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RetroTread Stairs — I Like This!

August 13, 2012

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In the near future, I have to replace my staircase. Several of the treads and risers are cracked, and previous owners have painted the stairs to oblivion. I’m sure the things are loaded with lead paint. :-p Eventually, I’ll have to rebuild the staircase *shudder*. I happened upon this video while doing a little preliminary research. I like these!

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102 Years Later… New Windows!

March 17, 2012


…my living room has new windows!

I’ve endured these old windows for a long time. When we first moved here, we got a few new replacement windows to replace the broken ones. The remaining windows had to wait until we had the cash to buy new ones. I reached my tolerance level last year, when these old windows developed icicles on the panes in the winter and no longer kept the bugs out in the summer. It was almost better to have an open hole in the wall than these old windows!


They would no longer hold paint. I had painted them and painted them, but every year the paint peeled off. Time to replace.


These windows are not original to the house. They were installed in 1910 or so, after the builder died and his housekeeper bought the place. She did many “improvements,” such as replacing the old 9/6 windows and painting over the beautiful Black Walnut trim in the living room. šŸ˜

Garage Window

This is one of the original windows, protected behind a storm window. They are called 9/6 because they have 9 panes on the top and 6 on the bottom. Hstorians can determine the age of a home by inspecting window styles.


Well, after 100 years, the windows have reached the end of their life span. (Actually, they reached the end of their life span about 25 years ago). On with the new.

The hardest part of replacing the windows is removing the old. We have to cut through the paint seal (more like HACK THROUGH the paint seal) and pull off the sash stops and the parting stops. 160-year old wood does not like being removed, you know that?


You have to be very, very careful with this kind of job. Old timers put all sorts of toxins in their paints back then. We had to clear the living room, cover everything with sheets, and make sure no one spread any of the paint chips or dust. I frequently misted a spray bottle to keep the dust from flying around.


Another problem was fitting the window into the existing frame. The height and length were very good, but the depth of the window gave us trouble. The old sill was too narrow for the thick replacement window. Our only option was the chisel away the 3/16-inch wood off the sill.


AH! Success!

We got two out of the three done so far. One more goes in the living room, and then it’s to the upstairs. And because we had to remove the old window stops and chisel the sill, I also have some patching up and molding replacement to do. But it is SO GOOD to have new windows!


Windows are not difficult to replace yourself. Oh sure, you can pay a professional, but expect the bill to be twice the amount. I figured that our labor was worth $100 an hour. we just watched a few instructional videos on the computer, read a DIY book, and away we went. It’s not that difficult. The hardest part is making sure you measure for the new windows accurately and removing the old window…. And containing the mess!

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We Got the Windows!

January 24, 2012


It’s been about 15 years, but we finally got the new windows! Hurray for us! We’d ordered them a long time ago, and they came in yesterday. We didn’t get replacements for every window in the house (sheesh, this house has a ton of windows!) but there are enough for now. I’ve never installed new windows so it will be quite the adventure.

Oh wait. I did install a window before– a brand new window. In the kitchen! How could I forget! It was only two years ago.

This was the original window in the kitchen. It was installed in 1972, when the previous owners remuddled the kitchen into an orange and brown 1970s funk extraordinaire. The window was wood with an aluminum frame. I had warped so badly that I could not open it. Imagine– the only tiny window in the entire kitchen and it’s stuck shut! Painful, indeed!

Ugliest Kitchen2

We removed the piece of junk in summer of 2010. What a glorious day. šŸ™‚

Removing Old Window2

I ripped open the wall (which was severely rotten from water damage) and discovered some water damage and poor remodeling from previous owners. They had cut into floor joists to fit plumbing pipes and the beam that held up this part of the wall. I decided to rebuild the entire section of the wall.

Window Open

It was my masterpiece. I built it to perfection. The window frame not only had to house the window, but it had to hold up this portion of the wall, which was sagging. I made the frame very sturdy.

Window Rough Framing

This is one of the greatest sights for a DIY homeowner.

Its Level

The running gag around the house was that a tornado could rip through the town and level every single house, but my window frame would still be standing. šŸ™‚

I never got photos of us installing the actual window because it took the entire family to haul the thing into the opening, level it, shim it, and nail it down. As soon as it was up, though, Livvy hopped up for her inspection.

Window Int

I installed trim in a Greek Revival design that reflects the rest of the house.


The new window gives off a lot of light. It’s glorious having such a bright, airy kitchen!


Of course, the new windows I just got for the living room are a totally different animal than this kitchen window. The new ones are vinyl REPLACEMENT window– the kitchen was a “new construction” window with nail flanges. For a vinyl replacement window, you have to fit the boxy frame directly into the existing window frame. I’ve never done it before. I’ve already done some studying and have watched some good videos about the process. *cracks knuckles* We’ll probably get the windows installed next week. I’ll be sure to let you know! We have to install a few on the second story of the house, so I would sure appreciate your prayers! šŸ™‚

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How to Remove Plaster and Lathe

August 16, 2011


Believe it or not, there’s a system to removing plaster and lathe from old walls and ceilings. Oh, sure, you could simply get your hammer or crowbar and start blasting away. But plaster and lathe demolition is horribly, horribly dirty. Horribly. You think you have the furniture in the next room protected with plastic sheeting? Ha ha ha! Get your duster ready. We live in our house as we wreck it room by room, and try to be very careful with our demolition. And even after all our sealing the heat vents, duct-taping doors and boxes with plastic sheeting, and gearing up in heavy clothing and bandannas, we still walk out of the room at the end of that day caked in dust.Ā  The stuff is just so pervasive.

Plaster Removal UGH

Even so, there IS a way to reduce the mess. My methods are tried and true. šŸ˜€ Someone may have a better method (I’ve yet to see it) but this works, so far, for us.

1. Remove all the plaster FIRST. Then remove the lathe.

If you remove the plaster and lathe on one wall all at once, you’ll wind up with a big, dangerous mess. Lathe will be everywhere with plaster sections collapsed all around it. And since lathe contains nails — if your home is old, the nails will be old and rusty — the material is serious safety hazard. It’s best to first remove the plaster and shovel up the debris, THEN remove the lathe and pick up the wood.

Its Pink

By the way, YES, that IS a salmon pink ceiling. It was underneath a drop ceiling we removed. The trim in this room had once been mustard yellow....


2. Start small. then work in “sheets.”

You only need to create a small hole at first, and then a narrow strip. I always begin in the center of a wall, so I can have two people removing plaster from each side.

I start by pounding a hole in the center of the wall with a hammer. Then, I chip a long, narrow strip from the ceiling to the floor.

Wiring 2

3. Use a spade to cut off large sheets of plaster from the lathe.

Don’t use a crowbar or hammer to remove the plaster from the lathe. You’ll wind up with a mushroom cloud of plaster dust over your home! A spade is a small shovel with a flat blade. By the way, DON’T use a typical shovel for removing plaster, either. The rounded end, so perfect for digging holes, will only shear off a tiny portion of the plaster. It’s not worth all that effort.

My spade is very short, about 3 feet high. It has a grippy-type handle, and it’s perfect for removing large sections of plaster quickly and easily. Insert the end of the spade into the narrow strip of plaster you’d made with the crowbar. If the plaster is really sticking to the lathe behind it, you’ll need to ram the spade in. Now chisel the spade in between the plaster and lathe, to separate the plaster from the lathe. You may need to gently push up on the plaster with the spade, to force the plaster to break away from the lathe but not break off. The plaster will fall off in large sheets and the work will go much more quickly.

4. Keep the room tidy.

That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? But the goal here is safety. And morale. NOBODY like slogging into a filthy workplace. Chop off large sections of plaster, and have a few folks pick up the plaster sections as you go along. We used a gravel shovel (another flat-ended shovel, but much more weighty) to shovel plaster into large garbage cans.

If you pick up the plaster as you go along, it will help reduce dust. You will not need to crunch over mountains of plaster to get to the next section. And believe me– shoveling up crunched and compacted plaster is a LOT more difficult than shoveling up freshly-removed sections of it.

DR Ceiling Down

Cleaning the room at the end of the work day did wonders for the morale, too. I found that we were much more likely to start the day with a little more vim and vigor when we entered a clean room to start our work than to begin in a room that was trashed. We lived in the house as we worked, so it was important to keep things clean.

Kitchen Gutted

5. Use a spray bottle with water.

It may sound corny, but it helped reduce the dust for us. When the dust in the air got too messy, we used a spray bottle filled with clean water to mist the air. The droplets of water grabbed the dusty particles and the weight of gravity forced it to the floor. Now, it’s important to go easy on the water, or you’ll end up with a muddy pool of plaster in your home.

6. Set a goal, every day.

My modus operandus for a day was to set a goal first thing in the morning, and that included cleanup. When we gutted our kitchen and dining room, I gave us one day to do half the kitchen (three walls) and a second day to do the other half (the fourth wall and the ceiling). It helps keep you focused, so the demolition doesn’t drag on forever. It’s very physical, laborious work. At the end of the day, we were EXHAUSTED. But settings goals helped, because we knew we HAD to have our house back again, and fast.


7. Be prepared for surprises.

I suppose every old-house home owner has stories to tell about what they find in their walls– old bones, newspapers, wayward toys, etc. We’ve seen all that. I was surprised to discover very old Art Deco wallpaper (hand painted!!) behind the chimney, though.

Wallpaper ddown

Wallpaper Display

We also discovered some less encouraging things. Someone years before had “capped” the exhaust to an old stove pipe with plaster, inserted a few old broken brick bits, and plastered over that. Over time, the plaster capping the exhaust vent cracked, allowing carbon monoxide from the furnace and water tank to seep into the room. *sigh*

Stove Pipe Hole

We’ve also found a rainbow of weirdo colors, a kind of historic home diary left behind by previous homeowners.

Be prepared for other strange things, too. I found studs filled with soft bricks on all exterior walls. No contractor or carpenter I spoke with knew what it was. They attributed it to “old timers” and their odd building practices… but I later found out that this brick is called “noggin.” It may have been used as a insulator (unlikely, in my opinion), but most probably as a fire stop, since my home is a balloon frame home.

I hope these tips have helped you some. Good luck on your project!

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My Before, During, and After Story, Part 2

November 16, 2010


Over the summer, we gutted our kitchen and dining room, and replaced the entire electrical system and water supply system. Read Part 1 of our story here.

Redoing the electrical system in this house was harrowing, but not as harrowing as in 2007, when I had replaced the living room and bedroom wiring– for now I knew what to expect. The wiring was probably installed here in the 1920s, judging by the knob and tube system and the hardware used. It had been added to over the years– very piecemeal– and by the time I opened a wall in 2007, it was a disaster. Wires were bare, chewed by mice, spliced with tape… and every once in a while, we found a buried junction box when we opened a wall.

Hidden Junction Box

An inaccessible junction box is a code violation and fire hazard.

Crazy Old Wiring

Because I could find no electrician to assist me, I studied at night and rewired the house by day. I even learned to install circuit breakers in the service panel. The electrical inspector […]

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Easy Pediments For Greek Revival Homes

September 17, 2010


My 1855 home was constructed in the Greek Revival style, a popular architectural style in Upstate New York from the 1840s to the 1860s. Even though my home is a modest home, the builder didn’t shirk from adding a few subtle but beautiful Greek Revival elements here. This is a photo of the original 1855 trim in the dining room.


Simple, but nice, don’t you think? Unfortunately, I could not salvage the original trim. It was encapsulated with lead paint, and was pitted horribly. It would take a whole lotta acne scar cream to fix those pits, baby. So I decided to get rid of it, and construct my own. Here’s how we did it.

First, I cut basic 1×6 lumber into a triangular shape. I didn’t take photos of all the complexities, but here’s a quick rundown of how I did it. I measured the length of the framing (a window or a doorway), and added more length for the fluted trim on each side (totaling 6.25 inches, in this case), plus a half-inch extra on each side. So if a window was 33 inches wide, I added 7.25 inches to that measurement, to account for the additional fluted trim and a slight overhang of the pediment on each side of the trim. I cut my board to this length; I then measured the center of the board, and measured four inches up on each side of the board– this made my triangle, and I cut it with the circular saw.

Make Pediment1

I decided to use pre-primed beaded corner for the pediment top.

In order to create a tight butt joint where the beaded corner would meet in the middle, I would have to cut the beaded corner ends at angles. So I measured each side of the pediment board with my angle tool to find the angle size.

Make pediment2

I then transferred this angle measurement to my miter saw. I LOVE my laser guide light.

Make pediment3

I then cut the beaded corner at the angle. It makes a perfect angle at the top of the triangle.
I did it again for the other side of the pediment.

Make pediment4

I then placed them together at the vertex of the pediment board. The trim boards have a nice, tight joint.

Make pediment5

Make pediment6

I then glued the beaded corner down, pre-drilled holes to avoid the wood from splitting, and nailed the pieces together.

Make pediment7

Voila! I have a simple pediment replacement. Add some fluted trim, some glossy paint, and I’ve got a Greek Revival window.


Photo taken before trim was painted.

This kind of carpentry work is not difficult at all, and it looks SO MUCH better than the cookie-cutter modular-home, basic casing trim that so many homes have. The trim work, even such basic trim as I have detailed here, adds so much to the house. We painted it this evening (haven’t taken any photos yet) and the trim looks absolutely fabulous, just so classy. I’ll post the photos when I get them. Little touches like these make all the difference!

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Renovation Allows You to Build Quirky Things

August 28, 2010


One of the best things about renovating an old house is all the quirky stuff you can do, now that the walls are open. It makes all the blood, sweat, toil, and tears worth it.

Previously, there was a make-shift pantry “closet” under the stairs. I disliked it, because you had to squeeze around a corner of a wall to get into it (and if you tried to use that section of the kitchen for a fridge or to store boxes, you could not access the stair pantry at all). It had no light, was cramped, and was ugly. I vowed I’d totally close up and waste the floor space before I rebuilt that horrible alcove.

When designing for the new kitchen, I decided to utilize the same space, but make the access from the open side wall of the stairs that faces the kitchen, and not from under the stairs.


Old Entrance to Closet. You can see all the kitchen floor space that was wasted just to get IN there.

So we’ve been working on a few creative ideas for this unusual spot beneath the stairs. For one, I wanted a tall, narrow pantry between two studs. It’s VERY tall, and VERY narrow, alright!

Building Pantry


Narrow Pantry

I’m not very concerned that it is so deep. I know there’s the possibility that boxes or cans will be pushed to the back, lost forever… but I don’t care; I need the space. I’ll get one of those grasper-things on a long pole to reach the backseat cans. Or I’ll only stuff big items back there. Whatever. I like the quirkiness of the pantry. šŸ˜€

Next to the pantry shelf, we’ll be placing a large cabinet box with slide-out trash cans. This is a little trickier, because I have to design the cabinet and the various shelves within it all. More to come on this project, later.

So, now this is how the tall pantry shelf is developing. I have to even things out, install trim around the wood to cover holes and straighten the appearance, and of course I need to work on the larger cubby hole to the left… but things are coming along.


Anyway, it’s little things like this that make renovating an old house fun. I’m also going to create a time capsule box with a newspaper, a Bible, and perhaps a note, and place it in one of the interior wall studs should a future remodeler find it. Although, to even consider that someone may rip all this out someday in the future makes me very queasy…

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The Makings of a Broom Closet

July 30, 2010


Since I had to change my initial plans and install a full wall (instead of a half wall) in the kitchen, I decided to make lemonade with lemons. A little background: after opening up a wall that the kitchen and conjoining dining room share, we decided it looked great, and wanted to keep the area open, with just a half wall/pass-through type of deal. However, I discovered that I had nowhere else to place the refrigerator, so we had to rebuild a full wall. šŸ™ The wall is a thick void, built to house a huge cast iron drainpipe in the corner. The rest of the wall is just wasted space. So I decided (on a whim) to bust out the dining room side of the void, and install a broom closet next to the bathroom door. I have NO IDEA how to make these things… after a little thinking, I just started whacking, lol. It didn’t turn out half bad…

I don’t know if you can tell in the photo, but here I removed a wall stud and installed a header about 7 feet up.


Then, I installed blocking to support the plywood walls I would soon insert.

Broom Closet_3

The blocking is a little haphazard. I wanted to use up the scraps of wood we had lying around the house. It doesn’t look pretty, but it works. AND it uses up the scraps instead of wasting them.


I had to meticulously measure the plywood panels and nail them in, to create a box. That bottom piece is a small scrap piece of expensive plywood that would have otherwise been tossed out.


We installed sheetrock around the walls.


Now, I have to find some doors for the thing. I didn’t take into consideration that I might not be able to find doors that fit such an odd measurement (the opening is 22 inches wide and 78 inches high). I may have to make my own, or buy two small stock doors and fit them in just right. The dining room walls will be deep red, so I expect I will stain the doors a cherry or mahogany color.

I’ll have a small shelf or two at the top, to hold various household stuff, like vacuum cleaner belts, light bulbs, etc. Our house has virtually no storage space (the basement floods and we have no attic space for storage), so little closets and cabinets around the house are valuable real estate.

In other news, we are FINALLY making progress with the sheetrock. WHAT a job. It’s just my daughter and I right now. We hope to have a small crew here Sunday to complete the job (am praying). If all goes well, next week we spackle and paint. Then— CABINETS!!!!!!

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“Where Have You BEEN?!”

June 21, 2010


Oh my word. After a frenetic flurry of posts for the past few weeks, I see that I haven’t said a peep here in a WEEK! I am still here! I have been busy, as usual. But I did get a break for half a day. šŸ˜€ It was definitely too short.

When I last left off, we had an inspector here, from the local codes department. He told us a few things:

We could leave the plumbing in place, if we wanted to. It was old, but the drains were “grandfathered in” and the copper pipes looked OK. Still, we decided to re-do the water supply, with PEX. The copper is very old, especially in the upstairs bathroom above the kitchen. And I’m uncomfortable leaving the old pipes in after we install the new kitchen below it. Plus, the washer, kitchen, and dishwasher all need brand-new lines. So we’re redoing it all, using a PEX manifold system in the basement.

The inspector said that the rough framing all looked good, except for one thing: with our new partition walls, we created a “chase” which is a fire hazard. A chase is basically a tunnel through which air drafts (and fires) run up through the walls between the studs and into the joists, unimpeded. Balloon framing itself is such a hazard because of the chases– the studs are straight up from foundation sill plate to the attic rafters. Fire stops are required. The inspector said that sheetrock would be fine. So that’s what we did.


I have to make an appointment with the electrical inspector. Of course, we have to wire all the electric in first, haha. It’s time-consuming.


Half the time is spent figuring out how to get the wires where we need to place them. Wow, it’s tougher than you think. We have all sorts of impediments– 8-inch beams, brick nogging, 10-inch sill plate… whew. The other half of the job is spent drilling holes and running wire. It’s very easy to box things in and strip the wires/connect them.


We also have to build out various walls. To build them out is to add an additional layer of wood in the existing studs. This gives you more room for the narrow electrical boxes, and for the addition of insulation. It does add to the expense. My ceilings are over 9 feet high, so I have to buy the 10-foot studs and waste 1 foot of them. :S


And we’re still doing dishes by hand, in the old sink.


But not for long! TWO MORE MONTHS til I have a dishwasher!!! I haven’t operated a dishwasher in 28 YEARS, people!! It will be glorious.

By the way, my daughter doe snot wear glasses– those are fake. She was acting a “nerd.” LOL. Anything to make the dish-washing fun, I guess. Because right now, it’s NOT.

We also have ELECTRICITY in the upstairs bathroom!!! Woooooohooo! The first time in 3 years! We have a working light with a SWITCH! We have a GFCI outlet! And we have a newly installed medicine cabinet. I tell ya, modern living is RICH people, RICH.

This week on the schedule:

Wire the son’s bedroom upstairs*
Wire the bathroom ventilation fan/light fixture*
Install electrical boxes for kitchen, to prepare for the wires coming in
Prepare washing machine for plumbing area
Insulate above small area above dining room that leads into the garage
Install wiring for exterior light and switch
Install dryer vent hole through the wall
Install stove range hood vent hole through the wall
Buy more supplies
Do the plumbing (The Hubs is handling most of this)

* I have to go into The Attic to do this. Cry with me, my friends. It is a HORROR up there! šŸ™ šŸ™

More to come!

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Livvy’s Window is IN!

June 14, 2010


It seemed to take FOREVER!!! But we have the kitchen window installed. And it is beautiful!!

Yesterday, we spent many long, arduous hours on it.

Window Workers

Demolition is easy. Demolition is always easy.

Window Open

It’s rigging up new stuff to the old that is NOT so easy. Nothing “matches” anymore. A 2×6 in 1855 was a literal 2×6. Today, it’s a 1.5 x 5.5 :-p So of course, we have to shim everything under the sun and then some, to get everything level. And that wasn’t even possible (getting things level). In the end, we just “winged” it. šŸ˜€

Today, the window went in! The siding is a disaster, and I have yet to slap something up over the tar paper… and paint it… but the window is in! It’s in! And Livvy is very happy.

Window Ext

Window Int

We had the town codes guy stop in to inspect our rough framing. I’ll have more on that later. And the old toilet broke today, leaked everywhere. I had purchased two new ones a while back, so The Hubs got to install the new one today. It looks great! Thank God I had the new one on hand!

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