Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Myth Busters

I have a little sanding to do around the plaster medallion and over the closet door in the foyer and then I’ll slap on a coat of primer before I move on to the stairs. The stairs are really going to be a lot of work.

Mostly it is a lot of stripping of old shellac so I can get back to a uniform surface. As you can see, there is a lot of surface to strip. Lots of cut outs and little reeded posts. In addition to that, I am missing a few pieces.

Above is a close up of one of the baluster sections from the upper part of the stairs. You’ll notice in the first picture the little finials in the circular cut outs are missing. Of the 21 originals only 5 remain. Who knows what happened to the others. At first I thought old tenants took them as souvenirs or something. Today I pried one off myself and it did not come off easy, so now I’m not so sure.

The reason I pried one off was so I could take it to the mill to get new ones made to replace the missing ones. They are inch and 7/8ths square and are 3.5 inches tall. I used a few scraps of 2X8 left over from the 2 story addition to make some blanks for the mill. I’m sure they can get wood, but I know this wood is really, really nice. Plus I get to use up more of my scrap wood and pay less for the new finals.

The other thing I’m going to have the mill do is either repair or replace the caps of the two newel posts at the bottom of the stairs. There are a total of 5 newel posts, and while they all have a certain amount of character to them (e.g. the occasional knick or scratch), the caps at the base are especially dinged up.

"Dinged up" is putting it mildly. There are deep gouges, initials carved in to them, and even a little swastika. My hope is that they can put them back on the lathe and just remove the top eighth of an inch or so. They don’t need to be perfect, because none of the others are, and the rest of the stairs has some character here and there. If they can’t fix these, then new ones wouldn’t be the end of the world. I would just need to make sure the quality of the wood meets the standard of the rest of the stairs. Second and 3rd growth redwood can some times seem like balsa wood compared to the old growth stuff.

For a long time after I bought this house, and even before I bought this one, with my last house, I spent a lot of time on several old house related on-line forums. There is just a great bunch of kindred spirits out there that could share knowledge and empathize with my plight. One of the stories that crops up from time to time is that the tradition at the end of the last century was that the builder would store the blue prints to the house in the newel post.

It was sort of a topping off event. As the story went, the placing of the newel post cap would be the last thing that would happen before all of the crews left the house. Before they put the cap on they would roll up the blue prints and shove them in the post. Of course, few are willing to pry off the cap to see in the blue prints are in the post.

Well, today I pried off the caps and guess what, nothing, zip, zilch, nada. My guess is that maybe one builder some place did this and the story grew. Or perhaps this was a real tradition and this is just one more Petch House mystery. Regardless, no blue prints for me.



St. Blogwen said...

O boy o boy, fun with denatured alcohol! How thorough do you intend to be with the shellac removal?

Somebody else in the past week mentioned the plans-in-the-newel post "custom," and I was wondering if maybe, just maybe . . .

But I doubt it. The plans for my foursquare house probably came from Ward's or Sear's, really bog standard, so why would they bother?

Kate H.

Karen Anne said...

Oh, Too bad. No blue prints. What a find that would have been. (Would they be on file somewhere with the city?)

Were the missing finials actually ever in place? I mean, it would be odd if they weren't, but do the places where they'd be show attachment marks?

Greg said...


I will probably use both denatured alcohol and a semi-paste, methyl chloride based paint stripper for the shellac removal.

Denatured alcohol does work well, but is just too slow and labor intensive for this level of work.


The finials were there at one time, no question. You can see the nail holes and witness marks. As for the plans being at city hall, if they were there at one time, they aren't there now. There are some documents dating back to 1895 regarding the parcel, but no blue prints.


Joosmeister said...

When we bought our house we were told about the blueprint in the post story. We were also told that one custom was that as the house owner you were supposed to take the blueprints out once you paid of the mortgage - a celebration of sorts to finally owning the home.

So, perhaps you had the blueprints in there and a former owner paid off the house and had a little party.

Greg said...

So, a new twist to the story. Perhaps that twist came along as a way to explain the lack of blue prints found in newel posts.

Mike said...

I've heard both of those stories and did check my post as well.... empty!

Greg said...

It is disappointing, isn't it. I knew there wouldn't be anything there, but I hoped...

Jason and Heather said...

The way I've heard the story is that they would put their deed in the post once the mortgage was paid.

I've never heard the blueprint story before.

Kate said...

it seems to be folklore...

I've got box newels like yours (1889 Indiana), and of the 5 newel posts that I have in my stairway, I've had 2 caps off, and nothing is in them.