Sippican Cottage

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Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

It’s a long road that has no turning, as they say. Let’s finish the dining room and be done with it. I certainly felt that way after a while. It was wintertime, and the living ain’t easy. The fish are frozen, and the cotton in the aspirin bottle was long since thrown away. But interior renovations are a wintertime standard around here. You take advantage of the seasons, and work outside when you can, and inside when you can’t. In this way, your life passes before your eyes like sitting at a crossing, waiting for a freight train with four kinds of cars, repeated endlessly. Well, not endlessly enough, but I’m not arguing for a fifth season or anything.

So, here we are, poised to do…

Well, something. I forget what. I’m performing an autopsy on this room renovation, not surgery. I see from the little bits of blue tape on the woodwork that I was patching the little voids left in the plaster after returning the woodwork to the walls. We removed all the door and window frames, stripped off the errant paint, pulled all the abandoned staples, filled the holes left from dozens of tin barnacles from window treatments past, and put clear wood finish on them. The edge between the plaster and the woodwork looked sharp again when we replaced it, but all the activity left crumbly bits here and there on the wall. I patched then with plaster and put the tape up to avoid starting the process of smearing stuff on the woodwork again.

The new lighting makes working in the room easier. A glance out the window makes you wish you hadn’t glanced out the window. The sun barely crawls over the horizon in the dead of winter, and is rarely a jolly companion. It slinks along like a shadow until March, and is about as useful.

This might be the same day as the last photo. I notice the clock on the wall says eight PM. My wife is standing at the coffee maker, so I assume I’m not done yet. Welcome to the wonderful world of remodeling. The stack of ladders and planks is commuting around the room as I work. I can espy lots of splotchy  places on the walls, so this must be the first coat. It was too orange. My wife specified that she wanted the room to be the color of a terra cotta plant pot. This one missed it by a bit. Close enough for primer, though.

Looking in the other direction, I can see that we’ve set up a bivouac in the living room, and we’re using it for three rooms-worth of activities. Beats me why. The dining room is the only room out of service, and it only does one thing at a time. You can’t fold laundry on the table if Thanksgiving dinner is on it, if for no other reason than your guests object. Moochers shouldn’t be so choosy, I say. I you keep your socks and underwear away from the food, Martha Stewart couldn’t object, could she?

My wife liked this darker version better. Dining rooms are generally evening rooms, and a subdued color scheme is appropriate, or used to be, before everyone started painting every room bluish gray. This one will be fine. You may notice that there are no baseboards yet. That’s because we want to paint down behind them a bit to make the joint cleaner. And we’ve go a stash of Mooring (Marden’s flooring) to extend from the kitchen in this room. It’s a blah, woody-looking pattern, but it’s pretty sturdy, and miles better than the battered floor underneath. It has the added benefit of confusing the cat, one of my favorite pastimes. Only confusing my wife is more fun. The clock on the wall says ten to nine, this time. Welcome to the wonderful world of “people are coming over tomorrow.”

The next morning, I returned the baseboards to their home, this time over the flooring instead of butting up against it. The edge was sharp, unlike most of the other walls in the house. Wallpapered walls are usually raggedy along baseboards like these. They’re solid oak, and about seven inches wide, after trimming.

The black piece of furniture belonged to my parents. It’s filled with table cloths and what all. My older brother painted the picture on the wall when he was in high school, and I was a little kid. I distinctly remember watching him do it, and being fascinated by the conjuring of an image out of goo from a tube. It isn’t a very good picture. It’s just wonderful.

And I espy presents on the sideboard. It must be the spare heir’s birthday. He can sit at the table I made, on a bench I made, under the gaze of the picture my brother made, in a room his brother and I made, and blow out the candles on the cake that his mother made, a bunch of years after she made him in the first place. You know, it all sort of seems worth the effort — when the effort’s over.

[Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and hitting my tip jar. It is much appreciated]

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Well, here’s the (old) walls and the (new) ceiling almost fully patched up. Working on 9′-high ceilings is a bear. Drywall guys, and plasterers  (who I am more familiar with) often have at least one guy on stilts to take care of the ceiling, and the join between the ceiling and the walls. Now, when I was little, my parents sold me to the circus, but before I could learn how to walk on stilts, Barnum or Bailey or some other guy dropped me back on my parent’s doorstep, with a note pinned to my clothes: “Talks too much. Scares the clowns.” So I’m earth-bound to this day.

Stiltless contractors used to make do with stolen milk crates and planks. They’d lay a grid of crates and plop a bunch of planks across them and walk around on them while looking up, without ever missing a step when I saw them. Balletic. I’ve actually seen guys walking on stilts on top of planks, in houses that had even taller ceilings. People can get good at anything, I guess.

I also guess I’m not exactly “people,” because I’ve never gotten good at drywall work. Oh, sure, I end up with something presentable, but it takes me way too long and I show exactly zero panache doing it. But it’s not complicated work, and most anyone can do it if they set their mind to it. Watch these guys mudding a drywall job to see how good you can get at it:

Of course, being a jerk, I can’t help but notice a problem here. These fellows sound like they’re in Kangaroo-land, and good on them, mate, but up here in the Podes, we don’t leave the joint between the ceiling and the walls unfinished under any circumstances. Honestly, it’s the only difficult drywall task there is. Straight seams at eye level is damn near cheating. It takes finesse to make a clean, even line at the top of the walls where it meets the ceiling. I know, I’ve painted maybe 10,000 linear miles of it, and I’ve painted a lot of wavy, lumpy seams, many of them born of my own trowel. These fellows are probably planning on covering the gap with molding, but that’s not how it works in fire-resistance land.

You see, a wood-framed wall covered with gypsum board with all the seams taped is fire-rated. It’s supposed to take an hour for a fire to get through it. If you get inspired, you can get that up to four hours with multiple layers of specialty drywall. An hour is a long time in firefighting land. But you can’t leave any seams open. Smoke can travel behind moldings, and get into wall cavities and pass between floors pretty fast. If smoke can, flames can, too. You can do a crappy job at the ceiling/wall joint (believe, me, I do), but you have to make sure it’s done.

People often remark that a wood frame house is more flammable than a masonry one, but that’s not entirely true. Blocks don’t burn, but neither do fire-rated walls very easily. It’s generally the furnishings in a house that make the fire deadly. Like this:

Those are wood-frame walls with drywall with the seams taped. No one in a house fire like that would live to see the house itself catch fire. It’s your stuff that burns, and the smoke kills you. Or stuff you hang on the structure itself. The worst recent fire I can think of was in London. The Grenfell Tower, wasn’t flammable, but the insulation they hung on the exterior sure was. Modern furniture, carpeting, drapes, and pretty much everything else in your house is made of some form of plastic. When stuff is made out of plastic, it might as well be gasoline when a fire breaks out.

So we stink at drywall but we are dogged, do the best we can, and don’t leave open seams behind moldings. Besides, moldings cost a lot more than drywall compound and tape.

I’m a fan of multiple thin coats of drywall compound. The fellows in the video haven’t got time for that sort of thing, and lay it in there and get ‘er done. I noticed I was having trouble troweling thin coats of the ready-mix drywall. It had bubbles in it. I wasn’t used to that. Apparently omitting half-a-gallon of mud from each five-gallon pail wasn’t the end of their assault on me. The stuff is thicker than I remember it, too. You have to mix water in it and blend it thoroughly to get a usable mix. Drywall guys have been doing that forever, but it’s more than mandatory now.

My heir wisely made himself scarce at this juncture, as the sanding operation loomed large. I’m not a sloppy finisher, so the seams don’t need a lot of sanding, but working over your head while walking on a plank is no penance for an innocent man. Maybe that’s why I had to sand the whole thing, and my son didn’t have to sand any of it. Quod erat demonstrandum, that.

[Tomorrow, we paint!]

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]

Aliens and Interstellar Mosquitoes, Explained

So, I realized you might be wondering. What’s the bar tab for this dining room remodeling project? It’s just one room. It’s heavy on elbow grease, and comparatively light on material. There’s no porcelain stuff or stainless steel items or granite this and that, like rooms that cost, baby. But even by stripping out the labor by using indentured servants and vacuuming the few remaining hours of the day out of my life, it has to cost something.

Let’s see what it’s worth, at least to civilians, anyway. This website asks the question, how much does it cost to renovate a dining room, and answers it, too, after a fashion. The punchline, like most jokes, comes at the end, although some of the numbers that people apparently spend on a dining room gave me a chuckle. It says you can build one for between $20,000 and $50,000. Do tell. I could build you a fairly good space shuttle for fifty grand. If you skimped on the project, and only had twenty thousand, the space shuttle would have storm windows instead of fused silica outer panes to keep out the aliens and the interstellar mosquitoes, but it would still get you there and back. Or there. Maybe. I just want a dining room where my socks don’t get caught on abandoned carpet staples anymore.

But we’re not building a dining room, are we? We’ve already got one, such as it is. We’re applying some spit and polish, and skimping on the polish at that. How much do they estimate it would cost to just fix one, or if I know the American public, paint one badly, swap out the old unattractive light fixture for a new hideous light fixture, and hang four GATHER signs? According to the same article, about $3,000.

That doesn’t sound like a crazy number out in contractor-world. By definition they’ll be working in an occupied house, and that makes the tumblers spin on the renovator slot machine. We can’t afford that kind of dough, and if we could, I’d spend it somewhere else anyway. Probably somewhere with a liquor license on the wall.

But let’s add to the sum total of human knowledge, instead of increasing the amount of internet snark. Here’s what our dining room renovation required in one form or another:

  • Drywall
  • Lumber
  • Plaster
  • Electrical
  • Woodwork
  • Light fixtures
  • Paint
  • Flooring
  • Painter’s tape

And here’s what it cost, as far as I can remember:

Drywall: $120

Drywall increased in price a lot recently, but it’s still pretty cheap. A 4′ x 8′ sheet was about $15, and the local lumber yard delivered it. Anything that covers anything in this house for 50 cents a square foot is alright by me. We needed 8 sheets.

Lumber: $20

Lumber consisted solely of firring strips to level the ceiling. I put $20 in there because that’s what you put in there when you can’t count that low on an estimate.

Plaster: $50

Two bags of setting drywall compound and a five gallon pail of ready-mix drywall compound. A five gallon pail of drywall compound now has four-and-a-half gallons of drywall mud in it. Remember, your world isn’t getting more expensive, it’s getting smaller.

Light fixtures: $48

A canless 6″ LED light is like $12 if you buy them in bulk and skip all the smart home horseshite. I’m the smartest thing in my house, thank you very much.

Electrical: $20

Insulated copper wire is still fairly cheap if you buy it in long lengths. They don’t make pennies out of it anymore, but I don’t see why not. You couldn’t buy anything with pennies these days, no matter how small the five gallon pails get. There wouldn’t be that many in circulation.

Woodwork: No value

I used to be an estimator. Whenever you had stuff you had already paid for, and needed to use, but didn’t want to include in an estimate, you’d write, “No Value” in the cost column. It was a great way to look profitable on one job by simply molesting some other job’s spreadsheet. Once a job was operating at a loss, it might as well go right down into the No Value volcano to the bottom floor. The woodwork was made from stuff whose cost was pillaged in the mists of antiquity, stripped from the knights of the castle NoValue.

Paint: $100

Paint the ceiling white. Paint the walls brick red. Two gallons and done. I threw in a few tablespoons of clear wood finish to recoat the wood trim.

Flooring: $337

Whoa, there. That looks like a hard number. A real number. Worst of all, it looks like a three-digit number. We can’t afford too many of them. But the room is big, about sixteen feet square, and when we bought laminate flooring for the kitchen, we bought enough to do the whole first floor of our house. We got it at Marden’s, a Maine tradition, which is one step away from rummaging through dumpsters. I said “away,” you’ll notice, not “above.” It was discounted all to hell, but it still cost more than any other item, except:

Painter’s tape: $143,879

I’m not sure this number is accurate. It might be low. I’m not certain when painter’s tape got more expensive than Faberge eggs, but it happened. I tried asking the clerk in the hardware store if his pricing gun was on the blink, or maybe he put the tag for a snowblower or a pallet of peat moss on a single roll of blue tape by accident. He said, “If you don’t like the blue tape, we have green tape now, too, but it costs more.”

I couldn’t bear to pay what they’re asking for it. I went down in my basement and hunted around for a couple of rolls I bought before painter’s tape became a federal cabinet post and an integral part of GDP calculations, and marked it on the estimate as NO VALUE.

Problem solved.

[To be continued]

The Lasagna of Layers

Like most things in the house, this room was completed in stages. Some of it was due to money issues. In general, if we didn’t have the spondulicks to finish something, we didn’t start it, but since so many projects in the house relied on other projects in the house, stuff remained in half-demolished limbo for long periods.

We installed central heating in the house after getting along without it for many years. We burned firewood, and then wood pellets, and somehow managed to avoid a Jack London ending, if not exactly achieve comfort or anything. Some of the ducts would go through the dining room. This wall in the dining room was covered with paneling, which had been painted a few dozen times. I figured it would be less trouble to take if off now, than after a soffit was in place, so off it came. Like most every wall in the house, the wall was a lasagna of layers. Painted paneling led to painted wallpaper led to more wallpaper led to some pretty old wallpaper, which you can see in the picture. I estimate that layer was from the 1940s or so. There was another layer under that one, which might have been original equipment.

Now our evil plan of heating the house comes somewhat into view. We hacked a hole through the wall to allow a duct boot to serve the living room on the other side of the wall. The duct would come off a larger, vertical duct that ran up through the closet in our bedroom, and branched off hither and yon to six rooms. That’s a doorbell wire hanging out of the wall next to the doorframe. We didn’t have a working doorbell for about a year, I think. I was expecting to find six Jehovah’s Witnesses, ten trick-or-treaters, and at least one candidate for town tax assessor on my porch when I left the house for the first time in the spring. The cool winter temperatures keep them from spoiling, but you have to bring them to the landfill as the temperatures climb or they start to smell.

We ran some ducts and boxed them in. The ceilings are pretty tall on the first floor of our house, so you barely notice it’s there. It was a lot easier than running everything through the walls, and the straight shots for the ducts make the heat get to where it’s going more efficiently. The big black thing in the picture is the pellet stove. We still use it in the dead of winter to supplement the heat pump we installed. More about that another time.

The dining room stayed that way for many months while we finished the kitchen. Then we got around to this room, and really let it have it with both barrels. Here’s the heir (he’s the second barrel) tearing down the cardboard ceiling tiles. It took about five minutes to pull them down, and the rest of the day for two men to pull out the umpty-million staples they left behind. The ceiling must have started raining plaster after the former denizens removed the kitchen/dining room wall to achieve the coveted “open plan,” so they hid the problem with the cardboard ceiling. We left the firring strips in place. We can use them.  They’re nailed to the joists above, so they’re sturdy. You can see the old light fixture electrical box hanging down. We’ll intercept that and use it to feed four LED light discs for general illumination. Victorian house like ours struggle with lighting. LED canless lights are a great way to banish dreariness, and they’re way cheaper than buying a bunch of light fixtures and lamps.

Back in the day, when we built very expensive houses, we’d make sure that the ceilings in them were dead flat and level. We’d pull strings across the joists above, and painstakingly shim the connection between each joist and furring strip before nailing. I’m not about to do that in here, but the ceiling was way too misshapen to leave it the way we found it. Like most of our ceilings, it sagged in two directions, so the center was substantially lower than all four walls. We got a quick and dirty fix for the problem by adding some firring strips perpendicular to the existing firring strips. They run along the edges to fill in the parts where the ceiling sloped up precipitously. We pared down the rows of firring strips as they got closer to the center, from 3/4″ thick, to 5/8″, to 1/2″. The ceiling ended up being the only remotely flat ceiling in the house. As you can see, we installed the LED lighting discs as we went. We popped them out when it was time to paint. They have a whip wire, like a little disconnectable leash. They’re low voltage, and easy to wire.

My poor wife’s quiet corner got very noisy again. She set up shop at the kitchen table, which was hardly a step down, because the kitchen was already finished. We hung thin plastic sheets over the doorways in the room, and kept the mess contained. We’d take them down every night after sweeping up, to allow the cat to get to the catbox, my wife to get to the catbox to empty the tootsie rolls, and me to get to the beer.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting. Please tell a friend about Sippican Cottage!]

This Incredible Flip This Old House Hunters Wife Swap Fixers

You’ll have to put up with a fair amount of time warp-age here. You’re going to see pictures of this dining room renovation, and notice the kitchen isn’t fixed yet in one picture, and then in the next picture it’s immaculada. How did that get done? When? Why? I assure you that there’s a method to the madness, even though the madness is holding a gun to the method’s head at all times. You see, all these projects are related, and rely on parts of other projects to get finished, or even started. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say. Perhaps more to the point, a sinking boat drags everyone down with it.

The sinking boat analogy is a common outcome in renovations where the renovators are living in the house while they’re banging on it. In a better world, a project like ours would have a budget, and a time frame, and plenty of subcontractors, and a place for us to live far away from it while the work was being performed. We’re pretty far removed from regular, sane construction like that, simply over the budget. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what a budget is. Some kind of canary, I think.

So you might remember that the former denizens of our house took out a wall between the kitchen and dining room. One that they shouldn’t have. This caused the floor upstairs to sag quite a bit. Before we fixed the dining room, the wall in the kitchen would have to be repaired. Like this:

Of course, you could think of it as before the kitchen could be fixed, the dining room wall needs to be constructed. That’s basically how it worked out. The refrigerator needs to be relocated to a niche formed on one side by the dining room wall, and it wasn’t there yet. This house is like a giant Mousetrap game. All the pieces have to be in place before you can use the apparatus to catch a mouse.

Hey, leave me out of this. And my name’s not Apparatus.

This interconnectivity is the reason why you see so many old houses for sale that are halfway destroyed inside and ten percent put back together (badly). The owners watched This Incredible Flip This Old House Hunters Wife Swap Fixers, figured how hard could it be, and found out exactly how hard it could be. The building materials stacked in the gutted kitchen convey with the house, usually. You have to have a certain amount of flexibility, married to stick-to-it-ive-ness, to prevail.

So we finished this wall and adjacent corner first. We added about two feet of wall to the existing, and framed an opening. I made the oak trim out of some 3/8″ thick oak boards I bought twenty years ago from a lumberyard that was going out of business. They didn’t know they were going out of business at the time, but who did in 2008? Lumberyards generally don’t stock 3/8″ thick wood of any species for a reason. It’s not much in demand. I bought a big pile of 3/8″ and 1/2″ lumber of all kinds for less than the cost of firewood, and figured I’d do something with it sometime. This is something, and sometime, I guess.

In regular carpentry, the door trim and baseboard would be 3/4″ thick. You’d rabbet out the center of the back of the lumber to keep if from curling, and to make it bridge the join between the wall and the door jamb. If you looked at the end of the boards, it would have an upside-down “U” profile, flat on the face, and hollowed out on the back.

Instead of doing that, I cut 1″- wide strips of the 3/8″ thick oak, and glued them to the left and right sides of the door frames blanks, and the top and bottom edges of the baseboard. Then I ran them through a jointer to get the edges nice and flat and smooth. It worked fine, and since we couldn’t afford to buy oak lumber, it made the project possible.

So this was a little milepost along the renovation way. We finished this nasty corner more or less completely, and made a half-decent spot for my wife to sit at and swear at her computer. It’s important to finish certain areas of ongoing renovations like this, little oases of calm in the maelstrom of demolitions, to keep from being presented as a cautionary tale on This Incredible Flip This Old House Hunters Wife Swap Fixers, followed up by a short stint on Divorce Court.

[To be continued]

The Dining Room Real Estate Fandango

Well, I’m tap dancing now. I’d like to show you some action shots of my homebrew insulation blaster, but I can’t get a quorum. It only takes two to do the insulation tango, but we need a band, too, or in this case, a third person to hold the camera. The spare heir is taking midterms and the heir is out doing adult-ish things and can’t come over. But you fine folks deserve some sort of renovation debacle to look at. I guess I’ll need a totally new project to get you scratching your collective heads and wondering why we bought this hovel in the first place. Lord knows I’ve worn a rut in mine scratching and wondering.

Speaking of ruts, how about the dining room? It’s a more recent vintage of renovation project. I think I still have a splinter and a bruise or two left over from it, so it’s got to be from this year, at least. We didn’t plan on doing much how-to pontificating about it on the intertunnel, so the pictures are a little spotty, but they’ll have to do.

Say, what did it look like when we moved in? Here you go:

Whoa. We didn’t even own the place in this picture. My wife and the real estate agent are wandering aimlessly in the living room, while I take a picture of the dining room. This is the end stage of the real estate process where the agent is staying fourteen arms-length away from me at all times. She’d tried to perform her real estate fandango on us several times, waving her arms and extolling the virtues of licks of paint and ceiling fans, while intoning, sotto voce, that there was a polymath handyman interested in this house, too, just like the last house she showed us, and the house before that, so we’d better jump on it right away. I said, “Great, what’s his phone number, I’d like to hire him,” and that shut her piehole right quick. Her bandaged finger wobbled back to the real estate candle a few more times, but after a while she’d just let me look around in peace.

There’s lots to love in the last picture, besides my wife. Someone wanted something heavy and oily from the basement, and dragged it all the way through the house, leaving a minor trench in the birch strip flooring. I’m sure the apparatus was worth ten cents, and they wrecked 300,000 pennies-worth of flooring to get it, but then again, they got the thing out, whatever it was, and they’re not dumb enough to buy this place (again), so the gouge in the floor is filed under: Accounts Payable – Never.

Turn to the left and look through the milky sunshine at an abandoned greenhouse in the neighbor’s yard. It was a ruin left from a florist who had decamped long ago. The glass was mostly gone, and in the summer whatever plants that could take the temps around here had naturalized and blended in with the local stuff. Very picturesque.

That baseboard heater was also a ruin. Like all the other heating stuff in the house, it was left with water in it, which froze, and burst the pipes. It would all have to go.

Turning to the right, you can see the entry to the master bedroom. If you have keen eyesight, you can spot shingles on the far wall in there. The two largest walls in there were shingled. I have some theories about what prompted the former denizens to do such things, and they involve Timothy Leary and Johnny Walker in equal measure.

Hey look, there’s a thermostat on the wall. You know what that means. Right! Absolutely nothing. We didn’t get a thermostat that does things when you operate it for another ten years. I left it there anyway, to mock my dreams of heat, and because it covered a hole, which is not nothing in my world.

Here’s the ceiling. Those are cardboard tiles. I measured the distance from the floor to this ceiling, and then compared it to the living room ceiling, which was the original plaster. It was several inches lower, so I knew the ghosts of ceilings past was still living above it.

You might have noticed this in the floor earlier. It’s a very heavy cast iron grate. The old oil-fired boiler was located underneath this spot in the basement. Most people assume that grates like these are to let heated air pass upwards through a house. Most people are mistaken. It’s nearly impossible to get any substantial amount of heat to go through a vent like this. Heat rises, it’s true, but it’s like a heavy woman trying on jeans. It fights to continue its convection loops, and doesn’t like to be forced into small spaces. That’s why there’s a big fan on a furnace. To force the issue.

That’s a cold air return. If a furnace makes hot air, and pushes it around, it needs a way to gather the same amount of air back to heat it again. Otherwise, it’s like trying to blow up a balloom that won’t expand (your house). It draws air back to itself, reheats it, and sends it back in a continuous loop.

But this house had a oil boiler. That’s a closed system, and air is heated by passing over pipes and fins in the baseboard units. What’s the return air for, you might ask? Well, the boiler is (was, it was toast) burning a mixture of oil and ambient air, and then sending the smoky remains up the chimney. The air has to come from somewhere, and if you suck it all out of the basement, the only way for the basement to get more is to pull it in from outside, where it was currently just above zero when these pictures were taken, if I remember correctly. That’s because it wasn’t winter yet, when it really gets cold.

I’ll leave it to you whether it was smarter to pull heated air out of the dining room to burn in the boiler than getting it from the basement. I imagine that the previous owners didn’t think about it very much, and simply cut a huge hole in the floor because the boiler downstairs felt hot, and maybe the heat from it would go up through the grate, and ended up colder than before for their troubles. Me, I’ve got other plans for that baby.

[To be continued. To support Sippican Cottage, feel free to leave a comment, tell a friend about us, buy a book if you already haven’t, or hit the Donate button. And thanks!]

Tag: fixing the dining room

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