Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

A big Farm House Merry Christmas to you all, from the newly-augmented Farm House Gang!

Sally (L) and Peter, born on Halloween, arrived at Christmastime.

Friday, December 16, 2011


If you're waiting for some sort of play on words involving Rolling Stones references, you can just forget it. I'm just not up to wordplay this evening. You'll have to get your satisfaction elsewhere.

So as I was saying, that was one Hell of a windstorm, the worst weather this Californio had ever been through. And it left our grounds in disarray.

Our arborist did come back later and take away the large boughs seen in this picture, but that still left a lot of mess to deal with.

Here's the view looking from the corner of the garage to the back of the lot:

It may not be obvious here, but the debris here is about eight inches deep. Did I say "debris"? I meant to say "mulch."

Anyway, I started working as hard as I could to clean up the mess from the front of the garage forwards. I worked as hard as I could for two days, and then I fell ill. I was starting to feel better when we got an e-mail from the city saying that we could put as much debris as we had in the gutter area along the street, and it would be picked up later. 

So I got well real quick and started hauling out as much as I could, starting with the south side (so I could resume the painting work as soon as possible) and working my way back. I knew I couldn't fit it all out in front, but I resolved to get as much of it out there as I could before they picked it up.

Well, by that Sunday (about five days later) I had gotten all the way around to the front of the garage, where the last of the heavy debris deposits were. It was supposed to rain that evening, but it was only maybe an hour's work left, and since I didn't expect them to be picking up on Sunday I took my time.

Just as I finally got out there to start, I heard the sounds of heavy machinery. Then, I kept hearing the sounds of heavy machinery. Right after that, I heard the sounds of heavy machinery getting closer. I ran to the street and saw a big tractor scooping up the debris at the end of the block, about 150 feet away, and doing a pretty quick job of it. I had about ten minutes tops to do that hour's work, and amidst a fusillade of foul words that I sure hope were drowned out by the heavy machinery, I managed to haul out the last of the stuff just in time. 

That night, it rained just enough to settle the dirt, and the next day I took a few photos just to document the back yard's new airier look. Here's one looking in the same general area as the one above:

As I said, airier. You can see that the olive tree still stands, but in a severely abridged state, and the wounds it sustained will eventually prove fatal, I am sorry to say. But for now it lives, and for that we are grateful. After all, that tree almost certainly predates my grandparents. Well, at least now that little scrub oak will have its day in the sun. Plus, now we can actually grow some roses back there.

Even as I was taking these pictures, I was getting sick again, much sicker than before, and sick I still am, five days later. Drat! DRAT!!


* * *

"Words fail me."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paul Bunyan Jr.

Wednesday I got an especially early start on the patching work, because I knew that high winds were going to be coming in the late afternoon, and I wanted to be all done before then, so I could get ready.

We customarily get some pretty stiff winds this time of year: 30 to 35 MPH, with gusts to 45 MPH tops. Things get rather messy around here during these winds: Plant pots get knocked over, all the dead leaves and other debris get torn off the trees, the street becomes covered with those annoying palm fronds,  and the occasional larger limb comes down as well. So I wrapped things up early and laid the ladders down on the ground so they wouldn't get blown over and break something.

The winds came in due course, and they seemed rather more forceful than usual. I went to the back door and looked out. To my dismay, our metal-framed, canvas-skinned gazebo had been blown off its moorings and was resting on its side some distance away against the side fence. That was our first warning that this would not be our usual windstorm.

This saddened Wifey,  because she loved that gazebo. I had fitted it with a nice bright light fixture, and she enjoyed sitting out there in the evenings. I told her not to worry, that it looked unharmed, and that I was reasonably sure that we could just put it back up and it would be fine.

By 7 PM, the winds were blowing a steady 45 MPH, and the gusts were more like 60. I began to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Fasten your seat belts, I thought to myself; it's going to be a bumpy night.

The winds continued to intensify, and by 8 PM the steady winds were up to about 50. The palm trees were leaned over at a 60 degree angle, but I wasn't worried about them. I was worried about the pines, and the massive oak on the other side of the driveway. The upper limbs of all the trees were being whipped about alarmingly in the wind. At this point, it seemed perfectly rational to be terrified.

Somewhat later on, Wifey was standing in the parlor looking out the bay window looking at the relatively small pine tree right in front of the house. It was only about 60 feet tall and two feet in diameter at its base. She said that she'd seen the base of the tree wobbling, but I thought it was just her imagination. We went back to the TV and tried to watch a movie, turning up the volume in order to drown out the shrieking of the storm.

Then came a sound that could not be drowned out: a sickening CRACCCCCCCCK! We ran to the parlor, looked out the window, and saw this:

Oh, my Lord. What a nightmare! a 60-foot tree, down on the ground, headed right towards the cars in our neighbor's driveway. We ran out, dreading what we would see. This is what we saw:

Sweet Providence, it fell between their cars! It missed the car in the picture by less than an inch. Still, this blocked one of their cars from exiting the driveway, so I resolved to cut the tree and drag the top of it out of their way. I have a whole collection of handsaws, ranging from tiny to massive, designed for arboreal disassembly. I selected a curved one, about two feet long with vicious teeth, and started sawing. Wifey stood by to ensure that the cut piece did not roll over and hit the car.

Just then, the wind kicked into high gear. I looked up at the huge pine between the houses. We were right in its path of destruction should it fall over. I told Wifey, "If I say 'run', or you hear any cracking or tearing sounds, run that way!", pointing towards our driveway. I started sawing as fast as I could, and then some. When I'd gotten about halfway through, I moved to the other side of the tree, so it would tend to fall straight down. At that point, I had my back to the big tree.

Then, an insanely violent gust blew by, and I heard the sickening sound of splintering wood again. "RUN!" I shouted, but I couldn't run the way I'd told Wifey to go, because I was on the wrong side of the tree, and one of its boughs completely blocked my way. So I went between our neighbors' cars, ran down their driveway, then turned up the street towards our house—and right into the wind.

I've seen the gag in films a hundred times: someone finds himself caught out in a storm, he starts running as hard as he can, and he doesn't get anywhere because the wind is holding him in place. I never had any idea that this kind of thing actually happened in real life! Once I turned into the wind, I put my head down and started running as hard as I could, and after about six strides I looked up to check my progress around the felled tree. I hadn't even cleared the neighbors' driveway yet. It's a good thing that the big pine wasn't really falling, because I'd already have been a pancake.

I kept running as if on a treadmill until I finally figured out that I'd make faster headway simply by walking with long strides. It seemed as if I were walking around the block, but I eventually made it all the way back around the felled tree, and I met up with Wifey again on the veranda. We had lost track of each other out there in the maelstrom.

Once back inside, I felt rather silly having gotten so worked up that I imagined the sound of splintering wood. "Oh, well," I mused, "at least Wifey didn't notice my pathetic Buster Keaton impression."

Then I looked out the back door. The great majority of the south olive tree had split off from the main trunk—and landed on what had once been our gazebo.

Hey! I hadn't imagined that big splintering sound! Woo-hoo!

From that point on, I was all nerves. I was honestly afraid. Mostly it was perfectly rational fear of someone or something getting hurt by falling trees, but a little of it was fear of uncharted territory. This was by far the most violent weather I had ever experienced.

Look, I know that this was not terribly catastrophic weather, as catastrophic weather goes. I completely understand that compared to hurricanes or tornadoes, our event was mild. For those of you who live in Illinois or Texas, this sort of event is called December.

The thing is, this is California. Unless you live in geographically risky or foolish places, such as Big Bear or Malibu, you're not supposed to get catastrophic weather. See, that's the tradeoff. In exchange for the ever-present chance that everything you own will be destroyed in 60 seconds by an earthquake, you don't have to worry about old Mother Earth trying to kill you with catastrophic storms. It's a good system. I like it that way. In my personal experience, it has worked quite nicely for over fifty years.

When it seems as if the Basic Agreement has suddenly changed, then, it is certainly a cause for some concern. As I said, this was the most violent weather I had ever experienced, and I was reasonably sure that it was the most violent weather the Farm House had seen in half a century. I had no idea whether the trees were going to hold, and no idea what would happen if they didn't. With their size and proximity, and the light structure of the Farm House, the one thing I was pretty sure of was that a particularly fell, but reasonably possible, set of occurrences would kill one or more of us and destroy the house.

With this in my mind, I proceeded to be more terrified than I have ever been. It was like the first split-second reaction to an earthquake, extended over an entire night. See, in an earthquake the terror goes away in an instant, because my emergency response system kicks in, and I know exactly what to do. Here, however, there was nothing to do but try to keep my charges as safe as I could as the storm continued to rise in fury.

For the next few hours, that meant staying in the kitchen. It was of the newest, stoutest construction, and it was in the location least likely to be in the path of destruction. Moreover, if things really got ugly the basement was right beneath us. I managed to corral Wifey for that long; she surfed the Net cool as a Kool-Pop, while I tried to sit still and get my heart to stop pounding. Just after 1 AM, she called our arborist thinking that she'd leave a message, but he answered himself. Oops. But he was extremely gracious about it, saying he was expecting calls.

After a while, the storm stopped worsening and sat at the same level of intensity, with occasional gusts and infrequent periods of relative calmness. I figured that whatever hadn't come down so far wasn't going to come down as long as things didn't get worse, so I judged that it was worth the risk of going upstairs just to get some rest. Wifey slept well, but I kept waking up every time the wind gusted, because when it did the house rumbled ominously.

At last I fell asleep from pure exhaustion, and Wifey kindly let me sleep in when our arborist knocked on the door at 6:30 AM, ready to start cleaning up the arboreal carnage. Although the forecast had called for the gale to continue through the next day, by dawn things had calmed down significantly. I had stopped taking pictures after our caper outside, so Wifey took some pictures of the carnage before our arborist started to clean it up. It was still pretty dark at that point, so some of the pictures are a bit blurry.

Here's the olive tree. The broken carcass of the gazebo is behind 
and under the tree in the left half of the picture.

The big pine between the houses didn't get off without some damage.

This and one other smaller break were all that we lost on the 
big oak, thank goodness.

The broken oak limb from the front. This made a lot of noise in the wind 
during the night; I was sure it was going to break a window, but it didn't.

* * *

Wifey was a smart cookie indeed to call our arborist so early, because that allowed us to get our neighbors' driveway cleared in time for them not to be inconvenienced. Not that they complained. No, they were extremely gracious about the whole thing. Good neighbors are among the greatest blessings in the world. They were even laughing over the matter of the felled pine tree knocking down their telephone line: the line did not break, and was still working, until it was broken by the tall antenna on an AT&T service vehicle. The guy riding shotgun leaned out the window and yelled, "We'll be right back to fix that!"

By noon or thereabouts, all our fallen trunks and limbs were cut up and moved out of the way. There remains one major broken limb that still hangs from the front pine tree, right over the driveway and our power drop.

The red arrow points to the break. Note the power drop directly below.

The arborist was unwilling to try to remove it because the power drop underneath made that a very risky proposition. As it is, fortunately, it is in no immediate danger of falling, because it is still well-connected to the tree. At this point, we're hoping Pasadena Water and Power will remove it; otherwise, we'll have to have them disconnect our service temporarily so the arborist can remove the limb safely.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Patching Away on The Thin Wood of A New Day

I've been working away at the patching. I've worked my way all the way across the belt course and down the corner board on the west end of the side. As I should have anticipated, I found a lot of little problems with the corner board. The biggest of these is that the earlywood is all worn away, leaving the board heavily grooved all the way along it. This means I pretty much have to skim-coat the entire board with putty. And of course, there are the usual nail holes and divots to fill in.

Another problem is that the corner board mounted perpendicularly to the one I'm patching, facing west on the front of the house, has been pulled away from the wall by the weight of the gutter downspout. I was able to fix this with a few well-placed screws in the front corner board.

This pulled the board back into place, and closed the gap between it and the corner board I am patching,

Since taking this picture, I've made a patching pass all the way down the board. Man, it was great to be working on solid ground for the first time in a while.

The bottom of the board is cracked, because as part of the distortion of the frame from the foundation sag, a half-inch gap opened up between it and the wall. Someone tried nailing in a massive framing nail to correct this, which caused the crack. Here I'm doing a dry test run with the clamp to make sure everything will line up correctly:

As you can see, everything lined up pretty well, so I epoxied everything up and then patched it. Tomorrow, I'll stick a shim between the board and the wall so I can screw it down properly.

Meanwhile, way back up on the belt course, I noticed a problem with a spot I had already patched:

I deserved this, because I didn't take the time to fix it properly in the first place. When patching butt joints seamlessly, one should always drill holes in both pieces and soak the wood with LiquidWood before patching. That way, when the epoxy cures the two pieces are locked together, becoming as a practical matter one piece. Apparently all the carpentry work I did on this trim run caused stress on this joint and pulled it apart. Thus, I have gone back and re-done this joint properly, drilling holes all around, injecting LiquidWood in them, and then patching up the cracks with WoodEpox.

A few more patching runs and I'll be done with the belt course and corner board. Then, I will patch up the trim between the siding and the foundation blocks (I forget what the proper term is for that trim course right now), and then I'll be more or less ready for the final priming and painting. That'll be my Christmas present to myself.

* * *

"Shouldn't there be a big pointy tree with lots of prey on it here by now?"

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Farm House Effect: Restoring A Phone

The patching of the belt course continues apace. Sadly, that activity isn't any more interesting now than it was in the last post, and we all know how that went. So, in order to slake the unquenchable thirst of my Brobdingnagian audience for new posts on this Thanksgiving weekend, I thought I'd take a little side trip in our tales of restoration.

You will recall my discussing the Farm House Effect: the extension of one's historical purview to encompass the lifetime of the old home he is restoring. This has made itself most apparent to Wifey and me in our fascination with the history of everyday things one takes for granted, such as phones.

During the excruciatingly long gestation period of the Farm House restoration plan, I was becoming increasingly antsy to be doing something, anything, to get ready for our coming life in our new old home. During this time, our friends Nik and Jo moved into their own fine old vernacular Craftsman home, "Tara", a scant half-mile away from the Farm House. In the experiencing of their own "Tara Effect", they purchased a restored old Western Electric Imperial 202 phone. This was a model Western Electric produced in the early Fifties to commemorate its 75th anniversary, a  revamped Model 202 with a gold-plated body and an ivory-painted handset. 

Not Nik and Jo's phone, but one much like it.

Nik and Jo chose it because they wanted to have a phone that contributed to the period feel they were working to achieve for their home.

It's a lovely phone, and Nik and Jo's idea struck Wifey and me as a brilliant one. The phone especially fired my imagination because my grandparents had a black 202 in their home when I was a boy. I was always fascinated by that phone, with its graceful lines, pretty porcelain number plate, huge handset, and the dial that purred like a mechanical cat when someone spun it. I loved the big resonant click that came out when one operated the switchhook, and the loud, clear ring of the bellbox on the wall.

My grandparents' 202 looked like this, but it was in better shape and had a coiled rubber cord.

Compared to this magnificent machine, our plain old WE 500 at home was ugly and boring, the Organization Man of telephones.

A WE 500 in the Farm House study just like the one we had at home when I was a little boy.

It was from this comparison between the prehistoric (which in my early years meant "more than ten years old") 202 and the contemporary 500 that I first got the idea that old things were more grand, more beautiful, just plain better than new things.

So we adopted Nik and Jo's idea, and kinda went hog-wild with it. We decided to get a bunch of old phones from different eras and deploy them throughout the Farm House. We would hardly be able to find any phone that wasn't appropriate, because the phone had been invented a scant nine years before the Farm House's inception. We thought it would be fun to watch our guests delight at the discovery of a vintage phone, in working condition and looking fabulous, in each room they visited.

We soon learned that this idea was cost-prohibitive using already-restored phones, but was easily affordable if we restored the phones ourselves. This tapped even deeper into the Farm House Effect, which now that I think of it must have some relation to the nesting instinct. In any event, we soon had quite an inventory of old phones and phone parts, and I was in business.

I read up on how phones work and how they are wired, and how to re-wire them if needed to work with modern equipment. I puttered around with various phones, restoring them functionally and cleaning up their exteriors, until I felt reasonably confident in my knowledge.

Then, I undertook my first thorough restoration. I wanted to start with a black 202 like the one my grandparents had, but that would have required spray-painting the phone body, and I didn't feel I was quite ready for that. So I picked a phone that wouldn't need painting, a 1947 302.

In service from 1937 to 1958, the Western Electric Model 302 is often referred to nowadays as the "I Love Lucy phone", because it's the phone Lucy and Ricky had in their New York apartment (they updated to a WE 500 when they moved to Connecticut). The 302 was Western Electric's first model that contained all needed circuitry within the body of the telephone itself. It began its life with a body made of pot metal, but in 1941, with all metals becoming valuable because of the escalating war in Europe, Western Electric switched to a molded thermoplastic body.

We found our restoration candidate on eBay. It worked, more or less, but it wasn't very pretty.

It was missing its number card holder, and the body was heavily scuffed and in places deeply scratched.

These photos don't accurately depict the depth of the scratches; clearly someone had a serious grievance with the phone company.

Did you know that thermoplastic like this can be refinished in much the same way as is metal? At the time, I had just learned that this was possible, and I was eager to try my hand at it. 

First, I removed the body shell, and then I sanded out all the deep scratches, scuffs and dents.

Then, I sanded the whole body with a finer-grit sandpaper, taking care to remove all the scratches from the first sanding:

The basic procedure is to sand out the damage, then keep sanding with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. One sands until all the scratches of the previous grit are removed, then switches to the next finer grit and does the same thing, sanding perpendicularly to the previous pass so the previous grit's scratches are easy to discern. This continues until the scratches are fine enough to be polished out readily. This is the same procedure one uses with  metal; the only difference is that one starts with a finer grit because plastic is softer. I used wet sandpaper for all but the first two passes.

This was a long process; the above pass was done with 220 grit sandpaper, and I finished off with 2000 grit. Here's what it looked like at that point:

As you can see, all this sanding has brought the surface back to a soft shine, with hardly any suggestion of scratches. This necessarily took a long time; I typically did this work at night, sitting with the family watching Angels games.

At the same time, I was restoring the inner workings. I took everything apart, cleaned off all the dirt and corrosion, and put it all back together with replacement parts as necessary, lubricating all the moving parts and electrical connections to ensure proper mechanical and electrical function. 

Oh, yes. This picture reminds me that I restored the bakelite handset in much the same way as the phone body, but there are some differences. Whereas the body is made of thermoplastic, which is completely solid and unitary in composition, bakelite is a phenolic resin mixed with a filler, usually wood flour. The thermoplastic is molded in a melted state, and it hardens as it cools; bakelite is either molded under heat and pressure or extruded, and it hardens from a chemical reaction brought about by the heat and pressure.

Because the thermoplastic used in the phone body is the same all the way through, sanding down to undamaged material and then polishing it will restore the original appearance; because it is fairly stable chemically, it does not change appreciably with age. Bakelite, on the other hand, is somewhat unstable; while the molding process naturally forces a smooth layer of resin to the surface, exposure to ultraviolet rays breaks it down, causing a fine layer of phenyl alcohol to form on the surface. This yellows and oxidizes the surface, and eventually it begins to reflect the texture of the filler material. For this reason, aged bakelite can never be brought back to its full original shine. Thus, the procedure here is to start with a very fine-grit sandpaper to remove all the oxidized and yellowed material, then sand with progressively finer grits just until the scratches are gone and the sheen is even. This is a much shorter process than with the thermoplastic.

With the sanding all done on the body and handset, the final step is to polish them on a buffing machine with a string buff and some plastic polish, which comes in the form of a waxy white bar. This has to be done with great care with the thermoplastic in order to prevent heating the surface and thus distorting it. With the bakelite, more polish and more pressure are used in order to fill in some of the surface irregularities.

After all this, here was the result:

I was positively stunned by how nice the phone looked: wow, I did that? Aside from the finger wheel, the phone was pristine, as if it were about ten years old and gently treated its whole life. When I replaced the fingerwheel with a restored one a week later, the effect was complete. Moreover, the phone worked perfectly, with the best sound quality I had ever heard from a phone, bar none. It has ever since been my preferred phone for a good long phone conversation.

And so we had our first phone with which to wow visitors to the Farm House. It had come at a significant cost—my hands were severely weakened by the long period of constant sanding, and have even now not fully recovered—but it was worth it to have followed through on a plan with such resounding success. When we moved into the Farm House, I placed it in a fairly prominent place, and waited for the expressions of delighted surprise from visitors.

To this date, six years later, not one person has even noticed the damn phone. Not. One. Person.

The whole affair brings to mind the immortal words of the late, great Rick Nelson:

Well, it's all right now
I've learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please anyone
so you've got to kill yourself.

Or something like that.

* * *

"Get that phone, will ya? I'm not in to anybody."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Serious Putty

When Wifey heard about my difficulty finding the fallen screws in among the pine needles, she remarked, "You could have used a magnet to find them." That reminded me that I have a magnet specifically designed for such a task that I had forgotten about. I hate to sound clich├ęd, but: d'oh!

Since the closing of Furnace Gap, I've been puttying my way along the rest of the belt course. It's slow work, which is why I haven't posted for a few days; puttying in progress seems like rather a boring subject, so I usually leave it out of the narrative, showing only the end product if anything.

Then it occurred to me that this whole blog could be considered rather boring unless one is specifically interested in its subject matter. One of my reasons for writing this blog is to illustrate procedures that are not generally covered in the instructional literature readily available in the usual places, and what I call "putty sculpting" certainly qualifies for that distinction. And so, all aboard the Boredom Express!

Because I must work along the long, narrow strip of the belt course at the top of an extension ladder, the work naturally breaks itself up into sections, the width of which is my safe reach to each side of the ladder: about four feet for close work, and up to six for simple tasks. Some of the patching I can do in one pass, but the more complex patches can take up to three passes. Thus, at any given time during this work I will have areas in different degrees of completeness which decrease as one moves to the left.

Here is the area I pictured in the last post, after two passes with the putty (sanded down after each pass):

It looks a lot better now, but it's not quite done; areas like this take several passes because there are many areas that need patching from several different angles that tend to interfere with each other. If I try to do too much at once, I end up dislodging putty I've already placed.

My main patching tools are flexible putty knives in one-inch and two-inch widths, but they are of limited usefulness on contoured surfaces. In the search for tools more applicable to detailed work, I've had great success looking in artists' catalogues. In the task at hand, one tool in particular is very useful, which I believe is intended for sculpting clay. Here, I'm using it to make a difficult concave patch:

Otherwise, I'd have to slide a putty knife down the divot, trying to stay close to the proper curvature: a much trickier proposition, and one that invariably leaves a big blob of putty to sand off. In contoured areas, the less putty there is to sand off, the smaller the chance of distorting the profile of the trim.

Here is this area after I completed the final patching:

This will be very easy to sand back to profile once it hardens. I'm really on my game now, such as it is. It always takes me several days to get my putty-sculpting chops back up after a layoff; it's just one of those skill sets that does not stay resident in my active mind. I really need more RAM.

From here, I moved on down to the next station, where lies the area I discussed in great detail back in April. 

Here it is before any puttying. This was the area that bore the brunt of the foundation's settling below and to the left of this picture.  This forced the left lower trim piece down; butted tightly against the right lower trim piece, the friction splintered the piece severely at its right end. In fact, the stress was so great upon this piece that cracks like the ones you see above opened up along its entire length.

At the same time, the top left trim piece was forced inwards, and the top right one outwards; this displacement is not apparent in the photo, although the resulting damage clearly is. 

Here is a close-up of the area after the second patching pass:

Now you can see clearly the significant front-back displacement of the two top pieces, but what you can't see is that the bottom half of the bottom left piece is sticking out a bit as well. I didn't see it myself until this point. Because of these displacements, the patching at this spot is going to take several more passes.

The difficulty here lies in the fact that I obviously can't completely eradicate the discrepancies here, as I was able to do for the most part with the gap in the middle trim pieces further up the belt course. I thus have to contrive to handle the discrepancies as gracefully as possible, and just how much gracefulness I can get away with will take some trial and error. More to the point, I know I can eliminate the front-back discrepancy in the lower trim pieces, but I'm not at all sure what I can get away with concerning the top trim pieces.

Tune in again for the next exciting installment of "The Trim-Jog Incident!"

* * *

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Furnace Gap, 1943–2011

As William F. Buckley might have said, he gone!

Yes, the Furnace Gap Elimination Project is complete. The task I most dreaded when I began working on the south side really wasn't so hard after all.

I've in fact finished the patching of the belt course all the way from the right end to a foot or so to the left of the Gap. Most of what remains is pretty easy except for a few rough patches, notably this one:

Looks like someone had a rough day with the hammer. I can empathize, because I had a pretty rough day myself. Nothing in particular was wrong; it was simply that I was not on my game today. Oh boy, was I not on my game today. It was one of those days when I really had no business being up on a ladder, especially not an extension ladder.

For the most part, I'm pretty comfortable on any sort of stepladder, as long as it is sturdy and on solid ground. This is because most of the time with a stepladder you can position it so that your center of gravity is firmly within the ladder's legs, tending towards the ladder, so that if you get wobbly you'll tend to wobble against the ladder.

With an extension ladder, on the other hand, your center of gravity is at best just slightly in front of the plane of your feet, and most often off to one side of the ladder. In other words, you are in constant danger of falling off if you forget where you are for a split-second. Thus, you are compelled to concentrate on two things at all times: what you are doing, and keeping your balance. 

This is why I hate working on extension ladders. Well, it's a big part of why I hate it. I also hate having to carry up all my tools and materials in a bucket and an apron, having to rummage through said bucket (hanging off the side of the ladder) and apron for what I need with one hand while holding on to the ladder with the other, and then having to carry everything back down the ladder and move it (it's heavy!) every few feet. This is unpleasant enough on a good day.

On a day like I had today, the whole affair becomes high adventure.

Not only were my eyes simply not working right, and for no good reason, but my sense of balance never really reported for work. Not that I was at all dizzy; it was just that I could never find stable equilibrium. As a result, I had to concentrate so much upon just staying up there that there weren't many resources left for what I was trying to get done. Oh, the sanding went well enough, but everything else was quite a challenge. 

At one point, I was driving a few screws up through the bottom trim piece to pull it back in line with the top; this was particularly thrilling, because I had to stay up without holding on. At that point, I had the box of screws open in the bucket so I could reach in and get them as needed; while I was driving one of the screws, somehow the bucket upended, and all the screws disappeared into the thick blanket of pine needles below. I have no idea how that happened. But hey, at least I was still on the ladder! And so I spent the next half-hour looking for pine-needle-colored screws in the pine needles, mostly by feel.

I ended up getting a reasonable amount of work done through sheer stubbornness, but along the way a few other items jumped ship. I still haven't found my pine-needle-colored nail set.

"Your nail set's stuck in your hair."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Veterans' Day!

As the headline says, I hope you all had a Veterans' Day that was happy. Happy, and at least partially occupied with thoughts of the veterans, and of the future veterans, in your life. Thoughts, and gratitude.

As is evident in the picture above, I've got both the casings on the south side primed now. The rain did not appear on Friday as advertised, and the first half of it was actually rather nice, if breezy, before the cloud cover came. Nevertheless, I finished priming the west casing just as the light failed Thursday evening. Here's a closer look:

I could do some more patching work, but I have a feeling that I won't. I'd really like to be done with this side soon.

On Thursday, I also removed the mold pieces from the Furnace Gap Elimination Project, Phase I. Although I coated the pieces thoroughly with mold release agent, they at first refused to budge after I removed the screws. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; epoxy is, after all, an adhesive. Happily, the release agent did ultimately do its job; the pieces popped off cleanly once I persuaded them with a putty knife and a rubber mallet.

Not bad at all! I only missed one little area in the middle of the front. This does illustrate, however, the folly of assuming straight or parallel lines anywhere on the house; although the front piece was straight, and I put it on straight, still you can see that the putty line is too low on the bottom at the right. But it's not a problem; that's what sandpaper is for.

It's not a straight line, but a remarkable simulation! Note that I've extended the plane back beyond where it will meet the lower half of the profile; that's so I can maintain the gap between the two components of the belt course through the patch. Not that the gap needs to go back more than about a quarter of an inch at most, but establishing this plane now will make establishing the gap much easier during Phase II.

That, however, will have to wait until after the rain.

* * *

Thanks, Sergeant.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rendezvous at Furnace Gap

Today I worked on filling in Furnace Gap, the passage cut out of the belt course back in 1943 for the vent from the old floor furnace that used to sit at the bottom of the stairs. 

The first thing I did was to sink a few screws into the wood surrounding Furnace Gap in the upper trim piece. These will serve to link the putty mass mechanically to the wood, in order to prevent cracks around the patch later on. 

Not that the putty won't stick well to the wood, but these screws will keep the epoxy moving in concert with the wood as it expands and contracts with changing temperature.

Then, I attached the pieces of my ad hoc mold:

I made them wide enough to patch the divots adjacent to the hole at the same time.

Once the mold was firmly attached, I pressed epoxy up into the mold with my gloved fingers, making sure it filled the void completely and completely enveloped the embedded screws. Then, I leveled the surface with a putty knife. It took three ounces of putty.

I stopped at this point because it will make accurate forming of the patch easier. This way, I can establish a nice flat surface for the overhang, and build in the small gap between the two trim pieces much more easily, without having to depend entirely upon carving it out later. Carrying this gap across the patch is essential to the patch's blending in imperceptibly. 

I built a ridge into the bottom and kept open a path to the gap in the back so that the bottom half of the patch will key in to the top half and to the surrounding wood as well. 

* * *

"Let's see. . .f/5.6 at 1/125 sec. That should work. Now where's the danged shutter button?"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


With the rain all cleared out for a few days, I set about the task of finishing the reassembly of the west casing so I can get it primed before the rain returns.

After cutting the new cap pieces to fit, I removed them and prepared them for their life out in the elements. End grain is like a bundle of straws, ready to suck up any available moisture at the first opportunity. With the ends of the cap pieces pointing up at their junction, it's no surprise that the old cap pieces ended up looking like this after 126 years:

In order to prevent this with the new cap pieces, I gave the ends a pre-emptive drink of LiquidWood, standing them on end in it until they had drunk their fill. I did this on the outer ends for good measure, then wiped off the excess and gave them a ride in the dryer.

This permanently seals the end grain, and effectively counteracts the tendency of the redwood to splinter at the ends.

Then, I primed the cap pieces and aprons on all sides. The world would be a better place if everyone backprimed.

Actually, I've been doing a lot of work on the aprons behind the scenes since last we saw them in May, when I was having trouble getting the epoxy I had soaked them in to cure. I wanted them to look good so that they would blend in with the new cap pieces, so I carefully patched and sanded them. After several patch/sand cycles, they still had a great many little divots too small for the epoxy to fill.

So I pulled out an old weapon I hadn't used for years: Hasco brushing putty. This is a very fine-grained putty that brushes on as a very thick paint, but is sanded smooth like a putty once it dries. One applies it in a thick coat over a piece, then sands it level with very fine sandpaper. Its fine grain fills tiny irregularities, leaving a nice, smooth surface that takes paint readily.

SmooOOOOOth! By the way, it is now marketed in this country under the Fine Paints of Europe brand.

Anyway, with all the needed pieces primed up and ready, I re-attached the cap pieces, then nailed the apron pieces in place. That wasn't easy, because even after rehabilitation the aprons still bear the dimensional distortions of all those years of being out in the weather, so I had to account for all the distortions in my positioning of them. But I got everything to line up properly in due course.

Hey, now! Won't that wow the neighborhood.

* * *

"You missed a spot."