Welcome to Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp, where you’ll experience the complete rock-n-roll lifestyle without the lawsuits and STDs. And remember rule #1: There are no rules! Rule #2, no outside food.

– Mick Jagger

When I was in high school theater, we made liberal use of whitening hair spray when playing old folks. We looked completely ludicrous. RIP our faculty advisor, who thought teenagers could do Ionesco — he was surely the world’s most optimistic (or deluded) man.

The sheetrock guys started on Friday afternoon. Not only were they dressed in white, they looked like they had been into the hair spray. Or a massive amount of coke. They were immediately followed by a truck with a lift to take the drywall in through the window.


No idea how he threaded this apparatus over the fence and between the power line and the tree.

After unloading the boards, they jumped right to it, and had the ceiling panels up by 4:00.

From the bottom of the stairs

From the bottom of the stairs

Ceiling in the bathroom

Ceiling in the bathroom

So now it’s Thursday the following week, and it’s still happening. The drywallers certainly aren’t being lazy — it just takes this long. They have to cut it and hang it, then tape all the joints. Then the joints get mudded (joint compound application) once, and that has to dry. Then they put on a further coat, which also has to dry. That’s where we are at now.

Reading room

Reading room



Sheetrock, gypsum board, plasterboard, wallboard, drywall — they are all basically the same thing. Many of the terms are just former brand names that have become generic over time (as happened with escalator,  trampoline, and heroin). The high number of brands suggests to me that there’s a large profit margin in drywall production.

Drywall installation, though, is labor-intensive. They’ll be back today to sand, so we hope to be priming and painting this weekend. That will give me a day to recover from priming the exterior trim on the new windows, which I did from inside the house for lack of a suitable ladder. Some kids on the street thought it was hilarious. Stupid kids! Then, when I went out afterwards to pick up some beer, the guy asked me for my ID. “Are you joking? I’m, like, 106!” I muttered indignantly.

Maybe remodeling years are like dog years. I am feeling pretty old and cranky.

Give one one's booze, or the dog gets it!

Give one one’s booze, or the dog gets it!

Posted in American vs English, Construction, Walls & Floors | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Behold the Awesomeness of My Man

Oh, Homie!

– Marge Simpson

Quick like a bunny before he notices this post title and changes it*, take a look at what the Kev did. Remember the knee walls were pushed back, leaving gaps in the floor?


Think anyone will notice?

We pulled up some of the floor elsewhere and Kev wove it into the existing bedroom floor to cover the gap. Like a boss!

Patched in floor? Where?

Patched in floor? Where?

There are a fair few videos and guides out there for how to do this job, but you’ll need patience, determination, and attention to detail to be successful (which is why I was not involved). Check out these references for detailed instructions:

First thing, he randomized the existing boards by cutting them into strips with a circular saw.


He chiseled in an edge and pried out the pieces.


Eventually, the whole edge was randomized and ready for added boards.

This project killed our Shop Vac; this one is the replacement.

This project killed our prior Shop Vac; this one is the shiny replacement.

Kevin de-nailed the salvaged boards and cut them each to length, used a mallet to push them up tight against the other edge and the side boards, then face-nailed them, long into the night.


Immediately after he finished, the drywallers started, so this is the best picture I have of the entire finished product so far:

Bottom left corner is where we pulled boards that were installed around closet walls; the fancy patches are set off nicely by the drywall dust.

In the bottom left corner, you can see where we pulled boards that were installed around closet walls and relocated; the fancy patching in the bedroom is set off nicely by the drywall dust.

But here’s another look at the first finished corner, which gives a better idea:


This looks so great that I want to find more of this stuff and add to it in the reading room too! Hot tip for locals: flooring is in the basement at Bauer Brothers (but look out for nail-studded pieces on the floor waiting for you to step on them; don’t take your kids).

Yay, Kev!

* I asked him if he wanted to change the post title, and he said, “Well, it’s out there now.” I asked if he liked my bragging about him, and he said he did not. So expect less effusiveness in future!

Posted in Before & After, Romance, Salvage, Walls & Floors | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Had It

Honey, let me explain what happened tonight. Sometimes when your mom has half a glass of wine, she goes cuckoo bananas.

– Marge Simpson

I’m a stress puppy from a family of stress puppies, but I thought I was dealing with the remodel pretty well. “It will all get done eventually!” I’d say. “There’s no point losing our minds over it!” The Kev was more stressed than I was, and THAT, my friends, is an unusual state of affairs.

Kevin's spirit animal.

The Kev’s spirit animal.

Those days are over.

One of the oddest ways I exhibit stress is to seek out an additional project. As if work isn’t full-on right now and there isn’t enough to do with the remodel. I can’t explain it, but I tend to find something completely unnecessary and decide it needs to be done. NOW.

Here’s what I decided needed doing:

fainting couch

Ok, hang in there with me. First, reupholstery would be a given. Obviously. Second, I would get rid of the horns. But doesn’t a reading room need a cool couch or something to curl up on? Look at the carving!

fainting couch head

The Craigslister who has never been to a zoo described this as a lion’s head. Regardless of the head’s origin, though, is that not utterly wonderful?



Shut up, crickets!

And also shut up, co-worker who, when shown the picture, responded simply that fleas sometimes still carry the plague.

Can no one see how much potential that thing has?!?



There are healthy ways to deal with stress. Spend time away from the house. Get some exercise. Get some bloody perspective, for that matter. But sometimes, all you can do is sprinkle Xanax on your ice cream and hope for the best. And pass on the fainting couch.

Posted in Construction, D'oh!, Furniture | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Air Conditioning…Glorious Air Conditioning

I got the idea when I noticed the refrigerator was cold.

– Homer Simpson

Previously, I talked about the three options we considered for the air conditioning. We ultimately went with regular central air, running the ducts through the attic space.

Central air has a few basic components. In a house with original forced air heat and associated AC, all these pieces are in close proximity.

From This Old House

From This Old House

When retrofitting, the different pieces might end up being more spread out. In our case, there were two options:

  1. Air handler in the basement with vents through the floor and ductwork through a closet to the new rooms upstairs, or
  2. Air handler in the attic with vents through the ceiling to the ground floor rooms and directly into the upstairs rooms.

The second choice was the more efficient use of the space we have. Putting ducts in the basement would have reduced headroom in a space with very little headroom from the get-go. The attic option didn’t hurt headroom anywhere, and ceiling vents are easier to place than floor vents in such a small house.

Air handler

Air handler behind the knee wall, bedazzled with foam insulation

The air handler is connected to the compressor via a conduit that runs down the outside of the house. It resembles a downspout.

There it is!

There it is!

The ducts go to different rooms in the ground floor through some exaggerated ducting.

Each flexible duct goes to a vent.

Each flexible duct goes to a ceiling vent (in this case, dining room and then two to the living room). You can also see one of the wall vents on the left (this one will be on the wall in the bedroom).

The ceiling vents are round, about 8 inches wide, and blend in with the ceiling pretty well. There are some prettier options I might look into at some point, but these are fine (arguably even when photographed with a flash at night, as here).


Small plaster repair still needs to be painted.

Meanwhile upstairs, ducts go to rectangular wall vents (as seen above). The only real shoehorning involved moving the air between the two sides of the house. The living space upstairs is flanked by two attic spaces, and vents need to pop out from both of them. The ductwork is bigger than for miniducts, and required a soffit to make the journey. The carpenter built a soffit structure that he centered on the bedroom door. He added some angles not needed by the ductwork to make it symmetrical. We think we will build in bookshelves underneath it to the left of the door.

Pre-insulation soffit with venting.

Pre-insulation soffit with venting.

There’s a fair bit of AC sass-talk out there–it’s unnecessary and environmentally unfriendly!–but few argue with the corresponding idea of central heat. The system is more efficient than our former window units, and we are careful energy users. We went for a very efficient unit, and felt validated when a technician measuring how much power the system was drawing commented, “That’s, like, NOTHING.” With the insulation we’ve added, the house is now much more energy efficient overall.

And it’s just so wonderful.

cat with fan

Apparently, you are unlikely to get your money back on retrofitting air conditioning, but I don’t even care.

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Dumpster Puzzle Solved

Remember the Blair Witch issue with the dumpster? Well, apparently what it is, is someone staging materials for dumpster divers. I am not making this up!

More stuff had been arrayed geometrically around the container yesterday morning, but before I could take a picture, a guy in a large truck showed up and systematically picked through the piles. About 75% went in the truck, and the rest he threw back in the dumpster. He never looked in the dumpster, just at the piles, indicating they were all a part of some larger plan.

What’s sadder, staging dumpster contents or curtain-twitching to watch someone dumpster dive? Undoubtedly the latter.

Posted in Salvage | 1 Comment

Foamy Home

The spray can is mightier than the sword.

– Simpsons Comic #37

When I was an adolescent, I saw a picture of a bedroom from one of the Xanadu foam houses. “Look at THIS!” I said to my mother. “How would you keep it clean??” she responded. I was entranced and undeterred.

xanadu house

But now I see her point.

The foam spray guys visited today, so we have a temporary semi-version of my one-time dream room, soon to be covered with easily cleanable drywall.

Insulation covers the entire inside of the roof.

Insulation covers the entire inside of the roof.

So the wiring we did...I guess it's pretty much permanent now.

So the wiring we did…I guess it’s pretty much permanent now.

This is closed cell urethane insulation, sprayed in place by some extremely nice guys who were sweet to the cats. This material was not in the original plan for the insulation, but the contractor gave us a bunch of options, and spray insulation gave the most bang for the buck.

  • It was sprayed over rigid foam insulation put in place with spacers to allow cold air to circulate under the roof to avoid ice dams.
I was wrong.

Rigid foam, with a hole where a vent stack fell through it; you can see the spacers under the roof above it. This stuff is under the foam everywhere.

  • The closed cells enclose gas that doesn’t conduct heat well, so it offers a lot of insulation value in a comparatively small space. That means that we will enjoy a much higher R-value without losing as much headroom.
  • There may be a tax deduction for making the place more energy efficient.
  • Once it cures, it’s non-toxic. I mean, don’t eat it or anything, but it won’t make you sick just being in your walls. Plus, it’s a moisture barrier so it helps keep out mold and other sick-building problems.
  • Since it expands, it seals up leaks that fiberglass batts or other options cannot reach.

The downsides are that there is a fair bit of wasted material because anything that expands beyond the insulation area must be cut off and discarded. (The dumpster is now full!)

The other issue is that the material needs to be walled in (even in unused attic space) with a thermal barrier. The barrier is typically drywall or plywood; drywall will be in the livable space, of course, but the storage areas will need to be lined with plywood. That’s an added expense. Why do you need that? Apparently, the insulation might combust in a fire, so the thermal barrier keeps the insulation separate from open areas of the house. (It’s not a fire risk to use, though — read more here.)

Reminds me of snowdrifts only, you know, upside-down.

Reminds me of snowdrifts only, you know, upside-down.

If you choose this method, when you are having the work done, make sure you’ve cleared the space so they can get to everything and corralled your pets. Be aware that it’s going to be stinky for a short time while they are spraying. But the foam sets up very quickly, and the smell disappears. Leaking smells are probably not dangerous, but you might want to not be home, is my point.

The cats would have preferred not to be home. There are weird pumping sounds and smells, and afterwards, everything looks different.

When will you stop changing everything??

Will you please stop changing everything?!?

Progress. Just a few more things, and then sheetrock. Then we need to kick in the bathroom tiling to get this thing (largely) done!

Posted in Construction, Energy, Siding & Roof | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Blair Witch Dumpster

beerwitchOne surprising thing about having an enormous dumpster in the side yard is the non-surreptitiousness of the divers. I expected — nay, WELCOMED — such visitors. The more stuff that is reused, the better! But I did anticipate they would be more discreet. These divers back trucks up to the dumpster and roust about loudly, vigorously, and at some length.

What I did expect and didn’t get, though, was people dumping stuff. So far, only one obvious addition has been made to the container, and it was just a single bag of trash. Or maybe body parts. I didn’t investigate.

The actual depth of Stuff has been receding as the dumpster (UK: skip) is harvested for metal salvage, usable wood, and whatever else. Sometimes, that’s me — I’ve yanked flooring, hinges, and some window glass out of there myself.


I can’t spell “lightning” when entranced by dumpster contents.

But at least one person is being more secretive. AND WEIRD. Rather than just taking wanted items, this person makes small piles of stuff near the dumpster under cover of … well, either darkness or just when we aren’t looking. I would have thought that they were prepping them for small loads on, say, a bike, but no. They just get rearranged a few times. When I’ve glanced in the dumpster, sometimes the selected stuff has been thrown back in there. What?

The items on the left moved around quite a bit. We also had some festive cardboard bunting, the remainder of which is intact at the right.

The items on the left moved around quite a bit in various patterns. We also had some festive (and too regular to be random) cardboard bunting, the remainder of which is intact at the right.

I haven’t photographed all of these arrangements, but they include:

  • A sash weight pyramid.
  • An exclamation point (seemingly intentional?) made of plywood scraps with a defunct electrical box as the point.
  • Pieces of electrical cable sheathing organized by color.

Urban crop circle equivalent? Weird kids? Unusually precocious raccoons? WITCHES? I’m open to hypotheses.

Posted in American vs English, Construction, Salvage | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Little Off the Top


On Thursday, six guys tore the roof off the house and garage and put on another. We were expecting it would take at least two days, but they started at 6:45 a.m., left at 9:15 p.m., and only took about 20 minutes for lunch. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.

And sooo polite. The youngest guy was sent to ferry drinks from the fridge periodically. I told him he could just come in whenever, but instead he knocked every time and removed his cap when he came in the house. Not sure how I never met this kid while my parents were raising him.

Remember I was obsessing about roof colors (while Kevin rolled his eyes)? When it came down to it, the subcontractor was using Owens Corning Oakridge shingles instead of the GAF colors we were anticipating, so the obsessing started all over again. It was more fun this time, because Owens Corning has a page where you can try options out, and one model house was ridiculously close to our house colors (and not too far off the period and style). We knew we wanted a warm color to coordinate with the hardscaping, and settled on Aged Cedar.

Owens Corning roof visualization

Owens Corning roof visualization screenshot

We also moved some stacks around, and went for a roof ridge vent rather than the vent boxes shown near the ridge in the before shot. This is all part of the cold-roof system that is best demonstrated by diagrams from people who know what they are talking about:


The cold air enters above the roof insulation and is pulled along outside the insulation and exits at the ridge, keeping the roof deck cold to avoid ice dams (via).

Instead of soffit vents, we have corresponding low-roof vents under the shingles themselves.

The soffit vent alternative (via)

The shingle vent alternative (via)

Ok, so the roof mechanics are conceptually sound, and the shingle color was really just a detail. I still woke up during the night before thinking, “What if we’ve picked something way too dark and weird!?” But as long as it would still keep rain and snow off us, the aesthetics were just a bonus.

We prepped by moving all the plant containers, bird feeders, and porch furniture away from the house. And we bought soda and snacks. Beyond that, there was nothing we could really do ahead of time.

Dawn and roofers arrived early on Thursday. Once the tar paper came off the roof (by about 10:00 am), I was surprised how slatted the actual roof deck is.

Once the tarpaper's off, you can really see through the roof.

No good for vampires.

The crew also installed our two skylights.

One skylight in!

Roof off, one skylight in!

The immediate difference it made inside was remarkable. It’s positively airy up there! I did a small dance.

The first look up at the skylight. TREEHOUSE EFFECT!

The first look up the stairs at the skylight. TREEHOUSE EFFECT!

A guy with a crane dropped the many shingle packages on the roof mid-morning. The whole house shook, and some cats were displeased. The actual shingling kicked off early afternoon.

Porch roof on

Porch roof on

The crew put down tarps all around the house. I still anticipated that there would be a big mess afterwards — it’s a messy job. I grew up in a new subdivision, and we were always playing with shingles and siding pieces that had been left behind. That’s not an option for the neighborhood kids here.

mess v not mess

During and after

It went so well, I might have dreamed this re-roof, except that we have an actual new roof. Here’s the old roof:


Here’s the new:

I know conventional wisdom says white house/gray roof, but I like the cedar color. Makes the place more cottage-y and snuggly. Coordinates with the hardscaping. And maybe someday the house won’t be white.

Posted in Before & After, Garage, Siding & Roof | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Retrofitting Air Conditioning to an Older Home

Moe: Now he’s ragging on air conditioners!
Carl: Hey, they keep us cool in the summer, pal!

When we bought the house, it had one window air conditioner of limited cooling power. A former owner removed one of the original piano windows for this purpose. Did he bother to save the window for later use? Nope.

Over the years, we replaced that unit and added others. It doesn’t get very hot here for much of the summer, but when it does, it is (in my opinion) UNBEARABLY hot. In recent years, I seem to be turning into a Sebacean, at least from a hate-to-be-overheated perspective.

aeryn sun

Since we were remodeling anyway, we decided to get some pricing on AC installs. We received two bids in the brand-new-nice-car range and one that seemed–at least in comparison–semi-achievable. Nice-used-car. It’s expensive, no two ways about it, but shopping around made a big difference.

Each company quoted ductless mini-splits. These are the units that you hang on the wall that attach directly to an exterior AC unit.


A mini-split/ductless system by Fujitsu. The units are mounted to exterior walls, then a pipe runs outside the house to the fan/cooling unit thing. The system typically needs an exterior run to each individual unit, but that allows for zone cooling (via remote, apparently).

The first two bidders also quoted mini-duct systems, also called small-duct or high-velocity AC.


Unico mini-ducts. The ducts are skinny and flexible, so they can be snaked through walls for fewer or no soffits. The cooled air is forced through at speed and exits through these classy vents.

And two of the bids included “regular” central air conditioning.

We had talked about this kind of conventional AC with a few HVAC people over the years. Generally, they would conclude with, “But you have radiator heat.” In other words, we didn’t already have the larger ducts in place that a forced air furnace system uses. People with forced air heat can add AC reasonably easily. If your house has radiators, though, the ductwork needs to be retrofitted. Unlike mini-duct systems, though, regular AC ducts are pretty large (flexible ducts about 6 inches in diameter and metal ducting about 8 x 10 inches). It’s a fair bit to retrofit. That rhymed.

Based on our research and the information from potential installers (who got sick of our questions), here is our non-definitive take on the pros and cons of each of these three options.

1. Mini-Splits (a/k/a Ductless AC)


  • Zoning only cools where you want.
  • Lack of ducting reduces energy lost from air leaks.
  • Sticking to a small number of individual wall units makes it fairly affordable.
  • No major remodeling required.


  • Several articles (and two of three installers) say the units are not as efficient as hyped.
  • May be difficult to locate the wall units to cool effectively, and multiple condensers might be required outside.
  • After a couple of wall units, the price goes up rapidly. One of our quotes for a mini-split was more than for a mini-duct system by another installer.
  • Multiple exterior units and lines may be unsightly.

2. Mini-Ducts (a/k/a High Velocity AC) (The many minis confused me too, by the way.)


  • No major remodel (unless there’s a problem snaking a duct somewhere, in which case, they might open up a wall — but no chases/soffits).
  • Historically sympathetic to architectural features.
  • Efficient.


  • Some dislike the “high velocity” aspect or find them noisy.
  • Blimey, is it EXPENSIVE! One quote was above $26,000.
shocked cat

How many bags of nip I could buy for that? I don’t know, I’m not Math Cat.

3. Central Air


  • Less expensive than most options (only a very limited mini-split installation was cheaper in our quotes).
  • Serves entire house.
  • Lower ongoing maintenance costs (according to all three installers).


  • Ductwork must be accommodated inside the house, maybe requiring chases and soffits (or loss of closet space).
  • Less efficient than mini-split systems.
  • System requires large air returns to circulate displaced air back into the system.
These sorts of things, with filters that need to be changed.

These things, with filters that need to be changed.

Just because we are aware of these three major options, though, does not mean that (a) there aren’t other options, or (b) that you will be able to tell which option is which on any given bid. On this latter point, HVAC people aren’t trying to be misleading — it’s just that their quotes can be technical or inaccessibly worded.

Case in point: the company we went with (Metro Heating in St. Paul — not sponsored, they don’t know we blog) included an option for a system involving ductwork in the walls. They said we should be able to get the ductwork inside walls easily and that the vents would be pretty small. We took this to mean they were talking about a mini-duct system. When we talked in more detail, it was actually a standard central air system, but with smaller vents than we anticipated, and they had a plan for tucking in the larger ductwork.

Central air ticked the following boxes for us:

  • Minimal piping on the outside of the house.
  • Comparatively affordable pricing (both initially and for maintenance).
  • Relatively low-profile vents.
  • No more window units!!!

Installation was just completed this week, so I’ll tell you all about it in the next AC post (now available here).

Posted in Construction, Energy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments


Is “hell’s bells” a prayer? Because Daddy says it all the time.

– Lisa Simpson

I spent much of the weekend finishing plaster repairs in preparation for reconnecting the ground floor ceiling lights. My neck and shoulders did not thank me for the exercise.

If you need to chisel out a hole for a new electrical box in a plaster-lathe wall, it’s a good idea to use masking tape on the line to be cut. It helps hold the plaster together so that cracks don’t propagate.

Kevin pointing out the lack of tape (retrospectively).

Kevin pointing out the lack of tape. This one turned out ok.

I forgot this step and ended up with an awful mess.

Well, nertz.

This one did not.

To fix plaster screw-ups of this magnitude, cut pieces of sheetrock (UK: plasterboard…?) to fill in as much of the huge void as possible.

I got your huge, gaping void right here.

I got your huge, gaping void right here.

Make sure that the sheetrock is no thicker than the depth of the missing plaster. Measure and sketch the gaps — my measurements turned out to be wrong, so I put a piece of paper on the ceiling and rubbed the side of a pencil lead along the edge to “trace” the hole. Then I cut the pieces a titch smaller than the pattern.

A sheetrock insert near the hall light -- I didn't get a photo of the inserts for the worse mess around the bedroom light.

Insert near the hall light; it’s actually flush with the plaster, despite the weird shadows.

Screw the pieces into the lathe. Or crack the piece of sheetrock while trying to screw it to the lathe, and nail the smaller pieces in place instead. Or try Liquid Nails — strong initial tack! — and come back 10 minutes later to find the piece on the floor. Whatever works, just get it up there. Use painter’s caulk to take up some of the space in the cracks, but keep the caulk above the level of the ceiling surface (it doesn’t sand well).

Hall light with some joint compound applied and drying

Hall light with some joint compound applied and drying

After that’s all set, slather on some joint compound to make it all smooth. Thin coats are more durable, so you may need to build up the coverage. Make sure you really push the compound into the gaps so you don’t end up with new holes when you sand.

If you are having a weekend like mine, you may need to do this multiple times to get it right. If you are good, you can apply the compound smoothly enough that it requires almost no sanding. I am not good.

Bedroom light with joint compound


Wait until the compound is really dry all the way through before sanding (remember thin coats), and wear a mask and eye protection. And use drop cloths and an air cleaner for the room. And a mop and dust cloth. IT WAS A TIRING WEEKEND. But even I was able to put together a reasonable plaster repair using this method.

I still need to paint, but this is the bedroom ceiling that had the horrible gaps.

Bedroom ceiling with the horrible gaps filled in. The lines show where plaster ended or sheet rock began, and will disappear under paint. Hopefully.

Prime the fresh surfaces, then you can repaint. I haven’t repainted yet, but the ceiling is THERE, which is an advance on last week.

Hall light -- the primer coat is more obvious here.

Hall light — the primer coat is more obvious here.

Once the ceiling was fixed, I was able to reinstall the lights with their fresh, this-century wiring. While the Kev worked on running a circuit for our eventual in-floor bathroom heat, I put up the lights, then turned off the power and ran the new wire into the breaker box and hooked everything up. I flipped the breaker on and we ran upstairs to party like it was 1899.

Only nothing worked. It didn’t make sense! NO SENSE WAS MADE. I was speechless, but Kev managed to ask, “Did you make all the connections in the junction boxes?”



I was so focused on the fixtures that I completely forgot connecting all the lines to the POWER. Ten minutes later, everything worked, and much wailing and weeping was averted.

Post-script: The post title is a Texas-ism from way back before my time — an expression to avoid blasphemy. I don’t always avoid blasphemy, especially this weekend.

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Posted in Construction, D'oh!, Electrical, Repair & Maintenance, Walls & Floors | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments