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.

* * *

"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.

* * *

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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

South Dormer Overview

Before I get underway, please allow me to apologize for the long hiatus in the Lucian Wilson biography. There are some late leads I want to chase down before I continue, and I don't have much time for that right now.

* * *

Wear patterns are different for each little microclimate around the house. As we have seen, the microclimate around the north dormer is surprisingly harsh. There is a breeze from the south-southwest that blows relentlessly across the front of the house up there, and it whips around the north corner of the north dormer with a surprising turbulence on even the calmest days. As I showed you, this wind over the course of the many decades wore a visible bevel into the lower left corner of the leftmost casing board. This wind drives the rain into every nook and cranny of that dormer, which is why it was in such poor condition.

In relative terms, the south dormer is in pretty good shape. Its sashes survived, albeit barely, and there is no significant evidence of water damage. Little of its exterior skin needed replacement. On the other hand, it did get the same sort of beating from the sun that the south elevation did. The siding on the south side of the dormer has had all of the softwood eroded away at least half an inch down, the front casing boards are nearly as thrashed as were those on the north, and there are instances of physical impact damage that must have come from long-gone tree branches, the most dramatic of which was a huge crack in the window frame on the south side that I repaired at the very start of the work a decade ago.

Here is a short (three-minute) video showing the condition of the dormer at the start of work; it will show you what needs to be done much more efficiently than I can with just text and pictures.

As you can see in the video, this dormer's in considerably better shape than the north dormer was; there doesn't appear to be much remedial carpentry necessary, at least so far.

On the other hand, I do have some extensive plastic surgery ahead of me, especially on the gingerbread running along the top of the window casing. By "plastic", of course, I mean lots of epoxy, but I also plan to use Bondo to resurface the vertical casing boards (which I will do without removing them). I used Bondo a great deal in my restoration work on the Doll House (our Culver City home), and it has held perfectly well for fifteen years now. It's much harder to shape than WoodEpox, but it's faster, considerably less expensive, and perfectly suited to large, flat expanses like the casing boards.

All aboard the VOC-Particulates Express! Please keep all hands and arms inside the blog at all times.

* * *

"Keep it down up there, willya? Girls just wanna catch Zs."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meanwhile, Back in The Present Day

I hope you won't mind a brief intermission in the trip down Memory Lane to report on some actual work on the house.

I've finished the north front dormer!

I'm not ready for a Before And After yet, because I haven't moved the scaffold over to the south dormer. I'll do that a bit later.

There's not much more to tell about the north front dormer work that I haven't already; most of it was the type of work I've described previously: a little patching, a little caulking and a lot of painting. There were nonetheless a few matters that merit discussion.

The sashes in this dormer were all replaced during the course of the contractor's work. At that time, I primed the outside, but not the inside, and most notably not the bottoms of the lower sashes. This is because traditionally these are painted the inside color, and I was planning dye stain and varnish for the inside. The problem with this is that ever since then those lower sashes have been absorbing water every time it rained—not nearly enough to ruin them, but more than enough to cause water stains.

This would be no problem if I were painting the inside; I use a stain-blocking primer as a matter of course. But a dye stain would do very little to hide the water stains, even the dark stain I use. Thus, I had to bleach them.

There are several substances used to bleach stains out of wood, but for water stains, I've found that oxalic acid is best. This is because oxalic acid excels at removing iron-based stains, and most water stains are the result of iron in the water.

You will find oxalic acid crystals at a better hardware store, a paint store or a woodworking store, often sold as "wood bleach." Mixing instructions vary, but I strongly recommend the following method to prepare a solution.

First, let me caution you to use goggles and gloves when handling oxalic acid solution, and to add breathing protection when handling it in dry form (the crystals are highly irritating and become airborne easily). While it is not a terribly strong acid, oxalic acid is considerably stronger, and noticeably more irritating to skin and mucous membranes, than vinegar. Happily, it does not have an acrid smell, so you don't have to worry about breathing protection when handling it in solution.

To prepare a solution of oxalic acid, heat a quart of distilled water (the volume is not important, actually; a quart is simply a handy amount) to the temperature of very warm tap water, let's say 110-120 degrees. Then, using eye protection, breathing protection and gloves, slowly pour the oxalic acid crystals into the water, stirring well as you go. Make sure the crystals are dissolving fully as you go. When the crystals stop dissolving no matter how much you stir, you're done. You now have a saturated solution, which is in my experience the most useful concentration.

Put this solution in a stout glass or heat-resistant plastic jar with a tight-fitting lid, because when you're done bleaching your wood, you will find this solution very useful for getting rid of rust stains in concrete, porcelain, clothing, or for that matter anywhere else, and a little goes a long way. Mom always had a Mason jar of oxalic acid solution in the pantry for just this reason, and Grandma did too. It's really handy stuff.

While the solution is still hot, pour a small amount into a separate container, and using a cheap brush, brush the solution on the entire piece (or, as in my case, the entire area that is to be stained and varnished). If you don't do it all, you will have odd and quite distracting marbling effects which will look just as bad as the stains you are removing. Here's an example of this from the exterior side of one of the sashes:

The lighter, more brightly-toned wood farther away from the camera has been bleached. As you can see, this method of bleaching restores the wood's natural color without removing the natural color variations of the grain, and the difference between bleached and unbleached areas is quite noticeable.

Do this until all the wood is saturated, but no further; if the stains are not gone in a few minutes, you can brush some more on the remaining stains. You may want to take a soft toothbrush and gently scrub stubborn areas. Now, let everything dry out. You may see some oxalic acid crystals on the surface of the wood, but even if you don't, they're there, so put on your breathing protection again.

Now comes the messy part: you need to flush the surface of the wood three times with distilled water in order to get all the acid out. After that, you need to neutralize the remaining acid by rinsing with a solution of one tablespoon of baking soda in three quarts of water.

After letting that dry, then sanding thoroughly with very fine (180-grit) sandpaper, only a few vestiges of the stains remained:

I didn't imagine this would be a problem, so I moved on to the staining and varnishing. I covered these processes in detail back in the day, so I won't repeat myself here. I do want to mention one little detail about the stain nevertheless.

You may recall from the Journal that I'm using a water-based aniline dye for most everything, and with no clear idea of how much I would need, made up enough stain to varnish a battleship, because I didn't want to have to worry about matching it later:

Of that vat of stain, I used a little more than a quart to do the kitchen cabinets and casings. I then put the vat away in the vast recesses of the Farm House garage until my next stain job. That having arrived, I retrieved the vat and got my first good look at it in a while.

Well darn. It's five quarts low!

My previous worries about matching seemed silly now, but I knew that given the nature of this stain, if I could get it somewhere in the neighborhood of the original dilution, I could adjust it to match during the application process. I could see a faint shadow of where the water level was when the evaporation started, so I topped it up a bit past that mark with distilled water and mixed it well. As it turned out, it matched just fine without any fussing, and the finished sashes looked just as nice as the kitchen cabinets.

There was one problem, however. While the dye stain did indeed obscure the vestiges of the water stains, the structural damage from the water intrusion caused the wood in these areas to absorb the varnish considerably more thirstily than did the surrounding undamaged wood. I ended up having to apply an extra coat of varnish (four coats total, including the half-strength first coat), and even at that, I didn't get quite the film buildup I would have liked in these areas:

Fortunately, these flaws are not readily visible in ambient light (I took this picture in a way that maximized the visibility of the problem). Still, the next time the situation presents itself I'll have to figure out a way to correct for this.

With the sashes complete and re-installed, all that was left was the painting. The small areas involved called for the brush rather than the sprayer, but as I have mentioned, this new-fangled acrylic paint is so thick, and starts to dry so quickly, that it makes brushing with traditional water-base brushes extremely challenging.

Happily, brushmakers are finally catching up with the new trends in paint, and have begun to produce the kind of stiff, densely-packed polyester brushes this paint requires. I tried several different kinds, and found that the best for the new paints is the Proform Stiff. It had the best combination of stiffness and smoothness of application. With this brush, I was able to overcome many of the difficulties presented by the new paints. Nevertheless, I'd still rather be using a nice white China bristle with some good alkyd paint.

I've already started work on the south front dormer. I'm hoping I can get it done considerably more quickly than I did the north.

* * *

Thinking of absent friends.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Long, Happy Life of Lucian Wilson

First, some old business. I asked in the last post if anyone could identify the car parked in front of the Farm House in that picture the city gave us.

Reader Tim e-mailed to say it's a 1964 Mercury Comet. . .

1964 Comet Caliente Convertible

And he's right! It seems fitting that it should be a Mercury, considering the 1935 Mercury that a neighbor reported finding parked in a thicket next to the house.

Anyway, thanks, Tim, and nice work! I had never before noticed the echoes of the Continental look in its littlest stablemate.

1964 Lincoln Continental

Also, I was utterly wrong regarding the family background of Annie's husband Archie. He did not come from a farming family, and he did not have a brother and two sisters. Who knew there were two Archie Wilsons born on the same day in Wheeling, West Virginia?

Our Archie's father, John E., was a wholesale dry goods merchant, and his mother Corinne Hornbrook Wilson kept house with the help of two servants, according to the 1870 Census. Archie only had one sibling, Lucy, who was two years his senior. I bet Lucian is named after his aunt.

I don't have much more information about Archie's family, but there's enough to suggest that they were fairly prosperous (starting with the two servants in the 1870 Census). The records conflict with each other somewhat, but they suggest that Corinne was widowed by the end of the century, and she spent considerable time, from either 1898 or 1901 to about August of 1915, in London (where I gather she had family on her father's side). She made a side trip to Russia in 1910, at which time she listed her home as Wheeling, but in 1915, when she was returning to America, she listed her home as Los Angeles. It is thus virtually certain that Corinne was a guest within the Farm House walls, and perhaps even a resident for a time.

One last bit of old business: I have a picture of Archie and Annie's eldest son John Encell that I forgot to show you:

This is from his 1921 passport application, dated just two days before his 34th birthday.

* * *
When last we saw Lucian Wilson, Archie and Annie's younger son, it was April 26, 1910. The Census was taken that day, and he was still living at the Farm House with his mother, his nephew Denfield, and a boarder recently come from England. He was 21, and working for Pacific Telephone as a collector.

Having reviewed the record, I'd like to go back eight years, to 1902. I now have it on good authority that this was the year that Annie moved from Cucamonga to Pasadena with her two sons, John and Lucian. That good authority is Lucian himself, believe it or not; happily, he gave a biographical interview to a newspaper late in his life that fills in a lot of blanks. I'll discuss the interview itself at length at its proper place in the narrative, but I'll be using facts from it as I go along.

School Days

We now also know that the school Lucian attended while living in the Farm House was the Throop Polytechnic Institute. This school was unlike any I know of today; it was something like a combination high school and college that placed the manual arts on the same level as the liberal arts and the sciences. Its motivating principle was that learning how to work with one's hands, how to solve physical problems by direct action, helped build a better citizen whether one went on to become a machinist or a lawyer, a physician or a plumber.

Put another way, the principle was that the mental discipline gained by learning how to draw a figure, or machine a bearing, or craft a mortise-and-tenon joint, was the best exercise for teaching young minds how to solve the abstract problems all adults face as responsible members of society.

As a practical consideration, moreover, imparting a solid foundation in the manual arts along with a good basic knowledge of the liberal arts and the sciences produced young adults highly adaptable to a wide range of livelihoods. A Throop-educated man, ideally, would always be able to find a good job.

Lucian attended the college preparatory program at Throop; he says in the interview that his father's untimely death in 1900 prevented him from continuing on with college. As nearly as I can determine, he graduated in either 1905 or 1906, but he apparently remained involved with his alma mater afterwards, because I found an article from 1908 that names him as a judge in a Throop track meet.

On to Adulthood

Even so, after graduation he got right to work in construction, and by 1907 he had a journeyman plasterer's card. I expect it's no coincidence that his older brother John, according to the 1910 Census, was at the time a plastering contractor. But Lucian soon found the work unbearably tedious, so by the time of the 1910 Census he was working for Pacific Telephone, as we already knew.

Lucian continued to live here until he got married, sometime between late November 1911 and mid-January 1912, to Helen Herd, who at the time of the 1910 Census was living with her family in San Gabriel and working as a clerk in a dry goods store. Helen's brother Clifton entered Throop's college prep program in 1908, which quite possibly has a lot to do with how Helen and Lucian met. Clifton was quite an athlete, distinguishing himself especially in tennis, but he also made a name for himself in football and track. It doesn't take much imagination to picture Lucian, standing on the side judging an event, noticing pretty Helen cheering for her brother. The scene almost writes itself.

By 1913, Lucian had become a shipping clerk for the freight division of the Pacific Electric (the company that ran the regional streetcar system), and he'd also bought a house of his own (which is still standing) in the 800 block of Wilson, which is just two blocks east and one block north of the Farm House. On September 28 of that year, Helen had a baby girl, Janet.

They didn't stay in that house long, because in the 1914 city directory, he is listed as the owner of a different house: this house. That fits with what we already know, actually. If you will recall, Annie was listed in the Santa Barbara city directory at her mother's address in 1913. What I didn't mention is that Annie is listed in the 1914 Pasadena city directory back at this address as a resident, not the homeowner. Also, from the city's records, we did know that Lucian was listed as a Pasadena Star subscriber here on January 6 of that year.

It seems clear to me what transpired here: Annie planned a long visit to her mother in Santa Barbara, so she arranged with Lucian for him to sell his house and move in here. That way, Lucian could save some money, and the Farm House would be well-sat while Annie was away. And so, Lucian moved his wife Helen and little baby daughter Janet back into the home of his teenage years for perhaps a year. Annie returned in time for the 1914 city directory survey, wherein it was assumed that Lucian, the eldest resident male, was the homeowner.

Contrast this to the apparent lack of planning when Annie went up to San Francisco in 1926 to be with John and Lena, leaving the Farm House unoccupied while buying a home up there. This convinces me that Annie left in a hurry in response to a sudden need for her presence, and that once she got there it was apparent that need would persist for an indefinite length of time.

Meanwhile, back in Pasadena, the 1914 city directory revealed another big change for Lucian: he was now the foreman of the Batchelder Tile Company.

Introducing Ernest Batchelder

I've come across the Batchelder name a great deal in my research on local history. It's a name that is virtually synonymous with Craftsman architecture in this city, and that's really just scratching the surface of this man's achievements and contributions.

Ernest A. Batchelder

Ernest A. Batchelder (1875-1957) was an artist, designer, educator and community leader. After a childhood spent in and around Nashua, New Hampshire, he attended the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, graduating in 1899 with two diplomas: one in drawing, painting and design, and another in the teaching of drawing with an emphasis on grade school instruction.

Seeking opportunities for self-improvement, he did what Archie and Annie had done: he moved to California. By 1901, he had found his way to Pasadena, and was soon employed as an instructor at Throop Polytechnic.

He thrived at this work, soon becoming known in the American arts community as both an authority on California artists and a leading educator in drawing and design. In recognition of his growing reputation (and to keep him from leaving for greener pastures), he was made a director of Throop's art department in 1907.

Despite this vote of confidence, Batchelder soon found that his welcome at Throop was wearing out—not because the school had soured on him, but because it had soured on drawing, design, and manual arts in general.

Education theory was undergoing a drastic shift at the time. The idea of a comprehensive, well-rounded education for all students was out; in was the idea of specialized, intellectually-stratified education targeted to a student's aptitudes. Under this new regime, study of the manual arts was considered a waste of time for those with a high scientific aptitude.

Largely orchestrated by the famed astronomer George Ellery Hale, Throop Polytechnic Institute made the decision in 1908 to specialize in engineering and the sciences, and began to spin off or terminate the other courses of study. The school underwent a series of name changes to reflect its changing mission, until at last in 1920 it settled on a name it could live with: California Institute of Technology.

Batchelder left Throop in 1909 with the intention of starting his own school to accommodate his students who had also been abandoned by their old alma mater. Having made the commitment to settle down for good in Pasadena, however, the first thing he did was to design and build himself a house on the rim of the Arroyo Seco, a lovely Craftsman-style home.

The Batchelder house.

Once the house was built, he built a shed in the back yard to accommodate his teaching efforts. He put a kiln in, and started calling in his old students. Things got cranking right away, and it wasn't very long before Batchelder was selling tiles to Greene and Greene, the famous Craftsman architectural firm. Soon, everyone was buying the tiles, and Batchelder's students were not only learning how to design and make tiles, but also how to market them.

Perhaps more importantly to Batchelder, they were gaining the dignity that comes from making a living from your work, the satisfaction that comes from having people value it, and the joy that comes from doing what you love. As Batchelder himself put it, "The dignity of labor is of the mind and heart, not of the hand alone."

By 1912, the tile business had outgrown Batchelder's backyard shed, and so he moved the business at about that time to a facility on Broadway (now Arroyo Parkway).

If you'd like to learn more about Ernest Batchelder (and there's a lot more worth learning), read Batchelder: Tilemaker, a biography by local resident and Occidental College professor Robert Winter. You'll learn a lot about the man, his work, and Pasadena history as well. As I said, I've come across the Batchelder name a great deal in my research.

Actually, I've come across that name a great deal in my backyard as well.

These tiles were used for many things by the Wilsons: as stepping stones, as plant bases, for erosion control. 

This one was right next to the house; as you can see, it's been painted the house color. I'm liable to find one or two of these whenever I dig in a new place around the grounds. Now I know how they got here.



Old School Connections

But let's get back to Lucian. When I first saw his significant upgrade in position, from shipping clerk to foreman, I was baffled. How could he just step into a job that obviously requires so much skill? It was simply inconceivable that Batchelder would put someone with no experience in such a crucial position, especially when at the time in question he'd just gotten a large, high-profile commission to design, manufacture and install a completely tile-lined interior for the Dutch Chocolate Shop on Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles.

No, that's just the time he'd put in someone in whose skills and knowledge he had a great deal of confidence.

That was when it occurred to me that Lucian must have attended Throop, and was one of the students who worked with Batchelder during the early days at the backyard kiln. It was that realization that caused me to look explicitly for a connection between Lucian and Throop, which first led me to the article mentioning Lucian's judging of a Throop track meet, and then to the golden key of the late-life interview.

Our next bit of information on Lucian is his World War I draft registration, filed June 5, 1917. He's still the foreman of the Batchelder Tile Company, but he's moved from the Farm House to his own place at 395 Hamilton, just a mile away (since lost to the Foothill Freeway). He and Helen now have two more children, John Hornbrook and Helen Muriel. He is also listed as providing sole support to his mother Annie. That may seem like a heavy load for a 28-year-old, but things were different back then. People grew up faster.

Moving On Up

Next is the 1920 Census. He's still at the same address, and no more children have come, but his recently-widowed mother-in-law and his brother-in-law Clifton have moved in, and things seem to have changed for him at work: his occupation is listed as "manufacturer, tile factory", and in the field labeled "Employer, salary or wage worker, or working on own account," he answered "own account." It's hard to reconcile one thing with the other. Let's look on a little further to see if we can make some sense of this.

The 1921 Pasadena city directory offers no clues, listing only his wife Helen and the 395 Hamilton address, but Lucian is also listed the same year in the Los Angeles city directory, and his place of work is listed as the "Batchelder-Wilson Co."

Batchelder-Wilson. Is it a coincidence? Wilson is a pretty common name, especially in Pasadena. Let's see what Robert Winter, Ernest Batchelder's biographer, has to say:

Certainly the prosperous twenties were the most lucrative for the Batchelder-Wilson Company. Significant was the addition of a business partner, Lucian H. Wilson, who most likely managed the business operations while Batchelder oversaw design and production [italics mine].(1)

I would say that this makes our Lucian a historically-significant person hereabouts. Wouldn't you?

I'm pretty sure, however, that the division of responsibilities between Lucian and Ernest Batchelder was rather different from what Mr. Winter surmised. From what I have learned about Lucian, I'm fairly sure that production—or at very least the management and operation of the kilns—was his primary responsibility, while Batchelder oversaw design, sales and service (and conceivably the glazing process as well). Lucian may have had a significant role in the financial-management part of the business operations, because he certainly was smart with a dollar, but other than that he never showed much flair for business administration. Besides, I imagine both he and Batchelder were too busy with their main concerns to be involved intimately with the day-to-day operation of the business office.

By the way, this explains John Encell's listed occupation in the 1930 Census, that of clerk in a tile factory. I guess we now know which tile factory. Lucian was repaying the favor his brother did for him back when he was a plastering contractor.

The Twenties was a fruitful, prosperous decade for the Batchelder-Wilson Company. It moved at about the time Lucian became a partner to much larger digs near downtown Los Angeles, and soon were keeping eleven kilns constantly busy. The use of Batchelder tile had already become a common selling point in houses and apartments all over the county, and the company was doing major installations that dwarfed the Dutch Chocolate Shop: showrooms, building lobbies, entire hotels. By the end of the decade, the company had offices in New York and Chicago, and Batchelder tile was being installed nationwide.

From the Galveston Daily News, May 1, 1929.

The decade was fruitful and prosperous for Lucian and Helen as well. The family grew by four: Elizabeth in 1921, Richard H. in 1922, Archibald Clifton in 1924 and David Lucian in 1929. By the 1930 Census, the family had moved to a parkside residence on Avenue 49, in a bucolic area of Highland Park next to the Arroyo Seco, complete with a live-in maid.

Of course, by that Census the good times had already come to an end for everybody, as the Great Depression set in. Elaborate tile installations had suddenly become a shameful extravagance, and by 1932 the Batchelder-Wilson Company had closed its doors for good. Lucian emerged from that with enough capital to purchase a Chevrolet dealership, but he gave that up before too long. Quoting from his later newspaper interview:

"I had," [Lucian] says, "one short spasm of about a year as the operator of a Chevrolet agency. That’s when I learned that I was not a salesman." He could sell new cars but apparently was much too truthful to peddle the used ones. He could not resist telling potential buyers what was wrong with the old cars and consequently soon had an overabundance of those taken on trade.(2)

Also in 1933, Lucian and Helen saw one last addition to the brood, Constance, giving them a total of eight children, four boys and four girls.

By 1935 the family had moved to more modest digs further uptown on Avenue 40. During this period he worked for a brick and pipe manufacturing company, according to his later interview, mostly at the kilns.

Although Lucian never complains in his interview, it must have been quite a humbling experience to be a mere employee again after having been a principal in a major national company for over a decade. Then again, Lucian always had a job, even in the depths of the Great Depression; his Throop education had functioned precisely as designed. Ironically, his old teacher Ernest Batchelder was unable to find a job from 1932 to 1936, though not for want of trying(3).

By the time of the 1940 Census, Lucian's fortunes had improved somewhat. He was the proprietor of an auto-repair business. Of course, his living expenses had decreased: his three eldest children were already out of the house. Janet and John were married, and as I mentioned in the last post, Helen Muriel was living here at the Farm House with her uncle John and grandmother Annie. She was working as a bookkeeper.

Yes, life was moving on for Lucian. He was 52, he'd been married for 28 years, he had eight children, and had accumulated a very respectable record of achievement. Conditions were ideal for him to coast through a nice, comfortable, quiet second half.

But Lucian wasn't nearly ready for quietude. Stasis had never been part of his curriculum vitae, and it wasn't about to be. For better or worse, Lucian had always been a bold actor, and he was soon to make a major take-no-prisoners stage dive into an entirely new world.

Next: Lucian leaves Los Angeles.

* * * 

The Princess of the Black Forest.

1. Winter, Robert, Batchelder: Tilemaker (Glendale, California: Balcony Press, 1999), p. 67. 
2. Van Dornum, Rae, "Not Even A Broken Neck Could Stop This Fellow", Henderson Home News, October 19, 1972, p. 6.
3. Winter, p. 120.