Friday 13 January 2017

Planning for the future - if there is one

You might have noticed that not a lot has been happening here of late, but one of the primary reasons is that we don't actually want to do all that much.

We've 'engaged the services' of an architect with a view to extending, you see, so we can't really start making changes anywhere in case we end up ripping them all out because we want an indoor swimming pool and underground sex dungeon... for example. Which we don't. We're not keen swimmers.

And the thing with architects and plans and wotnot is that that kind of thing takes time to sort out, included in which is a tremendous amount of cogitation and chin-stroking rather than spontaneous gun-jumping.

How things currently look

Our architect, Peter, was recommended to us by a neighbour as someone who has been in the industry for so long that he has now retired from it and has little else to do other than play tennis and watch Homes Under the Hammer, so he likes to keep his hand in.
He has been the brains behind a couple of very nice homes in the area and gazillions of others elsewhere - so he knows his stuff - and his rates are particularly attractive because he's no longer a corporate robot with £ signs in his eyes.
He's also a very pleasant chap and recently brought us some cooking apples from his garden which Dawn magicked in to a crumble which she then froze and forgot about. So we have apple crumble in the freezer.

Apple crumble.
I like apple crumble.
I'm not sure where the freezer is and I can't work the oven.

Having never made a planning application before we're completely new to everything from beginning to end, so we're kind of feeling our way along slowly.
We know we want a bigger Kitchen - probably as a large kitchen/diner - and a bathroom which can accommodate both a bath and a person at the same time would be nice too. So that's at least work on a ground floor extension but it would ideally mean a two-storey add-on being built subject to planning and money.

The first plan for a single-storey extension.
There was another one with a secret courtyard but I can't find it.

All simple enough so far, you might think, but a new bathroom would mean opening up the current landing which would give us room to do something with the dangerously-steep Victorian stairs, which in turn might impact upon the existing bedrooms and the Dining Room where the stairs come down in to an adjoining cupboard... etc.

Then there's the outside.
We want the extension to move out the back of The Lodge across the existing courtyard, somehow encompassing the old outbuildings, and doing that would mean knocking down the garage which would be blocking the view to the garden... so we'd need a new garage... so we can't really work on the garden even if it wasn't snowing outside...
...and on it goes.

The net result is that we can't really do all that much until decisions are made about the future of the property.
Yes, there are a few niggly jobs outstanding but nothing important enough to encourage us in to major action (although we're finally going to get round to lagging the loft soon), which leaves us - especially me, because Dawn is distracted by real employment stuff - at a bit of a loose end.

The latest plans for our consideration
(Click to make it bigger)

And the dangerous part of being in Limbo is that I've got time to let my brain run around a little bit.
I'm beginning to think that a Trump-proof bunker could actually be a good idea.


Look at it this way: at some point over the next four years, should the permanently-furious and astonishingly-tactless DJT not end up on a drawer in a freezer, there's likely to be some kind of jolly old knees-up between him, Vlad, Kim, Bashar, Xi and probably one or two other despots people, and we'll all be invited whether we want to be or not.
To update a popular movie reference: "Our intercontinental ballistic missiles will block out the sun." Attribute that where you will.

Paranoid, lying, arrogant, shouty lunatic
So somewhere in the back of my mind I'm digging a great big hole at the back of The Lodge, lowering in a shipping container, filling its shelves with five years' worth of baked beans, covering it up with mud and grass, adding a trapdoor hidden in the floor of a shed and waiting for the sirens. Quite a lot like this (turn the sound down a bit).

Most people would have laughed at the idea a few years ago, but I'm not so sure now.

Friday 30 December 2016

Extreme door stripping

"Do you want the bad news?" asked the antique restoration fella as we arrived to collect 10 doors which had been dropped off for stripping a couple of weeks earlier. Two of ours and eight belonging to some friends.

Now the thing with questions like that is:
a) You would normally expect a punchline;
b) You would also expect some good news to counter whatever was coming first;
c) 'Bad' news, when delivered in such a way, would be something like "I haven't done it yet"

So imagine our amusement to see that the restorer's workshop now looked like this...

Bad news indeed

Unsurprisingly there was no good news on offer as we stood among the smouldering ruins, although on the positive side he had actually finished the job and apparently all 10 doors - every single one of which was circa 150-years-old - looked "beautiful" in the moments before a hot coal unexpectedly hurled itself from an open pot-bellied stove, landing on a workbench in the highly-combustible building which for many years had been absorbing flammable fumes and was lined with shelves featuring many containers of what amounted to pure napalm.

Apparently the three fire crews in attendance had had a whale of a time for many hours as they battled not only to stop the raging inferno spreading to nearby properties but also to stop the huge bath of caustic stripping fluid disintegrating and the gas bottles used to heat it from entering orbit. It sounded like a right laugh.

At least the bath of face-melting caustic (centre) survived
But all was not lost because there was a punchline:

"I'm not insured," chuckled the jovial-but-slightly-bonkers chap. "It lapsed four years ago."

In the few minutes it took to learn all of this, Dawn, Andy and I said very little other than the occasional high-pitched four-letter word, preferring to spend most of that time standing slack-jawed as the blood left our faces and gathered around our vital organs.

The drive home in Andy's Land Rover, accompanied by a trailer which was just as empty as it had been on the way there, was one of the most surreal experiences of my life as we struggled to process what was going on in our heads.
Because not only had Dawn and I lost two original features of The Lodge, including what we think was the original back door (plus original fittings), but our friends had lost every single internal door in their cottage, meaning Christmas and New Year would be celebrated in a house draped with blankets to stop the drafts whistling around.


As I write we're waiting for the holidays to get themselves out of the way when hopefully the restorer will be in touch to give us the cash compensation he promised - a four-figure sum - so we can all get new doors sorted out and put the whole bizarre episode behind us.

After all, as he told us immediately after breaking the news about the insurance: "I'm loaded."

He'd better be.

UPDATE - January 17, 2017

Roughly three quarters of what we asked for has been paid and the cheque cleared today... which was a little bit of a welcome surprise.
The final payment should be made in a few weeks once the restorer's overdraft comes through, so maybe he's not made of money after all.
Nevertheless, I've got written - and signed - confirmation that the final amount will be paid so it seems as though all's well that ends well, albeit not for our poor doors.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Skirting the issue

CONFESSION: I wrote this post bloody months ago but hadn't sorted out the photos... then my phone (on which reside said images) wouldn't connect to my laptop... then I forgot... then I had stuff to do... then my parents started badgering me about blogging more... then I got a new phone... then I had more stuff to do... etc.

< sad face >

As pretentious as it might sound, my mini-mantra when making decisions which affect the finish or overall result of a job is always "if we do ordinary stuff we'll get an ordinary house".
This is true, too. I actually use those words out loud in the direction of Dawn's rolling eyes sometimes.

Luckily she also (usually) agrees with my great wisdom, which is why rather than slapping a load of pine around the bottom of the Living Room walls, we decided to pay a little bit extra for European oak skirting and architrave to compliment the beams and window sills, which were yet to be made.
Other than our Kitchen of the Future the Living Room will be the main place in the house for relaxing or praying for our guests to leave, so we didn't want to cut any corners which would be obvious or make a difference to the end result.

Workshop porn

But because we don't like making things simple for ourselves we also decided to take a round-trip of almost 400 miles to our friend Will's sawmill near the south coast, which isn't a kick in the behind away from France, where he agreed to let us help make the 7-inch straight-edged oak boards and matching chamfered architrave for around the inside of the door frame.

Despite appearances, Will's fingers are
all of the requisite length
Will is a tremendously-talented and knowledgeable (and friendly) chap, by the way, and we're not just saying that because we kind of e-know him (long story - it's a web forum thing stretching back more than a decade) - if he wasn't much cop we wouldn't have bothered asking.

His website is here. You should take a look. And yes, that's a bare-faced plug because I want some wallnut and olive from him soon for my latest endeavour.

So, passports in hand, off we went to Billingshurst in West Sussex which is home to Woodlouse Industries and more wood than you can shake a... lots, anyway.
Will had already cut the rough and filthy boards to size and although we didn't get our hands as dirty as we did making the companion set (there weren't so many steps to follow where we could get stuck in) we helped to run them through the four-sided planer which churned out beautiful, smooth timber at the other end.
As the Clumsiest Woman in the World messed around on the bandsaw with sacrificial offcuts and flailing fingers, Will ran the architrave, which is narrower than the skirting boards, over a router table, trimming off the corner edges at 45-degrees.
He chucked in a little extra oak - just in case, a couple of boards and a sycamore chopping board that he just happened to have lying around and we strapped them carefully to the roof of the ManTruck, had a quick farewell pint, and made the journey home.

Poised and ready to transform in to a
gigantic mathematical headache
A couple of weeks later, after the decorating was done and the floor was given its penultimate finish, it was down to me and the ever-present and helpful Trevor to get them fitted.

It took a couple of days to do - cutting to length and mitering (with a 100-tooth chopsaw blade for a smoother cut) - but before long, yet still after much head-scratching and disagreement, we had glued and screwed everything in place, using a couple of 'plinth blocks' for the transition between the skirting and architrave around the door. These blocks were 2mm thicker than the skirting - and hence the architrave - so they stood a little proud without getting in the way of passing toes, and I cut them 20mm higher than the skirting and 20mm wider than the architrave.

Instant grab adhesive. Not so instant.
While fitting the architrave we had to deal with a couple of issues, both of which had the same solution.
The first was that the plaster on the walls rounds-off before it gets to the door frame, which would have left a gap of up to 12mm between the back of the architrave and the frame. To minimise this we left some of the original pine frame's edge exposed as a kind of feature (it was waxed and buffed as the final job) leaving a gap of around 5mm between the architrave and frame which would need to be filled later on.

The second consideration was that, whereas architrave is generally supposed to hide the frame edge and cover the door hinges, we wanted to keep the hinge screws exposed in case we ever needed to remove the door. This was also solved by keeping around 75% of the frame edge exposed.

It's not easy taking pictures of fitted skirting
so here's one of a radiator valve and
polishing piping
Once everything was in place I mixed some of the fine oak sawdust from the mitre saw's collection bag with a little five-minute epoxy glue to make a paste then filled the countersunk screw holes. I left it all for 24 hours to go off fully, then because epoxy sets harder than stone I ended up foregoing sandpaper and took the grinding wheel of a Dremel to the rough surfaces, finishing off with a once-over with 240-grit sandpaper to make it all flush.
I'm slightly disappointed that the finish is darker than the surrounding wood but it's not terrible so I'm pretty happy with it.

Finally, because a straight, smooth wall in an old house is a thing of myth and legend, I masked off the edges of all the woodwork and ran a bead of decorator's caulk around the tops of the skirting and edges of the architrave, just to join everything up to the plaster.

And that was it.
We're delighted with the final result and although the skirting has a contemporary feel to it with its straight lines and square edges, the 7" height of them still keeps that Victorian thingummyjig going on.

Things of note:

1. Plinth blocks for the skirting/architrave transition
2. Countersunk screw holes filled with epoxy and oak dust paste then sanded flush
3. About 75% of the door frame's edge is exposed to counter the problem wall edges
and leave the hinges exposed. 

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Learning about lime

In keeping with the 'do as much as we can ourselves' approach, and in the wake of the horror story that was our experience with a lime plasterer, we decided to go on a lime plastering course a couple of months ago (the end of June to be more precise).

There are a few lime product suppliers in the UK, of which we've used three so far for our various house-related purchases: Lime GreenTy-Mawr and, randomly, Travis PerkinsLime Green and Ty-Mawr make their own products as well as selling others and we've found both of them really helpful.

In addition to making and selling products, Ty-Mawr also offer courses on Lime and Lime Plastering. So, after umming and ahhing for a bit, we signed up.

The course comprised of two days - the first day focusing on an introduction to general lime in building, and the second focusing more on lime plastering. The setting is Ty-Mawr HQ in Brecon, Wales - a really gorgeous location with a great set of old buildings that have been treated as product experiments, while also performing normal home/work functions, and a vegetable garden that puts our couple of raised beds to shame. 

The co-founder of Ty-Mawr, Nigel, oversaw most of the course, with a couple of experts (Scott, Matthew and Sam) in the plastering and lime fields taking over for the practical/hands-on parts. You also get a book written by the founders of Ty-Mawr to take away and refer to when you've forgotten the inordinate amount of information that's imparted!

Here, in no particular order, is a list of key things we learnt:


Well-graded sand is sand with a good mix of grain sizes - some at the fine end of the scale, some at the course end of the scale, but mostly 'middling' sizes - a good bell-curve distribution of grain size. 

Using well-graded sand gives a good void ratio, so if you add water it will take a third of the volume of water in the same container that is already filled with sand. 

The Lime Cycle:

Lime changes its chemical composition as it goes through various treatments, known as the lime cycle. It is first dug from the ground, then crushed and burnt - at which point it becomes quicklime. This is then 'slaked' - where water is added, or extracted, to produce either lime putty (also known as fat or hydraulic lime), or the more-familiar lime in powder 'hydrate' form (non-hydraulic lime) that we buy to mix with sand to make mortar etc. When these products are allowed to set, carbon is reabsorbed into the plaster/limewash/etc, and the final stage returns to its original CaCO3 chemical composition.

Lime sets by absorbing CO2 from the air. If it dries too quickly, it won't set. Carbonisation occurs at around 2mm a month. Dry lime is not the same as set! 

Source: Ty-Mawr Lime Limited

Lime putty:

Lime putty is also referred to as: non-hydraulic lime (NHL), and fat lime. It is quicklime (lime that has been burnt and crushed) and water.

If you cover the surface of lime putty with water it will keep indefinitely.

Lime putty is fixatropic, so the more you 'work' it (knead it, mix it, etc) the more 'liquid' it becomes.

Mixing lime mortar/scratch coat plaster:

When mixing powdered lime, mix dry sand and lime first, and add water to the mix afterwards - this will prevent the lime 'balling' in the mix.

Lime is less dense than cement, so will rise up at the back of a cement mixer - pull it back down into the mix to ensure it is mixed evenly - add the water after this.

Give this sufficient mix time to ensure that it is wet through, without excessive water (around 15 minutes). You cannot over mix it!
You can leave the mix overnight and mix it again the next day.

Makes of lime:

Different makes of lime use different sources: St Astier (from France) tends to be nice and fatty and a finer grade than Singleton Birch (from Portugal). There is also Hanson (also from France).


Use a plugging chisel to remove pointing. Rake out twice the width of the joint when removing pointing. 

Avoid frosty months!

Thoroughly wet  the wall down first and leave for around 20 minutes before starting.

Brush the wall to knock off any loose bits of mortar etc.

Pin out any large holes (throw a lump of mortar in, then wedge in a small stone).

Mortar consistency should be 'wet sandcastle' texture.

Using a pointing trowel, push the mortar into the joints, leaving it slightly proud of the surface.

If you use a pointing bar, moisten the bar with a sponge or damp cloth.

Tap the pointing with a stiff brush (this is calling 'knocking back'), to ensure the mortar is in the gap properly.

Shade your pointing from hot sun, or cover it with a damp blanket or hessian.

Protect from any frost.

Mist your pointing (use a garden sprayer or similar), once a day for four to five days (mist, don't saturate!)


The sand to lime ratio for both mortar and plastering is the same, but plastering is much wetter.

Hair is added to the base coat mix, which ties the mix together and adds flexible strength. The hair is usually either goat, horse, cattle, or synthetic, and is around one-inch long.

Fibrelime is a single-coat plaster that Ty-Mawr make for Singleton Birch.

Aggregate size should be a maximum of one-third of the coat thickness, eg 9mm depth, 3mm maximum aggregate size. This stops 'scrapes', where aggregate drags between the surface and the tool that is applying it.

You should use alkaline resistant mesh, etc. Don't use galvanised nails, as the galvanised coating will (slowly) react with the lime.

The plaster bonds to the surface either by suction, or by physical bond.

Bagging refers to rendering or plastering over the texture of stone/brick, so that the texture remains visible.

Lime plaster will adhere to concrete blocks, and you can also use material to tie lime plaster to plaster board, if you need/want to carry the look and feel through into a modern area.

If the surface you are plastering doesn't absorb water, don't wet it first!

If you struggle to get the plaster to bond to your surface, you can apply a Splatter/Dashing/Hurling coat - where you literally throw a rich 2:1 mix at the wall a day or two before you start to plaster normally. This gives suction, which allows the plaster to key.

Plastering is usually done in a three-coat process (rendering is usually just two).

The three coats are:

1. The Scratch coat - this is the only coat with hair in, and is around 1cm thick.

This should be scored in a diamond pattern (a special scratching tool can be used, or alternatively the corner of a lath).

This then gives good grip for the next coat. 

This mix should be a 2:1 or 2.5:1 ratio of sand and lime, with hair added.

The amount of hair to add is a bit nominal - throw in a handful to a mix and look to see that it is evenly distributed throughout the mix, with only a few mm between each hair.
2. The 'Devil' Float coat - this is applied to be around 1 cm thick, a few hours after the Scratch coat, using a straight edge to line it up, and it should then be rubbed over with a plastic float to 'consolidate' it. 

It is then lightly scored to create a key (usually with a float with small sharp nails hammered through), in a pattern that often gives vague horn shapes, hence the 'devil' part of the name. (If you are rendering externally, rather than plastering, don't key this coat, two coats is finished!) 

The mix for this coat is 3:1 sand and lime, with no hair to be added.

3. The Finish/Finishing coat - this is applied to be around 3-4mm thick. It should be done in two thin coats, when you can leave 'finger shadows' in the the first coat, apply the second. 

The mix is 3 parts silver sand:1 part lime putty. It needs to be mixed with a paddle mixer, so is usually bought pre-mixed. 

You can then finish off by rubbing the plaster with a sponge float in circular motions (this is optional!), then brush water on if necessary and smooth with your trowel edge. 

You can also rub the plaster with a sponge to give a slightly sandier texture, which is good for blending with other plaster, and also good for removing trowel marks when you're a beginner!

The richer you make a mix, the more it will shrink. 

Cracks will float out.

Good plastering equipment source:

One of the exceptionally knowledgeable people running the course (Scott) was wearing a T-shirt from 'Jones and Fraser Traditional Building' - worth noting for future reference!

The Ty-Mawr '10 Golden Rules' are:

1. Choose the right type and strength of lime.
2. Choose an appropriate sand/aggregate.
3. Do not add cement.
4. Mix plasters thoroughly and do not add too much water.
5. Do not remove old lime plasters/renders unnecessarily.
6. Thoroughly prepare the surface.
7. Damp down between coats to control suction.
8. Backing coats must have 'gone off' before applying the next coat.
9. Do not allow it to dry too quickly.
10. Use breathable paint to finish it.

Lime water:

This is water from the top of lime putty, or lime wash. It reacts to tan in in oak and darkens it slightly, giving a nice, slightly aged, finish.


When fixing laths, you should leave 3-4mm between the ends, to allow for swelling.

Hemp plaster:

Hemp plaster is lime putty, hemp, and water.

The mix ratio is three parts hemp to one part lime putty, plus water. This mix needs to be mixed in a paddle mixer, therefore it is usually bought pre-mixed.

Hemp plaster is much lighter in weight than lime or gypsum plaster, and is therefore favoured by the trade as it's use leads to less long-term injuries!

Hemp plaster is also easier to apply than lime. 

It holds moisture more than lime, however, so should be avoided in potentially damp places.

Hemp plaster will keep indefinitely if covered with water/covered overnight with plastic.


Hempcrete is a good wall insulator and a good sound insulator.


You can use Plaster of Paris as filler!

You can also buy Casein filler, or Ty-Mawr's own general purpose filler

Paint types:

Limewash and clay paint are both vapour permeable (and plant-based/mineral-based).

Chalk-based paints are usually Latex-bound, so not vapour permeable.

Farrow & Ball and Little Green standard paints are both not vapour permeable.

Distemper is vapour permeable and also water soluble, which makes it difficult to re-cover.

Casein paint is vapour permeable. It comes in powder form to which water is added. 

Silicate/mineral paint is vapour permeable and water repellent (usually recommended for outdoor use, as it is very expensive - for internal use it is generally only considered really worth it for buildings such as churches etc, where they are only heated once a week).

Lime wash:

Lime wash is lime putty, water and pigment.

The ratio is two or three parts water to one part putty, mixed until the consistency is that of single cream/a batter mix. It will separate when stored, so will need mixing up on arrival.

To a 20 litre mix of water and lime putty, add between one and one-and-a-half kilos of pigment.

Lime wash must go onto a porous surface in order to bond to the surface. Where the surface is not fully porous (for example has been fillered), you can add casein, a natural porous glue, to help it bond. Add half a kilo of casein (500g) to 20 litres limewash.

20L of limewash will give around 60 square meters of coverage.

Limewash will 'heal' small cracks in lime plaster.

Wet down the surface to be painted before you start.

Apply one coat every 24 hours or so.

Apply the limewash with a 'wet edge', so don't cut in first etc, instead start from one point and work away from it, as overlaps will give a different shade.

Constant brushing on the same area will burnish the limewash, giving a nice, slightly glossy, finish.

Limewash goes on fairly transparently, and the pigment comes out as it starts to set.

Mist the limewash for two to three days after painting.

Stone repair:

Lithomex is a stone repair material - a mortar based on Natural Hydraulic Lime, designed for the repair of masonry, brick and stone. 

Materials that are not traditionally considered breathable: 

There exists something called Prompt, which is a natural cement.

Hydraulic Lime has water entrainers added to it to create breathability.

R50 (HL) will adhere to marine ply.

R100 (HL) will stick to painted surfaces.

Venetian plaster can be used in a shower (similar to Morrocan plaster).

A 'breathable PVA' equivalent is Casein.