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My Before, During, and After Story, Part 3

November 18, 2010


This is the story of how we gutted our 1855 home’s kitchen and dining room. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

I have thus far blogged about the kitchen renovation. Originally, gutting the kitchen was my only goal. In an old house, it is SO easy to get carried away with multiple projects, because there is always so much to do. As I planned the kitchen job, I realized I’d have to do the dining room, too. Part of the renovation goal was to wire the house (I’d disconnected the old, decaying wiring in the house three years previously). We’d suffered all those years without any electricity in the bedrooms upstairs, the upstairs bath, and the dining room. I decided to gut the dining room, too. This way, I could wire the upstairs rooms from the opened dining room ceiling.

Wiring 1

The house framing method is balloon-frame, a building fad in the mid 1800s. Studs sit on the foundation sill and reach all the way up to the roof rafters, like a hot air balloon seams. It quickly grew out of fashion because cutting wood at such lengths was expensive; and the drafts produced by the open cavity from basement to attic was a fire hazard. But I was able to snake wiring up the stud cavities.

Since there was no plumbing in the dining room walls, I thought renovating the room would be easy. However, the walls are 155 years old, wavy and narrow. Installing the sheetrock for this room was AGONIZING. If I ever had to hire for a job, it would be sheetrock. What exhausting, dirty, depressing work. Nothing is straight or plumb in this house, so the walls and ceiling looked terrible. Not to mention that at this time, Upstate New York suffered one of the hottest summers on record. We were absolutely soaked through. I drank about 1 to 2 gallons of iced tea every day. It was a big trial for us to work through this. So many times we wanted to quit.


Wavier than a surfer's paradise, I tell ya.

DR ceiling sheetrock

It was just my daughter and I who did the sheetrock, with later help from my son. It took us THREE GRUELING WEEKS to do this huge room. Never again...


The wavy ceiling turned out so poorly, we decided to paste embossed wallpaper on it. That was another GRUELING week of work.


I wanted to retain the Greek Revival architecture of the house, so I spent a long time building new trimwork for it. I love my miter saw!


The room was a tremendous challenge because it has four windows and SIX doorways. But here's the finished product.

Back to the kitchen project. There was a large space- a former pantry closet that was awkward and cramped– and I didn’t want to close it off completely… So we solved the problem by creating a narrow pantry shelf accessible from the side of the closet. The guys from my church got this up in one night!

Narrow Pantry


This is after the sheetrock. It's a little quirky, but I love it. I have to build custom doors for it. That open cubby hole to the left will house a closet with a roll-out garbage bin... still not completed yet.


I like quirky closets so much that I built another one, between the kitchen and dining room doorways.

The guys from the church helped me install the sheetrock in the kitchen, to save my sanity. I hope I never have to do it again. Woo hoo! It’s over and it looks spectacular!


Once the walls were closed up, we could start installing cabinets. Yay!



It took me a long time to choose countertops. I originally chose laminate (I was on a budget!), but the long run (11 feet) would mean I’d need custom laminate countertops. Time was running out for us– it was already late August– and I knew I could not build custom laminate, nor could I afford it installed. After much research, I bought butcher block wood countertops from an online wholesale dealer. It requires a little more maintenance than laminate, but it’s absolutely beautiful.


The delivery man placed it at the mouth of the driveway, and took off! We had to haul the 350 pound counters 150 feet down the driveway, to the kitchen. Fun.


It took three kids and me to make this sink cutout. I was trembling with anxiety the entire time. One bad cut, and my countertop was ruined. Praise the Lord, it came out OK!

Delta Faucet almost there

Delta gave me a faucet for this renovation. I LOVE YOU, DELTA! We love our sink. 🙂

The end is near! Stay tuned for the next section– it’s the best part of all!!

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Make Your Own Tin Ceiling

December 18, 2008


This house was built in 1855, and it has seen very little renovation since then (except for a horrifying kitchen redo in 1970 and a tsunami of wall paneling from the 1960s). I like to open up the walls and ceilings, here and there, to see what’s behind. (Any excuse to ditch that lousy wall paneling)

A few summers ago, I took down the sagging, water-laden drop-ceiling panels from my garage (we’d sprung a leak in our garage roof that year), and found an old tin ceiling above. Wow! It was beautiful!

Old Tin Ceiling

Unfortunately, very little is salvageable. It has a lot of rust and water damage. I peeled off a few panels but they cracked when doing so. So far, most of the old tin ceiling remains in place; I’ll probably take it all down when I renovate the garage into a family room or something.

The garage used to be a kitchen, way back when– before they had cars, lol. There are still remains of the very old wallpaper from the late 1800s behind the 1960s paneling. It’s like stepping back in time! There are several layers, and some of the old wallpaper is flocked, or has gilded, hand-painted flecks, and such.

I like the tin ceiling effect. I was disappointed that I couldn’t reuse the pressed tin from the garage. I have a very large dining room, and I wanted to “do up” the ceiling with tin. But the tin is way beyond my budget. I got this bright idea to use textured wallpaper on the ceiling, to simulate pressed tin.

I did this several years ago (WHAT A JOB that was! You think it’s hard hanging wallpaper on walls, lol! Try a ceiling! It will burn fat faster than you can say “Leptovox.” Thankfully, ithe job was made easier when I got some helpers involved). So several years later, the wallpaper is holding up remarkably well!

Wallpaper Ceiling

Dining Room Ceiling

My dining room is a beautiful, warm ruby red. The deep dark color helps to stabilize the room, because this room has four windows and six doors. It’s a busy room. I painted the wallpapered ceiling with just a whisper of pink paint. The room glows.

That green garland you see is my makeshift crown moulding (which is on my To Do List yet). The garland is wrapped around the perimeter of the room to hide the ugly wallpaper seams against the top of the wall. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s cheap!

So if you have a hankering for those nice old pressed tin ceilings but can’t afford to cough up the big bucks, try textured wallpaper. I just love the effect, and everyone comments how nice it is.

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Is the House Floor Plan Software Worth It?

November 11, 2008

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I’ve always preferred drawing my house plans and ideas on graph paper, by hand. As much as I love the computer, and as much as I have incoporated a lot of my tasks to it, I just can’t seem to leave the age-old tradition of graph paper and pencil (and for me, a big eraser). I have seen some pretty fancy computer software in stores recently, that promise to help you design, plan, envision, and do everything for your home plans. I tried one of these programs, about 10 years ago, and I hated it. Software has come a long way, I know, but… is the software really worth it? Has anyone tried it and liked it?

The software is pricey, too– I’ve seen it listed for over $50 and some is as high as $100. Consider that when you realize that graph paper is $3 for 50 sheets, and pencils are just pennies (and if you are really cheap, you can always grab some of those promotional pens that businesses give away, for free).
The only problem with hand-drawing a floor plan are the multitudes of changes that you make on the paper. I like my plans to look neat; and a paper can only take so much erasing. So I have drawn tons and tons of floor plans, each with various changes. I’ve lost track of them all. :S Software has the benefit of instantly saving everything. But the software programs just don’t seem to be precise enough, unless things have changed and programs have realy improved. I have to recreate another floor plan for my first floor and I’m dreading having to draw it all over again. But on the other hand, I really wonder if software will be accurate and if I can learn the program quickly enough. What do you think?

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Can’t Get a Skylight?

November 10, 2008

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This is a totally, totally amazing gadget! Can’t install a skylight because you don’t want to hack a hole in your roof? Get a virtual one!


It’s called the Ambient SkyCeiling. It’s actually an LED panel (some are flourescent), and they illuminate the images from behind. They are absolutely gorgeous! I think they’d be neat for Upstate New York, where skies are almost always cloudy and dull. Imagine coming in to the house and having sunshine and a bright blue sky over your head! And so bright! You wouldn’t need lamps to read your personalized books by. Nice.

Of course, they are pricey- this one is $50 a square foot. And then there’s the cost of energizing it. But still, pretty cool.

Photo courtesy of Sky Factory.

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The New Not-So-Big House

December 7, 2007


I just finished flipping through my New Old House magazine. I got it a few weeks ago (it’s the winter 2008 edition) but hadn’t gotten to it until now. An excellent article by Russell Versaci, Pennywise, got me very excited. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind for over fifteen years, ever since I became interested in homes and home-building.

Don’t build bigger, build smarter.

It sounds so… so…. simple, doesn’t it? But over the course of my time spent reading books and magazines on home building and improvements, and flipping through countless architectural books and designs, the McMansion– that banal behemoth of excess home-building and wasteful sprawl–was very alive and well, and growing.

I’d read an unusual book (for the time) many years ago, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka. In it, she laments the bloated blueprints of modern housing, and prescribes building smaller, more efficient homes. Her book, published in 2000, is called “groundbreaking” by the publishers. That gives you an idea of when the push for efficient modern housing began– at least among designers and builders. Actually, I don’t think builders have even caught on yet.

Back to the Versaci article, I was impressed with some of his ideas about the “new” little house (not that they were new to me, but perhaps for some of his readers).

Home builders toting bulging portfolios of generic bloated McMansions have little to offer new arrivals who want smaller, more authentic homes. The five-bedroom, five-bath, 5,000 square foot behemoth is a relic of another idea. [yeah, Louis IV of old France!]

Living in Upstate New York watching the rich get richer and the poor get much poorer, I’ve noticed the change. Older houses (like mine) are crumbling, farmers are selling their land, and huge castle-sized homes built on the hilltops are gobbling up resources and crowding everyone else out. It sends the environment, the tax base, and the sense of community all awry. It is also interesting to note that rarely do these opulent five-bedroom homes house large families. Large families tend to be poorer, and have poorer and smaller houses. How ironic. And wasteful. And disrespectful of the rest of the community.

Now, old houses can be very inefficient and wasteful, too. Most of the houses in New York State– built before 1970, built even before 1900– were constructed in a era where “energy” meant wood fires for cooking and heating. Old houses waste resources, too. So don’t think I am holding the poor old homes at a nobler standard. However, modern home-building cannot claim any excuse for their excessive wastefulness except greed.

Well, Versaci continues and I nearly bowled over when I read the next few paragraphs:

Construction costs are out of control because builders are still using a delivery system that hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. We still gather up sticks and stones, bring them to the job site, trudge through mud and snow, go up and down ladders, cut and hammer in the blazing sun or driving rain, and generally build like medieval house wrights. Stick bulding houses is expensive and outmoded. With the home-building industry in shambles, there must be a better way.

And there is! It’s something that was under the noses of rich city-slickers for decades, those Fifth Avenue architects who snubbed their noses at what was happening with the “little” people– the people who had to be efficient, who had to work smartly:

manufactured housing!

GASP! No! Say it isn’t so!

It’s the new wave of the future! Well, it is now that the Fifth Avenue architects have “discovered” it.

Here are my suggestions… look at systems of home delivery that offer a better alternative to stick building. I’m putting my money on factory prefabrication. One hundred years ago Sears, Roebuck & Company conceived the idea of a house in a box…. still prized by ther owners and coveted by home buyers.

…The fact is that America has a huge industry equipped for prefabrication. After touring a dozen plants, I am convinced that their standards meet or exceed those of stick building.

Yes, manufactured (or, “prefabricated”) housing is much more efficient. It isn’t terribly new, either. It was invented in the early 1900s by a company catering to middle-class families looking for comfortable middle-class homes in middle-class neighborhoods. But the building boom after World War II blew the home kit away. “Planned communities” began in cities like Levittown, and the plague spread to the rest of the country.

I believe that a lot of our traffic, stormwater, and property tax problems today stem from such “planned communities.” It is an idea whose funeral is deserved, in my opinion.

With the mortgage problems in this country (due to exponentially high consumer debt), the energy crunch, globalization policies like NAFTA and SPP that are killing our labor force and industry infrastructure, it is time– yea, past time– to end excessive waste and the glut of consumerism that infects our culture. From home-building to neighborhood planning to individual lifestyles, change is required. This is a critical time for our country. Can we really scale back and tighten the belt before more collapses?

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Up, Up, and Away

May 23, 2007


My house is a balloon-frame house. Balloon-frame houses became all the rage after the World’s Fair in Chicago, when visitors saw Augustine Taylor’s new building design in 1833.

Photo courtesy of Old House Web.

Balloon-framing was the alternative method of post-and-beam framing. PandB framing requires massive timbers with strong, skilled workers. The labor for this is extensive and demanding. The invention of balloon-framing sought to curb this expense and make home-building less tasking. Wikipedia sums this up nicely:

Although lumber was plentiful in 19th century America, skilled labor was not. The advent of cheap machine-made nails, along with water-powered sawmills, in the early 19th century made balloon framing highly attractive, because it did not require highly-skilled carpenters, as did the dovetail joints, mortises and tenons required by post-and-beam construction. For the first time, any farmer could build his own buildings without a time-consuming learning curve.

Balloon-frame houses are not being made anymore (not in quantities, anyway). American home-building shifted to the platform-frame (stick-frame), and is now coming full-circle back to post-and-beam framing. (I won’t delve into another new and exciting form of house-building– the modular home).

I am not too keen on balloon-frame. Let me tell you why.

  • Greater risk of fire. Since studs are like long toothpicks which go all the way up from foundation sill to roof rafters, there is a tremendous risk for fire. If a fire starts in a wall, the flames will race up the long studs. The air flow from sill to rafter feeds the fire, until the house is essentially consumed from top to bottom. Fire stops (blocks of wood nailed between the studs at intervals) were added later to reduce this risk. Many old houses do not have fire stops. Mine does, though (at least, what few walls I have seen inside).
  • Drafts, dust, vermin. My house is very, very drafty and dusty. I dust the house a lot, and still we cough and cough (the family has developed what I call “Morning House Syndrome”). The staggering amount of dust in this house is amazing. If I do not dust for a day or two, a thick powdery coat of gray dust settles on everything. The plus side of this is that there is plenty of air circulation here. The bad side is the air is dirty and we hack and cough all day. Smells are a problem, too. Odors from the moist basement and smells from bats in the attic circulate in the framing and come right into the house. The house stinks. Also, smells are not the only things that race up and down the studs! Mice love balloon-frame houses. So do bats. Because our exterior siding and eaves still have so many holes and pocks, we have a problem with bats. They are well able to scurry down the studs from their attic nests. I have to say that I hate bats. I am not afraid of mice (besides their uncleanness), but I cannot tolerate bats in my house. When I redid my front Entry Hall, I had left the top of the door framing open, to continue it later. Oops. So, any wall-removal that we do must be replaced very quickly, or the room must be completely sealed off and then scoured for lurking bats.
  • Sagging and twisting. This isn’t as much a problem for me. What old house is not sagging or twisting? But, because the long studs support the entire load of the house, we must take great care that studs do not twist or bend. It has not helped that previous owners have carelessly hacked and chipped at the studs in order to install an electric receptacle box here or furnace vent there (some fools even cut out large chunks of the foundation sill to install ducts). When we finally do open up the walls, I do wonder how much of the structural support of the studs has been compromised. In every area that I have opened up so far, I have found transgressions of this sort. Therefore, we must have a stash of “emergency” studs to sister to any compromised framing. Anything can happen once we remove three tons of lathe and plaster and flooring!

So…. balloon-framing, for all its hype at the time, has turned out to be problematic. It seems to be plagued with more problems than stick-framing, and is less-sturdy than post-and-beam. I hear that balloon-framing is the structure of choice for metal-stud homes, and that sounds like it works better than with wood.

I think it’s important to know what kind of structure your house is before you start tearing away at it. For one, I want my efforts to be long-lasting and sturdy. Two, I would have appreciated it if previous homeowners had been more careful, caring, and fore-sighted about the work they had done. After all, I am living with their successes and their errors. So, I am trying to keep future homeowners in mind as we do this.

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