T minus one week

Next week we make the jump to the new house.

I’ve been practicing showering in the yard to get ready ’cause barring a miracle, we won’t have a tub or shower. While some may see this as a privation, I like to put things in perspective. When I moved in to the house we are living in now, we didn’t even have a toilet. Not because we live in West Virginia — just because my plumber was a moron. But that is another story from another time. At least the tub is near the bathroom.

Claw Foot Tub in the Hall

For me, today was all about floors. Surprising I know.

This morning I put the first finish coat of tung oil on the upstairs bathroom floor. Unlike the varnish debacle in the music room, this time the oil went down nicely and the results look great. This picture doesn’t really capture it because I took it while the oil was still wet. But the oil penetrated deeply into the wood and the finish looks great.

first coat of tung oil on bathroom floor

Tomorrow I will put down another coat of tung oil and that should be it for the oil. K and I talked today about waxing this floor since it will be a bathroom and we are both a bit curious about what the wax and oil combination will look like. No decision yet.

While I was oiling the bathroom floor, K was floating sheet rock in the kitchen. When she finished her first pass, I started working on refinishing the kitchen floor. This time, I started right in with the belt sander. No screwing around this time.

The floors had a fair amount of tar paper on them that even the vinegar treatment didn’t get off. The result was that the sandpaper would gum up fairly quickly so the rough cut took longer than it otherwise would have. I never got past the 24 grit today so the floors are still very rough but I think tomorrow will go much quicker now that the heavy lifting has been done. Here is a before and after pic.

pre-sanding picture of the kitchen floor

initial sanding of the kitchen floor

The floors certainly will not be pristine but I love the story that the wear and tear tells. Even the old powder post beetle trails which have been buried for decades are part of the story of the house to me. Removing the layers of additions — sticky tile, luan, floor covering, tar paper, old finishes — and then touching the raw wood set in place by unknown craftsmen in 1903 using square-cut nails; that is a connection with the past that many people never get to make. Another reminder of the slow movement of time in this city and the fact that we are part of a chain of being.¬† I used to feel this in Europe when I walked down a street that people used hundreds of years ago or touched a bar that someone else had touched 3oo years prior. But we are a young country and so our connections with the past are much shallower. Our house is relatively new . . . 1903. Nevertheless, it has a soul. You can feel it when you run your hand across the freshly exposed wood of the old floor.


Hot. Itchy.

Yep. We’re talking installing insulation in New Orleans in July. Not too much of it at this point but needed to get the exterior wall of the upstairs bathroom ready to be closed. K installed the tar paper and I started in on the insulation.

A lot has been going on — or at least it seems that way — but I’ve been too busy to post up any photos. By the time I get home, the idea of writing and uploading images just seems like too much to take on. So I will try and do a quick recap of the events since the shoring of the house.

Floor Sanding. Lots of floor sanding.

Most of it unnecessary as it turns out, but I didn’t know that at the time. I started in what will become the music room because a) the floors were in the worst condition, and b) K says this will be “my” room and so she doesn’t care if I screw up the floors in here — so long as I learn how to get it right before moving on to any other rooms.

unsanded wood floor

There are so many horror stories of rookies ruining old wood floors with the old belt style sanders that I opted for the new random orbital floor sander. These are nice for Harry Homeowners because they don’t remove as much wood and therefore it is harder to screw up your floor. However, as with all efforts to protect us from ourselves, there is a trade-off. Did I mention it doesn’t remove much wood? That is the catch. And because this floor was in rough shape I really needed a belt sander to do the initial rough cut and get me to the point where I could work on the finish. But I didn’t know that and I was chicken so I spent several long nights after work following this sander around the room as it did very little. In the end, I had an amazing pain in my neck — literally — and a floor that looked decent.

K and I knew we didn’t want to polyurethane the floors since they had never had a coat of plastic on them. After a bit of research I decided on doing a pure tung oil finish. I could do a whole post on this subject but I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that in actuality you don’t use pure tung oil — you have to thin it a bit so that it penetrates deep into the wood. That being the case, we bought a pre-mixed tung oil varnish. It went on ok but seemed a bit odd to me given what I knew about refinishing the floors.

It wasn’t until I put the second coat on and got really suspicious that I got serious about reading the label of the can. Somehow the fact that it said Tung Oil varnish on the label hadn’t really sunk in with me that perhaps there was — varnish in the mix. Not a full-on screw up but definitely a ‘learning moment’ — and a fair amount of cussing.

When I moved on to do the floor in the bath room, I started in again with Baby’s First Floor Sander. About an hour in I decided — well it wasn’t so much a decision as it was f – this. I went out and got a grown-up guy belt floor sander. I won’t kid you, there is much greater potential to screw up your floors with the belt sander. But then again, if you need to do a serious rough cut and remove some wood to get back to a level finish, this is the tool you need. 15 minutes in and voila!

First pass with a belt sander

As you can see, there are still some places I need to address with a smaller (hand held) belt sander but that floor sander really took the boards back down to level. And this time, I mixed my own pure tung oil with mineral spirits. Because the room is small, I just quickly put the tung oil on a rag and gave the floor a light coating. That beautiful amber tone came right out. The floor sanding isn’t done yet — I just needed to get the rough cut done so the plumber can rough-in — but even so I could almost live with this as-is.

My uncle, Bruce, was in town over the weekend. This was a great excuse to eat at some fantastic New Orleans restaurants including Cafe Degas, Crepe Nanou, and the venerable Tujague’s.

Door of Tujague's restaurant in New Orleans

Sunday was the 6th Annual Tour de Pants mid-city bicycle pub crawl. Yes two great things that go great together: drinking and biking. I wrote about the 2006 Tour de Pants and what that meant for those of us rebuilding after the devastation of the Federal Flood. Once again it was time to put renovation on hold and connect with the wonderful friends here that keeps us doing all this crazy renovating. The first stop as always was Pal’s Lounge — soon to be our neighborhood bar once we move in.

Bicycles in front of Pal's Lounge in New Orleans

The new stop this year was the Bayou Beer Garden which is located just off the Lafitte Greenway at the end of Bayou St. John. By the time we rolled in there bikes pretty much owned the place.

Meanwhile, back at the house, an old friend returned. Turns out the tub refinishing place was legit and the claw foot tub is back in the house awaiting installation!


On the Level (aka New Jack City)

So, contrary to our assumptions, getting the house shored (leveled) turned out to affordable — if painful. Although not in our budget, we decided this is one of those things that is just ‘the right thing to do’ and that this was the right time to do it. Once we install tile in the bathroom there is no going back and leveling the house.

On Wednesday, the crew from Davie Shoring showed up. The amazing thing about watching this team work is the fact that what they did is so elementary. That is not to say it is easy or doesn’t take skill. It is just that everything about what they did was straight out of a 7th grade physics text book. The art and finesse came in as they worked their way through the nuances of this particular house and its unique challenges.

What they were facing: The weight of this two story house is carried by the piers around the outside of the house (front, back, and two sides) as well as by a line of piers down the center of the building. The house has two chimneys¬† (two stories and double sided) which have settled — but have settled less than the two sides of the house. At first blush, what needed to happen was obvious: the left and right side of the house needed to be raised back to level. A closer look, however, revealed that the front of the house was actually the high point. But, we couldn’t raise the sides up to the level of the front of the house because the chimneys were about 2″ lower than the front of the house. Raising the chimneys while possible was off the table for our budget and would damage the roof and . . . .

We discussed leaving the front of the house where it is (it has a chain wall which might be best left alone) and level the sides to the level of the chimneys.

Doug, the supervisor on the job, wasn’t too happy with that idea. He was hired to level the house and he wanted it level. So he decided to have the crew do some exploration under the front of the house. If he could sneak the front of the house down near the level of the chimneys, then he could get everything else to work out.

Within a couple minutes, the team had jacks under the front of the house and were removing coursing of brick. They were able to drop the front of the house about an inch and a half. At that point they knew they could make the rest of the numbers work and were ready to work on the sides. Because of the size of the house, they used two bottle jacks between each set of piers.

Daylight is visible as the house hovers above the piers

When they were ready to lift the house, each man worked two jacks and they counted the pumps as they raised the house to ensure an even lift and to minimize damage to the interior finishes. Watching this was my favorite part of the operation. They knew to a fairly accurate degree how many pumps it would take to move the house 5/8″ or 1-1/8″.

leveling historic home with bottle jacks

Working in unison to raise Ursulines house.

As they worked their way around the house, they checked their progress with a digital version of a water level. By the end of the day, the house was once again level (mostly — there were certain compromises that one has to make with old houses that are set in their ways). The crew shimmed and pinned the house so they could return in the morning and rebuild the piers and chain wall.

The old sill floats above the pier during the jacking

One coursing of brick removed while the house is leveled

Before the work started, I was afraid that I we would spend the money for the leveling and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Once they started working and the house began creaking and moaning and plaster began to crack I wanted to stop them and send everyone home. But by the end of the day I could not have been happier.

Remember the window that started it all? The one that was so out of plumb that we couldn’t repair the sash without ruining it?

The proof is in the pudding:

Level on window after the shoring

Level in the front window after the shoring of the house

It is a bit hard to see in the image above, but if you look closely at the apron of the window you will see a diagonal pencil line. That was the line that the carpenter put there using a level before the house was shored. That is how far off of level this window was. Seeing that little bubble nestled in between the two lines of that glass tube confirmed that we made the right decision and that we had a damn good team working with us. Thanks guys!



Not much happened on the renovation today. Carpenters are on hold until the shoring company comes to level the house — scheduled for next Wednesday. And the electricians appear to be off on another job.

K & I decided to invite a few folks over for a beer in honor of Saint Arnold’s Day. Any excuse to sit on the porch and drink a beer. The evening was going swimmingly until Stanley (our slightly crazy dog) decided to engage in a stand-off with an equally crazy cat under the house. At first I thought Stanley had trapped the cat and attempted — while crawling under the house in the dark — to provide cover for the cat to escape. Then I determined that the cat was holding Stanley hostage and attempted to toss various pieces of detritus at the cat to distract him so Stanley could make his escape. Turns out Stanley and the Cat were two crazy souls who had found each other and neither had any interest in escaping. They were locked in some weird under-the-house cage match and were determined to take each other down. K later referred to them as Sid and Nancy — which I think is the best description.

Finally, with the help of Rob, Ben, and Susan, we were able to coax Stanley away from the cat and out from under the house — where he proceeded to act as if nothing had happened.

While not much happened today, it appears that tomorrow could be a big day for the old house.

Plumbing Pipe waiting to be installed


Small Steps

Time moves so slowly in the hot New Orleans sun but the hours slip into days and I haven’t posted any notes on the renovation.

Each day of the weekend was a new undertaking. But I started and ended in the same place. The back corner of the yard.

Two things converge in the back corner of the yard: the old cat hospital and a plant called a vitex. Neither of these is a good thing in my opinion but the vitex may redeem itself one day.

out-of-control vitex plant

Our house has been vacant since 2005: Not for the reasons many who know what 2005 means in New Orleans would suspect — but that is another story. The important point here is that during the last 5 years, this Vitex plant / weed / tree has been having a great time in the back yard. I don’t even know what a vitex plant is — but that is what a friend told me it is called. They also explained that it is actually a cool plant. So I decided I just needed to trim it up and get it back to looking like a proper tree and not like an invasive weed on steroids.

Friday evening, while K went for mandatory cocktails with her graduate studies cohort, I attacked the vitex with the only weapon I had: a saws-all.

My problem was not that the vitex was a tough opponent. Each branch I touched was clearly not a “real” branch and deserved to be cut back. The problem was that none of the branches appeared to be real branches. Down at the base there were some substantial trunks that made you think “tree” — but above that everything seemed wimpy and ripe for removal. There was no there there. In the end I finally got tired and just gave up, afraid that if I continued cutting K would show up on Saturday morning and find a stump.

The vitex after trimming

Astute observers will note the saws-all in the foreground.

Saturday I decided to move back inside. The plumber was coming on Monday to see about running a new vent stack and had requested that the walls be open in both the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms. I prepared for battle.

ready for the demo of the upstairs bathroom

I enjoy doing demo in these old houses. Perhaps it is the academic romanticizing manual labor. Perhaps it is because lacking trade skills I have trouble with finish work. Be that as it may, there is also a process of discovery and a connecting with unknown craftspeople who have worked in the same place. At times it is the hack handyman whose idea of a repair was to cover over the problem. But more often it is the work of someone who solved problems in a skillful and innovative manner; work that makes you step back and question your own ability to fully engage the physical world.

At the end of the day had I succeeded in removing a portion of the wall. But the end result was meager compared to the energy expended. If playing music allows me to feel much younger than my actual years, demolition in June in New Orleans allows me to feel every one of those years.

removal of plaster and lathe from upstairs bathroom

Now, back to the cat hospital.

As the story goes, the former owner of the house loved cats. And by that I mean that the mother-in-law apartment had something like 20 cats residing in it and the back yard was protected by a double fence to keep the neighborhood dogs away from the 40+ cats hanging out back there. When cats weren’t feeling well, they were put into a lean-to chicken wire structure that had been added to the original 1903 servant quarters. This all sounds quite “crazy cat lady” except that Rosemary was apparently in touch with the SPCA and was designated as a cat rescue location complete with veterinarian visits.

But Rosemary is no longer here and it was time for the cat hospital to go away. K and I decided to divide and conquer. She headed home to retrieve the wheelbarrow and I started whacking at the cat hospital.

debris in back yard

By the time the noon sun was beating us senseless, the cat hospital and all the detritus from the vitex tree / bush / weed had been deposited in the construction dumpster out front.

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