I end up getting a lot of questions about this: “How did you learn to do home improvement?” And more often than not, my answer starts with. . . “Well, long story. . . .”
First off, I really have never learned how to do home improvement; I am certainly not a tradesman. I mean, I think even for those highly specialized professionals out there, do you really ever fully learn how to do anything? Home improvement, like everything else, is an ongoing process of building knowledge and learning. (Notice the present participle.)
Sure, I had a grandfather that was very handy, I worked with a general contractor for a couple of years, I spent some time with a production builder, and I have actually done remodeling work professionally.
While I have had the opportunity to learn from some skilled individuals, I can really only attribute what I know to two things. Trying and Doing.
When we bought the farm
When my wife and I bought the carpenter-style farmhouse a few years back, did we really know what we were getting into? No. It’s true; we knew virtually nothing of its insides, and, well, we knew even less about its history.
It turns out, this house, in Baltimore’s Lauraville area, was built in 1889. Living locally, we had admired it for several years. We would pass by it on long walks with our dog, Gia. We knew it was abandoned for a few years running then. And as dabblers in both real estate and renovations, we felt for its lack of love. So when it came on the market, we jumped at the chance.
The backstory (cont.)
A couple other things that you should probably know about me and my habits: I am pretty much a traditionalist. What I mean is I usually let the style of the house dictate what I should do in certain situations. I always make an effort to match new work to details that may remain elsewhere. While I am conscious of style, I am also always mindful of materials and finishes, and the cost of all.
As my wife would surely point out, being a traditionalist, however, can be an albatross. At times, especially when working on older homes, it can be difficult to adhere to a certain sense of historical correctness. That is, at least without blowing a boatload of cash.
I love to reuse things; that is, I am a proponent of something I call smart salvage. It really is a relative term though.
What I mean, I always ask myself, What would it take in time and money to purchase this or that material new? What kind of time will it take me to save this or that and will it be worth the effort?
Will I see the character, will my visitors see the character, and, most importantly, will the next perspective buyer see the character?
That said, and as much I try to respect my wife’s wishes (I mean, as much as I try to fight it), I usually end up on the wrong side of the restoration battle, choosing the long way on more things than I’d like.
When we bought the farm (cont.)
I should point out that my wife, Jennifer Ingool, is a real estate agent. So when this place hit the market, and with our renovations nearly complete at our last property, we were able to make a move quickly. We knew this place was special, but how special, we would soon find out.
Now, I am not talking about poltergeist special or anything like that, but as the story of this property started to unfold, we (well, I really should say I) decided that we had to be somewhat true to its history.
It turns out that this house was originally home to a dairy farm that encompassed ten city acres. It is the second oldest house on our street. A large outbuilding was the original home of a cabinetmaker, and later, the original location for a now defunct operation called Saks (sp?) Lumber. It has character, and well, it contains a lot of wood.
As these facts were revealed to us, it explained a lot. The house was built (at least as far as I can tell) in three parts.
I have to tell you though; its heyday was long forgotten. Cast iron and/or brass eagles had replaced decorative finales, door knockers, and I don’t know what else.
You see, I am a big fan of timeless style. And all the eagles certainly helped date the not-so-recent renovations.
A lamb in sheep’s clothing
While I do call myself a traditionalist, I have to admit; at times I struggle with this property. Built in stages beginning in 1889, this house is pretty Victorian.
While my wife and my mother-in-law completely love it, I can’t say that my feelings are the same. I respect it, but it is really not my taste. I guess this may come from being a guy. But my sense of style leans more to the straight and simple lines of the Craftsman movement and at times flirts with all things more modern.
Is home improvement really a little bit like a surfing?
I do things. And that’s what I do.
What I mean, for me, home improvement is 50% know-how and 50% sheer will. I always try to remember a simple sentiment that one of my former bosses used to tell me. Home improvement is not brain surgery, he would say.
One of the most beautiful things about working on your own house is that it’s usually ok to make mistakes, and most things can be undone. While I don’t necessarily go at things blindly, I usually have that thought tucked somewhere in the back of my head. I am always sure to leave myself a little room to wiggle.
That said, I do tend, at times, to leap before I look. I can be lazy with research, unless someone is paying me to do it. I often times just try things. Things I probably wouldn’t try on other folks’ houses. I try to be slick and cut corners if I can, but only if it won’t affect the end product.
This is all especially true now that I have begun thinking about this in terms of a business. I mean, I could blog about installing a simple pre-hung door, for example. But hey, that may not be interesting enough for these pages.
The half bath and a doorway
Early on, and you may have read already about this, I gutted the half bath.
It was in bad shape. It had taken a good bit of water damage. The full bath, you see, is stacked immediately above it, and its tub/shower leaked for years.
So when we had a dumpster on site, I tore it out. I peeled back layers of wall finish to reveal partition framing covered with a black, hairy growth. Not that the smell hadn’t been tipping me off already, I found mold — and lots of it. So I pulled the framing out too.
There it was — a completely gutted half bath. And then, staring at it, the planning began. I noticed almost immediately that the full-sized hinged door was bumping the toilet when it was swung fully open.
I ruled that out almost instantly. The cast iron closet flange (the plumbing apparatus that your toilet sits on) was in good shape – I wasn’t going to mess with that. I was not going to move the toilet. After all, I do like making things somewhat easy on myself, sometimes.
I decided instead to adjust the door framing, and/or I would simply modify the door slightly.
When I finally re-framed the opening, I made a conscious effort to shrink it a little. Later, I would know to choose an elongated compact toilet over a full-size rounded one. But still, those things would not affect my plan.
You see, I was going to take the existing door and cut it in half to make a more elegant mini-French.
And that was my plan, until. . .
We roughed the bath in with new plumbing lines and new electric. I re-routed some of the copper tubes associated with the baseboard heating, installed ventilation, and I added an extra layer of rigid insulation before installing the drywall on the outside wall.
Trim was cut from stock primed pine and I incorporated a wainscot that I had salvaged, with the help of friend, from the un-insulated basement ceiling. This material was old. It had a nominal thickness of 7/8 inch (a little thicker than the ¾ inch stock I was using to make my moldings).
Because of the way I had to finish at the window, it was necessary, in my eyes, to install a cap at the top of the wainscot. And this cap protrudes a good 1 ¼ inches from the wall surface.
While the cap on my paneling wasn’t really an issue within my original plan, it became an issue after I watched the movie, Baby Mama.
Not that Tina Fey or anything else about the movie inspired me. I was in the 23rd hour; the only thing left in the powder room was my door. But I saw it, in her bathroom, in her expertly selected Manhattan apartment, a wall-hung or pocketless door.
And this is how this experiment came into being. For the outcome you can click here. :~)