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How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Posted by slateberry51 (My Page) on
Sun, Mar 20, 11 at 14:11

Hello old house forum friends,

I've had the pleasure of using this forum for a few years now, and the more I read, the more I admire the contributions.

It seems to me that some of you have come by your knowledge by way of the school of hard knocks, aka trial and error. Some of you are in the trades/master craftsmen or specialize in certain types of restoration. Some are clearly polymaths. I suspect a couple of you are architectural historians. Some have restored their houses by hand lovingly over the years. That is what makes this forum so great!

So, please don't be shy, what's your story, how did you get on this forum and what's your favorite thing about it? How do you know what you know; what other sites/forums do you frequent? What projects/career opportunities taught you the most? Because I keep asking myself that every time I read a post, for example, that tells me how to temper electrician's fishing wire to fix an antique mortise lock (you know who you are :-): how the heck does he know how to do that?

I'll start, even though mine is a bit dull:
I'm an old house novice. My 120 year old victorian is slowly teaching me. Through online research, including the woodworking forum and sites like Popular Woodworking, especially the Bob Flexner articles, I'm becoming less of a hazard to the wood in my house and working up the nerve to restore it. I once spent two weekends trying various steps and finishes to replicate the original finish of the poplar in my house. I've taken apart a few mortise locks and put them back together again, and I've read Working Windows and poked around a few of mine. I'm hoping to do a full restoration of one window this summer (they are 120 years old), and then hopefully do two or three a year after that. We have something like 35 windows needing restoration.

My grandmother taught me to sew when I was very young, and the confidence that gave me with fabric and sewing implements gave me the boost to work with wood. I am pretty fearless in just about any type of fabric or upholstery project. I have a long way to go with woodworking, but I will always be grateful to the woman who found a subversive way to teach a little girl to use tools with confidence in a time and place where hammers and screwdrivers were "men stuff". I am glad those days are over!

I've learned the most on gardenweb and I just love the community of posters and the endless great advice and feedback. I also just do internet searches. For hanging doors, I watched about 15 videos on youtube and took what seemed most applicable for my situation. I also like reading old house blogs--this old crack house, the petch house, and craig and yvonne's have some great technique details (like Craig's posts on faux graining or Gary's (crack house) posts about restoring original plaster and lath). For pure heart and agony I loved reading the devil queen and this old crack house at (yes there are multiple crack house blogs out there). On a totally different subject, I have a weakness for Cote de Texas, which is purely interior decorating, even though it's a bit too slaved to trends for me. Joni is a brilliant writer so I'll forgive her for the seagrass fetish though. I've heard a lot of good things about oldhouseweb and I'm trying to spend time poking around over there as well.

In my other life (9-5), I started out, after getting an urban studies and planning degree, working in infrastructure management with a lot of state departments of transportation. Civil service engineers are some of my favorite people in the world to work with--it was great to go from state to state meeting so many competent dedicated people spending their careers keeping the underpinnings of civilization safe and functional. I talked to an old colleage about the bridge collapse in MN and he said all the engineers are mad as hornets because of chronic underfunding of maintenance. Something to keep in mind on my next road trip--yikes.

I took a long breather to stay home with my kids and homeschool them. I've worked part time in our family business for a few years, first in marketing and accounting, then quality assurance, and lately I've added lab technician to my duties. I've really enjoyed getting into the quality assurance aspect of my work and all the failure analysis and prevention stuff, it's very interesting to me. I'm thinking of either going further with that specialty, or else getting a master's in architecture so I can work with buildings, especially old ones, even more. But it seems no matter how long I spend fiddling with my old house, I'll never learn all the things some of these posters know, so please share--how did you get to where you are? Not as a brag, but more of a roadmap for the rest of us.


Follow-Up Postings:

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Slateberry 51- Great Post! From one old house lover to another, here's my story of someone who is certainly not an expert, but learning as I go, one project at a time. I lived in a new, very modern, million dollar home on a lake- and hated it- so cold looking and sterile. No character at all. When I come home from a tough day at work, I want to walk into a warm and inviting space. This was not it- although it looked good to all my friends......

So, when I moved for a job promotion, I rented an old house. That did it for me! The owner initially wouldn't let me paint, but I talked him into it. Then I redid the kitchen floor, and added chair rail and crown molding, and on and on. The owner paid for supplies, and I learned a lot of skills. His brother asked me if I would rent his house next!

So, when I moved again for another promotion, I bought my first old house - a 90 year old Craftsman, surrounded by other old homes. I'm on the internet at least an hour a day researching, watching how to videos, and seeking advice, reviews and any information on the best tools and methods to get things done right and historically proper- all DIY. Sometimes I just have to try something and jump into the can of worms- like when I started stripping the wallpaper.....

I grew up on a farm, so hard work is not something I shy away from. I'm known around the block as the crazy lady that works 15 hours a day on her house. I thank my father every day for not caring that his 'sidekick' wasn't a boy, and teaching me how to use tools and work with my hands regardless of my size or gender. I knew this house restoration would be a lot of work and money, I just didn't think I'd fall in love with tools as much as I have! My plumber once told me he had "saw envy" when he saw my basement workshop! I had my router for 3 years before I got a friend to teach me how to use it. Now I can't imagine life without it!

When it came time to paint my house, I couldn't just paint over the previous 90 years of paint- I had to strip it off and start over- by hand. That was 4 years ago and I hope to finish the last part this summer. Just an example of what happened once I fell in love with my old house. The project list is long, the bank account is low, and I doubt I'd want it any other way.

Because I work with people all day long, I look forward to coming home to my sanctuary, where, by the way, my house does wrap it's arms around me. I may not be surrounded by the lake waters, but the warm tones of the old stained wood, and the creaking of the old oak floors, welcome me home- truly home.

I think it was while researching kitchen remodels that I found this forum. People have been remarkably kind in offering advice and information. I don't know where I'd be without this forum. If I'm not checking in here daily, then I must be in the middle of a major project. I occasionally look at other blogs (this old crack house), but mostly stick to this forum, oldhouseweb, and watching how to videos. I'm a visual learner, so those work well for me. I also work in a field in which I'm exposed to folks of all walks of life, and I'm not shy about asking questions. I've gotten a lot of good advice, that I cross reference with the internet, and have built quite a bit of knowledge in the process. Of course, there is trial and error- I've gone through a lot of crown molding trying to figure out those tricky cuts... and replaced the radiant heat floor when I didn't get it right the first time. I even have 8 different cans of stain in my basement- took all of those to come up with a perfect match to the aged old stain on the woodwork!

I'm still learning, and still trying to improve some skills that I just can't seem to master (mudding- ugh). I've also been toying with the idea of finishing my master's and going into teaching, but it just doesn't fit in with the remodeling projects right now! Or perhaps I'd rather do the remodeling instead!

By the way, here's a photo of my garden gate that I was finally able to finish once I learned how to use my router! I designed it to look just like the front door- I also did all the landscaping, and the paint job. OMG I love this house!


RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Thanks oldhousegal--I am inspired! Your garden gate is dreamy, and so are the perennials peeking around it. Other than youtube, do you have recommendations for sources of how to videos? By mudding, do you mean mud beds for shower stalls? If so you might want to peek at the John Bridge tile forum if you haven't stumbled on that one already. I am scared of mudding--I think when I get to that part I might just cheat and get a presloped styrofoam shower pan or schluter.

What I'm taking away from your story is time, time, time, grunt work, and the confidence to try new things, and maybe do them over if they don't turn out right the first time. Ironically, permission to fail can be a necessary ingredient for success. Sometimes I am tempted to hire out work, but the need list for this house is so long, we have to do as much as we can ourselves. Also things I have hired out have been done suboptimally--that is how I got started on DIY doorhanging.

My goal this year is to get good with ladders and staging. The roof is the final frontier for me. I am tired of being dependent on hurried roofers to maintain my slate--it just needs a little tlc every year. Plus I have to rebuild a chimney up there.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Thank you Slateberry! By mudding, I mean that nasty part of the drywall process. Unfortunately I've had to remove a couple of walls, and ceilings in my house, and while I have no problem putting up drywall, the finesse if you will, of the mudding process is still a challenge! Yes, the John Bridge tile forum is fantastic. I already have the Schluter system sitting in my basement just waiting for me to get around to yet another project on the list!

Yes, I agree with the permission to fail. I guess when that happens I walk away from it for a bit, and revisit it at a later date when I'm not emotionally tied to it. It took me over a year to finish that garden gate- got lots of wood scraps out of it in the process! I too, have hired things out, and probably the main reason I am such a DIY'er, is that I have been disappointed. I think the biggest thing for any homeowner is that they don't "just jump in". They over think a project and get overwhelmed by the minutia. If I'm at that point, I jump in with what I can do, and by then my confidence has built up, and I'm able to focus on the remainder to finish it. It may take me a while, but eventually I get there. In talking with friends they think I'm amazing because I tackle these things. It's not really that difficult, but it does take research and time. And, a huge basement workshop that I can walk away from when things don't go well, helps!

As far as videos, I have watched a lot of the This Old House videos they have on their website. And so many companies out there have videos on their websites as well- I'm DIY'ing soapstone for my kitchen, so was thrilled to find all the how-to videos from the site in Canada (can't remember their name...), and a local flooring company has how-to videos for refinishing. I've also found a number of classes offered by my local community college as 'adult ed' classes- woodworking, floor refinishing, landscaping, etc.

Good luck with your roof. I would love to reach the 'final frontier' on my house! That is the best thing about doing your own work on your house, is that you know it intimately, every nook and cranny. And when you learn to DIY, you can maintain these old beauties to a level that will hopefully keep them around for generations to come, and a bit easier on the pocketbook.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

It didn't hurt that most of the homes I've lived in, from birth on have been old houses. It also doesn't hurt I'm slightly younger than dirt. I think, however, that my greatest learning experience was through my father. He didn't come from a rich family, and that meant most of the homes he lived in growing up were also old that translates in our time as very old houses.

He was a man for all season, who also believed that when something was done, it should be done right. He was a hands on person, who wasn't afraid of work, so was experienced in how things were done 'the old way'. I used him as a resource person when I was old enough to purchase houses and he was able to answer questions on construction, how to repair old windows, types of paints and finishes, laying brick, old heating systems and ducting, roofing. He'd done it all.

He could look at something I was clueless about, and know immediately what it was. I remember him coming down to the cellar of an old farmhouse I'd just bought, looking at the walls in one room, and telling me I had a spring on the property, because it was a spring-fed milk cooling trough along one wall. He was right, I found the spring and it was what I watered horses from. My mother was also raised in a conservative Quaker farming town, and what he didn't know about the quirks of old houses.......she did.

The rest is from sweat equity and love for old architecture. I don't trust just going to 'experts' and asking questions about old construction or systems, because most of the people who worked on the old systems are gone now. However, there are excellent written resources on building methods and materials and they're invaluable. And there are places like this forum, where you are bound to meet up with someone who has already been there and done that with a project you are about to tear into.

So, I'll never know everything I need to know about working on old houses. It's always a work in progress.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Ah Calliope, I think I met a man like your dad a book. One of my favorite people ever met in a book:
They Trample on Your Heart, Katherine Anne Porter (excerpt)--

"Uncle Jimbilly was so old and had spent so many years bowed over things, putting them together and taking them apart, making them over and making them do, he was bent almost double....He mended harness and put half soles on shoes, he built fences and chicken coops and barn doors; he stretched wires and put in new window panes and fixed sagging hinges and patched up roofs; he repaired carriage tops and cranky plows. Also he had a gift for carving miniature tombstones out of blocks of wood; give him almost any kind of piece of wood and he could turn out a tombstone, shaped very like the real ones, with carving, and a name and date on it if they were needed. They were often needed, for some small beast or bird was always dying and having to be buried with proper ceremonies. As he worked, turning the long blade of his bowie knife deftly in circles to cut a flower, whittling and smoothing the back and sides, stopping now and then to hold it at arm's length and examine it with one eye closed, Uncle Jimbilly would talk in a low, broken, abstracted murmur, as if to himself; but he was really saying something he meant one to hear. Sometimes it would be an incomprehensible ghost story; listen ever so carefully, at the end it was impossible to decide whether Uncle Jimbilly himself had seen the ghost, whether it was a real ghost at all, or only another man dressed like one; and he dwelt much on the horrors of slave times."

When I was a kid, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting someone handy like this, never without a bit of wire and some nails in a pocket and grease stains under his fingernails. Intimate with the ways of a drill press. Until I got on gardenweb I figured Uncle Jimbilly was a dying breed, but now I am assured his family tree is going strong.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Oh, slateberry, I love that excerpt about Uncle Jimbilly. It does remind me of those older men I knew growing up, dad and granddad and some of the grand-uncles. I figured they learned all this from working on farms or having to learn how to fix things during the depression and/or other hard tiems. All the "uncle Jimbilly"s in my life are gone now. But, my DH earned one of his bachelors degrees in industrial arts, so he's pretty handy and his brother inherited the aptitude for skilled trades from their granddad and can fabricate most any wooden item we need in his shop - thank the heavens! I just wish my dad were still able to help, or remember what he did know to give advice on our old house. He'd love helping us work on it.

I only know what we've learned while restoring our 1913 bungalow, and that's really the whole basis for any knowledge I've gained. Of course, we've learned by trial and many errors and there have been a few books along the way that have helped too. One of the basic tomes we have in our book shelf is the Reader's Digest New Complete Do It Yourself Manual. It was a gift from my sister and it sounds kind of hokey - but it has been helpful on basic techniques, along with DH's carpentry textbooks. I loved reading the Small Houses books and Jane Powell's bungalow books. There have been a few elementary books on architecture - a subject that still fascinates me and about which I'd love to learn more. In recent years, reading this site has been quite helpful! Mostly I read here and absorb, but every once in a while I respond to a post, when I think our past experience with a problem or project might help someone.

Good thread. I'll be interested in reading how those with greater expertise then I attained their wealth of knowledge! Cheers, -Kim

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Because I'm a bloody genius! _-or-_
I stayed in school and got my degree in it (Historic preservation).
I read as much as possible and retained much of it.
I have worked on historic houses for 30 years.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Whoa, if you get a degree in industrial arts you get to acquire carpentry textbooks along the way?!? Sweet!

Kim, I've always enjoyed/appreciated your contributions; given the wisdom of trial and error that was behind them, I see why they stood out. My mom got us a couple of the Reader's Digest fixit books (have to run downstairs, one of them might be the very one you have); I like the way they are encyclopedic and detailed. I know Jane Powell but not the Small Houses books (do you mean The Not So Big stuff by Susanka, or the Small House anthologies from Fine Homebuilding?) Thanks for mentioning books; I think I might start a reference book thread for this forum.

Hey Casey, THANKS for taking the bait. And you are NOT a bloody genius, you are an old house DEITY for crying out loud! Would you please start your own show on youtube? Or maybe just a house tour? Even Petch house has youtube videos. Or, do you already have a project blog and everyone knows about it but me?

Actually for someone with a degree in historic preservation, I am impressed with how low-key your posts come across; they read more like an old friend who's "been there" and wants to pass along lessons learned along the way, it's really very nice and encouraging. But if you ever want to browbeat me feel free; I would take it as a compliment. To be honest if I post about something I'm thinking of doing to my house, and you don't opine, I figure one of two things is going on: 1) you're not on the forum; or 2) you're politely disapproving. Most of the time I assume it's 2 because you seem to be pretty consistent around here.

But I just want to say, and I hope I speak for many, that I love love love your posts, especially when I'm searching on a problem I'm trying to solve and something from you pops up! (PS I finally got around to using that general finishes gel varnish you recommended and it was fantastic, thank you; I will post photos to the woodworking forum sometime before the next census.) Oh, and I love the way you "aged" the color tones in the new pine beadboard in your kitchen; reminds me of the pine in my grandmother's kitchen. When I was really little I used to look at the gleaming pores and think it was the closest wood could get to 24K gold.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Yeah, I meant the Not So Big series of books...

And I'll add to your "kudos" for Casey! I think we are so lucky to have him as a contributor to this forum as I flounder around trying to figure out the right way to fix something, and as I learn more about architecture from his responses to the multiple "what style is my house" posts... THANKS!!

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

I am not a handy person. I'll drop that qualifier in first!

I grew up in a fairly old house and watched my parents fix it up, etc. But I didn't absorb it very well.

Now that I'm a little older (27), I finally bought a house with my partner. Being young, and not having much money, AND the neighborhood we wanted, pretty much meant we would be buying a century old home.

Thankfully, my partner is a handy person and knows his way around tools and what not. So that is where I learn things from. If I did things my way they wouldn't work out very well. I have no idea where to even start. I'm good at little things but not much more. Just not a God given talent of mine, unfortunately.

Now, the only problem that is left is we are both get done slowly :)

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

I feel foolish for even posting in this thread--I don't have degrees in restoration, but I do have a love of history. I have the disadvantage of growing up in a 1959 ranch house in the country, but we had lots of 1800s farms around, and my dad did some work for them from time to time, so I got to tag along and admire the houses.

My dad grew up on a farm back in the '20-30s, and learned how to do all sorts of stuff, I suppose from his parents, or perhaps even school. Anyway, he knew about construction--he built several houses, including my half-sister's which still stands today--and did all the work on ours when I was growing up. He added an enclosed carport onto our house, which he later had to rebuild when a tornado took it off one day before school.

Me, I always liked old houses, and hoped one day to have one of my own--lucky me--I got my wish. My experience comes from helping my dad, lots and lots of research (a habit from college) and from television and magazines. I used to love Old House Journal before the current owner bought them out--now they are a glitzy ad magazine for high-priced tools and decorators and not much else. The same goes for This Old House tv series--I watched it from it's first show, and it now makes me sick at the attitude and lack of real info provided.

I'd have to say my first resource was the Reader's Digest Home Repair manual, and the Funk & Wagnalls Repair guide...but I'd have to say my favorite is a copy of the Old House Journal Guide To Restoration--it covers everything from inspections to repairing broken sash cords--even tells you the type of knot to use! I have a book on Wiring, but that scares me a bit beyond basic stuff, but I can do most plumbing and am right at home with painting, and other interior stuff.

Now, if only I wasn't afraid of heights....

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Columbusguy, I love your posts, and I'm really glad you chimed in here, because you are on my "power-poster" list, and it's encouraging to see that you got this way by your own bootstraps--maybe some of us can follow in your footsteps. That Old House Journal Guide sounds good. I'd like to see some of the older episodes of TOH; the new ones make me roll my eyes (like, the radio frequency glue dryer in the LA house--do I really need that?!?)

As for heights, I had that when I was a kid, especially in rotundas. When I learned to snowski it went away. Weird.

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

This looks like a good list of links, relevant to this thread, so I'm adding it.

Here is a link that might be useful: 50 diy home improvement blogs and sites

RE: How do you know what you know about old houses, etc?

Slateberry, my fear of heights hasn't gone away--I tried roller-skating when I was five or six back in '63, and fell on my ass--tried skiing once in mid-80s, was fine until I actually tried to move forward--fell on my ass. My sense of balance is just not geared for it, I guess, although I can ride a bike. :) And thank you so much for the kind words--I felt totally inadequate when I started writing that post...compared to others here I am still a newbie.

I've searched all over for old videos of TOH, without success...and the online copies of OHJ are inadequate. Have to dig out my early 80s copies!

Amazon has copies of the restoration guide (link below) for $ mine new back in 1992 for a lot more than that. :)

I absolutely was speechless when I saw the radio glue bit--but the idea of imitation slate does intrigue me--wonder how that holds up?

Here is a link that might be useful: OHJ Guide To Restoration

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