Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Solstice and Eclipsed Full Cold Moon

A full lunar eclipse on a winter's night. From the Bilder-Atlas der Sternenwelt, ca. 1888 [Image source: Wikipedia Commons]

If you haven't heard about it already, this evening (Monday, December 20th) and the wee hours of tomorrow morning will collectively play host to an interesting convergence of three astronomical phenomenon: The winter solstice, the Full Cold Moon of December, and a total lunar eclipse.

The winter solstice (literally, "sun stop") marks that point in time when the sun's apparent southerly traversal along the horizon halts before it reverses direction. This winter, the solstice takes place on Tuesday, December 21st, at 6:38 PM EST -- not actually at the same time as the eclipse, but on the same day, nonetheless.

Tonight (Monday, December 20th), the moon rises just before dusk, at 3:39 PM EST, and the initial (partial, or penumbral) stages of the eclipse begin around 1:32 AM EST on Tuesday morning. The eclipse will then begin to enter its stage of totality around 2:40 AM EST, with complete totality being achieved around 3:17 AM EST. Truly inconvenient for us easterners, but hopefully a little more agreeable timing for those of us closer to the west coast!

Finally, the moon officially becomes full at 3:13 AM EST on Tuesday morning, a mere 4 minutes before complete totality occurs. This particular full moon is known as the Full Cold Moon, a name that goes back to early Native American tribes of the northeast. In fact, each full moon of the year has a traditional name, generally descriptive of the season, and often related to planting or the conditions of the food supply at the time; for example, Full Harvest, Full Snow (or Full Hunger), Full Sturgeon, Full Buck, and Full Hunter, to name a few. An full listing and description of all the full moon names can be found at Farmer's Almanac.

Also, the National Geographic Society has published this excellent article on tonight's eclipse. Apparently, the last time this happened was back in 1638!

So, hopefully, skies will be clear, and temperatures not too inhospitable, for good viewing in your neck of the woods. Get yourself a flask of hot cider and some warm clothes, and get out there and enjoy the view!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trivets and Tulips: Some Oddities Found

Not that long ago, I came across a couple of unexpected artifacts in the house, and thought I'd share some photos here.

The first items are an old iron trivet and carpenters stamp. I found both in the deep recesses of the attic. The trivet has a design I've seen numerous times before on antique trivets, and the stamp is a number "6" or "9", depending on how you hold it. I have no idea how old either is:

The other item is an old tulip cover, sealing the flanged opening, or "tulip", where a stove pipe once led into the chimney. The cover is located in the second floor chimney bay. Again, I am not sure how old it is, nor how long it's actually been there, although it's probably been in its current location for the past 60 or 70 years, when the house's wood stoves were most likely removed. The design on it is particularly intriguing:

I have yet to search under all the attic floorboards, so who knows what other interesting things might still be uncovered? And I also plan to do non-invasive, sonogramic investigations of each of two original, plaster partition walls on the second floor. Given that one of these walls defines what was probably the old borning & sick room, it wouldn't surprise me if it held a pair of concealment shoes for protecting against evil spirits. Now that would be an amazing discovery!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Celestial Dramatis Personæ for the Upcoming Week

Those of you who enjoy observing the heavens should find the upcoming week (starting Monday, September 20th, 2010) particularly interesting, as a number of significant astronomical phenomena will be taking place. Furthermore, these events will be converging on several, traditionally important calendar days.

Jupiter has been especially brilliant during the evening hours all this past year. In my own area, it currently rises around 7PM EDT (just at dusk), and by about 10PM is easily seen as the brightest "star" above the eastern horizon. On September 20th, Jupiter will make its closest approach to earth in its current trajectory -- the closest it's been, in fact, in almost fifty years.

And, together with the planet Uranus, Jupiter will be at opposition to the sun on the 21st. The two planets will then be in conjunction on the 22nd, the autumnal equinox -- the first day of fall, and traditionally the celebration day of the harvest, or "Harvest Home". You can watch both planets parade across the sky together on these evenings, although you will most likely need binoculars or a telescope to view Uranus.

The next evening, September 23rd, will mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth, and feature the Full Harvest Moon in conjunction with Jupiter. Also, Venus, which, as of late, has been quite bright, but very low on the western horizon, just after sunset, will achieve its greatest brilliance that evening.

Finally, on the following week, September 29th will mark the feast of Saint Michael, one of the four "Quarter Days" of the early Christian calendar that was considered to more or less coincide with earlier, Celtic celebrations of the autumnal equinox.


It's interesting to note that Jupiter's close approach to earth in 2010 coincides with the Quadricentennial of Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter in 1610, a concrete, scientific observation he was ultimately forced to disavow on threat of being burned at the stake by church authorities. It's also personally interesting to me that Galileo died in January of 1642, a mere three months before the birth of Joseph Hawkins. Makes me feel that these events of the distant past were perhaps not really all that long ago, after all.

If you'd like to read further about these forthcoming astronomical events or find rise/set times for your area, visit the Old Farmer's Almanac's Astronomy page. You can also follow the almanac on twitter: @almanac. If I manage to get any photos of these events, I'll post them here.

(Galileo's signature)

Friday, September 17, 2010

On Sustainability, Old Home Renovation, Smart Grids, and Kitchen Gardens

Staying On-Grid, Part I: A Hybrid Approach to Sustainability is an article I recently published on Building Moxie: The Do Together Daily that illustrates my philosophy of old home renovation with regard to sustainable energy and conservation. This applies, of course, to the Hawkins house, which is my preeminent project in this area. A companion article, Staying On-Grid, Part II: A Call to Arms to the Citizen Farmer, completes my vision of a greener world by building a case for wide-spread, sustainable food production at the door-yard scale. Check 'em out!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fourteen Miles to New Haven

Today, I finally made good on a promise to my friend Pam at Farmhouse Primitives to publish a photo of an old colonial milepost situated alongside U.S. Route 1 in Stratford, Connecticut.

Back in January, Pam posted an excellent article commemorating Benjamin Franklin's birthday (January 17th, to be precise). With great interest, I read how Francis Lovelace, the second colonial governor of New York, established an early postal trail between New York and Boston, in 1673 (right around the time of construction of the Hawkins house). This trail eventually became known as the Old Boston Post Road, a roadway anyone living in southern Connecticut is generally familiar with.

Pam's article then goes on to describe how, starting in 1753, and at various times up until the Revolution, Benjamin Franklin helped lead the development of a highly efficient and reliable postal system throughout all of the colonies. Franklin was ultimately appointed Post Master General by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and today, our modern U.S. postal system is generally attributed to Franklin's efforts.

Ben Franklin's "14 Miles to NH" milepost on the Old Boston Post Road, in Stratford, CT

I grew up in Stratford, Connecticut, on the other side of my block from U.S. Route 1, which the Old Boston Post Road is now a part of. While growing up, one of the oddities we encountered every day walking to and from school was this small stone monolith inscribed with "14 Miles to NH" (New Haven), shown in the photo above.

Local history has it that this stone, sitting just a few yards from the curb of Route 1, was a milepost established on the postal trail at some point during Franklin's administration of the continental mail system.

Almost completely forgotten by our local, collective memory, it's amazing that this milepost has sat here for so very long, largely unnoticed and, for the most part, unscathed by time, weather, and nearby development. And as a young lad in grade school, never had I dreamed, of course, that one day I'd be inspired to write so much about this very odd, and very old, stone.

(This article is cross-posted in Plantation by the Sea)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Article on Old Square Nails

Recently, I published an article on old square nails, their merits, modern equivalents, and applications, on the Building Moxie blog: Yes, Virginia, They Really Do Still Make Those Old Square Nails. Hope you have a chance to give it a read!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Period-Correct Thermal and UV Protection (Sort of, anyway)

Every window in my home is a vintage window. None is original, as the true originals are all long gone. But nonetheless, my windows are all still very old. My sashes consist of pegged mortise and tenon joinery, with thick muntins arranged in 9/6, 12/8, or 6/6 patterns of lights. Not a single one of my window frames is completely square, nor does any sash tightly fit its frame.

Every one of my twenty-three windows leaks air like a sieve, and is in need of much general repair, including repair of nearly all the sills and exterior casings, complete re-painting (including the safe and legal removal of deteriorating layers of lead paint), and re-glazing of all the panes. Perhaps now, you can fully understand exactly why I love this old home so much!

One of the oldest windows in the house is the small 6/6 in the second floor spinning room.

Of course, not a single window is to be replaced. My preservation ethic requires me to ensure these windows will last another 200+ years. But I am also determined to resolve their various functional and performance deficiencies, as well. There's just no way around that -- I need to have a comfortable, livable, and energy-efficient home. And yet, this must be done in a manner that minimizes impact on historically-significant structures and materials, even if it means more work or greater cost in the end.

Naturally, air leakage, and a general lack of insulating properties, are two significant challenges offered by my old windows. Another is UV protection for the interior of the home. There are several areas of the house -- the south side on the second floor, in particular -- where the solar assault on the interior is pretty intense. A partial solution might be to replace existing panes with new ones of treated glass. That would be fine for broken or cracked panes, but I am unwilling to systematically replace all the ancient bubble-glass. And furthermore, that strategy wouldn't address the insulation issue.

Installation of the left-hand side bracket of an insulating roller shade.

Of course, the simplest and most obvious form of sun/UV protection is a shade or blind. However, I already have primitive window treatments (including things like fish tail swags and tobacco cloth panels) that suit the house, but generally don't mesh well with shades or blinds, and certainly provide no protection. (In the winter time, I tend to replace some of these with heavy, single-draw linen swags, which do a good job insulating, but really aren't pleasing for summer use). So what to do?

Well, I finally concluded that an insulating roller shade -- yes, a roller shade, something I've never been a big fan of -- could actually provide a serviceable solution to the thermal and UV problems, while not detracting too much from the historical window treatments. This could be accomplished as long as the roller shades are mounted high and sufficiently recessed, so as to be obscured by the existing window treatments, while also providing as small a gap as possible between shade and window. Recessing the shade requires an inside mount, if possible, or cutting small mortises into the upper rail casings in situations where an outside mount is a better choice.

So, the particular type of roller shade I selected is comprised of insulated weaver's cloth and is available from Country Curtains in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Insulation is provided by a thin, white foam backing on the side of the fabric facing the window that is claimed to protect against both heat and cold. They're a bit on the pricey side, but I found them to be very well made. I initially sized and ordered just a few shades to start with.

Using a combination square to align the depth of both ends of the roller.

The first window to attempt this history-respecting renovation on was the small 6/6 window of the second floor spinning room, which tends to get a lot of sunlight until about mid-day when the sun is finally over the house. This window is illustrated in the first photo above. The closest fitting roller shade is the smallest one made, and is 22" wide -- too wide to actually fit between the jambs with the mounting hardware installed as intended. But a wider shade mounted on the outside would've interfered with the existing swag and iron curtain rod. So this would take a little creativity to get it to work.

I found I could get the shade to fit inside if I reversed the left-hand bracket before fastening it to the window jamb. The other end of the shade then fit snug against the jamb without a bracket. Once the shade was more-or-less positioned in place, I used a combination square to get the shade parallel to the upper rail, and both ends at the same depth (yes, I am that fussy about this stuff). This is illustrated by the second and third photos, directly above.

The pulley housing on the right-hand side of the shade has a slight taper and lip toward the bottom on each side, so I figured two pan-head screws over each lip, and one at the top of the housing, would adequately support this end of the shade. I used a punch to mark three screw locations around the perimeter of the pulley housing, as shown below:

Marking pilot holes.

Next, I temporarily removed the shade, and used a hand driver to drill three pilot holes. I almost invariably use a driver to manually drill small pilots, rather than an electric drill, which in this case wouldn't have fit here, anyway:

Drilling pilot holes.

Finally, I replaced the shade and drove the three screws supporting the pulley housing, and the shade was secured:

The right-hand side of the roller shade mounted, sans supplied mounting bracket.

The photo below shows the installed shade in its lowered position. A nearly perfect fit:

Well, not exactly a perfect fit. If you look at it straight-on, you can see that the lower, left-hand side of the shade is skewed away from the window jamb, while there likewise is a gap between the jamb and the upper, right-hand side of the shade. This is because of the shape of the window frame simply isn't square and there's not much to be done about that (it is, after all, what it is). Fortunately, the roller tube of the shade can easily be shifted left or right, so at least I was able to get the best possible coverage of the window:

The photo below shows the lowered shade with the fish tail swag back in place. Also, I put the artwork back after installing the shade. It does not, in my opinion, look half bad:

In the next photo below, the shade has been raised, and as you can see, it is nearly completely hidden by the swag:

From the other side, only a bit of the roller shade is visible. I think I could easily hide it if I were to fold the swag a little better. The draw string is unavoidably visible, but so be it:

So I've declared this particular experiment a success, and will continue outfitting the remaining upstairs windows with these roller shades. Not only will they protect against UV and keep the upstairs rooms cooler in the summer, but they should also provide a degree of thermal insulation in the winter. They certainly won't prevent air infiltration, but once that gets resolved, lowering the shades at night will at least help isolate the cold surface of the window from the warm air moving through the room. Note that the more problematic challenges I'm facing, such as repairing the windows and frames, and getting them relatively air tight, will be reported in many more blog posts to come.

Resources and Further Reading

Yagid, Robert, "Should Your Old Wood Windows Be Saved?", Fine Homebuilding Magazine (No. 210), May, 2010, Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.

Poole, John, "Tobacco Cloth Curtains and Other Developments," September, 2009.

Poole, John, "Wintertime Window Treatments," January, 2009.

Window Covering Safety Council

Postscript: Edge Seal On Insulating Shades

There was a good Q&A submission in the December 2010 edition of The Journal of Light Construction regarding the effectiveness of insulating shades and curtains. In response, contributing Editor Paul Fisette emphasized the need to ensure that edges of such shades are sealed when drawn. This prevents warm air from leaking past the shade and hitting the cold glass surface, diminishing the effective R-value of the insulator while also causing condensation on the glass. Such condensation could eventually cause damage, especially for wooden windows, like mine.

The roller shades I'm using don't operate with tracks on the side edges (few do), but I think I could still achieve a good edge seal if I built out stops for the lower sashes that were in continuous contact with the shade when drawn. Doing so might require the stop to gradually taper from bottom to top. Providing a thin film of felt or foam on the stop where it comes in contact with the back of the shade might also help, as well as weighting the bottoms of the shades slightly. Most of my windows don't have stops in the first place, believe or not, and constructing them is part of my plan for general window repair, anyway.

I'm also going to investigate some tracked solutions as well, however, including window quilts, since the roller shade solution mentioned above won't work where my walls lean inward (yes, very old homes sometimes have a few walls like that!). Did I mention there might be some thermography testing involved in this effort, too?

Postscript: Miscellaneous Views of the Spinning Room

While writing this post, I thought I'd share a few pictures of the 2nd floor spinning room. In the distant past, this room was most likely used as a utility room for general indoor tasks, including the spinning of flax into thread (hence, the name). When I first purchased the house, I decided I'd make this room into a quiet refuge for reading and relaxing. The adjoining southeast bed chamber, on the other hand, became my main office, and included all my computers, networking gear, several small book cases, and my favorite large trestle table.

However, I've now reached a point where my ongoing inspection and mapping of the house frame, as well as other restoration tasks, require me to evacuate the southeast chamber. So I recently moved everything into the spinning room. It's a cozy fit, to say the least, but it's only temporary. And it's not quite that bad.

Here's a view from one of the front bedrooms. The trestle table is my main working desk and computer table, with my Linux workstation caddy-cornered between the trestle and small side tables. I actually enjoy the eclecticism of mixing old with some new (is this colonialpunk futurism, perhaps?):

A view from the other direction. The traditional-looking writing table against the opposite wall is actually a traditional-looking piece of modern furniture:

I keep one of my favorite books on my desk, supported by a forged iron book holder. It's a reprint of Joseph Moxon's classic The Art of Joinery, annotated by Christopher Schwarz of Lost Art Press. This book was first published in 1678, just a few years after my house was built:

Various objects on my writing table include an ink well and pounce pot, candle holder and snuffer, @CaffeinatedLiby's hand made compass book mark, my Rubini gold sweep oar paper weight which I picked up at a Head of the Charles Regatta, and a copy of the Hawkins Mechanical Dictionary, published by Nehemiah Hawkins, ca. 1909:

Also, my signed copy of Chris Schwarz's annotated The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, and an antique-looking clock:

One of the samplers hanging on the wall. This one is entitled "Mary Follet, Her Work, Aged 12, 1802." I particularly like this one because the characters and scene look almost like something by William Blake:

Another sampler: "On Virtue." This is a nice piece that looks similar to a primitive home blessing:

Finally, I have a large map chest that I use as a credenza to store papers and working documents. My funky primitive iron lamp with the punched willow tree shade sits on top:


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Entry Porch Rescue, Part II: Shoring Things Up

The Problem

In the previous posting, What Damage Hath Water Wrought, I described how water infiltration gradually rotted the bases of the two columns supporting my front porch roof, effectively detaching the bases from the infrastructure, and how heavy snow-loading this past winter apparently forced both columns to spread slightly. This posting provides an account of the steps I took to temporarily stabilize the undermined columns. I went to work on this immediately after discovering that the column bases had shifted, and most of what's described here was accomplished in the better part of an afternoon.

Right now, I am planning a complete overhaul and rebuilding of much of my front porch infrastructure, which has certainly seen better days. About thirty five years worth of wear, insects, sun, snow, and rain have all taken their toll, and it's time to get this porch back into sound shape. However, I couldn't drop everything and immediately get started on this larger effort. So instead, I did the best I could to immediately ensure the near-term safety of the porch.

There were two objectives that needed to be accomplished right away:

1) Get the columns back to their original positions, and prevent any further movement.

2) Ensure the columns themselves could still safely support the roof.

But a constraint I wanted to adhere to was to achieve all this in situ; that is, I had no desire, say, to jack the roof up and begin splicing new column bottoms. That sort of effort could wait until the larger repair effort. I just wanted to shore everything up for the time being without removing or replacing any of the existing structure.

With all that in mind, I set about doing the following....

The Rescue

The first order of business was to prop the decking up in the vicinity of each column and construct something of a stopping block to ensure that each column base couldn't possibly get knocked forward or laterally to the side. So I wedged two PT 2x6s between the edge/ends of the decking and the slab:

You can see from the photo below that this had the effect of making the decking reasonably level again, and well supported in the vicinity of the column. I secured the 2x6s by sinking long exterior grade screws through each 2x6, right through the fascia, and into the PT 6x6 corner post beneath the porch, which appeared to be in sound condition despite all the damage above it. I joined the two edges together with screws, as well:

Next, I built up a second "half box" on top of the first, likewise securing both its joint and connection to the lower half-box with screws. Then, I nailed several angles over the joint, just for added strength:

Of course, I built an identical stopping block wrapping the column base on the other (south) side of the porch, as well:

I temporarily wedged some 1x scraps between the stopping blocks and the front and outer side of each column. Now, there was no chance of either column base getting accidentally knocked outward and off the decking. So once this was all in place, I gently pushed (actually, tapped) the column bases back to their original positions. This went reasonably well, considering the uneven decking around the columns and the deteriorating column siding and post bottoms:

Once each column was more or less where it was supposed to be, I fashioned a shear plate by cutting a notch in a length of PT 2x12 to fit around the column on three sides. The purpose of this plate was threefold: To prevent movement of the column in three directions (the front was handled by the scrap block inserted between the column and the upper stopping block), to effectively tie the separating decking boards back together via insertion of screws, and to provide a stable base for a vertical "T" to ensure support of the column:

Once the plate was in place, I sunk several courses of screws into it, making sure that the plate was joined to both the rim joist and the nearest decking joist, just to make sure the plate wouldn't move. Other screws simply served to hold the decking boards in place.

Next, I set about constructing a T as a sister to the column. For this, I joined together a 2x10 and a 2x6 to form the T, cutting notches in the tops of both to accommodate the knee braces of the columns. The top of the T would butt against the overhead bearing beam, with the bottom resting on the plate. One of the notched 2x10s is shown below:

The bottom of the T would be toe-nailed to the plate with screws. Two sides of the T would also be fastened to the column via screws sunk into the inside post. While cutting the lumber for the T, I had been debating whether the T ought to be independent of the column, or joined directly to it. Keeping it independent would've required a positive connection between the top of the T and the bearing beam above, and I didn't want to start sinking fasteners into that beam.

So I decided instead to attach the T to the column along its length. Doing so hopefully would make both T and column a cohesive, unified whole, stronger than the column had been by itself. This was based on my assumption, of course, that the inner post above the column base was sound. Drilling a number of probe holes confirmed that it most likely was. I was also making an implicit assumption that the connection between column and overhead beam was also sound, but I could find no evidence to the contrary. The photo below shows the T as viewed from above, looking down toward the supporting plate:

And below is another view of the dreaded "Flying Dutchman" after the assembly and joining of the T. Note the scrap block wedged between the stopping block and forward face of the column:

Although I didn't believe it totally necessary, I attached another T to the column at the south end of the porch. This column appeared to have far less damage than the north one, but it also had moved farther away from its original position. I felt it prudent, in any event, to likewise sister this column with a T:

A nice view of how the T on the south column butts up against the bearing beam while not interfering with the knee braces:

....And a view of the base of the T on the south side, where I joined it to the supporting plate (I took this photo before I re-attached the railing):

In the interest of having a strong, cohesive column structure, I also added some angles to make sure the outer trim and inner post were all one, but in retrospect this was really unnecessary. All in all, the solution appears to be sound. It's not nice to look at, for certain. But it's not too obtrusive either. And it's only temporary until I rebuild the infrastructure properly:

Epilogue: The 100 Year Porch Project

As mentioned previously in this posting, I am planning a comprehensive overhaul of my front porch this summer. Naturally, I would like to retain as much of the original structure as possible. However, as a relatively recent addition, the front porch is not that historically significant, compared to other parts of the house. Furthermore, it's an exterior structure exposed to the elements, necessitating periodic repair and replacement of componets. So as a preservationist, I have no difficulty in replacing as much of the porch as necessary to ensure both its safety and utility to me as a home owner.

I have absolutely no intention, however, of eliminating the front porch altogether and replacing it with a more historically accurate pediment, as some had suggested I ought to do. The front porch adds tremendous comfort to anyone using the front entry way in bad weather. And despite its small size, it provides a rather nice place to hang out on sunny afternoons.

What I do have every intention of doing, however, is engineering the new porch infrastructure to last as long as possible with regular annual maintenance. This will include the use of highly rot resistant natural materials and incorporation of modern design techniques for water-resistant structures. My preferences tend toward things that not only are well made, but also possess maximum utility and last a very long time. My front porch is no exception to this ethic. So I refer to this rebuild effort of mine as the "100 Year Porch Project," and will present the overall design and construction strategy for the replacement infrastructure in several upcoming postings.

'Til then.....


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Entry Porch Rescue, Part I: What Damage Hath Water Wrought

My house has a rather unusual front entry porch. Unusual, perhaps, in the sense that it has one in the first place. Most homes of its era have relatively simple entry ways, almost invariably defined by a pediment and a pair (or two) of pilasters, and an occasional transom. Some very nice examples can be seen here. A very old photo of my home, in fact, seems to reveal just such a pedimented front entry, although the image admittedly is dark and difficult to make out.

A view of the Hawkins house front entry porch.

So, my front porch is clearly a relatively new addition. My guess is that it was built either in the 1940s or 1950s, probably following the laying of the new foundation. It is of relatively simple construction, with subtle Victorian and transitional nuances. The previous owner, whose family owned my home for many generations, told me that the last major overhaul and repair of the porch infrastructure took place in the 1970s.

Architectural features include a boxed bearing beam, scalloped knee braces, and a tongue-and-groove ceiling.

The decking consists of 5/4 x 3 tongue-and-groove boards, probably Douglas fir. They are unfinished and very weathered, but generally in good condition, except for the exposed ends. The railing consists of simple linear balustrades.

The single biggest issuing facing my front porch is water damage. Except for its sloping deck, the relatively simple form of my porch exhibits very few elements of water-resistant design. It's obvious that the porch roof never even had a gutter system attached to it. Not even a drip edge under the shingles.

There's quite a bit of warping and splitting in the end grain of the decking boards. You can even see one large chunk lost to rot. Fortunately, the slab and steps appear to be sound. But there's no handrail! (A flagrant code violation in my locale).

Needless to say, it's a very wet porch in the rain and winter. The effects are obvious in the cupped, splitting ends of the decking boards, and in the deteriorating newel post bottoms. It was clear to me when I first bought the house that quite bit of the porch infrastructure and trim would need to be tended to at some point, and I had resolved to let the porch weather one last winter before I would finally deal with it this summer (2010).

A deteriorating and loose newel post bottom, and separating bottom rail. I temporarily braced the posts, and reattached the rails, with galvanized angles.

However, in the early spring, while taking a close look at the porch one morning, I noticed that the decking near each edge was separating, with the outermost boards being pushed slightly downward and over the edge. I also noticed a bottom rail detaching from one of the newel posts. It looked as if the columns had become detached at their bases and were spreading laterally across the deck, pushing the tongue-and-groove boards slightly apart. A simple test with a level confirmed that the columns were indeed out of plumb, with each base extending slightly outward.

I suspected that the column bases, or perhaps the decking just under the columns, had finally rotted to the point where fasteners were pulling out. A closer inspection revealed both conditions, to varying degrees. But what surprised me was the fact that none of this was obvious back in the fall. So I further surmised that snow loading this past winter (we had several heavy snow falls) must have forced the columns to move.

The column on the north side of the porch had the most rot. A large area of peeling paint revealed something of a Dutchman in the trim at the bottom of the column (yet even more suspiciousness, of course, as it suggests there had been problems here in the past).

The mysterious Dutchman (albeit, not a Flying Dutchman) that appeared in the spring. You can also plainly see the effect on the decking boards of the column movement.

Removing the Dutchman revealed a scary amount of wet, mushy, rotted wood. In fact, one could even well conclude that the bottom of the interior 4x4 post was mostly gone and that only the exterior 1x trim was supporting the column. (And the bottom part of the trim wasn't in much better shape). Probing with a drill revealed that the interior post was still solid about 8" above the deck.

Behind the Dutchman was a scary mass of rot. You can even see a corroded fastener near the bottom, right-hand side of (what had been) the interior post.

Needless to say, I quickly replaced the Dutchman, as I couldn't bear looking at it anymore. Some of the 1x trim, which was also soft in this area, broke away when I had initially pulled the Dutchman out.

The column on the south end of the porch was in much better shape. Probing revealed that the interior post was solid and dry nearly all the way to the bottom. However, the decking itself right under the column was rotted. In fact, the end of the board under the center of the column had broken free where it rotted, and I was able to easily extract it with my hand. The south column also appears to have traveled farther from its original position than the north column.

The column on the south end of the porch and the compromised tongue-and-groove just under it. Note the exterior trim splitting under the weight.

I subsequently crawled under the porch, and found all the structural members (ledger, joists, posts, etc.) in reasonably good shape. Apparently, the water assault had been borne by everything up above, and no significant damage had yet worked its way down. And I still need to get up to the roof and inspect the sheathing and bearing beam. But at least I've isolated all the lower infrastructure damage for now...

And The Moral Of This Story Is....

Porches and decks serve different functions and have their own sets of problems. But both are susceptible to damage caused by water infiltration. You should inspect your porch or deck to ensure that rain water adequately drains away from structural features, and that ventilating air can likewise flow freely to dry things out. You should also inspect your porch or deck each season for water or insect damage, and speedily correct any problems. And even better yet...hire a licensed professional to do all of this for you.

In all fairness, most of the major problems currently facing my house preceded me here. However, some are more serious than others, and in this particular case, I had been somewhat ambivalent about the relative urgency, believing that relegating corrective action to a scheduled event would somehow make everything okay. However, nature often has plans much different from our own, and I was just lucky to catch this one before things got worse.

In a follow-on posting, I'll show you the steps I immediately took to temporarily shore the porch up and ensure its safety before undertaking proper repair of the porch infrastructure.

Resources and Further Reading

Ermides, Chris. "The Rot Proof Porch", Fine Homebuilding Magazine (No. 212), July, 2010. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.

Guertin, Mike. "Is Your Deck Safe? 8 Critical Areas to Inspect Every Season", The Best of Fine Homebuilding: Decks & Outdoor Projects. Summer, 2010. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.

Lintow, Sean. "May is National Deck Safety Month". The Homeowner's Resource Center, SLS Construction. April 25, 2010.

The JLC Guide to Decks and Porches: Best Practice for Outdoor Spaces. The Journal of Light Construction. Hanley Wood, LLC. 2010, Williston, VT:

-- Katwijk, Kim & Linda. "Rot-Resistant Details". pp. 125-129.

-- Leeke, John. "Replacing Rotted Wood Columns". pp. 348-350.

-- Nicolazzi, Peter & Maureen. "Porch Repair From The Bottom Up". pp. 343-347.

-- Smith, Scott. "Site-Built Under-Deck Drainage". pp. 148-154.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Old Memes Never Die

Recently, during some of my readings about life in the American colonies, I stumbled across the long forgotten origins of certain phrases we tend to take for granted in modern times. Four Five in particular struck me as interesting, so I thought I'd share them with you here.

"To and fro" -- Possibly handed down from the practice of using a tool called a froe to fashion roof shingles, siding shakes, or flat stock for cutting pegs, from cross-sections of trees called billets. A froe was a long, flat blade with an eye forged at one end, into which a handle was inserted. A mallet drove the blade into the billet and the woodsman's back and forth ("to and fro") rocking of the handle eventually freed a flat section of wood from the round billet. [Source: C. Keith Wilbur, "Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America", Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT]

Illustration of a froe from Eric Sloan's "Museum of Early American Tools"

"One Fell Swoop" -- Most likely originated from the practice of clearing fields for planting by felling trees using a method called girdling. Instead of cutting trees down individually, the woodsmen would save time by cutting bands around each of a large number of trees, removing just enough wood to weaken them. The girdled trees formed a pattern called a swoop. A single tree at one end of the swoop was then felled, and if all went right, the remaining trees would topple like dominoes. [Source: This was my own conclusion, after reading the article "The Chopping Bee" in the April 2010 edition of Early American Life magazine]

Felling axe and silver maple

"Square Peg in a Round Hole" -- Or more precisely, "A square peg in a round hole makes for a poor fit". We often use this expression to refer to an ill-conceived idea or an improbable undertaking. However, it originates from timber frame construction and the use of large wooden pegs (trunnels, or tree nails) to tighten a joint between two large framing timbers via a process known as drawboring.

Pegs were generally cut from square stock that was in turn cut from billets using a froe (as previously described). The pegs were then rounded by using a drawknife to cut some number of sides to the peg. For instance, most pegs were made not completely round, but usually octagonal. Finally, a hatchet was used to put a taper on one end of the peg.

Were the peg left square, its edges would tend to cut into the opposing surfaces of the interiors of the drawboring holes, and not completely align the holes together. This would result in a joint that was less than optimally tight. [Source: C. Keith Wilbur, "Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America", Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT]

My home seems to have an abundance of trunnels of varying degrees of roundness and squareness....

[Added on August 25, 2010]
"Dead as a Doornail" -- Old colonial batten doors were usually assembled by driving nails through the battens and boards and then clinching (or clenching) the nails on the other side of the boards. Clinching refers to bending the exposed portion of the nail shank over and then into the side of the board by striking it with a hammer. This was done to achieve the tightest possible fit, ensuring that the door would never loosen up. Soft, malleable iron nails, sometimes called clinch nails, were used for this purpose.

Old clinch-nailed batten door in the Hawkins house. You can see the clinched nails just below the top of the door, covered by layers of paint.

Recently, I learned from an article published by The Old House Web [Mark Clement, "Dead as a Doornail"] that the term "dead as a doornail" originated from the old practice of recovering nails and other precious hardware from the remains of burned-down buildings. Most nails sifted from the ashes could be re-used, but the door nails were not reusable, having been clinched. Hence, they were "dead" nails.

You can read further about the history and interesting properties of old iron square nails in my article "Yes, Virginia, They Really Do Still Make Those Old Square Nails", in the Building Moxie daily blog.

For an excellent illustration of the process of clinching (and the associated difficulties), see "Clinching Nails (Sometimes Teeth)" by Lost Art Press.

[Added on October 4, 2011]
"Basement" -- The massive bottom section of an old chimney column, which was situated, of course, in the cellar, was known as a "basement" in its day. Over time, "basement" became a synonym for cellar.
[Source: This was a bit of trivia related to us by Jim DeStefano, during his excellent presentation at the Timber Framers Guild's Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group (TTRAG) Spring Symposium, in early April of 2011.

When the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first hypothesized the concept of a meme as the unit of cultural propagation and descent (gene being its biological counterpart), he posited that some memes had better long-term survivability than others.

It's interesting how, in the particular case of the examples cited above, some memes survive by acquiring increasingly abstract, yet still accurate, meanings over the course of time and cultural evolution. By largely casting off their original, concrete meanings, these memes have establish a fecundity that ensures their continued use, not only in the present, but possibly even well into the cultural future.

So perhaps the moral of this posting ought to be "Old memes never die, they just abstract away..." :-P