Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An "Ooooh, Shiny!" for Christmas

Gentle readers, I have done zilch on the house the past month or so, unless you count strewing a modicum of Christmas decorations amidst the demounted trim boards, plaster residue, and pet hair furballs as "doing something" on the house. Oh, yes, I did get my outside decorations up, thus contributing my bit towards the festive aspect of the neighborhood.

Nope. I've substitute-taught every blessed day this month in a rather difficult school and I come home exhausted. It's a good thing I have my outside Christmas lights on a timer; otherwise half the time they wouldn't get turned on. Or off.

But to contribute to the festivity of the houseblogs community (and to make sure I have at least one post in December), I present a little vid I did of my Christmas tree three years ago.

It will have to stand in for a full-height tree again this year: Until I get the demounted living room and dining room baseboards refinished and back up, it's only the old "bottle brush" tree on top of the piano for me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Light-Up Night

Tonight was Light-Up Night in Beaver, Pennsyl-vania.

The display is nothing like what you see on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. But the fun here is inversely greater. On the Plaza, the lights come on in a formal ceremony featuring area celebrities, then everybody jumps in their cars and heads home; in Beaver, the lights come on when nobody in particular is paying attention and afterwards people hang around and enjoy the town and the cold weather and the start of the Christmas season.

I went with my friends Hannah* and Steve* and their kids Stevie* and Letty.* The line to see Santa in the park gazebo stretched all the way to the corner, so we fortified ourselves with the free hot chocolate and doughnuts with chocolate icing and red, green, and white jimmies and headed for the shops.

Light-Up Night is open house for the merchants in Beaver. Most of the stores on Third Street (the main thorough-fare), their windows and interiors decorated to the hilt, stay open for business and offer cookies and cider and other goodies. Christmas music, live and canned, sings out into the night air, and horse-drawn carriages, wheeled sleighs, and charabancs ply up and down the broad avenue, offering rides for free. People of all ages meander up and down and in and out, and I think it's extremely sporting for the proprietors of establishments crowded with pretty things to throw their doors open the festive crowd-- many of whom are not carrying money.

Having two elementary-school-aged kids along both enlivened and complicated things. They wanted to do everything at once and we adults didn't always know where or when or how. So we did the logical thing and threaded our way down one side of the street then back up the other.

Stopped into the new Japanese restaurant to pick up a menu; visited a shop full of decorative objects, including a lamp made out of a bottle adorned with a shirtless photo of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (lol); met up with friends on the street; got a bag of fresh hot popcorn in front of the Municipal Building; finally got to see the inside of the new kitchen store and was treated to a demo of a food mill of the sort I'll need next time I make quince butter; and back to the two-story toy store where we hung out with the kids warming up and playing with things till time for the fireworks.

For me, the high point of this perambu-lation was found up a narrow, oriental-carpeted stairway to a second-floor suite over one of the storefronts. It was a brand-new accountant's office, just opened today, and the decor was smashing. It looked like the sort of place they'd feature in one of those glossy decorating magazines that give everyone a bad case of the covets. Bare brick and Venetian plaster walls, antique furniture, graceful draperies and appointments; unless you were a houseblogger you'd never believe that when they first saw the space it had looked, in the words of someone in the know, "like a pigsty." The accountant and her friends had laid out a spread of pastries, dry sausage, and cheese, with an urn of hot cider, and more attractive to me than that, the project carpenter was there. And I got his card (I may need help remounting my trim!). And the accountant gave me the name of her plasterer! Not a bad night's work!

At 8:00 o'clock we stood in the street and watched the fireworks, then headed back to the park. Earlier we'd seen a little carriage drawn by a pair of Shetland ponies over there, and Hannah thought it'd be fun for the children to ride. But by then, the ponies were nowhere to be seen. Oh, well! The line to see Santa was quite short; in fact, Stevie and Letty were the last ones in.

We ended the evening with a ride in one of the charabancs, behind a fine pair of golden brown draft horses (Morgans?). This took us down the main street then round the long block into one of the narrow residential streets behind. Seeing the brick pavement and the historic houses with candles in the windows, I could almost visualize how it might have been over a hundred years ago, riding in a horse-drawn vehicle along that way as a matter of course.

Monday, I'll have to call that plasterer. Good chance he's way too expensive for me, but maybe he'll be nice enough to tell me where he gets his supplies.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

As I do most years, I had Thanksgiving dinner at my friend Frieda's* house, sharing the meal with her and her extended family. Late this afternoon, after the rest of the family had departed and all the food was put away, Frieda and her husband followed me back to my house. In their extended cab truck. With a big, long, iron chain.

Where they hitched up said chain and pulled out the stumps of my arborvitaes from the side yard. You know, the one that fell clean over and its mate that started leaning after a windstorm last February.

Finally, they're gone!

Actually, only the one nearest the street came out with the chain. The other one, the dead one, Dave* broke out himself, because it was on the other side of the air conditioning unit and he was afraid of what the chain might do to the equipment.

And they're not exactly gone-gone, since I still have to take a chainsaw to the stumps and haul the pieces to the yard waste dump.

But those brown-fronded, shedding, bug-ridden arborvitaes are finally out of the ground and now I can plant the hollies I've been wanting since 2004!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Long Island Cheese Pie

I've been considering whether it's fitting to post articles about my culinary exploits here, or whether they belong over on the miscellan-eous blog. I've decided that general cooking and baking stories go there, but if the kitchen adventures involve food I've grown in my garden, they go here.

That said, I had one (count 'em, 1) pumpkin out of my garden this year. Beautiful vines everywhere, but only one gourd. Variety, "Long Island Cheese." Heirloom, kind of pinky-yellowy-white, said to be good for pies.

So I offered my one-and-only up to the cause of the annual Thanksgiving feast at my friend Frieda's*.

Sunday, I cut the pumpkin in halves, put it on a greased cookie sheet, and baked it. It's really easier to scoop out the flesh that way. Peeling and boiling is just too much like work.

Then the flesh went into the blender to pureé. No, Kate, a full blender bowl will not process, especially on a machine that dates to the mid-1960s (the blender's an heirloom, too). OK, divide it in two batches and pureé each separately.

This yielded me nearly two quarts of pumpkin pureé. It tasted good and rather sweet, even with no sugar added. It was a little runny, though, with clear liquid around the edges . . . Probably not good. I could see me on the night before Thanksgiving with a pie still sloshing in the middle. So, doing the sensible thing, I-- no, I didn't read a cookbook or check the Internet!-- I called my 79-year-old mother.

"Fresh pumpkin always does that. You have to let it drain for a few hours to get the extra liquid out."

So I did. At least, I did it with the quart I hadn't put in the freezer. And by the time it was drained, I was left with 1-3/4 cups of pureé for a 2 cup recipe. (Next time, I'm draining it before it's pureéd.)

OK, get the other quart out of the freezer and thaw and drain it, too.

That gave me a cup and a half. Enough and some to spare.

Made the pie crust last night, formed it into a couple of discs, and put it in the fridge to rest. I'm pretty good with pie crust (one of the few advantages of having perpetually cold hands), but the part I dread is getting the rolled-out dough off the marble board and onto the pie plate. Epic fail my first attempt this evening, and I had to roll it out again. If anyone's listening, I would really like a pastry cloth for Christmas!

I was extravagant and used heavy cream instead of evaporated milk. I have a can of the latter in the cupboard, but I think it's something the dinosaurs left behind when they became extinct. Actually, I used the recipe out of Joy of Cooking precisely because it reassured me I could use heavy cream instead of evaporated milk.

Brown sugar as well as white, and lots of spices-- I like spices-- with nutmeg freshly grated in. Then the eggs, and all beaten with my new Cuisinart mixer. I meant to take a photo of the filling in the bowl before I poured it in the case, it looked so suave and silky, but I actually had my mind on the job and forgot. From the lickings I'd say this Long Island Cheese variety does give a different taste than the bog-standard pumpkin that goes into the Libby's can. I like it; will my friends be able to tell the difference?

The pie came out of the oven just fine-- until I knocked off a bit of the crust carrying it to the cooling rack. Excuse to eat some . . . hmm. Maybe it could have used a bit of sugar?

Never mind. I'm sure I got enough into the filling.

The pie lost a bit more crust a little later as I contrived to put it up to finish cooling out of the reach of my greedy, energetic, and enterprising dog. I'd moved it from the counter to a rack in the microwave over the stove (with the door open) and usually that's safe enough. But I saw him jumping for it just as I was leaving the kitchen and I'm taking no chances.

So the pie from my one precious Long Island Cheese pumpkin is now reposing on top of the pots in the cupboard above the microwave. I'm glad my goggeh likes the smell of my baking, but I'm not prepared to accept the compliment of his scarfing down the whole jolly thing when my back is turned.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trimming the Sow

When I first saw the notice for the latest True Value ( DIY contest, "My First DIY," I thought I was supposed to write about my first do-it-yourself project ever.

Ah, yes. That would be the time I demounted and stripped all the Victorian hardware in the first floor apartment I shared with two other girls one summer at college, to the genuine joy of the landlord.

But I looked closer at the notice, and it actually says "After I got the keys to my house, the first thing I changed was..." So this is definitely a Sow's Ear question. My first and so far only bought-and-owned-by-me house.

Then it reads, "We want to hear all about that very first DIY project you completed, once you had the keys in your hand."

Oh. Do you really want to hear about that? It was really simple and boring, if very effective. I scraped and cleaned the basement bathroom and laundry room floors and gave them a coat of porch floor paint. It went from flakey gray and burgundy red, pockmarked in places with spots of bare concrete, to a nice light green. Brightened the spaces up amazingly and six years later, even after two supplementary applications in the john, the fresh color makes that part of the basement a pleasure to work in. The only thing I would have done differently is to paint the laundry floor before I had the new washer and dryer installed. Oops.

But how exciting can that be? That ranks right up there with, well, watching paint dry. So if I may submit a more involved project for the community's amusement, may I present the Grand Woodwork Stripping and Refinishing Campaign-- even if even now it's not yet done.

Truly, spiritually, the woodwork is the first thing I began to change after I got the keys.

From the moment I first walked through the door with the real estate agent in June 2003, I knew the mushroom beige paint on that trim was doomed. It was already trying to shrug it off, helped a lot by my previous owners' dogs. I could see the deep shellacked red-brown peeking out from cracks and chips in the loose paint, whispering the promise of solid oak natural-finish woodwork just like I knew back in Missouri. Turned out it was yellow pine, but never mind that. As soon as I had the keys and had retrieved my toolbox from the storage locker, I took my razor blade scraper (with a dull blade) and began flaking away.

And flaking away and flaking away. But I'd just started a 60+ hour a week job as a church pastor and I had to get my study painted and in order so I could find my books and write my sermons, and then there was no way I was going to put my dishes away until the kitchen was relieved of its nice-try-but-too-busy-and-dark wallpaper, was repainted, and had the new backsplash border up and the cabinets remounted. Which didn't get accomplished till January 2005.

Meanwhile, I kept chipping. I chipped when I was on the phone. I chipped when I was bored. I chipped when I came home from a meeting and wanted to feel I'd gotten something useful done that evening. I was awash in dark-beige and cream paint flakes, flakes under the furniture, flakes down the heat registers, flakes tracked around by the dog, flakes being sampled by the cat ("No, Wennie! There might be lead in that!!"). But I swept and vacuumed up the mess and kept on going.

Seeing how easily the paint came away, I concluded that the POs who'd applied it in the first place (this turned out to be my PO-2) had neglected to prime the wood first. Worked well for me, since the only places the paint stuck was where the original finish was worn. The question then was, what to do about them? Once the paint was off most of a piece, the finish was beautiful. So why mess it up? Why not just use the Western Wood Doctor refinisher and use it for both the stubborn paint and to blend in the rest of the finish? And I'd do all the trim while it was still up. So much less hassle that way.

In late February 2004 I got serious about this project, starting with the doorway between the front hall and the kitchen hall. But problems immediately reared their heads. The inner casing, I discovered, once was mortised for hinges and a latchset and the patches screamingly didn't match. These pieces were in bad shape, too, so gouged and pitted the palm sander wouldn't even it out. Bugger. I'd have to take it down after all. But the adjacent face trim was stuck behind the lip of the hall bench and I couldn't work out how to remove it. The casing wouldn't come off till the trim did.

Phooey. I decided to strip it all in place after all. But somehow, I could never work up the nerve to make the commitment and the mess this would involve. Besides, I lost my job for awhile and couldn't afford the supplies, and then I got another job (as an architect) which hardly gave me time to turn around once I got home in the evenings.

So I kept chipping and sweeping, sweeping and chipping. Front room, 1st floor hall, living room, dining room, 2nd floor hall. The only reason the incompleteness of it didn't drive me mad long since was that even with the spots and splotches of stuck-on paint, the natural wood finish revealed on the trim made even the boring ugly beige wallpapers look good.

But in January 2008, in response to a call for New Year's DIY resolutions posts, I realized I needed to make a big push and get this project finished. Or refinished. Whatever. And I faced the fact that there was no way I could get it done without taking the trim pieces down. So I launched my big woodwork refinishing campaign . . . which as of now still isn't complete. I'm set to start reshellacking the woodwork and remounting it, but nothing has happened since the end of August. A girl has to deal with the garden and pursue her part time work and look for a fulltime job, you know.

But I've almost finished doing the things I swore I had to do before I could go back to the woodwork, and maybe-- maybe-- the stair balusters and 1st floor hall trim-- if nothing else-- will be shellacked and remounted in time to deck the halls for Christmas.

Or maybe not. It occurs to me I may have made a similar resolution before on this blog . . .
This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by True Value.

Friday, November 20, 2009


From this morning and early afternoon:

11:23 AM

The furnace repair guy (different one from the other day) is downstairs working, even as I write.

I got a call from the dispatcher at 8:50 to tell me he was on his way over. Yes, yes, I was still in bed. Got up, figuring I had a half hour or so to get washed and dressed and take care of the animals. But no, the doorbell rang when I still had cleanser on my face. Seems he'd been trying to call for quite awhile but kept getting a message saying my number was out of service. Wonder what that was all about? It was the correct number, too.

Happily, he'd called his office and had the dispatcher call me. Would’ve been awkward if I had to take off from work again next week and didn’t get the furnace fixed today after all.

The heat exchanger turns out to be a humongous thing; the guts of the furnace, in fact. The crack was way at the back of one of the tall narrow cells, so no wonder my eyes couldn’t detect it on Monday. It was clear enough from the other side, once the unit was out and sitting on the floor. The split's about 3/4" long.

11:54 AM

Few minutes ago, Rufus* the repairman came to the foot of the 1st floor stairs to give me the news: He was about to fire up the furnace. There'd be a smell of smoke, he warned. The lubricating oil and so on burning off? Yeah.

He adjusted the hallway thermostat upwards, then I accompanied him back down the basement to witness the ceremony. Power back on at the mains, then a short wait for the gas to flow to the ignition.

But what’s this? Instead of a nice steady blue flame in the burners, we had yellow flares bursting out from under the new heat exchanger, so that Rufus had to move back lest he be hit.

Okay! Not what’s wanted, obviously. He’s down there now trying to figure out what the problem is. I’m going on the assumption it can be fixed, and fixed today. I have a replacement clause in my AHS policy, but I’d rather avoid the disruption and hassle.

12:22 PM

Up here in the study I smell something-- not exactly burning, more like a preheating frying pan-- so this could be good news.

12:50 PM

Victoire! Rufus tells me the flaring problem was just due to a dirty burner. Like when I get crud in the burners of my gas stove? Yep. It's all cleaned and safe now, the furnace is adjusted, and should now operate at 90% of its capability. Given that my TempStar dates from 1987, that's nothing to schmooze Al Gore with, but I'll take it. Better than it was.

After I paid the home warranty service fee and the repairman left, I-- well, what do you think I did? Turn up the thermostat and bask in all the nice clean heat?

No, I'm still cheap. I turned the heat off. 57° downstairs means a tolerable 61° or so up in the study, and with a cat in my lap I can take after my parsimonious father awhile longer this waning year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


We're having a wonderful Indian summer here in southwestern Pennsylvania, with outdoor temperatures hovering in the 50s and 60s during the day and going down into the 30s and 40s at night. This means I've been able to get outside and do some of the winter prep yard work I'd put off or plain wouldn't do if it were colder.

It's also meant that I could put off turning on the furnace full time. I can't claim any ecologically-founded virtue in this desire; it's just that I'm poor. Or cheap. Take your pick.

Actually, I deinstalled the thermostat had been deinstalled and shut off the HVAC main switch off last July when I started doing the faux finish on my 1st floor hall. My vow and resolution was not to reinstall it until the trim was refinished and put back in place and the new wallpaper hung. In September, this was supposed to be, a week or two after I finished with the Welsh-American convention I was involved in here in Pittsburgh and had bidden a fond adieu to the Kansas City friend who was my guest during it.

But work and life and Facebook intervened. So barring some work in the garden and giving the thermostat cover a "bronze" coat with model car paint (so it'll look less glaring over my new paper), I've accomplished pretty much nothing on the inside of the house since the end of August. Forget wallpapering; I haven't even finished stripping the 2nd floor hall floor.

And though the weather outside has been happily mild, my brick and plaster house can retain only so much heat. Inside daytime temps descended into the low 50s by a week ago last Friday, and reluctantly I gave in and reinstalled the thermostat over the primed plaster.

Ran the furnace three or four hours that evening, just to take the chill off. And a little the next morning. But that day, the weather got up into the high 60s, so I shut the furnace off again. More money saved!

Before I did, though, I removed the burner door and had a look at the burner itself. Um . . . yeah, look at all the smuts glowing in there. Needs cleaned, that's for sure. Actually, I am an inexperienced idiot with furnaces and I've never had it cleaned the entire six years I've been here. Can't hurt to get it done, and it'll probably help with energy efficiency, right?

So yesterday morning a serviceman comes from a local heating and cooling company to inspect, clean, and tune up my furnace. Down we go to the basement, I show him where everything is, and he gets to work.

Less than ten minutes later he's up at the top of the basement stairs, saying, "I have news for you, and it's not good."

"Oh?" say I, reserving judgment.

"Yes. Your heat exchanger unit is cracked. It's not very big now, but as you run the heat it'll widen and there'll be a danger from carbon monoxide."

"It'll need to be replaced?"

"Yes. And that's not good news."

Well, maybe not as bad as he thinks. "I have a home warranty," I pronounce. "It covers furnace repairs."

"Oh, which one?"

"American Home Shield."

"Oh! We're one of their repair agencies! In fact, we're their No. 1 furnace repair contractor in this area!"

Back downstairs, he tried to show me the crack, way back there behind the burner. But my eyesight isn't so good and I had to take his word for it. He stayed down to put things back together and I went up to call AHS.

Funny, but even though that H&C company is just across the river, they didn't have my zip code registered with them on the AHS contractor list. After a few phone calls the oversight was corrrected, AHS assigned them the work order, the order for a new heat exchanger was put in, and they're to call me in a day or two when it arrives and arrange a time to come put it in. Hopefully sooner than later; the thermostat reads 55° today and it'll likely go lower by tomorrow.

But I call this whole thing providential. If I hadn't run the furnace only minimally this fall, that crack would've been widening and the CO would've been gassing me and my critters out. If I hadn't got off my duff and called for a cleaning (finally!!), the problem wouldn't've been found. And how providential it was that the H&C cleaning company I called is an AHS contractor, so I could get the repair process working right away, instead of waiting a day or two longer for the assigned contractor to get back with me.

Who says being cheap doesn't pay off? Though I suppose, if I'd been so cheap as not to have gotten the furnace cleaned, I might've had a pay off I wouldn't like.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scary, but It'll Do

Yesterday afternoon around 5:00 o'clock I drove down to my local True Value to wander around and see what they could do for me.

I asked the assistent, whom I found stocking some shelves, if they had patching cement for concrete.

No, not for my third floor stairway ceiling, for my front step. I had a parent of a trick-or-treater Thursday night [my borough always does it on the Thursday night] express doubt about the safety of it, commenting ominously, "Somebody's liable to sue you over this." And it was getting really bad, so bad I put a board over the cavity so no small witch or ghoul would fall in.

"It's right here in this aisle," he said. "Here's the kind you want, in this bag." Then, "Wait a minute," he said. "This might not work after all. The temperature has to be above 50 degrees for twenty-four hours after you apply it."

"Well, it's 68 degrees outside now . . . I don't know what it's supposed to do tonight . . . "

"Let's check The Weather Channel." He led me to a laptop, brought up the site, and look, the low last night wasn't supposed to get below 58 degrees. But tonight, it was supposed to get down in the 30s.

The assistant expressed his doubt as to whether I could get the job done in time, but, said I, "It's tonight or never. I have to get that step patched before somebody hurts himself on it."

So, quickly, quickly! One 40 lb. bag of patching cement, one 5-gallon bucket to mix in, one trowel for the application! Pay for it, throw it all in the car, and take the fastest way home!

And yes, I did get the cavity filled. In the light of day I see it was not a pretty job. Not my usual level of craftsmanship. But it'll do.

The first thing was to pull out the rest of the loose pieces of concrete tread. When I washed out the dirt from the resulting cavity, the sand and gravel aggregates kept running out as well. If this was June or July, I think I would have kept the hose trained on that rotten concrete till it all washed away and gave me the excuse to put in a whole new pair of steps. But winter's coming, so I stopped at the first semblance of solid material and hoped-- hoped!-- the cement would adhere.

Then, even though I borrowed a concrete block off a neighbor to hold a board against the broken step to make a kind of form, it wasn't much use. The remaining concrete was sticking out cockeyed so I couldn't get the board to sit squarely against it. I ended up throwing the board on the grass and just using the concrete block, on end, to keep the patching cement from slumping out the front side of the cavity.

Couldn't mix too much cement at once; had to consider the capacity of my old Black & Decker drill with the paint-mixing attachment on it. Even in the light of the setting sun it was plain that my batch wasn't going to fill all the hole.

So I got clever. Or stupid, you take your pick. I filled the cavity up just high enough so I could lay the broken pieces of original concrete back in, mosaic-style. Couldn't find them all, and there's cracks between them that'll have to be filled with all-weather caulk or something to keep the water out. But it's level, right?

Not quite. A couple of big pieces weren't sitting high enough, and the riser surface of the step was all pitted and spalled. So there I was at 7:00 last night, for all intents and purposes in the dark, mixing up another batch of patching cement, this one half the size of the first.

Half the size, and nowhere near the stiffness. I glopped it onto that riser with my gloved hand (faster than the trowel) and it slumped down on the step below like a tired teenager. The concrete block kept it in place in the middle (and it seems to be stuck there at the moment), but otherwise . . . ? Gaahh.

The finished job is pretty ghastly-looking. My only excuse is my race again time, the weather, and potential liability claims. God willing, next spring I can get a set of front steps put in that're good looking and permanent. In the meantime, hey, the patch is hard! And the reinserted pieces don't seem to be going anywhere! It might even bear weight! And be halfway safe even when the snow covers it!

It's awful, it's ugly, it's hideous, the After picture looks like it should be Before-- but it'll do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Plaster, Irony, and Other Truly Valuable Building Materials

A couple weeks ago, as my entry in the Value Hardware DIY Drama contest, I posted on the Sturm und Drang that is the ceiling plaster over my third floor stairway. Or rather, that isn't the ceiling plaster over my third floor stairway, since so much of it ended up on the stairway. Therein I confessed my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault of Procrastination in fixing said plaster--leavened with a lot of excuses as to why I fell into it.

A day or two after I made that post I thought, Hey, wait a minute. There was another reason why I didn't repair that plaster before it fell down; why, last March when I had my ladder and my Big Wally's PlasterMagic repair kit on hand, I didn't get right to it. It wasn't that I didn't want to, or was suffering from a compulsion to get all the wood trim stripped first. It was because, well, the Big Wally's website was (and is) running a contest for the best videos of PlasterMagic repairs. The prize was $250, and I was determined to enter.

But I can't repair plaster and run a video camera at the same time. Whom could I get for a cinematographer to document my Atlantean effort? There was a neighbor kid with a camera and ambitions in the filmmaking direction, but she never seemed to be around when wanted. And what if she were standing within range of the damage as I worked and something should, well, happen? Didn't want the kid to get hurt. Maybe I should think of somebody else . . .

Stalemate. I kept on desiring that $250 prize and not coming up with anyone I could ask to make the video; I kept on stripping woodwork and not repairing the plaster . . . until June, when I finally tackled the ceiling and it tackled me back.

When and True Value combined to open the field for entries in the DIY Drama Contest, I thought about entering. I mean, mah dramah, let mii sho u itt. And thought some more. And a little more. (Do we discern a pattern?) Then shortly before the deadline, I pinned myself down and got the post written and submitted.

Then, having read the other submissions (and there were some impressive ones), I promptly forgot all about it, since there was no way I was going to win any of the $300 gift card prizes.

So imagine my astonishment when I got an email last week from Aaron at saying I'd won the drawing for one of the prizes!* Unbelievable, but true: Today the gift cards arrived from the contest coordinators!

So, thank you,, and thank you, True Value. I will add the latter to my Useful Links list and I encourage one and all to click on it.

But the situation is so ironic magnets fly to it. For the sake of a $250 prize I put off repairing my plaster until it fell down, which led to a post that got me a $300 prize to help me put it back up.

Yeah, I still do have to put it back up. I wonder, can I get a nice bucket of pre-slaked lime putty at my local True Value? Or maybe they can order it? It's not the easiest thing to come by . . .

Never mind. There are lots of other things this house needs that they can fix me up with very well. Without the procrastination!
*Actually, it was a bit more complicated than that. The actual notices got hung up in my spam filter and it was through his comment on my Plaster Disaster post that he actually got the word to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I have quinces this year. Big ones, middle-sized ones, smallish ones; quinces picked off the tree and wind-fallen on the ground; yellow, ripening, fragrant quinces and spring-green immature quinces. I admit, they are not the "true" quince, Cydonia oblonga; they are the flowering quince, Chaenomeles japonica. I do not care. The fruits smell and cook up just like the real kind, which makes them real enough quinces to me. I'm told they make excellent jelly and other scrumptious things, and I intend to try.

Last year I had exactly one fruit of any size. The year before that, and before that, and before that, there was no fruit, period. Come to think of it, there wasn't much in the way of flowers those years, either. This shrub was a thorny nothing straggling along the ground my first spring here. I propped it up with bricks so it'd grow upright, but it was a long time before I could identify what that angular bush in the corner of the vegetable garden even was. So this year it was gratifying to see such a yield from a shrub that I'm reliably told isn't supposed to bear much fruit at all.

True, it would've been even more gratifying had conditions cooperated to keep the fruit on the shrub awhile longer. Annoying to have most of one's harvest on the ground before it's reached full size and ripeness.

But I'm not giving up my dream of quince jelly. I've been on the InnerToobs the last two evenings, trying to discover the best way to ripen up the green ones. Finally this evening I found a page called From Harvest to Table that told me I should spread the green ones out in a cool dry place, turn them every so often, and they should be ripe in a few days. Oh, yes, and they should be out of direct sunlight. Oh. That's why some of the ones I brought in first were getting kind of wrinkly on the windowsill!

So tonight I laid down newspapers on my pantry shelf in the basement and arranged my haul. Cool and dry and out of direct sunlight. Will more of them turn golden yellow and start to emanate the heady sweet essence of quince?

We'll see. At least, it'll keep the fruit away from my dog. He had two or three of the bigger ones on the floor of the front room with bite marks in them when I got home from work this afternoon. Guess he thought they smelled good enough! Happily, they're hard enough he couldn't actually eat them, and once they're scrubbed and boiled his incursions won't matter.

I don't think.

Tomorrow, maybe, I'll have my first go at quince jelly making with the ones that are already yellow and sweet-smelling. It'd be a shame if I missed the opportunity.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Great Plaster Disaster--A Retrospective

We have been invited to submit our DIY goofs for the Value / DIY Drama Contest, and I can think of none better for me than this past June's Great Plaster Disaster, or The Dangers of Putting Things Off.

I noticed in June of 2007 that the plaster in the sloped ceiling over the stairs to my third floor study was cracked and started to sag a bit. I did nothing about it.

In July of 2007 I attended a lime plaster workshop taught by the great Rory Brennan, and learned all about his Big Wally's PlasterMagicTM
repair system. I still waited to do anything about my stairway plaster.

In my defense, I needed an adjustable ladder, to manage on the stairs. In April 2008 I received and learned to used my Little GiantTM ladder. I still did nothing about the sagging ceiling over the stairs to the study.

In March of this year I ordered and received my Big Wally's repair kit. And did nothing with it.

Finally, in June of this year I decided I'd get around to fixing my ceiling plaster. I put down the drop cloth, set up my ladder, and went to work.

Now, the Big Wally Way involves drilling holes in proximity to the cracks so conditioner and adhesive can be injected. Late on June 6, 2009, I drilled a few holes till the battery in the drill ran out, decided the hair in the plaster would hold it up awhile longer, and went to bed.

On June 7, 2009, I was back at the Great 3rd Floor Study Stairway plaster repair project, and, well, let me quote my entry of the day:

I am an IDIOT.

And any other hard names you'd care to spit at me.

About a half hour ago, I was drilling a Few More Holes to make sure I'd get the loose plaster well secured to the lath on the sloped ceiling. But the vibration was too much for it and a big square piece about 18" square came swinging down, literally hanging on by the cattle hair along one edge.

And I am a world class GOOF, BLUNDERER, and IDIOT. Did I dash over and ease it off in one piece? Did I, o did I?

No, I did not. I thought it'd be so cool to have a photo of it for the blog! So I picked up my digital camera, turned it on, and--

When I'd barely pressed the shutter, the monster loose piece came crashing down to smash on the stairs below, along with big chunks of the plaster that'd been next to it.

I wasn't even in time to get a shot of it falling.


I picked up the broken pieces. Maybe I can put them back together like a puzzle and glue them back up?

Or maybe I'm going to have to use what I learned at
Howard Hall Farm in July 2007 and fill in the gap with real haired lime plaster.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for the Big Wally's conditioner to work so I can at least stick down the edges of what's still up there and keep it up.

6:58 PM-- I don't think so. No. I got part of the droopy plaster back up, so it's not falling down, but overall it's no go. Most of the plaster is gapping by 3" or more, and the part I secured still has a gap of 3/8" to ½" between it and the lath. There's too many broken off plaster keys behind it that're keeping it from snugging up. And the really godawful loose parts are so warped that when I try to bring them up with the washers and screws, they bend and break. That is, if I can even reach the lath with the ends of the screws. And I don't have enough Big Wally screws and washers to secure it all anyway.

To make it worse, some of the laths are loose from the rafters and I'm not sure how to put them back in place without causing more vibration and bringing more plaster down. And it's got to be put back in place, or the plaster will still be insecure.

O vae mihi! vae mihi! Oy vey iz mir!

Okay, Kate, deep breath. The loose pieces that are still up don't look ready to fall down. Not right away, at least. Now if an overweight robin lands on the roof, all bets are off. But right now, stay cool, don't make any sudden moves, and maybe, it'll stay up till tomorrow.

On June 8, 2009, I called the Brennans up in Vermont and Rory's wife Lauri advised me to brace what was still up so it'd stay up. But did I do it that day? Noooooo!
On June 9, 2009, I didn't even begin to do anything about securing the loose plaster until it was after noon.

But then I got onto it. I really did. Especially after I began to hear rustlings on the plastic dropcloth around the stairs, that were not made by any of my cats. Whoops! Keys failing! Down I ran to the basement virtuously to cut some 1x3's I had to the correct length. Meanwhile, up on the 3rd floor, several square feet more of plaster were giving up their hold and coming down. Okay, okay, I get the message! Definitely time for serious damage control. I was off to the blue and gray store; do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Bought four 1x2x6's and a box of coarse 2" drywall nails.

I cut the wood strapping to the right length and brought it upstairs to screw it to the ceiling.

This was the point when my low blood sugar kicked in and filled me with woe, angst, existential gloom, and general consternation. I could not get the screws to screw in. And when I did, they weren't long enough to hold. Aaaagghhh!!! I can't do this! What is wrong with me? Why aren't I rich enough to hire somebody to help me do this? Why am I single-- if I were married, I'd have someone around who'd have to help me do this! What if all the plaster in the room falls down? Why are all my friends not available right now? Why? why? why? Woe! woe! woe!


Going back to bed and sucking my thumb wasn't an option. So I did what any normal DIYer would do in the circumstances-- I drove back to Lowe's for a box of 3" coarse drywall nails and more 1x2 wood strips and a packet of Phillips-head driver bits. My head was so woolly I couldn't verbalize what the last item was called and the clerk looked at me as if I were the world's worst ditz.

Never mind; I found what I needed and got it home. With the help of a late lunch (which finally kicked in) and my old corded drill (which still works, thank God, and has better torque than the battery-operated one), I got the strapping up and hoped the plaster would now cease its rain of terror.

After that, I wasn't sure. Lauri Brennan thought it'd be easier for me to put the existing plaster pieces back up. But the more I looked at the void over my stairway, the more I wondered if I'd rather take a crack at replastering it.

I mean, I did take that class, didn't I?

By July 3, 2009, I'd restocked my supply of Big Wally's and got the remaining loose plaster secured. I confess I haven't done a thing since then to fill in the 5' x 3' gap on the ceiling over my third floor stairs. I need to decide what quality lime putty to use for my plaster.

And considering that I'll have to mix it outside and the weather's getting chilly, that lath may not be covered till next Spring.

But it ain't falling down anymore, is it? Nope. I can procrastinate some more.
(This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by True Value.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Food Out of the Dirt

My poor garden's definitely been neglected this past summer. I think I applied Miracle-Gro maybe once.

Still, the veggies are coming on in spite of me, and this year as in all gardening years I am continually amazed that I can go get food right out of the backyard.

What astonishes me most of all is potatoes. There they are, food in the dirt! Reach in, scrabble around a bit, and there it is-- dinner! Some say they're not worth planting. That you can get them cheaper at the store. But these came from some Aldi's potatoes that sprouted, and I've already got more than I planted, despite my neglect. And these buried gems are firm and fresh and hard and smooth, not slightly soft and contorted and covered with eyes.

Tonight's potato morphed into french fries. Or should I say, nice, fluffy-on-the-inside, crisp on the outside, English-style, Delia-Smith-recipe chips. With a shrimp stir-fry featuring mushrooms, eggplant, and yellow peppers, the last two also from my backyard larder.

I'd better enjoy it while I may. The dreaded f-word (no, not that one!) was mentioned on the weather report yesterday and while the Brussels sprouts might enjoy a spot of nippiness, the peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes will not.

(Good grief, it's only the end of September; lighten up with the cold weather, all right already!)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Not on the Agenda

This evening as I was finishing up supper, the phone rang. I'm not very good at long phone calls; at least, I'm not very good at just sitting still and being on the phone. I also have to move around and do things. Load the dishwasher. Wipe down cabinets. Pet kittehs. This was a longish call, and while I was listening and talking, I started picking at the dining room wallpaper.

A few weeks ago I discovered that given a fairly humid day, whatever dining room wallpaper is hung over plaster will come off rather easily. Tonight, it wasn't that damp here in southwestern Pennsylvania, so I took the phone into the living room ("Yes, right . . . uh-uh, and what happened then? . . . . ") to see what luck I'd have there.

Oh, yeah, this was nice. Peel, peel, peel. Look how easily that boring beige printed moiré paper comes down! By the time the caller rang off I had it all off the lower part of northwest corner of the living room, both walls.

Stripping wallpaper wasn't on the agenda for this evening. I was going to do ironing. Lots of it. But as long as I was at it and things were going so well, why not bring in the step stool and finish these areas at the top? And around the north of the chimney breast? And hey, why not let 'er rip on the chimney breast itself?

So on I went, and the paper came off. But as I was working on the center of the chimney breast, I noticed something. The paper I was removing was damp. And so was the wall under it. At least, the paste under it was damp.

Then, what's this? Here's another dampish place a little lower, where the finish coat of the plaster seems loose.

What the-- ? This I do not understand. My POs-1 put this paper up at least twenty years ago. The paste should be dry. Moreover, this plaster is on brickwork that's on the inside of the chimney. There are no plumbing pipes on the second floor above this, and it hasn't rained around here for two or three weeks. The plaster itself isn't staring with wet, nor is it mouldy or yellowed. But it's unquestionably damp.

Where is it coming from? Is my chimney leaking from above, and is there some pocket in the chimney that's catching water and slowly letting it in? I know the west wall of the house needs repointed sometime. But please, God, do I have to have it done now?

I'll come back and feel it in the morning. Messing with masonry is not in the budget! Nor is it on the agenda. Dry, rot you, dry!!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Stair and Floor Stripping Joy

These last three days or so I've been stripping wood you walk on. Not that I thought I could get my 2nd floor hall floor and the two flights of stairs stripped and refinished before my friend comes next Wednesday, but because if there's any-- any-- chance of getting my stair rail parts reinstalled before then, the surfaces next to them have to be done with the stripper. Ditto the trim in the 2nd floor hall. It would be really nice if I could get the jambs and heads back on my bedroom door so I can have a door, not to mention stops on all the doorways there. It's a phasing thing, right? I suppose some people can remount refinished trim and thereafter successfully go to work with solvents and caustic materials on the floor or stair treads next to it all, but I don't count myself in that lucky camp.

So I'm doing my best. After an all-nighter on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, I got the three bottom treads and risers on the stairs to the 3rd floor stripped, using my customary technique: Paint drips come off with the heat gun and a scraper, old finish put to rout with the Western Wood Doctor Refinisher with #0 steel wool (#1 if the old finish is stubborn).

But when I did a little of the floor at the foot of the steps, I saw that was backwards. The boards are such a spotty mess, it was hard to determine where exactly the paint drips were. So I took it the other way around: Refinisher first, then the heat gun to remove whatever was left, then a little clean refinisher to wipe off the heat-smeared residue.

Tackled more of the floor itself Wednesday evening. And got an inspiration: If the refinisher took off the old brown finish, what would denatured alcohol do for me?

Actually, it wasn't my own inspiration. I've been reading old shellac posts on Gary's blog at This Old Crackhouse and in one of them he said something about testing old finishes with alcohol to see if they are shellac. But I hadn't done it, because Everyone Says shellac is no good for floors, and turns white if water is spilled on it, and this floor has been exposed the last three years and nothing has fazed it. So it couldn't be shellac, correct?

Who cares? Try the alcohol anyway.

O rapture, o joy! The original finish from the 1910s was shellac! I could use the cheaper denatured alcohol for my initial finish and gunk removal, and save the $29 a gallon refinisher for Step 3, after the heat gun!

Not only is this more efficient, I bask in the satisfying glow that comes from feeling vindicated in my plans to lay down dissolved bug spit on my wood floor and stair treads!

Only worked on those parts of the hall floor that were next to trim I hope to get a coat or two of finish on by next week. Looks very promising, nevertheless. Even with the old carpet staple holes.

Followed up the performance with another all-nighter last night. Got the stairs down to the 1st floor entirely stripped, using the same procedure. And stuck pieces of cardboard on the treads with painter's tape to protect them until the new finish goes on.

That definitely isn't happening until after Labor Day. Before then I've got a friend to entertain and a Welsh-American convention to attend downtown. It's not a matter of slapping the new shellac down between now and next week: the floorboards and stair treads need sanding. Nothing radical, nothing that will obliterate their Character; no, just enough so one can walk across them in stocking feet and not pick up splinters in the attempt. And before that happens, I have to figure out what to do with all the big-headed nails some past owner drove in here and there, presumably to keep the boards from squeaking. I assume they're there for a purpose, and some sort of fastener is needed in these places. But I'd rather the current ones not remain to flaunt their 5/16" heads in my nice new finish. Besides, nail heads are killers on sandpaper.

Despite the uncertainty on what to do (dig the old nails out? Countersink them and fill the holes? And what to replace them with, if anything?), it's still nice to see all that old pine free from the grotty old finish. It's better than nice, it's a pleasure and a joy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Welcoming the Guest

A big incentive for me to get a lot of work done on the house this summer is the impending arrival of a guest on the 2nd of September. She's an old friend from Kansas City who'll be staying with me for nearly a week, while we both attend the North American Festival of Wales in downtown Pittsburgh.

My dream was to get at least the 1st and second floor halls and their stairs done, with the upper walls painted and the lower walls papered and the refinished trim around and in between. And, if things had gone well, to have both sets of stairs and the 2nd floor hall wood floor refinished. And maybe the new ceramic tile on the 1st floor installed as well.

Alas, alas! It. Ain't. Gonna. Happen. What with plaster disasters in June and locating ingredients for the shellac and my pathological perfectionism with the faux finish, I am Nowhere Near That. Not at all.

So I'm taking myself in hand and concentrating on what absolutely has to be done to assure that Ruth* has clean, comfortable places to eat, sleep, and bathe, and that the obstacle course that usually encumbers the Sow's Ear is cleared away well enough so she won't break her leg manuevering between them.

The place to sleep, first. Earlier this month I finally finished repairing the guest bedroom closet back wall where the plumber attempted to get at the bathroom sink piping last February. Repainted it using the base and glaze colors I got for my kitchen five years ago. Yep, another faux finish, but combed this time, so it looks like faded denim. I think it came out rather well.

With that accomplished, I was able to reinstall the shelving and rods and put away all the closet contents that'd been lying for months on the guest bed. So once I've done a little more cleaning, the guest bedroom should be fine.

What about the bathroom? About a week and a half ago, I completed the process of repairing and repainting the plaster ceiling in the main bathroom. I'd hoped the cracks I'd been semi-ignoring over the bathtub were just in the paint or the finish layer, but nope, the whole piece of plaster was coming unkeyed and had to be dealt with. Got out the Big Wally's and secured the plaster back on . . . but for nearly a week I put off sanding the joint compound I used to fill the holes. Oh, gosh, I hate sanding! I actually preferred to live with the plastic drop cloth over the linen cabinet and the bathtub! The red metal step stool living in the bathtub! The toiletries moved into the guest bedroom against the time the sanding would actually get done!

But as I said, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and got the repaired bathroom ceiling sanded, primed, and painted by a week ago Saturday, and as soon as I figure out how to remove the newspaper I stuck to the top of the linen cabinet with the slops of the Big Wally's conditioner, the upstairs bathroom will be nearly in a condition to receive a guest.

However, I have no shower in my upstairs bath. The only one in the house is in the basement, and Ruth may want to use it. But it's been two years since I renewed the paint over the concrete shower pan, and it was worn and mildewed. Not nice for her, not nice for me, not nice for anyone. Yesterday's project, then, was to begin to rectify that. Shower pan and bathroom floor scrubbed with mildewcide, Simple Green, and then TSP; let it dry, then a coat of primer. Earlier this evening, the shower got a first coat of porch floor paint; second one goes on tomorrow, but it looks more civilized already.

While I was at it, I mounted a shelf unit given me by a neighbor who moved to Florida in July. It'll do fine.

That left another massive task for the basement. It needed cleaned. Badly. I was starting to run into things trying to get to the downstairs shower.

Besides, it had to be straightened and vacuumed before I can start shellacking my wood trim down there. So Monday evening and into the wee hours of Tuesday, that was dealt with.
Looks a little better, eh?

Now if I can only keep from obsessing about the least little wisp of cat hair I find on the stairs between now and next Wednesday . . .