Friday, January 30, 2009

Fundamental Laws of Thermodynamics

A true engineer not only understands the thermal properties of snow, but also knows how to exploit them to accomplish useful work...

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Little Book Case

This afternoon, I dropped in at Books by the Falls, on Route 34, in Derby, and picked up this very small book case. Books by the Falls, by the way, is something of a local landmark, a seller of old and rare books, and antique furniture, located in a former nineteenth century factory building. Interestingly enough, the owner was telling me that he sells book cases more than just about anything else. He certainly has a great many of them in his shop. Definitely consider heading down there if you're looking for one!

This book case was just right -- it filled up an empty space along a wall that was just crying out for a small accent piece. The chamfers along the edges of the shelves are very intriguing. Anyone care to guess why they're there? My guess is that this book case was made from wood that previously served some other purpose. I've always been fascinated by the re-purposing of architectural wood, and there certainly is no shortage of examples here at the Hawkins House!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


For me, this really is what it's all about (or at least, should be). Whenever I find myself pontificating too much on window treatments, or gardening, or celestial events, it's usually because I've momentarily drifted too far away from the mechanical arts. And now, a postponed workbench project seems to be calling me back again!

Above left: The maple section for the bench top. I am not particularly worried about the crotch -- let it contribute to the irregular, roughly-hewn outline of the bench top. And I am not too concerned about checks in the wood, either. Above right: Cutting a kerf around one of the posts.

Back in the fall, I removed an old silver maple that was in danger of falling, and saved the largest, clearest sections of the trunk for a future project: A hand-hewn workbench, modeled generally on the Roubo bench, which is an eighteenth century French design. The Roubo is a minimalistic joyner's bench and features a very heavy slab for a top. (An example can be seen here).

So, where on earth does one find, say, a 5" thick hardwood slab, of just about the right width and length? Well, I just happen to have one! Only I need to liberate it from one of the larger maple sections. Although I had started this project back in the fall, more pressing things crept into my schedule, making it necessary for me to put this project off for a while. However, the recent clear winter days have motivated me (despite the severe cold snap) to go back outside and re-start this effort.

Above left: My antique cross-cut saw. Above right: Using it to complete the cut in the post.

Today, I set out to get the maple section properly cradled in preparation for hewing. I cut two 6x6x8 posts of pressure treated pine in half to use as the basis for a good, stable cradle. Having two 6x6x4 "blocks" at each end means that one of them can serve as a stable lifting surface (i.e., using a log jack) while working-in large wedges between the log and top of the neighboring block. My 7-1/4" circular saw wasn't quite big enough, of course, to completely cut the post, so I just cut a kerf around the center of each post, and used a hand saw to finish the cut.

Then, I moved the maple section on top of the blocks using a peavy, and placed a few temporary wedges underneath it. My next step will be to more precisely angle the log, and then completely stabilize it, prior to marking the cutting lines. But this was just the right amount of effort to make for a nice break on a sunny, winter afternoon, and accomplish something both useful and fun.

Above left: The maple section cradled, sans some final angling and additional wedges/shims prior to laying-out the scoring lines. Above right: My Iltis single-bit felling axe is really sweet -- who cares if it's not exactly a traditional pattern? I'll be using it to score the log.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Wintertime Window Treatments

The emerging, de facto standard at the Hawkins House for winter curtains (yes, winter curtains) is the use of heavy linen drawback festoons. Modeled after early (eighteenth century) colonial window coverings that were once made from a variety of materials, including tobacco cloth, these modern day equivalents have a traditional look, while featuring a nicely hidden drawstring on the back of the curtain that allows you to gather the material up on either the left or right side.

Drawback festoon in a linen and black checked pattern

But one of the nicest benefits of these curtains is their draft-blocking ability. Although not insulated, they are very heavy, and they seem to do a pretty good job keeping my drafty old windows from becoming a real nuisance. Even when I eventually get the windows sealed better, they will still offer a big advantage, serving as heavy barriers between the relatively cold panels of glass, and the relatively warmer air circulating through the room.

These early style festoons are made in a very old, family-run, textile mill in South Carolina. But you can buy them through a number of sources, including The Primitive Cellar, Farmhouse Primitives (both of whom also carry tobacco cloth and tea-dyed drawback curtains of several different styles), and Piper Classics.

Linen-on-linen festoons in the hall chamber; when I want to maximize light flow through a southerly facing window, so as to warm a room up, I fold the drawback curtain up over the rod like this (all the more reason for hanging them from rods, although purists might insist on suspending them from thin lines)

When spring returns, these guys will be taken down and put away, to be replaced with a variety of light-weight swags, or in some rooms, traditional fishtail swags. I also need to install some roller shades in the front windows, because the summer time UV assault through these windows in the late afternoon is unforgiving, and is really starting to do a number on some articles in these rooms.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kale Under Ice

My kale bed has been buried under the snow for a good number of weeks now, and I wanted to see how the plants were doing. So I decided to uncover one of the plants. I brushed away a top layer of relatively soft snow, and then had to break through a heavier, icy crust before exposing the plant.

This particular plant seemed to be doing quite well. Its upper most leaves were wilted and damaged, but the lower ones seemed fine. I separated three of the lower leaves from the stalk and found them to be crisp and supple, with only a little frost damage on one of them. I covered it up again, and didn't bother inspecting the other plants.

So I've declared this winter planting and harvesting experiment a success! We've had plenty of snow and consistently sub-freezing temperatures for several weeks now, and the kale still seems to be thriving, with nothing but a layer of mulch below, and a cover of snow above, to protect it. Next season, I'll try planting a larger collection of different varieties of kale plants, and we'll see how that goes. It would also be interesting if these particular plants go to seed in a few more months, when the weather warms up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Era of Responsibility

Congratulations to President Barack Obama today on his Inauguration!

I stayed home today and watched the entire event this morning via streaming video. And in keeping with my tech-oriented pedantries, even tweeted some of the key moments. That probably doesn't sound all that profound, but watching this event while sitting here in a 330+ year old residence can't help but to amplify the significance of this event, in a very concrete way.

When I consider the fact that slavery was introduced to the New World by New England colonists in the early 1600's, was nearly universally practiced here until the 1830's, that my own home was once tended to by domestic slaves (the old town records show at least two associated with the house in 1682), and that even my own forebears in the south possibly participated in slavery, and definitely exploited the convict labor system in Georgia in the early 1900's, it makes me all too well aware of how ensconced I am in this history, while speaking volumes as to the incredible progress we've made since. That an African-American has now ascended to our highest office will certainly mark a positive turning point in our country's history.

And what a remarkable day it was marking this event. Yes, brutally cold, but calm, clear, and blue skies. We had just had two or three days of overcast skies and at least as many snowfalls. But the weather basically turned out fine and gave us a pristine Inauguration Day.

Our own post-Inaugural party, at the home of my friend Alice

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hey Rocky, Watch Me Pull A Squirrel Out Of My Attic...Again?!

This here's a story about Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue, two young squirrels with nothin' better to do -- except unleash their squirrelly wrath on me all last week, that is.

Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue, shortly after their capture.

Yes, these two bushy-tailed reprobates managed to get into my house a little over a week ago, gnawing their way through a small, dry-rotted section of my outside cellar door. I initially became aware of their presence when I first heard Bobbie Sue, the louder, more tempestuous of the two, crawling around and whimpering inside the wet wall that carries the plumbing from the basement to the upper floors.

So I had a squirrel on my hands. But didn't realize I had two until the next day, when I spotted both of them in the attic.

The now blocked entry hole in the cellar door; Billy Joe shortly after his release, apparently making a rude paw gesture at me from his perch up in the tree

Fortunately for me, their access to the house was relatively limited. They had the run of the basement, of course (in which they made a real mess), the innards of the partition wall which they used as a pathway to the attic, the northeast chamber (which is currently empty, and I had kept the door closed all along, anyway, to stop drafts -- good thing for that), and then, of course, the attic. They have a natural instinct to climb to the highest possible elevations, and this must have prompted them to head up there.

Catching them was a royal pain. I swear, they knew what I was up to, and tried to mess with my head. I set a total of three Havahart live traps for them; two in the attic, and one in the basement, just in case either attempted to venture back outside the house via the basement. On one occasion, the bait (peanut butter) was removed from one trap without springing it. On another occasion, a trap was sprung, but with no animal inside. And then, the traps were totally ignored for several days. But eventually, either hunger prevailed, or they just got careless, and I caught both of them in the attic.

Of the two, Billy Joe was the quiet one, staying relatively still, except when I carried his trap, and never uttering a sound. But Bobbie Sue protested her entrapment loudly. I recognized her as being the one who complained from behind the wall a few days earlier, when I was banging it with a flat wrecking bar, trying to drive them away. And she fought the confines of her cage furiously, trying to bust her way out.

Bobbie Sue, escaping her trap and climbing the sappling

Fearing that they knew the house all too well at this point, and might find some other way back in, I decided to take them to nearby Osborndale State Park to release them to the wild. I released Billy Joe first. He immediately made for the nearest tree, and quickly ascended to the upper-most portion of the canopy.

Out on a small limb with no where else to go, Bobbie Sue eventually plummeted to earth, cushioned by the fresh snow (unfortunately, I didn't get a shot of this); she then quickly ascended the same tree taken previously by Billy Joe

But Bobbie Sue's path to freedom was a bit more haphazard, perhaps somewhat in keeping with her tempestuous nature. She darted toward a small sappling right near her trap and quickly climbed it, only to find herself hanging perilously from a very small limb, with no where else to go. She either deliberately let go, or lost her grip, and fell about seven or eight feet down onto the soft snow, totally unscathed, and then ran to the same tree Billy Joe had ascended previously, and began her fast ascent. After a while, she was completely out of sight, lost in the canopy of the tree.

By the way, in case you're wondering, I actually have no idea what sex either squirrel was. My choice of names was simply inspired by that old Steve Miller song, Take the Money and Run, which was playing on my van's radio during the drive over to Osborndale. Before writing this posting, I did some Internet research on Eastern gray squirrels, and found that males and females are generally indistinguishable in terms of relative size and fur coloration.

I also found that gray squirrels mate in January and have a gestation period of about forty-five days. So if either of these two squirrels happened to have been a pregnant female, rest assured that there's sufficient time to find an adequate nest for the new litter. But thank goodness that nest won't be my attic!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Parlor Baseboards

It seems like the parlor is quickly becoming the candidate room for exploratory, surgical deconstruction. A few days ago, I removed most of the baseboards around the perimeter of the room to get an idea of the age and construction of the surrounding plaster walls. As always, there were some discoveries.

Above left: Some of the baseboards. Above right: A small part of the exterior timber post of the southwest end of bent #2 is exposed. Note the milled lath where some plaster broke away from the wall. There also is some wire mesh that had been used to support the plaster.

When I removed the baseboard surrounding the interior post of bent #1, I found two small blocks of wood that had been used to build up the baseboard around the post. Each block had old wall paper attached to one side, with interesting floral designs. I've never seen these papers anywhere else in the house, and can't help but wonder where the blocks originally came from. Probably, they had been cut from earlier baseboards that had been papered-over.

Above left: Interior post of bent #1. Above right: The blocking used to build out the baseboard surrounding the post. The attached floral wall paper was facing the post when the blocks were in place.

I'm not a design expert, but to me, these floral patterns look somewhat Art Nouveau- or Arts and Crafts-ish (or are they even Victorian?). In my eternal quest to figure out the relative ages of things, they suggest to me that this construction (plaster wall + baseboard) is relatively recent. At least, probably no earlier than the early 1900's, or late nineteenth century at most. The plaster itself has a high sand content and contains horse hair, and the lath is uniformly milled and fastened with wire nails. So that would also seem consistent with my estimate.

Just by way of comparison, there is another interesting floral paper decorating a wall inside the entry way closet, under the second floor stair. The paper is badly worn, stained, and broken by splitting plaster, but you can still see what a nice design it had been; it reminds me a bit of old-style theorems:

Above: Old floral wallpaper on one of the foyer closet walls.

Perhaps I should develop a collection of stencils based on these designs. I could refer to them as "The Hawkins Collection," or "Patterns discovered in the Hawkins House, Derby, Connecticut," and use them as the basis for fireboards or canvas floorcloths. :-)