Monday, October 29, 2007


In the blogosphere, there are three frequently recurring steps, although I'm not sure that everyone recognizes that they are doing it. First is the apology.

"Ok everyone, I'm sorry I haven't written in so long."

Next are the excuses and the justifications.

"I just don't know where the time has gone. I've been so busy. My mom has been staying with us for the last week and a half, I had classes last week and we had friends visiting this weekend. I really had no idea that it's been two weeks since I last posted."

Then is the exposition (which this is). This post is going to be a long one, with many ramblings and non sequiturs. So sit down, grab a cup of coffee or tea or whatever suits and relax if you are in this for the long haul.

First off, the missus has spoken at some length about all of the work that my mom has done over the last 10 days, but I think it's necessary (for posterity’s sake) to discuss in greater detail.

As a preface, I do want to say that having children really, really decreases your productivity. That's the only way that I can still keep any semblance of pride around my parents. They are 20+ years older than I am and right on the cusp of retirement age, but the sheer amount of work that they get done in a day puts me to shame. Please keep this in mind when reading about the work accomplished recently.

When we purchased the House of 42 Doors, every room had some cracks in the walls. Most of them are very small, no larger than one sixteenth of an inch. And some had cracked or slightly fallen ceilings. Since almost all of the building is still lathe and plaster, this was expected.

I did my research to make sure there was nothing unusual about patching plaster walls. It looked pretty straight forward. General recommendations suggested widening the crack slightly and undercutting it, into the shape of a keyhole. Then add plaster. Let dry. At this point, there was some disagreement as to whether to use fiberglass tape or standard sheetrock tape. Then feather the edges out, let dry and sand down smooth. Add final coat, let dry and do final sanding. I had patched sheetrock in the past and I'd always done a pretty crummy job, so I was a little uptight about doing this myself. I chose one of our kid's rooms upstairs so that if I screwed up, it wouldn't be that noticeable.

It seemed odd to me that you'd make the crack wider before patching, after all, aren't you trying to fix the crack? If you need stitches, the doctor doesn't start by make the cut wider. But, putting my faith in the power of the information found on the Internet, I widened the cracks. That was easy. Then before plastering, I needed to wet down the lathe and plaster. I guess dry lathe and plaster will draw moisture out of the new plaster and this can cause problems with curing. Well, that makes sense.

So, taking squirt bottle in hand, I pull the trigger. Squirt, squirt, squirt. You know how sometimes big things are caused by tiny little actions? The proverbial butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane around the globe? Those three squirts led to a lot of work. Once I was done squirting, I went and mixed up some plaster. I packed the crack full of plaster and noticed that some of the paint was starting to peel up. I grabbed a piece and pulled it, expecting a small piece to come off. Imagine my surprise when a piece about four inches wide and a foot long came off. And there was still more loose paint, so I started pulling that up too. I distinctly remember standing back and looking at the wall with about six or seven square feet of paint stripped off and thinking "I'm going to regret doing this." Then, like a fool, I started pulling more off.

Pulling the paint off at first, was fun, kind of like pulling the skin off after a bad sunburn. A few searches online, quickly showed that the walls had been painted with calcimine paint. Calcimine is an old, chalk and water based paint. New plaster walls are supposed to cure for up to a year before they are painted, but calcimine can be used right away. Often, people would build a house, plaster the walls, wait a few weeks and then throw on some calcimine. After some time, they could wash off the calcimine or paint over it, when the plaster had fully cured.

The problem is that as the calcimine ages, the binding agent in the “paint” starts to fail, and if any water or moisture gets between the calcimine and the plaster, it starts to release. If someone paints with latex paint, the water in the latex paint penetrates to the calcimine, and then the paint starts falling off on its own. It's almost impossible to paint over calcimine with latex. It might be possible to paint over it with oil based paints, depending on how thick the paint is, but there's no guarantee. Of course, if you could find more calcimine paint, you could paint over calcimine with more calcimine, but it's a hard paint to find and it’s basically chalk. Rubbing against it results in it coming off. Not ideal for walls.

The best solution is to scrape off the existing oil or latex paint, then wash off as much of the calcimine as possible. Once the plaster is bare (or mostly bare), prime with a special primer. Then paint as desired. I knew all this when my mom came up the first time to paint, but I don't think I explained it very well.

When she started painting a different bedroom, she saw a small corner of paint coming up. Thinking that maybe she could just flake it off and then paint over it, she pulled...and a huge sheet of paint came up. Then she pulled some more and some more, at which point I came in to see how she was doing. I was less than pleased to see that now we had two rooms to wash down to bare plaster, but I did have to laugh to see that my mom fell victim to the same insanity that I did. "Just pull a little bit here..."

Our bedrooms are not large. They average only 12' by 12'. To give an idea of how long it takes to fix these rooms properly, it takes about ten hours to scrape off the old latex/oil paint. Removing the calcimine paint takes about twenty hours. Patching the walls and ceiling takes about two hours. Priming the bare plaster walls takes about six hours. Painting the trim and the ceiling is probably another eight hours. Applying the final coat of paint takes about four more hours. To paint one 12' by 12' room, it took about 50 man hours, probably more since my mom had intermittent help from my wife and me as we wrangled kids and worked on other projects. We also did not wash the ceilings back to bare plaster. We may have to do that someday.

Towards the end, we did find a short cut, so for anyone out there cursed with calcimine, take note of this. Use wheat wallpaper paste, or if that's unavailable, make a water flour paste and apply it directly (and thickly) to the calcimine. Wait until it is nearly dry, and then scrape it off again. It makes a big mess, but the paste binds to the calcimine and helps pull it off the plaster. When we do the other rooms (someday), we'll do it this way:

1) Remove all loose paint by pulling it off (the fun part)
2) Scrape off all remaining latex/oil paint (being careful to contain potential lead paint)
3) Apply wheat paste to calcimine
4) Scrape off wheat paste after allowing to dry
5) Use a sponge/scrubby to wash off the remaining calcimine
6) Let dry for two to three days
7) Apply primer
8) Paint

It's a real pain, but to see gray, raw plaster is truly beautiful. To see the original texture put in place by craftsman almost 90 years ago, and to know that we are taking care of something built well is very satisfying. Interestingly, one bedroom was painted a baby blue, walls and ceiling. The other was painted a dark forest green.

Going back to the work my mom did. In the course of the 10 days, she removed the calcimine and painted two of the four bedrooms, painted all ceilings on the second floor (about 1200 square feet), painted our bedroom, the sewing room, the hallway and two closets. Remember what I said about children decreasing productivity.

It's worth mentioning that for the other bedrooms, the sewing room and the hallway, nobody pulled on ANY loose paint. It was painted over with a silent prayer that it would hold. We'll address other rooms as time allows; perhaps one or two rooms a year.

We continue to play the waiting game with the sewer and electric. The electrician should be starting this week. The house is prepped for him. I cut out a channel in the sidewalk for the new, underground 200 amp service. Like everything else in this house, busting out the sidewalk proved difficult. They used rebar in the sidewalk. Stupid rebar. I also found an old sidewalk in the back yard under nine inches of dirt that I needed to bust out for the underground service. At least that was rebar free.

The roof is moving up the priority list too. The shingles on it are the original 1921, cement asbestos shingles. We were hoping that we could get by for a few years with the existing roof, but it is becoming more and more apparent that it's going to need to be replaced next year. Every year the PO (previous owner) would use a small board on a long stick to push the shingles that had slid out of place back into place.

Originally, the shingles were held in place by small nails that have failed in several places. Now only the weight of the shingle above holds the one below in place. IANAR (I am not a roofer), but using gravity to hold shingles in place does not sound like a good idea to me. The flashing around both chimneys is also leaking. And the gutters are shot on the north and south west sides of the house. This means that next year is going to be the year of the roof and gutter. The quote we got for the removal of the asbestos roof came in at about $4 a square foot, which seemed reasonable enough though.

We did have a roofer come and replace two shingles that had fallen out. In the process, he broke (and repaired) four more. Even if the shingles were in good shape (which they aren't), I'm not sure that anyone in this area has the skill or knowledge to repair or maintain the existing roof. Trying to find roofing that can replace our existing shingles and retain the original look is going to be difficult.

We've also had two consecutive days with no mice. I plugged a few holes with steel wool, fiberglass AND expansive foam over the last week and a half. Hopefully nothing can get through that. I'm sure I missed some holes though. The current rodent count is 38.

Wheh! A lot happens in two weeks. I should write more often.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hats off to the coal miners of the world...

Father in law (Fil) and Mother in law (Mil) were here over the weekend to visit and help with the house. It was a good visit and much appreciated. Much work was done.

Last week, we had a good planning meeting with the electrician to go over the house and what he needed to do. Steve seems to be perfect for the job. He's near retirement and has rewired lots of old houses. He claims 150 to 200. The experience is certainly there. There is only one thing I'd fault him on. We talked to him about re-using some of the original light fixtures and switches and he balked. He didn't say he wouldn't do it, just that he wouldn't recommend it, mostly because new switches are more reliable and have a smaller footprint than the old ones. All true, but they don't make anything anymore that even looks like the old ones.

There were a few items that I came away with as my responsibility. The first was to talk to the power company to get our electrical upgraded to 200 amp, underground service. Currently it's only 100 amp, above ground. I had erroneously assumed that our electrician would take care of all that. So now I'm trying to coordinate between the electric company, the electrician and the village inspector (who thankfully seems in no way related or connected to the village idiot). It seems that the electrical company won't schedule excavation until the electrician has put in the new pedestal and the village inspector has approved it. The electrician won't put in the pedestal until the electric company has scheduled an excavation date. I gave the electrician the number for the person I'm dealing with at the electrical company, so hopefully that will be the sword to cut that Gordian knot.

I also need to cut away and remove a piece of concrete sidewalk two feet by four feet. This will be my first opportunity to use a concrete saw. Should be interesting, to say the least. Thankfully, there's a rental place nearby where I can get it for about $60 a day.

The last bit led to this weekend's work. Two of the rooms in the basement were finished off with a lathe and plaster ceiling; the boiler room and a work room/cistern pump room. The plaster had fallen off of about 20% of the ceiling and about half of it was cracked or sagging. It was certainly repairable, although, it would have taken a fair amount of work. Sadly, though since the ceiling was applied directly to the ceiling joists, leaving it in place meant the electrician had no access to the main floor. No access means no electric. So it all had to come down. I really didn't want to do that, but there was really no way to rewire the first floor without taking the ceiling out, so Fil and I took it down on Saturday.

The job was the dirtiest job that I can remember doing, ever. The boiler room was originally heated by a coal furnace, so in addition to 86 years of dust, insect bodies, mouse poop, spiders and dirt, there was also a lot of coal dust and soot up above the ceiling. Then we had to haul out the lathe and plaster to the dumpster I lined up on Friday. Both Fil and I wore full face masks to filter the air, but I coughed up black gunk for two days straight. When we were done we looked like coal miners. The neighbors came over around supper time to bring us supper (really great neighbors - I'll blog about some time). They didn't stick around long - I think they were afraid that we'd put them to work or get them dirty.

The amount of waste lathe and plaster makes is astounding. I had read somewhere that you should figure just under 1 cubic foot for every square foot demolished. I thought that sounded ridiculous. I'm a believer now. We didn't find any treasure in the ceiling (unfortunately), but we did make one discovery. All the lathe in the ceiling downstairs appeared to be oak.

Ten hours of working above my head pulling down the ceiling almost killed me, so Sunday was a bit more relaxed. We put the storm windows back on and I finished up the second coat of plaster in the bathroom. We should be able to repair the shower tiles in the next week or so.

Ma will be here for the next week to help finish stripping off the calcimine paint and then patch, prime and paint the walls in the girls' rooms. We may also paint the the upstairs hallway.

And the current mouse count is 31. Anyone know if mice reproduce faster than 7 a week? Because I'd think that sooner or later we'd get ahead of them.

Friday, October 12, 2007


One of the many, many things that appealed to us about the House of 42 Doors is that it is on the National Register of Historic Places. From the website:

"The National Register of Historic Places is the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archaeological resources."

This was very clearly spelled out in the conditions report provided to prospective buyers and I believe it was also one of the things that scared away a lot of those same prospective buyers. There is a common misconception that a listing on the National Register means that you can't do anything with your property; that you are somehow bound to living in a museum. Or that if you do want to make a change, you need to scrape and bow before some committee of gray bearded academics who require extensive knowledge of 19th century plastering techniques. "Yes, but what kind of horse hair should you use in the plaster? Plow? Quarter? Arabian?"

As I did some research, I found out that nothing could be further from the truth. Digging around the Wisconsin Historical Society's website found this great FAQ. As long as the property is a privately owned residence, you can do whatever you want to; wrap it in siding, add a futuristic addition, paint it neon yellow, even knock it down and put a garage in it's place. It's your property. You can do what you want.

Having said that, nothing is ever what it appears. Different rules apply if the building is commercially or governmentally owned. Different states and cities may have laws that apply in addition to the national laws. There are government grants, loans and programs available to assist with properties on the National Register. Accepting or applying for those grants, loans or programs comes with conditions. I looked carefully at these programs to see if any would suit.

The state of Wisconsin has a program that gives private owners of historic properties a state tax credit for monies spent on restoration and repair. What qualifies is very clearly spelled out. Primarily it is structural and mechanical expenses that qualify. Cosmetic expenses generally do not qualify. It requires a minimum $10,000 investment spent over two years. There are forms to fill out. Pictures of before and after have to be provided. All work indicated on the forms must be completed in the two year time frame. If approval is granted, the owner has to maintain the property as a historic property for five years, otherwise the tax credit has to be paid back. If the house is sold prior to the five years, the tax credit has to be paid back. The work must be approved before it can be started, otherwise the tax credit won't be granted for those items already started.

Reading the fine print, I couldn't see anything in the program that made me uncomfortable. It looked like a great perk to owning the house. It might require us to use a higher quality of materials and workmanship than we normally would, but that's OK. The downside was that we had to identify all the projects that needed doing at the house, prioritize them and then get rough costs for each so that we would know what to put in the application. This has taken a lot of time. We met with electricians, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, handymen, masons, and restoration specialists over the last six weeks. We identified what projects we'd take on right away. And we applied for the state tax credit. And we waited.

Yesterday at the end of the day we got the official nod from the Wisconsin State Historical Society that our projects were approved! Which means finally after six weeks of waiting we can start lining up contractors and start the work. We'll be rewiring the entire house, or at least as much as we can without ripping into the plaster and we'll be replacing all of the sewer lines underneath the house and out to the lateral. And the best part is that we'll get a $0.25 tax credit on our state income taxes for every $1.00 spent.

We really should have focused on the roof and gutters first, as those are structural issues, but the sewer and electrical are required to make the place inhabitable. The gutters and roof will have to wait for next year. The application for the roof will be a bit tricky as it is a visual component of the house and will be subject to much closer scrutiny by the Historical Society. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Oh and the current mouse count is 28. We're getting ahead of them or they are getting tired of peanut butter.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

86 Years of Ash

Children make you inefficient and ineffective. That's the only way that I can explain how much my parents accomplished this weekend compared to what Ms. Huis and I accomplish in a weekend. Ma and pa visited this weekend, driving up on Friday and leaving on Monday. All day Saturday and Sunday were spent doing various projects at the House of 42 Doors.

The plan was to have ma paint Pumpkin's ceiling, woodwork and room. Pa and I would get the lawnmower (a found treasure) working, clean out the basement and plaster the shower. Ms. Huis was on kid wrangling duty.

It was a good weekend. Kids were wrangled, lawnmowers ran, showers were plastered and basements cleaned. Pumpkin's room didn't turn out quite as intended though (more on that later).

Some numbers from the weekend.

1 - the number of found mousetraps (yay!) and also the number of lost mousetraps (boo!)
3 - number of garage stalls full of the previous owner's stuff found in the attic and basement.
4 - number of inches of dried mud and dirt still at the bottom of the cistern (future project)
10 - number of gallons of dirt swept out of the basement
25 - percent off of paint at the local Sherwin Williams (yay for lucky coincidences!)
26 - Current mouse count
50 gallons - number of gallons of ashes dumped out from the fireplace

Has anyone ever come across the amount of ash that wood creates when it burns? Because I'd love to know how many cords of wood it takes to generate 50 gallons of ash. And the ash dump still isn't as clean as I'd like, but that was all I could comfortably reach. I may have been the first one to clean out the ash dump in 86 years.

Where does 10 gallons of dirt come from in a cement, hollow block basement? I could see if it were a dirt floor basement, but a fully contained, sealed basement? Where does that come from?

Yesterday was mouse free, but it's not really a fair comment as I only had two traps of the five set. I set all five last night. If they are empty today, I know I'm finally making progress.

As Ms. Huis stated in an earlier post, we are running into problems with calcimine paint. Calcimine is a paint that consists of chalk, water and gluing agents. As the gluing agents age and lose their strength, nothing painted over calcimine will stick.

When ma went to paint over the existing latex paint in Pumpkin's room, she noticed a small peeling corner. Thinking she'd just flake off a little bit of loose paint, she fell victim to the same sort of madness that seized me with Penguin's room. Next thing she knew, she had a whole wall of paint peeled off of Pumpkin's room.

Sunday was meant to be a painting day, but instead turned into a paint removal day. The current state is that now both of the girls' rooms are stripped down to calcimine. Penguin's room turned out to be a pleasant Mediterranean blue and Pumpkin's is a dark forest green. They both need to be washed down to the plaster, patched, primed and painted. Ugh.

Ma has been doing a lot of research on calcimine since she found out that we were dealing with it and has come up with some interesting ways of possibly dealing with it, everything from tape to wheat wallpaper paste. Once we've tested them all out, I'll do a post with our results so that some other poor bugger doesn't have to suffer through everything that we did.

Father in law (fil) and mother in law (mil) will be visiting this weekend. They saw the house at it's worst, just a few days before we took possession of it, so I'm hoping for some wow factor in all the work that's been done so far. I just won't show them the three car garage full of junk.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hopes Dashed!

We had a chimney sweep and a restoration expert come out to the house yesterday to examine the chimney and give opinions on restoring portions of the house (mainly the gutters and parts of the soffit). It was a conversation I've become accustomed to over the last month.

"Wow, what a great house! I never knew this house was here. Well, your _______ was very good for when it was built. I can't enforce modern day codes, but it really doesn't meet code. I'd repair/upgrade/replace it for __________."
(pause to see if I'm flinching)
"Wow, what a great house! Ok, thanks. Call me when you decide what you'd like to do."

But what is really, really, really disappointing about all of this is that yesterday I had to reset the Rodent counter back to 0. The last trap I checked (of 6) had one. My "Rodent Free for 2 Days" sign will just have to wait. My hopes are dashed.

On a slightly related note, I thought I would pass on this joke. One of the many treasures that we got with the house was a June, 1941 copy of Reader's Digest. This joke comes from it. Prices have been adjusted for inflation.

An optometrist was teaching his son how to become a successful optometrist. "Son, once a customer sits down and you've placed the glasses on him, he's going to ask how much they cost. Say to him 'Those glasses are $100.' Watch him carefully. If he doesn't flinch, say 'For the frames. The lenses are $100.' Wait a few seconds and see if he flinches again. If he doesn't, tell him 'Each.'"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

1 Days Rodent Free!

Yesterday was a momentous day. It is the first day that I can remember since we moved in and started setting traps that we didn't catch a mouse. Saturday was mouse free too, but we ended up finding a bat hanging from one of our doors, so it felt like a hollow victory. Yesterday was truly the first vermin free day. I'm holding my breath for today.

I told my wife yesterday that we should get a big work safety sign, like the ones they have on construction sites, only ours would say "____ Days Rodent Free!"

Work is progressing. We've had several contractors come out and quote on things, and we've decided the only major things we'll be tackling this year are rewiring the house and replacing the sewer line. The huge list of other things (roofing, repointing, gutter repair, porch leveling and floor leveling) will have to wait until next summer when the weather is more pleasant and our bank balance has replenished.

With any luck, we'll have the electrical and sewer done sometime by the end of October to mid-November. My timelines in the past have been hopelessly optimistic in the past, so we'll just have to see.

We had the radiator heating system examined and repaired. They bled the radiators too, so hopefully that will keep us comfortable this winter. Today a chimney sweep is coming out to look at our two chimneys. Here's hoping that he finds the chimneys functional. I'd love to have a cozy fire in the house around Thanksgiving.

I love fireplaces. Having a fire to sit around is just fantastic. I wanted a traditional fireplace in Ireland, one where I could burn peat, but Ms. Huis was adamant that with a small child, it was a bad idea. She also didn't like the smell. We ended up with a gas fireplace. Not as good as peat (to my mind), but still better than nothing. It was great to turn it on in the winter months.

Pity we can't find any peat here.