Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Monsieur Creosote, I Presume

Hey, wait a minute. What’s that circle on the wall near the corner?

That, my friends, is a chimney thimble. It was covered over by the paneling that we removed a couple of pictures past. You really shouldn’t hide a chimney thimble behind a combustible sheet of wood like that, but the former residents didn’t ask me for permission, probably because I wasn’t born yet when they did it.

There’s a big pile of masonry behind that wall. There’s a fireplace in the living room which has one flue in the chimney, and a separate flue that comes up from the basement that used to serve the oil-burning boiler. We have a requiem mass for the boiler every year. It never worked, and it weighed about 600 pounds and was holy hell to get out of the basement, so my wife wears a low-cut, red dress to the service, and I throw confetti.

In modern chimney practice, a flue is only supposed to serve one fuel-burning appliance. Back in the day, the guys who built the house would have scratched their heads over that one, and asked you whether it was worth freezing to death to be safe, and then installed a whole bunch of chimney thimbles in every flue. There was probably some form of coal-burning potbelly stove in the corner way back when, or maybe a wood stove. This particular thimble wasn’t some sort of extra afterthought, either. I opened it up after discovering it under the paneling, and boy howdy was it full of creosote.

If you’re unfamiliar with creosote, it’s the substance they considered dropping on Japan in 1945, but thought it was too nasty, so they used atomic weapons instead. The stuff burns like crazy. When you burn oil or coal, unburned hydrocarbons go up the chimney and condense along the sides. It forms a crusty black residue that eventually morphs into blobby chunks of stuff. Wood burning appliances like wood stoves usually produce even more unburned hydrocarbons, because I’m pretty sure the last person who knew how to properly dry firewood was born in the 19th century. Unseasoned firewood will plug up a chimney really fast.

I looked for a video of a chimney fire due to creosote, but there aren’t any, because the houses burn down before the camera gets there, I guess. Way back when, I’ve been in an apartment building that had a creosote-fueled chimney fire. It sounded like a train driving through the building, and a giant Krakatoa of sparks and flame blasted out of the chimney top for a good long while while the firemen milled around on the lawn. Creosote fires burn really hot, really fast, and tend to crack clay flue liners. If the chimney’s not lined, the fire can blow out mortar or bricks and blast fire into your walls or attic. No bueno.

I’m an old hand at cleaning out chimneys. I’ve got a selection of metal brushes and extendable, flexible wands to reach to the top of the chimney all the way from the cleanout in the basement. But I can’t clean out thimbles and the passages if I don’t know they’re there. I filled a five-gallon pail about three-quarters of the way full with creosote from this thimble. The thimble feeds into the fireplace flue, which we’ve never used, lucky us.

So creosote adventure over, let’s move on to regular renovation.

That’s the heir steaming off some wallpaper. It was mostly painted over, which makes it much harder to remove. The trick is to work the edge, where the steam can weasel its way under the paint and paper to get to the glue. They sell about five million tchotchkes online to score wallpaper before you soak it or steam it. They’re all pretty dumb, and many do some damage to the underlying plaster. Old timers in the renovation biz just went out to the truck and got a handsaw, and laid the teeth flat on the wall, and dragged it along to score the paper. It worked better and didn’t futz up the wall, but it can’t be sold by an infomercial, so it doesn’t get featured on This Old House.

We removed the baseboards for two reasons. First, they were slopped with paint, and they’re easier to clean and refinish when they’re lying on a workbench. Secondly, we’re installing a new ersatz floor, and I hate the look of base shoe moldings.

Unlike a more modern house, the baseboards were installed before the strip flooring back in the day, so they come out hard. I’m familiar with old skool houses, so I know they did that for a reason.

Back a hundred years ago, they didn’t pretend that there were no seasons and that we all lived in San Diego or someplace similar. They built houses with an eye on the calendar. They dug cellar holes in the spring after the ground had thawed, framed the place in the summer, got it enclosed for the fall, and then finished before the winter. They knew that the plaster work would outgas loads of water vapor, so they waited to install the floors until the very end,  after the house had dried out a lot. Nowadays everybody does everything in any order at any time and expects it to turn out OK. They advise you to stack your flooring in the room before you lay it down. They don’t put in any disclaimer that mentions that if the humidity is 140% in there, the flooring will expand, you’ll install it, and when you turn on the heat in the winter it will shrink, and gaps like canals will open up. Or maybe you’re flooring in the winter, and in the summer the boards will expand and crush themselves against their neighbors. The ridges give you great traction, but make Swiffing difficult.

So we’ll install blocking in the slots where the baseboards were removed, and put in a new floor, and cut 3/4″ off the bottom of the baseboards to keep the height the same as before, more or less. And just like an old woman at the dressing table, we’re going to patch, patch patch to make the room presentable.

[To be continued. Feel free to leave cutting remarks in the comments section and money in the donate section. It’s much appreciated]

3 Responses

  1. I’ve been cutting down dying trees in our yard, aspens mostly, but one fried-dead-by-winter Austrian pine. The piddly stuff goes in the dumpster but anything that’s big enough to reasonably split gets cut to length (14″ for our small woodstove) and stacked to dry.

    Back in Minnesnowta stacking wood in the open outdoors basically gives you a pile of rotted wood. Summers back there are both hot and humid, and you get torrential downpours from thunderstorms.

    Here in NW Wyoming we’re in high desert country, and the average humidity on a summer day is in the single digits. I’ve been stacking cut wood on the side yard for years now and find it dries out within about 6 months. Since I’m taking out trees faster than we’re burning it, most of the stuff has been dried for a couple of years. Lots of people think it’s the resin content of pine that makes creosote, but it’s actually the moisture content. I use straight-grain pine for kindling and it burns so fast it should classified as explosive.

    The problem around here is that there are very few hardwood trees that grow, and when they’re cut down you can sell the firewood for ridiculously high prices. Cottonwoods are common in creek and river bottoms, but that’s not particularly hard. Aspen, when well-dried, burns hot and well, but leaves nothing for coals. So I burn a lot of aspen and empty the ash pan about every 6 hours.

    I was at a friend’s cabin when his stove had a chimney fire. It sounded like a Saturn-V rocket taking off. He casually got up and got his big rechargeable dry-chemical (monoammonium phosphate) extinguisher, opened the stove door and put out the fire below and then aimed the nozzle up the chimney, explaining that he’d normally just let it burn out but he didn’t want to have to go outside and put out a fire on the roof again. He was burning pine that had “dried” for a couple of weeks. His thinking was that it was easier to burn off the creosote than it was to clean the chimney.

    1. Weatherwise, South Texas is less like Minnesota and more like Wyoming. We do get some humidity, but our 20″ of rainfall happens in about 5 or 6 days scattered randomly throughout the year. Our common firewoods, mesquite and live oak, can be stacked out in the weather to season for the occasional freezy days, usually one stupid week in February. But I was sure happy to have such a stack for the Snowpochalypse (3 whole inches!) a couple years ago.

  2. By a strange coincidence, I knew a guy named Chimney Thimble, who served drinks at a pub named Thirsty Thistle in south Northhampshireton. Good guy, but he poured light if you didn’t watch him.

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