Monday, May 4, 2015

CSI: House

I haven't written here for some time because I haven't been working on the exterior restoration. I've been taking some time to catch up on all the things I have neglected for the past several years while I concentrated on the restoration work.

In the process of doing these other things, the garage, my base of operations, fell into such disarray that when I was ready to return to the restoration work, I found that my workshop had assumed the character of an archaeological dig. It is only this past week that I have at last dug down to the stratum containing all the tools and materials I use in the restoration work, so I expect that I shall be back out on the veranda roof soon.

Of course, along the way unexpected things cropped up, as they always do with any house. One happened just last week that bears retelling here, for it touches upon a subject I have visited many times in this blog.

It was late afternoon, and I had just come back into the house from a long day out in the garage. I ran upstairs to put something in the bathroom, and when I got there I heard a noise coming from the vicinity of the toilet. It was an odd, mechanical noise, hard to describe, but it sounded something like this: whirrrrrr TIC. . . whirrrr TIC. . . whirrrrrrrr TIC, over and over, with the length of the whirr varying randomly.

As I got closer to the noise, it sounded as if it were coming from the toilet tank, but a quick check inside revealed that the noise was in fact coming from inside the wall.

This immediately put me in mind of something I wrote way back in the early days of this blog, in the post "The Farm House Speaks:"

We've all heard it a million times: "If these walls could talk. . . ." Well, walls do talk, especially in an old house like the Farm House. They tell many stories of the events they have been through and the people who have lived within them. If you take the time to understand what they are saying, you can learn a lot about the house's history;  more importantly, you may learn important things about its condition.

This particular wall, at this particular time, had an important thing to tell me about its condition: "I have a leaky pipe in here!"

While the noise sounded more like there was a time bomb in there, I knew it had to be a leak, because I knew that the only thing in the wall in that area was the water supply pipe for the toilet. I knew this because I was familiar with a photograph I took of this area from the adjoining room back when the walls were still open.

The picture is pretty fuzzy, because it was one of the first I took with the digital camera my friend Nik kindly lent me, and I still didn't know how to operate it properly, but it is nonetheless plenty clear enough to see the curved copper pipe heading over to the left and disappearing back into the wall; this is right where the noise was coming from, so whatever it sounded like, it had to be a leak.

Also clearly visible is a piece of wood that appears to have been wedged in under this pipe, and right above this piece of wood, barely discernible, is a copper strap (indicated by the red arrow) of the kind customarily used to keep a pipe in place.

That piece of wood bothered me: why, precisely, was it there? I could not help but conclude that the plumber who installed the pipe had stuck it under there, because he had reason to believe that the strap alone would not be sufficient to support the pipe. Moreover, the only reason he could have for this belief was the knowledge that he had not installed the strap correctly.

If this sounds unduly harsh or paranoid, please understand that I was merely drawing upon my long experience with this plumber's workmanship. He had a perfect record with all the fixtures he installed: he did every one of them incorrectly.

There is not one of them I did not have to fix myself or have fixed by a plumber. Every one of them developed leaks at every joint and connection, because he had failed to tighten them all the way. Every handle was loose, because he had not tightened the attachment screws. Every one of the aerators was clogged with plumbing debris, because he had not bothered to remove them and flush the debris out after installing the fixtures. The man seemed to have a psychopathic compulsion to cut every corner he could find to cut in his work.

I had hoped that his in-wall work would prove to be better, especially because it had been subject to inspection and testing, but that aberrant piece of wood said otherwise. It had consciousness of guilt written all over it.

Of course, I did all this sleuthing and deduction later in the evening. The minute I realized there was a leak I called our plumber—or rather, I called Wifey and she called the plumber, because I'd just gotten a new phone and hadn't yet typed my contacts back in (for some reason, they never seem to transfer over from my old phone as they are supposed to). Unfortunately, it was past the end of the workday, and the plumber was not immediately available, so Wifey had to leave a message.

When she buzzed me back with this information, I filled up some buckets with enough water to get us through the night, then turned off the water supply to the house. I then went to the basement faucet, the lowest one in the house, and opened both taps. This relieved the pressure in the pipes, which stopped the leak immediately. Soon thereafter, the plumber returned our call; after I explained the situation to him, he said he'd be here first thing in the morning.

True to his word, he was. His dependability is one of the reasons why he is a valued member of the Farm House maintenance team; another is that he really knows his stuff.

We turned the water supply back on. Once the pressure built back up in the pipe, the noise returned. He was as baffled by its mechanical sound as I was, but he agreed that it had to be a leak, so he opened up the wall from the adjoining room to expose the area where the noise was coming from.

Sure enough, there was water bubbling out from under the strap. And just as I had suspected, the strap was not installed correctly. It should have been attached firmly to the wall with screws driven in all the way. This strap was only loosely attached, with the screws driven in only partway and at an angle. This is contrary to code, but I have already described how curiously tolerant the City inspector could be of our contractor's distinctive mode of operation at the darndest times.

It was easy to see why the plumber did it that way, because he screwed directly into the beadboard wainscoting of the bathroom, and if he'd driven the screws in snug they would have broken through the other side. What he should have done was to affix a small 3/4" thick piece of wood to the back of the wainscoting and then attach the strap onto that; that way, he could have secured the pipe properly without breaking through the beadboard. But that would have taken more time, and time is money, the kind that bites into a contractor's profit.

Having found the problem, the plumber was able to fix it in short order. After shutting off the water and draining the line, he removed the strap and the block of wood, cut out the damaged length of pipe, and spliced in a new piece of rigid copper pipe with soldered joints at each end. This gave the pipe enough structural rigidity that it no longer needed to be strapped to the wall.

It may be odd to consider any leak a fortunate one, but if there ever was such a thing, this was it: a mere pinhole, covered by the strap so that it did not spray onto the walls. Instead, it just bubbled out and dripped down onto the end grain of the wood underneath. The wood acted as a sponge, absorbing all but a very small amount of the leaked water and preventing any water damage. So that wood performed an essential function after all, although certainly not one the original plumber intended.

Why did the leak occur? The answer to this was immediately obvious to the plumber. It had to do with the incorrect way the strap was attached. The reason a strap must be securely attached to the wall is to prevent the natural movement that occurs in a pipe when it expands and contracts in response to temperature changes caused by the passage of water through it. The fact that this strap was loosely attached caused the copper supply pipe to move constantly with every variation in temperature over the eleven intervening years, eventually to come into contact with one of the steel strap screws.

One of the cardinal rules of proper plumbing procedure, and the reason why a loose strap is a code violation, is that copper-containing metals should never be allowed to come into contact with any ferrous (iron-based) metal such as steel. When this happens, corrosion occurs at the point of contact, which weakens both metals and eventually results in a leak. That is just what happened in this case.

All in all, this was a happy ending to what could have been a disaster. Of course, now I have yet another unexpected task, that of patching up the hole in the study wall.

I've taped plastic screen material over it to discourage feline exploration while the residual moisture evaporates.

But I'm certainly not complaining. This could have been a major disaster if the leak had been worse, or if I had not taken immediate action to stop it.

So, with this little incident in mind, always remember that the stories a house tells are not always historical in nature. Sometimes, they are breaking news flashes. Or, as I put it way back when:

Listen to your house, and it will keep you snug and safe for a lifetime. Ignore it, and it will surely find a way to get your attention.

For my part, I am now going to look back at all the other pictures I took when the walls were still open, to see if I can find any advance tips on breaking news flashes yet to come.

* * * 

There are some stories only cats can hear.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Victorians And Their Grand Schemes

I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving. Wifey and I certainly did. We spent ours in the company of some very good friends, at their lovely home in Windsor Square. Windsor Square is one of L.A.'s oldest, most well-preserved neighborhoods, but its name is not familiar even to most native Angelenos, because it is usually lumped in with its neighbor to the west, Hancock Park.

Windsor Square was established in 1911, when the area was at the western extent of the developed city. It was designed from the first as a top-drawer development, with large lots, private streets, underground utilities (the first in L.A. to have them), and a deed requirement that each lot contain a single-family home valued at a minimum of $12,500, a significant amount for the time.

The residents soon learned how expensive street maintenance was, deeding the streets to the city in 1920, but otherwise steadfastly maintained the original character of the neighborhood in the face of rapid urbanization and ever-increasing population density. Their successful efforts to this end blazed a trail followed decades later by the Farm House's own neighborhood, Bungalow Heaven.

After dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, and our friend pointed out some of its most lovely homes. The one that really fired my imagination was a massive old Victorian mansion, a Colonial Revival that, while less ornamented than a Queen Anne, still looks plenty fancy. It has the familiar late-Victorian asymmetric massing, shingled siding over a masonry foundation that extends up through half of the first story, dozens of lovely leaded windows, and a big round tower at one corner.

The only sour note for me was the painfully inappropriate color scheme the house bears: brick-red paint on the foundation, cream yellow on the shingles, and white on all the trim. I fell in love with the place nonetheless, but I couldn't help but think that the house would be even lovelier in proper livery.

When I got home, I looked the house up, and learned that it was built in either 1890 or 1898 (my guess is the earlier date) much closer to downtown, and it was moved to its present location in 1915. This was a common procedure in those days, moving mansions westward as the city expanded.

When I saw a picture of the house from 1910, in its original location, I was satisfied to see that back then the masonry foundation was unpainted, and the shingles were dark—apparently also unpainted, as was often the custom then (the Farm House's own shingle-sided areas were also originally unpainted). The trim color was very light, as was fairly typical of Colonial Revival Victorians back in the day. It was the same house, all right, but it looked a lot different with that scheme. It looked a lot better.

I knew my brother Jon would be interested, so I told him a little about the house and sent him the 1910 picture. When he responded favorably, I followed up with more information and a current picture of the house. When he saw the second picture, he was quite disappointed. He saw a house in poor repair, one that desperately needed extensive restoration of missing elements.

This reaction baffled me at first, because the house is in great physical shape. Indeed, in that neighborhood it would have to be. Then I looked at the current picture again, and compared it with the 1910 picture, and I realized how he had gotten that impression. The house in the current photo looked truncated and washed-out compared to the house in the old photo. If I had just seen the photos, and not the house itself in person, I likely would have come to the same conclusion as Jon.

The thing is, Jon was fundamentally correct. The house as it stands now is lacking something essential. It is lacking the proper paint scheme, the kind of scheme the house was designed to bear. I know this to be true because I've seen this phenomenon at work before, right here at the Farm House.

In the post "An Instructive Transformation," I presented a rather dramatic before-after comparison of the middle front dormer, showing how the application of the four paint colors put the dormer in the proper context, both within itself and with the entire house. That has been the most commented-upon post, both on the blog and off, in the blog's history.

The transformation that the pictures revealed was so startling that it seemed to defy rational explanation. Nevertheless, as with most things Victorian, there in fact is a rational explanation.

* * *

My intention from the very beginning was to give the Farm House the proper livery for its vintage. Since I had no clues back in the early planning stages what the original house colors were, I undertook to formulate a paint scheme for the house that I might have chosen had I been the one to give it its first painting, one that was tasteful and appropriate for 1885 Pasadena.

I had no idea what that might entail, so I began to research the matter. I soon found the definitive book on the subject: Moss, Roger W. and Winkler, Gail Caskey, Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth-Century American House Historically (1987: Henry Holt & Co., New York). It's out of print, but it's available used at Amazon.

This book is a thorough tutorial on the way Victorians painted their buildings, as well as the reasons behind their choices of color and placement. Most of the following information comes from this book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Even if you are not planning to paint a Victorian yourself, it will greatly enhance your appreciation of Victorian architecture, and give you some insight into the Victorian mind as well.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to simplify this discussion by focusing it upon the way Victorian views acted upon the decoration of Queen Anne Victorians in the Pasadena area. Rules have always been made to be broken, but the rules I set forth in the following were broken less often here than in many other areas.

The authors divide the body of observed Victorian paint schemes into three types: Scientific, Historical and Boutique. Scientific schemes are the result of a thorough forensic analysis of all available evidence to construct a complete history of the colors a structure has worn; this is typically done with other people's money, and is thus obscenely expensive. The book tells you how to do a rough approximation of this analysis yourself, but at the time I could find no evidence of any previous colors (as it turned out, I was looking in the wrong places).

Boutique schemes are more commonly known as "painted lady" schemes, the wild, multi-colored schemes that reached their zenith of popularity in '60s San Francisco. This was definitely not what I was after.

That left us with a historical scheme, which the book defines by the observance of two simple rules:

"1. The colors applied to any building should be selected from those that were available and considered appropriate for the date, type, and style of the building at the time of its design and construction.

"2. Those colors—whatever they may be—should be applied to the structure to enhance the design in the manner intended by the original designer, builder, and owners." (Ibid., pp. 7–8)."

This described my original intention precisely; the rest of the book gave me the information I needed to carry it out.

I am no expert in architectural history, but I know enough about Victorian styles to be confident in stating that the Farm House is decidedly a Queen Anne Eastlake, even if its symmetrical layout makes it rather a distinctive one. I believe the completeness of its ornamentation raises it well above the level of a merely vernacular structure, especially now that we know the front dormers originally had bargeboards. That and its 1885 vintage mean that a High Victorian paint scheme is by far the most appropriate.

As the name suggests, the High Victorian era was the ultimate flowering of Victorian aesthetics, a time when all the various theories advanced during the era reached their widest acceptance.

As I wrote in the Journal, the Victorians had a complex definition of architectural beauty: "Victorians viewed architecture as above all an expression of beauty. Andrew Jackson Downing, perhaps the single most influential American Victorian architect, separated this expression of beauty into three aspects: beauty of utility, or fitness; beauty of propriety, or expression of purpose; and beauty of form and sentiment, or expression of style.

"Fitness in a dwelling refers to its primary function, that is, to provide shelter from the elements. Beauty is found in this regard in the utility and comfort a dwelling affords its inhabitants. . . .

"The Victorians found a certain beauty in a home that by its outward appearance expresses its purpose as a habitation for humans, as opposed to one for animals. It does this by its chimneys, its verandas, and the number and size of its windows, features that declare to the world, 'This is a proper place for humans to live.'

"While the beauty of a house's fitness and propriety may be said to appeal to one's mind, the beauty of its appearance should appeal to one's soul. Victorians saw beauty in a house that conveys a sense of unity, of consistency in its form, style and ornamentation. They derived this concept from the forms of nature. A tree is composed of a trunk, branches, foliage, and (depending upon the season) flowers or fruits, yet one naturally views these various parts as a single entity, an organic whole, because its parts have a relationship that to the eye is innately appropriate. A house should present itself in the same manner, with a logic and consistency to its various parts that induce the beholder to view it, too, as an organic whole. Moreover, just as different trees may by their natural design radiate majesty, or friendliness, or whimsy, so may a house by its design and details radiate a certain personality. It is these qualities of organic wholeness and personality that appealed to the Victorian soul."

The High Victorian practice regarding color selection and placement completely incorporated this tripartite definition of beauty, as I shall soon strive to make clear. First, however, I need to discuss the particular way in which Victorians viewed color during this period.

High Victorian color theory was based upon physiological perceptions of color. No doubt as a child you did the old experiment of staring at a color on a printed page for a while and then quickly looking at a white wall, discovering that what you saw through your eyes on that wall was a completely different color. The color you saw on the page and the afterimage you saw on the wall are complimentary colors; based upon this observation, they arrived at a color wheel based upon red, yellow and blue as the three primary colors, with their respective compliments green, purple and orange as secondary colors and the various pairings of secondary colors as tertiary colors.

Victorians knew, because of the afterimage in the eyes, that complimentary colors placed next to each other would increase the perceived intensity of both. Also because of the afterimage, colors placed adjacent to each other that are not complimentary will be perceived differently. For example, when red is placed to orange, the red will appear more purplish and the orange more yellowish.

Thus, Victorians understood that for a house to appear as an organic whole, as dictated by beauty of form, the choice of colors was crucial. No longer was color selection considered purely a matter of personal preference; it was to a certain degree dictated by human physiology. In other words, the house's color palette had to be considered not as a mere collection of pleasing colors, but rather as an inter-dependent system of colors that played nicely with each other.

There were two ways to approach the issue of color harmony. One was harmony by analogy, employing colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel; the other was harmony by contrast, employing colors opposite (complimentary) to each other. In this way, one would ensure that the afterimage effect would enhance the colors rather than cause them to clash.

Of course, this only describes the relationships among the colors used; it says nothing about which colors to use. Ah, but the Victorians had something to say on that subject as well.

At the beginning of the Victorian era, people typically used white for a house's body color, using whatever contrasting color they desired for the one trim color that was used. This was due in some measure to the fact that at that time painters had to mix paint on the premises, and white was the easiest color to mix while avoiding color variations between batches. Even so, white was a popular color then as now because it is bright and it goes with everything.

Then, along came our old friend Andrew Jackson Downing, whom I quoted at length in the first volume of the Journal. He was the preeminent tastemaker of the Victorian era. In his 1842 book Cottage Residences, he assailed the practice of painting a house white as being "entirely unsuitable, and in bad taste" (Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences (New York, 1842), p. 22). He held that a white house stood out in glaring disharmony with its surroundings. He mounted a crusade, in his books and in magazine articles, to stop the practice; with his considerable influence, his effort was eventually quite successful.

He in fact discouraged the use of any pure hues. He believed that a building should be in harmony with nature, and as such he promoted a palette of muted shades reflecting in a subtle way the colors found in nature.  For a time his prescriptions were followed faithfully; but the color genie was out of the bottle, and while his concept of keeping the colors harmonious with nature was maintained, the specific colors used grew ever more assertive as the years passed.

The ebullience of the post-Civil War reconstruction period, combined with the integration of contemporary color theory and the advent of ready-made paints, brought on the rich colors and complex color schemes of the High Victorian era by the late 1870s. These schemes were an integral part of the Queen Anne style that was predominant in Pasadena during its first few decades of existence.

As I mentioned above, High Victorian color schemes were devised so as to reflect the tripartite Victorian definition of beauty. Beauty of utility, of a house fulfilling its primary function of providing safe harbor, is emphasized by the trim color and the way it is applied. More often than not, the trim color is darker than the body color, and it is applied so as to outline the structural elements and provide a visual indication of the way load is  transferred to the foundation. The body color of the foundation, if not unpainted stone or masonry, is always dark to emphasize the structure's firm anchorage. Quite often the color used is dark brown, suggesting a connection with the soil.

Beauty of propriety, of a house's fitness as a human habitation, is also conveyed largely by the first trim color, which outlines and thus emphasizes the windows, verandas, and other such features that make the structure a fit place for humans to live. The second trim color, generally applied exclusively to the sash (the parts of the window holding the glass) and the doors, further emphasizes these features; proper ventilation was a crucial feature to the Victorian mind, because before that these features were considered luxury items in numbers beyond the bare minimum, and were often insufficiently provided in more modest homes.

Beauty of form and sentiment, of the style expressed by the house, is analogous to what we would call today aesthetic or artistic beauty. This is conveyed in the color scheme by the body colors used, how they are deployed, and how they harmonize with each other, the trim colors, and the surrounding environment. The body color is always lighter than that of the foundation (unless the foundation is unpainted masonry or stone), and shingled tympana (the triangular areas under gables) bear a lighter version of the body color if not simply left unpainted. This upward progression in body colors from dark to light is intended to reflect the transition from earthly darkness to heavenly light.

Another element to consider here is that Victorians fancied windows as a house's eyes, which is why the sash (the frames bearing the window panes) are picked out in a second trim color. In pursuit of this fancy, one often sees the putty bevels around each pane painted scarlet, a bit of stage makeup that makes the "eyes" really pop!

Queen Anne homes are always ornamented, and while the ornamentation may be whimsical, it is, when properly executed, never arbitrary. There is a consistent logic to its use.

Think of a Queen Anne house's ornamentation as the accessorization of a well-dressed woman's outfit. She's not going to wear a necklace around her shoulders, or a brooch on her ear. Each accessory is designed to highlight and beautify a specific area, according to a logic that is self-evident when seen.

Similarly, the various spandrels and corbels and bargeboards—the "gingerbread"—of a Queen Anne are designed to highlight and beautify specific areas. The difference here is that the logic is not self-evident—unless rendered so by the proper selection and placement of colors. Queen Annes are specifically designed to bear a High Victorian paint scheme, and aesthetically they don't make sense without one.

Generally speaking, the gingerbread was painted the trim color to associate it with the house's structural framework and to set it off from the body of the house. And of course, the relationship between the trim and body colors was crucial. Based upon the two methods of insuring color harmony, the trim and body colors were either complimentary (e.g., red and green) or adjacent (e.g., red and gold).

Veranda floors and the tops of steps, when made of wood, are traditionally painted some shade of gray, usually in the medium range. This color is practical, because it hides dirt and it goes with everything.

There was one place on the Victorian exterior that was traditionally painted one particular color no matter what colors were used elsewhere: veranda ceilings, which more often than not were painted sky blue. This was done to emulate the sky, and was intended to heighten the feeling of spaciousness in the veranda and the interior rooms that looked out upon it. Sometimes, fluffy white clouds were added to carry the effect even further.

This may all seem far too complicated a regime to have gained such wide acceptance, but it is merely one example of how Americans of that time approached life.

The post-Civil War period was a time of rapid scientific and technological advancement. A steady increase in productivity meant that no longer did the vast majority of Americans have to spend most of their waking hours just to feed, clothe and house their families. Land was cheap and plentiful. A growing belief in the future led Americans to start exploring life's expanding possibilities.

It is no surprise that people of this time would put a high priority upon, as Andrew Jackson Downing put it,
. . . bestowing upon our homes something of grace and loveliness--in making the place dearest to our hearts a sunny spot, where the social sympathies take shelter securely under the shadowy eaves. . . . (Downing, Andrew Jackson, Victorian Cottage Residences (1981: Dover Publications, Inc., New York), pp. viii-ix.)
For the first time in our country's history, ownership of a stylish, comfortable home and some land did not require significant wealth, so it was only natural that this was the first of life's exciting new possibilities a great many Americans explored with great zeal and dedication.

* * *

Now, I'd like to use the example of the remarkable transformation of the Farm House's central front dormer to illustrate in a small way the logic of a High Victorian paint scheme in action.

Here are the before and after pictures from the earlier post:

Of course, merely repairing the dormer's skin and giving it a good coat of white paint would have been a considerable improvement in itself, but those improvements alone do not account for the transformation evidenced by a comparison of these pictures. While I believe these pictures speak for themselves, for the sake of discussion I'll put forth the general consensus opinion of the various commenters.

In the Before picture, the dormer appears to be an appendage plunked down upon an unsuspecting roof. The scalloped shingles and especially the lace-like appendage just beneath them look like silly, corny, pointless afterthoughts, like a vinyl roof on a Sixties land yacht.

In the After picture, the dormer appears to be an organic part of the structure. The shingles and "lace runner" (my own non-technical term for it) no longer seem de trop. The entire dormer now seems to be pulled together as a single unit, rather than a mere assemblage of house parts. The dormer looks warm and inviting, evocative of an earlier, more graceful time.

The reason the dormer now looks like an integral part of the house is because of the uniform, contrasting color of the trim. It pulls the dormer together visually and anchors it to the rest of the structure. The anchoring effect is strongest at the top, because the color highlights the fact that the house's roofing material is continued onto the roof of the dormer.

The trim color pulls the dormer together visually by dint of the relationship among the colors. The colors of the side shiplap and the scalloped shingles of the tympanum, as well of that of the sash (the window frames), are complimentary to the trim, a relationship that naturally makes sense to the eye on a physiological level. The fact that this is a physiological observation, requiring no conscious thought, is I believe what makes the transformation seem to have a bit of magic about it: the viewer already knows the color scheme suits the structure well before he even has a chance to ponder why this might be so.

The reasons why the paint scheme makes the scalloped shingles and lace runner relevant to the structure are considerably more complex, but here I'll just hit the high points.

The simple reason why the shingles are made relevant is that they are picked out in a different color from the rest of the dormer. This highlights the fact that they represent a different texture from the rest of the dormer. The texture is visually pleasing in itself, and doubly so because it spices up what would otherwise be a flat, boring front. The shingles provide visual interest, and the lighter body color intensifies that interest.

Similarly, the lace runner breaks up what would otherwise be a flat, featureless casing surrounding the windows, and adds a touch of grace. Yes, it self-evidently provides no function other than decoration, but that is why it is not picked out in a different color. In a much larger house with a great deal of this sort of decoration, it might well be picked out in the first body color, but to do this in a house built on the scale of the Farm House would just be the tarting-up of an already-lovely lady.

I almost forgot to discuss the windows! At first, I thought the practice of painting the sash a different color from the trim quite odd, but it makes perfect sense in a Victorian context. I've already mentioned the eyes angle, which goes to the beauty of form and sentiment. I've also mentioned that drawing attention to them in this manner goes to the beauty of fitness, because a house fit for human habitation must have plenty of light and ventilation.

What I had not previously considered is that the practice also goes to the beauty of utility. Recall that under that precept, the trim color is supposed to show the transfer of the house's load down to the foundation. Windows are self-evidently not a part of that. So it's a triple play for the windows' bearing a different color.

While I'm at it, allow me to present the long-promised Before And After of the north dormer:

I think the comparison here is even more dramatic, because the dormer is much larger and was in far worse condition than the middle dormer. Oh, and you can also see along the left half of the roofline that in the interim (just a few months ago, in fact) we had the damage from the Big Blow of November 30, 2011 repaired. That was when a massive windstorm brought a large branch of the oak tree crashing down upon the roof, damaging the shingles on this dormer and up near the north chimney. Mercifully, the house was otherwise spared.

As I said at the start of this discussion, Victorians believed that a house should present itself with a logic and consistency to its various parts that induce the beholder to view it as an organic whole. The above comparisons show how indispensable a proper paint scheme is in putting that across, and why such a scheme should be considered an inseparable element of a proper Victorian home.

* * *

As nice as the dormers look now, imagine how much prettier they would be with their original bargeboards in place! In case you don't recall what a bargeboard is, here's a picture of the one in the north gable:

The bargeboards in the front dormers were, without a doubt, scaled-down versions of this one. When I'm done painting the house, I hope to be able to convince the Cultural Heritage Commission to let me replace them. I may be biased, but the Farm House's bargeboards are the prettiest and most graceful I've ever seen. They suggest to me a fringe of curls peeking out of a pretty girl's bonnet over her forehead. I imagine that this effect was even more pronounced when the shingles were unpainted.

Before I sign off, let me pull the camera back and show you the effect of the proper paint scheme on the middle dormer in relation to the whole house:

Notice how more firmly attached to the house the middle dormer appears compared to the others. Notice also how the eye associates it with the completed south side. Also, note how nicely the new colors harmonize with the house's surroundings.

I guarantee that when the whole house is painted, the effect will be profoundly mind-blowing.

* * *

Red Wolf also harmonizes with his surrounding environment.
Meanwhile, the Wily Forest Cat and his protégé 
formulate a grand scheme of their own.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Cool Brother Bill

It is with great sadness that I take a step away from the Farm House restoration to relate the news that my oldest brother Bill has passed away at the age of 69 from heart failure. With your kind indulgence, I'd like to set my nom de blog aside for today, and tell you all what Bill's little brother Rob remembers about him.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Video: Rough Patch of The Casing Boards

I've done the first pass at patching and sanding the casing boards, a major step in the restoration process that I discussed in detail when I restored the casing boards on the north dormer. It occurred to me that a brief video showing the results of the first pass this time might be effective in clarifying some of the details of the work that were left unclear the first time.

I've been planning since I started this blog to use video from time to time to illustrate processes, but I learned early on that making a decent video is harder than it seems. Thus, while I've made dozens of video presentations for you, most of them have stunk for one reason or another. 

I think I've come far enough along the learning curve now to start using this method more often, and so, here you are. I'm afraid that I left a few details out of my narration, however, so let me add them now.

Patching to this extent is a complicated process requiring several passes, and with this first pass my intent was to fill in the major voids and irregularities on the front of the boards, including the re-building of the edges. While I subsequently sanded the sides back all the way, the fronts I only sanded far enough to remove the rough edges and ridges and begin to establish a flat surface. 

I left the putty somewhat above the eventual plane of the finished board so that there would be enough depth in the remaining voids to allow the putty to take hold in them. If a void is too shallow, the friction of the putty knife will pull the epoxy right back out as it passes over, and if I pass the putty knife too high, all I will do is replace the divots with bumps that will be a pain to sand back down. By sanding high with this first pass, I will be able to fill in more of the small divots successfully, and then sand the entire surface down at the same time to the proper level.

One more thing I forgot to mention: while I previously discussed my intention to use Bondo for this first pass, I subsequently decided against it. While I did use it successfully on our Culver City home, and the work has held up for over 15 years, that was in an area with little exposure to the sun. I don't know how it would hold up in full sun in the harsher Pasadena environment, nor do I know how well it would get along with the WoodEpox I would have used for subsequent passes. Given the prominent position high in the front of the house, I didn't want to risk the failure of the patch down the road, and the virtual impossibility of effecting a permanent fix if it did. 

Now, without further blather, here's the video.

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"This video stinks, too."

Monday, June 30, 2014

Silly Putty

With the sashes back in place and fresh WoodEpox at last in hand, it was time to get back to the sill work.

As I mentioned a few posts back, the reason why I needed fresh WoodEpox was that the tub of Part B of my prior supply had fallen and gotten cracked, exposing that material to the air. Hoping it had not been that way for long, I went ahead and used it. Apparently it had indeed been that way for a long time, because I found the mixed putty to be very stiff and hard to tool, creating quite a mess.

When I removed the forms. I discovered that although I had done my best to work the putty into the forms, it had actually gone in only a very small distance, falling far short of filling the gaps.

This may not look like a particularly bad result, but I had failed to establish enough of an obvious shape for me to be able to proceed on eyeball judgment alone. I needed more guidance than this blob of a half-done sill was giving me. 

So the first thing I did, once I turned my attention back to the sill, was to put the forms back on and slowly sand down the high spots, using the forms as a guide, while being very careful not to sand the forms themselves. Once I got as close to them as I could, I took the forms back off and proceeded from there.

Still needing more guidance, I made a cardboard template of the north sill. First, I used my trusty profile duplicator tool, making sure I took a nice straight reading perpendicular to the front surface.

Then, I transferred this profile to a good stout piece of cardboard and carefully cut along the line with an X-Acto knife.

Before proceeding, I checked the accuracy of my template by comparing it with the original. It didn't have to be absolutely accurate, but I was very pleased with how accurate it was.

I was then able to use this template to evaluate just where to sand, and where to add more putty. Eventually, I realized that one of the problems that was throwing me off was that the sill had a crack all the way through to the back that was not immediately evident because it occurred at the inside angle right where the lower sill met the upper sill, so there was no visible irregularity along the crack itself.

It was quite a long crack, reaching from the left side all the way to the left edge of the middle casing board. Apparently, the roofers had jammed shingles behind the split part, causing it to flare gradually forward so that it was a half-inch further out at the left end than it was in the middle.

There wasn't any point in trying to correct for this, mainly because it was a gradual-enough deviation that it was undetectable unless one was actually standing out on the veranda roof looking down at it. So, I drove some screws down at the proper place to stabilize the sill and prevent further movement, then puttied up the screw holes and proceeded as if everything was going really well. The fact is, it was going plenty well enough.

Then I noticed that the upper sill under the left window opening was quite worn down, so that it was a quarter-inch low in the middle. This was strange, because the other three upper sills had not had more than superficial wear on them, having been relatively protected behind screen frames for most of their existence. I immediately thought to myself, why did this happen? What is the house trying to tell me about its past?

Then I realized that what it was telling me is that I'm an idiot. I had gone in and out of that very window hundreds of times while working on the north dormer, usually quite clumsily. I had caused that wear my own dang self!

Properly humbled, I cut a guide strip, coated it with mold release compound, and built the upper sill back up in that window.

With everything all nicely filled in and sanded, I took another reading along the entire length of the sill with my template, and realized that, once I corrected for the flare on the left side, the front of the sill curved back towards the house at each end. You see, back when I had first attached the forms to the sill, before I'd put on any putty, I had forgotten to correct for the increased wear that naturally occurs along the front of a sill at each end. I really should remember to review my old posts when I start to do something I haven't done for a while.

And so, more guide strips, and more putty.

Then, remove the forms, fill in the screw holes, sand a little more, and voilá! A nicely-restored sill, at last. Note that the narrow strips of sill between the casing boards are far less worn than the rest of the lower sill, as evidenced by how much of the actual wood is still showing there. This is more evidence that these windows had screens for most of the house's existence. 

Then, one last step: a coat of primer to protect the epoxy putty from that nasty old sun and its fatal ultraviolet rays. I learned that lesson with the north sill, when I had to do some quick re-patching at painting time.

And now, time to put up the scaffold and get on with the rest of the job.

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One of my biggest fans.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Film at Eleven

My friend Nik, in a reference to the film Lawrence of Arabia, likes to call Pasadena "The Sun's Anvil." This is an apt description. I've lived in hotter areas around the Southland, but I've never lived in a place where the sun is more merciless. I've discussed at length the damage the sun has done to the south-facing elements of the Farm House exterior, but in the afternoon it's pretty hard on the west face as well. The sun coming through the front dormer windows will fade anything fadeable within its reach in record time.

For this reason, I have planned all along to install clear UV-blocking film to the front dormer windows when I finished them. I forgot this step when I did the north dormer sashes, but I remembered in time to have some on hand for the south sashes. Thus, after I varnished them, I turned my attention to the task of applying the film to the glass.

I approached this task with considerable trepidation, because I've heard reports for years that it is quite a difficult task, and I've seen my share of badly-done installations. Still, I had the film, and I had everything necessary to install it, so I figured I'd give it the old college try.

I unwrapped the package of film and found this:

(Please forgive those green horizontal bands; I forgot to turn off the overhead fluorescents.)

Great. Both the film and the backing were clear. How was I supposed to know which was which? More importantly, how was I supposed to separate one from the other?

Fortunately, the instructions provided the answers to these questions, in the form of a neat trick that's sure to come in handy in the future: simply apply a piece of tape on each side of the film-backing sandwich near a corner, leaving an inch or so trailing off the edge as a handle. Then, use the tape pieces as handles to pull the film and backing apart. The film is the side that has adhesive on the back of it, in case that isn't already apparent.

Before doing this, you have to cut the film to size. The instructions say to add an inch to both dimensions to provide a trim allowance. I did this for the first sash only, just to make sure I had the process down correctly before I did any more cutting.

The next step is to get the glass surface scrupulously clean, so that nothing comes between the film and glass to cause a visible bump or air bubble. After a thorough cleaning with Windex and Invisible Glass, I scraped the entire surface of the glass top-to-bottom and then side-to-side, using as lubrication a water-based surfactant spray that came with the installation kit.

I was surprised to discover how much junk came off of glass that had appeared perfectly clean. As per instructions, once I was done scraping I marshaled the junk and the remaining surfactant into one corner using the supplied squeegee, then removed it all from the glass using a lint-free cloth.

Now, I was ready to apply the film. The basic idea is to wet the glass uniformly with a thin layer of the surfactant in order to keep the adhesive from adhering to the glass while you position the film. Then, remove the backing from the cut piece of film, being extremely careful not to allow the exposed back of the film fold over on itself and get stuck together. 

Then, you place the film adhesive side down on the glass, slide it into position, then use the squeegee to remove the air bubbles and excess surfactant from under the film, starting in the middle and moving towards the edges, sopping up the excess surfactant periodically from the outside of the film.

The idea here is that once this step is done up to the edges, then you trim the excess film along the edges using the supplied trimmer. This trimmer leaves a 1/16" gap between the film and the edge to provide a route for the remaining air and surfactant to exit. Then, you finish the squeegeeing right up to the edges, then allow the film to sit undisturbed until the whole shebang dries.

Everything was going so incredibly well for me as I followed these instructions that I was positively ecstatic, until I got to the trimming part. I ran the trimmer down one edge, and it trimmed effortlessly right up until I got to the corner. It was at this point that I realized that I still had the overlap to cut through, and nothing to cut it against except for my freshly-varnished wood. Oops. The only thing I could do was pull the trimmed edge back up carefully, finish the cut with a pair of scissors, then squeegee it back down. This did not go extremely well, but it went well enough. Here's what I had at this point:

The side on the right of the picture is the one already trimmed.

Okay, I thought. Now I just have to come at this corner down the other side with the trimmer and it will be done. The thing is, I did, but it wasn't. The last eighth of an inch would not get cut, no matter what I did with that stupid trimmer. The film just refused to yield. I finally tossed the trimmer aside and used a utility knife blade, but instead of the film's cutting, it just tore. I probably should have used an X-Acto knife, but that simply did not occur to me in the heat of battle. I did a better job with the remaining corners, and miraculously, the finished sash turned out looking pretty good—if you didn't look too closely at the corners.

Still, it was obvious after that experience that these instructions were not written with this situation in mind. They would have worked with a car window or a modern aluminum-framed sash, but not with a wood sash, nor in fact with any situation where the glass is so deeply recessed on all sides.

Thus, for the remaining sashes I cut the film to as close as possible to the exact size before application. I cut it a bit too small in two of the three sashes, but I did cut all the pieces straight and true, so because the film is clear, you have to know what you're looking for to see the gap. In any event, with the sills back in place the film is as a practical matter invisible.

So, I would say that this job is not really terribly difficult after all, as long as you can take the sills out and put them flat to work on them. Installing them in place would not only be much more difficult, it would also be quite messy. Oh, and one other thing: That surfactant spray is nothing but water with a little detergent in it to lower its surface tension; one could easily make it with a few drops of liquid dish detergent (such as Joy or Dawn) in a quart of distilled water (you don't want any dissolved solids in it) put in a spray bottle. Many people also say that a credit card works just as well as that squeegee, but I think the squeegee provided in the installation kit makes for a faster job, simply because it is bigger and a bit more flexible.

I'll go back and install the film on the north dormer windows when workflow allows, but I'll have Wifey measure and cut the film. Because of her considerable skill at sewing, she can cut any pattern perfectly.

* * *

My faithful assistant, always there to lend a paw.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Doubleheader: Cleaning Finished Wood and Using The New Waterborne Varnishes

Wow, I just found out that the Wayback Machine has been archiving this blog periodically for three years. That's neato! It's good to know that we're being recorded in what is virtually the Official Record of the Intertubes for posterity.

* * *

With the sill work held up while I waited for the fresh WoodEpox to arrive from Abatron, I decided to go on to the refinishing of the sashes, since it was the only other thing I could do easily without the scaffold.

These sashes are the originals, and back when I did the functional rehabilitation I applied an oil-based pigmented stain to the interiors (this was before I had discovered the many virtues of water-based aniline dye stains). This kind of stain provides some protection from the elements even without a more resilient finish over it, and so I didn't have to worry about bleaching out water stains, as I did with the north dormer sashes. In fact, with the exception of some sun-fading and a certain amount of dirt and grime from the environment, the stained interiors looked as good as the day I stained them. A good cleaning and another coat of stain would restore them to varnish-ready condition.

To clean the sash interiors, I used the old Criblecoblis family recipe for wood cleaner: equal parts gum turpentine, boiled linseed oil and white vinegar. I've found that 1/4 cup of each, 3/4 cup total, is a good amount to work with; the mixture works best when it's fresh, and in any event it curdles after a while.

While I find this mixture to have quite a pleasant smell, redolent of the junk shops and antique stores along Honolulu Avenue that I haunted as a lad, it is also rather hard on the sinuses because of the vinegar, so I recommend opening the window when using this stuff.

Here's how to use it: apply to the surface to be cleaned with a paintbrush (I use an inexpensive "chip" brush), using enough to saturate the surface, and agitating the brush as necessary to make sure the cleaner gets in everywhere. Let the cleaner work for a few minutes, then remove it with a terrycloth towel (I use those inexpensive yellow microfiber towels sold at Costco), rubbing gently as necessary to help remove loosened dirt. Repeat as necessary until the surface is clean, then buff with a clean towel to leave an even, soft sheen.

Once the residual turpentine has evaporated from the towels, a hot-water laundering will leave them clean (if perhaps stained from the dirt) and ready to use again. Note that I do not recommend the use of paper towels for this work; the results are decidedly unsatisfactory.

I also don't recommend using this cleaner on unfinished wood; the wood will absorb the oil, changing its color and possibly inhibiting subsequent staining and finishing. To clean unfinished wood, I recommend naphtha or mineral spirits.

This cleaner is effective, but very gentle on finishes. Many cleaners make this claim, but some of them do so fraudulently. Don't ask me how I know. Much of our woodwork here bears the original finish, shellac over a dark pigmented stain. I used this cleaner on all the exposed woodwork in our bedroom as a trial back in 2006. You have to figure that 122-year-old shellac (at that time) would have to be a bit fragile, but the cleaner did not disturb it at all. It removed all the dirt, and left all the shellac.

Some time after I cleaned the exposed wood in the bedroom, I moved the dresser over and put another cabinet in next to it. This has given me a great opportunity to show you what this cleaner does. When I move that cabinet away from the wall, you can see both cleaned and uncleaned wood. After nothing but a dusting, here's a picture of that area:

You can still see clearly the line of demarcation. This not only shows you what this cleaner does, but it shows you that its effects have lasted here for nearly eight years. The sheen has faded, but the wood is still clean, and it still resists soiling.

The cleaned wood still obviously needs work to look good—and to that end, I have some tricks up my sleeve that I can't wait to show you—but the first step in any restoration is always cleaning, and the wood on the left is clean. It will have the same effect on a piece of furniture, with no wax buildup, no static attraction, and no having to do it every time you clean. A table cleaned with this mixture will only need dusting to stay looking clean and polished a long time, until the cat throws up on it or something. Don't ask me how I know.

This cleaner works on painted wood just as well, as long as the paint isn't flat or matte. I even used it on all the old rusty iron hardware, the hinges and the window locks. I brushed it on liberally, and wiped it off conservatively. It removed all the dirt and rust while lubricating the moving parts and leaving the patina. I'm telling you, this stuff is awesome. Just don't try it as a salad dressing. Don't ask me how I know.

One thing I need to add about this cleaner: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have become increasingly criminalized here in southern California, and as a result most solvents have been reformulated so as to make them as ineffective as possible, so you have to use more of them, thus more VOCs, thus providing the pretext for even more onerous regulations. This includes turpentine. Probably, it will sooner or later include white vinegar as well.

At the same time, boiled linseed oil is no longer boiled; chemicals are added to raw linseed oil to achieve the same effect.

These changes have adversely affected my cleaner. It still works, but it's oilier than it used to be, it refuses to stay mixed for more than a minute, and it goes bad within days instead of weeks. I noticed these problems as I worked, but I didn't figure out the cause until afterwards.

I suspect a partial cure for these problems would involve decreasing the amount of "boiled" linseed oil relative to the other ingredients, say a 4:4:3 ratio, with the oil as the 3. I will experiment and report back, but for now if you use this cleaner, mix it in this new ratio, for example: 1/4 cup each of turpentine and white vinegar with 3 tablespoons boiled linseed oil. Season to taste, then add to salad and toss.

* * *

Despite the unexpected oiliness, the cleaner worked as well as ever on the sash interiors, and after applying another coat of the same stain and waiting several days to ensure that it was thoroughly dry, they were ready to be varnished. However, the fact that the stain was oil-based meant that I could not use the same oil-based varnish that I used on the north dormer sashes. This is because the solvents in the varnish will re-liquefy the stain, causing it to mix unevenly with the varnish, resulting in a mottled, unsightly appearance in the finished wood.

For this reason, I found it necessary to use one of the new waterborne varnishes on these sashes. In the past, a finisher would have used shellac (as did the original Farm House finisher) or lacquer. These, however, are decidedly inferior finishes for a sash, because of its proximity to the elements and the frequency with which a sash is handled and moved in its frame. In this situation, a waterborne varnish is just the thing to use.

The fact that these coatings are called waterborne varnishes, rather than water-based, reflects their utilization of a new, fundamentally different technology. Traditional coatings are held in suspension in a solvent carrier which evaporates, exposing the coating to oxygen which brings about a chemical change, or curing. I don't fully understand how these new coatings work, but as far as I do understand the matter, these are fully cured coatings that are subsequently pulverized and suspended, or borne, in a water-based carrier.

Somehow, when these coatings are applied and the water evaporates, the pulverized varnish cross-links, or re-amalgamates, into a resilient coating that looks and functions like a traditional oil-based resin varnish. It baffles science!  Well, actually, science is quite comfortable with it; it only baffles me.

Once I decided to use a waterborne varnish, I looked at all the available options, and selected General Finishes Enduro-Var Gloss, because by all accounts it is the most durable, water-resistant waterborne finish available, and as a plus, it adds an amber cast in emulation of oil-based varnishes.

While I am far from being a professional finisher, I have more than enough experience with varnishes that I am quite confident in my knowledge and abilities. Varnish is just about the most difficult non-specialty coating to apply well, but I've become pretty darn good at brushing out a nice, even coating with no brush marks. But nothing in my experience prepared me for what I saw when I opened up that can:

It looks vaguely disgusting, like that pink slime they add to ground beef. I was even more baffled by the stuff than ever: this is gloss varnish? Well, as I said above, this waterborne varnish is completely different from traditional coatings, so I really shouldn't have been at all surprised to find that it looks completely different.

Or, for that matter, that its application is also different. As a matter of fact, its application is incredibly easy. All you do is spread it out in as thick a coat as possible without runoff, and once you are done with a section, do not go back over it; as the instructions say, if you miss a spot you can get it next time without worry. Because the varnish is so thin, it self-levels magnificently, and because it dries so quickly, dust has almost no time to settle in it.

The result is an astoundingly flawless finish with very little effort and not a whole lot of time. While four coats of traditional varnish takes four days, four coats of this waterborne varnish takes less than a day and a half at a comfortable work pace, and in one long day if you're really in a hurry.

Not that I don't still have some skepticism regarding this new-fangled waterborne stuff. For one thing, while the lack of body in the coating out of the can makes its application so easy that anyone can get professional results, it also gives this varnish very little in the way of build characteristics. Put another way, while there are no irregularities to be seen in the finish itself, every tiny irregularity in the underlying wood is telegraphed right through. Four coats of the traditional oil-based varnish I use, when well applied, gives a surface that is much flatter, with a highly-desirable appearance of depth. A few more coats greatly enhance these properties.

Thus, while this varnish may have the expected resistance to moisture and solvents, and a nice amber cast to boot, still it looks more like lacquer than traditional varnish. This wouldn't be an issue in most situations, but in an old house, it is a bit of a disadvantage.

For another thing, I remain unconvinced that this waterborne varnish will stay looking this good for as long as a traditional oil-based varnish, especially the medium-oil phenolic-resin varnish I use. I suspect that it will not be as UV-resistant. More importantly, it definitely does not have nearly the same resistance to physical damage.

Don't ask me how I know.

* * *

"Why do they call that hunky guy 'Lassie'?"

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Goofus And Gallant

As I mentioned last time, the first task I planned to do in the south front dormer work was to restore the sill. This is because I learned with the north dormer that it's much harder to work on the sill with the scaffold in the way.

I anticipated that the sill work would go quickly, because I already had ready-made forms from the north dormer work. Unfortunately, my WoodEpox had gone stale, because unbeknownst to me the Wily Forest Cat some time ago knocked the tub for Part B off the shelf; it cracked when it hit the floor, exposing Part B to air for goodness knows how long. I went ahead and used it anyway, and the putty was so stiff and unworkable that I ended up with a big mess.

Desperate for some fresh WoodEpox, I bought some at our neighborhood hardware store here in Pasadena, up here north of Orange Grove, which is world-famous for its large stock of new old-house hardware. When I got home and opened it up, the Part A, usually light and fluffy, was hard as a rock, and thus unusable.

I knew right away what had happened: this WoodEpox had obviously been exposed to freezing temperatures, which had fatally crystallized the Part A. I've mentioned many times in these pages that WoodEpox is vulnerable to degradation at temperatures below 60 degrees. This could have happened in transit, or it could have happened sitting right in the local Pasadena hardware store, because we had a few nights of freezing temperatures in December.

So I took the WoodEpox back to the hardware store for a refund. I tried to explain what the problem was to the guy at the front counter, but he cut me off with a wave of his hand. "I've never heard of any problems with this stuff. I've seen demonstrations!"

"I've used it a great deal for over a decade, and I can tell you—"

He cut me off again. "I can't give you a refund because you opened the box."

I pointed to the return policy posted directly over his head. "Nothing about that there." I waved my receipt, which also bore the return policy. "Nothing about that here, either."

"If it were unopened we can resell it. We can't resell it like that, opened."

I didn't see any point in mentioning to him that one of the boxes of WoodEpox on the shelf had been quite conspicuously opened and resealed, or that he shouldn't want to resell damaged merchandise, or that if he just opened the tub of Part A he'd see for himself that it was damaged. Neither did I see any point in asking to see a supervisor; I'd been in this longtime Pasadena institution dozens of times, and knew that to do so was only to invite further abuse.

I was all too familiar with the abusive nature of their front-of-the-store staff (those behind the hardware counter in back are typically pleasant, helpful and highly competent). These people sit like magpies behind their cash registers and hurl snide comments at customers and their purchases. And heaven help you should you actually need assistance: "Ooh, you want a Purdy paintbrush? You need to go somewhere else. We don't carry that kind of fancy paintin' stuff here!"

By this point, my temper was rising to an unsafe level, so I just took my ruined WoodEpox and beat a hasty, silent retreat. Not that I had accepted the situation; two quarts of WoodEpox costs over $70 with tax, and I wasn't about to gently into that hot day with that loss. It's just that I had a Plan B for my Part A that was more-or-less foolproof.

I went right back home and ordered some fresh WoodEpox direct from Abatron, which is my usual practice. Then, I sent Abatron's customer service department a calm e-mail relating just the essential facts of the situation. I'd had enough experience with them to know that they'd see to my getting a refund, one way or another.

They went to bat for me immediately and assertively. It took several weeks of their prodding the store, but they got me that refund. Abatron stands by its products and its customers.

* * *

He who controls the remote, controls the future.