Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Finally! It is up!

Why can’t I just go down to the home center and buy a light fixture like everyone else? There must be some genetic abnormality that prevents me from doing this. I can picture the obstetricians office 100 years from now…

Mr. and Mrs. Smith I afraid your unborn child has the dreaded old house gene, also known as “The Petch House Gene”. We can treat it now in the uterus with gene therapy. If we don’t he will be forced to live a complicated life sweating over details that others could care less about. What is your decision?

The nervous parents-to-be look at each other, not knowing what to do.

Would that then mean that the world would be deprived of this in the future? Only time will tell.

Of course, if it were simply a matter of hanging the fixture it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But no, it is not that simple. It never is. With other fixtures and plaster medallions I was able to do test runs with making sure that the pipe the fixture hangs from does not stick out of the medallion too far. Because I couldn’t hang this one myself, and because of the whole scaffolding thing, I had to measure as best I could and hope for the best.

Well, “The Best” is not what happened this time. Long story long, the pipe stuck out an inch too far and the ceiling cup on the fixture wouldn’t cover it. If I unscrewed the pipe and tried to get a shorter pipe screwed in, the nut up in the ceiling might slip out of place and I’m screwed.

At lunch I went to the hardware store to get a new pipe cut that was 1-inch shorter than the one I bought on Saturday. The whole time I’m trying to come up with contingency plans if I can’t get the new pipe in. No plans came to mind, but plenty of excuses did.

“No, no! This is how they did it some times. They would just have a medallion with no fixture”

“The bulbs were too hard to change so I just took the fixture down”

“A light fixture up there!?! Of course, why didn’t I think of that!”

“No, I was planning on selling the house now anyway. The screw up on the medallion had nothing to do with it”

And wouldn’t you know I’m still not done screwing with it. The lower electrical box is 3.5 inches in diameter and the cup slides over it perfectly. The cross bar that the fixture screws in to is 4-inches wide and the cup won’t go completely over it. So I need to grind down a quarter inch on either side of the cross bar so it will completely hide the shims that sit in-between the metal box and the medallion. In the picture above the shims are covered in electrical tape to ensure they don't move. Trust me, it is noticeable the way it is now.

It never ends.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blast From The Past

I’ve been meaning to post this picture for the longest time. The great granddaughter of Mr. & Mrs. Petch sent it to me last winter while I was deeply rooted in my non-blogging phase. I had also grown a goatee, smoked a pipe, wore a beret and read a lot of poetry during this phase, but that is another story.

Anyway, by the time I wanted to post it I couldn’t find it. I had a hard copy that I printed out, but the image file was lost on one of my hard drives and I could not find it until yesterday.

Click to enlarge

One can assume that the Petch family still lived here, otherwise why would an ancestor have the photo. It is definitely pre-1920s because that is when the house was cut up in to apartments and the 2-story addition is not there in this photo. It is also definitely pre-1926 because that is when the carriage house and other out-buildings were torn down to make way for the 2-story garage/apartment building.

I think it may even be before 1915 when Mrs. Petch started running a boarding house. That is when I think the second to last window towards the back was converted to a door to give access to a deck and bathroom addition.

The house to the right in the photo is still there, and looks pretty much as it does in the photo, but there is now a 1920s stucco bungalow on the corner between the 2 houses. I could probably narrow the date down further if I found out when the bungalow was built. The house on the left, behind the carriage house, is still there, but has been heavily butchered. If I could see it in this photo, I'm sure the current structure would not resemble it in the least.

Things of note:

1) The cresting is not the high Victorian metal work, but the more plain wooden (?) variety.

2) The chimney is not high Victorian either.

3) The gable decorations are not the fan, or sunburst type like I always suspected. It is more of an open fret work or lattice design.

4) The back window on the far left I assumed was a door in the pre-apartment days.

5) Also, that back wall has already been pushed out a foot. I assumed that was an apartment era modification.

6) The fire hydrant and electric pole on the corner and still there in the same place.

7) There doesn’t seem to be much of a fence. There is something there, but I’m not sure what it is.

8) The house has the brown and tan paint job. I know the house was white when built and I assumed this color scheme came along after the apartment conversion.

9) The window is open in the dining room and it looks like there are two different types of roller shades. The roller shades I installed look a lot like the type on the right side of the bay. No roller shades upstairs.

10) The book Eureka: An Architectural Review claims the large window on the front bay is a later addition. Well, In Your Face, Eureka: An Architectural Review! The window has been there from the beginning!

A short while after I received this photo I got another email saying that another photo had surfaced and she was going to send me a copy once it was scanned. I would kill for that other photo because some questions still remain. I would really like to know what the railing looked like on the front porch and the wrap around porch on the other side of the house.

Except for the cresting and gable decorations I have gotten this house back to looking pretty much as it did the day it was built. Well, the outside anyway. There is still a ways to go on the inside.

Hmmm, any interior photos lurking around, great granddaughter of Mr. & Mrs. Petch?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ok, on 3, ready….

The medallion is up! I had to call a friend over to help get it on the ceiling. I got it upstairs and on to the scaffolding alright, but man-handling it on to the ceiling while I tried to secure it proved to be a bit much.

I started this morning by cleaning up the rest of the wallpaper. There were still a few remnants at one edge. These were painted remnants and did not come off with out a fight. It always seems to be the case with these things that 90% of it comes off in an hour and then the last 10% takes another hour. It is very frustrating.

I then rolled on a coat of the Weld-Crete. It is a kind of masonry adhesive that helps the skim-coat stick to the original plaster. This is made by the same company that makes Plasterweld. I then broke for lunch while the Weld-Crete dried. After lunch I skim-coated the ceiling. The skim-coating went well, but I always feel like it isn’t going well while I’m doing it.

When the plaster is wet it is hard to get smooth. Then as it sets up you go over it once or twice more to get it smooth as glass. It is really an issue of timing. You can’t wait too long for the last pass, but if you go too early it is frustrating because you can’t get it smooth. It is really is an art form. Electrical, plumbing, and framing can all be learned in a matter of hours. Plaster takes a lot of practice and patience.

After I got the medallion up stairs and on to the ceiling I made a few attempts to get it on myself. It is just too big for one person. I called my friend Chuck and got his wife. I explained that I had bought this salvage plaster medallion on Craig’s List and needed Chuck’s help getting it up. He wasn’t home but called back 10 minutes later. When I answered the phone the first words out of his mouth were, “You Son of a Bitch”. It turns out Chuck saw the medallion on Craig’s List and called just after I did. He also told me another friend of ours, Phil, was the 3rd person to call.


Despite me snagging the treasure first, Chuck was over in a matter of minutes to help put it up. It was not without a few problems, but it is up and it ain’t going no where. I need to fill in around the edges and fix a broken corner, but for the most part the deed is done. It is hard to believe I just bought this thing 4 days ago. Even with my confidence that it is securely fashioned to the ceiling I’m walking around the house very gingerly tonight.

Next I will prep the walls for skim-coating, then there is a decision to make. Do I put picture rail in the stairwell. I’m leaning towards yes, but that would mean more delay until I can take the scaffolding down.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Double Boxed For Your Protection

I have green-lighted the salvaged medallion. In fact, it may even go up tomorrow. Today I got the new box mounted for it.

This is now the 3rd time I’ve done this and it works very well. The standard 4-inch square electrical boxes have a center knock-out on the base. I mount one to the framing in the ceiling and then take a piece of ½-inch steel galvanized pipe and mount it in the hole with lock nut on both sides. I then mount a round fixture box on the other end of the pipe in the same manor. The length of pipe is determined by the depth of the medallion.

Tomorrow, fingers crossed, I will remove the lower box and then fit the medallion over the pipe. Once the medallion is in place I will put the lower box back on and shim in between the base of the box and the medallion. The ceiling fixture will be mounted to the lower box and the medallion will be sandwiched between the two boxes. The medallion will be essentially mounted to the framing, meaning, it ain’t goin’ no where.

I also got both fixtures reconfigured and rewired. The one that goes in the stairwell comes in at an impressive 58-inches tall. If it were hung in a modern home it would hang more than half way to the floor. I will still need a ladder to change light bulbs in the stairwell, but at least I won’t need scaffolding or some fancy light bulb changing gizmo.

Finally, I gussied up the medallion a bit. I was going to go with the basic white like I did in the dining room, but I felt the contrast with the cherubs and foliage would be too much. I went with a creamy off-white instead. I also want to touch up the cherubs, but I will wait until after it is hung. I noticed today that it is actually a 3 piece medallion. In the picture above, if you look at about 3:15 and 9:45 you can see the seams where the 2 part outer ring is attached to the center piece.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Flip Side

The photos of the new old plaster medallion I showed yesterday were taken with the medallion sitting just 1-foot inside the front door. After carrying it from the car that is about as far as I could get. I’m referring to the antique plaster medallion I bought on Craig’s List yesterday.

It is hard to say how much it really weighs. It is not like a 50 pound sack of potatoes that you can really get your arms around and sling it over your shoulder. It may only weigh 50 or 60 pounds, but it is very hard to hold and move. You can only grab it with your hands and you must keep it away from your body, so getting the excess plaster off was a must. Fortunately, 1-foot inside the front door is already a bit of a disaster zone, so working on it there wasn’t an issue.

This is the back side of it. You can see it is filthy and you can also see the impressions of the lath from the ceiling it once hung from. If you look closely you can also see that there are 4 white sections of plaster near the center that have the same lath impressions as the surrounding lime and sand plaster. The white plaster is Plaster of Paris. This is what the medallion itself is made out of. Seeing this was an “Ah Ha” moment for me.

The picture above is from my front parlor. Ignore the brown dots. They are from circa 1970s ceiling tile adhesive from when they stuck ugly ceiling tiles up. You will notice though, that there are 4 circles of white plaster surrounded by lime and sand plaster. This is where a now missing medallion once was. I always assumed that they put 4 dollops of plaster on the back of the medallion and then stuck it on the ceiling, sticking it to the finished plaster ceiling. I now know this is wrong.

What they did was cut out 4 holes in the finished ceiling to expose the lath. They smeared the entire back of the medallion with plaster and put 4 large dollops of plaster on the back to match up with the holes where they exposed the lath. As the medallion was pressed on to the ceiling it formed it’s own keys on the lath. Also, what you can’t see in this picture is that they scored the surrounding lime and sand plaster to give it a better surface to adhere to. Remember the term “scratch coat of plaster”. They really did scratch the surface of the plaster to give the next layer something better to grab a hold of.

The excess plaster on the back was thick. Not only did the medallion have the extra coat of Plaster of Paris with its 4 dollops, it also had 3/8ths of an inch of lime/sand plaster. This easily doubled the weight of it. It is hard to tell from this picture, but that is the exposed surface of the original medallion, then the new coat of Plaster of Paris, and finally the lime plaster.

I first tried just a hand scraper and it worked alright with the remaining ridges of the keys. It had no effect on the Plaster of Paris, and was slow going on the main body of the lime plaster. I would have been there for weeks with the scrapper, so I went back to my trusty friend the Rotozip with the ¼-inch bur bit. I furrowed grooves in the plaster about and inch apart and then chiseled off the rest.

Yes, I said chiseled! Chiseled with a hammer and with butt cheeks tightly clinched through the whole process. I had the feeling the thing was going to crack in two with every swing of the hammer. In the end it came through in one piece, but it was a nail biter. Most of the white you see is the original surface of the medallion and you’ll notice on the right you see more scratch marks where they exposed fresh surface for better adhesion.

It is still heavy, but the weight is manageable now. I’ve also decided that this will go up sooner rather than later. I think it will be better to stick it to the original plaster in the stairwell now rather than wait until after I skim coat. It will make skim coating the ceiling a little more difficult, but there is no sense in having the 1/16th of an inch skim coat sit between the medallion and the original plaster that is structurally sound. Of course, I’m going to remove some of the original plaster to expose the lath so the medallion will have its own keys. It is the right way to do it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Craig’s List Score! I think.

Well, it was either a score or a major headache. I haven’t decided yet. What I do know is that it is pretty damn cool and I love it and maybe a little prophetic.

Sean posted a comment a few weeks back asking if I was going to put a plaster medallion up in the stairwell where I installed the new box for the light fixture. At the time I thought it was a great idea, but really I knew it would never happen. I could never bring myself to put up a foam one and the reproductions, like the ones I bought at Ohmega Salvage a few years ago can not be shipped because of weight and size. If I wanted one I would need to make a pilgrimage to Oakland, CA, and I knew I didn’t want to do that in the next month or two.

Of course, the odds of a real, period plaster medallion being available here anytime soon was out of the question, or so I thought.

Yeah, I thought wrong

This bad boy came up on Craig’s List yesterday and I snagged it for $40. It is the real thing and has an inch of plaster with lath impressions on the back to prove it. It is 3.5 feet in diameter and weighs a freakin’ ton. The people I bought it from just bought the house and found it in the attic.

Some interesting things about it: One, that is the original paint on it. It is flaking in places and it is only one layer of paint. This re-confirms my belief that these were not always painted in a multitude of colors. From pictures I’ve seen, the painting a lot times was determined by the over-all style of the room. If you had a Rococo Revival room your plaster medallion would have been dolled up to match the rest of the room. This one is basically white (albeit a very dirty white now) with gold cherubs and green foliage. The gold cherubs might even be gold leaf. They have that look.

The other interesting thing is if you look at the close up of the cherub you can see a little button with something sticking out. There is one above all of the cherubs and above all of the offsetting fan/flower designs. Most still have a little wire hoop sticking out. Perhaps there were strands of cut glass crystals that looped around the medallion.

The potential major headache comes in to play because I can not put this up in the foyer as-is. The old plaster needs to come off the back so it will sit flush on the ceiling. Flaking paint needs to come off and it needs to be repainted. Both together are no small task.

These are the 2 reproductions I bought at Ohmega salvage for the front and back parlor. These are “shovel ready”, so the initial thought, as I was driving home, was that I could use one of these for the stairwell and use the new one in one of the parlors. The problem with that plan is that I think it would be obvious that I have one old and one new in the two parlors. The parlors are basically one large room and the two ceiling fixtures are only 15-feet apart.

No, this one is either going in the stairwell or will not be hung. I should finish the wallpaper stripping tonight. Next I was going to wash the walls in preparation for plastering this weekend. I think I may start working on this, though. This will push the whole project back a week, easy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sliced Bread Then Scaffolding

I would say I spent 4 to 6 hours building the scaffolding in the stair well. The cost of the material was about $50. As I wrote the other day, as I was building it I couldn't help but feel that it was a bit much. It just seemed to be overkill.

Now I'm convinced that this scaffolding really is the best thing since sliced bread. The first scaffolding I built was when I did the dining room. That was a 4X8 foot sheet of plywood mounted on a rolling 3.5 foot high frame. It was much easier to put together than the stair scaffolding and proved to be indispensable. The other large room I did was the kitchen and I spent weeks on a ladder. I got it done but it was no fun.

I am firmly in the scaffolding camp now for large rooms with high ceilings that need extensive work. Last night after work I was on the scaffolding in a matter of minutes after walking in the door. After diner I spent a little more time on it stripping wallpaper. It is just too easy and too safe to work on not to do it. Over the life of this project I will save a lot more time than the 4 to 6 hours it took to build the scaffolding. The same can be said for the dining room.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

All for the love of Glorificus

Remember Glory on the 5th season Buffy the Vampire Slayer? She was the god from a hell dimension who was banished to Earth and was trying to get back to her dimension. She would suck the life force out of the brains of humans, which would turn them insane. Once they were insane they became pawns for her to use as she pleased.

Most effervescent one

She used them to build a crazy tower on which she would drain the blood of Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, who was really a key, in order to open all of the portals between the dimensions so that she could return to rule over hell once again.

Ahhh, good times.

Any way, the insane people built a crazy tower at a construction site, which ended up being the death of Buffy for the 2nd time on the show. All this weekend as I was working on my stair scaffolding I couldn’t help but be reminded of that tower. I’m not sure if I was reminded of the tower because mine ended up kind of crazy looking or if it was because I felt kind of insane for building it. It really did turn out to be a much bigger production than I had planned. If I get visited by a Queller Demon tonight I'll know there is something wrong with the scaffolding.

The Under Belly

When I ran out of new, store bought 2X4s I made many trips to the wood shed to get salvaged redwood lumber to finish up. So there is this mix of modern fir 2X4s and old full dimensional redwood boards. I also became less interested in the cosmetic appeal of the construction as the project grew, so boards are cut longer than they should be. It looks haphazard in places, but it is very stable.

The deck ended up being two layers of quarter inch plywood. It is a little springy in places, but very safe. This is the last of the plywood that came off the walls in the kitchen many years ago. The hole you see to the left is where the water heater vent fed in to the chimney. I have used and reused these pieces of plywood for so many things over the years. I think this may be their last tour of duty in the house, though. I’m pretty sure they will end up in the dump after this.

Here is that same space from a few weeks ago. The stairs make a U turn and end up in the foyer.

The height worked out very well. You can see the ceiling in the picture above. When I’m standing on the scaffolding The ceiling is about 6-inches over my head.

At it’s height, the deck is about 14-feet off the floor of the foyer. As I was building it I had the feeling like I should have waited to mount the box for the ceiling fixture after I built the scaffolding. Really though, it was partly due to being on the articulated ladder last week that made me want to do more scaffolding than I originally intended. I no longer feel like I might break my neck doing the stairwell.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

An incentive to work faster

After tomorrow the front stairs will be out of commission for the foreseeable future. Today I built the framing of the scaffolding and tomorrow I will finish it up. This means I will no longer be able to traverse the stars until the scaffolding comes down.

I'm standing in the upstairs hall here. The scaffolding is 28-inches high at this end and about 11-feet high to the left where the stairs turn and go down in to the foyer. The deck will be 7-feet below the ceiling

This tuned out to be a more complete covering of the space than I had originally planned. Originally I was going to have an L shaped scaffold along the right side and under the window. It was going to be narrow enough that I could still get up and down the stairs. The idea was that I would first move it up against the right wall and plaster that, then the back wall, and then left wall. I would also be able to move it away from the walls so I could plaster a wall floor to ceiling at one time. For me, keeping the “wet edge” is important for a smooth skim-coat.

As I started building though, I realized it was better to just build scaffolding for the entire space. The issue that changed my mind was the section to the left. In that area the scaffolding is nearly 11-feet off the stairs. By having only the narrow part of the L over there I would not have been able to skim-coat the entire wall from right to left or top to bottom. I would have had to do something funky with a ladder. Doing something funky with a ladder will end you up either on America's Funniest Home Videos or in the hospital.

Then there was also the issue of the ceiling. I still need to strip some wallpaper up there before I start to skim-coat, so I really need to be able to work on the entire space at one time. Of course, it is also much safer. If I trip or loose my footing there is no where to fall except on to the deck of the scaffolding.

The bad part of this arrangement is that I will need to stop skim-coating all of the walls half way down. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. When skim-coating I have always done an entire wall at one time. By stopping half way down I run the risk of having a noticeable transition where I stop while on the scaffolding, remove the scaffolding and then restart plastering. It should be interesting.

So tomorrow I will add some more cross-bracing and add a deck of quarter-inch plywood and old 1X6 redwood flooring. Then I will skim-coat everything above the scaffolding, paint the ceiling, and hang the light-fixture. Then I will dismantle the scaffolding and finish skim-coating the walls in the stairwell. Then move on to the foyer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Building An Addition

I know, it seems odd that I would be thinking about building an addition on to the house given the fact that I haven't even finished the downstairs and I'm in the middle of a big project right now. It is even more odd considering I tore down a 600 sq ft 2 story addition just 5 years ago. I really have no choice, though.

Right now I'm working on the foyer and stairwell and last night as I was sitting in the parlor staring at the pile of tools and crap piled up in there I started to think about what I would do when it came time to work on the parlors. The parlors are the last two rooms on the first floor. When I work on them, where will I pile all of the tools and construction crap? In the new addition, naturally.

Before I owned a broken down old 1895 Victorian this sort of logic never would have dawned on me, but now it makes perfect sense. I'll start with a small addition on the north side of the house to hold all of the construction crap while I'm working on the parlors. Then, when it comes to time to finish off the addition I will build another small addition to hold all of the construction crap for when I working on that addition.

An even better idea would be a stairwell that leads to no where. Stacking tools in stairwells is great because it spreads things out in a tier system that makes things easy to see. Hey, has any one ever been to the Winchester Mystery House. I love that place. I think I'll make trip down there to get some ideas on adding on to the house. Of course, I'll need a new addition on the house to store all of the great plans I'm sure I'll have once I get back. Then I'll need another addition for when I start to work on that addition. You know, some place to store all of the construction crap.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Frankenstein Revisited

I must get the ceiling fixture for the stairwell re-wired before the scaffolding goes up. I would kick myself if I was finished with everything except for the re-wire and then had to leave the scaffolding up for another day or two while I ran new wire in the chandelier. There is no reason not to do it. This is a good mid-week project.

So tonight I went up to the closet where I've kept all of the lighting over the years. I went on a bit of a spending spree on antique lighting right after buying the house. It really became an obsession. Not just with the style of lighting but also with getting a good deal. I would bid on any 1890s to 1910 fixture that came up on eBay that was in original condition (i.e. original finish and never been re-wired).

This behavior is not normal for me. I really am a less-is-more kind of guy. I don't collect or horde, and I rarely buy things I don't need. For about 2 years I went nuts with antique lighting, though. Rarely did I spend more than $150 on a fixture and often much less. When all was said and done I actually bought more fixtures than I need for the house. I have resold 4, that I can remember.

To date I have rewired and hung 14 fixtures in the house. All of them date from the 1890s to about 1910. I thought I had only 2 left in the closet. One is the tall 3 arm chandelier that I plan on hanging in the stairwell and the other is a some what plain 2 arm chandelier that, if the truth be told, was a bit if a mistake. The style is not quite right. I'm sure it was an impulse buy where my opening bid matched the opening bid of the auction. Who knows what I paid for it, but it was probably less than $50.

This is the one I plan to hang in the stair well. It is 54-inches tall, which is too tall for most of my rooms. Did that stop me from bidding? No!

Ignore the dust. Remember, it has been hanging in an open closet for 6 years in a house undergoing restoration.

However, there was a 3rd chandelier in the closet hiding behind an old shirt and pair of pants I had used to do some plaster work years back. In a house this large that is so underutilized it is easy for something to be hung or dropped some place and then not be touched again for years. It is not something I'm proud of, but it is a fact of life.

Fixture used as hanger. Only in an old house.

So there it has been all of this time, just hanging there. It is very nice. In fact, it is as nice or nicer than any of the other chandeliers I've hung in the house. The main reason I never hung it is because it is so nice. This is the type of fixture that should be in a main room of the house. It would really be out of place hanging in the kitchen or laundry room. The problem was, I already had all of my main rooms taken care of. One of the first purchases I made was a set of 3 chandeliers and an additional ceiling fixture that all came out of the same house in Main. The three chandeliers, while not identical, obviously are from the same manufacture. One went in the dining room and the other 2 went in the front and back parlor.

Fixture in the front parlor.

So there this other fixture has hung in the closet for all of these years, hanging behind some crusty old plastering clothes. When I went up to get the 54-inch chandelier I noticed the other one for the first time in a long time. I do remember purchasing it because I got a great deal on it. It does have one issue and that is that it is more me, it has more patina on it than most of this period that are in “original condition”. I mostly swoon over patina and original condition. Some would polish the brass until they see their reflection, but I actually like the aged look of the brass.

It is hard to tell behind the dust and grime seen in the picture, but this one has an excessive amount of “patina”.Honestly, it looks like it was in a fire. Some parts of it are just black. It would be perfect if it were a little taller. Say, 54-inches.

Ding! {light bulb goes off}

Yes, you've probably figure out the plan by now. In case you haven't, I plan to take them both apart and remake them with the base of one and the top of the other. I'm sure to many this is a big yawn fest, but for me it is a big deal. For some reason, antique lighting has always been somewhat sacred to me. I don't swap around parts or cut them down. I don't polish them up or try and add more patina. With the exception of new wire I want them to look like they were hung in the house in 1895 and never touched again.

So I will be in uncharted territory. Messing with things the Universe never intended for me to mess with. If I'm successful it will no doubt bother for weeks after it is hung. Every time I walk down the stairs I will know there is a freak of nature hanging in the stair hall. I can only hope it doesn't put on an ill-fitting sport coat and wreak havoc on the neighborhood, only to be hunted down by the town folks.

Or perhaps I'me over-reacting once again.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It Started Out Innocently Enough…

The plan for today was to put down a new layer of cardboard and plastic and then start to assemble the scaffolding in the stairwell. I had a line on a large cache of cardboard from my work. We are getting new network cabling put in this weekend and on Friday I told the guys I would swing by and grab all of the empty boxes. Well, I went by after hitting the lumber yard and they had not even emptied one box yet. They were supposed to be finished today and they hadn’t even emptied one box! Oy!

So now what. I thought about driving around to grocery stores to scavenge cardboard, but that did not seem too appealing. In an effort to keep the project moving forward I started to think about the light fixture in the stairwell. It was going to be a big challenge and I wasn’t even sure if would do it.

So here is the problem. That light with the medallion is in the foyer right in front of the front door. It is controlled by a pair of 3-way switches, with one next to the front door and the other at the top of the stairs. The plan was to add a second light centered over the window you see in the background. Because of the way I wired the foyer light and the pair of 3-ways, I needed to get a new wire from that medallion, up in to the attic, and then bring it down in to a new box in the ceiling of the stairwell.

That ceiling is 20-feet above where I’m standing when taking this picture. That is challenge number one. The other issue is that the medallion in the foyer is the last remaining original medallion in the house. Above all else, do no harm. I don't want to risk damaging the medallion or any of the surrounding plaster

So I started to think about what was the biggest obstacle. That would be getting the wire down through the wall from the attic to the first floor ceiling. The real problem here is that I broke my 4.5-foot long flexible drill bit when I was running telecom a few months back. That is a $60 bit and is essential in being able to drill through the top plate and through any blocking in the walls. I know a lot of people say these old homes are all balloon framed with no fire blocks in the walls, but this house has blocking in all exterior walls.

The front gable in the attic that is over the front door.

I knew I had a hole already drilled from when I did the foyer light originally. If there was enough room for a second wire I would be in good shape. So that was the place to start. I grabbed a long piece of fish tape and tried to thread it down through the top plate and through the hole in the blocking in the wall. This process can sometimes take a half hour, but this time a nailed on the first try.

At this point I was pretty sure I was going to be wiring the light. So now I move down one floor.

This in the second floor hallway just below the attic gable and just above the light in the foyer. The left piece of baseboard is removed and the long middle piece is pulled away from the wall.

Behind it is the fish tape that I fed down from the attic. You can also see the piece of 14-3 romex I ran a few years back when I wired the foyer light originally. I attach the new wire to the fish tape and pull it up in to the attic. I'm half way home. Just below this is the medallion.

The next step is to remove some floor boards so I can get it down through the hole in the medallion and connect it to the wire that is already powering the light. That way, when the foyer light gets turned on the electricity will flow up the new wire and also turn on the new light on the ceiling of the stairwell.

So this is where it gets dicey. Very gently and gingerly I must run another piece of fish tape up through the medallion and in to this hole in the floor. Then, after attaching the other end of the new wire to the fish tape I must even more gently and gingerly pull the new wire down through the medallion. It was a nail biter, but I eventually got it.

Getting the fish tape up in to that floor space took a lot longer then you might think. Once it was down through the medallion though, I now had a new wire running from the first floor all of the way up in to the attic. It was now time for the ladder.

I bought this articulated ladder about 12 years ago. I bought it because I needed a tall ladder that could also fit in a 6-foot high shed. This stairwell is the only time I’ve used it like this and it proved to be invaluable. This allowed me to get high enough in the center of the stairwell to cut the hole for the new box. After spending time on the ladder cutting the hole it made me realize even more the importance of scaffolding in the stairwell. The ladder works, but it is no fun.

I use an angle grinder with a diamond blade on it to cut through the lath and plaster. Unlike the walls in this house, they did use traditional wooden lath for the ceilings. The benefit of the diamond blade is that it does not cause a lot of vibration of the lath when you are cutting it. Once the hole was cut it was a simply a matter of mounting the box and hooking up the socket.


Now both this light and the foyer light can be operated as one from a pair of 3-way switches at the top and bottom of the stairs.

The last step is to rewire this fixture, which will hang in the finished stairwell. It is 4.5-feet long, so in the future I should be able to change light bulbs with a normal ladder. Getting that articulated ladder in to place was a bitch. I was sure I was going to take out a window or some plaster. I’ve also decided that I’m going to paint the ceiling and hang the fixture while the scaffolding is in place. Once this space is finished I am not going to want to fool with that ladder in there.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Slowly, very slowly

These kinds of projects that are really disruptive always seem to take a lot longer than they should. The foyer is just so visible. It is not like a bathroom or some other back room where I can close the door so I don't have to look at the mess. The foyer is just in my face every minute of ever day, mocking me, laughing at me, making me feel so inadequate. Oh, how I hate you foyer.

But I digress in to madness.

In reality, the project is moving along about as fast or slow as any other project. The scratch and brown coats are finished, for the most part. One wall in the stairwell is a little thinner than I would like. There are other small areas where the plaster meets the woodwork that need more attention, but all in all, I am pretty much ready for the skim coat.

Today I finished the last wall in the foyer and then I pulled up all of the cardboard and plastic that I put down a few weeks back when I started the room. It had served it's purpose and is now ready for the dump. Tomorrow I will put down a second layer of cardboard and plastic that will most likely be down for the duration of the project. I work with such small batches of plaster for the skim coat that I don't make as big of mess.

I'm also going to buy lumber tomorrow for the scaffolding in the the stairs. I haven't decided when I'm going to construct the scaffolding yet, though. Needless to say, scaffolding in the stairs is really going to be an inconvenience. I won't begin skim-coating until next weekend, at the earliest. If I build it tomorrow I will forced to walk around it or crawl up and over it all week long. What is the point. I think I will buy the material and start to frame some of the sections and then do the assembly next Friday.

The real question now is, do I install the light fixture in the stairwell. I should do that before I skim-coat. If I'm going to then it would be best if I re-wired the fixture, ran the wire in the wall, cut the hole for the box, and mount a temporary fixture before I skim-coat. Given that I must tie this fixture in to the foyer light, which is run off of a pair of 3-way switches, makes this is an all weekend long job. In order to tie it in to the foyer light I must remove baseboard and pull up some floorboards in the upstairs hallway.

So even if I don't build the scaffolding until next Friday I'm still looking at having it in the stairwell for a minimum of two weeks. Next weekend I'll do the light. Then the weekend after that I'll skim-coat the stairwell. Then the weekend after that I'll skim-coat the foyer. That makes it 3 weeks from today until the plaster is done. This all assumes that I get nothing done during the week.

For the first 6 years I owned this house I only worked part time. Things were so much easier then. {Sigh!} Does anyone want to buy I house? I'll sell it to you real cheap.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Zone

I was bound and determined to work on the plaster this evening. After work I walked in the door and within 10 minutes I was mixing up a batch of plaster, and boy, I was in the zone tonight.

Plastering is one of the more difficult things to master. Plumbing, electrical, and carpentry are skills that once you understand the basic concepts you pretty much got it down. I'm not say there isn't any skill involved, but once you know how to sweat copper you really don't forget it.

Plastering is more like welding or surgery. You have your good days and your bad days. Today was a good day for me when it comes to plastering. The mix was perfect. I was able to get it smooth with just a few passes. If all of my plastering days were like today I could earn money at it.

I have one more wall to do for the brown coat and then it will be on to the skim coat. Tomorrow I walk in the door and start plastering. I may not even change my clothes.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Spatial Distortions

So far with this project I’ve been having a hard time estimating time and materials. I think this is happening for two reasons. First, both the foyer and stair hall are larger than they seem. Second, the wall for the front door is the only wall I’m completely doing from scratch, and most of that wall is door and transom. Everything else is 3-feet here, 5-feet here, a little spot there. Taken individually, they don’t seem like very big spaces, but collectively it’s a lot of wall.

I was able to get the scratch coat on about 75% of the walls by mid-week. I finished that up on Saturday and then started in on the brown coat. For me, the brown coat is where I really earn my money. If I was getting paid, that is. I mixed and moved a lot of plaster this weekend. The brown coat is when I bring it out to level with the remaining walls. This is the last step before the skim coat, so I want it to be level and smooth. The skim coat is pretty much as it sounds. It is not going to hide many imperfections in the previous coats.

The scratch and brown coats are on the stair hall, front door, and old phone wall.

What remains is the parlor and dining room walls. I could have gotten more done today, but I ran out of plaster.

The plan is to buy another 2 bags of plaster on Monday or Tuesday and see if I can finish up the brown coat mid-week. Then next weekend I will do some clean up and build the scaffolding in the stair hall. Although I’ve gotten very good and getting plaster from hawk to trowel to wall without slopping it on the floor, the key to the whole process is the consistency of the plaster. It is a bit of a balancing act. You want the plaster to be thin enough that it affords you a long enough working time, but not so thin that it is hard to work with.

With the brown coat I am making larger batches of plaster than for the scratch coat. If I make it too stiff then it becomes harder to work with as I empty the pail. The trick is to get it thin, but not too thin. I had a bitch of a time getting it to be the right consistency today. We’ve been having some unseasonably rainy weather, so maybe that played a part. I’m not really sure.

What this means is that I made more of a mess today than I have on previous days. Hence the clean-up day next weekend. When plastering in a the corner I find that I must stand like dancer all spread eagle with arms and legs stretched out. The corners can be a bitch and you need your legs stretched out to get the leverage and your arms must be stretched out to the get hawk out of the way.

So what happened a few times today is that I’m plastering in a corner with the hawk full of plaster in my left hand stretched out behind me to get it out of the way. While I’m concentrating on getting the plaster smooshed in to the corner nice and tight I suddenly hear a ka-flump! as the thinly mixed blob of plaster slides off the hawk and on to the floor. In fact, this only happened twice today, but I inevitably stepped in the cow patty sized blob of plaster and tracked it around.

The floor is well covered, but after the grinding of the grooves and now the plaster mess, I just need to clean it up and start over. So if I can get the room cleaned up and the scaffolding built next weekend I should be able to skim coat the weekend after that. With that, the plaster will be done and it will be on to woodwork.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Two sort of down and….

Two walls sort of finished and an undetermined amount left to do. How is that for vague and ambiguous. That is sort of the nature of plaster work, really. It is difficult to say when you are finished. Can a wall be too smooth? Do a few imperfections add character? How many constitutes “a few imperfections”? It is far from an exact science.

Since I only have the scratch coat on two of the more than a few partial walls I am far from thinking about concepts like “smooth” and “a few imperfections”. Still, it is a start. With the longer days and this stupid thing called Daylight Savings Time, I’m back to getting in some work after work. The goal is to have the scratch coat on all of the walls by Friday so that I can start in on the brown coat on Saturday.

I may or may not achieve that goal.