Monday, May 30, 2011

Breezin' Along with The Breeze

I often joke about there being an Unseen Hand throwing constant barriers in the way of my restoration work, or that "someone up there hates me," but it is a fact that I have caught very few breaks in the course of my painting of the Farm House. Take today, for example: I planned to sand the last of the patches I made yesterday, then mask the siding off in preparation for application of the first primer coat.

So I wake up, go outside, and find myself in the middle of a wind storm. Nothing epic, mind you, but more than merely a stiff breeze; many of our potted plants were knocked over, and the yard and street were littered with palm fronds from our useless street trees. I'd say the winds were going at least 30 MPH: not enough to do any real damage, but more than enough to foil any attempt to deploy masking paper. I guess that's what I get for trying to work on a Sunday. In any event, here's a brief update on what I have managed to get done since inserting the backing in the Milky Way knothole.

First, I re-set all the nails that had managed to work themselves out beyond the surface of the siding. As I went along, I marked all the places that needed mending. As I mentioned earlier, I'm only patching where it's needed for the health of the house at this point, because of the difficulty of making patches blend in with the heavily weathered wood. This included any place where the siding had cracked all the way through and either left a gap or caused looseness in the siding, and of course all the large knots and knotholes. It seems apparent that the Farm House's builders, for some reason, put all the knotty boards on the south side, because there are none to speak of on the other sides, and there weren't on the back either. I'd love to know just why they did this, but I suspect that this will forever remain just another Farm House mystery.

After marking all the areas that needed further attention, I then drove screws through the siding into studs as necessary to stabilize loose areas along cracks or at the joints where two boards butted together along a course. As I did with the backing for the Milky Way knothole, I took care to avoid splitting the wood by preparing the screw holes first.

After this, I glued everywhere it was needed. This step presented a great problem for me, because many of the cracks required some measure of clampage, but were in areas that made use of a clamp practically impossible, even with the swell block-and-wedge technique I showed you all a while back. For that reason, I overrode my previous resolution to ban cyanoacrylate glue from this project; my thought was it would work so quickly that I could just provide the 30 seconds of needed clamping manually. So I bought two fresh bottles of 30-second Super Glue, one thick and the other thin to cover all the situations I was facing.

This time, the glue utterly failed, even though it came right out of freshly-opened bottles. It worked no better than water would have. After giving said bottles of Super Glue a fitting sendoff, I pondered my options for a while, and decided to take a flyer on an iffy idea: using blue masking tape as a makeshift clamp.

You see, I decided my only option remaining was to use a five-minute epoxy I knew of that came in a dual syringe with a long spout that mixed the two parts as it was driven through. This would make application quick, neat and simple, but I'd have to work very quickly lest the epoxy set up in the spout before I was through, and in the process I had to move all over the side of the house, going up and down ladders and moving them as I worked.

I figured blue masking tape would hold the joints together tightly enough to do the job, and I could apply it very quickly as I went along. I was very aware of the possibility that the tape would end up firmly glued by the squeezed-out epoxy at each joint, but I had to chance it, having no good alternative at hand. As it turned out, the tape worked perfectly, and came off with no problem. Another example of better living through doing it yourself!

With the screwing and gluing all done, I then puttied all the cracks, knotholes, and sunk screws. This turned out to be a shockingly big job, considering the small surface area involved; all told, this step took fully ten ounces of WoodEpox, nearly depleting my supply. Putting this in perspective, I've never before used an entire tub of it before it went stale, even the little six-ounce tubs. The Milky Way took two ounces all by itself, even after partially filling it with a wood block. The several long, wide cracks just ate up putty, even though I only used what was necessary to bridge the gaps.

The work took longer than usual, because I took great pains to apply only what was needed right where it was needed in order to make the patches blend in with the weathered wood. The method of wire-brushing that I proposed earlier worked well to remove the excess putty from places where it was not needed, but it largely failed to provide a grooved appearance in the patch areas themselves. I had limited success to this end using very coarse sandpaper sparingly after the putty hardened.

Here are a few pictures of the results.

Up there in about the middle of the picture you can see one of the big, long cracks, and the places at each stud where I screwed the sides of the crack down. At the right end of that crack you can see that there was a lot of damage at the butt joint between the two boards. This whole mess is likely due to the house-settling I talked about a few months ago, because it's right below the messed-up joint in the belt course that took so much work to fix. There are also a few filled knotholes in view, as well as a few places that could use patching but didn't get it, because they are not essential and I just don't have the time.

Here's what the Milky Way looks like filled. Kinda looks like malt nougat, doesn't it? Even though I took great care to ensure that every void was filled completely, looking at the picture I can see where I missed a few spots. This illustrates what I mean when I say that at a certain point in patching, you are looking at so many different colors that you just need to put down a coat of primer to make everything the same color so you can see what still needs patching. These small remaining gaps I will probably fill with a kind of exterior spackle that finishes level and dries quickly; they're simply too small to bother with any more mixing and sanding of epoxy putty.

It's a bit difficult to discern here, but where the sides of the crack below the knothole are not level, I simply filled the crack level with the lower side. It's better to leave the jump revealed than it is to try to hide it; never throw good putty at bad cracks, I always say.

"Brief update." Heh.

* * *

"Nobody here but us dogs."

Friday, May 27, 2011

No Snickers, Please

The picture I posted last time of the huge mystery knothole reminded me of something, but I just couldn't put my finger on it.

At last, it hit me: the Milky Way!

Thanks to the good folks at NASA for the great photo.

* * *

No pre-rinsing needed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Calling In Backup

For once, our inexplicably crummy weather worked for me today. It gave me the time I needed to devise a temporary solution to my computer problems. Moreover, you can be sure I'll never delete pictures from the camera again before verifying they were safely transferred to the computer. My procedures are all idiot-proof, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are Otis-proof.

During our technical difficulties, I worked on the newly-discovered knothole that was hidden behind the metal patch. Here it is, seen by human eyes for the first time in well over fifty years.

This knothole is about four inches at its widest, and as you can see, a small crack has opened through it, and a very large one below it. Moreover, the wood above the large horizontal crack has sprung forward. In short, we've got quite a mess here.

If the siding were not so terribly weathered, I could simply replace this piece of siding, because I have at a few hundred board-feet of it up in the garage rafters. But a new piece of siding would stick out like brown shoes with a black teddy, so I decided instead to patch the hole with epoxy putty. Before I did this, however, I needed to insert a backing for the putty in behind the hole. I determined that if I made the backing piece long enough, I would be able to pull the sprung part of the wood into a closer alignment with the rest at the same time.

Consulting my stash of Junk (with a capital J), I found the perfect backing piece, a long, narrow strip of quarter-inch-thick poplar. Poplar was a perfect choice, because it is an even-grained hardwood that I could count on not to split when I drilled it, even near the edge.

Here you can see that I marked its halfway point for reference, and wrapped a piece of string around it so that I could maneuver it into position without dropping it into the wall. This I did in a dry run, determining the best position for the piece so that I could both back up the hole and provide a brace with which to bring the crack back in line. Before removing the piece, I noted where the halfway mark was so that I could put it back in the same position later.

Then, I prepared the siding. First, I marked the position of the patch on the outside of the wood. Then, I marked where to place the screws that would hold the backing in place and provide the clamping action to pull the sprung wood back in. Then, I carefully drilled a hole large enough to clear the threads of the screw, and then drilled a countersink so that the screw head would seat below the level of the wood. I did this to prevent the very real possibility of cracking the siding with the screws. Note that the clamping action of the screws depends upon their threads only engaging the backing piece, and not the siding. This is to ensure that the screw pulls the backing piece tight against the siding.

I didn't rely upon screws alone to hold things in place. I also used some 5-minute epoxy. I could have used a longer-setting epoxy, but 5-minute is what I had. While all of the clamping work is done by the screws, the epoxy will help keep the mend stable, plus it helped to keep the backing piece from falling as I maneuvered it into position. Once I had it in the right place, I held it firmly with the string while I drilled tiny pilot holes in the backing piece and drove the screws in, which I did with a plain old manual screwdriver. This gave me precise control, and allowed me to feel when the backing piece had been pulled tight against the siding. 

You will notice that I used screws with a large head; I did this to spread the holding force over a larger area, to help prevent splitting the wood.

In order to complete the backing of the hole and partially fill the void, I then attached another small piece of wood on top of the backing piece, Fittingly, it is a piece of plaster lath scavenged from the inside of the house. This piece I split on purpose, in order to drive the halves out to wedge against the irregular sides of the hole. This will make the hole easier to putty up. Notice that I had to drive a third screw on the other side of the crack; this proved necessary in order to provide enough clamping force to pull the upper part into alignment.

It was then too late in the day to putty, so I went to the garage and cut out a cardboard pattern from one of the aprons with an X-Acto knife.  This pattern will provide a guide to aid in the replacement of a missing section of apron on the other window casing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Never Mind

Never mind what I said in my last post. I'll keep posting despite my computer difficulties, although the posts may be pretty bland until I get my computer problems resolved.

Wifey and I were driving along Colorado Boulevard the other day, headed toward the feed store, when we came upon a venerable old denizen of the highway, a Chevy from the early '50s. I'm no expert of this vintage, but I think it was a '54 210. Here's a picture of a '55 210, from the good folks at Wikipedia.

Coincidentally, the car we saw had the same colors, and in general looked quite similar. 

We traveled together for several miles, and I got a close look at the car, front, back and passenger side. I love to see old cars in service, and I have great respect for the people who restore and maintain them. But this car commanded especial attention from me because, while it didn't look like it had just been stolen from an automotive museum, neither did it look like a junker or a work in progress. 

It in fact looked like a car that had been driven regularly since it was new, maintained well inside and out, and updated as comfort and safety standards had advanced over time. It had modern radial tires on slightly-wider-than-stock wheels, and I could see through the window that it had some sort of modern stereo setup, two improvements I would certainly make on a car of that vintage before I drove it daily. Moreover, the way the car rode strongly suggested that the suspension components had been somewhat modernized as well.

Now, I am quite sure that the owner had to have done some restoration work; that era's paint simply was not good enough to last in such condition for 56 years no matter how good the upkeep. What impressed me was how tastefully and accurately he had done the work. 

I'm just old enough to remember what cars like this looked like when they were commonly seen on the road. I remember the particular shine of that era's paint, and the gleam of its chrome, and this guy had nailed them both; he had avoided the trap of finishing both to modern standards. As a result, what with the modern running gear, the car truly gave the impression of a car that had been simply taken care of that lovingly all along. I just couldn't stop looking at it; I was grateful that Wifey was driving!

Then I realized why I found the car so compelling: because the owner had successfully created for his car the same narrative that I am working towards for the Farm House. I can't tell you how much that inspired me. With all the problems I've been having and the pressure I'm feeling to work quickly, the temptation is strong just to slap some paint up on what's there and have done with it. Seeing that car in all its tasteful glory both firmed my resolve to do a job I can be proud of and reminded me that I shouldn't strive for perfection.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Wow, bummer. The world didn't end after all, so I have to keep on painting the danged house.

Now, before I go on, let me make clear that I'm not making fun of Christians here; that would be to make fun of myself, too. No, I'm making fun of idiot publicity-hounds. For the record, this whole Jesus-is-returning-on-date-certain is un-Christian on its face. Jesus himself said that we won't know of His return beforehand. You can look it up. So this "preacher", whoever he is, will have a lot of splainin to do when he gets upstairs for leading his flock astray.

Anyway, I was going to say that I can at least understand why people might think this was the end times, even though people have been thinking that for at least the last 150 years or so. I mean, the weather alone is enough to raise suspicion. It's been horribly devastating in other parts of the country. Hereabouts, thank goodness, the weather has merely been odd, sometimes bordering on the bizarre, since the beginning of Winter. 

Goodness knows it's slowed my work down considerably. Rain has stymied me for weeks at a time. Even the threat of rain has done so when I'm ready to paint. Truth be told, I've caught very few breaks since I started the project. Even now, just when I'm really beginning to enjoy writing this blog, a number of issues have arisen involving my computers that have really put a wrench in my desire to bring you more multimedia content. 

As of today, it's even prevented my bringing you pictures of the work. I uncovered the big knothole I was telling you about, and took a lot of pictures. Some were to show you, and others were just for my reference, with a ruler held across various spans to assist my preparing a patch. I brought the camera in and put the flash card in my laptop, waited for them to copy over, then ejected the card, put it back in my camera, and erased the images in the camera so that I'd not get crossed up regarding which were new. Then I went back to the laptop to process the pictures, and they weren't there. This is just the latest incident in a run of erratic behavior, and I can read the handwriting on the wall: the thing needs a complete disk wipe and re-loading of Windows. All you Johnny Appleseeds, smirk here. 

No problem, right? I have my desktop as a backup. Uh, no; its hard disk is completely full, with nothing I can delete, so I have to install another hard disk. So I have two big computer projects, and no time in which to do them. You know, sometimes I suspect that somebody up there hates me.

I'm afraid, Dear Reader, that this all spells H-I-A-T-U-S for this blog, until such time as I can take care of my computer problems. There's not much point to my posting without pictures. I'll do my best to take pictures as I go along, so that when I do return here I can catch you all up with the proceedings.

Until then, Mazel Tov, and have a great Spring!

Another Mystery Uncovered

I've put the casing work aside temporarily to work on the siding. Every so often I need to get some paint up in order to keep the City happy, and the casing has taken much longer than I had expected, what with the continuing weather problems and the epoxy mishap. Getting a coat of primer up on the siding will reset the clock and buy me some time to continue the complicated putty-sculpting work I have ahead.

Normally, I prefer to wait to do the primer until I am ready to do the finish coat as well, so I only have to mask once. In this case, however, I will not be able to judge where the siding needs further patching until I see it all in a uniform color, and I'll have to caulk between the colors before I paint, so I'll have to mask twice anyway. Thus, I might as well do it now, since I can get it done without too much fuss. I'm not going to sand the siding, because it is largely cupped, and the weathering is so extreme that I'd have to sand off a considerable amount of wood to get it smooth. Wifey and I tried in one corner, and after several hours of work with the big random orbit sander and 40-grit paper, we still were not down to a clean surface. So, as with the shingles in the tympanum above, I brushed all the siding with a brass-wire brush to remove all the oxidized paint.

There is one spot where the previous coat of paint is exposed, in the place where there was a bracket for holding up the vent pipe from the old floor heater. Before I brushed there, I made sure I took some clear pictures of the area to document what seems to be the original body color.

It's hard to see here from the few remaining traces, but in person it's clear that it was mustard yellow, which was by utter coincidence the very color we were originally considering for our paint scheme. The color studies, however, indicated that the color was too bright for the surroundings, and would make the house stand out too much. We wanted the house and grounds to strike the eye as an organic whole, so we chose a darker color suggested by the bark of the pine trees, derived from the precise compliment of the trim color. We're quite happy with our color scheme, but it's great to know that we did our homework well regarding the appropriate colors for a house of the Farm House's vintage.

As I brushed the siding, I re-set the nails that had popped out, and marked the areas that needed further attention before I primed because of cracks or knots. While I am not going to do much patching on the siding because of the difficulty of making the patches blend in, I am nonetheless going to fix the areas that are not weather-tight, because I have to for the sake of the house's health.

Most of the problems are cracks that just need some glue, such as this one, but some of the cracks are wide enough that they require putty as well. I figure that I can putty them more or less level, then wire-brush them after the putty has partially set to emulate the grain pattern of the surrounding area.

This area has long been a mystery. This patch, made of thin sheet steel, is uncommonly well-done relative to most of the patching work I've found, nicely formed and thoroughly tacked down. What terrible secret lay behind it? Wifey advised leaving it alone, but I had to know, so I pried up the bottom of the patch carefully and took a look.

It's a huge knothole, almost as big as the patch, big enough for a rat to get through, which is why I left the patch in place until I patch it up properly. I'll have to slip a piece of wood in as a backing and glue it in, then putty over that. Since there's no way to hide that a knot was there, I won't have to worry too much about making it blend in. Chalk up another badge of honor for the Farm House.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Today was a day off from the Farm House restoration work, because the middle of it was taken up with a visit to the vet for Evangeline, for a checkup. Her vet is all the way over in West Hollywood, so the whole affair takes a good chunk of time. It's a bit of an ordeal, but Evangeline is worth it.

After a visit with the vet, they took Evangeline in the back office for a short time to take some tests, and while we waited Wifey and I went down the block to a coffee house to have a wee nosh and a cuppa, as is our custom during visits to this vet.

As is now traditional, the coffee house provided free Wi-Fi, and as we left I looked back at the seating area and saw six people, all in a row, in front of identical Apple PowerBooks. I mean identical, and from the look of them I believe they were the latest model. It was the Organization Man redux; all that was missing was matching gray flannel suits and Phi Beta Kappa keys. It was like performance art, only performance art is never this good. I made a mental note never to bring my Windows machine here, lest I get recognized as an intruder and trampled to death by the herd.

After we got back, I checked on the aprons, and to my great relief I found that the treatment had worked sufficiently well. There is still a trace of stickiness, but the epoxy is nonetheless completely hardened. 

To recap, then, what worked to complete the curing of the sticky epoxy was to heat the wood so that it was warm to the touch, and to keep it at that temperature for a long period. I applied the heat in three two-hour sessions, and it needed the whole time to achieve the desired result.

I have concluded that the reason that this experience with LiquidWood has been more troublesome than the others is that I was applying it to wood that was fragile because it was dry and thin (one-quarter of an inch), but was not spongy from rot or destruction of lignin. Moreover, I did not drill holes to help penetration of the wood, because of its thinness and fragility. This resulted in a lower mass of epoxy than I have ever used before, spread out over a greater surface area. As a result, despite the induction period, the heat dissipated so much after applying the epoxy that it was too cold for a proper curing. 

In such a situation, then, it is necessary to apply heat directly after application, so that the epoxy will cure properly without needing a lengthy session of corrective action afterward. It is also a good idea to drill tiny holes partway into the wood whenever possible, in order to increase the mass of epoxy deployed.

Alternatively, you can just fabricate a new piece.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Seeking A Cure

I've run into a little difficulty with the aprons. Although I followed the directions scrupulously, as I documented in my last post, the epoxy has still not cured fully, two days later. It's still just a bit sticky. 

A careful re-reading of the somewhat disorganized instructions provided with the epoxy indicates that the likely culprit was excessive moisture in the air as it was curing. While it was a comfortable, dry 62 degrees in the garage when I finished applying the epoxy at about 11:30PM, the temperature plunged to under 50 and the humidity increased considerably as a weak storm front moved in. The induction period is supposed to prevent excessive humidity from causing stickiness, but obviously in this case it did not.

In response, I did what I have done successfully in the past when faced with this problem: I heated the pieces thoroughly with a hair dryer on its hottest setting. While this did help a great deal, taking the pieces from very sticky to slightly sticky, a second application of heat had no further effect. So I brought them in and put them in a warm, dry, safe place on top of the fridge, hoping they would finish curing there. But the next morning, this morning, brought no change.

In retrospect, what I should have done was to apply the heat immediately after I was done applying the epoxy; the instructions do suggest this, but they give the impression that this is only necessary in extreme conditions, which is apparently not the case. So I hereby amend my previous instructions: always apply heat after applying WoodEpox unless the weather is reliably warm and dry, and even then it would help at least to speed things along.

Now, back to my predicament. I suppose that despite the stickiness, the epoxy is cured enough to do its job, and in any event once it's finished the stickiness won't matter. It might even help the paint adhere. 

Still, I'd like to see if I can eliminate the stickiness, so I can pass the information on to you. Also, as a practical matter, it's going to be a pain in the neck to sand if it stays like this. The instructions suggest that a temperature of 90 degrees is ideal, so I cast about for a good, efficient way to heat the pieces to that temperature for an extended period. I didn't want to stand there with a hair dryer for several hours, and I also didn't want to burn out the hair dryer.

I thought of the oven, but the thermostat is broken on ours, and in any event most oven thermometers don't go below 150 degrees, which is too hot for epoxy. Besides, I don't think that it's a good idea to put epoxied wood where food is supposed to go; while epoxy is extremely low in toxicity, it's still toxic to some degree.

At last, I remembered that our clothes dryer has a stationary rack insert for drying things such as tennis shoes. So I've got them sitting in there, running at low temperature. I'll do that for a few hours, then let them sit in there overnight.

If that still doesn't work, I'll see what effect Abosolv has on the stickiness. Abosolv is the proper solvent for both LiquidWood and WoodEpox, and it just may work if heat does not.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Epoxy Moon

Weather Underground (the Web site, not the domestic terrorists) reported rain for today, so I planned not to work. As it turned out, the weather was not bad at all, but the die was cast; Wifey and I watched the Angels drop a groaner in Arlington, then we got some long-deferred shopping done. 

After dinner, the evening was so fine, and the waxing moon so bright, that I decided to get the apron pieces all epoxied up.

Here is the customary nifty stratification picture (Part A on the bottom):

Here it is all mixed up:

To review: I used a container in which the volume of epoxy is taller than it is wide. The mixed epoxy needs to sit like this for a ten-minute induction period before use, so that the reaction between resin and hardener is able to get underway in earnest. The reaction generates heat, and heat accelerates the reaction; keeping the surface area small in this way keeps the reaction heat from dissipating too quickly. Notice that the mixture is completely uniform throughout; if it is not thoroughly mixed, it won't harden properly.

After the induction period, I poured the epoxy into a disposable styrofoam cup for ease of application and to avoid my wasting the measuring cup. I placed the apron pieces into a pan I fashioned out of aluminum foil in order to contain the epoxy, and then I began to apply the epoxy with a glue brush. Yes, pouring it on would have been faster, but I wanted to keep track of the absorption of epoxy into the wood. I didn't want to end up with a lot of epoxy sitting on top of the wood, which I would only have to sand off, and I wanted to see if there were any areas that soaked up more epoxy than others.

As it turned out, the wood was not anywhere near as degraded as I had feared. It didn't absorb much epoxy at all on the front; it all just stayed on the surface.

But the big surprise for me was that it absorbed more on the back side than the front. Sometimes this is a learning experience for me too.

I had anticipated that the front would be thirstier for the epoxy, because it is the side that has been exposed to the elements for 126 years. The fact that it was the back that was needier reveals the importance of back-priming wood; despite having been in total darkness all that time, the simple process of oxidation did plenty of damage on its own.

You'll notice in these pictures that the pieces are elevated above the foil; for this, I used these nifty items called "Painter's Pyramids." They are made of a neato plastic to which nothing sticks; the aprons will thus be able to drain and set on all sides without sticking to anything, and I'll be able to peel the cured epoxy right off the pyramids and use them again when I prime the aprons.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Another Dimensional Anomaly

The previous two posts were posted a day late because of the Blogger outage, so this post will serve to catch us up with the present.

Sanding the sill, then checking with a straightedge along the top plane, revealed that I have nailed the profile at the right end.

This gives you an idea just how much wood has been lost to weather damage.

Alas, the junction line starts to go south gradually about four inches along, until at the left end it is low by about a quarter-inch, as I suspected, so I've got some more building up to do.

Up at the top, after sanding I put a longer straightedge along the top piece, and discovered another, shall we say, dimensional anomaly:

The bottom edge follows a straight line from the left end to where the red line begins; the red line continues that straight line all the way to the right. As you can see, the actual piece goes a bit north at the start of the break, and stays up there until it is about 1/8" off at the right end. I haven't yet figured out how this happened, but it seems likely that the cause is related to the sag in the foundation that occurred nearby, and that may be also be the origin of the break in the wood that eventually caused a chunk to fall out. But for the life of me, I can't conceive of a plausible sequence of events to fit the evidence.

At this point it would only cause more problems to attempt to re-establish this straight line, so I am going to attempt to feather off this repair on the right end in a way that hides the problem.

Last time, I mentioned that I was going to use cyanoacrylate glue to attach the remaining piece to the apron, but as happens too often with this kind of glue, it failed me. As anyone who has worked with Super Glue knows, that stuff goes stale very quickly, and when it does it simply does not work. I'm now officially fed up with cyanoacrylate glue.

So I scrubbed the residue off with acetone and an old toothbrush, and used a bit of quick-setting epoxy instead. 

Sometimes this work is quite vexing, but I do it all so my loved ones may abide within in elegant comfort.

A Re-Epiphany

Yesterday I was talking at length about the difficulties I was having in getting the putty to come off the knife and stay where I put it. I mentioned that maybe the problem was just that I hadn't gotten my chops back up yet. That happens to me a lot when I get back to doing something I haven't done for a while, whether it be puttying or removing noise from a recording: I'm constantly finding myself having to re-learn the finer points of some procedure that have slipped my mind.

As it turns out, this was indeed the problem. It seems that writing everything down as I did flogged my memory overnight, because today it was all back in my brain as if it had never been gone. I guess I should start writing down my noise-removal procedures as well, next time I re-learn then.

The reason I was having trouble getting the putty to stick was because I wasn't cleaning the work surface off with alcohol first. No matter how thoroughly you dust, still a fine layer remains that must be washed off; alcohol is the best thing to use in this case because it evaporates quickly and leaves no residue that would inhibit adhesion or curing of the epoxy.

I also forgot that once I apply some putty, I need to scrape the remainder off my knife with another knife before taking up more putty so that it is all massed at the tip. Any putty remaining further down the knife is liable to stick to putty already applied, pulling it back off the work.

Another technique that came back to me as I worked was my method of building up junctions between planes. You will recall that I discussed pulling the knife down along the vertical plane, letting the putty build up like a stalagmite. The missing step here is to then take another knife held sideways and flip it down onto the other plane, then press down and slide the knife away from the junction. This pushes the putty out a bit at the junction, helping to ensure coverage of the desired line.

Here are the results of my newly-restored chops on the sill, before sanding:

As you can see, I've made a huge jump towards completion, but given the mess I had already created, it looks as if I'll still have to build up the top plane more.

By the time I got to the mess on the top piece, I was on a roll, and came up with a new trick: I held a straightedge along the patched area, lining it up on both sides with the undamaged edge. This showed me the line I was building to, and allowed me to see where I had built the putty up past it. I then held the straightedge firmly as I sanded back to that edge, being careful to sand level and just a hair forward of the backing piece. It was then laughably simple to fill in the now-obvious gaps. Here is the result:

And here's another shot, looking straight on from the front:

What looked nearly hopeless yesterday now looks nearly completed today. A little sanding, a little carving at the back, and I expect this will be done.

* * *

Meanwhile, back in the garage, I began to prepare the apron pieces for re-attachment. The first thing I needed to do was strip the paint off of them, because over the years paint had built up on the edges and in the back, obscuring the profile and preventing its lying flat against the backing piece. I didn't want to sand the paint off, lest I distort the profile of the wood. In the process, I broke one of the aprons in several places. As I said, this old wood is extremely fragile, which is why you want to mess with it as little as is necessary to do an adequate job.

After I finished stripping, I glued the apron back together, using a special PVA glue, similar to Elmer's white glue but specially formulated for wood. I used this glue rather than LiquidWood for several reasons: first, it's foolproof, needing no induction period; second, it sets up in a half-hour; third, I don't have to waste any excess as I would with the epoxy, and finally, I can touch it without worry, so I was able to coax the pieces into perfect alignment as I tightened the clamps without having to try to feel through gloves. This glue really is a delight to work with, and the right clamps really help, too.

You will notice one remaining piece at the top; the profile of the piece is such that I can't clamp it, so I will attach it later with cyanoacrylate glue, a special type of Super Glue designed especially for wood that is thicker and sets up in a minute, rather than a few seconds. I can simply hold the pieces together tightly as the glue sets. So you see, as useful as LiquidWood is, there are times when other glues are more suitable.

After my reminder of just how fragile these pieces are, however, my next step will be to saturate these pieces with LiquidWood so that I will have no further worries of breakage.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Another Day, Another Something Or Other

I've done two passes with the epoxy putty. I've been using the new putty, and have concluded that the putty I was using isn't all that stale. Most of the difficulty I was having was simply the result of working at the top of an extension ladder; I can't really get a good angle on my work up there. Beyond that, I guess I just have yet to get my puttying chops back up.

In any event, the work is going much more smoothly now; I'm doing just fine with filling holes, but the sculpting part is still giving me a bit of a problem: the putty doesn't always want to come off the knife.

The casing is actually ready for the first coat of primer everywhere but in the sculpted areas: the big divot at the bottom of the top piece, and the sill. Note that the patching pattern along the right side of the left piece reveals the wood grain. It also reveals something about the structure of wood.

As you know, wood's grain comes from its growth rings, the concentric rings of growth running along the length of a tree trunk that record the age of the tree, one ring per growing season (they of course run along every limb as well). The wood that comes at the beginning of the growth cycle is called earlywood; the wood that comes later is called latewood. The previous sentence seems comically obvious, I realize, but I just follow the facts where they lead me, and damn the torpedoes.

Latewood is stronger and denser than earlywood, making it more resistant to weathering, Where the wood is cut perpendicular to the grain, this gives weathered wood a grooved appearance, like an old 78 RPM record; where it is cut along the grain, it gives the wood a wear pattern like the one revealed here in the putty: wide craters with narrow bands of high spots in between.

Here's another angle on the sill:

I had a little trouble catching this in a picture, but I've established the basic line of the completed sill reconstruction; now, it's just a matter of filling in the low spots, a simple task, and building up the angle at the junction of the two planes, a tricky one. The angle is tricky because it's hanging out in the air, giving nothing for the putty to grab on to. Thus, I have to try to slide it off the knife in the proper position along one plane, letting it harden, sanding it to profile, then filling in the resultant gap along the other plane. This is not too hard with the vertical plane, because I can pull the knife away from the junction, allowing the putty to build up like a stalagmite. It is however a more complicated task with the top, sloping plane, because I have to pull the knife toward the junction, dragging it along the edge of another knife held flat along the vertical plane at the proper height. That's not so hard, but then I have to slide the vertical knife down, which invariably pulls the putty down with it, and sometimes right back off again. Whatever happens, I have to let it harden that way, because to fuss with it will only make it worse. The bottom line is that it takes several passes to complete, and I end up sanding off a great deal of putty in the process.

Here's a closer look at the top of the casing. First look at the top right of the photograph, where the errant nail drove part of the top piece down and splintered the end of the piece underneath. It's a bit hard to discern because there are so many colors going on there, but with the exception of the triple-bead profile at the top of the lower piece, the original profile is completely restored. This is why I was so happy the previous workman had preserved the splintered pieces, because I was able to glue thmn back in place and simply putty up the remaining gaps, rather than having to go through the struggle of re-establishing the angle out of thin air.

Now, let's look over to the left. As is painfully evident here, I'm having a great deal of difficulty re-establishing the horizontal plane along the bottom of the top piece. This is because I have to work along a narrow band hard against the vertical plane of the strip right behind it. I don't have a knife narrow enough to run along this plane while holding another knife against the front, so I have to pull a knife forward, and there's so little wood there that the putty doesn't want to stay where I put it. I thus have to help guide the putty with my fingers. When it hardens, I can't simply sand it flat, because I can't get a crisp angle at the back this way without sanding the rear piece out of shape. I thus have to take a wood chisel and carefully cut away at the putty to establish a straight, crisp angle back there.

A carpenter more skilled than I would undoubtedly have chosen instead to chisel out the gap so that it was straight and square, and then glue a new piece of wood in there to fill the gap completely. Then, he would have puttied the seam smooth. I, however, am far more confident in arriving at a satisfactory repair using putty alone. It may take a while, but I'll get it.

In the meantime, I offer the following picture of domestic tranquility for your enjoyment.

Hey, You, Get Offa My Cloud

Well, dang. I don't like meta posts, but the good folks at Blogger, the friendly blog host, had a disaster, and the result is that I haven't been able to post for about 24 hours, and one of my posts has gone to visit Richie Cunningham's older brother upstairs on Cloud Nine. But never fear, dear reader: if the post does not return, I have a copy.

See link below for even more metaphysics.

Blogger Buzz: Blogger is back: "What a frustrating day. We’re very sorry that you’ve been unable to publish to Blogger for the past 20.5 hours. We’re nearly back to normal..."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Farm House Effect

[Prefatory note, April 2019: While I don't like to edit posts ex post facto, I'd like to revise and extend my original remarks here in light of what we have since learned about Anne Wilson and her family. 

As I mention in my post of August 25, 2017, "Happy Birthday, Morning!", Anne and her family did indeed make many, many happy echoes within the Farm House walls; it just took us a long time to be able to hear them.

To correct the factual inaccuracies in the following: Anne was indeed born in 1865; she moved here with her sons David and Lucian in 1900 from Cucamonga after the untimely passing of her husband Archibald, and she lived here until her passing at 104 in 1969. 

I have it on good authority that Anne Wilson was as happy as she was indomitable, known as "Morning" by the family for her sunny disposition, and the Farm House served as a joyful center of Wilson family life. I know for a fact that, along the way, a goodly number of Wilsons lived within these walls.]

* * *

As I mentioned long ago in the Journal, we didn't really know much of anything about Victorian homes when we purchased the Farm House. I knew Craftsman homes intimately from having been in and around many of them. My grandparents had a classic 1905 bungalow, and along the way I've lived in a few myself. I thus had a firm idea of precisely what details were appropriate for them, from light switches to kitchen fixtures. We in fact were looking to buy a Craftsman fixer-upper when we found the Farm House and fell in love. Landing it was the hardest battle Wifey and I have yet fought, but land it we did.

The thing is, once we did I felt like a car-chasing dog who suddenly discovers that he's caught one: okay, now what do I do? I mean, I knew enough to know that when the Farm House was built, it didn't have light switches or kitchen fixtures. Beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.

So I started to learn all I could about Victorian homes, and early on I noted that not only did they represent a distinct break from the homes that came before, but that the Craftsmen homes that came afterwards themselves represented a distinct break from Victorian homes. Pondering the distinctness of Victorian homes, it eventually dawned upon me that the people who built and lived in them must have been fairly distinctive as well. My area of study thus expanded dramatically: I had to learn not just the what of Victorian homes, but the who and the why as well.

At the same time, the people who had lived in the Farm House had not left many clues regarding how they had lived, and as I have discussed in the Journal, those they did leave indicated strongly that they had not lived the typical Victorian lifestyle—or at least that they had maintained that lifestyle for many decades after the rest of the world had moved on from it. Anne Wilson, who was born no later than 1865 and who lived in the house for well over 60 years, was clearly stubbornly intent upon maintaining the simple lifestyle into which she had been born; she did not install a gas heater until 1944, and the house was not electrified until 1950 by younger relatives (she was widowed by 1924). It's an intriguing history, but by no means a typical one, and not a terribly happy one either.

On the one hand, Anne and her grandson Dick left us a house that was still much as it was when it was built, with relatively few changes to obscure its original condition; this was a rare gift that few who undertake to restore an old house receive. On the other hand, they left a house with no memories save for sad ones, a house devoid of happy echoes, of dreams built and lived, of life.

The only characteristic the house had was its dogged stubbornness, its contemptuous disregard of the passage of time, its determination to withstand earthquakes and the relentless depredations of sun, wind and rain, its indomitable will to survive with dignity. It was this quality with which Wifey and I immediately fell deeply in love, and is so like the Anne we have come to know that we have to conclude that she did leave behind something quite fine, after all.

Thus, all we had to work with at the beginning was a strong indication of the house as originally built, and that air of indomitable dignity. We resolved to retain and enhance both aspects, but that was not enough. All this would give us was a museum, when what we needed was a home. Clearly, we needed more to work with.

So I conceived a narrative for the house's history. In this narrative, the Farm House had been lived in all along by a family much like our own, who had maintained the house reasonably well all along, but who otherwise had changed things no more than necessary to keep the house in compliance with the prevailing standards for comfort and utility. In this way, we hoped to end up with a home exuding Victorian exuberance with all the dignity that comes with age, one that continued to maintain the Victorian precepts of beauty in a modern context. This narrative has guided our work ever since.

To flesh out this narrative, I had to gain a familiarity with the way people lived not just when the house was built, but during the Farm House's entire existence. This added to my field of study not just the what, who and why, but the when and how as well, and not just for the Victorian period, but for every period between that one and the present. In other words, I had to become conversant in the history of everyday life since 1885.

Now, I was already up in such knowledge back to the late Thirties just from talking to my parents, who had come of age at about that time and were always happy to talk about the way things were. I knew, for example, that when my Dad was a young man before the war he smoked Wings cigarettes, because they were cheap but serviceable. He even told me how much they cost compared to name brand cigarettes. This is the kind of ephemeral knowledge from which one may build an understanding of how people lived, what their money was worth, what was important to them and so on. But before that, there was pretty much a brick wall. I knew a few details about a few things, but otherwise I was utterly in the dark. 

I threw myself into learning every little thing about American life from 1885 to 1935: art, music, architecture, popular entertainments, what they ate, what they drank, what they paid for everyday things, what they earned. And somewhere along the way, my sense of time changed.

Before this, I was like most people, I expect. Time began from my early memories, and everything before that was old. Things from before my parents' time were prehistoric. When I was 30, my date of birth did not seem terribly long ago, but 30 years before that seemed like 100 in my sense of history.

But once I started immersing myself in old ephemera, trying to get into the mind of the Victorian, the Edwardian, the Ragtime Bear and the Jazz Baby, my sense of history became quite linear. I began to understand the path from Al Jolson to Frank Sinatra as well as I did the path from the Rolling Stones to Nirvana. I started to view a film from 1925 with something approaching the cultural context of a man from 1925, and not as some moldy old piece of corn. With great speed, time was becoming less of a barrier to me, and to Wifey as well, because she has been right there with me all along.

Put another way, I was becoming the homeowner of my narrative, the man who had lived in the Farm House since 1885. I had synthesized a living memory that extended back many decades before my birth, and this synthesis continues to broaden and deepen as a natural consequence of the continuing Farm House restoration.

This is what I call the "Farm House effect": the extension of one's historical purview to encompass the lifetime of the old home he is restoring. I hypothesize that anyone who becomes intimately involved in the restoration of an old house experiences this effect to some degree, and that it becomes stronger the older the house is. I can only imagine what goes on in the mind of one whose labor of love is not a Victorian, but a Late Colonial.

I'd love to hear from those of you who are also restoring their old house, in order that we might compare notes. For my part, I will be providing examples of the Farm House effect in our own lives from time to time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Better Living in Two Parts, Part Two

It was a beautiful morning on Friday, so I and the boys went outside to get some sun before I got to work.

Travis loves sunny days. He's such a good-natured dog that he often looks quite goofy, but as with any true professional, he's at his best when he's working, whether it be sniffing out some varmint to tree or protecting us against burglars. At such times, he looks every bit the classic sporting hound. Here he is just starting to detect a whiff of squirrel.

We never let our cats out unsupervised, but we think it's a bit cruel to keep a cat cooped up all the time if he wants to explore a bit. Benny used to spend all his time outside, and he's quite comfy there. He'll even happily walk around on a leash hooked to his collar, but today I let him out untethered.

We've only recently allowed Adam out-of-doors, and when he's out he likes to role-play, like Snoopy vs. the Red Baron: "Here's the wily ocelot, hunting down his next meal."

Actually, he's gotten so big and wild-looking that he might as well be an ocelot.

Of course, the yard will be much nicer once we do some proper landscaping, but already it's quite a haven for butterflies. Throughout the spring and summer months, there is always at least one hanging out on any given sunny day.

It always makes me happy to see a butterfly enjoying his day in the sun. After all, he has worked very hard to earn it. He reminded me that it was time for me to be about earning mine.

I was finally done with all the liquid epoxy work, and I'd finished the hand-sanding of the figured areas, so it was time to putty. While WoodEpox is formulated from the same resin and hardener as LiquidWood, it behaves rather differently, so I'll give you the low-down on how I use it.

It's a lot messier to mix, because you have to scoop equal amounts out of the tubs and mix them together by hand, all the while taking care not to contaminate the tub of Part A with some Part B and vice-versa. Moreover, unless the air is very cold (near freezing or colder) or humid, there is no need for an induction period. By the time the two parts are completely mixed together, the reaction is well underway, and you don't have more than 20 minutes or so before the mixture becomes stiff enough to start resisting your attempts to shape it. 

I usually only mix together one tablespoon of each part at a time (one ounce total volume), unless I have a large void to fill. I have found that for the usual work of patching holes, cracks and divots, one ounce is the most I can work with at one time without its becoming too stiff to work well. For a big job like the casing, however, I will need a lot more than one ounce, which can take a lot of time just with the cleaning of tools between parts.

With a job like this, then, I find it saves a lot of time to measure out as many units of each part as I think I'll need at the same time. That way, I only have to clean the tools and the measure (and my gloves—don't forget, always wear gloves) twice before getting to work puttying.

As with the LiquidWood, I use denatured alcohol to clean everything up. I put it in a spray bottle for ease of use.

When I'm ready to putty, I take one unit of each part and knead them together until the color is entirely uniform throughout. Then, I flatten out the mass of mixed putty as thinly as I can and put it on a plastic dish or tray that I can work from (this day, I used the top of a cottage cheese container: I'm just a recyclin' fool!).

Remember that the reaction of resin to hardener generates heat, and heat accelerates the reaction. Flattening it out helps dissipate the reaction heat, keeping the putty "open" (workable) as long as possible. I take the putty with the knife right off this plate, which puts the putty on the knife in the ideal position for application.

Here is the completed putty job, or rather, the completed first pass. 

Building up the profile of the sill will take several passes; when it's all built up and the entire casing is sanded level, I will prime it, which will reveal where I need to putty more. I could try to complete all the puttying before I prime, but I've found that at a certain point it's a better idea to get everything the same color; this makes any remaining irregularities far more evident. 

Although the putty begins to stiffen fairly soon, once it's deployed like this it will take a while to harden enough to sand, from several hours on a hot day to overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can speed the hardening by heating thoroughly with a hair-dryer on the hot setting for ten or fifteen minutes. That should get it hard enough to sand within an hour or two.

Notice how the left piece needed much more patching than the right; it practically needed a skim-coat of the entire surface. This is because the right side has received at least some protection from the sun by the house next door, while the left side has always been more exposed. Note also the odd bands of less-weathered wood on each side of the casing; it's taken me years to figure out that this weathering pattern was caused by the shadows cast by the casing on the siding as the sun traveled from east (right) to west (left). I expect that this pattern will remain somewhat evident even after I'm done patching and painting. It's just another badge of honor the Queen of Mentor Avenue will wear with dignity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Better Living in Two Parts

I managed to get out and epoxy that mystery crack today, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss how to work with this LiquidWood I talk so much about. On the one hand, it's just another two-part epoxy like the stuff you've all used before, but on the other hand it's just different enough from what you're likely used to that if you just go grab some and start using it without reading the voluminous directions you may be disappointed in your results. As always, Dear Reader, I am here to try to give you the benefit of my own drats.

This LiquidWood is specifically designed to be used with wood. It has a consistency somewhat thicker than corn syrup, but not as thick as honey. It sets relatively slowly, in order to give it plenty of time to flow through the wood beforehand; in fact, there is as a practical matter no fixed set time. This is where LiquidWood gets tricky, and this is where I had difficulty in my first uses of it.

The reaction between the two parts of epoxy generates heat, and heat accelerates the reaction. Moreover, there must be a certain temperature reached before the reaction gets underway successfully. With the usual fast-setting epoxies one uses, this is not an issue, but it is crucial with a slow-setter like LiquidWood. Without going any further into the theory, here are some practical rules to follow when using it.

Whatever volume you mix up, always start with a container that holds that volume in a shape that is taller than it is wide. Here, I am using one ounce (one-half ounce of each part); I took the picture before I mixed them just because it looks rather nifty that way.

Mix them thoroughly, so the mix appears entirely uniform throughout, and let the mix sit for ten minutes. This gets the reaction going sufficiently to ensure full curing once it is dissipated within the wood.

While I was letting the mix sit, I prepared the crack for gluing. First, I marked it with a pen so that I had a more visible target to work with.

At this point, I realized that the crack was too tight to allow sufficient penetration of the epoxy without some help. Because of the location within the triple-bead profile, I didn't want to use my usual method of drilling holes along the crack on both sides, so I decided to drill a few strategically-placed holes directly on the crack. This was a delicate operation, because the wood along a crack is naturally quite fragile, and I had to be very careful not to splinter the wood as I drilled (which is why I usually don't do it).

So far, so good. In order to get the epoxy as far into the crack as possible, I poured it into a small squeeze bottle with a conical tip sized to fit snugly into the holes, and squeezed it in slowly and repeatedly until it would take no more.

At this point, I knew I could rely upon capillary action to carry the epoxy all along the crack in sufficient volume to keep the wood stable. Fortunately, the crack was pretty stable to begin with, and it should not be subject to any particular stress. I then applied a clamp as close to the crack as I could without damaging the splintered area I have yet to repair; this eliminated any remaining air pockets and maybe even generated a bit more heat to aid curing.

As remote as the clamping location appears, it nonetheless closed the crack tightly along its entire length. This suggests to me that there is a lot going on inside the wood that we don't see here, i.e., this crack may go rather further down the piece along the back side. 

This brings up one of the differences between renovation and restoration. If I were working on a forty-year-old ranch house and I had a crack like this in a window casing, if I wanted to do a truly thorough job I'd pull this piece of wood off the house completely at this point, and fix this crack from both sides. I might even decide that the best course of action was simply to replace this piece. That would be renovation, and from the standpoint of effecting the best, most long-lasting repair possible, it is undoubtedly the best course.

But we're not renovating here. One does not renovate a 125-year-old house, at least not in Bungalow Heaven. One restores it. When restoring a house, one retains as much of the original building material as possible without compromising the health and structural soundness of the house. It's not compromising anything to leave this crack incompletely discovered; at worst, it just means that it may need further repairs sooner than it would otherwise. Moreover, if I were to take this old, brittle piece off with the full intention of re-attaching it, I would almost certainly damage the piece further, and might well end up damaging it so much that I'd have to replace it after all. I'd probably end up cracking some of the siding as well.

Thus, as much as I'd love to make the Farm House perfect, I have to stop fussing when the risks incurred in going further outweigh the benefits. I'm also in a bit of a hurry as well.

To finish the discussion of the use of LiquidWood, count on waiting overnight for it to harden sufficiently to remove any clamps, and depending upon the weather, at least 24 hours for curing. Heat and low humidity speed this process. If for some reason you end up with LiquidWood that refuses to cure fully (i.e., it remains sticky), get it good and hot with a hair dryer and keep it that way for at least ten minutes. That should do the trick, although you may have to do it a few times.

Oh, and one other thing: while epoxy is extremely low in toxicity, one can develop an allergy to it with repeated skin contact, and from then on working with epoxy becomes unpleasant, For that reason, always wear gloves when handling epoxy. If you should get it on your skin, clean it off with alcohol immediately. Alcohol is great for cleaning un-set epoxy off of tools and containers as well; I use the denatured alcohol readily available at any hardware store (even in California, at least for now).