Tuesday 28 July 2015

Woodworking for Dummies

When we finally found out that The Lodge was going to be ours, Dawn and I made a solemn vow - we would do as much work as possible ourselves and we'd do it together whenever we could.


We even shook hands on it and toasted our future DIY success with pepperoni pizza - that's how seriously we were taking it. Pizza pacts are not to be taken lightly.

Three months later (yesterday) - while I was up the scaffolding at the ungodly hour of 5.30am and Dawn was unconscious in the shed trying to touch all four corners of the bed at once, I wondered just where that determination and commitment had gone.

Pine always reminds me of crappy bed frames...
It's July here in the UK, you see, which can mean only one thing. Torrential rain was due to hit within a few hours and I needed to coat the exposed stripped wooden purlins with linseed oil, ready for painting before Roofer #2 (a story for another time) comes to replace three rafters and some laths midweek. Weather permitting.
If the rain came and I hadn't oiled the wood, you see, they'd need a few dry days before I could do them and time is running out because we're already paying extra for the scaffolding (another story for another time).

So the weekend just gone and the next few days is all about the woodwork up on the roof.

If you remember almost two months ago, when the scaffolding first went up for Roofer #1 to sort out the tiles, lead flashing and chimney etc, I decided to use the opportunity to strip the front bargeboards and get them repainted... only to find that most of the wood was rotten.

To be diplomatic and tactful about it, Roofer #1 wasn't really in a position to help with our problem so it was down to us to sort out new rafters and bargeboards, but it's fair to say that we dragged our heels a little bit because we had no idea how to go about it when we already, theoretically, had a roofer on board.
Cutting a long story short, that procrastination has jumped up to bite us on the backside and it's now a mad rush to get things ready for Roofer #2's imminent arrival. Hence insomniac me watching the sun come up from the scaffolding yesterday while listening to what I can only describe as a pig being slaughtered in the vicinity of the shed. I can't say I blame Dawn, though, because she actually works for a living and 5.30am on a Sunday is a time we've only ever read about in books. It's quite a scary concept.

I had told Roofer #2 that we wanted to do as much as possible ourselves so we took delivery of the untreated basic timber on Thursday morning, but for various work-related reasons (I do sometimes have to partake in real-life employment) I'd only had time to pre-oil half of it before the weekend made an appearance.

Hairless. Clueless.
So after running a few Lodge-based errands on Saturday morning Dawn and I set about our biggest and most daunting challenge to date: making the new bargeboards from scratch.
This would be a chance to test our mettle and make our own personal statement on the public-facing exterior of The Lodge, but it was also likely to be the most time-consuming job so oiling the rest of the wood would have to wait.

Now then, I'm as much a gifted carpenter as Dawn is a lion-taming monkey-juggler so in lieu of us having the relevant skills necessary for bargeboard success we grunted in single syllables, puzzled over calculations, drew lots of diagrams in crayon and stared into the middle distance for extended periods of time before we even fathomed out how to measure the lengths we'd need to cut the timber to - two lots of 4m planks and two lots of 2m planks.

But we managed. We even managed to get the angles correct at the apexes of both front bedrooms so that the sawn lengths of timber fitted together almost where they were meant to.

Most normal people would have left it at that and bathed in their success against all the odds while gazing lovingly at their basic bargeboards, but for some reason a couple of weeks ago I convinced Dawn that we should "do a poncey design or something" because we'd probably not get another chance for the next 25 years or whatever, all things being well. And she agreed.

Dawn, Andy and SamTheDog.
Supervisor's chair and Mr Grumpy mug.
So after my early-morning spell high above the countryside we drafted in our friend Andy from Renovating An Old Stone Cottage who brought with him a router, an entire Woodwork A-level and SamTheDog, arch rival to our very own SausageTheCat.
As I attempted to avoid having my face licked clean off by a very enthusiastic StD, and with the Living Room transformed into a workshop because the predicted Biblical flooding had arrived, Dawn and Andy conjured up nothing short of a minor miracle with string, a pencil, a steel ruler and complete guesswork to produce scribblings on the planks that looked a bit like a bargeboard design Dawn had found on the internet last week. If we squinted a little bit.

It was then my turn to step up to the plate, so I tentatively set about cutting the first board only to discover half-way through that my rapidly-overheating 20-year-old cordless B&D jigsaw was more likely to explode in an all-consuming fireball than actually finish the job it was designed for. So I high-tailed it to Screwfix for a replacement.
When I returned Andy had jigsawed a little more at great personal risk but, with palms aflame, he had invented somewhere else more important to be and had to leave so he gave me a brief lesson in how to use the router and headed off with StD, abandoning us to our own inadequate devices.

And I can honestly say that what we eventually produced many hours later - without sarcasm or any of my usual over-written nonsense - was something we will remember as one of our proudest moments in the whole Lodge experience, because we genuinely surprised ourselves.

Yes, all it took was a bit of drawing, some sawing, a few cups of coffee and a steady supply of Jammy Dodgers, but with no prior experience whatsoever we turned a few quids' worth of plain pine planks into decorative bargeboards that not only look the business, but if we had bought them online from the place where Dawn first saw the design, would have set us back almost £600.

Me, Dawn, Andy, SamTheDog and SausageTheCat.
That's teamwork right there, folks.

Of course the next few days are all about the laborious task of oiling and painting the boards black alongside miles of architrave and rafters, so that's where the short-lived teamwork ends. I'll be on my lonesome for that little lot because the glory-seekers have all abandoned ship.

Apparently they've got better things to do, the bloody shirkers.
It's not glamorous enough for them.


Tuesday 21 July 2015

A round peg into a round hole

You'd look this smug if you had eight chimneys too.
"I delivered a load of this stuff to George Clooney's new house the other week," said the Cockney sparra van man as he dropped off flue liners and associated gubbins at The Lodge today.

"It makes this place look like a dog kennel. No offence."

Shortly after beating him to death with my steel toe-capped designer hand-made Italian loafers and dragging his bloody corpse into the woods for the badgers to feast upon, I stood in the kitchen with a glass of juice and some chocolate bourbons contemplating something much more serious: how to adapt our new bird guards to our reclaimed chimney pots.

Let's rewind a little.

Last Thursday, while Dawn was suffering from a hangover "of epic proportions" following a work night out (I was considering calling a priest) working diligently from home, I nipped to a specialist chimney place to discuss what we needed to finish off the flues before the scaffolding disappears.
We have already chosen the unbelievably expensive log burners we want for the Living Room and the Dining Room, but different people had advised us different things about the bedrooms.
Because we don't want to waste our newly-uncovered arched fireplaces by boxing them off and lobbing in a vase full of crappy twigs and fairy lights, our original plan had been to install small, relatively inexpensive log burners so guests could warm their cockles as they dozed off during the winter months. At other times of the year, when they're not being used, they could just sit there looking all pretty.
We had already dismissed the suggestion that we'd roast our guests alive ("they don't have to put more logs on..."), but someone else guessed that - being in the bedrooms - they might not get signed-off by safety inspectors in case our friends wake up dead through carbon monoxide poisoning.

As a compromise we then changed tack and decided to fit open fires which would serve much the same purpose and apparently, for some unfathomable reason, they're safer (so we were told). Nevertheless it was a reluctant compromise because in order to stay true to The Lodge and its history we would ideally need to choose cast iron Victorian fireplaces, and we're not all that keen on such things.
But this raised a new issue: to line or not to line. Some people said we wouldn't need to line the flues at all whereas others said we still could if we wanted... but liners aren't cheap, and if they aren't strictly necessary...

I hate making managerial decisions because I'm almost always wrong, so after chatting with Mr Chimney for a good hour I headed back home and held a mirror under Dawn's nose only to find, surprisingly, she was still with us.

300mm vs 270mm
Why does life have to be so difficult?
I posted ham sandwiches and medicinal grapes into her face until she was slightly less translucent then I dragged her to the flue shop and propped her up in the corner while Mr Chimney explained the pros and cons of flue liners to the top of her head.

Eventually we decided that, regardless of what we were going to fit, we would line the flues anyway and make a final decision when the time came to sort the bedrooms out.

Then, as though to underline the fact that my life is never, ever simple, came the rain hats/bird guards/pot hangers - whatever you want to call them. The cages that fit on top of the pots to stop the weather, wildlife and Father Christmas getting in.
The standard diameter of the cowl - let's call them cowls for simplicity - that would theoretically fit our pots is 300mm. No more, no less.

And our reclaimed Queen Crown pots have an internal diameter of 270mm.

Not only that, but most cowls that you see atop chimney pots are literally just that - perched on top of the pots, favouring function over form.
But we don't want to spoil the look of our pretty matching pots by clagging ugly metal cages above them and by the same token we don't want to leave them open to the elements, pterodactyls and fat flying bearded drunkards, no matter how jolly.
And yet nobody seems to make unobtrusive cowls for our style of chimney pot, despite the design being as common as muck. So it follows that all of the King, Queen and Bishop chimney pots we see around must be completely open down the flue. Why would people do that? Mad, I tells thee.

So after much head-scratching and discounting of possible alternatives, Mr Chimney (who, unfathomably, hadn't come across this problem before) suggested that we break new ground by taking an angle grinder to regular 300mm circular cowls and somehow forcing them to fit inside our 270mm pots. If we did it right the smoke draw from down below shouldn't be affected because there'd still be plenty of space between the cage and the inside of the pot, despite almost the entire thing being hidden within the crown.

As that was the only real option we had we ordered the following:
  • 2 x 7m standard 6" 316-grade stainless steel flexible flue liners for the little-used upstairs fireplaces. These have a 15-year warranty.
  • 2 x 9m tougher 6" 904-grade liners for downstairs because, according to Dawn, I am a "professional arsonist". I'm not. I am merely an enthusiastic amateur. These carry a 25-year warranty.
  • 4 x 300mm circular cowls.
  • 2 x enameled flue pipes which arrived damaged and need to be changed
  • 4 x register plates (two of which we'll replace with gather hoods if we go the open fire route).
  • 4 x 5" to 6" adapters as recommended by both Mr Chimney and Purevision, who manufacture the log burners we want.
  • 1 x nose cone, which should help get the liners down the flues without mishap.
  • 6 x 100l bags of vermiculite, intended to be poured down the flues outside of the liners in order to help deal with condensation while retaining more heat (we haven't decided if we want to use this yet as much of what we have read suggests it's more trouble than it's worth and it's not strictly necessary).
Fifteen hundred quid that we'll literally never see again
Fast forward to today and after finishing my juice and bikkies, as the remains of George's mate nestled among the foxgloves, I broke out the angle grinder and, in a stroke of genius, decided to use the stinky old dishwasher by the garage as a workbench. What. A. Pro.

With the help of the inside of the kitchen bin, which measured-in at 275mm diameter, I scribed a circle around the top of the first cowl and nervously started cutting. Once the narrow hoop clattered to the ground I did the same again with the disc below the cage, being sure to leave the securing lugs in place so they could be bent to match the new diameter.

Once that was all finished I squeezed the cowl into the pot only to find that the top disc - the rain guard itself - practically blanked-off the entire pot opening which would have caused problems with the smoke draw as there wouldn't be enough airflow. So out came the angle grinder again and I lopped the whole rim of the rain guard off so it matched the diameter of the cage below it.
And this time it was a perfect fit with plenty of room around the sides. The top of the cowl isn't quite below the lower points of the crown, but looking from down at ground level it'll be invisible, which is exactly what we want. I'll pop out tomorrow for some heat-proof paint to protect the now-bare metal edges, then Robert will be my father's brother.

All that remains to be seen now is how it draws when the liners are dropped and the fires lit (when we get them), and because we now seem to be in completely uncharted waters it's fair to say that absolutely anything could happen. We're pioneers, we are.

I was all set to start grinding the second cowl when I realised that I had been wielding power tools around in the rain for much longer than was healthy, and that's when I thought:

What would George do at a time like this?

So I made a tiny cup of overpriced coffee and lounged around seductively in the shed looking suave and ever-so-slightly quizzical as I waited for Dawn to return from work.
It was no good. She wanted to know why I was wearing shoes with no socks and, besides, she was dying for the loo.

Damn you, Clooney.

Friday 17 July 2015

Thar's a moose loose aboot this hoose!

A few days ago I started angle grinding jagged and uneven brickwork where we recently discovered that a wall had been knocked down between the Living Room and the dog-leg nook area.

I haven't finished yet - in fact I'm going to go back in when I publish this post - but it's a very, very messy job that causes so much dust that I can only be in there for a few minutes at a time before I literally can't see my hand in front of my face.
As a result the entire room is covered in a thick layer of orange brick dust which has resulted in something of an unsurprising discovery.

We are not alone.

I poked my head in there earlier to assess what still needs to be done, only to find a criss-cross of teeny tiny little footprints in the carpet of dust on the quarry tile floor. The majority of the haphazard tracks seem to be in the nook section although whatever caused them appears to have investigated the wider room a little bit too.

On close inspection the individual prints seem to be cloven which suggests that a drunken miniature goat is living in the house somewhere, but I find that unlikely because there's not enough for it to eat and it won't be able to get in the fridge. The door is quite stiff.
As I have also ruled out slugs, snails, snakes and crocodiles that leaves three possibilities - a rodent, a bug or a massive spider walking on its hind legs. A few minutes ago I remembered finding a dead cockroach outside by the garage some weeks back, which I didn't really think much of at the time, but now that has stuck in my head even though I've got no evidence to back it up yet. I really, really don't want it to be a cockroach.

Regardless, whatever it is certainly isn't contributing to the mortgage so it needs to go. Besides, there's a sizeable gap under the Living Room door and a couple of the other rooms are chock-full of our belongings so the last thing we want is to have our stuff nibbled-at by an uninvited guest.

So later on I'll set a mouse trap and maybe lay out some strips of gaffa tape on the floor to see what we come up with. I don't fancy having to brick a struggling and frightened mouse wrapped up in tape, mind, so that measure may be a last resort.

Having given the matter some thought, I reckon it's a bug of some kind rather than a rodent.
The tracks are too haphazard to be a rodent - mice, for instance, would run along the edge of the wall as if they had somewhere to go, rather than amble about aimlessly in the middle of the floor where there's nothing to scoff.
The footprints aren't right either. A rodent's feet are like those of a titchy cat - pads and claws rather than hooves.
We have had quite a few black beetles in the house but nowhere near large enough to leave tracks so big...

...oh, no. I'm back to cockroaches again.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Gone to pot

Like the morning after a good curry, there was sudden and unexpected movement today on the chimney front when the builder chaps rocked up at 7.30pm to fit the pots on the rebuilt stack.

With uncharacteristic good timing I had spent a few hours yesterday and today cleaning our four reclaimed Queen Crown pots to get the chunks of white cement off their bases and give them a bit of a general tidy.
To begin with I had been gently using the pointy end of a stone hammer coupled with an exceptional aim, but I was getting increasingly worried about the shock waves of the impacts and the fragile nature of the clay and eventually switched to an angle grinder with a masonry disc. This turned out to be faster and more accurate and, by happy coincidence, I found myself gritting my teeth much less than I had been.

Today I gave them a gentle jetwash from a distance and tickled them with a scrubbing brush which removed a little bit of the thin film of green moss that covered some of the outer surfaces and also got rid of the cement dust that the angle grinder had caused. I didn't want them to be perfect, because we may as well have bought new ones, but they just needed a little bit of love. So love they got.

This evening saw more good timing when I decided not to pack in for the day and have a shower, and instead grind some of the ragged brickwork and lime mortar in the Living Room.
When visibility was down to about three inches because of the billowing dust I turned off the angle grinder in time to hear hammering at the door. It was the roofer and the brickie who had come to set the pots on the new stack, despite it being well after tea time and despite no prior warning. To be honest, Dawn and I are normally tucked up in bed in the shed watching Orange Is The New Black on the laptop with beans on toast by that time, but my better half is away with work for the night, so there was another bit of good fortune.
Still, never one to turn down watching people do manual labour on my behalf I dragged a couple of the spruced-up pots out of the garage and left them to it.

Ninety minutes later and with the sun setting over the woods, they packed up and left, leaving The Lodge with - much later than we had anticipated - a finished chimney!

I have a slight worry in that I need to keep the mortar damp while it goes off, and it had already started cracking within an hour of them leaving. The builders were probably on their second pint by 10pm but I was up on the scaffolding with a spray bottle and a wet towel, like Burgess bloody Meredith in Rocky Balboa's corner. Adriaaaannnnnn!
I'll be back up there first thing in the morning to see how it's all fared overnight before I head out to order 2 x 9m flue liners and rain hats for the pots, as per the builder's instructions, and I'll make regular return visits to give it the best chance of staying pristine-ish.

Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go.
Not only is it after 1am but this afternoon, on a whim, I decided to strim the whole front garden and deprive it of acres of 2ft stinging nettles.
Unfortunately I forgot I was wearing shorts at the time and now I have some serious scratching to do before I have any chance of getting to sleep...

It's 9.30am and after just four hours' kip I've been back up the scaffolding to find that the damp towel-covered area is still perfect although a few hairline cracks had appeared elsewhere. Because cracks will start if the mortar (which is part lime) dries out too quickly I've sprayed everything with water again and worked around the cracks with my finger to seal them.
It's due to be a reasonably warm and very sunny day so there'll be a few more trips up there to keep on top of it all.
Fingers crossed and all that.

It's now 1.30pm and the weather hasn't developed in the way that the Met Office said it would, so although it's not warm it's not chilly either and I haven't seen the sun since about 10am.
All of this is very good news for the chimney pots, the mortar for which will dry at a more suitable rate. There's certainly not much cracking up there this afternoon, so all seems well.

I won't be making any more edits.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Investigating the main fireplace

In advance of the planned full-scale assault on the Living Room, and to coincide with the roofing and chimney work that should be finished by now will start happening some time before the end of the decade, one of the things we were genuinely excited about doing was ripping out the Living Room fireplace to find out what was behind it.

When we first saw The Lodge last year the fire breast wall in that room was wallpapered-over and showing signs of actually being wet (not just damp), but the survey suggested that there was a larger potential opening there and possibly a lintel a foot or two above the existing mantelpiece. So that went to the top of our 'Things To Destroy' list, although the 'Sensible Things To Get Done First' list that the grown-ups around us insisted on had to come first. Stupid adults.

As part of the interim measures to get rid of the dampness in the room that I've written about in the above-linked post, we stripped the wallpaper off right back in April to reveal the whole wall was, unsurprisingly, coated in gypsum plaster.
That's where it ended until about six weeks ago when I accidentally started hacking the plaster off during an I've got 20 minutes to kill so what should I do? moment.

Uncovering the original brickwork revealed a few things.
First of all there was indeed a lintel further up the wall, but it wasn't the forgotten length of beautiful aged oak that we had imagined - it was just a scabby length of iron holding up the bricks, much like the one servicing the smaller fireplace below. The layout of the two brick courses above this showed signs that a proper lintel had been gracing the room at some point when everything was still black and white, but that was long gone.
As we had expected in such a situation, the wall between the top of the existing fire and the iron lintel comprised just regular cemented-in bricks, so there were no surprises there either.
So I pulled out the tasteful sandstone block columns that were cemented in on either side of the fireplace, only to find that the bottom block of each stack was cemented in to the poured concrete hearth, suggesting that there was a bigger job ahead of me before I could get those out and continue. So I stopped.

Now, one bit of advice we were given a while ago was to, quite literally, stand back and look at your work for some time in order to see past the obvious. Just let it sink in. Let your brain process what you're looking at. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done if that's your thing, but cogitate. Ponder. Mull. Consider. Do other things that thesaurus.com suggests, but just stare and don't get distracted by concerned family members who think you might have had a nervous breakdown. Don't forget to breathe and blink now and then though.

That's what we did when the plaster was eventually off the chimney breast and, although it seems blindingly obvious now that we can study a photograph, we realised that in the dim and distant past when the fireplace was at its full height, the bricks around it had been painted black.
Some time later a huge chunky fire surround had been installed over the top, and the bricks that remained exposed to the sides had been painted creamy white.
That's not a massive revelation, I grant you, but it's still like taking a peek in to the annals of history and discovering something long-forgotten. So it's nice and satisfying for simple folk like us.

Anyway, that's how the fireplace stayed for a little while, until the start of this week when I decided to get stuck in properly and move on to Phase Two.

The first job was to get part of the concrete hearth up so I could get at the remaining two stone blocks, which was pretty straightforward. The fireplace itself was more of a struggle because it had also been set in to the hearth, but after some gentle persuasion - and with only two cracked ceramic tiles - out it came.
We'll see if we can flog it to a reclamation yard later on but although it looks like a 30s design it could be 70s reproduction for all we know. It's certainly not original to The Lodge because of the size of the potential fireplace it was in and its dark red tiles clash awfully with the fragments of broken green ceramic hearth that we've found outside at the back of the house.
Besides, we don't like it. It's horrible.

An old hearth tile chucked among
rubble at the back of the house
Behind the fireplace was a mess of compacted builders' sand, rubble and cobwebs which took forever to dig out, revealing that there's no actual base to the overall fire chamber. It's just a seemingly bottomless pit of sand which will need to be sorted out before we start reinstating the whole thing.
Other than sand and wotnot, the chamber had been narrowed to maybe two thirds of its original width with columns of very soot-blackened bricks which, much like the upstairs fireplaces, weren't tied in and were reasonably simple to get out - but it's a large feature and there were lots to remove. Judging by the pile outside the back gate we could easily fill a skip as soon as it arrives.

Once everything was out of the fire chamber and cleared from the room, what was left was a huge imposing fireplace that had quite clearly - as predicted by the chimney sweep a while back - been ablaze. And not in a controlled, intentional way either. The back and sides of the chamber were thick with black soot and the smell was almost overpowering.
Chucking the removed bricks outside seemed to help quite a bit, but as I write this the passage of time has also done wonders. All it needed was a good air out and the next step will be to give the whole thing a damn good clean which should also brighten the entire room up a little bit too.

The eventual plan is, of course, to install a log burner here (which is why the chimneys are going to be flued properly) and with the burner we've chosen having a huge viewing window it should create an excellent focal point.
Much like a 52" flatscreen TV would do. But we can have both, right?
Dawn? Dawn? Hello?

Saturday 11 July 2015

A full-scale assault on the Living Room

WARNING: This is quite a long post because I'm on my soapbox a little bit, but if you get through it I promise you will learn some important stuff about damp that may come in useful one day, whether your own house is old or new. Scout's honour.

A lifetime ago when we first got the keys to The Lodge we decided, for reasons that still escape me to this day, to take a celebratory hygrometer reading in the Living Room. Perhaps we were out of cocaine and party poppers, I dunno.

The truth is that even in the colder months we could feel the humidity in the house, particularly downstairs where there were hints at moisture-related issues that went beyond mould on the walls, and we wanted to chart our progress in the battle against it. So we bought a doodah.
Eleven weeks later the fight is still on, with the dampness laughing in the face of the unseasonable summer heat (which barely penetrates the building anyway) by regularly sending the hygrometer towards 90% humidity, which is neither good nor healthy.

An unusual reading - it's normally deep in the blue
Long ago we pulled out the rubber underlay and carpet - which was revolting, stripped the wallpaper and had the windows open almost constantly to get the air circulating and the moisture out.
Despite gypsum plaster walls still being in the room we thought that these initial measures would start us off in the right direction, but whereas the hygrometer would occasionally dip in to the green 'mmm, I could get used to this' humidity range for brief moments here and there it has been in the blue 'tropical rainforest' range for the vast, vast majority of the time.

Putting aside the idle (but genuine) theory that there might be a spring under the house, this week we decided to attack the living room and take no prisoners in an effort to find out what was going on.

First of all, however, a word about dampness in old houses. Here comes my soapbox.
To be blunt about it: ...they're supposed to get damp. The trick is in how that dampness is managed.

Take an old brick from, say, 1855 and a brick made in more recent times. Hold one in each hand. Go on. Don't argue with me, just do it. I'll tell you why in a minute.
Without going into detail that I don't pretend to fully understand anyway, bricks were hand-made in the Victorian era - the clay and aggregates manually formed and fired. As such they weren't all that dense and could even be a bit crumbly because of impurities. And even then, if you came across a nice sturdy example, the next brick that was made by the same person would likely be completely different. There was no consistency, such were the comparatively primitive processes involved in their manufacture.
So this 'soft' brick would absorb rainwater or condensation naturally as part of its job. Not like a sponge, of course, but you get the idea. Left to its own devices, that same water would naturally let itself out again from all available sides over a period of time. This is generally known as 'breathing'.

In... out.

Old vs new(er)
Now, have you noticed that the modern brick in your other hand not only looks different but may be heavier and doesn't crumble even a tiny bit? Yes?
That's because 160 years has seen the brick-making art perfected - now there's not just clay and wotnot in there, there's a whole load of other stuff too including hardening and waterproofing chemicals and ingredients that toughen the whole machine-made thing up and make it so dense that there ain't never no water getting in to that bad boy or any of its identical siblings. Not ever. No sir. As waterproof as a turtle's lipstick.

So looking at a brick Victorian house like The Lodge and thinking it's more-or-less the same as a brick house built in 2015 is like comparing a cardboard box to a plastic storage tub and concluding that they're the same thing. They're not. They're miles apart and have to be treated entirely differently.

And that's why using new building materials in an old house is a massive no-no.
Doing so is likely to start gradually killing your lovely home, although - as we learnt pretty quickly during this process - it's astonishing how many builders and so-called 'period property professionals' either don't know or don't care all that much. Modern materials are cheap, common, less complicated to work with and faster to use. So these people use them despite the harm they're doing and besides, what are the chances of the starry-eyed new homeowners being armed with such knowledge? Pretty slim. We've seen it a million times, even on some of those high-end TV property shows that we all know and love.
Hi George! <waves>

Concrete. Evil.
I really don't want to bore you by picking over all of the bad things that can be done with modern materials, so I'll simplify it: Anything that stops an old house breathing properly, either from the inside or the outside, walls, floors or ceilings, is bad. Basically, anything that is impermeable to moisture. And the main offenders are cement, concrete and gypsum (that pinkish plaster stuff that new walls tend to be made of). These things stop water going anywhere and will make your house crumble.

So back to the Living Room in The Lodge.
The external west wall of the room - as with the rest of the lower floor - is hand-hewn sandstone which naturally absorbs water, just like soft Victorian bricks. They're supposed to.
In an ideal world and had the building been looked after at all in the last 150-or-so years, these blocks would have been stuck together with lime mortar and the internal surfaces dressed with lime-based plaster then decorated with some kind of lime-based paint.

Lime breathes, you see.

In fact lime (particularly lime mortar/pointing) helps wick moisture away from vulnerable soft bricks and breathe it out so that the bricks don't have to suffer the stresses and strains of doing it themselves 24/7, thereby prolonging their lives and keeping your house upright.
But do it with a cement mortar and you're either trapping the moisture in the wall altogether or forcing it to breathe back out through the front surface of the bricks alone, making them work so much harder. So while your sexy cement pointing may look fantabulous for decades to come, here's what happens to your bricks (or sandstone) as they're forced into early retirement:

This is known as 'spalling'.
Moisture that can't get out because of the cement pointing
stays put and weakens the brick. When winter comes and
the water freezes it expands and off pops the front.

Anyway, having taken a hammer, bolster chisel and hammer drill with a scutch comb attachment to the Living Room wall, here's what I found, looking from the outside to the inside (blue = good / red = bad):

Layer 1 - Sandstone (part lime pointed / part cement pointed)
Layer 2 - Victorian brick (lime pointed)
Layer 3 - 3/4" solid cement-based bonding coat
Layer 4 - Thin gypsum plaster skim
Layer 5 - Vertical wooden battens with strips of bitumen behind them
Layer 6 - Gypsum plasterboard
Layer 7 - Thin plastic sheeting stapled to the plasterboard
Layer 8 - More gypsum plasterboard
Layer 9 - Thick gypsum plaster skim
BETWEEN - At least six layers of wallpaper ranging from gloss-painted woodchip to vomit-inducing flowery patterns

It quickly became obvious that previous tenants over many decades had been having trouble with damp in the room, and numerous disastrous attempts had been made to sort it out with impermeable materials.
The net result of all of these red layers is that the only option for moisture being absorbed into the sandstone on the outside was to go back out the way it came. And if it can't breathe out through a conduit like lime mortar on the outside, it has to release through the stone, which weakens it. To breathe away unnoticed inside the house too, it would need lime plaster. And these gypsum layers mean that the moisture could have become trapped in the stone. It would have been far worse if the outside walls were concrete rendered, trapped the moisture in the stone with nowhere to go, but we're lucky in that the stone has been left bare.
By the same token, condensation and moisture-laden air on the inside (caused by human beings - cooking, showering, even breathing...), was also meeting these barriers in the wall and had nowhere to go either, especially because the windows were never even opened and there was no airflow going through the building at all. We know this because of mould on the walls elsewhere and the vents in the awful uPVC window frames having been Sellotaped-up for so long that the tape was starting to go brittle.

And with the very first inside layer being gypsum plaster, here's what had been happening on one of the Living Room walls, where the moisture was simply condensing:

Damp wrinkly wallpaper with a hideous design on top of water-impermeable pink gypsum plaster

Most people who hadn't read the above diatribe would automatically throw their hands up in horror, thinking they had rising damp in the walls, and would eventually call a 'specialist' who would rock up in his £40,000 Range Rover (private plates), scratch his chin thoughtfully, tut for a bit, then persuade you to part with many thousands of pounds for damp-proof courses and chemical injections, membranes and various high-tech cutting-edge 'solutions' which aren't needed and wouldn't solve the problem anyway.
It's a mug's game - all that's wrong is that their walls are skimmed with gypsum plaster that the moisture can't breathe through and they probably don't open the windows enough to get air flowing around the house.
See the spots of discoloured or mouldy wallpaper behind your wardrobe? Same principle - not enough airflow to whisk the moisture away, so it condenses on the wall.

Trevor and his spade. Note the plasterboard
and corrugated bitumen over the original
bricks. The odd-coloured wall on the right
is original lime (dabbed with modern filler).
Back in the Living Room again, it goes without saying that I removed all of the Bad Things from the west wall and banished them from the house without any supper.

Thursday saw the return of the unstoppable Terminator Trevor who did away with the limiting formality of using proper tools, and instead simply beat the hell out of the next wall with a garden spade.

This particular internal gypsum-plastered wall (the same one with the wrinkly paper, above), which has Toilet 1 on the other side, had a large gypsum patch at the bottom where it had been repaired for some reason and I had convinced myself that there could be no other reason than excessive amounts of damp coming from somewhere as-yet unknown.
Disappointingly we couldn't work out why the patch was there in the end, but we did find the entire wall had been clad in weird corrugated tar-based bitumen as some form of 'tanking' against moisture, then skimmed over. The original lime-pointed brickwork behind was so dry that it was dusty to the touch.

The next wall to be clubbed into submission by Trevor* was in the dog-leg nook of the Living Room, still with Toilet 1 on the other side.
This set-up was much the same as the many-layered first wall, complete with plastic sheeting and bitumen behind the battens, presumably to stop them rotting in the mysteriously-absent damp. However this time the final layer before we reached the original bricks was actually lime plaster, although it was a) falling apart, and b) painted over with waterproof paint. Still, the thought was there.

Most of the gypsum walls had been lined
with plastic sheeting
As three of the four remaining walls were original lime (albeit featuring dozens of smears of Polyfilla) all that remained to be stripped was the north wall into the Courtyard at the back of the dog-leg. Surely there had to be evidence of damp in there?
No. Not a bit. Just more plastic and horrible wallpaper.

There was, however, something that has piqued our curiosity in the dog-leg as a whole.
It used to be another room, presumably with a specific purpose - but what was it?

First of all it was definitely another room because we found where the bricks that separated it from the now-Living Room had been roughly cut off, and there was evidence of an old doorway on the floor, leading from the Living Room in to this small nook area. We also found one side of the original door frame beneath the many layers of plasterboard.
There are four half-brick-sized recesses in the west wall of this new small room, set out in two rows but with no corresponding holes on the other side.
Beneath those we found a thin sheet of slate in poor condition, roughly about 10mm thick, had been stuck to the wall. About 8" deep (to mix my measurements) it ran horizontally from the ex-wall adjoining the living room to the other end of the wall then turned along the north wall briefly, stopping at the window.
Immediately below this, on both walls, the brickwork had been heavily cemented and on the east wall of the nook we found an old copper pipe emerging from the wall just above head height that had been cut off, suggesting that there had been a water supply to the room.

Note: chopped-off bricks (left) showing it used to be another room; the four recesses;
a line of slate about three brick courses deep and concrete walls/floor markings
that suggest there was something big, heavy and rectangular there.
The best theory we have so far is that it was the gamekeeper's meat preparation room. Like a butchery.
Perhaps the slate was a kind of splashback for a heavy stone sink or butcher's slab and the holes in the wall held timber that supported strong shelving. It's strange that the room was accessed from the now-Living Room, but it's likely that that purpose is a more modern element and the room was something else entirely.

Theories are welcome from out there in cyberspace, and if you can back any up with website addresses that would be just wonderful. Mainly because we're Googled-out and can't find anything.

And here endeth the blog post that has taken me three days to write. Thank you for reading this far down. Once we've given the room time to breathe a little bit I'll update the blog about the humidity, but for now it's looking positive - we seem to be in the green much more than the blue lately.

You can put your bricks down now, by the way. I should've mentioned that a while back...

  • For more info about damp and condensation in old buildings by someone who actually knows what he's going on about, go to heritage-house.org where Pete - who surveyed The Lodge before we bought it - will happily talk about it until those proverbial cows come home.

* I managed to hurt my right forearm and my abductor pollicis longus muscle - yes, I Googled it - has swollen so much that I needed to use an ice pack the evening before, so I was relegated to tea-maker, wheelbarrow-pusher and clearer-upper for the day.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Magpies v swallows v .22 air rifle

When I were but a lad and living with my parents, we had a small wooden bird house on the wall just outside the conservatory window.

Providing endless hours of fun, it eventually became home to a pair of young blue tits who spent many-a-day painstakingly building their comfortable nest in which to rear their young.
And rear they did. Some time later the chirping of tiny offspring could be heard as mum and dad dutifully provided morsels of food during their every waking hour. The young grew stronger and started appearing at the opening of the birdhouse as mum and dad continued their endless supply of food, the mouths of their hungry young eager and open wide.
And as the young grew they became bolder and more beautiful and would start fumbling around at the opening, ready to fly where, before our very eyes, they were picked off one-by-one by magpies.

Nemo and Dory watch over the woods, guarding their nest
Bloody magpies. Evil bloody magpies.
Magpies practically ruined my childhood.

And so I trained. I bought an air rifle and I trained hard. I killed tin cans, bottles and our garden fence. I killed Lego men and killed stones balanced on bigger stones. I was arrested when I killed five streetlamps in a perfect circle around our house. My mam went mad because she was having her perm done at home when the police knocked. I got a caution, a £50 fine from the council and 23 Pre-man Points from my impressionable mates.

But I trained.

All these years later I still have flashbacks to those horrifying few days of squawking and feathers and my family rushing outside, arms waving and screaming, only to see the five or six fledglings fledge no more. To endure the heartache of seeing their mum and dad look forlornly around, their chins wobbling, their family gone... <sob>... it's just... <wibble>... I can't.

And that's why I will protect our new family of swallows until my dying day.

Before we went off on holiday for a fortnight we were playing host to Nemo and Dory who were nesting in the apex beneath the roof of Bedroom 3. Their bowl-shaped mud and straw construction had seen a lot of activity from the lively pair of swallows as they spent many-a-day painstakingly building their comfortable nest in which to rear their young.

When we came back we spotted a lot more activity going on - more frantic visits from both birds, more chirrupping from up near the roof... a large white section of the courtyard below which is going to have to be jetwashed... WE WERE GRANDPARENTS!

Careful observation and the dusting-off of the Good Camera revealed at least five swallow chicks up there, one of which appeared to have fledged early as it was already out and about while still expecting to be fed (teenagers, eh?) and the rest were little more than open yellow beaks and big lungs.

5.30am. An early-morning assault caught on CCTV
But, one evening while in the kitchen, I heard the tell-tale squawk of a brazened predator who was eyeing-up dinner. The magpies had found our growing family. They were closing in.
I chased it away, arms waving and screaming... and my childhood PTSD kicked in.
I grabbed my air rifle, loaded it, readied the weapon and stood sentry at the kitchen door, vowing that no more shall we endure the scourge of the magpie. No more shall we suffer the cries of the innocent as they're dragged from their nests and NO MORE shall we look on helpless as the bereaved wipe their runny beaks on their wings and tearfully mourn their losses.

The magpies will not take our swallows!

I haven't shot any yet, but they never know when I might appear next - I've done it twice now for a good 10 minutes at a time. That's dedication right there, kids.

PS. It is legal to shoot magpies in the UK so my mam's blue rinse is safe. I checked.

EDIT - Thursday, August 6

Every day's a school day, and after having my suspicions for a few days that there might be more chicks in the nest I did a little bit of Googling.
And it turns out that swallows are 'double-brooders'! Who knew?
There are already six or seven of the energetic little mites flitting around, including Nemo and Dory, so in a few weeks we're expecting to see 10 or more doing light-speed laps of The Lodge.
That is if the magpies don't get there first... they're sniffing around again but this time the proud parents have reinforcements on their side. And me.