Friday, December 12, 2008

Cold Moon Rising

Full Cold Moon rising amidst clouds and trees; Derby, Connecticut, 12 December 2008, at 6PM

Tonight, a perigean Full Cold Moon rose at just about 4PM EDT. According to The Old Farmers Almanac, it was the largest and brightest full moon this year. Not only was the moon in full phase, but it was also at perigee (orbiting nearest the earth). I took the above photo about two hours after the moon rose. The afternoon was overcast, but fortunately, the cloud cover pretty much dissipated shortly after night fall, making for good viewing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

First Snow

Kale, comfortable under a snowy blanket

Yesterday was relatively mild and nearly windless. But last night brought us our first snow of the season, followed by a clear, but very cold and blustery day. More of the same is predicted for the next few days. Fortunately, I managed to get all my containers and kale fully watered and covered with mulch during last week's warm spell. For the kale, I built layers of mulch up around the bases and sides to protect the shallow root systems, but left the leaves exposed to the sun.

Uncovering the Parlor Floor & Related Findings

This past Friday, I decided to begin removing all the wall-to-wall carpeting from the first floor of the house, starting with the parlor. Old and very worn, it certainly served the previous occupants well, but I would much rather have the original wooden floors exposed, and at least slowly get started on what I anticipate to be a long process of repair and restoration of the old planks. So it's now time for all that old carpeting to go.

I suspect that the wooden floors are in pretty rough shape. Gazing upward from the cellar, one can see that most of the original planks are still there, but many are twisted or checked, and some have areas of deterioration or insect damage. I think that the condition of the original floors was what prompted the wall-to-wall carpeting in the first place -- someone decided that the old planks needed to be hidden, and perhaps also hoped to achieve some degree of leveling of the floors without having to deal with the joist system below.

Also, from a few exploratory removals of swatches, I've found that there are varying types of underlayment between the carpeting and the floor planks. In the case of both the parlor and the hall, for example, relatively modern hardwood floors appear to cover the old planks. On the other hand, the dining room carpeting appears to be underlayed with plywood. I clearly need to determine exactly what's there, and decide how any underlayments ought to be dealt with.

So, then, on to the parlor ...

Above left: A view of the parlor, in the direction of the kitchen, with about half of the carpeting raised and folded over. The white door leads into the former chimney space, which, on the first floor, now serves as a walk-in closet and pantry, and encloses the cellar stair. Above right: The other side of the parlor. The odd looking panel (about 1' x 2') on the east partition wall allows access to bathroom plumbing.

Above: Just out of curiosity, let's remove that panel and see what's behind it. Just bathtub plumbing ... and a precipitous drop straight down into the basement!

I began by lifting the carpeting off the parlor/front foyer threshold (to which it was stapled), using a pry bar, and then worked my way down the length of the south end of the room, and about half way across each side. I folded the carpeting over and drew a long cut down the fold with a utility knife so it would lay flat. I then pulled the old foam backing up from the floor. Needless to say, it was a bit of a dirty job, with decades of old carpet fibers getting launched into the air, and many staples still embedded in both the floor boards and the edges of the carpeting.

But, doing this revealed a large area of the hardwood floor that had been hidden by the carpeting, and which, in turn, is hiding the original seventeenth century planks. Perhaps the most striking thing about this floor is just how uneven it actually is. There is a pronounced bump running parallel to the south end of the floor that gradually levels out near both the front and back of the room, as well as in the direction of the north end of the house. Perviously, one had some sense of this perturbation when walking across the covered floor, but now, there's also an acute visual awareness of it that seems to make its contours all that much more dramatic.

I went down into the cellar to try to determine the cause of this deformation, and concluded that it was caused by a transverse summer beam that had been bowed upwared, more or less in its mid-section, by a modern steel support post which, apparently, is just too long. My guess is that, right after the house was moved to its current location back in the 1950's, and placed on its new foundation, there was a perceived need to directly support the summer (as well as a number of other timbers in the flooring system). Someone must have jacked the summer upward just high enough to accomodate the post, but perhaps did not realize what was happening to the floor above. Once the problem was discovered, perhaps it was deemed too late to do anything about it, now that the post had been secured in place.

Above left: Southwest corner of the parlor and door to the front foyer. At one time, there had been an area rug or other covering (about 8' x 10') stapled down in the center of the room, and the exposed flooring was finished and sealed. Above right: Looking toward the northwest corner.

Above left: Close-up of northwest corner of the parlor. I used an old glass milk pitcher to collect staples as I removed them from the carpeting. Above right: There is an abrupt bump just at the border of the finished and unfinished portions of the floor, and running parallel to the south side of the room. The floor appears to rise steeply from the interior partition, and then descend gradually in the direction of the north end. The bump likewise flattens out both at the front and back of the room.

Above left: Another view of the bump and the unfinished/finished portions of the overlay floor. Above right: Close-up of the unfinished area of the floor. Even though the floor boards are milled tongue-and-groove, quite a number of them are face nailed. Perhaps this was done to eliminate movement and creaking. Although the floor is exceptionally uneven, it is also very solid and quiet.

Above left: The cause of the bump in the floor above -- a transverse summer beam near the north end of the house is being bowed upward by a steel post. The steel post is simply too tall. Above right: The end of the summer beam where it joins the sill. The underside of the summer is notched where it fits the sill pocket, and there is another (wooden) post supporting the end of the summer. The connection between the summer and the sill seems tenuous, at best. Perhaps this is partly a result of the bowing, but the same situation also exists with the other transverse summer at the south end of the house. My guess is that the sill is too far forward. In any case, this accounts for the wooden support post at the sill end of the summer (there similarly is a steel post at the sill end of the other transverse summer, as well).

Needless to say, this situation presents a significant challenge. I do not find such an abrupt deformation in the flooring acceptable for a home that is meant to be lived in. On the other hand, any adjustment will need to be done in a fashion that maintains the structural integrity of the floor system, while ensuring that nothing of historical value is unnecessarily damaged or removed.

Another interesting aspect of this newly discovered hardwood floor is how difficult it is to assess its age. The floor is comprised of milled tongue-and-groove boards that are consistently 12'-6" in length, except for the first four courses at the front of the room.The boards are of five different widths. I've measured nominal widths of 5", 4", and 3", and actual widths of 4" and 3". They are randomly placed with respect to their relative widths. And despite the tongue-and-groove construction, many of the boards are randomly face-nailed, all with machine-made, square-cut nails whose heads appear identical to those of the 2-1/2" nails that I've extraced elsewhere from the house.

Above left: Machine-made square nail, used to face-nail one of the planks. Above right: What on earth is this?! It looks like a metal wedge for securing a hammer or axe head to its handle, but perhaps not quite. I found this approximately in the center of the floor.

All this leads me to conclude that this floor is extremely old. Perhaps of the same vintage as the overlay floor in the hall chamber upstairs. But exactly what its age is, is very difficult to say. And this presents yet another dilemma: If this floor is historically significant, then I am not going to remove it. But what about the seventeenth century planks underneath? Basically, we seem to have one historic construction covering up another. So what do I do about that?

One possibility might be to remove just a few courses of the overlay boards from some specific area of the parlor that can be isolated from foot traffic. For example, maybe the first six courses at the front of the room, right beneath the two front windows. A cap molding of some kind could be installed along the edges, and the resulting trough could be filled with, say, a wide accent table or low-boy. This would prevent the area from being walked on, while allowing at least a portion of the original planks to be displayed.

Interestingly enough, I was considering this idea last Saturday afternoon, and later that same day, came across an article in the Winter 2008 issue of Renovation Style magazine (pp. 56-69, and p. 128), which described a somewhat similar situation. In this case, the homeowners had renovated a nineteenth century farm house, and decided to leave a portion of the internal construction of an old wall and chimney exposed. In my own situation, I am concerned primarily with historical preservation and repair, rather than renovation per se. But the analogy was there, nonetheless, and the discovery of that article made for an interesting coincidence.

Anyway, back to the problem of carpet removal.

So, I continued removing the rest of the carpet and foam backing, and then set about prying up the nailing strips all along the edges of the floor. Still having some ambition after all that, I also removed the carpeting from the front entrance foyer, and the first three treads of the second floor stair. The foyer floor turned out to be a true modern hardwood floor, with short boards of uniform width, randomly placed, and absent of any face nailing. This is not an overlay floor -- the old planks forming the original foyer floor apparently are long gone. As for the stair treads, they are clearly in rough shape, and are going to require quite a bit of tending to.

Above left: Carpeting and nailing strips completely removed from the parlor. There still are quite a number of random staples and nails all over the floor that need to be removed. Above right: This photo shows that there had been several generations of area covers, all at slightly different distances from the wall.

Above: While working on the parlor, I also removed carpeting from the front foyer.

Above left: View from the foyer into the parlor. Above right: I also removed carpeting from the first three steps of the second floor stair (I had not yet removed the tacks when I took this photo). The treads are very worn, checked, and full of nail holes from earlier carpeting or runner installations. They clearly need quite a bit of attention. My guess is that these treads are not completely original, but nonetheless, quite old (perphaps mid to late eighteenth century). The hand rail had been temporarily removed to get a large piece of furniture upstairs.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Cheese Press Cometh

Two Fridays ago, I came across this ancient cheese press at the Treasure Hut, the antique and collectibles store at the corner of Route 34 and Cedric. Run by Al and Joan for a good many years, the Treasure Hut is a something of a long standing Derby CT landmark.
This press is beautifully made, with a lot of clean mortise-and-tenon joinery, and just a few metal fasteners. It's in great shape and has a fine finish. The only thing missing is the actual mold used to hold and separate the whey. I am not exactly sure what I am going to do with it; I suppose it will just stay in the upstairs work room for now, and ultimately find a place in the future restored kitchen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Kale and Thoughts on the Little Ice Age

It seems like we've had our first real taste of winter these past five days; unseasonably cold and blustery, with mid-day temperatures never above 40 degrees and plumeting down into the mid-twenties at night. The pansies and mums I have in two hanging baskets out front nearly bought it the other day when I'd left them outside until merely an hour after sunset. Fortunately, the protection of a relatively warmer night in the basement seemed to revive them (at least somewhat).

Kale thriving in mostly sub-freezing weather

By comparison, the dwarf kale I had planted out back is not only surviving, but apparently thriving, in this sudden cold. The plants are noticeably larger than they were just a few weeks ago. This is truly a cold weather loving plant. But none the less, this winter is predicted to be a severe one, and as soon as there is a slight rise in temperature, I'll properly protect them with a cover of mulch.

All the upstairs rooms of the Hawkins House, except for the hall chamber, lack hot-air registers. In these conditions, they take a long time to warm up, as hot air slowly circulates out from the hall chamber, as well as upwards from the first floor. These unheated rooms always remain on the cool side, and begin to chill rapidly as soon as the furnace shuts off. This is something I'll need to address in my plans to improve the heating system next year.

However, it got me thinking about what life in the house was like in the distant past.

Winters in colonial New England were generally far more severe than what we've experienced in modern times. In fact, many climatologists agree that there was a general dip in temperatures in Europe and North America, from around the mid-seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century, a period sometimes referred to as The Little Ice Age.

My house's early occupants had endured far more severe and prolonged cold than I will perhaps ever experience in my life time. It's hard to imagine what it was like trying to stay warm on those frigid winter nights, the entire family huddled together in the kitchen or great room, directly in front of the largest fireplace in the house. Some one had to ensure that the fire remained stoked throughout the night, and no one dared venture away from the flames and into the outer rooms.

[ This house is frozen brittle, all except this room you sit in. - Robert Frost, "Snow" ]

So why am I complaining about a mere 11 degrees below average, over just a few days in November?

The BRT on Christmas Eve, about one month after this posting, with an interesting wind-blown slab on its roof.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Writing Table for the Spinning Room

Last weekend, I finally got around to assembling a writing table I had purchased a few weeks earlier from Home Decorators Collection. They call it a multi-use writing table. It's part of my ongoing effort to set an informal study up in the old spinning room. In fact, I've decided to make all three back rooms of the second floor into special-purpose work rooms: The southeast bed chamber as a computer room, the spinning room as a cozy refuge for reading and writing, and the northeast bed chamber as a small workshop for second-floor restoration and preservation work. Longer term, the northeast chamber eventually might be fashioned into a second floor bath, but there are far more pressing things to accomplish right now; hence, the second floor workshop.

All the wooden parts comprising the writing table; assembled trestle and drawers

When it comes to furniture for the house, colonial, shaker, and some country styles, generally work best. On the other hand, some modern pieces that are relatively simplistic, comprised of darkly finished wood, and are generally reminiscent of earlier times, also seem to fit well with the overall tone of the house -- sometimes even better than actual vintage furniture. And while I prefer to acquire vintage furniture, I sometimes find it difficult to obtain what I am looking for in used pieces. The multi-purpose writing table, on the other hand, is precisely what I wanted for the spinning room study. I think I would've been hard-pressed to find anything quite like it second-hand.

Spinner and ratchet screw driver; joining the table top and frame

The table arrived completely disassembled, but wasn't all that difficult to join together, in large part because it fastens with simple knock-down screws and connectors. For most joints, a wooden dowel is also inserted parallel to the connector to prevent movement in the assembled joint, as well as to provide the correct spatial orientation between the two parts. The only tools required are a 4mm allen head wrench (one came with the table, but I prefer to use an allen head socket with a spinner), and a #2 philips head screw driver (I like to use my ratchet screw driver on these kinds of jobs nearly all the time).

Remaining table-top hardware installed; the completed writing table

Five pieces of hardware fasten the table top to the main frame assembly: Three small hinges that attach along the edges of the top and frame, two larger spring loaded hinges that faciliate the angling of the table top over the frame, and a big ratchet-style arm that supports the table top when angled. I found it easiest to add this hardware with the table top upside-down on horses and the attached frame rigidly supported; in this case, I simple butted it against the wall.

Table and stool; top positioned at a comfortable angle for drafting

Once the top and frame are joined, the frame supports are simply inserted into the trestle legs, and two wooden pins are used to hold the frame at the desired height. The top can rest flat for reading or writing, or can be angled for drawing or drafting. Three capped inserts keep things from rolling off. For now, I've positioned the table against the partition on the south side of the room (more or less as shown in the last photo above). This enables natural light entering the window to illuminate the table top at a slight angle from just behind one's left shoulder. It also addresses the problem of what to do with that relatively empty wall space.

Friday, October 31, 2008

An Experiment in Winter Planting

Today, I planted three white kale in a row, in a location of the yard that will continue to get a lot of sunlight during the day, even as the sun angle decreases with the onset of winter. This is a simple experiment in late season planting and winter growing inspired by an article I recently read in the 2009 Old Farmer's Almanac.

My plan is to build a small wooden box around the kale and fill it with about a foot of organic mulch before the Big Freeze really settles in. Through out the winter, I'll occasionally harvest small quantities of kale, water during the warm spells, and see if I can keep this process going through out January, February, and into March.

Kale row in a sunny part of the yard

The afternoon sun is casting long shadows now, as demonstrated by a tall weed growing through the walkway; this is by far the sunniest part of the yard year-round, and the future site of a large, bordered herb garden

While looking over some of the containers out front, I couldn't help but notice that the pollinators that had been so busy merely a month ago are all gone now. With the exception of a few very small flies flitting around the flowers, there was no more of that frantic activity during the sunny hours of the late mornings and afternoons that I had come to enjoy so much. Of course, winter is nearly upon us, and the bees are done collecting their pollen, having stored it all away in anticipation of the vernal birth of the next generation of their bee progeny.

However, I did come across one honey bee -- extremely large and lathargic, he appeared to be completely sacked of energy from the recent cold spell. He wasn't flying, rather just crawling around on one of the containers. It looked like he wanted a comfortable location to camp out, so I managed to get him to cling to a small twig, and placed the twig just below a canopy of salvia. He was still sluggishly exploring the contours of his twig when I wandered off to do a few other things.

Later, I returned to the salvia, and he was gone. Perhaps he had some other spot in mind to begin his journey into that good night. Meanwhile, down the street, and away from the house, I could hear the murmurings of the busy inhabitants of my own eco-system -- children and their parents, gradually emerging from their homes, to enjoy this relatively mild evening and the celebration of yet another All Hallows Eve.

This day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of Night
- Longfellow

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tin Lanterns and Oyster Shells

A few days ago, a Revere-style punched tin lantern, which I had ordered from Garber's Crafted Lighting, in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, arrived at my house. It's very nicely made, with a sun-burst pattern and an accompanying wall hanger. Intended for the spinning room, the lantern found its place on the old plaster partition on the north side of the room, just to the right of the northeast chamber door.

Spinning room north wall and new hanging lantern; note the nail protruding from the door jamb

The spinning room has two such plaster walls, the other being on the opposite (south) side of the room. Both look very old, with coarse undulations on their surfaces and many years worth of obvious repairs and patching in spots. The north partition is particularly odd in that it curves off toward the parlor chamber doorway at about a 30 degree angle from a smooth bullnose joint, with the northeast chamber door just to the left of the bullnose. It appears to have been constructed with the specific objective of providing privacy, and leads me to believe that the northeast chamber may have served the house as a birthing and sick room

The bullnose is just between the lantern and door jamb; looking into the spinning room from the parlor chamber doorway

Interestingly enough, the other two walls, one being an exterior wall and the other concealing the attic stair, are relatively recent constructions of modern sheet-rock. But the two surviving old plaster partitions are quite remarkable, and I often wondered how old they actually might be.

When the house was completed in the late seventeenth century, it most likely had no interior plaster; rather, just exposed timber planking, and perhaps interior partitions consisting of simple wooden panels wherever necessary. In fact, plastering generally wasn't practiced in colonial New England until the early part of the eighteenth century, and certainly wouldn't have been viewed as something necessary in the earliest days of a wilderness settlement like Derby.

Close-up of the plaster surface with its rough texture and undulations

So, presumably, these partitions would not have been built until at least the early-to-mid 1700s. By comparison, all of the remaining plaster through out the rest of the house is much more finely finished, and clearly of a relatively modern vintage. For example, in several other walls, I've found milled lath and plaster with horse hair filler, which in my mind suggests constructions ranging anywhere from the late nineteenth century to about the mid-twentieth century.

North partition and ceiling; south partition wall and very old plaster just below the tie-beam

Shortly after hanging the lantern, I decided to remove two old nails that were protruding from the door jamb of the northeast chamber entrance. You can plainly see one of these nails in the first two photographs, just below the lantern. The other nail was just below the first one.

The nails served no clear purpose, and furthermore, there was a small risk of someone getting hurt by brushing up against one of them. So I extracted the uppermost nail first with a vise-grip, and in the process, a small amount of plaster broke away from the wall, and along with it, a fragment of an oyster shell.

Nail protruding from door jamb; the two extracted nails and oyster shell fragment

I've read that the earliest plasters and mortars in colonial times were thickened with crushed oyster shells. So my theory that the north partition of the spinning room is quite old was confirmed by this discovery. And I assume the south partition to be of the same vintage as the north, of course, based on their close similarity of appearance and the fact they are part of the same room.

As for the extracted nails, they are 2-1/2 inch, machine-made, square-cut nails. The head of the nail on the left in the photograph above appears to have been hammer-shaped, while that of the other looks like it's machine-cut. So my guess is that the first nail was made in the mid- to late-eighteeth century, while the other might be just a bit newer. It's hard to tell for sure how old they are, but they do seem to represent two slightly different manufacturing techniques.