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.


Jaysan said...

And now I know first hand why you are doing all the work, the house is beautiful!

Anonymous said...

can we paint over the asbestos shingles on our house? They also appear to have a little black stuff on them.

Mr. Kluges said...

I've seen some information out there on how to clean asbestos shingles to kill lichens and moss, but I've never seen anybody talk about painting them. I'd think that it'd be hard to get the paint to adhere and I think that all the movement on the roof would likely knock the shingles loose or break them. Let me know if you have any luck.