Sunday, April 24, 2011

Junk With A Capital J

It's been a war of attrition with the Farm House work this week. The mood was a bit somber here, as it usually is during semana santa, and the weather matched the mood perfectly. Still, the City must see steady progress, and so I just kept plugging.

I've got the basic lines established very well on this part of the belt course reconstruction, but I've finally given up on this batch of epoxy; it's so hard to work with that it's a waste of time to put a finer point on things with it. I've ordered a fresh batch direct from Abatron, and this task will have to wait until it comes.

My recent complaints notwithstanding, one really can work wonders with the combination of LiquidWood and WoodEpox. I honestly couldn't do a proper job without them. Still, it is essential to understand that they merely fill the voids in the wood with plastic. This arrests further deterioration, but it does not reverse deterioration that has already occurred. Past a certain point, wood becomes too deteriorated to be saved by any means.

So it was, I discovered, with the cap pieces on the west window casing. Once I had removed them and placed them on my workbench, here is what I saw:

Actually, they don't look that bad here, because it is hard to see that both of them are warped upwards on the right side, and parts of each are warped forwards or backwards (towards or away from the camera). Here's a closer look at one of them:

This is the bottom end of the right cap piece, which has split into three parts. The top part is more or less straight, having stayed with the house as the other two parts moved south. Since the wood is absolutely devoid of lignin, it is utterly rigid and quite brittle; there is no way I can bring the bottom two parts back in line with the top one. The most I could do if I managed to avoid breaking the piece would be to bend the straight piece to meet the bent ones.

And therein lies the problem with restoring these pieces. I would have to consolidate what you see here with LiquidWood, fill in the voids with WoodEpox, then cut off the errant wood on the bottom to restore a straight line. And this is but one of many similar problems in these two pieces. Once I had finished applying the epoxies, I would be left with a solid but grotesquely misshapen piece that would have to be machined back into shape. Not only do I not have the machines to get this done, no amount of machining could ever make these pieces look good again without literally entombing the wood completely in epoxy putty. I'm all for re-using the original building material whenever possible, but this would be an absurd length to go to maintain that standard.

I was thus faced with the necessity of fabricating new cap pieces, even though as I mentioned previously that this job would require a table saw, which I don't have. Nor do I have a contractor's saw (a tabletop version of a table saw). Still, it had to be done, and I  had to do it, with the only tool I had that could possibly do the job: A circular saw.

Now, some people would find this a simple job. Our foreman and finish carpenter from the construction phase were both quite talented artists with a circular saw; they could rip boards with long straight cuts freehand. They could do this job in no time, and in fact, I wonder why they didn't. I, on the other hand, can only do a good job with a circular saw after thorough planning and setup, and a lot of sanding afterwards.

So I went to the north side and looked at the cap pieces on that side, which are in great shape because the sun seldom hits them. I realized that despite the compound angles at each end, the stock from which they were made is a simple rhomboid in cross-section: two sets of parallel sides. After some deep cogitation, gurgitation and libation, I concluded that I could fabricate these pieces if I could find stock of the exact thickness I needed. Then, I would only need to do two parallel angled cuts to make the trim stock, and I figured that with proper preparation and some prayer I could manage that.

What I needed was some 5/4 stock, which is about an inch thick. Home Depot doesn't carry it, and if you ask them, they will undoubtedly tell you there is no such thing. But I have a resource they don't know about: my own private collection of Junk with a capital J.

* * *

I never met Wifey's father in person, but I nevertheless feel I know him well, for his memory lives on quite vividly through his daughter. He was a world-class scavenger; no mere junk collector or hoarder, he had an uncanny ability to find perfectly good things that were being discarded, and the exquisite judgment to know what was worth keeping. That was in fact his great genius: he knew precisely what had value in life, and was utterly unconcerned with anything else. He stored his collection of finds in his garage, and he called it "Junk with a capital J."

Many times when puttering around the ancestral manse, I would need a tool or a fastener or some sort of potrzebie, and every time, without fail, I would find just what I needed in the garage. As I looked, I would also find lots of neato items, every one of them useful, or interesting, or both. It was like a museum, only far more relevant and useful. I have yet to explore its full extent, so it will continue to provide the joy of discovery for a long time.

I have my own modest collection of Junk with a capital J. My collection comes mostly from my own personal salvage, items that others would typically discard, but I kept, just in case I might need them again sometime. I've had to become a severe editor of this collection as it has grown; I now give to others things that are still quite useful but I just don't need anymore, and I recycle items that can easily be obtained again. Now, I mostly only keep spare parts and building materials. I derive a sublime satisfaction when I actually put some of my Junk to a new use; now that's recycling, baby.

I kept every sound piece of wood that came off the Farm House during the construction phase, because it is good old-growth clear heart redwood, One should never simply throw such wood away, for it is an irreplaceable resource nowadays, and one that tends to become harder and more durable with age if kept away from heat and out of the sun. I sorted it all out, wrapped matching pieces together in bundles, then hung it up in the Farm House garage rafters along with all the new lumber the contractor left when he abandoned the job. Jerk.

Once I knew I needed 5/4 thickness wood from which to rip my stock, I knew I was in business, because all the casings and baseboards were of that thickness. As it turned out, however, I ended up finding something better: beadboard of the same thickness that came from a closet built into one of the upstairs rooms. We removed that closet to install another of a different size in the same area. It was better than the casing wood because it was wider and had a less-contoured profile.

The keys to achieving as straight a cut as possible with a circular saw are to keep the wood from moving and keep the saw positioned properly. So I pulled out two pieces: one to cut, and one to butt the cut piece up against and to provide an edge along which the saw guide could run. To keep the wood from moving as I cut, I screwed it into the surface of my work table. It's far simpler than trying to set up clamps so that they don't get in the way of the saw. I positioned the pieces so that the cut piece hung out over the edge of the table enough so that the saw blade would clear the table. The tongue-and-groove profile of the beadboard helped keep the pieces properly aligned with each other.

Once everything was as ready as I could make it, I made the required cuts. I can verify that wood gets harder with age; it was all I could do to make straight cuts without the wood's catching on fire. I have a strong saw and a sharp blade, yet it took all my strength to push it through while keeping it straight; I'd have to stop every foot or so to let the blade cool off a bit before continuing. As it was, I had to wear my face mask, because the whole garage filled with smoke! I had to open up all the doors and let it air out for an hour before I could go back in there afterward and see whether I had made usable trim stock.

I had! Remarkably, despite all the smoke very little of the wood was scorched, and the cuts, while rough, are straight enough to serve. I cut slightly wide so that when I sand the irregularities out, the dimensions will be correct.

Even though I have a respectable number of successful carpentry efforts under my belt, I am always surprised when I complete one successfully; when it comes to wood, I am far more comfortable with restoration than I am creation. But on a job like this, one must wear many hats.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Another Monday

This Monday was much better than last Monday; I managed to get some things done, although it was like pulling teeth. 

Our trend towards crummy weather continues. In the morning, it was a bit drizzly, too much so to do anything outside, so I took the opportunity to take care of some inside tasks. At length, the drizzle lessened to a mist, whereupon I was able to do some hand-sanding. 

You can see from this picture that the proper profile is beginning to take shape, although rather more slowly than I had hoped; I'm having some trouble with this putty, and I suspect that it's older than I thought (I bought it locally, not direct from Abatron, but I won't do that again). 

Then I gave some thought as to how I'm going to restore the east window casing. I think I can do it without disassembling it, but I need to figure out how to resolve a few problems first. One of the scalloped skirts below the cap has a part missing, and I haven't decided whether to build it up with putty or graft on a cast from the analogous piece on the west window. In the process, I was able to determine that the casings were built by hand, and not pre-fabricated in a factory.

In this picture I have lined up the two pieces as closely as I can; the front piece is just a little low, but it's flush side-to-side. As you can see, the profiles do not line up, which indicates that they were made one at a time by hand. Also, you can see that the curves are not quite uniform nor smooth, and the notches in between where the coping saw started and finished its cuts (these details are more evident from the back of the piece). Not that this information aids the restoration particularly, but it does provide some insight into the Farm House's design and building processes, and any information we can get is another blessed piece in the puzzle.

In the meantime, the mist let up enough for me to lay down another batch of epoxy, and when I was done with that the mist had let up completely, allowing me to get out the power sander and work on the west casing. I discovered in the process several more issues I'll have to address; it's amazing what paint can hide.

Along the way, there was a lot of entering and exiting the house, and every time I exited I disturbed a squirrel at his business, causing him to scurry out of sight. At last, I went out and stood motionless on the landing; the squirrel ran to a safe distance, then stopped and just looked at me. I said, "You know, there's no need to run. I'm not gonna mess with you, as long as you don't dig in the plant pots." And so, for the rest of the day, he didn't run; he just went about his business. I wish my cats would listen to me so well!

Later, he brought a friend along, and they had a blast cavorting about, remarkably uninhibited by my presence.

All things considered, it was an uncommonly good Monday. Well, the Angels did lose a real stinker of a game to their division rivals; but after all, it was Monday.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Always Hurt The One You Love

The patching of the belt course proceeds apace, but there's nothing much new to see there. It's a slow, tedious job at this point, because once I place a batch of epoxy putty I have to leave it undisturbed until it cures, which can take hours, and I really have to patch it in a steady progression from one side to the other so I can establish the line and stick to it.

So I've started working far away from wet putty, on the west window casing (the one towards the front of the house). As I've shown before, it's in bad shape, especially at the top.

If I had a table saw, I'd simply fabricate new cap pieces. If pigs had wings, they'd be winged pigs. That would be something, wouldn't it? Something like really smart pigeons, I would imagine. In any event, I need to epoxify those cap pieces, but unlike the belt course, I can't simply rehabilitate them in place and expect to do a lasting, good-looking job. They're too loose, too riddled with rusty nails, and sun-blasted right through. So I extracted all the nails—most of them came out with a hand tug—and when I removed the cap pieces, I could see that the backing piece was cracked, so I had to remove the scalloped front pieces as well in order to get at the crack.

It's the Italian in me, I suppose, but I always get a little emotional when I have to start yanking things off the Farm House; it feels like I'm operating on a loved one. It was especially bad because I became distracted by an accident over on the nearby boulevard as I was removing one of the scalloped pieces and broke it. There's no real harm done; I can glue the piece back together, and in any event some damage is unavoidable when prying off old trim. Nevertheless, I am quite annoyed at my own clumsiness.

All told, taking off the trim should make rehabilitating the casing easier. At least, it will make it easier to do a good job. Now I can back-prime and caulk everything: the reason the cap pieces failed so thoroughly is because they were largely exposed in the back by the notch in the siding, which also left the backing piece unprotected (which caused it to fail too). Moreover, there was no way to get paint on it, or for that matter on the siding behind it. Speaking of paint, if you will examine the unpainted part of the siding above the backing piece, just to the right of it you can see a little of the original yellow color. Note also there is evidence here of only two coats of paint. Two coats of paint over 125-plus years: they just don't make paint like that anymore.

Properly protected and epoxy-fortified, this whole area should do much better over the next 125-plus years. That is, assuming it gets painted more frequently this time around.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Apropos of Nothing

I took some pictures of our Victrola for use on the main site a few weeks back, including this one. While I picked a wider shot for the site, I found myself liking this shot a great deal, and I'm hoping you'll enjoy it. You can view it at its full resolution by clicking upon it.

The record shown, "Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man" on Victor (Violet) 70038, was released in 1911, and it's still in beautiful condition, as the photograph shows. The Violet label was reserved for the most notable popular acts; priced higher than the regular black label, they were one-sided, as were the Red label (art-music) series. Two-sided records became the industry standard in 1908, but Victor kept its prestige series one-sided to suggest high quality and exclusivity. The Violet label was intended to showcase the most prestigious popular acts, notably Nora Bayes, Victor Herbert (yes, considered a popular artist in his day) and Harry Lauder. Sometime after 1915 Victor ended the series and rolled it into a new, two-sided Blue label.

Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth were a husband-and-wife team that was huge on Broadway at the time. Together, they wrote this and a lot of songs, most notably "Shine On Harvest Moon." Norworth, among other things, wrote "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" with Harry von Tilzer. Bayes has been portrayed many times in films, e.g. by Frances Langford in Yankee Doodle Dandy singing "Over There", and Bayes and Norworth were the subject of the ludicrously inaccurate but nevertheless swell biopic Shine On Harvest Moon. You can even see the actual Jack Norworth on TCM occasionally, e.g. in the short The Nagger At Breakfast. That's N-A-G-G-E-R, by the way.

In the photograph, you can just make out that this record cost $1.25 back in 1911, and that was when a dollar was a dollar. Of course, this was a 12-inch Violet label record; the usual 10-inch Black label cost 75 cents. But even that was a significant chunk of change to be spending on a completely inessential item. Still, people bought an awful lot of records back then, I suppose because the phonograph record was then the only consumer entertainment medium that  didn't require actual musical talent on the part of the purchaser. Back then, a record was a high-tech item, and each one was an investment in entertainment and even enlightenment for the purchaser. 

That's how records were for me, too, as a boy and young man. I had limited funds, so I couldn't afford any dead weight in my collection; the records I had were played frequently and cared for lovingly, and their accompanying literature, if any, was examined and re-examined. So I liked them, or learned to like them, unless they really stunk. I still have every one of them that wasn't lost, stolen or broken, and I still play them.

I feel sad for today's youth. Unless one buys the CD, which fewer and fewer people are doing, recordings of current popular acts are for the most part fungible and thus disposable. Today's Picks to Click are so inexpensive (if indeed they are even paid for) and so easily obtained that they are no more of an investment to today's teen than a candy bar. You simply download a track, play it, and if you don't like it, you just forget about it. You don't even have to take it out of its case and put it on anything. It's a commodity, like rice or toothpicks—but even rice and toothpicks are palpable in a way an mp3 file is not.

Bizarre ramblings from an obsolescent viewpoint, I know. These matters have absolutely nothing to do with the performance on the recording. One can just as easily have "Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man" as a digital file on his computer as the latest Lady Gaga emission, and in fact I do. The former, that is, not the latter. 

Still, 100 years from now no one is going to be finding a file on a hard drive a thing of beauty that piques one's curiosity and invites one to discover what's in it. 100 years from now, my .wav file of this recording will likely have gone away, but this record, if left alone, will still be there and discoverable, as it was for me.

Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I guess I just illustrated that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Putty Sculpting

Turns out that epoxy putty was the old stuff after all. Only on a Monday would I overlook the tubs right out on my workbench to dig up the old ones I had stashed away just in case I ran out, and then not see the new ones still out on my workbench when I was looking around trying to figure out what the problem was. It was a particularly bad Monday.

Armed with the right putty, today went more smoothly. The putty stuck to the wood this time, and not to the knife. Even so, putty sculpting is a skill that one gets rusty at after a while, and it takes a little time to get back up in it. At least it does for me.

"Putty sculpting", by the way, differs from simple puttying in that the latter involves filling holes and other depressions flush with the surrounding area, whereas the former involves building up a missing profile and having to re-establish missing lines.

This is part of a long stretch where the front of the trim has been worn down to a less-obtuse angle. Let's do a little house-reading: if you look at the first course of shingles above the belt course, you'll clearly see a patch where the wood has been worn down. Behind the putty directly below this patch, there is a complex, smoothly-curved profile worn into the trim. This area is six feet or so away from a big pine tree showing the evidence of long-gone limbs that once pointed more or less right at the area in this photograph. It's thus safe to conclude that the wear in this area was caused by the rubbing of tree branches over a great many years, before someone finally trimmed the tree.

That left a great deal of wear in the belt course trim for me to patch. Over a long section, I have to bring the top front edge forward and down by extending the top surface and making the front surface more nearly vertical. When filling in large areas it's often a great help to attach some wood to fill in some of the void and provide a guide to make re-establishing the profile easier. In this particular case, however, the void is too irregular and shallow to make this approach worth the effort, so I'm just winging it freehand.

In such instances—at least with my weak eyesight—it takes at least two applications to build up the putty to the proper dimensions. This first coat I like to make rough, as you see above; this will provide a network of high spots that I can sand back to the proper profile. I can then fill in the gaps in this network, bringing me close to the final shape without having to apply an excess of putty that I would waste in the sanding. This is what I will do tomorrow.

Oh, look! Another bonus wildlife picture!

Monday, April 11, 2011


I had planned to write this evening about the joys of epoxy putty. I had it already half-written in my mind: sure, it's a bit of a mess to mix up, and something of a bother because you can't mix very much at one time lest it harden before you use it all, but other than that it's really easy to use. I was going to write about how smoothly it comes off the knife, how well it sticks to the wood, and how easily it takes the desired shape.

The thing is, I had forgotten that it was Monday.

Helmut von Moltke the Elder, the Prussian general, famously remarked, "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy." Well, it was a war out there today, and the enemies were a brisk wind and the epoxy putty itself. It was uncharacteristically stiff from the moment I mixed it, it did not want to come off the putty knife, it resisted sticking to the wood, and the wind kept blowing it off my knife and down to the dirt below. After a futile struggle, I ended up smearing it on with my hands, wetting it down with alcohol, and slathering it into some semblance of the desired shape with the putty knife. 

Frankly, this is how epoxy putty is sometimes. Although I am always very careful to mix equal amounts of each part thoroughly and start with absolutely clean knives, some days it simply refuses to behave. I used to think this was a sign of the epoxy's getting old, but this stuff is still pretty fresh.

Whatever the cause, I have found that on days like this it's best to stop struggling and come back to it the next day. So I did, and I will.

As annoying as epoxy putty can be, it is nonetheless an essential material, because it is by far the most durable and effective patching material there is for wood. Bondo is another such good material, and it is preferable for patching large, relatively flat areas because it is cheaper and quicker to work with. Because it hardens so suddenly, however, it is hard to shape effectively, so you end up with a big blob that must be extensively sanded to shape. This makes it problematic for trim. 

Epoxy is fairly easy to shape, today's difficulties notwithstanding. It doesn't shrink or sag as it dries. It's resilient, flexible and easy to sand. It can fill large gaps in one application. With careful shaping, it becomes absolutely indistinguishable from wood once it is painted, and it stays that way more or less permanently. In my experience, no other exterior putty can make all these claims.

Here's a bonus wildlife picture I took today. I hope you enjoy it.

Freestyle Clamping

So another day passed with no work on the project. I got myself out there, got up on the ladder, and was just about blown off it by an icy gust of wind. I said to myself, "Well, Sunday is a day of rest." I got down off that ladder and did just that.

But have no fear, gentle reader. I do have a little something in reserve to talk about. When I was describing the repair of the misaligned trim on the belt course earlier, I left out one detail, mainly because I couldn't find the related photograph. I subsequently did manage to dig it up—it was lodged in the far recesses of my cell phone camera—so I can enlighten you now.

I discussed the use of liquid epoxy to salvage wood destroyed by sun damage. The lower left trim board, the one lying a half-inch below where it is supposed to be, was not particularly sun-damaged, but it was damaged by the movement of the house when the foundation sagged; the end was splintered thoroughly about six inches back. I epoxied this board simply to glue all the splinters back together, and because wood not sun-damaged does not absorb the epoxy as readily, I drilled small holes to get the glue everywhere I needed it. 

When I did that, however, the weight of the epoxy caused the splintered "fingers" to spread downward, making the jog between the trim pieces even larger and thwarting my need to consolidate the board. I needed to clamp the fingers back together, but there wasn't an opposing surface on the top side of the board where I could put a clamp jaw. So, I used a nifty trick I picked up along the way.

I butted a scrap piece of wood tight against the piece I was gluing and screwed it temporarily in place. Then, I tapped a shim wedge in between the two pieces to snug the fingers together. After the epoxy had cured fully, I removed the screws and the scrap piece. The shim was of course epoxied on, but it came off easily enough when I slid a putty knife between it and the trim.

So there you go: a neat little trick that just may come in handy some day, as it did for me. Use it in good health!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

It's Movie Night!

Well, the weather has been bad, I've been sick, and tonight we went to the Angels' home opener. They lost, so I'm not writing about that. So it's Movie Night!

In the future, I plan to post films actually relevant to the subject, such as instructional films. For my first attempt at linking video, however, I will provide some pure entertainment: a stage fight between our two boy cats Adam and Benny. Sounds lame, I know, but it's actually pretty entertaining. 

Adam's a young Maine Coon, still only nine months old in this video but already huge. He's considerably bigger now, five months later; the breed continues to grow until they are 5 years old. He's like having a small, tame bobcat in the house. Benny is a tabby American Shorthair, streetwise, pure muscle. Adam and Benny are the best of friends, and they love to tussle like this. It looks like they're trying to kill each other, but they never leave so much as a scratch. They put on a show like this every day for us.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Oppressive Comments Regime Deposed

When I set this blog up, I didn't look closely at how the comments were to be handled. When I started to hear back about difficulties in commenting, I found I could post my own comment without a problem.

The thing is, I'm a registered Blogger user, so I got right past all the barriers that were there to keep out the hoi polloi without noticing them. Happily, at last my wife Lydia investigated the matter and smartened me up.

I have removed all barriers now, so posting a comment here will no longer be like buying Sudafed. In the "comment as" dropdown box, simply choose "Anonymous". I'd get rid of that box altogether, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Giving Back to The Community

We here at the Farm House are deeply civic-minded, and so after the fashion of the big office building developers, we have provided a Public Art Installation for the beautification of the neighborhood and the stimulation of passers-by.

We call it Hawk Buffet.

Hawk Buffet, detail. Metal, wood, rope, acrylic and seeds. 2007.

Of Lignin And Zombies

To review: Our Friend the Sun degrades unprotected wood by destroying its lignin, which is the stuff that stiffens its backbone. Without its lignin, a piece of wood isn't much good; as I observed earlier, it has a consistency similar to stale cornbread, which only goes to figure, since most of what is left of wood once the lignin is gone is carbohydrate. 

When this happens to structural wood, it's best to replace it if possible, as I did with some of the sash on the second floor [see Journal]. Nevertheless, wood in this condition is still salvageable, and with a Victorian, making do with what you have is often the simplest and most economical option, because you're not likely to find a suitable replacement at Home Depot. Our contractors had to have everything they used milled to order, and while they left a lot of this wood behind, they left none of what I need on the south side. So rehabilitation of what's there is the only option.

Rehabilitating lignin-deprived wood is actually quite simple. All you do is replace the lignin with epoxy. I use Abatron's LiquidWood, which is specifically formulated for this sort of use; it has the consistency of corn syrup, and lignin-deprived wood soaks it up like stale cornbread soaks up milk. 

The next day, when the epoxy has cured, what you have is zombie wood, once dead but now re-animated to do your bidding. The only difference is that zombie wood is not out for brains; it only seeks to return to its former usefulness.

Of course, a problem remains: it looks like zombie wood.  More prosaically, it looks like it did before, but shinier. In truth, it is now a piece of fiber-filled plastic resin, more durable and resilient than wood; it is certainly restored structurally, but it still needs to be restored cosmetically.

For that, I use another two-part Abatron epoxy, WoodEpox. It's a bit of a pain to use, because it's rather messy to mix together, and you can't mix together more than a few ounces at once, so you have to keep stopping to mix more. On the other hand, it is very easy to work with in terms of applying it; it comes off the putty knife easily, can be feathered out very thinly, and it will not shrink or sag. It also sticks very well, especially to cured LiquidWood, is extremely strong, and is easily sanded. Because it hardens via reaction and not evaporation, it can be applied in any thickness. Simply put, it's neato.

So that's my next step, restoring the original profile of the belt course trim using WoodEpox and my wits. And a putty knife.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Sun Is A Cruel Master, continued

My friend Nik, who's lived in Pasadena for several decades, likes to call Pasadena "The Sun's Anvil." Boy, is he right about that. It's not that the weather is so hot here; there's just something about the geography and weather patterns that makes the sun seem closer somehow.

This is the attic belt course trim (the proper term for the trim grouping we've been discussing), over to the far right where it meets the eave. It is quite clear that where the wood is shielded from the sun by the eave for most of the day, the wood is still perfectly sound (I've sanded it lightly to uncover the wood). Moving leftward, as the trim emerges from the protection of the eaves, you can see its condition degenerate. I can't imagine a clearer illustration of the effects of sun on wood.

The sun heats the wood, causing it to expand. It cools off at night, only to be heated again the next day. At the same time, its ultraviolet rays are working on the paint, slowly destroying its elasticity. Soon enough, this one-two punch causes the paint to crack, and then the sun really gets after it, attacking the wood with UV rays directly. Over time, this destroys the lignin, which is what holds wood together and gives it rigidity and strength.

This isn't usually catastrophically destructive with siding, because it only presents one face to the sun, and it is backed with other wood that absorbs some of the heat and draws it away from the surface. The earlywood will slowly weather away, but the denser latewood will remain largely intact. This is why weathered wood has a pronounced grain pattern.

Exposed trim pieces do not fare so well. They get hotter, and the damage goes deeper, eventually reaching all the way through. At that point the wood is quite vulnerable to physical damage from any source—an insect, a squirrel, a falling pine cone—because there is really nothing holding it together but force of habit.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Rest of The Story

Here is a photo that supports my theory of the cause of the half-inch jog in the line of the trim running along the bottom of the south side tympanum. The red arrow points to the location of the jog, pictured previously; it is clear that to the right of the jog (towards the foreground here), the trim inclines upward, whereas on the other side of the jog the trim is more or less level. The fact that the settling at the foundation traveled so far up the structure indicates an alarming corruption of the integrity of the house's structure.

Victorian architectural precepts dictated that a structure of this type be light and stiff. The Farm House has relatively small rooms, and all the interior walls are load-bearing; this allowed the builder to use smaller, lighter framing members than houses built later typically had. This light, cellular structure gave the Farm House the rigidity it needed to ride out 126 years of earthquakes and stiff winds, but it obviously was not enough to avoid significant injury completely.

That is why it is absolutely essential, when undertaking the restoration of any old house, to secure the services of a good building engineer, one who is fluent in the language that old houses speak. Ours clearly read this situation as easily as you are reading this, allowing us to avoid a lot of misery down the road. Of course, here in California the employment of a building engineer confers another significant benefit: it allows one to renovate the existing structure under the State Historical Building Code. Simply put, this allows the specific prescriptions of a licensed building engineer to override the codes that would otherwise apply, as long as the engineer makes the case that his prescriptions will result in a structure that meets current safety standards.

That's crucial with a Victorian structure, for it allows remedial construction to be done in a manner congruent with the way it was built, thus avoiding character-destroying alterations that would otherwise be required. In this case, it allowed the installation of a light steel cage to restore rigidity, rather than wholesale replacement of framing members with larger, heavier ones that would have necessitated extensive replacement of the exterior cladding, as well as heavy alteration of the window and door casings.

On the other hand, it also leaves the scars of the original injury on the exterior, diminishing in a small degree the house's beauty of form and of fitness [see Journal]. Then again, perhaps this is only proper. A fine old house such as the Farm House should be allowed to bear its signs of age with dignity; it should be allowed to continue to tell its stories for us to learn.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Farm House Speaks

I've done what I can to repair the mess I showed you all in the last post. It's hard to tell from this angle, but if you compare it to the previous picture, you can see that it's a big improvement. Once it's all puttied and painted, it will look swell.

Except, that is, for the bottom edge. Both those boards are now firmly butted up against the piece above them, but the board on the left is apparently wider than the one on the right. One would naturally assume that this is evidence of a repair, but at its other end the board fits properly. If this were the result of a repair job, then, why would someone take care to do a neat job but not take the care to install a properly-sized board? Then again, why would someone build such an obvious discrepancy into a new house? 

I think the answer to this riddle is simply that the house has changed shape somewhat since it was built. A lot of things can happen in 126 years, especially considering that the Farm House spent 118 of them sitting right on the ground. According to our building engineer, the ground under that corner of the house settled considerably; it seems likely that the trim piece to the left followed that downward movement, leaving its partner behind. I'm willing to bet that if I removed the trim pieces in front of these boards, I would find that the board the left piece is butted against has also shifted downward, and the left and right pieces are the same width after all. Supporting this theory is the fact that the trim pieces above the boards curve upwards to the right of the picture. In fact, I bet that these discrepancies are what first led the engineer down the path that ultimately led him to conclude that the house had settled in that corner.

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

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