Monday, March 31, 2008

"I'd Like to Thank All the Little People Who--"

Frequent commenter Sandy has graciously given this blog of mine an E for Excellent award.

These honors come with obligations, of course: In this case to pick my ten favorite blogs and give the award also to them.

Not all are housebloggers, so I played over here.

"I owe it all to my dad, who first taught me how to use a ShopSmith when I was five years old! And to my mom, who gave me the keen set of pine building blocks! And to my brother, who didn't scream too loudly when I beat him out of his Erector Set! And to the mean kids in class, who always got to the Legos and the Lincoln Logs first, so I had to go home and work with real tools and wood and stuff! And to--!"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Little Giant Arriveth

My Little Giant 22 foot convertible extension ladder arrived today, encased in a big white box that the FedEx man left on my front sidewalk just before I had to run out to a meeting. Conveniently, the box comes with handholds, and I quickly stashed it inside my backyard gate till I could return.

Home again and clothes changed, I carried the box onto the back porch and opened it up. Hurray, the Little Giant ladder comes assembled! No loose pieces and parts to mess with!

Actually, a little looseness would have been welcome. The work platform was wedged in so tightly between the two sides of the ladder that I couldn't get it out or get the ladder open.

Yes, I could have worked out how to do it myself. But I decided it'd be a good chance to see how helpful the Little Giant customer service people are.

Very helpful. Told the young woman, "I can't get my ladder open." Says she cheerfully, "Oh, that's probably the work platform. They wedge it in tight so it won't rattle around in transit. Sometimes it's too tight. Just try pulling up on the bar on the top of it, and it should come loose!"

I worked at it, and whoop! the platform was free and the hinge could operate. I asked the Customer Service rep when I should expect my accessories (on Thursday, she said), thanked her very much, and began to play with my new toy. I mean, tool.

I didn’t try the ladder in more than the A-frame configuration today, since the porch is open and the weather was chilly, with a brisk wind. I had no trouble putting it up to its full height and any position in between. It was fun going up to the very top and looking out over my ceiling fan. I'm queen of the mountain!

Or maybe not. Now I can see all the cobwebs and dirt I have to get off my porch ceiling before I can stain it white the way I've always wanted.

I had another meeting out of town this afternoon and couldn't do any actual work with the new ladder today. But I easily compacted it down and carried it down the basement for storage. I can see how you might hurt yourself if you let the inner ladder slide down out of control when you’re collapsing it (re: the Consumer Reports worries), so you don’t. Let it get out of control, that is. The directions say keep your hands on the outer frames when collapsing it, anyway. In fact, they say it repeatedly. And they say it again.

I’ll play with the extension function out in the back yard when the rest of the accessories arrive. Or when the weather gets warmer. Whichever.

The ladder is shiny aluminum with orange plastic fittings now. Too clean. I'm looking forward to baptising it in paint, stain, and wallpaper paste.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Piano Tuna!

The piano is tuned! It sounds like music!

And Doug the Piano Tuner was able to find me some spare hammers to replace the two missing ones! And he put a third string on the top note, where it was missing!

He tells me it tuned up just fine. He played a jazz piece to test it out, and I have the vid to prove it!

The next effort will be for me to tune myself. I have to prevent all this success from making me regret the clack in the keys.

Hellsbells, Kate, Lester is 97 years old! You can’t really hear the clack unless you’re right on top of it. You've got nothing to complain about. So stop it! stop it! stop it!!

. . . This is my damned perfectionist streak creeping out. No, I'm not consistently perfectionistic. If things are generally awry, I let them go and don’t worry. In fact, I put up with and ignore all sorts of mess and chaos-- witness the scabby state of my woodwork the past four years. But if things are aaallllmost right, I want them to be right altogether, blast it.

Tough tuna. With a 1911-vintage upright piano, It. Ain’t. Happening.
(If anyone is interested, the tuner's two visits, including time, parts, and labor, ran me under $100. It's money well spent.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Home Show, Part II: I Buy a Ladder

(When we last saw our heroine, she was trekking footsore, hungry, but determined through the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show . . . )

Finally, late in the evening, I made up my mind: I bought a 22' Little Giant convertible/extension ladder.

I'd been researching those puppies online practically since last year's Home Show. I found the booth on the lower level shortly after arrival at the convention center early in the afternoon. Hoisted both 22' models: Yeah, I can carry them both, but why mess with the heavier one when I don't need it? Rep informed me of the special Home Show offer--and yes, it compared favorably to what I'd seen at Sear's and online.

But I wanted to take a few hours to consider. Did I need this ladder enough to make a deeper dent in my credit? So I looked at everything else on display downstairs and up and let the idea percolate in my mind.

Just before I'd exhausted the exhibits on the upper level, I watched the demonstration put on by the rep for Jaws, the rival outfit. Interesting.

Or maybe not. The Jaws price was higher and didn't include all the accessories. So I went back down to the lower level and had the Little Giant rep do his demo, now that I knew what questions to ask. As he was at it, a homeowner came by and kept telling me how much he likes his 22' Little Giant and what a great product it is. "Couldn't do without it."

That was reassuring, though I'd pretty well decided to buy it at that point. And I did, with the accessories--step platforms, arms, leg extension, and wheels--thrown in. It'll be delivered in a week or two. It's all very well to say I can't afford it, but there's a lot of work I have to do on this house ASAP that I can't manage with my wobbly twenty-four-year-old wooden 6' stepladder. I figure my life and limbs are worth what I paid.

And pace Consumer Reports, my fingers are worth some common sense and care in setting the new ladder up when it comes.

Yes, I'm the sort of prat who likes to see if she got a good deal. So yes, I was online today checking other Little Giant suppliers, to check out their latest prices. And the deal I got was better than any of them could do, even considering the exorbitant Allegheny County sales tax.

But my search also led me to a Consumer Reports article that said these Little Giant convertible ladders (and indeed, all the 22' convertible ladders they mentioned) are unsafe and not recommended. Not because they don't take the weight or don't work, but because the extension technique isn't idiot-proof.

OK, fine. I can see how you can pinch your fingers if you get them between the rungs of the inner and outer sections as you extend or collapse the ladder. I'll make a note to keep them out of the way. And to wear leather gloves just in case.

And I'll make sure to use the proper handling technique. I know I can carry the thing when it's collapsed. Should be able to manage it when it's extended.

I understand the concern, but the shorter ladders Consumer Reports approves of will not fit the bill. I'll do a followup post on how well I can put the Little Giant 22 Type 1 through its paces after it arrives.

Home Show, Part I: A Lotta Stuff!

Yesterday I spent six or more hours wandering around the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show.

Funny how that worked. I'd intended to check the guide and visit only the vendors' booths I was really interested in, then get myself out of there. Ha! Wandered up and down every aisle on both floors, then came round and did it again, just in case I'd missed something.

This home show is really great if you want vinyl fencing, cast concrete patio wall and paver systems, hot tubs, and any kind of replacement window. Me, not so much. Did take some window literature, but I still favor using the local custom wood window people, who did not have a rep there.

What I was looking for especially was local lumber and millwork suppliers, in case I decide to replace any of my interior trim. I established diplomatic relations with three of these. But before I go visit their yards, I believe I'll first check out Construction Junction, the Pittsburgh area building materials reuse and recycling place. There's enough foursquare houses being remodelled around the region--maybe some of the original disused yellow pine trim ends up there.

I also talked to a few patio room suppliers, to see if they could make me some demountable storm/screen infills for my too-breezy, snow-permeable, closed-in back deck. Maybe, maybe not. I picked up that it's an idea I'll have to wait to develop until I have the means and intention to do it right away. These dealers typically weren't interested in making site visits and giving me estimates on a job I might get to in 2009.

Understandable. But by then, I may figure out a way to build them myself!

I renewed my CostCo membership, sampled a lot of dip mixes, bought some dried mango slices to munch on, purchased a cute and inexpensive garden hose holder called "Gecko Toes," resisted snapping up a really beautiful but unnecessary queen-sized handmade bed quilt at $150, and determined that no one, but no one was exhibiting the kind of art ceramic floor tile I've decided is exactly what I need for my first floor stair hall. Too bad.

Even though I wore out a lot more shoe leather than I'd intended, wandering around all the exhibits and around again, I have an excuse-- I had to go back: I'd resolved not to buy anything the first time through.

And six hours and not much to eat later, how am I supposed to remember where the products I was interested in were?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


The piano tuner has come and gone, and guess what! He was able to bring my 1911 Lester piano up a whole tone to match concert pitch!

Or maybe not, not quite, not yet. He said, "I tuned it, but it won't sound like it's in tune. I still have to fine tune it. We'll let it settle, then I'll come back and do that."

He tried to explain to me how a piano can be in tune, yet sound like it's out. But I haven't a good enough grip of the science of harmonics to understand how that works. But I can hear it when I play it. A little jangly, ya know?

He'll return on Easter Monday, and do the fine tuning. Meanwhile, if I turn off my aural "Ouch" reflex, I can actually use my piano to learn choir music, without having to transpose a tone up!

Good news, good news! . . . On the other hand, the rattle I get when I strike the keys with any force-- I'm stuck with that. It's because Lester is old. He harmonizes well with my creaky elbows and knees!

A Melluva Hess

Yesterday I pried seven more pieces of wood trim off the walls, but had time to get only one of them stripped.

It was a piece of door casing from my first floor stairhall, a piece I'd actually started to work on four years ago. The lip of the seat of my hallway bench overlaps this by a good inch and a half, so I couldn't just pry it forward off the wall. I'd gone after it in place with regular paste paint remover, and then I'd tried the Howard's refinishing liquid. With limited luck in both cases, since I was trying to keep the remover off the bench, which didn't need stripped.

So this casing piece has been gapping crazily off the wall since February of 2004.

Yesterday evening I worked out that if I could get behind it and cut the lowest nail, I could pull the trim piece out sideways, perpendicular from the bench.

Success! Though admittedly, it did pull a couple splinters off the lip of the bench seat. I'll have to glue them back on.

Started actually stripping a little before 10:00 last night, figuring I'd get that one piece done pretty quickly and maybe two or three others beside, before time to pack it in and go to bed.

Ha! That trim piece was and is a mess! There was ingrained dirt that consumed an hour of scrubbing, several ounces of refinisher, a lot of steel wool, and a new pair of rubber gloves-- and still refused to come out. Pieces of wood the size of a man's thumbnail missing all along the bottom where the piece sits on its plinth. More chips and splinters missing up top where it meets the lintel. Half to three-quarter inch long spackle-filled ditches where some bright soul (not I!) once pulled the nails out frontways. And on the narrow edge towards the doorway, at about bench level, a handsome row of hammer head dents, apparently from someone's having forced the casing back into place between the wall and the end of the bench.

I had to think hard about it. Did I perpetrate that? No way! Even if I'd knocked the casing back in when I couldn't get it off the time I tried before, I certainly would have used my rubber-headed mallet, not a claw hammer.

I went ahead and stripped it, but I may, just may substitute a different piece when I put things back together. Because yesterday I also discovered that the casing on the portal between my living room and my front room is 3/4" narrower than that between the living room and dining room. It looks spindly and weak and leaves too wide a reveal at the jamb. It's not original-- it appears to be what was put up when the porch was closed in and the old front window made into a six foot wide doorway. I'm going to see if I can find some wider casing for that doorway-- which means I can move a piece from there into the hall.

Might be a better plan than filling all those chips and holes and hoping the new dark finish covers it all . . .

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Well, let's see: Four more pieces of wood trim stripped today. That's thirty-four in all, out of 330 to be done. A bit over 10% of the job completed.

Of course, that doesn't include gluing down the big splinters, or filling dents and old nail holes, or sanding down the exposed ends where the grain has raised over the years and won't let the paint go.

But it's a decent amount of progress, especially considering the three or so weeks that I did nothing while waiting for the electrical upgrade so I could use the heat gun.

So I should keep buzzing along, right?

Yes, but . . . one of these days I have to tackle the baseboards in the dining room. And my reluctance seems to have nothing to do with the fact that some of them are really long. Or that removing them for stripping will mean moving furniture and disconnecting outlets.

It's more the prospect of having a room in my house with all the trim gone. Creeping upon me is the atavistic fear that the trim is the only thing holding my house together. And that if I take it all down in any one room, the house will collapse with it.

Don't laugh. Tonight I pried off the lintel and cornice on the living room side of the cased opening to the dining room, and great chunks of plaster crashed down in clouds of dust onto the fake Pergo floor. I have no idea what's holding up the intrados section; above it you can see straight through into the dining room. Maybe the jamb pieces on either side. It's very inexplicable and mysterious.

This is how it looked in January from the dining room side. No pictures of the damage tonight-- my digital camera's off being repaired (I hope) and I'm not on a plan with my cell phone that allows me to get the photos off of it. But it's even nastier looking now. You would not believe the amount of white caulk, spackle, and paper towels some previous owner used to put all everything together.

And here I am taking things apart, and what if it all comes down in a hail of plaster, lath, and bricks?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Tale of Vise

Now that my workshop electrical outlets are installed, the refinisher shipment has arrived, and the piano is delivered, I can get back to stripping the window trim on the first floor.

Yesterday I removed the varnish from the last two long pieces from the dining room windows. And last night I pried off all the trim (barring the stool) from the first of the dining room piano windows. I had visions of getting all those pieces stripped today, before I had to dress and go sing in a choir concert this evening.

Didn't work out like that.

In the first place, I had to spend an hour or so this morning packaging up my digital camera I dropped on the floor yesterday, and taking it to the post office to send to the FujiFilm factory service center in Joisey. Maybe it can be fixed and I won't have to buy a new camera.

Or maybe not. Got it posted, anyway.

Something after 11:00 AM I got down the basement and started stripping the paint from the window trim I took down last night.

Uh, no. Ever try holding a two-foot piece of wood, aiming a heat gun at it, and stripping off the old paint, all at once? Definitely a three-handed job.

Which means a vise to supply the third hand. In my case, the clamp-on vise my dad gave me years ago, with the 1/4" plywood on each face to keep from marring the workpiece.

But I couldn't use my heirloom vise with my present set up. My workbench has no lip to clamp it to and my collapsible steel sawhorses had no wood beams on them. I'd been intending to put some on ever since I bought them nine or ten years ago, but somehow I never . . .

Until today. There comes a time when the time has come. When a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. When the annoyance of not doing an annoying job is more annoying than doing it.

I had to get those beams on my sawhorses if I wanted to make any progress with the woodwork stripping.

And I was well-fixed to take care of it. Some previous owner had left me a couple of likely-looking 2x4s to choose between, and I have a whole hardware cabinet of miscellaneous fasteners.

But I couldn't take care of it, not right away. The brick foundation wall of my workshop is the happy home to a few dozen colonies of sidewalk ants. Harmless, the exterminator tells me, but they attract spiders which festoon the wall with their webs, which catch all the frass that the ants dump out of their nests. The 2x4s were covered with it, and so was a lot of everything else.


So before my work on the sawhorses could proceed, I had to take the shop vac and clear out all the spiderwebs and their loads of eggs and ant poop.

Not what I was planning to do today.

But I did it. And got the chosen 2x4 cut to the right lengths, five inches longer than the sawhorse tops.

And considered how I'd attach them to the steel sawhorses.

Now, you'll laugh at this. This is the biggest reason why I hadn't put the wood beams on the sawhorses years ago. I had the silly, over-wrought idea that I had to attach them with bolts and nuts, with the bolt heads countersunk into the top surface of the wood.

And I don't have any countersinking drill bits.

Well, I thought, I can improvise.

So I turned over the sawhorses, the better to see and feel how big a bolt I needed for the predrilled holes.

And it hit me: "You silly idiot! All you need is four washers and screws driven up from the underside of the sawhorses into the bottom surface of the 2x4s! That'll hold just fine!

So that's what I did. Though being me, I had to make heavy weather of using the portable drill to drive the screws in. I'm not too proficient at keeping the driver head straight on with the screw, and I end up with metal shavings all over.

Still, they went in well enough to hold.

And now I have a nice wooden overhang at each end of my sawhorses, and I can clamp on my vise!

And my vise can hold my short pieces of window trim while I heat-strip them!

I got three pieces done this afternoon. Probably won't be able to do any more with it till Friday-- tomorrow, I've got other things I have to do.