Sunday, June 14, 2015

That Other Project

There's a reason why so little has gone on at the farm. I'm the oldest of 4 brothers and 3 of us are still living at home in a kind of flat-share arrangement with my parents. In late 1990 we were only two children but living in a rather cramped flat (bedroom, our room, living room) so my parents seized the opportunity when a neighbour passed away and rented his flat one floor below to use as an office. The place was quite a mess, no central heating, bits and bobs of wiring done between 1914 and the early 80s, mostly by people who had NO clue what they were doing and cosmetically a wreck.

There are three rooms (or 2 1/2 as the Germans would say), two facing the street and one to the rear. The large front room (about 4x5 m) had a 1970s vintage tiled gas heater, a HUGE beast that blew as much gas heating a single room as the combi boiler upstairs did for heating a space almost 5 times as large. Occasionally when the thermostat kicked in it didn't ignite properly and sent an 80 cm wide and 40-50 cm tall flame shooting out of the front. Quite spectacular and a miracle it never set anything on fire! The small front room is only about 2x5 m and didn't have any heat at all. The former bedroom has a tiled wood stove from 1932. With the connecting door open the gas fire was just enough to heat both rooms but it was far from ideal. The kitchen had something I loved as a kid, a wall-mounted catalytic gas heater. These things have a rectangular vertical burner made of some kind of ceramic material with holes like a sieve. When the gas is lit the whole burner glows a nice deep red. It had zero safety features, no pilot light, no thermocouple, nothing. Open the gas cock underneath, turn the big knob to "Open" and hold a match to the burner. Scarcely used it gave a unique smell of charred dust every time it was lit. Aaah, memories of the past!

Every room was wallpapered all over, including the ceiling. The living room had some kind of glossy, embossed beige paper, really fancy stuff! The bedroom had huge (think 20 cm) green flowers all over, the hall brown, green and yellow leaves on a grey background and the kitchen... woodchip! All doors and windows except in the kitchen were painted a dull grey and the furniture they'd left us was a weird yellowish green. All rooms had the original oak herringbone parquet but not all of it in good shape. The finish in the living room was dull and brownish the day we got there and the hall wasn't much better. To make matters worse. they hadn't finished the floor where they had a runner, probably to keep the runner from slipping. With the runners gone it looked horrible!

At that time it wasn't sure how long we'd be able to keep the place so my parents only put a minimum of effort into it. They had an electrician replace what he considered the worst of the wiring (if it actually was it must have been seriously shoddy because what's left is horrible enough to me), the bedroom stripped and painted, the living room and small room repapered (woodchip paper) and the hall painted over the wallpaper. The living room became the office, the bedroom was turned into our guest bedroom and the kitchen was dubbed our workshop, the remaining cupboards filled up with tools and materials.

In the late 90s the gas fire failed for the third time in a row and my parents refused to spring for another expensive repair of that useless beast, opting for a combi boiler and radiators instead. The plumbers who'd installed the heating upstairs were called in and spent three days running exposed copper pipes and installing radiators. My mom was less than pleased when she discovered that the coat rack in the hall had become useless because these geniuses had put a 90x90 cm radiator underneath. When she complained she was told "Madam, we have to use a radiator of this size, otherwise the room could remain cold and you could sue us!". Well, aren't there different sizes and shapes of radiators with the same heat output? They could've used a deeper model instead and they could've put it somewhere else. The kitchen was almost as bad but I'll show that later.
They also opened the hall floor in spots to run the pipes, with catastrophic results. Not that the floor looked that great to begin with (note the odd lengths and mixed widths) but the plumbers broke several boards trying to remove them and put everything back even more rattly than it'd been before. One board seems to have lost its tongue and groove and can almost be pulled out now. The original parts of the floor have rather big gaps too and are uneven so sanding isn't really an option any more.

We're all thrifty people so if things might be useful again at some point we don't throw them away. Unfortunately stuff tends to accumulate and ideas whether something might still be usable change over time. Bluntly speaking, the place eventually filled up to the ceiling. The small room became home of my vintage computer collection, my dad's double bass, part of our old toys etc. When my granny moved permanently into the guest bedroom in late 2004 the computers and toys were joined by boxes and boxes of books up to the point where you simply couldn't walk through the door any more. The workshop suffered the same fate over the years, although a path towards the window was kept aceesible since we occasionally needed tools and materials. Besides, the door opens inwards, so we couldn't fill up the room to capacity. When my granny moved upstairs in 2006 the guest bedroom received the remaining toys and lots of other stuff. The hall held our skiing equipment, half a tonne of printer paper in all colours of the rainbow etc. etc.

The big crash came when my youngest brother begged to move down there when he turned 18 last year. That meant clearing out the guest bedroom, the hall and the workshop-to-be-kitchen-again. Completely. We started that mammoth task last autumn and are still far from done. Twelve tip runs with the family van filled up to the roof and I think there's still lots of stuff left that'll have to go. Countless boxes of inherited baby and kid clothing were sorted through, binned or donated to a charity. My mom was showered with bags and boxes of clothes by everyone, some of it 60s or 70s vintage. We wore some of it but nowhere near everything - some of the stuff was too clearly designed for girls even for my mom's liberal tastes and some of it was plain useless but she thought the owners might want it back for future grandchildren. When our youngest outgrew everything she still clung onto it for somewhat superstitious reasons but anyway. Now she changed her mind and we drastically reduced the pile. I couldn't resist keeping some of the extreme retro stuff (think red corduroy overalls for toddlers) but I'd say we got rid of 9/10 of the stuff. The majority went into the bin and everything else was donated.

By now the kitchen is empty and the hall sort of so we're about ready to start some serious renovations. We should also clear out parts of the cellar to have them renovated so we can store paint and other stuff there. Currently that part of the cellar has a dirt floor, unplastered walls with crumbling mortar and uninsulated water pipes that sweat like crazy when it's over 20C outside. There's an old rotted broom cabinet in there (again inherited), piles of flower pots, lawn furniture (taken out of someones hand at the tip before it became city property), roughly 10 bags of mixed wood, mainly leftover parquet flooring, door casings, subfloor boards we removed during the upstairs renovation (now growing all kinds of fungi) and a stack of original window casements that were removed from the twin house next door - our windows facing the courtyard were replaced in the 70s and now sport lovely aluminium hardware instead of brass and I'd love to turn that back to original. Unfortunately the replacements do have a few serious advantages like being more raintight and easier to clean without climbing out onto a 15 cm wide ledge 10-12 m up in the air. Now I'm totally lost what to do with the old windows.

I'm also in the process of reducing the computer collection. Thankfully I found a collector who'll buy most of the Amiga and Commodore collection and the entire Atari collection but I still have to find someone for the Apple stuff. Today I'll try to copy some of the stuff from the hard drive of my broken Amiga 2000 by putting the hard drives and controller card into another A2k. Fingers crossed that'll work, the other 2k has newer Kickstart roms and I generally handle Amigas with velvet gloves because I've never really understood their inner workings. In a 1989 Mac you'd just stick in any SCSI drive with the proper ID, boot from the Utilities floppy, format the HDD, install the OS and it'd boot straight away. Installing a hard drive in an Amiga seems to imply chnaging miles of startup scripts etc. etc. - scary! I suppose that's partly because the Amiga wasn't really designed with hard drives in mind but the mac was.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


 I just realised that I'd actually written this post but never published it! If you read the previous two posts you'll have guessed that some of the points from this posts have already been crossed off the list but I'll add a summary at the end of this post. Now for the original post:

A while ago I was actually told to update my blog, so it seems like I do have at least one reader.

Work on the house sat on the back burner for a long time, but finally there is some progress to report!

In 2012 I tiled the WC. We chose the same pattern as the bathroom, white 8x8 tile with a black 2x8 border below the top course and 2x8 black base trim. It's essentially modern but at least it has a traditional look about it and it was CHEAP. The floor is black and white checkerboard. Unfortunately, only after opening the boxes we dicovered that the black tiles were considerably smaller than the white ones! The store told us that we had to expect 5% size variations, but that was way beyond 5%. In the end we grudgingly went on installing the tiles using creative spacing. With white grout the end result looks a bit like black tiles swimming in a sea of white but black grout tends to get dirty rather quickly so I suspect we'll use white for the bathroom as well.

We also tiled part of the bathrooms walls, so the plumber could install the toilet and all radiators. So we finally have a working toilet! It still lacks some minor details such as a door though...

We then installed the final hallway floor and refinished it. I posted about the experience here:
Saving a Floor

Once the floor was down the plumber could install the boiler and water heater, so we finally had heat! He also installed the bath tub at that time.

In late 2012 work ground to a screeching halt as we first had a new heating system installed in Vienna and then had horrible water damage after a fire two floors above. Replacing the floor and fixing everything else in my bedroom kept me busy well into the summer of 2013.

We then puttered along with the house but didn't have much time to spare. Yesterday I finally managed to finish tiling the bathroom walls. The last fiddly bits around the door, the window and the bath skirt took forever! I spent two days just tiling the bath skirt and those fiddly bits, then got more than a third of the floor done in one evening. Our carpenter had installed some salvaged trim, but apparently his vision is slightly impaired, at any rate he managed to use three(!) non-matching pieces. Besides, he was - despite of having been told otherwise at least three times - convinced that the door was to swing out into the hallway. Long story short, I had to take all the trim back down.

Things left to do:
- finish tiling: Done
- grout: Done
- caulk: about 3/4 done
- strip and install door trim: done
- have door hung or hang it ourselves: mostly done, still needs a strike plate and lock
- paint: walls are done, door isn't
- install window handle
- have plumber install taps and sink: done, everything in working order
- scrub various paint and mortar splatters and dirt off the wooden ceiling: partially done.

Unfortunately the mortar and old paint bleached the wood so even if we get the ceiling clean there are lighter spots. Not sure what we'll do about that.

We did choose black grout and so far it's holding up surprisingly well.


Some thing actually got done in the meantime. We started caulking the bathroom (but ran out of silicone and didn't want to open the second tube before we can finish the job properly, i.e. after the door frame is painted). Also note that the wiring is finally finished! The lower single socket is for the washing machine and the double is for hairdryer, electric toothbrush etc. I'd have liked to have that next to the sink but that'd have been too close to the bath (60 cm minimum distance).

The bathroom door was a major pain in the rear. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before but it nearly made me give up. We somehow miscalculated the opening size and had to cut down the door to make it fit. The door has a rabbet (like all vintage and most new doors around here) so the curcular saw is mostly out. I gave the router with a rabbet bit a try and it sort of worked but didn't get too smooth, no matter what I did. It took like 5 or 6 passes and some work on the casings to make the door sort of fit (the walls were already tiled so I had to plane down the casings and then even cut down the tile slightly). Then the hinges gave me trouble. I'm using traditional pocket mortice hinges and that's a bit tricky. The hinges I had didn't really match the ones already on the door either so first I had to shorten the pins with an angle grinder. Then the hinges ended up being a bit off so hanging the door was quite tricky. Trying to fix the bottom hinge in place I broke two drill bits. Then I realised the hinges were too close to the opening and I had to cut down the door even further. The final straw was the lock. It's a door with glass panels and the stiles on either side of the glass are unusually narrow, requiring a non-standard mortice lock. Unfortunately some moron had kept the lock when he ditched the door. I even had some locks that are the right size but for the wrong door swing... ugh. We'll likely use a modern lock for steel doors which fits but takes a cylinder rather than a skeleton key (and costs three times as much). And that's not even all the trouble we had. That'd include ripping up the wall in order to sister the frame because one of the hinges had ended up in the aerated concrete block wall rather than in the timber.

That's the door I talked about in the last post. I think at the top right corner I used the heatgun for some reason but not sure about that.

While I messed around with stripper my dad and my brother stapled up the vapour barrier on the hall ceiling. Actually I should say nailed because the staples just shot through the plastic and they had to use nails instead.
When the plasterer came he just cut off everything below what he considered the finished ceiling level - in some spots above the goo that's supposed to seal the plastic to the wall. I hope he added some more before he plastered, otherwise we might get a nasty surprise in a few years.

Both the hall and kitchen ceilings are plastered now, that's the biggest news. I'd have preferred a full plaster & lath finish but the plasterer convinced us of letting him use Heraklith board instead of lath, pressed wood shavings mixed with cement. It only takes one coat of plaster so it's much faster to do. I'm a bit worried about cracking seams but they used fibreglass mesh, we'll see how that works out. I think Heraklith was invented in the 20s or 30s and had mostly replaced wood lath by WWII. It comes in thicknesses from 15 mm to 75 mm I think. The thinnest stuff is for ceilings with plenty of support and the thickest blocks can be used for partition walls like huge bricks. The narrow hall was done with 15 mm board and the kitchen with 25 mm.

We have another monstrous project in the works at the house in Vienna but I'll dedicate another post to that. Or rather a series of posts I guess.