Monday, October 26, 2009


Back on October 5 when I started the southwest corner, the initial picture showed that the south wall fill-in where the garage door used to be had no drywall. (That's where the ants were on October 13.)

Two days ago, I finished that. It's not sanded or painted yet, but it's not fiberglass hanging out, either. After cleaning out the ants, I replaced the insulation, and then it was time to start.

The first sheet took way too long. I'd measured the height of the sheet at the front of the frame on top of the opening, but nothing in this opening is even close to square. So I ended up cutting off another half inch or so, a little bit at a time. Ugh. But finally it was in place.

This is the first time I've used full sheets of this mold-resistant cementitious wallboard. It's heavy, way heavier than conventional drywall. Still much lighter than a wall made of bricks, of course. In comparison with the rest of the building, this wall feels distinctly flimsy.

For the second sheet, I measured the height of the first sheet, determined not to make the same mistake. So naturally, this sheet was an inch too short on the left side. Oy. It didn't even come up to the 2x4 frame-in. The answer: lots of spackle, oh well.

The wall as she looks today - I spackled in around all the edges, and the result is pretty darned nice. My next trick is to sand all the spackle and paint it, along with the frame of the old garage door.

I'm using "Ultra White" latex paint for these walls. I like white, a lot - and I have to say, I'm really liking how it looks in this basement area.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Concrete is our friend

The floor of that southwest corner was pretty grotty - but when I really got in there with the Shopvac and sucked out all the loose dirt and brick dust and humus, it turned out to be a honking huge hole about four inches deep. The original plan was to patch it up with patching cement, but that stuff just isn't made for large volumes, and besides I just had a 10-pound bag, which would probably just disappear into that hole and never be seen again.

Bigger guns were necessary, in this case (gulp) actual concrete, which I had never actually used before.

So today my daughter and I learned how to work with concrete - turns out it's just like mortar except with gravel instead of sand, and probably some other differences. The important thing is, just like mortar, if you mix it with enough water and you're patient, it is a very forgiving medium. Here's the corner after we lugged in an 80-pound back of Quikrete from the car (good God 80 pounds is heavy) and mixed it up a bucket at a time, troweling it into place with our mortar trowels (which worked fine).

Then, what the heck, we kept right on going along the west wall, which had a lot of weirdness in it, including the bottom of the white window featured last week or so, pictured here. I had been wondering how best to seal up the base of that door fill-in; as always, masonry is totally our friend.

Well, flush with that success - remember back on July 26, when I finished the washer/dryer hookup and right at the end of the post I mentioned there was a truly big hole right in that corner where somebody once obviously fixed the drain stack but found refilling the hole just too much trouble?

Well, they were right. It was a job of work, let me tell you. First, we wheelbarrowed in six loads of dirt; two left over from the drainage ditch, and four from next to the cold frame where there's kind of a little hill built up.

It was a weird feeling, bringing load after load of dirt into the house, with a wheelbarrow, and it felt like a crime to use this lovely dirt to fill in a hole in the basement, but we got lots of this dirt out there, so there you go.

The next step was pea gravel, for a nice solid base after tamping down the dirt with a short length of 2x4 for a while. This part was much easier; no wheelbarrow was harmed in the taking of this picture.

Then it was on to the concrete itself. We finished off the first bag, then carried the other in from the car (I carried, she made sure the dog didn't get out).

We still ran out of concrete before we ran out of hole; this is the second bag of concrete. Turned out to be a bigger hole than I thought.

So we went out for Mexican (I had the burrito/taco/rice/beans combo, which was on special and quite good), and bought three more bags of concrete, each of which I now feel in every muscle of my body, and it took another bag and a half!

But the lovely result is what will soon be a solid floor for the washer and dryer:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Southeast side drainage complete

So back on July 25 I posted about the drainage ditch I dug on the south side of the east end of the basement; sometime in August or September, I dug the ditch out better and buried some 4-inch corrugated PVC pipe in it along with many bags of pea gravel. For some reason I can't find pictures, so I don't have an exact date (I suppose my Menard's receipts would tell me, if I'd kept up that database, but I didn't, so they stand mute).

At any rate, Thursday I finished said ditch, after rain threatened (thereby causing my wife to threaten). The fear was that the rain would come and stay until the entire pile of dirt froze in place for the winter, which would suck.

I'd been putting it off because the ditch would have to terminate at the retaining wall on the sidewalk, and the logical next step would be to punch through that wall with a clay pipe - but nobody sells clay tile pipe any more. But Thursday was the day. Above, you see my crowbar inserted into the aforementioned wall. Amazingly, I was able to lever a couple of stones out of the bottom of the wall.

Here's the front of the wall, showing the hole at the bottom. It's about two inches high and six wide. Well, once I got things to this point, I realized that this was already a large enough opening for a drain, so I tamped the dirt down and put a large flat limestone rock on the bottom to prevent erosion out of the hole, then I thought: dammit, Jim, I'm a bricklayer now.

So I went and mixed up some mortar, and built a little brick structure to hold the pipe in place; the light was starting to fail a little, and the rain had started, so this picture is blurry, and the last in the series out at the ditch; after this was built and I'd slopped mortar all over it, and next to the floor of my drainage outlet, I dumped in ten pounds of pea gravel and buried the whole thing.

Well, but then I had some mortar left over, so I used it up on some experimental tuck pointing on the carriage house, and mortaring up the seam between the wall and the entry door.

Here's a picture taken the following morning - see if you can tell which joints are tuck pointed. This little bit of work represents maybe half an hour. I'm getting much better at it (it took me most of the day to do the bricks under the window, remember?) but it's still time-consuming work.

Worth it, though. I'm really starting to love masonry.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Carriage house door

The "front door" to the carriage house apartment is actually on the east side of the building, directly opposite the door into the "above-ground basement". As you can see, when closed, it shows a lot of daylight at the bottom and lower left. Moreover, it doesn't close well (or didn't), having to be lifted into place, effectively, and the deadbolt could only be locked or unlocked while pulling in and up on the door, making it impossible to get into the carriage house while carrying anything.

Irritating. And cold! So my wife mandated that this was to be the task today, and so mote it be.

Before weatherizing the door, though, I first had to rehang it so it would actually close correctly. The culprit in this case was the top hinge, pictured here. Oy. My guess is this hinge was damaged by a tenant trying to gain access after losing a key, and the "obvious" way to fix the hinge was to use longer screws, and drive them in with a drill, thus tearing hell out of the heads. Note the attempt to angle the screws, because the wood under the hinge is splintered.
So we take off the door, and the inside trim; wow! The frame is really not very thick! And shows the imprints of lots of historical hinges; my guess is this frame is original. Certainly it's older than you or me, anyway, and as we can see, there is a lot of open space behind it. Also a lot of dirt; really, to clean a house thoroughly, it has to be disassembled first.

Note, incidentally, the view of the sunroom of the big house in the background. Just to orient you here.

Anyway, here's why these screws didn't hold the door up; the threads are mostly not in the wood. The screw was long enough to extend into the bricks behind it, but probably not long enough there to get sufficient purchase, and the outer two screws are just hitting the plaster anyway. Useless.

So all I did was to remount the hinges with reasonable screws, using a trick I learned from my uncle: coat a toothpick with Elmer's glue, and stick it into the stripped hole before inserting the screw. Works a charm.

The bottom of the frame was also loose for lack of support, so I put a brick under either end of the threshold and drove in some shims to force it up against the frame, and thus the frame up against the bricks above it. Much solider now (oh shims, is there anything you can't improve?)

Once the door was rehung, it turned out that the strike plate was in the wrong place (it was right for a modern doorknob, but this door has antique knobs, so the strike plate needs to be about a quarter inch further into the frame). So I moved it, and adjusted the strike plate for the deadbolt.

As a result, amazingly, the door is now square to the floor. Wow. It's actually a pretty good door, although clearly it needs some paint. As you see, after I removed the threshold, there's actually a lot more gaping space there (a problem to be resolved tomorrow) - but instead of closing laboriously with a squeak-BLAM, it can now be pushed closed with one finger, and stays closed, and you can unlock the deadbolt even with your groceries and the umbrella in your other hand.

This is the kind of thing that makes me feel successful in this endeavor.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


So there I was, just now, cleaning up the south wall of the carriage house in preparation for drywalling it, and there was a lot of crumbly dirt at the base of the wall. I pulled out the fiberglass and - have you ever seen an anthill in your house? No? Me neither, until today.

Nope, they're not carpenter ants, just bog-standard large-issue black ants whose anthill happens to be in a place that stays miraculously warm through the winter. I feel almost apologetic kicking them out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More on that southwest corner

But picking up where I left the narrative in the southwest corner: after jamming in Styrofoam as a base, I squirted in urethane foam to fill in the spaces. This part of the wall has sustained a lot of water damage both inside and out, so there's a lot more space inside it than there should be. From the outside, it will need some bricks and lots of mortar, but I'm getting better at masonry. (So more on the outside later this week, I hope - but first there will be some plain old drywalling, probably tomorrow.)

At any rate, the next step in providing a real wall was mortar into that crack. This took place concurrently with the window patching of the last post and the result was less blurry in person than this picture would indicate. Note also that I've started to patch the cracks in the plaster to the left of the window.

Above the window, the plaster had come loose from the wall, but was still relatively solid, so I used my adhesive caulk to glue it back to the wall. Not a technique that I would recommend for a wall that is intended to be smooth at the end of the process, but for my purposes, a nice white wall that gives some indication of its history, it's probably ideal.

Here's the corner as it appears today. There's plaster in the cracks above the window, I'm using plaster to smooth out the mortar, and the south end of the west wall is almost done; there were some seriously large cavities there, but not really large enough to justify mortar, so I'm filling them in with multiple applications of patching plaster. And obviously, the white paint has already encroached on the corner area.

I'll sand all this plaster tomorrow and see where it needs more fill. Also tomorrow, I hope, will be drywall on the frame section of the south wall (where the garage door used to be). Above the dark beam (that supported a rail for the garage door) the plaster is in seriously bad condition, again having disengaged from the wall and cracked. I'm not yet sure how I'll handle that. Probably more caulk and plaster patch; it's working very well elsewhere.

This corner is going to look great.

Beautification II: before and after

Just to the right of the picture I took last week of the southwest corner, there is a window on the west wall. Here is the picture I took in May, just after the arrival of the Truck 'o' Stuff, showing its ur-state.

Here is what that window looks like today. Actually, in person it looks slightly better; those grayish flecks on it are caulk, which must have a slightly different infrared reflectivity than the paint, because the flecks are utterly invisible to the human eye.

At any rate, I'm pretty proud of this, as it's really been teaching me a lot about masonry. At the corners of this window, there was serious plaster damage; here's an intermediate picture after some paint was already applied (I wish I'd taken better starting pictures) showing the hole. Further down is some urethane foam, my initial stopping of the myriad holes this window contained.

Now, on the south wall of this area, there's a large patch where missing plaster had been replaced by mortar. I was impressed, never having considered mortar in this application. But it works! It's ugly, but rock-hard.

So I mixed up some mortar and stuffed the holes, then the next day I cleaned out the mortar and did it again, because had I screwed up the first batch; it had become friable and sandy and could be flicked out by hand. I hadn't put enough water into the mixture, so on my second trial I was very careful: I mixed a much goopier starting mixture, carefully sprayed water onto the brick in the hole, then applied the mortar. To be extra-careful, I sprayed water onto the mortar again that evening - the longer mortar takes to dry, the better it cures (the crystallization process stops when the mortar dries, you see).

The result was incredibly solid, and adhered very well to the edges of the hole. I also applied mortar at the top of the old door frame (this window was set into a door frame), where there was about a 1/2" crack. I'd long since squirted urethane into the back of that crack to seal it, but it was still ugly.

Once I was satisfied that my second batch of mortar was going to set properly, I used plaster patch to smooth it out somewhat. It would have been a waste of time to make it too smooth, as the rest of this wall is anything but - so I just slapped some plaster onto it and painted it.

Once you gain a little physical skill working with mortar and masonry, I have to say, it is a very forgiving medium. I'm really starting to like it a lot.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cory Doctorow's "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town"

I ran across a mention of one of Cory Doctorow's books that I had never really noticed before (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town), and the first chapter (at least) is about house renovation. Amazing. Cory gets it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Windy night

No drafts in the carriage house apartment.

Bit by bit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beautification target: carriage house "basement" southwest corner

So here is really the first wall we're looking at fixing. This is all kind of bound up with the ongoing winterization and caulking effort; since the outside of the wall needs tuck pointing, the cracks you see to the right of the little boarded-up window are actually letting air in. Yikes! But much more importantly, there was a 1/8" slat nailed to the right side of that boarded-up window, and behind the slat was a really honking big crack from the wall settling.
Here's the crack in its native condition, and forgive my repeated use of Irwinism, but crikey, he's a big one.

Big enough, in fact, that my first step was just to cut up a bunch of leftover Styrofoam (from the box from the overhead light, actually) and jam them in.
That basically fills the crack, so it's a good start. There's a lot of extra air space between the brick layers in there (I believe they've moved a little), but there's not much we can do about that, beyond urethane foam to fill in some of it.

I'll post more on this endeavor later.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Roof complete

As promised, the roof pictures. From the south, compare with the earlier pictures with the lower box gutter falling off the house. We had originally intended simply to remove that eyebrow, but it turned out that its joists are the ceiling joists of the brick section. When we took it off, we could see the stairs.

So we put it back.

The north side of the house looks even cooler, I think. These eaves hang pretty far out, and the contractor was pretty frustrated that I wanted them wrapped in metal instead of vinyl. (The width made the metal hard to handle without it buckling.) But there's no other plastic in this house, and I don't intend to be the one to start.

I'm thinking some horizontal boards similar to the ones on the eaves on the sunroom (the very top right of the first picture up there) might look nice, and tie the whole thing together visually. Opinions?

So given my recent strides in electrical work in the carriage house, here's my rough to-do list:
  1. Carriage house livability

    • Garage area livability
      • Remove superfluous fiberglass insulation from the ceiling and around heating ducts (we're going to heat the garage area, after all; we're living in it)
      • Drywall the south wall where the garage door used to be
      • Caulk everywhere (a lot is done; more to be done)
      • Some plaster patching
      • More paint, aye

    • Windows
      • Finish bathroom window
      • Kitchen window

    • Bathroom
      • Attach and plumb vanity

  2. Carriage house electrical work
    • Replace stolen ground wire outside
    • Entryway lighting
    • Overhead light for washer/dryer area
    • Separate circuit for bedroom to permit use of air conditioner

  3. Carriage house paint and trim
    • Paint walls and trim in bathroom
    • All window trim

  4. Big house

    • Upstairs bathroom plumbing
    • Cleaning
    • Winterization, a lengthy process
    • Heat
    • Electrical systems: oh the humanity!