Spring Home Projects

Spring maintenance or maintenance of any season is critical for the preservation and upkeep of your homes; but, let’s be honest, it’s not as fun as project planning. So, I ask, what are your short term and long term plans for your home?

In our bungalow, we have a long list of projects and plans, but some take priority over others. I know we are not alone when I say one thing needs repair immediately after something else. For starters, the original cast iron waste pipe from the second floor bathroom is leaking. Of course, it is our only bathroom and the leak is somewhere that we cannot see. Until we get to that project (sooner rather than later) we have a makeshift catch basin below the pipe in the basement to prevent the leaking water from damaging our brand new post-flood furnace. It’s a good Yankee fix for now. Anyone have suggestions for cast iron replacement and/or repair? This also speeds up our bathroom renovations. Who has experience with reglazing a cast iron clawfoot tub?

We need to rebuild the back porch steps, as the previous steps were washed down the river by Tropical Storm Irene. We have high hopes of removing our asphalt driveway and replacing it with concrete. Our projects could go on and on: electric upgrade, the kitchen ceiling, window sash repair, and more. But, it’s a labor of love when you live in a historic house. Taking care of the house is like taking care of part of the family (even though plumbing is not our first choice of tasks. I’d rather paint!).

If you have advice or stories to share, please do. It’s good project weather. Open your windows and bond with your house!

Painting, Alligatoring Paint and Plaster Walls

Painting is one thing. Dealing with decades-old, failing paint on plaster walls is another thing.

The last post about this room, Paint Chatter, pondered what the problem could be. While I began the paint removal process before Christmas, I abandoned the project for a few months when my citrus stripper method proved unsuccessful. Clearly, this room was going to be difficult. Based on communication with the previous owners and their knowledge of the house’s history, supplemented by staring at and pondering the state of the walls while reading about paint and plaster, I came to a conclusion.

This one coat of blue paint was improperly applied 83 years ago. Beneath this paint, there was not a coat of primer; rather, it was applied directly to the finish coat of the plaster. In other words, this room had not been painted since 1928.

Before undertaking the paint removal project.

Over the course of these project abandonment months, the chipping/alligatoring/flaking increased in surface area and/or began to drive Vinny and me mad. If we were to run our hands over the wall, the paint would flake off easily. And the room looked horrible. It had been relegated to storing our books, boxes, files and power tools (during basement repair).

There comes a time when you just have to jump into a project and not look back. For Vinny and me, that time was two weekends ago. The oddly warm March weather allowed us to open the windows while painting.

Care to jump in and see how we tackled the paint problem? To refresh your memory, here is one section of one wall:

Alligatoring paint in the blue room.

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Before we proceed, I have to add this DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional painter or certified for lead testing or removal. Our house has not been tested for lead, but if your house or building was painted prior to 1978, you should assume that there may be lead. With that said, I am not recommending my methods, but merely sharing as a fellow historic homeowner. 

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First, the problems in list form:

(1) How do you remove alligatoring paint without removing all of the paint? Do you have to remove all of it?

(2) What do you do when citrus stripper does not work at all?

(3) What do you do when you are fairly certain that the only coat of paint on the walls has been there for 83 years? While I am not a certified professional in terms of hazardous paint (e.g. lead), I know that paint made prior to 1978 is likely to have traces of lead.

I love our house and value historic integrity; but, sometimes you have to conduct a few experiments and then make some decisions and/or concessions. In the case of our house we decided:

(1) Citrus stripper did not work on the walls. (I used it another room for peeling, not cracking, paint, where it worked well.) An orbital  handheld sander, with a bag for holding the dust, did not work either.

(2) We would remove the paint with a 1″ metal scraper. We would not to remove all of the paint from the walls. This would require an insane amount of work; but more importantly it would create more dust and paint chips than necessary. Rather, we decided it was best to tackle the failed paint areas and leave the rest undisturbed.

(3) Not to repair the surface cracks in the plaster, because that would possibly create more damage. The cracks are not structural or causing plaster failure, so we figured it was best to leave it alone. (If you are repairing your plaster, that is obviously a job prior to painting.)

(4) Not to build up the finish coat of plaster after removing paint. If our wall surfaces were uneven, we could live with that.

So, we set to scraping the loose paint while wearing respirators, covering the room in a plastic, disposable tarp. We set a fan to blow air outside and closed the door while we worked. It was not a fail-proof method, but it seemed to work well enough for our minimal purposes. (But because I was trying to keep everything neat, I did not take photographs of the paint scraping process.  And I’ll spare you from the frightening photograph of me in a respirator.)

We used a 1″ blade on a scraper and simply put enough pressure on the wall that when pulled down, it removed the paint. It was surprisingly effective in areas where the paint had completely failed. However, it did create nicks in the finish coat of the plaster, which was another reason to not scrape the entire wall surface (again – aside from the insanity of such a task).

A lot of paint came off very easily. We lightly sanded the edges of the paint-free plaster areas to hopefully insure that it wouldn’t flake under the new coats of paint.

After removing the paint and cleaning up the large paint chips that missed the tarp, we disposed of it and began to prep for painting, including taping all of the trim and window/door frame edges. We used grey primer, knowing that we were going to choose a darker color for the walls; on the ceiling we used white primer. This house likes two coats of primer, at least, because the shiny decades-old paint seems to slurp in that first coat of primer, making it look like it’s not there at all. A second coat seems to give a more stable looking coat. We also use two coats of paint on the walls and ceiling, for similar reasons. In addition, two coats or more coats of primer and two coats of paint help to even out the wall surface and hide some of the flawed areas.

And the finished product:

After! The color is Sailor's Sea Blue (eggshell finish) by Benjamin Moore. The wall on the right was the worst in terms of alligatoring paint.

Not totally after (pre-cleanup), but the walls and ceiling are finished.

The wall on the left in this photograph has a noticeable uneven-obviously-scraped surface, if you look closely in person. However, for now, my solution is to line that wall with our tall bookshelves.

How long will this repair last? I’m not sure, since the first coat of paint was improperly applied and is obviously still underneath the new paint. If it cracks and fails again, I’ll try a new way of paint removal. For now, this room has improved exponentially. Actually, I’m sitting in this room as I write this post.  The bungalow is an ongoing experiment, and I love it.

Now,  how have you dealt with paint related problems in your house? 

Friday’s Quiz Answer

The Preservation Pop Quiz from Friday March 16 asked if you could identify this architectural material:

Quiz subject.

This is located in the bathroom of my 1920s bungalow, and at first glance it looks like subway tile (most people think it is, and with a fresh coat of semi gloss paint, it continues to look like subway tile).  There is a chair rail about 4′ up on the bathroom walls; what you see in the picture is below the chair rail, and above is the regular plaster surface. However, the peeling paint gave it away; this was not tile.

The truth is, until yesterday, I was not entirely certain as to this material. It looks and sounds like plaster, but without any holes in the wall, it is hard to accurately compare it to the plaster walls. I was not going to do any exploratory destruction. However, after some searching, I’ve learned that plaster scored to look like subway tile was fairly common for a 1920s bathroom. And it’s the subject of some online discussions (see This Old House).

After reading more on plaster, I came to the conclusion that my plaster walls have rock lath/plasterboard/gypsum board of sorts, meaning that there are only two coats of plaster necessary (brown and finish), as opposed to the typical three of earlier plaster (scratch, brown, finish). From NPS Preservation Brief 21: Repairing Historic Flat Plaster by Mary Lee MacDonald:

Rock Lath. A third lath system commonly used was rock lath (also called plaster board or gypsum-board lath). In use as early as 1900, rock lath was made up of compressed gypsum covered by a paper facing. Some rock lath was textured or perforated to provide a key for wet plaster. A special paper with gypsum crystals in it provides the key for rock lath used today; when wet plaster is applied to the surface, a crystalline bond is achieved.

Rock lath was the most economical of the three lathing systems. Lathers or carpenters could prepare a room more quickly. By the late 1930s, rock lath was used almost exclusively in residential plastering.

So, the answer? The picture shows plaster walls in my bathroom scored to imitate subway tile. The brown and finish coats are scored; beneath them is the rock lath.

Does your house have anything like this? I had never seen it before (or it was done so well that it fooled me into thinking it was tile).

Renting in Big Sky Country: A Montana Bungalow

House Hopping with Preservationists began in Virginia and moved to Ohio. Today the tour continues in the Big Sky Country: Montana. Sarah and her husband rent an adorable bungalow in Great Falls, MT and she enjoys reading the house and pondering its history. Join Sarah as she takes us through the house and shares her insight for analyzing the changes that have been made by previous residents. Sarah proves that renting can be just as thought-provoking as owning. 

By Sarah Nucci

I confess, I’m a Virginian at heart. I was born in Virginia, ended up in Ohio, Michigan, and Mississippi before coming home. And even then, I married into the Air Force – which took us to Las Vegas. It’s pretty safe to say that I was less than excited when we found out we were moving to Great Falls, MT, last year. I was even less excited when we planned on living on base, only to find out that we couldn’t as soon as my husband arrived. Slight freak out! No housing and I was on my way with two cats in the car.

It turned out okay in the end – the panicked house hunting brought up this home:

The front of my house. Yes, I realize this looks pretty sad at the moment - it’s February and there isn’t much snow. I’m told we’re getting plenty this week, but until it shows up we continue to have unseasonably warm weather. Ignore the lawn.

My husband texted me an image of the front of the house – and then a google search brought up this link(Click to see lots of interior shots for a good idea of the layout and discussion to follow. The home looks big on the outside, but it’s a 1913 bungalow style house with small rooms that is hard to photograph.)

Let’s start outside. You can see that the house has three bays, with a center front door. It’s on a corner lot of only .09 acres. – and when I looked it up on the Sanborn Maps (it first appears in 1929), this house is one of two on the original lot, and it appears that there may have been some kind of garage in between the two.

Sanborn, 1929.

The house is the one on the block on the left, top right corner. You’ll notice there is kind of a small porch on the inside of the lot, and you may notice that the neighbor’s house looks surprisingly like this one.

The neighbor's house, NE view.

The house was built about 15 years before the map was drawn and there are already changes you can see by looking at the  maps. The biggest change is the flow of the floor plan. Rather than a porch across the front of the house, now when you walk through our front door, you enter the screened-in porch, which is only on the right half of the facade. From the porch you walk into the living room/kitchen. The dining room is off the kitchen (note the enclosed portion of the porch).

The dining room ceiling.

Check out the dining room: it has a dropped ceiling (remind anyone of elementary school). What you can’t see is that the floor slopes down. In extremely cold weather, the cold air comes through the floor, since this room is not over the basement and thus, has no insulation.

Exposed ceiling beam between the living room/kitchen.

In the main room are a couple of evident changes. You can see the beam through the middle of the room (running the short way through the house). I’m guessing there used to be a wall there.  I’m guessing the kitchen as always been there, though it has been updated.  Something that you don’t notice in a house until you move in: there are no wall outlets on the sink/stove side of the kitchen. Instead, they are all located by the L extension.

One of the saddest parts of what has happened to this house is actually the fireplace on the far north side of the house. Outside, on both houses, you can see the pretty awesome irregular brick on the fireplace. At some point, someone painted ours to match the walls. This makes me terribly sad. I’ve never been inside the neighbor’s house to know if theirs has been painted as well.

The painted mantle and fireplace.

One of those things I wasn’t really thinking about until recently is that we don’t have a hallway in our house. This is kind of amusing in that hey-our-master-bath-exits-onto-the-living-area-way, but then again since there are only two of us, it works out pretty well.

We only rent this house, and frankly, the owner is a single military guy – there used to be five young guys living in this house before we moved in. I’m pretty sure that there were some changes to make it “rentable.” One of these is the door frames throughout the house.

New door frames.

New trim and old baseboards.

You’ll notice that the baseboards are still there. Someone put some textured wall treatment on EVERYTHING and I guess the realtor probably thought it would rent better with the door frames added. They also added the tacky hollow wood doors. In fact, there is only one original door in the house – and it leads to the attic.

The only original door in the house.

If you walk through this “open area” at the base of the stairs you walk into the master bedroom. This is the far southwest corner of the house, and is right behind the kitchen. There are a couple of things that really indicate that this room has been heavily altered. One is that there is a small beam/extension through the middle of the room, and the other is the window next to the built-in bookcase on the far end of the room. You’ll notice that there is a small cut-out for the window to fit – and it cuts about 6 inches out of the side of the room.

Cut for the window in the master bedroom.

Looking up in the window cutout.

The old connection between the two rooms in the current master bedroom.

This room looks pretty spacious, right? Ha! We have a small, 1940s, four-poster bed that sits under the back window. It leaves about a foot and a half for us to walk between the wall and the bed. This is also the only room in the house that’s air conditioned. My guess is this could have been two rooms, that have been altered into the “master”

The last room in the middle of the two bedrooms is actually the bathroom. It’s not big, not even close, but it’s also not bad. The bathroom has the tub/shower combo, as well as the toilet, sink, and medicine cabinet. There’s also a small cabinet in the corner. From the outside you can see there was originally a window there that has been covered and painted over.

The filled in bathroom window on the rear of the house.

The city is built all around water ; in 1889 the first water tap was issued, and electricity happened early as well – the five water falls that Great Falls is named for were dammed early on for hydroelectric power. That being said – I’m not sure where the original bathroom was located. I have doubts it was here, but maybe it was as a Jack-and-Jill bathroom with doors into each bedroom.

I can safely say that the basement and the attic were not originally finished. You can see the images of the space on the link – but there isn’t too much to see. What I will point out, is that we have a small side porch that opens from the kitchen.

The side porch.

And we have that small stairway to the basement from that side of the house. My guess is that is what is marked on the Sanborn map there. The fireplace was definitely not the original or only means of heating the house; the coal chute cover is still on the back of the house.

The original coal chute.

Inside there has never been central air installed. In fact, we have that one window until and we only run it when sleeping during the summer months. The basement is always cool. The heating system, though, heats the first floor at the basement. It’s pretty efficient and it’s completely helped by the 9 deciduous trees that are on the property.

Unfortunately, the attic only has gravity vents onto the first floor. In the winter we actually close off the attic so we aren’t trying to heat it, and in the summer we open those windows to help cool off the house. It makes the space a bit unusable for much more than storage space!

This house has been amazing to live in – and there are definitely a lot of clues as to what the house was before we moved in. I’m hoping that my neighbors move sometime soon so I can have an excuse to explore their house.

What is your house telling you?

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Sarah Nucci is a 2004 graduate of Mary Washington College, and is currently the Curator of History at the Montana Historical Society.  She’s an avid re-enactor making the most of living in Montana.

Thank you Sarah for giving us a tour of your bungalow. I hope you enjoy analyzing the changes, learning more about the house, and dreaming of what you’d do if it were your own!

Next up on House Hopping with Preservationists, we’re headed back east to Vermont. 

The Bungalow: Paint Chatter

How about some homeowner fun on this Monday morning? Let’s talk paint.

All houses have their mysteries, and ours is no different. One of the things that we loved most about this house was the minimal updating. In fact, the paint colors even gave the impression of decades ago and the shadows on the walls showed where picture frames and shelves had hung for those same decades. We placed “painting the entire interior of the house” on our list of aesthetic priorities. There’s just something so satisfying about a new coat of paint suited to your own tastes.

I love to paint. Honestly. Give me some work lights, good music or Gilmore Girls for the background, and I will paint all night long (I don’t really have time to paint during the day). Prepping and priming aren’t my favorite tasks, but I’m warming up to them. But I love colors: thinking about them for days or weeks, matching them, choosing lots of different colors, etc. And the end result is always worth all of the effort and the paint that somehow ends up on my face.

So far I have painted three rooms (living room, bedroom, guest room) with four to go (dining room, kitchen, bathroom and office).  The guest room, which is the smallest room, took the longest amount of time and the most effort because of peeling paint on the plaster ceiling. And then I was inspired to paint horizontal stripes (which, by the way, sound scary and require a lot of painters tape. but turned out great). I owe a great deal of thanks to a few flamingos and my sister Sarah for their help.

Now I am moving on to my next project: the office. It is currently a pretty shade of blue, but there is one big problem: the paint is chipping everywhere in this room. By chipping, I mean something akin to alligatoring. See below.

The chipping blue paint.

Another angle of the chipping or about-to-chip paint.

And that is only one small section of this room.  See here:

Most of the room looks like this.

More chipping. It’s on every wall. And some ares of the ceiling.

Fun, yes? Good thing I like a historic house puzzle. However, this one is driving me crazy. Why is the paint chipping like that? It is the only room in the house where this is happening. For reference, aside from the wall with the windows, all of the walls are interior walls. I’ve asked everyone who walks through the door, but no one has come to any conclusions, yet. Perhaps you can help. Here is what I know about the paint in our house (with thanks to the sellers who were kind enough to answer my questions):

The upstairs rooms have only been painted once, probably with one coat. Downstairs rooms have been repainted in the same color, except for the kitchen (new color). Any room that was repainted was done in the 1970s. The house was built in 1928. In other words, there is very likely lead paint in this house (pre-1978 as all preservationists know).

My questions relating to this information: How has one coat of paint lasted 83 years? Why is the blue room chipping and the other rooms are not? And, how am I supposed to remove that chipping paint? And will this happen again when I repaint?

Regarding the one coat of paint: it’s good to know now that some rooms have been repainted. But was lead paint that durable to have one coat last 83 years? Isn’t that impossible? So far in my paint endeavors I have not found evidence of multiple coats. Others have suggested that the house was wallpapered, then stripped of its wallpaper and painted. (I would not want that job.) Others have suggested that the house (the walls) froze last winter when it was unoccupied and unheated. And others have suggested it’s just a bad application in the blue room. That was my first instinct, but I’m still amazed at the other rooms that have had only one coat of paint.

Regarding paint removal: scraping creates dust particles and scratches the smooth plaster. Chemical stripping or something like citrus stripper is not effective.

While I love colors and painting, I am not an expert. If you have experience with chipping paint or can help me solve the old paint questions, I’d be very interested to chat. This room will take a while to finish; but, I will share what I learn and the end results.

Frosty Windows in the Bungalow

A few of the windows in our house turn frosty on extremely cold days. The ice is on the storm window some on the interior window, too.

Look familiar? That’s quite typical for my house, now.  I remember some icy windows in my parents’ house, too. To combat the ice, every winter my parents would blow dry the plastic over the large metal frame picture window in our 1957 ranch house. While we would lose our windowsills for the winter and the cats would sometimes scratch holes in the plastic, my parents assumed it beat the alternative of having icy window panes. It made sense to me. About 10 years ago, they replaced some of the windows, including that old picture window (with larger double hung windows).  After that, I didn’t see frosted windows or plastic over windows until this winter in our bungalow.

The 1-over-1 wood frame windows in this house are all original, glass included. They are in good condition (some TLC needed such as the sash cords) and I love them. Unfortunately, 16 of the 19 original 2-over-2 wood storms have been replaced with metal triple track storm windows. Perhaps they were cheaper or considered more efficient at the time, but those metal storms are a pain. The windows get stuck in the tracks and some of them hurt my fingers when I try to slide the windows up or down.

However, these metal storms are better than nothing. I say this based on accidental winter experiments and casual observations about my house so far.

(1) The windows that have metal storms with the glass down (screen up) are icy on the exterior rather than the interior (mostly) (see picture above).

(2) The windows that have the metals storms with the screen down (meaning I haven’t slid the glass down yet) are icy on the interior wood frame window (seen in the picture below).

(3) The windows with the metal storms that aren’t set in the tracks properly allow for a bit of ice on the interior window.

(4) With the metal storms set properly, these windows do not feel drafty.

(5) As for the wood storms? Two of those windows do not open, and if they did, would open to the enclosed front porch, so they are completely ice free. As for the functional wood storm? It is the one window in the house that does not allow any moisture or ice on the interior wood window and barely collects  ice on the exterior storm.

Not as bad in this window. Notice that the screen is down. Ice has not formed on the inside yet, but at night it will.

What’s the point of sharing all this? We are attempting to study the energy/moisture/air flow in our house this winter in order to assess heating bills and weatherization measures that we may need to take for later in the winter or next year. Vinny and I are in favor of the original windows, always, but we understand that some might need to be covered that hair-dryer-blown plastic sheet. That’s okay – it certainly is cheap enough. For now, we’re making observations like those listed above and we’ll see how it changes throughout the winter — and how it changes once our furnace is replaced (no central heat in Vermont in January – ah, another story for another day!) What are your best weatherization tips?

On a different note, I like the look of the wintry, frosted, icy windows – it certainly is winter in Vermont!