The Small Stuff

While crawling under the house I was reminded of the big projects that I have completed over the years: anchoring the house to the foundation (orange marking paint); crippled wall seismic upgrade (plywood with holes); new copper plumbing; new ABS drains and main sewer line; all new wiring; new footings. All of these projects were captured in this one picture but were spread out over years of work.

The first six months after moving in, I spent all of my free time under the house drilling holes into the foundation to anchor the house (4 ft. center and 6 in. from the end of a sill, 52 anchors) so that it would not slide off during an earthquake. This included strengthening the crippled walls with 1/2 thick structural plywood and nailing it every 4 inches vertically and every 6 inches horizontally. The electrical upgrade from knob and tube wiring soon followed and took another six months to complete. Since several walls needed to be opened it was a natural evolution to replace the old galvanized water pipes with new copper plumbing. This led to gutting the bathroom to the studs, rafters, and subfloor for a complete rebuild. About 10 years later I noticed a large crack in a cast iron drain pipe which led to a seven weekend project to replace all of the sanitary plumbing under the house. Another ten years past and the main sewer line from the house to the sidewalk was dug up and replaced.

Needless to say, a lot of time has been spent under the house, in the attic, or digging trenches in the yard. At one time there was a list of small repairs but they never seemed to get done due to the big projects.

One of small jobs, or so I thought, was to change the heating and air conditioning thermostat location. It was originally installed on the same wall as the television. The heat generated by a flat screen television on an antique sideboard is just enough to throw off the thermostat. This project required several trips under the house to pull the existing wires and drill a new hole into the wall cavity from below. It took two more holes in the wall, due to a fire stop, to be able to fish the wires to the new location.

The walls are lathe and plaster and any hole usually end up larger due to the fragile nature of this 112 year old material. The repair process is more tedious than sheetrock. I have a stock pile of lathe in the rafters of the garage for these repairs. I attach a short piece of lathe to the back of the lathe in the wall with glue and a couple of screws. This acts as a backing for the new plaster and makes a gap for new keys to form in the patch. If one looks close at the image, there is horse hair poking out of the old plaster. One hundred years ago horse hair was added to the plaster to add strength. Early sheet rock used asbestos fibers for strength and fire resistance. Today, fiberglass is added to building materials for strength. Twenty years ago patching plaster was the solution to fixing these types of holes but 3M has developed a product for patching large holes which works far better and makes patching the holes much easier. Now the living room is on the list for a fresh coat of paint.

My next repair job was to finally fix the front door latch. As the house has settled and shifted over the years, the original door latch and strike plate no longer lined up. Adjustments were made to both the position of strike plate, as well as the hole in the strike plate, over the years. The jamb needed to be repaired and the strike plate needed to be replaced. Thankfully, the House of Antique Hardware sells a new strike plates for the 100 year old door lock.

I knew it would not be a perfect match but a few adjustments with a file made it a perfect fit. The jamb was the bigger problem to repair. To solve this problem a two part structure epoxy from Abatron was used to fill and repair the area that had been damaged.

Recently my focus has been the back porch. Last year a new door was installed and now I have been scraping, sanding, fixing, and painting the five windows and trim. A very expensive piece of molding has been installed below the windows to match the rest of the house. Bronze weather stripping has been sourced from Trademark Hardware (NY) and period correct transom window latches and new hinges have been ordered from the House of Antique Hardware.

The hole pattern for the old latch and new latch are different (Murphy’s Law). In a case like this I drill out and fill the old holes with a little glue and hammer in a dowel that is sawn flush to the surface. This leaves no trace of the old holes. The original hinges have been painted over several times and experience has proven that paint damages the original plating. I prefer to use the original hardware whenever possible but when a quality replacement is available, it is a better solution.

Lisa, her friend Kathy, and I discussed the various possibilities for paint colors for the transom windows. Looking through Old House Journal and around my neighborhood, most window colors matched the color of the trim around the windows. The exception is the Victorian homes. Painting the windows and trim the same color will make the color scheme less complex but hopefully the blue trim won’t be too much visually. The other windows on the house have a wide trim and narrow sash. The transom windows have a narrow trim. My mental picture says this should work and be balanced.

These five windows are the beginning of a larger project. There are fourteen windows in need of maintenance. Two have been restored with new sash chains, stripped of their old paint, and new glazing installed but are in need of a fresh coat of paint. The remaining windows need a complete overhaul. I estimate that it will take sixteen hours per window (two sashes): (16*12)/8=24 days of effort. Many people would choose to replace the original windows. In my case they we made with old growth redwood and have lasted over 100 years. After being restored they will be ready for another 100 years with proper care. New windows would last 30 years at best.

Owning a old house that is historically significant to the city comes with a responsibility, and cost, that many people don’t realize when looking to buy. Most projects require tracking down hardware or materials that cost more than what is carried at the local hardware or warehouse store. My old house has been preserved by the previous owners and it has retained its original character. Unfortunately, I have seen people purchase several surrounding old houses and immediately gut the whole house to the studs and create something new. In some cases it works if they have deep pockets. The others lose their charm and become a muddled mixture of old and new. As I have worked on this old house, I now see that I am the latest caretaker that has the responsibility of maintaining and preserving the character of this home.

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