Friday, March 26, 2010

I'm Sorry, I Don't Speak Money

In the majority of cases, does good design, or beauty, by necessity have to be expensive? I could have asked, "Does good design, or beauty, by necessity have to be expensive?", but we don't live in a black and white world. Beauty can be free, but do we usually find it expensive to create?

Last Christmas, Ms. Huis bought a present from some online retailer and shortly thereafter received an e-mail indicating that our purchase had entitled us to a free one year subscription to one of the following magazines. Nothing on the list really caught her eye, but thinking of her husband (bless her soul), she chose a one year subscription of Architectural Digest, which bills itself as The International Magazine of Design.

I'm on my third month of the magazine now. The first month was enjoyable, but mid way through the second magazine, I began to feel a sense of unease. Something I couldn't quite put my finger on. By the third magazine, it became obvious what was bothering me about Architectural Digest.

There was an article about the design of a theater room. The kind that has a big screen, fancy electronics and a few rows of raised seating. A home theater room is something that has become more common over the years. It's the kind of room that you can find in a middle class household. Getting a professional designer to decorate said room is something I would expect ot see from those in the upper middle class or higher. We don't have have a theater room, but it is something I could see. Someday.

What took this article over the top though, was that this was about the interior design applied to a theater room.

On a yacht crewed by nine people.

This isn't upper middle class. This is money the likes of which I will never understand. I don't even know how to relate to it. Having sufficient money to not only own a yacht, but to also employ nine people full time to run it?

And in reviewing the design, I'm not sure if I can sift through the ostentatious glare to find those design elements that I could afford to apply in the first place.

Friday, March 12, 2010

William Foster

Sometime in the early 1860's my great, great grandfather, whose last name I bear, left his homeland. He boarded a ship bound for the United States. His ship's port of origin was likely Liverpool, Belfast or Dublin. He may have embarked in Dublin, which was just a day's journey from his native Wicklow county, or he may have journeyed across Ireland to the port city of Queenstown (now Cobh or Cove). The journey across the Atlantic was probably a long, unpleasant journey. Unlike many of my immigrant ancestors, John had two major advantages; he spoke English and had a skilled profession, blacksmithing.

John sailed across the ocean to work as a farrier for one of the many coal mines in Pennsylvania. This was at a time when mules were used to pull carts full of coal from the mines. The need to keep them shod and their hooves cared for must have been never ending. John probably also performed other blacksmithing duties as required. We have some evidence that at some point in his life he did some ornamental iron work. He didn't stay in Pennsylvania too long before he moved to Minnesota and started farming.

Several generations have gone by and now there is no one left in my family who knows a thing about blacksmithing. But that is going to change. As a teen I would often linger at fairs and festivals with blacksmiths. I remember in particular speaking with one smith and asking him if there was anywhere that someone could go to school to learn smithing as a trade. He responded that there was only one school he knew of in Kansas or Oklahoma, and that focused mainly on shoeing horses.

I realized right then that no matter how great my interest, there was no money to be made as a smith. And I moved on to other things. It never occurred to me that smithing could be a hobby. It seemed too big - too much to learn, too much equipment to buy and too much space needed. I guess I found it intimidating.

Then I met Yeti (not his real name) in college. He was a few years younger than I and had an interest in smithing. As the years have gone by, he's joined the local blacksmithing guild and has even been kind enough to host a few "Forge Weekends" where he invites people, gives them a hammer, an anvil and a forge and lets them try their hand at it. And he's good too. Ten year's ago he forged a massive unity candle stand for Ms. Huis and I for our wedding.

I went to Forge Weekend last year for the first time. I was hooked. Maybe it runs in our blood. Or maybe I'm just overly romantic about the past. In any case, last weekend I picked up this.

It's 103 pounds (roughly) and was made in 1848 by a company called William Foster. I am deeply amused to know that this anvil is old enough that my great, great grandfather could have worked on it. While the odds are a million to one, I can even imagine that this small portable anvil was one he may have used.

I'm still missing a few pieces before I can smith, namely a forge, a hammer and some iron, but I'll get there.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Scope Creep

Most of my blog entries are written over lunch at work. This works great except when work is so busy that I have to skip lunch. Work has been very busy the last few weeks. I try to work regular hours (07:00 to 16:00) and when the workload piles on, it means something has to give.

In February I had mentioned a post about scope creep. If you aren't familiar with scope creep, then you are fortunate enough to have never worked on projects in the corporate world. The meaning will be clear soon enough.

About a year ago I came home and Ms. Huis informed me that she had heard a loud thud from one of the windows in the dining room. It didn't take her long to deduce that the thud had come from a broken rope holding the sash weight for our double hung windows. The rope was likely the original one and after 88 years, it had frayed or rotted to the point that it couldn't hold the twenty pound steel weight on the other end.

This broken weight was like the proverbial flapping of the butterfly’s wings. I could have run down to the hardware store, bought a few dollars worth of cotton rope, reattached it to the window and the weight and been done with it. That would have been the sensible thing to do. If I had done that, I wouldn't be writing this.

It so happens that somewhat coincidentally, about the time this rope broke, I had just ordered and received a copy of Working Windows by Terry Meany. It's a great book for anyone with double hung windows. I won't go into the merits (and drawbacks) of old double hung windows here. That's cause for a whole post in itself and has been exhaustively argued in other places on the net. I will say though, that book does a great job explaining double hung windows and how they are put together.

So one July or August weekend last year, I opted to take apart our window with the broken sash weight. I noticed that both sashes needed to have putty reapplied in places. And they needed paint. So I put on our wooden storm window and took out the top and bottom sash. I put them in the basement, where I forgot about them all summer.

When winter came though, and I was looking for inside projects, these looked like a great project, so after about six hours I removed all the putty from the bottom sash, took out the glazing, lightly sanded the frame, put down a bed of putty, put the glazing back and then re-puttied the glazing. It was not enjoyable. When I looked at the top sash, which had eight panes of glass instead of one, I winced at the thought of re-puttying all those panes. They still need doing.

One of the things that has always bothered my about the dining room is that the original owners bothered to install a quarter-sawn oak floor, but opted to paint the trim. The house was set up to give clues to visitors as to when they were in a formal or informal room. Formal rooms were installed with quarter sawn oak and stained. Informal rooms were installed with birch flooring and the trim was painted white. The fact that the floor in the dining room was oak, but the trim was painted white was inconsistent, especially when there was a stained buffet along the north wall.

So one December weekend, I started ripping the trim off from around the windows. I thought I would strip it and refinish it. Then I noticed that due to the location of the radiator, the only way to get some of the baseboard trim off was if the window trim was off. Before I put the window trim back, I had to remove the baseboard and trim. And if I was going to take that off, I might as well take off the picture rail.

Stripping all of this myself would have taken a long time and probably exposed me and my family to lead paint and chemicals. So I opted to get the wood stripped professionally. I had the trim from around the window stripped first.

Here's a picture of the trim the day we last painted the dining room.

Here's a picture of the window after the trim was off.

And a picture after I stained, varnished and reinstalled the trim.

During all this time, another sash weight rope broke and fell, which means I'm contemplating putting in chains in place of rope for the sash weights. And the sashes should be weather stripped with spring bronze to decrease air infiltration. And of course we don't plan on keeping the sashes white, so those will need to be painted.

The picture rail I pulled down was not in very good shape. It was warped, nicked up and had one break in it that had been clumsily repaired. On top of that, while removing the nails in it, I broke a section of the picture rail (doh!). The picture rail profile matched the more informal picture rail upstairs. The first floor was also missing picture rail in the office, the kitchen and the entry way. So rather than pay to have the old picture rail stripped, we're opting to replace it with new, and install it in all of the above rooms.

When all of this is finished, we'll have a dining room with stained wood, picture rail in every room of the first floor, and double hung windows in the dining room that operate smoothly and are as energy efficient as traditional double hung windows can be. My guess is that it will end up costing just shy of $1000.

I think now that replacing the cotton rope might have been a better choice. Scope creep.