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The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach.

Faux finishes are not limited to late 1980s interior decor or to low budget “trading rooms” television programming. The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach. I found some original Victorian wood graining under layers of paint that easily peeled off. The art of trompe l’oeil, “to trick the eye”, used an elaborate painting technique to simulate quality hard wood grain on softwood or marble on plaster. More elaborate applications would apply decorative frieze or even painted simulated scarves over doors or birds on ceilings (Guild, 2008). As I expected, there is very little new in post-modern aesthetics… Apparently, trompe l’oeil applications were most popular near the lat 19th c. and used in small and grand houses alike. Skilled artists gained prominence and were sought after for their work in the best homes.

Original Oak Painted Finish

Original Oak Painted Finish

The oak appearing on my door would have first been painted with a deep beige base colour that would then have been glazed with burnt umber and ocher to give it light and dark highlights. The artist would then pull a multi-toothed brush through the glaze to produce the grain by revealing the base coat, then finish by flogging with the brush to break up some lines (Guild, 2008).

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Many homes will still have these finishes preserved under layers of paint. These finishes can actually be restored by using solvents to rub down to the trompe l’oeil finish that is protected by glaze (Nigel, 1997). Paint stripping will destroy these original features. Leaving the finish under paint is an accepted preservationist approach.


Guild, R. (2008). The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decorating. Firefly Books.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

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Old windows are so worth saving and so much a part of a house’s style and character.

Unfortunately, many old houses have lost their windows after manufacturers claimed thermopaned windows offered such superior

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

energy effeciency. Civil engineers from the University of Vermont, The Vermont Energy Investment Corp., and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (James et. al, 1996) presented evidence that the savings of removing old windows and replacing with thermopanes is so small, that it may take over 80 years to recoup the investment – longer if the original windows are properly maintained. A well-maintained original wood sash or casement window with storm window offers many other advantages, including the ability to abate a larger amount of ambient and street noise due to the larger distance between each pane. Original windows will also last a lifetime if properly maintained. This justifies repairing the existing window when needed. Sedovic and Gottheif’s report (at traditional-building.com) addresses many of the overblown claims made by replacement window manufacturers and the advantages of well maintained historic windows.

There are also security issues with “vinyl” windows, since they are not as strong as wood frames. Vinyl framed windows cannot normally be painted

Brass fastener

Brass fastener

either, further detracting from the original character of your home. This is to say nothing of the fact that once you are on the “replacement window” schedule, you can expect to have to replace the thermopanes once the gas escapes and the moisture infiltrates the unit resulting in a lovely “fogged window”.

I guess it is really not necessary for me to directly state my abhorence for vinyl windows, especially since the POs installed a couple of them. I can’t wait for a few of them to start “popping” so I have a reason beyond aesthetics to get rid of them and have custom antique sash windows installed.

Anyways, instead of replacing a wonderful old Queen Anne divided-top window with stained glass, I decided to repair it and have a custom milled storm window made by Hoffmeyer Mills located in Sebringville Ontario. The mill still uses the original machinery dating back to the 1870s. They told me that the storm was one of the largest made in recent memory at the mill and

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

their work, using traditional mortise and tenoned joinery, was excellent. Given the ambient noise of urban life, I requested that the window be glazed with 4 or 5 mm glass. The mill requested specific measurements and it only took a small number of runs with the hand planer to get a perfect fit. I used a simple compressible foam weatherstripping and antique styled brass fasteners and interior latch locks to hold the window in place. The result is no drafts whatsoever and I cannot even hear a delivery truck rolling by while reading the paper. Well worth it.

I wanted to put up bead board in a small laundry room, but lost enthusiasm for the project after realizing I would need to spend a couple of hours nailing boards over my head. So perhaps I did not really need a pneumatic Brad nailer, but now that I own one, I have tons of ideas for more projects! As if there were not enough items on our “to do” list. 

The unremarkable "before shot" made worse by the "track lighting"...

The unremarkable "before shot" made worse by the "track lighting"...

Tools and Materials:

  • Brad nail gun
  • Mitre saw
  • Stud finder
  • Chalk line
  • Pine beadboard
  • Pine crown molding
  • Measuring tape

I choose a small room to gain some experience working with the nail gun.

Paint or prime the beadboard first. This will ensure the tongue and grove of the boards are fully covered as it will be hard to get into any uneven joints once the boards are up. For this project, I used a lower grade pine that was meant to be painted. Using the nail gun will also ensure that you do not split boards and that you do not leave hammer marks or nail heads that need to be putty filled.

Snapped chalk lines

Snapped chalk lines

To put up a bead board ceiling, I first used a stud finder to locate the ceiling joists and then snapped a chalk line to mark their location. The beadboard should be installed perpendicular to the joists so that you get solid wood stock in which to nail.

It is recommended to leave around a 1/4 inch gap to account for expansion of the boards. This gap will be covered by your trim. If the beadboard is going to be installed in a humid room, then you may also want to back prime the boards so they are less susseccible to expansion.

If your ceilings are not true (and chances are they arn’t true) then you may want to account for the irregularity to ensure that the bead will line up and run parallel with the trim molding. This room is a small “scullery” and I did not bother with the added fuss and the slight irregularity is not noticeable at all. The first board should be face nailed, but after that board I “toenailed” the boards to hide the nail heads within the tongue and grove of the beadboard.

Mitre cut the crown molding

Mitre cut the crown molding

Some boards may be so warped that you won’t be able to use them on long stretches, but can be salvaged to work around light boxes. I tried to keep the alignment of the tongue and grove as tight as possible so there were no obvious gaps.

Once it is all nailed up, then it is time to cut the crown molding. I thought this would be easy, but the experience brought back my regrettable experience of high school math. How to cut a mitered corner is a post in itself… there are some good guides online and your saw’s owners manual should give you the angle degrees you need for the right cut.

Not the hardest work to get a classic period look

And done

Using the Brad nailer is fun, quick and easy, just do not forget the ear and eye protection. Beadboard looks great in an old house and gives it some Victorian character where there would otherwise be drywall.

Many jobs that are an avoidable chore can be wrapped up quickly with a brad nailer. Most small compressors will be able to handle basic 18 gauge brad nailing. It can be confusing, since compressors are rated by both their maximum pressure per square inch (PSI) and by the amount of continuous air they can provide to your tools (CFM Cubic Feet per Minutes). My smaller compressor for household use will deliver around 3.7 CFM at 40 PSI and 2.6 CFM at 90 PSI.

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Both the size of the tank and how powerful the compressor is will impact these ratings, so compressor HP or tank size alone is not the best indicator of your machine’s air delivery. This is enough power for brad and frame nailing or light spray painting and less continuous use of a smaller air chisel or air ratchet. Other tools that require continuous air delivery, like a powerful orbital sander or polisher, would need a much bigger compressor and tank. As always, the right tool should be matched for the job. Using a small compressor with a high CFM tool on a big continuous use project will just take usable years off your machine’s life.

A nailer with an adjustable exhaust port is not essential, but will help keep the air exhaust from blowing in your face when working awkward angles. Most air tools have a maximum PSI rating and a range of operable PSI. While your compressor may be rated at a higher PSI, you will have to use the regulator to adjust the PSI provided to the tool. A good nailer will also allow you to adjust the depth of the nail and that adjustment will depend on the range of PSI provided to the tool. This sounds complicated, but only requires a few test nails to get the depth you need for the material you are working with. 

Rubber compression hoses seem less stiff and easier to work with than PVC hoses, but this is not a big deal if you can save money with a packaged kit that includes the hose.

1/2" to 2" Brad nailer

18 gauge, 1/2" to 2" Brad nailer

This is one tool where the owners manual should be read. Also, most compressors need a break in period of continuous run time with the bleed valve open. Air tools and compressors also require specific maintenance routines that should be followed, such as bleeding condensation out of the tank to avoid corrosion.

I caught a bit of luck in that the POs (Previous Owners) did not remove the antique pine front door and replace it with a Big Box pre-hung door. Of course the door was layered in paint and the original antique mortise lock was replaced with a typical off-the shelf lock for a bored-door.  This is the modern way in which locks are fitted to doors, while antique houses would largely have had their doors fitted with mortise or rim locks.

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate new lock

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate track mansion lock

While the new lock was not completely unattractive (relatively speaking I suppose), it unfortunately meant that one of the POs bored a hole in the door, right through the mortise so that a modern lock could be installed. This meant that a antique mortise lock could not just be fitted into the door without repairing the hole that was made for the lock. Minor headaches, but not an impossible fix.

To fix the hole in the door, I had a local carpenter fix a “plug” to the diameter and width of the door. A bit of sanding, carpenters glue and wood epoxy and I had restored the door. Some chisel work removed wood from

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

the plug to restore the space for the mortise.

The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism.

The reason for all this was because I love house hardware and really wanted to make use of the antique bronze Eastlake styled mortise lock I picked up. It is a great piece of hardware made by Corbin in 1878 and matches some existing Eastlake hardware within the home.

Corbin apparently still manufactures door “furniture” (a UK and rarer Canadian usage) or hardware at a factory in Berlin Connecticut. The company started off as  Corbin Russwin in 1839 manufacturing plate locks.

The escutcheon plate has a swing key hole cover that is meant to prevent outside drafts. The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism. Of course, a deadbolt should be used for real “security”.

The anatomy of a mortise lock

The anatomy of a mortise lock

Luckily, the mortise lock’s face plate fit my mortise well. It is important to get the “back-space”, that is the distance from your door’s edge to the centre of the door knob accurate if you are fitting a lock into an existing mortise. Since the door was bored, I could re-drill the appropriate length backspace into the new wood plug, meaning I did not have to endlessly search for the perfect mortise lock with the right backspace for my door.

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

After fiddling with repairing the door, it was simple to install the mortise lock, the escutcheon plate, attaching the door knobs to the spindle, securing the set screws on the spindle and enjoying a moment of amazement that a downtown Toronto dude once living in a concrete box on the 22nd floor of “apartmentopia” could somehow pull it off! Houses are fun that way. It was amazing how easy it was once the door was repaired. It just worked the way it was intended to. No headaches trying to force new hardware or materials that were not intended to be a part of an old house.

And done.

And done.

Industrialism resulted in the wide availability of architectural millwork that was once only available to wealthy clients building the best of homes. Late Victorian or “High Victorian” millwork was the most elaborate and suited popular Victorian revival styles of the time including Queen Anne and Eastlake. Hull (2003) refers to the period 1890-1910 as the “Golden Age” of American architectural millwork. During this period wood was plentiful and cheap and there existed the right mix of artisans, craftsmen, and manufacturers that produced styles that were ornate, elaborate and expressive. According to Hull, the end of this great period of millwork followed the Depression era, when wood was no longer affordable and modern options, such as hollow core doors, became widely used, marking the end of historic millwork.

Many of the early millwork companies started off as lumber yards and success and growth was the result of industrialization and proximately to the railroad (Hull, 2003). It is probably no coincidence that my old Vic was built in 1889 by a local lumber barron whose business was located near the railway in the emerging industrial city of West Toronto Junction.

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak.

Wood mouldings were produced from various hardwoods and softwoods with hardwoods, such as Oak and Mahogany, limited to the public rooms in grander homes. Characteristic of Victorian domestic culture, there was a strong demarcation between public rooms, that received the most ornate moulding, and the private spaces of the house that received more modest treatment (Webb, 2002). The ornate, thick and deeply milled door and window casings made mitre work more challenging for carpenters. Corner blocks, while seen as added ornamentation to contemporary eyes, were used to increase the efficiency of building wood casings and avoided highly precise mitre work (Webb, 2002).

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak. Frequently the original painted graining is preserved under subsequent layers of paint. Patient restorationists can use methyl hydrate on a cloth to rub down to the original painted grain that is protected with shellac (Nigel, 1997).

Hull, Brent. (2003). Historic Millwork: A Guide to Restoring and Re-creating Doors, Windows, and Moldings of the Late Nineteenth Through Mid-Twentieth Centuries. Wiley.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

Webb, Kit. (2002). The Victorian House. London: Aurem Press.

Take a walk in any urban neighbourhood and you are going to find old houses that have been “destroyed” in any number of ways. Here is my list of some of the worst offences, that is not meant to offend, but will. Feel free to disagree or add your own old house atrocity. This list, if followed carefully, is guaranteed to make your home the biggest eyesore on the block! These are, in current and somewhat crass parlance, “F-ugly” things… Adding up your point total will give you some idea of how much headache you are going to face resurrecting your old house!

Oh how it pains me that there are more than 10 Old House atrocities..

  1. Vinyl siding (10 points). Off gases and looks horrendous, but of course you never have to get off the couch to actually paint it. Be cautious of any home product that appeals to the Homer Simpson market…
  2. Vinyl slider windows (15 points). You too can transform a vertical antique sash window into a new vinyl vertical slider! Double the ugly factor if you actually replace vertical sash windows with horizontal vinyl sliders or one pane casement windows. By all means ignore some decent research on windows showing that a properly maintained antique window with storm window gets pretty close to the efficiency of a “thermopaned” window and pour tons of money into shiny new (unpaintable) vinyl windows. And when the thermopane eventually “POPS” and your windows clouds up with condensation, you can reach into your wallet and REPLACE your REPLACEMENT windows again! Everyone wins! Off-gassing plastic windows… I must be in old house atrocities hell. Funny how vinyl windows look like cheap moulded plastic! That is, after all how they are made!
  3. Poured concrete walk paths (4 points). Really, what is more beautiful than poured concrete with cat paw prints in it! Just mix and pour! No backbreaking placement of antique brick or cobblestone for you!
    It is like the sidewalk never ends all the way to my front door… Oh, how I am looking forward to that weekend with a jackhammer! Time I will never get back. I am biting my lip not to mention “interlocking brick”…
  4. Cheap paint (2 points). When selling a house, smear all the walls with the cheapest vat of paint you can find. Lovely. More reasons to hate your previous owner…
  5. Stone cladding (10 points). Turn your century Victorian or Edwardian brick home into a medieval stone castle… Seriously, if there is ANYONE still doing this, it is your civic duty to stop them from shaving $40,000 dollars off the purchase price of their home. Lovely in the early 1970s, “Angel-brick”, as known in Toronto, now looks horrid.
  6. Wall-to-wall carpeting in the century home (5 points). Cover those antique wood floors with plush off-gassing Berber carpeting. Develop chemical sensitives in just 3-6 weeks! Some people seriously cannot give up suburbia…
  7. Replace antique front door (5 points). Get rid of that old door and replace it with a pre-hung big box store special… fake window mullions and all! Lets all work together to limit the mistakes of suburbia…
  8. Abode parged brick (10 points). Right… because repointed well maintained brick work never looks good… Colourful neutral parging, on the other hand, is a real winner!
  9. Popcorn ceiling (2 points). Smooth ceilings in plaster are so barren compared to the stippled magic of the popcorn ceiling. Double your f-ugly points if your popcorn ceiling has fabulous glitter mixed in with it! Yes, by all means, cover your ageing plaster with cottage cheese looking crap. This is another dumb ass lazy quick fix for cracking plaster that aesthetically rewards you for years to come…
  10. Plastic fences (10 points). Of course, cedar or pine is so last decade. Instead head to your nearest Home Depot and grab a plastic fence! I always wanted a fence made out of pop bottles and, hey, you never have to paint it! Have we identified a theme? If it does not need to be painted, it is probably f-ugly rubbish.
  11. Tearing down the walls (15 points). Yes, of course, what do you do when you want to live in a SOHO loft, but you own a century Victorian home? You tear down those walls and then find that you live in a main floor bowling alley and the pizza boy can see clear to the backyard! Not to mention the travel of noise, echoes and lack of any architectural interest in your new main floor hanger.
  12. Paint your house hardware (2 points). Great antique hardware looks even better under as many layers of paint as possible… Kinda like your great aunt that does not know when to stop with the Max Factor…
  13. Remove Stained Glass Windows (15 points). Why would anyone want a 100 year old antique stained glass window when they could have a thermopane vinyl window. It just makes sense…
  14. Rip out Original Woodwork (15 points). Original Arts & Craft, Victorian or Edwardian mill work in antique heart-pine, oak or mahogany makes no sense when you can replace it with off the shelf Medium Density Particleboard (MDF) mouldings from your local Big Box home “improvement” store! Do you have any idea what a house would look like if you only used building materials from home depot… Track Mansions anyone?
  15. “Flash It” (15 points). If you are redoing the roof and you have weather beaten brackets, corbels or barge boards simply FLASH IT! That’s right, cover it up with easy breezy aluminum flashing and be damned the loss of historic character on your house proud home! Tragically ugly. Outwardly, these ugly houses usually have a cheap purchase price and it  does not take much to make the old girl look good again.
  16. Post-modern Pastiche (15 points). Create unique ahistorical housing styles by putting Victorian turned porch spindles on a Arts and Craft Mission porch, Victorian ginger breading on an Edwardian gable, Mediterranean wrought iron on your Victorian stoop, poured concrete majestic lions marking the gates of your Grecco-Victorian masterpiece! If you don’t know you live in a century home, or know a grand Victorian from an stately Edwardian or a cozy Mission Bungalow, then just throw in the towel and put a deposit down on your “deluxe apartment in the sky”.

The Damages

0-20 Points: Congratulations, your house rocks and it is in nearly original condition! You or the previous owners actually had a clue!

21-50 Points: You got some work to do, but it could be worse. With a little work, you can undo the deeds of idiots.

51-75 Points: You got a project on your hands, but it will be worth the effort and you will love the house in a way you could never look at a suburban track mansion…

76-100 Points: You are an old house champion taking on the idiotic crimes against your old house.

101-150 Points: You are an old house saint. Some years of work and investment will bring back your old house from its F-ugly abyss.