Sippican Cottage

Close this search box.

Kinda Fussy

Well, there’s nothing left but the crying, as my old man used to say at the end of every Red Sox game. I’ve disgorged tons of my ill-considered opinions about home improvement along with a couple of couplets about spackle or something. There’s nothing left to do but work in the room, because all the work is done.

It’s not a bad place to moil, truth be told, but it requires some fortitude from the occupant from about Christmas to Easter. The central heating doesn’t go there. We made some back-of-the-envelope BTU calculations and rule-of-thumb CFM guesses and performed some kilowatt-hour head-scratching arithmetic, and decided the office was a bridge too far for the regular ducts to run. So we put in a little baseboard electric radiator to take the chill off. If I get cold in there in the winter, I can always go outside and warm my hands over the electric meter when it’s on.

So here’s where I’m typing this:

I don’t know what you were expecting, but I expect it wasn’t that. Spartan. We got two cheap marpets (carpets from Marden’s), made a table from some leftover legs and a tabletop I’ve had in my way for a decade, plunked the old Dell dustcatcher on top of it, dragged in a dining room chair, and got back to work. Don’t laugh, I’m running an empire or two from there. It’s an Irish sort of empire, it’s true. If you’re unfamiliar with Irish empires, you must be unaware that all Irishmen believe they are the descendants of kings. Of course they were only the king of the mud from under their feet to that rock over there, until someone took it away from them with a pointed stick and some harsh language, but royalty is royalty.


We have a couch for the cat to sit on. It’s completely different from the other couch for the cat to sit on. There’s also an ottoman for the cat to sit on.

The chair and the typewriter are flea market finds. The chair is an awesome oak rocker with leather upholstery and nifty brass tacks all around. Very Arts and Crafts, or Mission Style. Take your pick. No one knows the difference anymore. You can sit in that rocker and think great thoughts. No one does, but you could.

Readers with a keen eye will notice the wandering glass door. We grain painted it a few weeks ago, remember? Well, we blew out the wall it was in a while back, and it was hanging around without a home. My wife, who doesn’t say much, mentioned twice or fourteen times that it would look good in the office, instead of sideways, leaning against some plywood, in the basement. I occasionally listen to her, and it always turns out well.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Nothing up my sleeve, and presto! Before and after!





Well, I’ll have to scout around the house for something else to show you. We have this bathroom, for instance.

I think it needs attention, but then again, I’m kinda fussy.

[Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and hitting my tip jar. It’s much appreciated. Please tell an intertunnel friend about Sippican Cottage]

Something Stupid

There comes a time in every home improvement project where costs have to be compared with benefits using a gimlet eye. In our case, that time is before we start, and every waking moment after, because we gots no moneys. It might come much later in your planning phase, if you draw a paycheck with any zeros on it. I don’t get a paycheck, and if I did, the only zero on it would be on the payee line. You nice folks might have the wherewithal to do what you think best, instead of whatever you can, so your mileage will vary from mine. But sooner or later everybody runs into something that makes them pause and say, “I’m not paying that for that!  You start talking about writing strong letters and carpet bombing review sites and so forth. Then you do none of those things, and grumble and pay. Happens to the best of us.

Up until now, everything in our office remodel was heavy on labor and light on the wallet. Plaster and paint and romex wire and all the others sundries we used are relatively affordable. But I was faced with about an eight-foot-plus gap in the baseboard, and it gave me pause. The baseboards in our house are solid oak, 7/8″ thick and about 8″ wide. I couldn’t scavenge that much from anywhere in the house. I’d have to sell a kidney to buy a 1″x8″x10′ oak board, and the organ donor place is always fussy about such things. They’re always prying into my personal affairs with questions like, “Whose kidney is this?” I used to buy hardwood lumber a lot, to make furniture, and I knew it would cost a lot. So I did the average Joe thing and said harrumph, I’m not paying that for that, and went around the side door, as I like to call making do.

If you’re faced with this kind of dilemma, I advise you to do like I do. Ask yourself, does it matter? Lots of things seem to matter in home renovations, but don’t really. Is there really any difference between a Live, Laugh, Love sign, and a Dance Like Nobody’s Watching sign? Probably not. Get the one on sale, and ignore the sentiment forevermore with a few extra pennies in your pocket. So I’ll ask you. Does it really matter what kind of wood I use to replace the baseboard in one corner of an office for one person located in a frozen hellhole in the back of hell and beyond? Didn’t think so. So I got a piece of lumberyard pine from the stack, put the 10-degree bevel on the top edge, and stained it with the same home-made dye/shellac elixir I made to recondition the rest of the woodwork in there. I’m kicking that baseboard right now. I can assure you it didn’t matter. Things continued to go swimmingly.

There comes another point in every renovation project, however, when you pause for a moment and make decisions on how you’ll proceed based on how well things are going up ’til now. Maybe you’re ahead of schedule (I know, I know, it never happens), or under budget (there’s a laugh). They’re the hinges of history, or something. In general, if things have been going badly, you consider options like hiring someone to finish the half-finished mess you made, starting over in another room after nailing the door shut, or maybe arson if you’re more practically minded. None of those things compare to the trouble you can get into when things have been going well. You’re breezing along. You gain confidence. You do a little imaginary flexing in front of your mind’s mirror. Then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like let’s sand the floor with hand sanders.

Of course you can rent a drum sander and its little pal, the edger. Rental house always have those. You can cart it home and gouge your floor and your wallet to your heart’s content at the same time. But you’re made of sterner stuff. You looked at the floor, and noticed the finish was ninety-percent worn off already. You noticed there were sons sleeping upstairs, who maybe could be fooled into trained to sand a floor with hand tools. Mostly, you noticed the rental house was closed on the weekend. Things were going good, and you didn’t want to stop.

Gather ’round the internet, brothers and sisters. Lay your hands on the hard drive. Feel the energy I’m projecting out into the ether. Listen to me and you’ll be saved, praise Intel! Don’t ever sand a floor with hand sanders. It’s something stupid.

Well, I’m with stupid, and I’m all alone here. First I patched the numerous holes in the floor. There were holes for steam pipes and conduits and cable wires and whatnot all around the edges of the room. I mortised out a neat square around the holes with a hammer and chisel, which is a beast of a job in old birch flooring. Then I glued hardwood blocks in the mortises. I got out a big belt sander I found in a trash can on a jobsite many moons ago. It had a nail stuck in it, which jammed the roller and kept the belt from turning. I pried the nail out, and have used it ever since. There was a lesson in there somewhere, along with the nail, but I’m not sure exactly what it is. But hey, free belt sander!

I went over the patches, and the floor came clean fairly readily around them, too, so I kept going. The room is about 10′ x 16′, one of the smallest rooms in the house, but it didn’t seem that small while crawling around in it all day with a sander and a shop vac roaring in my ears. I’m telling you: don’t do this.

I’ve also got a big 6″ random orbital sander with a vacuum hose attachment on it. The floor needed to get sanded with various grits in succession to get it ready for the finish. I’m telling you, don’t do this.

I got real sick just then, and couldn’t work on anything for a month or two or three. My heir had to finish sanding it for me. Now he’s telling you: don’t do this. This is why basing your decisions on how well things are going is foolhardy. You can call it mission creep, or shit happens, but it’s the same either way. If you think things are going well in home remodeling, you’re obviously overlooking something.

But at least once it was done, it was done. I found an ancient can of floor varnish in the basement. Clear gloss varnish doesn’t spoil like satin varnishes. There’s nothing held in suspension to settle and harden up. This stuff was the quick-dry variety. They get it to dry faster by adding charming stuff like xylene, which has fumes that will turn you into a gibbering moron faster than Twitter ever could. Hence the fan in the window.

You can go over the floor several times in a day with this stuff. The solvent in the additional coats sorta burn into the previous coats, which is great for adhesion. You cut in around the edges with a small brush, and then use a lambswool pad on a pole to coat the field.

And, we’re done. That leaves us with just one more thing: Before and after photos. See you tomorrow!

The Boob Light Is History

Well, the easy work is done.

Most people wouldn’t think that. They think demolition and carpentry and plumbing and electricical work is hard, and anything to do with decorating is easy. I know better. Wiring a convenience outlet ain’t difficult. Stripping off four layers of wallpaper is hard, dudes and dudettes. Especially when some of the layers have been painted.

There are various labor-saving devices for scoring the face of the wallpaper to make it easier to wet the backing and get it off the wall. They cost money, they don’t work, and they damage the wall. But other than that, they’re great. I simply know that there’s no free lunch, and get on with it. I’ve stripped acres of wallpaper over the years. If the wallpaper was painted with oil paint, it could be pretty hard to get the steam to the backing, it’s true. But we just got a handsaw out of the truck and dragged the teeth over the paper to score it a little. No late night commercial purchases necessary.

Wallpaper steamers were once big propane-fired boilers that sat in the middle of the room and made Mike Mulligan noises. You had to rent them by the day, and they made gouts of steam, I tell you what. It was a good job to undertake in February. Not so much in July. Nowadays, you can buy a little steamer for a few quid and it works well enough. You can use the little kettle and hose to make a steam box to bend wood, too. I have. My wife is constitutionally incapable of taking a photograph, but I’m holding the steamer “plate” in my left hand, and squeezing adhesive out of a sponge with my right. The spare heir is sleeping in the corner, I think.

Old wallpaper paste is just flour. I used to buy the stuff way back when. If we had an old-skool customer, we’d sometimes use the old-fashioned stuff. The labels used to say, DO NOT EAT, adorned with a skull and crossbones. Everyone knew it was some form of flour back during the Depression, and plenty of people were plain hungry. Some people used wallpaper paste in powdered form to make bread. I’m not sure if it’s accurate, but super old-timers on my first jobs said that they government forced the manufacturers to put poison in it, because they didn’t like citizens getting around some recovery scheme they had running that wasn’t working. That sounded like an urban legend to me. I imagine the manufacturers starting putting in poison to kill any mice that tried to eat the stuff on the shelf. In my experience, risky behavior antedates TikTok by a country mile. Hell, people were drinking methanol back then. It might make you blind, but hey, great party. I wouldn’t be surprised if they figured a little rat poison made the wallpaper paste bread rise quicker. It tastes like rye, Jethro!

This room had an absurd ceiling fan in it when we moved in. We put a “boob” light in its place. Shortly after that, we disconnected the knob and tube circuit that served it, and were back in the dark again. We’ll get proper light in here, finally. I skipped the whole curlicue light bulb era. I hoarded regular light bulbs for a while, and then made the leap directly to LEDs. We punched four holes in the plaster ceiling, and fished wires between them and back to a new wall switch. We put a dimmer in. These lights are an older version of LEDs. The holes were filled with the same sort of can light that used to have incandescent bulbs in them. The LED  disk had a trailing wire with a threaded fitting like a regular light bulb. They have integrated trim rings, which was a money saver. We’ve since morphed into using the canless variety of LED lights in the rest of the house. They’re pretty nifty, and easy to retrofit.

The place was getting kinda crowded. We patched up the existing plaster walls where we could. The long, straight, angular patches are backed up with paper drywall tape. We use ceiling buttons to shore up any plaster sagging away from the lath.

Doorway is taped and mudded in  Lights are in and working, which increases productivity a bit. Patches everywhere. The boob light is history. Time to sand the patches.

I had an employee once. Hi Joe! Great guy. He’s a lawyer now. He was fond of needling me. I was fond of giving him the worst jobs available on the jobsite. It sort of evened out. We were renovating an enormous restaurant/brewery type place. Someone came in, looking for me. They asked Joe where they could find me. “As far away from the sandpaper as you can get,” was his answer. True dat.

But there was no place to hide in this room, and no one to hide from. We have an apparatus for sanding that works well, though. You put a sanding screen on a handle that has a hose for a shop vac. It’s still hard work, and plenty noisy, but there’s no clouds of dust in the room.

We refinished the woodwork after stripping off the errant paint. I suspect that all the oak trim in our house was this dark walnut color at one time. This is the last room where it hasn’t been altered. This is the “cutting in” stage of painting. If you’ve ever listened to a painting crew at work, everyone fights over the roller. No one wants to cut in. The roller is like the front passenger seat on a road trip. You have to call it early.

The picture isn’t accurate color-wise. The color isn’t very peachy in real life. More like a buckskin. Hey look, the window is square again, and goes up and down, and closes properly. Wonders never cease around here. We’ll have to do something wonderful to that baseboard with the plug in it. Maybe tomorrow.

[To be continued. Feel free to mock me in the comments]

Unicorn Road Apples, and Other Discontents

Well, we’re at it again in my soon-to-be-office.  I can’t remember when we did this work, exactly. Years ago. I could ask the kid, who can tell you what he had for lunch four years ago on the second Tuesday in March. But it’s not important. I’m typing this essay in this office, and lunch is in 1/2 hour, so we’ll roll with that.

We’re wearing what used to be called: nuisance dust masks. Everyone seems to associate magical powers with masks these days, so they don’t call them that anymore, I gather. Masks are only good for forestalling sneezing fits from gypsum dust until lunchtime. There’s bound to be some nasty stuff in any wall we demolish, so we like to skip the demolition snuff if we can.

I’m showing the kid how to do it. I use a hammer to punch holes in the drywall, in a row, until I discover the wood studs. Then I punch holes vertically. It goes very fast, and doesn’t make much of a mess. When you’ve outlined a big section, you can pull it out whole with a little tugging. Demolition is poorly understood, mostly because of the teevee. You’re supposed to disassemble things in an orderly fashion, not stick your foot through them.

As you can glimpse in the next photo, we’re entering a Whole New World.

It’s a magical land of rainbows and clouds and pots of gold and unicorn road apples. It’s especially magic, because it’s painted on the inside of the wall cavity. Apparently, mice did it. I had no idea the little fellers had this kind of talent. And it must have been deuced difficult to paint all this while wearing a tiny miner’s helmet on their little rodent head. All in all, a noble effort.

There’s something peevish for me on display here, too. Look at the wall studs. Whoever built this Great Wall of Blarney was flummoxed by the nine-foot ceilings. You can buy ten-foot 2x4s, but that’s not in their construction arsenal, I assume, so they lapped short studs and kept going. Most every time I’ve tried to drive a fastener into any surface that isn’t original equipment in this house, I miss anything structural, and start swearing. Now I know why. You can use a stud finder on drywall walls like these, and I have. However, if the studs skip around like this, you’re likely to come a cropper looking for it with a screw. They’re spaced catch-as-catch-can, too, instead of 16″ on center, and not plumb, either, which turns the rainbows and pot of gold into an Easter Egg Hunt for studs.

OK, so we’re back to square one here. We brought the demolished frescoed drywall to the dump, where they’re probably still scratching their heads over us. We’ve revealed the back of the bifold door that served the closet we just removed. Interestingly, that doorway was always there.

It’s hard to know exactly what each of the first floor rooms was used for back when they built this place. In 1901, house plans just listed parlor after parlor downstairs, and chamber after chamber upstairs. But there was a ghost on the floor of an old doorframe, placed there long before anyone conjured the idea for this execrable bifold rainbow closet arrangement. It’s likely that this room was a sitting room for the bedroom beyond, although I doubt that was always a bedroom. It might have been just another parlor-parlor-parlor. This room might have had an upright piano against the big, blank wall on the right. Lots of houses were designed around pianos like that. It could have been a summer sleeping room. It’s cool and breezy in there with all the windows open. Come to think of it, it’s cool and breezy in there with the windows closed, too. In any case, we don’t need that doorway, but we could use some wall space on both sides.

We used the longest of the short studs we salvaged to fill in the hole. We added plugs all around the room, and fished the cable/internet line in there, too. If you scroll back two images, you can see a very dangerous outlet in the baseboard. There were very few outlets in this house originally, usually just one per room, and a single dangling light fixture in the middle of each ceiling. They were mostly replaced with ridiculous ceiling fans by the former owners. The plug and the overhead lights were still on the original knob and tube wiring, and as you can see from the mildewed wall, roof leaks had drenched the stud bay over and over. I’m surprised no one got the Old Sparky treatment from them. We disconnected all the knob and tube circuits, and wired the room with Romex sheathed cable.

If you look at the last picture, you can see the sash pocket that reader Blackwing mentioned in the comments after Kudzu, Carter, and Other Calamities. I’ve removed the access panel to get at the iron sash weights. The sash cords had broken long ago, and the weights rocketed to the bottom of the sash pocket. With all the interior oak trim removed, I can de-rhombus the frame. I went outside and removed the window trim on the top and the high (right-hand) side, and cut all the nails that held the window in place. I left the low side attached. I cut off the horn on the right-hand side(the bottom part of the window frame that sits on the rough sill), and the frame dropped into alignment with just a little coaxing from a pry bar. I used a carpenter’s square to make sure the frame was square, and then nailed everything back in place.

We put new sash cords from the weights to the sashes. They travel over pulleys that we lubricated to get it back into fighting shape. The window sash has a slot for the cord, ending in a round pocket where the knotted end of the sash cord resides. It’s a simple but effective way to counterbalance the weight of the window sashes.

As you can see from the closeup, over the years, everyone had slopped paint all over the edges of the trim. We ended up (carefully) removing all the oak trim in the room, and stripping off the paint on the workbench in the basement, and refinishing it before re-installing it. It was much easier than working on it in place. Also, plaster walls of this vintage weren’t really paint-ready. It was assumed that the walls would be wallpapered, so the plaster is a little grainy. We can skim over the old plaster as necessary, and bring the smoothness and paint behind the restored trim, to get a sharper edge.

I guess I’ll have to fix the ceiling, too. I hate when the carpenter ants walk back and forth, and bits of insulation rain down on my head while I’m typing. I’m kind of fussy that way.

[To be continued. Feel free to leave a comment, hit the tip jar, buy a book, or tell a friend about Sippican Cottage!]

You’ve Made Your Bed, Now Fold It Up

Well, I need an office I guess. Well, I needed an office. I have one now. This is a big old Victorian, and at this point there are two or three rooms suitable for an office. When we moved here, nothing was suitable for anything. So we sort of camped out indoors while we made the place habitable. Hmm. By definition, if you’re making a place habitable, it isn’t habitable yet. But since we were already living in it, we were having a Zeno’s Paradox, or a Catch-22, or maybe we were on the horns of a dilemma or something. I’m not even sure what kind of cow a dilemma is, but apparently it has horns, and I was on them.

Well here are some pictures of my current office, just as we found it when we bought this icebox with a mailbox for $24,000:

How do I put this delicately? That’s an intriguing color scheme.

Man, I remember the 80s, when decorative painting swept the landscape. In my experience, home improvement mavens would have been better off if they never heard of decorative painting, and simply swept the landscape without it. A well-swept landscape increases your curb appeal, after all. This sort of thing just increases your primer budget.

Besides the extract-from-a-drunkard’s-nightmare sponging pattern, please note three other things. There’s a giant electrical plug at the floor, painted green like everything else. It was a 220-volt circuit, like you’d need for a kitchen stove or an electric clothes dryer. I followed it back to the circuit breaker panel, and it was labeled “tanning bed.” When we moved in, there were holes in the roof that looked like meteors had passed through them, the foundation in the back had crumbled to dust, and the roof leaked in more places than the State Department. When you’re faced with maintenance problems like that in your house, smart homeowners always turn to tanning beds and decorative painting as a solution.

The leprous wall itself is another notable thing. What the hell is it doing there? It’s sticking into the room about two feet. There’s no closet in this room, so they built a closet, and then used it in the room on the other side of the wall, which already had a walk-in closet. These people’s minds are a dark and bloody mystery to me.

Please also note the windowsill. It lists to the port side, as we used to say at the marina. The window frame had sagged about 1-1/2″ from right to left, along with the foundation, and the window couldn’t shut properly anymore. The foundation had long since been patched up, but they didn’t jack it back into place before mortaring in the replacement bricks. The window would have to be de-rhombused if I was going to get the window to close all the way.

And yes, that’s a piece of cheap paneling in the upper window sash. There were a lot of broken windows in the house when we got here. Apparently window glass was more expensive than paneling, and they solved half their window shade problem with it, too.

There was about a half a mile of hot water baseboard heating radiators in there, all trash. They’d been left to freeze with water in them, and the copper pipe inside them all burst. We’ll tear them all out, and then we’ll be left to freeze in there without them. The room faces northeast, and has four very large windows. It’s colder in there in the winter than a dunning letter from an ex-wife.

There were little shelves nailed all over the place. Each one was painted a different, barbarous primary color. I remember them distinctly. I once forgot my middle name, and had to ask my mother what it was. I’ve forgotten birthdays, and anniversaries, and what day Arbor Day falls on, and how to conjugate verbs properly in Spanish. But I will go to my grave distinctly remembering the numerous times I stood up too quickly from working on those radiators, and took one of those shelf edges right off my fontanel. Now it will never close up, I’ll bet. I also remember what I said, every time I did it. “Who the @#$% puts a shelf there?”

The floor was birch strip flooring. It was solid, but pretty battered.  We could save that. There was no door in the opening when we moved here. I slapped a coat of paint on the walls, we hung a curtain in the opening, and my wife and I slept on that old, battered, black  pull-out couch, with all our clothes on, until summer rolled around, and we could make a second bedroom habitable. Of course our children slept in the master bedroom, with lots of electric baseboard heat. We like our children better than we like each other, I guess.

[To be continued. Tell a friend about Sippican Cottage. Thanks!]

Tag: fixing the office

Find Stuff: