFG.  Having analyzed the story thus far, she reported last night that she knows two important things:

1)  Dreams come from your heart.
2)  You should blow good dreams from your heart at your friends. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Late afternoon update

He's making progress:

Midday Update

Okay, maybe this won't be entirely live-action, but at least it's a multi-update day...

I've got two comparison shots that will show the progress Tim's made.

This is after several rounds of Citri-strip and scraping: 

And this is after mineral-spirits treatment:

Here's a zoom out of the area, with the vertical shown in the picture above on the left:

Pretty awesome!   Tim reports that he's getting the hang of things, so that's really encouraging. 

BTW, we've divided this task into parts according to relative height:  Tim will be doing the verticals (door frames, windows) and I'm going to do the baseboards.  So that's likely why the beautiful wood you see in the last picture is one of the verticals.  Let's hope he can teach me how to do it as well with the baseboards.

Also, this closeup shows that this is likely to be heart pine.  Check out this history on heart pine in the United States if you are interested.  Yes, I know it's a company that sells wood for interiors, but the write-up was pretty cool:  http://www.heartpine.com/about/history_heartpine.shtml  It would be awesome if that was the case, and if the floors matched, even better.  Because the floors were painted and are currently in such bad shape, it's hard to tell right now if the coordinate with the baseboards and wall trim. 

Live Action Renovation Part I

Today, Tim's taking the day off work to really tackle all that woodwork in Varro's room.  He's armed with plastic sheeting, new scraping tools, steel wool, 3 jugs of Citri-strip, mineral spirits, two thermoses of coffee, and a load of determination.  We hope that we can get a lot of the wood trim stripped and restored ourselves, so we can dedicate our contractor money to things we really aren't in a position to do, like restore the floors and windows.

I asked him to keep me updated, and we thought it might be entertaining to do live updates on the blog, since this is a rare time when one of us will have full access to the internet and the other will be working in the house. 

Step I:  He's got the plastic sheeting down:

In good news, we had a contractor out yesterday to look at the house and give us some quotes on some of the things we need to have done.  This was a really useful benchmark.  While it would be great to be able to just plunk down $16,500 and have the floors, baseboards, doors, and windows in all of the upstairs rooms and the library all done by professionals, we just don't have that moolah! 

Now, a bit of a digression is necessary here to explain what we're thinking currently for these rooms:

A common practice in the Victorian period was to use the lavish and expensive materials, such as hardwood for flooring and baseboards and elaborate plastering decorations in the public areas of a home, like the parlors, dining rooms, entrances, and main staircases, and then economize on the private spaces.  This means that homes like ours have beautiful, narrow hardwood floors in the main spaces (since floorboards were likely pit-sawn, narrower flooring would mean more work went into producing the boards, so they were more expensive.)  And, indeed, our house has stunning hardwood flooring and equally lush 11 inch baseboards and trim throughout the first floor, up the staircase, and along the upstairs hallway, all of which would be visible to a visitor.  If you've been following along, you also know that, to our great relief, we've found good flooring in the library, which was once the kitchen.  We haven't investigated that thoroughly yet, so it's possible this isn't the same flooring as the rest of the downstairs, but we do know it's not pine and it does look like it's in pretty good shape.  We're keeping the carpet on it for now, because there's a lot of tromping up and down the basement stairs with big boxes going on, and these are accessed through the library. 

But, back to the upstairs floors.  Wide-planked pine flooring and pine baseboards were the materials used to construct these more humble rooms in the Victorian period, and that is indeed what we've found underneath the ancient (not in a good way) carpet and layers of paint.  While we could go ahead and rip it all out and install hardwood and new baseboards, the irony is that in today's house-decorating world, those wide-planked boards are all the rage!   Our floors are 3/4 inch pine, overlaid on a 3/4 inch subfloor (we also happily discovered this subfloor, since we'd originally thought that the floors were laid directly on the joists). 

So, we were very relieved to hear that the contractor who saw the house yesterday believes that the pine floors in the four bedrooms upstairs can be sanded and restored.  He estimates that sanding and putting a hard finish on the floors in the four rooms (about 600 square feet) will be about $2400.   That's great, as far as we are concerned!  Of course, we will keep investigating further, but it was really great news that the floors could be restored, instead of having to replace them. 

And, as you know, our initial forays into the stripping world (come on, you knew we'd have to go there sometime...) have revealed that awesome bright-finished pine baseboard under the gunky white paint.  I envision warm, pine floors and baseboards with some awesome updated colors gracing the kids rooms, all lit by beautifully restored wood-framed windows.  That is also an area where I think we'll need some help.  I think some of these windows haven't been opened in at least 16 years, so they will need some serious work to get them moving and in good shape again.  Our first estimate was $600 a window (x 8 windows) for depainting, reglazing, and restoration of the hardware.  Seems reasonable.  We'll keep looking, but it's a good starting point. 

And don't worry, when we get to the point where we can contemplate paint colors, we'll put all those up for your consideration and take comments and votes!  We need to pretty much paint every room in the house, so for those of you who love making those decisions, we're happy to hear from you, as we are paralyzed by the dizzying array of options that exist. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Support and Distract

An equally important function in home renovation for young families is the young families part.  So, on Sunday we traded work times.  I spent the morning on round three of scrape, scrape scrape in V's room and engaged in an initial round against the spider webs (actually, curtains would be more accurate) in some of the basement windwos, while Tim wrangled children into the bathtub at home.  Then, we traded and I hauled the newly laundered children to the Nature Museum, a favorite location for our butterfly girl.  We spent some time in the butterfly haven:

 A few of the more tame species were amenable to photos:

And the children were fascinated with the waterfall, so I managed to get one moderately reasonable two-child photo: 
 Here's our beautiful butterfly girl, complete with wings!

AND, wouldn't you know, Varro decided to blatantly ignore the rules (I suppose having no idea what I was saying when I read the rules to him might have something to do with this decision), and in an amazing Karate Kid moment, before I could even get the camera focused on what I thought would be a charming shot of the little guy WATCHING a canoodling pair of butterflies, he had one of them by the wing and it was rapidly being shoved in his mouth!  Here's the initial capture of the hapless victim:

So, dropped my camera and managed to pry the poor butterfly from his strong little fist, but even when he was free, for some reason he refused to vacate the premises, and fluttered around Varro for some time, to Varro's great amusement. 

"What an excellent game, mommy!  Look, the butterfly wants me to catch it again!"

Now both butterflies are flying around me - twice as fun!  Maybe I can eat both! 

"Lemme at 'em!  I know I can catch him again!"   
 "Bye Bye Butterfly!"

Why they gotta do that?

My weekend project was to make some significant progress on the removal of paint from the trim in the kids' rooms.  Thanks to the cheerful help of our dear friends, Tom and Melissa, much progress was made.    Melissa pitched in on the tedious (but made so much better with friendly chatting) project of paint removal, and Tom tackled the 140 years of dirt in the basement with Tim (who was much encumbered by a cranky young son).  Thanks so much, T&M!  Also, a shout out to Emily, who braved the dungeonous basement on Sunday for several hours, wielding her fearsome shop-vac weapon in the effort to vanquish the aforementioned 140 years of dirt. 

We are truly blessed by the kindness of our friends!

So, on to project DEPAINT: 

After paint paint paint of stripper in the early morning, we had this:

 and after a few hours, and then some hours of scrape scrape, wipe wipe, scrape scrape, we had:

It's not much, but its enough to discover that underneath all of that dingy white paint is some beautiful, bright finished pine.  Which gets me to - WHY?   Whatever would possess one to paint over such beautiful wood?  I suppose I can thank the same people who have provided us with the lovely "dusty rose" paint job in the master bedroom....


But, onward.   Now we've discovered/realized a few important things:

1)  The wood trim underneath is in good shape and is definitely worth preserving. 
2)  The house was built in 1878, so there is a high likelihood that some of this is lead-based paint. 
3)  Sanding will be required, which will cause lead-dust to permeate the house if the area isn't sealed off. 
4)  It will take us, liberally estimating, roughly forever and an army to uncover said beautiful woodwork.
5)  We have four months to make these two rooms at least charming and liveable for the small ones.  Translated loosely, that means no lead paint and some floors would be most excellent, neither of which are the case in these rooms, currently.  Well, I guess if you are okay with having Excalibur-sized splinters in your feet regularly, these floors would be fine....

Hence, tomorrow and Thursday, Tim's meeting contractors at the house who are likely to be eminently more qualified to do such things (not to mention that they will have the miraculous equipment necessary to pulverize the offending paint and remove it safely without dispersing dust everywhere).  We'll see if we can get a quote to un-paint the trim in the bedrooms, bathroom and office that will not break our bank, but will allow us to do this so that we can get on with all of the rest of the 5000 projects that we need to tackle before our July deadline!  Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Our Secret Garden

One the things that is most exciting about our new home is that we have NO IDEA what the garden will look like!  We first looked at the house in December, and until we became the owners last week, the back yard was actually under a coat of snow. 

This year, every little thing that pokes its head above the soil will be an exciting surprise for us, as we discover what our new garden holds.

The first thing we learned about our garden is that it is carpeted with snowdrops, those brave first flowers of spring:
Clusters of these little beauties have popped up through the thick carpet of last autumn's leaves all over the front and back yard, and it's super exciting. 

We also met our lovely neighbor just to the north, and she told me that the tree that our deck encompasses is a giant silver maple: 

I did say that the deck encompasses the tree, right?

And the other large tree in the back yard is a black walnut:

Yes, that is a face on the walnut....

Tim mentioned this in our very first post - but our house comes with some pets:
We acquired 9 beautiful koi with the house, who live in a fish pond that PRT is lovingly maintaing!
She has truly taken her new responsibilities to heart, and looks forward to feeding them and de-leafing the pond every day.   One of the exciting new secrets of our hidden garden is that it's teaching our little girl some amazing things about life and growth and how fun the great outdoors can be, even if there isn't a swing set!    Now, if we can just keep Varro from crawling into the pond and getting eaten by one of those 20 lb koi, we'll be all set...!

Friday, March 18, 2011

I promise, we'll shut up about floors soon...

...but we're just so darn excited; we pulled up an edge of carpet in the first-floor office, soon to be library, once was the kitchen, to see what we were confronting and it's just what we'd hoped for: hardwood. It looks somewhat different from the wood in the dining and living rooms (darker, browner); whether it's different wood (evidently we can expect maple in an 1870's kitchen) or just a different finish, we're not sure yet (hey, we had thirty seconds with a one-and-a-half square foot section, in a room with no lights!). But it's definitely good wood, and might not need refinishing with any urgency. (We've got plenty of urgent projects, never fear.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011


One of the perks of having the smallest house on the block is that you have the biggest back yard. Combine that with three big trees, and smattering of medium-sized ones, and you get a sense of the scale of the leaf production that goes on at Un-Muddied. IANAFB (I am not a forensic botanist) but I don't think they got raked at all this past fall; there's a layer of leaves that really amounts to a mat, and while it may have done a good job keeping the ground (and its root-bundles and bulbs) from freezing too hard this winter, it is now keeping the li'l plants from getting up into the light, and, if left too long, they encourage rot in all the living plants they're meant to protect. Not to mention where the leaves gathered on and around the deck would be all bad, keeping dampness against the wood.

The thing about mulching with leaves--and composting them, too!--is that you want to shred them first, so that they can do all the good things that decomposing leaves do (warm the earth, return carbon to the soil) without trapping moisture (if you're composting, then shredding jumpstarts and speeds the process by increasing the surface area that the composting microbes can work on, as well as improving air flow through the composting material. And makes the whole pile a bit smaller!).

Problem: We don't have a mulching mower--or any mower at all! There's no grass. The internet suggests using a weed wacker inside a big garbage can, and we may be on to something. Not that we've got a weed wacker.

Brief aside: I'd always assumed "weed wacker" was a trademark, perhaps an abandoned one, but it seems not to have been, at least according to the folks who know at the USPTO. Perhaps a regionalism?

But we do have a hedge trimmer! (Thanks, previous owners!) And a pair of big ol' rolling Chicago garbage carts. And goggles. And dust masks. And leathern gloves. And a plan, a vision, a dream within a dream…

Okay, back to reality. We also have a healthy memory of Bobby Ojeda (and mine own left-middle-finger-tip-history; pins in a finger are no fun), and we'll keep our hands well clear of sharp fast-moving objects.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dusting and sweeping...

...and moving stuff around. And gathering a bin full of expired, dubious, and anonymous chemical solutions for disposal. How lovely! Cook County taketh away. Well, no, not really, you have to bring it to them. On Tuesday mornings, Thursday afternoons, or the first Saturday of the month. When the rabbit howls at the full moon and the streets run blue with the lymph of the walnut-eating camel.

Speaking of Cook County taking away, how long will it be before I no longer think of the Blues Brothers when I get email alerts from the Assessor of Cook County?

Blues Brothers - Penguin by MattyP20071

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More on floors, and renovating in fifteen minutes a day

We've been getting comments on and off-line after that last post, so here's a bit more of our thought process and what we're looking at. It's hard to photograph something that's in very low relief like floor damage but here are a couple of other pictures. First up, by means of the old heating vents, you can see the thickness of the boards (3/4") as well as the bites that time has taken from them.

Often the question of refinishing is posed in terms of "is there enough board that you can sand down to a flat surface?" and that's an important question; I tend to think that if we were to take it down to a flat surface, we'd be (a) in the neighborhood of 1/2" thick and (b) probably onto the tongue and groove itself. Picture number two here should give a sense of what we're looking at in terms of how big the divots in the floor are.

But the other thing that's on our mind is how crumbly these boards are after 130 years. Pulling up the carpet from the softwood in the bedrooms, the tack strips came right up; the tacks sticking into the carpet had better purchase than the nails going into the floor. By contrast, when I pulled the carpet out of the hallway, the tack strips stayed solidly put; I had to bash most of them apart in order to pull the nails. The softwood is in really bad shape, in other words, and we wonder whether the bottom half of the boards are any stronger than the top half.

As if that weren't enough, there are two other things pushing us away from refinishing the current floorboards. First, there is at least one spot (we haven't got all the carpet up yet!) where the carpet hides unusable floor: the "master suite" is actually two small bedrooms with the wall between them opened up into a six foot wide (eyeballing; I haven't thrown a tape on it) passage. Second, the floors are nailed to the joists with common, not finish nails, so we can't simply do a pass over the floors with a nailset in order to make a path clear of metal for the sander or planer to cover. There will be a lot of ripped sandpaper or dulled planer blades--and a lot of lost time and money--in those nails.

Those are the set of factors that has us leaning toward replacing the floors. We'd not lay new floor atop the old; the old floor is uneven enough that we'd be setting up for breaking the new boards at the tongues and grooves when they flex over the high and especially the low spots.

All that said, we do respect that public-private division the original owners had, so if we do replace the floors, we'd replace the floors with something that honors that privateness and separation, not attempting to match the public-space floors but rather complement them with something homier. Not necessarily pine, but something that maintains awareness of that spatial distinction.

Now for the admission: I'm really looking forward to laying a new floor. Anything that combines the pleasure of completing a puzzle with the joy of power tools is all good in my book. And I really don't relish the idea (even if we were to hire someone to do it) of 1/4" x 550 square feet=20,000 cubic inches of lumber converted to dust inside the house (sanding down the floors), plus the VOCs involved in the actual refinishing. There are good reasons to buy pre-finished lumber and a big one is that it can get its finish under a fume hood.

Fifteen minutes (okay, maybe 35 total) today: ripped out the last of the carpet from the hallway (left the padding to protect the floors while we're working up there) and a strip of carpet from the last bedroom, and swept up the bits of tack strip. We're almost ready to get some professional eyes in there in person. (Don't think that we're not getting estimates on everything. We've learned a few things, one of which is not to assume that you can't afford to have a pro do it.)

Good news and bad news!

Every house comes with some of both, right? 

Our first major project involves the floors upstairs - covered
with three different kinds of...aged...carpet when we purchased the house, we knew that we wanted to be carpet free as soon as possible.  Also, it's a priority for us to get the children's rooms in great shape before we move in.  So, on Saturday we started pulling out that nasty carpet! 

I think the good news and the bad news can be summarized in this one photo: 

This is the entry from the upstairs hall to our bedroom.  On the top of the photo, you see the GORGEOUS hardwood floor of the hallway, which has been buried under a carpet lo these many years.  It just needs some love and a hefty coat of MinWax, so we are super excited about that.  (On your knees, waxing minion!!) 

BUT, the four bedrooms upstairs all have variations of what you see on the right - heavily worn, splintered in many places, painted pine.  Not too surprising, as the Victorian way was to make sure that the public spaces looked as good as possible, and save the moolah on the private spaces!  So, we will be finishing our carpet pulling project and then calling in a floor person to see what an expert thinks should be our next plan of action.  We've got a few possibilities:

1)  refinish the pine floors
2)  lay hardwood over the pine floors
3)  rip out the pine floors and put in new hardwood floors. 

We'd love it ya'll could weigh in, so please post and let us know your thoughts!  

For additional information, here's a couple more pictures:

More gorgeous upstairs hallway floor!

The floor in Varro's room.

The master bedroom floor.  Yes, the walls are dusty rose.....

And, for those of you who got all the way to the bottom of this post, I'll leave you with a little reward:

                                                            Daddy, where is your nose???

Monday, March 14, 2011

Down to business

We plan a proper introduction...at some point. But down to business! We closed on Friday, and spent Friday afternoon cleaning. Friday night brought out first visitors (thanks for coming everybody! and an especial thanks to H. for salt [that our life may have flavor] and bread [that the house may never know hunger] and wine [for happiness]). Saturday we started pulling out carpet, and cleaned more. Sunday we cleaned (are you detecting a theme?), though we planned more work than we got done, because we had more guests! The pitter-patter, no, I should say the stomp-thud, of little feet was delightful.

Monday morning brought the first true demand of homeownership. The first thing that we're not deciding to do for our own good, the first thing that we can't put off til next week or next month, and the first thing that was really unpleasant given the temperature! It was time to clean the fishpond filter. Going up to your elbows in forty-degree water is quite the way to way up on Monday morning.

But, a half-hour of reach grab muck hose cold cold cold wrap it up bungee it back together and chuck it back in the pond, and all was well: