Nothing Is Ever As Easy As One Expects

November 7, 2008 – Have you ever started a “simple” project that just kept getting more and more involved? Welcome to my world!

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

At least, that’s the case when living in an old house. I should have applied the lessons learned in my youth about old cars. Back then I used to buy old cars, because they were cheap. But they were cheap for a reason: they needed a lot of TLC, in other words, a lot of hard work. Well, old houses are like old cars, only more time consuming and more expensive!

Replacing The Mailbox

Replacing a mailbox ought to be a simple task, right? You just unbolt the old one and bolt on the new one. Simple. Wrong! First of all, the new mailbox is a different size from the old one, which had some funky, dilapidated custom bracket barely holding it in place. The mailbox post is old, non-standard, and embedded in a massive block of concrete. And did I mention that the post was all rusty? After pretty much an entire day of sanding the old post, repainting it, fabricating a new custom bracket out of a block of wood and painting it, I finally got the new mailbox installed. No wonder I let it sit on my office floor for a year before installing it; I knew it was going to be a challenge. At least my neighbor said my installation looked “very professional,” even though the post still leans to the left. But, as I said, it’s stuck in a block of concrete, so leaning it shall remain. The spiders love the new mailbox too, having set up home in it several times now.

Making The Front Door Open And Close Easily

Opening my front door requires Houdini-like finesse. If entering from outside, you have to pull the door toward you while turning the key in the lock. Then while holding the lock you push the door open. So the procedure is pull, turn, push like a sumo wrestler, and put a little knee into it. Actually, it’s a great security system because nobody can figure out how to open the door! No wonder I usually go in and out through the back door.

After a couple of years of dealing with the front door it was getting a bit annoying, so I decided to make the door operate a little easier. I removed copper weather stripping from the bottom of the door, on the assumption that it was creating resistance against the threshold. Of course, in the process numerous rusty nails broke off in the bottom edge of the door, precluding use of my fancy power planer - I love that thing! It’s the best tool for making doors close properly in an old house with crooked door jambs. Anyway, I finally figured out that the problem with the door is that the screws in the hinges are loose and not fully supporting the door, so it’s dragging on the threshold. So I removed more copper weather stripping to gain access to the hinges and installed longer screws. Now the door was fully supported and not dragging on the threshold anymore, but there was just one problem: the door jamb is no longer square and the latches in the door don’t line up with the holes in the door jamb!

Exasperated, I put everything back the way it was and covered the threshold with a piece of vinyl to reduce friction and at least make the door open and close a little more easily. So a solution to this problem is still pending. I may get around to fixing it properly in a couple more years.

Vinyl helps the door slide more smoothly across the threshold
Vinyl helps the door slide more smoothly across the threshold

Replacing The Bidet With A Sink

I think a bidet is a fine idea, but I prefer toilet paper. The previous owners of my house evidently thought a bidet would be a neat idea, so they installed one in the downstairs bathroom. Unfortunately it stuck out halfway across the doorway, requiring one to sashay from side to side when navigating a course to the shower, dodging the bidet on the left, the sink on the right and the toilet on the left.

So when I installed new sinks and toilets, I thought it would be a nice idea to relocate the sink to where the bidet was. That would put the sink and toilet on the same side and make passage through the bathroom unobstructed. While the hot and cold water lines to the bidet worked properly, the poor plumber discovered that the drain pipe from the bidet went nowhere; it just emptied under the house!

Now, if I were a plumber crawling around under the bidet and just realized that the drain pipe went nowhere, I’d be a little grossed out, but it didn’t seem to faze him. Another plumber who visited my house regaled me with a tale about a guy whose toilet was emptying under the house for years. It was only the steadily intensifying odor that alerted the owners that something was wrong. When the plumber opened the door to the crawlspace under the house, well, let’s just say a muddy, fragrant tidal wave poured forth. And then the plumber crawled under the house to fix the problem! I hope he took a barf bag with him!

Anyway, I got the bidet removed and worked my magic to patch the rather large holes in the floor. Assuming that I’d never be able to find replacement tiles to match the ones on the floor, I mixed up various enamel paints to match the color and painted the tiles and grout lines onto the floor!

I’ll bet you can’t tell where the five holes in the floor were
I’ll bet you can’t tell where the five holes in the floor were

Hanging A Painting Or Two

I have a bunch of old oil paintings, some of which are rather heavy, weighing as much as thirty pounds. One day about two years ago I got inspired and naively decided to hang all my paintings. So I got out my usual picture hangers, the same ones I’ve used repeatedly over the years, and nailed one into the wall. To my dismay, not only did the nail not strike anything substantial inside, but I was able to easily pull the nail out of the crumbling plaster wall with my fingers. Discouraged, I spent the next two years ruminating on a solution.

A few days ago I got inspired again and asked my neighbor for some long nails. Fed up with the situation, I figured I’d just drive some long nails into the studs. My neighbor cautioned me that the lath supporting the plaster was springy and difficult to hammer nails through, which tended to cause the walls to crumble further, so he suggested using screws, which was my own preferred solution a couple of years ago!

So I took my neighbor’s advice and went home to start drilling. Alas, any fool can drill holes in a wall, but can they locate a stud? The walls are old – over a hundred years old – and it appears that the studs aren’t on regular 16-inch centers like in modern houses. So for every good hole I drilled in the wall, there is one more “test” hole that came up dry. Between my knuckle rapping on the wall – my knuckle is still sore – a tape measure and an electronic stud finder, I only successfully located a stud one time out of two.

Mis-colored patch marks on walls. Notice my unfinished “drapes”?
Mis-colored patch marks on walls. Notice my unfinished “drapes”?

After three days I finally did manage to get all the paintings securely hung, and then started the arduous task of patching all my borings plus the myriad holes from the picture hooks still resident on the wall from the time I moved in. After depositing white patch marks all over the walls I decided to paint them. So I went to local hardware store and bought some paint that matched the paint on one of the old picture hangers I removed. The only problem was that the old picture hanger was beneath a picture all these years, so it remained clean, while the rest of the walls darkened with age and dirt. While the paint I bought matches the clean original paint, it doesn’t match the dirty paint covering most of the wall! I should have had the hardware store guy add some “dirt” pigment to match the color. The former highly noticeable white patches have been replaced by highly noticeable clean painted patches! Oh well, I guess it’s better than white. I have on my “to do” list repainting the entire interior of the house. Ha! We’ll see if I get that done within a decade.

Hanging A Curtain Rod

I wanted to hang a curtain rod and some drapes over the living room doorway to keep the room warm in the winter. Since the curtain rod isn’t too heavy I decided to mount it using plastic anchors in the brittle plaster walls. So I drilled a large hole for the anchor, inserted it into the wall and put a screw into it. Lo and behold, the anchor started rotating in the wall! So I pulled it out, smeared some expanding glue on it and shoved it back in. After the glue dried I reinserted the screw and everything held OK.

Then it came time to do the drapes. Unfortunately, the doorway is over eight feet high, but the longest drapes one can buy off the shelf are only seven feet high, at least a foot too short. Great! So I bought some fabric to make my own drapes, but I have no sewing machine so the “drapes” have been hanging unfinished over the doorway for over a year while I decide whether to buy a sewing machine just to make the drapes, as if I even know how to use a sewing machine. That could be a disaster in itself.

Reclaiming A Cabinet

I’ve been cleaning out my house - I’ve been doing it for two years! - and I’m down to the basement. The people I bought the house from several years ago never threw anything away, so every nook and cranny is stuffed with … well ... stuff. Useless stuff too. Yesterday, among many other things, I threw out at least three dirty old radiator caps that they were saving for ... I don’t know what. Over the last two years I’ve had hauled away at least – I’m not exaggerating – a ton of crap from the house. And there’s still the crawlspace under the house that’s also full of stuff! There’s also an old steel tank in the basement that must weigh a thousand pounds – I can’t even wiggle it. The walls of the tank must be two inches thick. I wish I could haul that out and sell it for scrap. Not a chance! That tank is going to sit there forever, immovable, like a massive boulder.

Steel tank in basement. Anyone want it?
Steel tank in basement. Anyone want it?

Anyway, I’m cleaning out this cabinet in the basement, one that’s filled with all manner of leaking, intermingling, noxious chemicals that must have been in there for decades, when I get this bright idea. I says to meself, “Well, blow me down, this would make a nice cabinet for the laundry room.” I literally said that! No, just kidding.

So I haul the thing out of the basement and wash it down because it was covered with decades of dust. Then I go to the local hardware store and buy some white paint and some new handles, as the original ones were literally crumbling. Then I discover that the existing paint on the cabinet is oil-based, but I bought latex. So it’s back to the hardware store for some primer and cheap disposable brushes, as the primer is oil-based and too hard to clean off the brushes. Then I find that the side walls are loosely attached to the rest of the cabinet, so I installed some screws. Then I discover that it leans backward and to one side, so I shaved off part of the base. Then the glass doors have an art deco graphic painted on them which is coming off, so I finished the job and stripped it off entirely.

Finally I started painting the darned thing with the noxious primer, which I can only take for an hour before nearly passing out. When I got done breathing all those fumes I hardly needed my afternoon cocktail! (I had it anyway, and I have to say, paint fumes and alcohol are a terrific combo!) Try though I did, it was evidently impossible to avoid getting paint all over my hands and my sweatshirt, one of my dress sweatshirts too, without any holes in it. Argh! Fortunately WD-40 removed the paint from my hands and the sweatshirt. Now the question is, how to get the WD-40 out of the sweatshirt! Oh, and there’s nothing like starting to paint the cabinet door and realizing that although you cleverly masked the glass on the inside, you forgot to mask it on the outside! So you have to stop painting, run and get the masking tape and hurriedly mask the glass before the paintbrush hardens.

In about a week, after I finish priming and painting the thing – oh – and replacing the broken door latches with magnetic latches, I should have a nice cabinet. Then there’s another cabinet to refurbish for the bathroom!

Refurbished cabinet, after 12 hours of labor and $30 in paint and hardware. Notice my nice “art deco” graphic I painted on the glass, and the formerly rusted hinges I painted with the same copper paint.
Refurbished cabinet, after 12 hours of labor and $30 in paint and hardware. Notice my nice “art deco” graphic I painted on the glass, and the formerly rusted hinges I painted with the same copper paint.

While it would have certainly been easier to just go buy a couple of cabinets, I really do find all this effort satisfying. I also think the skill to refurbish things will be increasingly valuable in the future as things become scarcer and more expensive.

The funny thing is that I’ve come full circle from my childhood. When I was a kid my family was too poor to just go out and buy new things, so we spent a lot of effort refurbishing things. As I got older and wealthier I didn’t hesitate to go buy new things because it was easier. But now that I live on a tight budget but have lots of time, refurbishing things is appealing again.

What’s Next?

Those words have a double meaning. There’s “What’s next?”, spoken in an exasperated tone after hastily fixing the latest acute problem. Then there’s “What’s next?”, as in what new torment do I wish to voluntarily inflict upon myself: tiling the bathroom floor, tiling the kitchen counters, painting the exterior of the house, or one of the hundred other things on my house “to do” list?

Being concerned about sustainable living in times of adversity, it occurred to me that it might be nice to have a heat source that wasn’t dependent on electricity or natural gas. So I bought a wood burning stove specifically so it will fit inside the fireplace in the living room. It’s shaped perfectly so that it can be vented right up the chimney.

Wood burning stove, waiting to be installed, somewhere
Wood burning stove, waiting to be installed, somewhere

Why don’t I simply use the fireplace, you ask? Because it’s not a wood burning fireplace! What were they thinking?! I think it may have been a coal burning fireplace at one time, but now houses logs designed to burn propane from an outside tank. Unfortunately, the fireplace flu is sealed shut, or perhaps it’s just rusted shut. Even if I can get it open, I have to wonder what manner of horrors reside in the chimney: leaves, bird nests, dirt. My neighbor tells me the previous owners had no end of trouble with the chimney leaking rain, which leads me to wonder if that’s why the flu is sealed. Everything in this house is like that: like pulling teeth. On the rare occasion when something goes smoothly – such as when I successfully replaced the kitchen faucet – I feel exceedingly fortunate.

Most people take for granted the basic characteristics of a domicile: a roof that keeps the rain out, pipes that keep the water in, lights and electrical outlets that work, exterior and interior doors that close, windows that open, foundations that aren’t sinking into the soil. For me, these basics are treasured luxuries!

A few months ago, during the summer, I noticed that the basement was looking damp. I thought it strange since I wasn’t using the air conditioner – the usual reason for dampness down there – and it had not been raining much. Outside I noticed a depression in the ground near the dampness in the basement, so I got a couple of wheelbarrows of dirt from my neighbor and dumped them into the depression. The dampness in the basement seemed to diminish, but after the next rain the mound of dirt I had just dumped outside turned into a depression again, as if the dirt simply disappeared! So I dumped another couple of wheelbarrows of dirt on the spot and after the next rain it subsided again! So I don’t know where all this dirt is going, but it’s maddening.

A year or so ago I was cooking dinner in the kitchen during a frightful gale, when I heard the ominous sound of water splattering on the floor in the dining room. So I rushed in and saw water pouring in through one of the windows as rain was being driven against it outside. So I ran and grabbed a couple of my many buckets, which are never far from hand, and put them under the window. Naturally, it was nighttime – these problems always seem to occur at night – so I had to wait until morning to fix the problem. The next day I found that the wood molding above the window outside was rotten and spongy. Since replacing it would involve tearing the window apart, I called upon two of my three favorite exterior repair materials: aluminum flashing and caulk, my third favorite exterior repair material being roofing tar. Unfortunately, the house has 31 windows and most of them are in as bad a shape as the one in the dining room. Add it to the list!

And then there’s the roof leak above the laundry room, which defies all my efforts to fix it. I have a quartet of buckets in the laundry room to catch the leaking water when it rains. Collectively the buckets play kind of a nice symphony when it rains.

Laundry room percussion section
Laundry room percussion section

That reminds me, I’ve got to go get the laundry out of the dryer. Unfortunately, I just remembered that the light no longer works in the laundry room and it’s dark now. Bummer! The light used to work, but for some reason about six months ago it just stopped working. I fear some critter has “eaten” the wiring. Fortunately, I discovered that the kitchen light – which thankfully still works – can produce twilight conditions in the laundry room, so I guess I should quit whining. After all, the upstairs don’t work at all. I had an electrician here for two hours and he couldn’t figure out why!

And the other day, after a saturating rainfall, I think I heard another roof leak coming from the peak of the roof. Great! It’s only thirty feet high, with a steep pitch, and the house is perched above a steep slope, so if one falls off, it’s a really, really long way down. I sure don’t relish crawling up there, but I guess I’m going to have to. That new leak is probably thanks to the birdbrained birds that keep mistaking my house for a tree and keep trying to peck holes in the roof! I’m not kidding. These woodpecker-type birds are literally trying to peck holes in my roof and walls in which to insert nuts or grubs or something. I see them pecking and trying to shove something into gaps. I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I got so exasperated with the birds pecking away at the roof that I got out my air rifle and ran outside a couple of times to dispatch this one clever bugger. Fortunately for him, he flew off just before I could get a bead on him. Then he continued to taunt me, pecking away for thirty seconds or so, just long enough for me to recognize the sound and dash outside before he flew away, laughing. I would regret shooting one of these beautiful birds, but they are literally trying to peck holes in the roof! The raccoons tear open the siding on the house. The mice chew up stuff in the walls. They’re like some kind of supernatural house demolition tag team.

Inside the house, my biggest cleaning chore is the spider webs. They clog the vacuum cleaner brush and I have to constantly stop vacuuming the house and vacuum the vacuum cleaner brush to rid it of spider webs!

I keep wishing some of the critters would eat some of the other critters. Why can’t the spiders eat the mud daubers and lady bugs? Then the mice can eat the spiders. Then the raccoons can eat the mice. See, a nice, neat little ecosystem, and it absolves me of having to eradicate all these pests! Oh, and why don’t bird-eating spiders take up residence outside – there are already colorful and creepy two-inch spiders in residence outside – and eat some of the birds that can’t distinguish my house from a tree?

It’s a rare day when I don’t hear “something” inside the walls. Until a few days ago some critter was taunting me, chewing and scratching out several new domiciles within my walls and ceiling. Then there was silence. Then I found a poor little mouse mangled in a mousetrap in the basement (just one of three unlucky victims so far). I suppose that was the poor critter who was taunting me, but it won’t be the last. I have no friggin’ idea how these critters are getting in the walls. I’ve inspected the house dozens of times and I cannot find any openings around the base or the roof where these critters could be getting into the walls. It’s utterly exasperating! It’s as if my house has a neon sign on it, visible only to varmints, welcoming them all to come dine and repose.

Someone once commented to me that rural living was like being under siege by the animals, bugs and plants. I heartily concur! Such is life in an old house in the wilds of nature. Taking care of an old house like this is pretty much a full time job for a handyman, so it’s a good thing I don’t have a real job to interfere with my handyman duties! I feel like I’m in an endless race to fix the existing problems before new ones crop up. I think I’m pulling ahead in this race, but it’s hard to tell.

What was it Nietzsche said, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? If so, I should be ready for the world’s strongest man competition.

Update – 10 December 2008

It started innocently enough. All I wanted was to make the door to my “study” close. Until now I could only close the door to within six inches of the door jamb, owing to the immense distortion of the door jamb and the floor. Simple task, right? It took me five hours over two days to get it done! I had to remove the door five times and take it downstairs, shave off part of it, take it back upstairs, put it back on the hinges and identify where else the door was rubbing against the frame. Then I had to move the doorknob inward just a quarter of an inch. Then I had to move the strike plate on the door jamb down about three-quarters of an inch (like I said, the door jamb was very crooked).

Door, shaved with my beloved power planer
Door, shaved with my beloved power planer

After much effort I can finally do what other people take for granted: close the door! The door is now square, but the door jamb is visibly crooked. But at least the door closes and latches. And on the bright side, I got to use my power planer, a tool I adore. Let’s see, I have only about ten more doors to fix in this manner – should take only fifty more hours...

The End