Nov 162015
 November 16, 2015  Uncategorized 9 Responses »

Skim Coating Progress

The stairwell walls, I think, are the single worst feature of my building’s common space. It took me a while to reach this conclusion. The first time I walked through the front door and into the  stairwell, I noticed that the space looked kind of dumpy, but I didn’t really take note of the walls. It wasn’t until after I’d lived here for a while, walking up and down the stairs, day in and day out, that I began to notice just how depressing the walls are.

The current textured plaster

They’re coated in a thick layer of lumpy, textured plaster that resembles the interior of a mineshaft crudely hacked through solid bedrock (the narrow space and lack of natural light only add to the effect). Whether this plaster treatment was applied as a conscious aesthetic choice, or as a short-cut to avoid the work of smoothing out a new coat of plaster, I’ll never know. All of the lumps and ridges along the walls create little shelves, some as deep as a quarter-inch, where dust collects, darkening the horizontal surfaces and further highlighting the wall’s random chunkiness. Even after cleaning the walls, they never really look clean. And as a backdrop to the stairwell’s architecture – the graceful, curved banister, the stately newel post, the high ceilings and plaster crown molding – the textured walls look completely out of place.

Clearly something needed to be done. And that something, I eventually realized, would involve skim coating all of the stairwell walls. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of plaster repair, skim coating is the process of applying a thin finish coat of plaster (or in my case, joint compound) to a wall or ceiling. Fixing cracked and damaged plaster and skim coating over the repair seems to be a never-ending endeavor in a lot of old houses – as soon as you’ve patched a section of plaster, you notice another little crack somewhere else, and you have to go through the whole process all over again.

Needless to say, I’ve done my fair share of skim coating since buying the condo. My first experience with the technique came after I repaired the falling-down plaster walls in the bedroom. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it took me months to finish the walls. Since then, I’ve also skim coated sections of the dining room walls, including the entire fireplace surround, and, more recently, I repaired and skim coated the ceiling in the common laundry area on the ground floor. With each new project, I’ve become a little more confident, and a little faster.

Even so, I’ve been dreading skim coating the stairwell walls. It’s such a huge area that it seemed like an insurmountable task. To try to speed things up, I bought the biggest drywall taping knife I could find (14 inches), which I hoped would allow me to cover more area with each swipe of the knife.

The one redeeming quality of the stairwell walls is that they’re really solid and don’t have any cracks, which meant I didn’t have to do any repair or prep work, aside from cleaning the walls,  before jumping into skim coating. So last weekend, I downloaded a bunch of podcasts on my phone, lugged a bucket of joint compound upstairs from the cellar, and got down to business.

Skim coating is one of those DIY projects that sounds more intimidating than it actually is. It takes some practice to really get the hang of it, but it’s also very forgiving – if you mess up, you can always fix your mistake by sanding or adding another coat once the joint compound is dry. Here are the tools I use to skim coat:

Skim Coating Tools

A large drywall taping knife, a small drywall taping knife (used to load the larger knife with joint compound), and a squeegee “Magic” trowel. There are different tools and techniques that can be used for skim coating, but here’s what’s worked for me: once I load up the large drywall knife with joint compound, I smear it across the wall, and then make a second pass with the drywall knife, holding it at a steeper angle to smooth out and evenly distribute the joint compound. Once I’ve covered a section of wall with joint compound, I use the squeegee trowel to smooth it out before the joint compound starts to dry.

I was surprised at how quickly this work went. I covered the stairwell’s largest wall with the first coat of joint compound over the course of a few hours spread over two days. Here’s the wall partway through the first coat.

Skim Coat First Coat

After the first coat, the wall still looked pretty lumpy, so I went back over with a second coat the following weekend. After a second coat, the lumpiness had pretty much disappeared, and the entire stairwell has started to look better. Even the color of the raw joint compound is an improvement over the old, dirty-looking paint.

After the second coat

With this wall done, I’ve probably covered about half of the total wall surface area in the stairwell. So I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to finish all of the skim coating work, including the ceilings, within a few weeks.

Finished Wall

Finished skim coat

One wall down, two to go.

Oct 212015
 October 21, 2015  Uncategorized 15 Responses »


Work on the stairwell has reached a point where it’s possible to imagine the finished space. Gregg is almost done with major construction work, and I’ve started to think about finishing details. Should we hang a mirror by the front door? Do we need an umbrella stand? What kind of runner should we get? And especially, what color should we paint the walls? Of course, there’s still a ton of work left to do (not least skim coating all of the walls in the stairwell) and thinking about this kind of stuff is really just a form of procrastination. But with that said, let’s indulge in some procrastination, shall we?

As you may have noticed after looking at countless poorly-lit photos of the stairwell, the space doesn’t get much natural light, which makes choosing a paint color for the stairwell walls tricky. Ideally, the wall color would look good in artificial light and strong shadows. Since the space is so dark, my first impulse was to brighten it up by painting the walls white. But I’ve since noticed that white walls can look cold and dingy in low light. So my next choice was to paint the walls gray. A warm gray would probably look best, but the question is, how dark? Should we fully embrace the shadows and go with a medium or dark gray, or should we stick with something lighter? I can’t decide if a dark gray stairwell would feel warm and inviting or scary and imposing.

I was still undecided on this question when I went to an open house in the Eagle Hill section of East Boston a few weeks ago. We’re not actually in the market for a new house, but checking out other people’s houses is always fun. This particular house was a wood-frame, Second-Empire-style, detached, single family town house built in 1870. Here’s the house’s front stairwell, just inside the front door.

Green Victorian Stairwell

After you’ve taken a good look at that amazing hybrid newel/lamp-post, the alternating fir/pine pin-striped floorboards, and the giant crown molding decorated with intricate, plaster acanthus leaves, you might notice that the walls are green. Here’s a few more shots of the stairwell:

1870 Front Stairwell

Second Empire Stairwell

The stairwell wasn’t quite as dark as ours, but it wasn’t far off. The walls were a medium green, and although this particular shade of green might not have been my first choice, it looked good. The green set off the white trim and complemented the dark wood staircase. By the way, the rest of this house was as incredible as the stairwell – Mara had to talk me back from making an offer on the place (but don’t get too excited, it sold the day after the open house).

Since I saw this stairwell a few weeks ago, I’ve started thinking of our imaginary finished stairwell as green also, which is a little strange for me since I put so much work into removing every trace of pea-green paint from my bedroom and kitchen. But a more subdued shade of green in the stairwell would actually be in keeping with the building’s mid-19th-century roots – earth tones, like grays, greens, and browns, were in vogue at the time. I’d look for a grayish green for the stairwell. Maybe something like Benjamin Moore’s “Bassett Hall Green” from their Colonial Williamsburg collection, or even something a little darker.

I think green walls would look good against the white trim, dark pine floors, and walnut woodwork of the stairs. And green just seems like a welcoming color for an entryway. But even though I’ve been thinking a lot about green, I still haven’t ruled out gray. And of course before I make a final decision I’ll need to consult with the neighbors.

Even after thinking about this off and on for a few weeks, I’m still not sure what to do. Is green a crazy choice for a common area stairwell? Does gray make more sense? Or maybe some other color I haven’t even considered? Luckily, I have plenty of time to make a decision since it’s going to take me quite some time to finish the stairs and skim coat the walls.

Oct 102015
 October 10, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

The interior side of my building’s front door is surrounded by a lot of woodwork – side lights, inset paneling, a large transom window. This vertical expanse of wood stretches nearly ten feet tall, looming over the foot of the staircase. And every last bit of it is painted fire engine red.

Red Trim

I’m sure you have a lot of questions right now, like why would anyone paint this section of trim red while leaving all of the trim in the rest of the building white? And why would red trim exist anywhere outside of a 1990s-era McDonalds, let alone in a Greek-Revival row house? Trust me, I’ve asked myself these and other similar questions many times over the past three years, and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever learn the answers.

But here’s what we do know. Judging by the number of chips and gouges and scuff marks in the red paint, this trim has been red for quite some time, maybe decades. And, if you look closely at the areas where the red paint has chipped away, you can see that before it was red, the trim was painted teal. Maybe the red was an improvement after all?

If you look at this woodwork for long enough, you’ll also realize that none of it is original to the building. In fact, it looks like the side lights, the transom, and the surrounding trim were pieced together somewhat haphazardly. The whole thing is actually asymmetrical with everything smooshed over toward the right. There’s even a gap along the left corner where you can see part of the original trim underneath the newer trim. But as long as you don’t look at it too closely, it looks fine, so we’re not planning to replace the side lights and transom any time soon.

But after seeing this red trim day in and day out for the past three years, I’d finally had enough this past weekend. So I broke out the primer. Before I got started, I cleaned the trim with a sponge and soapy water since everything in the stairwell is still pretty dusty from sanding and refinishing the floors a few weeks ago. Then I patched all of the chips and gouges with Ready Patch spackle, and caulked some of the biggest gaps. Incidentally, while I was cleaning the trim, I noticed that most of the glass in the side lights isn’t glass at all; it’s textured plastic. Someday it’d be nice to replace the plastic with actual glass, but that’s another project for another time.

Patched Trim

After one coat of primer, everything looked streaky and terrible, but also somehow better than when I started. Even with streaks of red showing through the white primer, the whole stairwell had begun to feel brighter, which makes a huge difference in a space that gets almost no natural light. I now realize that I didn’t take any progress photos at this stage because I was so intently focused on painting over every last bit of red before the end of the weekend.

The next day, I added a second coat of primer since I wanted to minimize the number of paint coats I would need (primer is cheaper than paint). After a second coat, the red had all but disappeared, and later that afternoon I added a coat of paint – Benjamin Moore simply white in semi-gloss, which I’m planning to use for all of the trim in the stairwell.

White Door Trim

With the red gone, and bright white trim in it’s place, the entire stairwell felt much less depressing. The rest of the trim in the stairwell is currently painted the same dull mayonnaisey white as the walls, so it’s pretty well camouflaged. But there’s so much elegant detail in the trim, from the tall baseboards to the chunky crown molding, that it’s a shame that it’s so easy to overlook. But with the side lights and transom painted, I could begin to visualize what the stairwell would look like with all of the trim painted bright white.

Painted Trim

As you can see in this picture, Gregg started installing the balusters this past week. We chose simple, tapered balusters that more or less match the original balusters.

New Balusters

Gregg finished installing balusters most of the way up the first flight of stairs. He’s about to start adding balusters along the curved section of handrail at the top of the stairs, which will be more challenging than the straight section. Here’s the current state of the stairwell – it’s finally starting to come together.

Current Stairwell

Sep 182015
 September 18, 2015  Uncategorized 13 Responses »

We returned from a vacation in southwest England (Devon and Cornwall are beautiful if you ever have a chance to go) at the beginning of this week to find that Gregg had reinstalled the old handrail and newel post while we were gone. If you’ve been following along you might remember that the old handrail came in several pieces that could be connected with threaded pins imbedded in each section of handrail. When assembled, the handrail formed a single curved strip of walnut that wound up two flights of stairs and around a landing. Originally the handrail was installed so low that it was mostly out of reach for anyone going up or down the stairs. And since increasing the safety of the staircase was one of the major goals of this renovation, we asked Gregg to raise the handrail a few inches to make it more useable.

Gregg used the temporary 2×4 handrail he  built at the beginning of the project as a brace for the original handrail. This way, he was able to position the entire handrail as a single piece and ensure that everything lined up properly before he actually began the reinstallation.

Braced Handrail

Braced Handrail

At the base of the stairs, the handrail connects to the newel post, and since Gregg raised the entire handrail a few inches, he needed to raise the newel post by the same amount. He planned to build a new base for the newel, but the question was, what would he use to build this new base? Ideally the base would be built out of wood that matches the original newel and handrail, which seem to be made out of 160-year-old solid walnut. Since antique walnut is expensive and hard to come by, we thought about building the base out of pine or poplar and trying to stain it to match the rest of the newel post. But stained wood would always look a little off. Ultimately, we realized that the newel post is the visual centerpiece of the stairwell – it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door – and spending a little extra on matching wood seemed like the right thing to do.

So after work one day I made the trip up to Longleaf Lumber, a lumber yard in Cambridge that specializes in reclaimed wood. When I visited, they had a huge selection of cherry and pine, but very little walnut. But hidden behind some longer boards, I found rough-cut five-foot length of reclaimed American Black Walnut.

walnut board

The board in question is the darker board in the picture above. It actually looks lighter here than it did in real life. Walnut is some of the most expensive wood that Longleaf carries, and even though this was a small piece, the total came to just over $65. A pricey piece of wood to be sure, but not outrageous in the grand scheme of things. I crossed my fingers, bought the board, and hoped that it would match the newel post.

Back home, Gregg cut the board into eight equal pieces to build an octagonal base for the newel. Here’s the base clamped and glued:

Newel Base

Gregg added a beveled edge to the top of the base to make it look like an intentional part of the newel, rather than a strange modern addition hacked onto the bottom of an antique newel post. While we were away, Gregg installed the base and reinstalled the original newel post on top of it.

raised newel post

The base is unfinished here, so it looks very different from the rest of the newel post. But when Gregg wiped the base down with some water, it matched the original walnut almost perfectly, a good indication that it will blend in seamlessly after a few coats of varnish.

I mentioned at the end of a post a few weeks ago that Gregg had a plan to quickly and easily fill in the gaps left behind when the stair treads were shimmed and leveled. You can see the problem here:

Stairwell Cove Mouldling

And here’s the solution:

Foam Patched Treads

That’s right. High-density spray-foam. This stuff is normally used for insulation, but we’re using it here to quickly fill in irregular gaps. It may seem like a weird solution, but keep in mind that this is a purely aesthetic fix – this isn’t load-bearing foam. The plan is to shave the foam down so that it’s flush with the side of the staircase beneath it. Then I’ll skim-coat over the foam with joint compound. Once everything is painted, it should look seamless. And spraying foam is much faster and easier than cutting little strips of wood to fill in each gap.

Stairwell with Newel

This is where the stairwell stands now. The only work left for Gregg is to install all of the balusters. Then I’ll get started on a mountain of finish work.

Aug 302015
 August 30, 2015  Uncategorized 5 Responses »

Refinished Floor

Before we began renovating the stairwell, I had an abstract idea of how the finished project would look – refinished wide-plank pine floors, a level staircase with dark-stained treads, a slightly raised handrail, white balusters and white trim, smooth, flat walls and so on. Even so, it was hard to picture just how all of these elements would come together. But when I came home at the end of last week and opened the front door to completely refinished entryway floors, the first major piece of that picture came into focus.

Refinished Entryway Floors

It was quite the transformation, considering that just a few days earlier the entryway looked like this:

The Stairwell at the End of Week 3

It feels like the stairwell floors are finally breathing a sigh of relief after likely not seeing the light of day for nearly 100 years. The original wide-plank pine flooring was first covered over in linoleum, which was later stripped off, leaving behind the glue and backing paper – the splotchy gray stuff you can see in the above picture. A 1/4-inch plywood underlayment was then nailed over the remnants of the linoleum flooring, and vinyl sheet flooring was installed over that.

With the original pine flooring exposed and brought back from the dead, the entire stairwell feels more homey and less institutional and decrepit. The original flooring isn’t perfect by any means. Not surprisingly, it seems that the flooring in the entryway and stairwell has been abused more than the floors elsewhere in the building. Several floorboards are scarred with dark gouges, while others are streaked with dark water stains (possibly from leaky steam radiators?). Pine is a soft wood and all of the floorboards sport nicks and bruises and scrapes, and have a darker amber tone than the pine flooring in the rest of the building. But I don’t mind these imperfections; they speak to the building’s long history and help ground the space.

Original Pine Flooring Close-up

I’m also hoping to find a runner or two for the entryway and laundry area, which will cover some of the floor’s more obvious patches and blemishes. Speaking of the ground-floor laundry area, it’s also been completely transformed by the refinished floors.

Laundry Area Floors 1

Laundry Area Floors 2

The original floorboards on the second-floor landing were never covered over, but the finish had almost completely worn off and they were in desperate need of refinishing. Here’s how the landing turned out:

Refinished Landing

Refinishing the floors really highlighted the curved edge of the landing, which will eventually be surrounded by a railing.

Refinished Landing Curved Edge

With the stairwell flooring finished, Gregg can begin reinstalling the handrail, newel posts, and balusters. And after that, I can begin a long list of finish work. Stay tuned.

Aug 242015
 August 24, 2015  Uncategorized 4 Responses »

Refinishing floors is almost always a logistical nightmare. It involves completely emptying a portion of your home and agreeing not to enter the area for at least two or three days. Things get even more complicated if the area to be refinished happens to include the primary entryway and common laundry for four condos. So I knew finding a convenient time to refinish the floors in the stairwell would be a challenge. But luckily, all of my neighbors were just as anxious as me to finally get the stairwell floors cleaned up and finished. And who could blame us? The floors have looked like this for the past few weeks:

Original Floors Ground Floor

Besides finding a time to refinish the floors that accommodated everyone’s schedule, we also needed to schedule the refinishing around the rest of the renovation work in the stairwell, and all things considered, this week seemed like an ideal time. We’ve reached a point where most of the carpentry work on the stairs is complete, so there’s less risk of damaging the refinished floors during later work. But we haven’t reinstalled the handrail yet, so the flooring guys  have easy access to the floorboards around the balusters.

But before the floors were refinished, I needed to patch all of the holes left behind years ago when the old steam radiators and steam pipes were removed from the building.

Radiator Holes in Stairwell Floor

To patch these circular holes, which ranged in size from about 1 inch to 2.5 inches in diameter, I used a jigsaw to cut circular plugs out of some scrap pine (the pine was pre-primed, but the primer will be sanded off before the floor is finished). I traced out each of the circles with a compass and held the jigsaw at a slight angle as I cut so that each plug was slightly tapered.

Circular Flooring PlugAfter sanding down the rough edges, I ran a bead of wood glue around the outer edge of each plug, and then hammered it into place with a rubber mallet.

Circular Floor Plugs

Circular Floor Plugs

Although these plugs might not look perfect, they’re sturdy and should be pretty inconspicuous once the floors are finished. And plugging the holes just seemed more practical than completely replacing all of the floorboards with holes cut through them.

The refinishers showed up early this morning, and by the time I got home from work, they had sanded the floors and put down the first coat of polyurethane. I peeked in the front door at the still-wet floors when I got home, and I think it’s safe to say that the original, refinished, pine floors are going to make a huge difference in the overall appearance of the stairwell. I managed to snap a few blurry phone pictures of the in-progress floors. Here’s the flooring just inside the front door:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

There’s some gouging and discoloring on a few floorboards, along with a haphazard patch job in the middle of the hallway, but let’s just say it adds a lot of character to the space. Here’s an overhead shot showing the little landing at the top of the ground floor stairs, which was apparently redone in tongue and groove heart pine flooring at some point:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

And finally, here’s the second floor landing:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

I can’t wait to see how the floors turn out after two more coats of polyurethane. I’ll be back at the end of the week with some pictures of the finished floors.

Jul 272015
 July 27, 2015  Uncategorized 9 Responses »

Over the past few weeks, our contractor, Gregg, has finished the bulk of the repair work on the stairs. He’s almost ready to begin reinstalling the original newel post and handrail. But all of this progress has reminded me just how much work I have left to do in the stairwell. Once Gregg is done, I’ll still need to stain and seal the treads, add a new coat of varnish to the handrail and newel post, paint the balusters, risers, and the exposed edge of the staircase, skim coat and paint the walls, and lots of other stuff I haven’t thought of yet.

But before I can start most of that work, Gregg needs to put the stairs back together. After a break for the Fourth of July, Gregg finished installing the last of the replacement treads. The entire two flights of stairs are now straight and level, and walking upstairs no longer feels like quite the adventure it once did. Gregg used flooring adhesive to secure the treads, so they don’t even creak. Here’s a look at the complete, second flight of stair treads.

Second Flight of Stairs New Treads

At the top of the second flight, Gregg added a little curved piece of wood to the front of the landing to match the curve of the last riser.

Curved Landing

This little detail had been lost at some point when the flooring was replaced on the landing.

With all of the treads replaced, Gregg moved on to installing the end pieces on all of the new treads. Traditionally, in a staircase like ours where one side of the stairs is open, the treads are constructed in two pieces – the main body of the tread and a little end piece called the return, which typically runs an inch or two beyond the end of the tread, giving the appearance that the tread is set into the riser. The return is joined to the rest of the tread with a 45-degree miter joint. I don’t know why treads are constructed this way. In many cases it would be just as easy, maybe easier, for a carpenter to cut the entire tread, return and all, from a single piece of wood. But I guess this two-piece construction is the way it has always been done, and now it’s considered a sign of good craftsmanship. So that’s the way Gregg decided to make the treads.

Curved ReturnOf course, making the returns was complicated by the fact that the inner edge of many of the treads is curved. Gregg used a jig saw to custom cut each of these curved returns and added the outer bull-nosed edge with a router. He shaved and sanded each return until it fit perfectly. The results are impressive, more impressive even than the old stairs, since without any paint obscuring it, you can see the tight joint between the tread and the return. Here’s an overhead shot of a few of the curved treads.

Curved ReturnsGregg decided to add 3/4-inch cove moulding under each of the returns, since that’s what was originally there. But making curved cove moulding is even more challenging than making curved returns. The original moulding was carved from solid wood, but given our timeline and budget for this project, hand-carved moulding isn’t a practical option. Instead, Gregg ordered some flexible cove moulding, which showed up this past week. The flexible moulding is made out of what feels like dense rubber, and it arrived coiled up in a box. It’s a weird material, and it took Gregg some time to get used to working with it. But after he installed a piece on the first step, it looks pretty flawless. It’s supposed to be paintable, so it should blend right in with the rest of the moulding.

Flexible Cove MouldingWhile Gregg worked on the stairs, I finished cleaning the original handrail and newel post. I continued my strategy of wiping down each section of the handrail with a rag soaked in mineral spirits, and when I was done, I had removed a ton of brown-black gunk from the handrail (most of which was probably decades-old grease from peoples’ hands).

Cleaned Newel Post

Once the mineral spirits had completely evaporated, I could see that the underlying finish was really uneven. The finish had completely worn off on the parts of the handrail that people had grabbed the most over the years, particularly where the staircase turns, but the finish was intact in other places. You can kind of see what I’m talking about in this picture:

Handrail Uneven FinishOnce the handrail is reinstalled, I’ll probably add a new coat of polyurethane to the whole thing to even everything out.

By the end of last week, Gregg had finished installing all of the moulding on the first flight of stairs.

Stairwell Cove MouldlingAs you can see, there are still some big gaps that were created when the new treads were shimmed and leveled. But we (or I should say Gregg, it was completely his idea) have a plan to (hopefully) quickly and easily patch over these gaps, leaving everything smooth and seamless. But more on that next time.

Jun 282015
 June 28, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

The original newel posts and handrail might be the most impressive part of the stairwell. They’re constructed from tightly-grained, solid walnut. The handrail twists and winds its way up a curved flight of stairs and across a landing before doubling back and climbing a second flight of tightly curved stairs, terminating at a small newel post on the third floor. Although it was fabricated in several sections, once assembled, the handrail looks like a single strip of undulating wood. Just how craftsmen wrought this sinuous, fluid form from solid wood over 150 years ago using only hand tools remains a mystery to me.

Curved Handrail

In any case, the handrail seems like an irreplaceable part of the stairs. Or, at least, it would be so expensive to replicate that it may as well be irreplaceable. Even so, it’s gotten pretty dirty and dinged up over the years, and I felt like I should do something with it while it’s disassembled. But I didn’t want to remove all of it’s character by, say, sanding it down to bare wood. Cleaning it seemed like a good place to start.

But after wiping down a short section of the handrail with soapy water, it was still coated in some sort of dark, gunky grime. “You’d be surprised at how much skin grease builds up on stuff that people touch” my brother, who works as an art conservator, explained when I asked him how best to proceed with the handrail. I was worried about messing up the original finish, which I assumed was an old varnish or laquer, if I used a harsher cleaning agent to remove the grease and oil that had accumulated over a century-and-a-half of people running their hands over the railing. My brother recommended low VOC mineral spirits, which should dissolve grease and wax without disturbing the original varnish. Here’s the handrail before I started cleaning it:

Handrail Before

As I wiped down the same small section of handrail with a rag soaked in mineral spirits, the rag picked up a surprising amount of dark brown-black gunk. As the mineral spirits evaporated, I realized that there wasn’t any finish left on the handrail – I had cleaned it down to bare wood.

Handrail After

This might mean that the original finish was just paste wax that dissolved in the mineral spirits. Or, the original finish could have been lacquer, which was degraded by years of exposure to oil from peoples’ hands. Or maybe, the original finish has long since worn away and the current “finish” is just a layer of grime and skin oil.

Either way, it seems like the thing to do is to refinish the entire handrail, first removing all of the dirt and grime and any remaining old finish with mineral spirits, and then applying a new finish. It’s looking like the refinished walnut will be lighter than the current finish/dirt, but the grain of the wood will be more visible as well. All in all, I think it will be an improvement, not least because the handrail will finally be clean, probably for the first time in over a century.

Later in the week, Mara and I began skim coating the stairwell walls. The walls are currently covered in a lumpy, chunky, textured plaster treatment that makes the stairwell look like a mine shaft. Here’s a close-up look:

stair trim

Originally, the walls would have been smooth plaster, like they are elsewhere in the building. Skim coating all of the walls will be a big project, but I think it will make a huge difference in the overall appearance of the stairwell. I started with the wall directly outside the front door to my unit. This wall is one of the few flat walls in the stairwell – most of the walls and even the ceilings are made up of curved plaster work – so it seemed like a good place to start.

As I’ve renovated the condo over the past few years, I’ve done my fair share of skim coating (it kind of comes with the territory when you’re fixing up an old house), and I’ve come up with a skim coating technique that seems to work for me. I use premixed joint compound with a little bit of water mixed in to make it more manageable and to give me some more time before it begins to dry. I start by applying joint compound to a section of the wall with a drywall knife. I get things as smooth as possible with the drywall knife, but I don’t obsess over little marks and ridges. Then, while the joint compound is still wet, I go over it with a magic trowel (which is really just a big, heavy duty squeegee) to achieve a smooth finish. Once I’ve added the last coat, and the joint compound is completely dry, I lightly sand the whole wall before priming and painting. I’ve started to get faster at skim coating, but it’s still a time consuming process. We managed to get the first coat of joint compound on this weekend, but it looks like the stairwell walls will take at least two coats of joint compound to fully cover the lumpy, textured plaster. Here’s current state of the wall – the skim coated wall is to the right, and the wall on the left is still covered in the textured plaster.

Skim Coat First Coat

Meanwhile, Gregg continued replacing the treads on the second flight of stairs. By the end of the week, he only had one tread left to go. Here’s a progress shot of the second flight of stairs where you can see just how out-of-level the original treads had become.

Second Flight Progress

Second Flight Progress

Gregg will finish putting together and installing the last tread at the beginning of next week and then move on to installing trim.

Jun 182015
 June 18, 2015  Living Room 17 Responses »

When I decided to install a built-in hutch in the living room, I only had a few goals for the project – first and foremost, I wanted a spot to hang the tv without having to deal with a bunch of cables running down the wall; I figured some extra storage space and a few shelves for books would be nice; and finally, I didn’t want the new cabinetry to look completely out-of-place in the room. But now that it’s installed and nearly finished, I think it’s safe to say that the new built-in has exceeded these modest goals.

A few weeks ago, the corner of the living room next to the fireplace was dark, barren, and made all-but unusable by an awkwardly situated baseboard radiator. We mounted the tv in this corner, but the mess of cables running down the wall and a general sense of emptiness left this part of the room looking unfinished.

Corner TV Wall

You might notice in the picture above that all of the power cables are plugged into an outlet on the left wall. We quickly realized that a built-in cabinet would make it difficult to run power cables to this outlet. So I asked my electrician to add a new outlet directly behind the tv. He ran new wiring from the old outlet, around the corner, and up to the center of the wall, a process that involved cutting a pretty big chunk of plaster out of the corner of the wall. But no big deal, I knew this corner would soon be covered up by the new built-in.

Over the past month or so, Brandon, the owner of Grain Woodshop here in East Boston, constructed and installed the built-in. He built the hutch in his shop in three pieces – a lower, four-drawer unit, an open space for the tv, and an upper shelving unit. He securely attached these three pieces to the wall using some carpentry wizardry, somehow insuring that everything was straight and level and really solid, despite the walls being uneven and not-so-solid. Here’s the cabinet carcass after the first day of installation work. (“cabinet carcass,” by the way, is an unappealing name for the cabinet box and frame; although the name might conjure images of a freshly killed and skinned cabinet, carcass construction is actually one of the first steps on the way to building a living, breathing, finished cabinet.)

Cabinet Carcass

I decided that I didn’t want the shelving to go all the way to the ceiling for reasons both practical (I wouldn’t be able to reach the upper shelves) and aesthetic (a lower height would keep the built-in in line with the heights of the room’s windows). So next, Brandon filled in the gap between the top of the hutch and the ceiling with a piece of sheetrock.

Sheetrock Over Cabinet

And I taped and mudded the sheetrock so that it blends in seamlessly with the surrounding walls. Here it is after one coat of primer.

Finished Sheetrock Above Cabinet

Next Brandon added the drawer fronts, and began installing the trim. He added a baseboard with a heating register grill set into it to allow heat from the radiator, which by this point was buried under the cabinet, to escape. Brandon custom milled casing for the built-in to match the original casing that surrounds the room’s doors and windows. But as he was installing the casing, we ran into a problem.

Cabinet Progress

Cabinet Outlet Problem

As you can see, the old outlet was in the way of the new casing. After consulting with my electrician, I decided that the best solution was to move the old outlet two inches to the left so that it would just clear the casing. Although I’d never done it before, moving the outlet wasn’t all that difficult. I turned off power to the circuit at the breaker box, removed the old outlet and pulled the wiring out of the electrical box. Then I cut out a section of plaster, added a new electrical box, and rewired the outlet. Since there’s no stud next to the new outlet, I had to use a “remodeling electrical box” which is designed to clamp onto the wall without the need for a stud.

Moved Outlet And here’s the new outlet after I patched and painted the surrounding wall.

Moved Outlet Finished This past week, with the outlet out of the way, Brandon finished installing the trim and put a coat of paint on everything. The hutch isn’t completely finished – it needs another coat of paint, the drawer glides aren’t finished, and the drawers need pulls – but the bulk of the work is done, and it looks great. The whole room actually feels more balanced than it did without the built-in. The casing around the hutch reflects the size and proportions of the casing around the room’s windows, bringing some symmetry to the fireplace wall.

Finished Built-in Hutch

Finished Built-in Hutch

There have been a few other changes in the living room over the past few months, so look out for a living room update at some point when the built-in is finished.

Finished Built-in Hutch

Jun 072015
 June 7, 2015  Uncategorized 7 Responses »

The finished staircase came into focus this week as our contractor, Gregg, finished installing new treads and risers on the first flight of stairs. Gregg spent most of last week custom milling curved treads for the first five steps. But things went more quickly this week as he moved on to a straight run of about eight steps with rectangular treads – instead of cutting the treads into weird, curved shapes and recreating the front, bull-nosed edge with a router, Gregg was able to simply cut the pre-made treads to size and install them.

As Gregg installed one tread after another over the course of the week, it became increasingly obvious just how crooked the old steps had been. As they climbed higher, each step became more crooked than the last, and with new, level treads providing a point of reference, the stairs started to look really wacky.

old stairs new treads

Gregg shimmed each tread, some as much as two inches on one side, and then glued and nailed them into place. The extreme shimming means we’ll have to figure out how to cover the newly-created gaps along the edge of the stairs. Trim will cover about an inch of the gap, but we might have to patch in the rest with some thin pieces of plywood.

Shimmed Stair Treads

Things slowed down a bit again as Gregg reached the next section of curved stairs near the top of the first flight where the stairs turn the corner to the second floor landing.

Corner Stairs

As the stairs curve around this corner, the inner and outer edges of each tread follows the circumference of a giant circle. Again, Gregg had to custom mill each of these treads. The inner edges of the treads in this corner of the stairwell follow a tight curve, so some of these treads are pretty weird shapes.

Corner Tread 2

Corner Tread 1

By the end of the week, all of the new treads and risers were in place on the first flight of stairs.

First Flight With New Treads

The Stairwell at the End of Week 3

This past weekend I started pulling up the vinyl sheet flooring and plywood underlayment on the ground floor of the stairwell, in our communal laundry area. I used the same pry-bar-and-brute-force technique that I used to remove the plywood underlayment in the entryway. But since it was an unseasonable 80-something degrees last weekend, I only managed to pull up half of the old flooring before deciding it was just too damn hot to keep working. My downstairs neighbor pitched in later in the week (once it had cooled off) and pulled up the rest of the old flooring in an afternoon. With the plywood underlayment gone, we were left with this:

Original Floors Ground Floor

I’m aware that it looks like an awful mess, and you’ll just have to trust me that there are original pine floorboards under all of this. The splotchy gray stuff is the same paper underlayment (possibly linoleum backing paper) that we found under the plywood underlayment in the entryway. I sent a sample of this paper out for asbestos testing at the same time that I had the paper backing from the entryway tested. And like the paper in the entryway, this paper was asbestos free. So we’ll just let the flooring guys sand through it when they refinish the floors.

We also uncovered a fairly sizable hole that was cut clear through the original floorboards and subfloor along the edge of the hallway.

Hole in the Floor

There was a length of cast iron pipe that was not connected to anything and was just sort of wedged into the hole. I’m guessing the pipe used to serve an old steam radiator. I’m not sure why someone decided to leave this piece of pipe dangling here, covered over with a plywood underlayment. Once I cleared out the pipe and a few chunks of unsecured wood, the hole was completely open to the cellar below.

Open Hole in the Floor

I encountered a similar situation when I uncovered the original floors in the kitchen. I decided to shuffle floorboards around in the kitchen to patch the hole seamlessly. But since this is an entirely utilitarian space where no one spends much time, I’ll probably just patch the hole as it is.

Gregg will tackle the second flight of stairs next week, and I’m hoping to get started cleaning up the original handrail and newel post.