Pennsylvania Limestone Farmhouse Renovations to an 1863 farmhouse built of limestone

April 30, 2014

One Down, Nine to Go!

Filed under: Basement,Dining Room,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 8:43 pm

I installed one of the original doors to the house on the way to the basement. When we bought the house there was a closet on the second floor – but when we restored the stairway we lost this closet – but we gained a door. I had to cut down the door a bit to fit, but it looks good.


I also had to repair the hole cut for the modern doorknob and prime and paint the door. Here it is installed.



Now all I have left to do is fit the one remaining antique door for the closet in our guest room. And build and fit 8 more doors in the rest of the house (old and new)!

April 25, 2014


Filed under: Dining Room,Living room,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 8:37 pm

Ok, so after paving the front porch in bricks, finishing the floors and painting the walls in the future living and dining rooms, and putting a coat of paint on all the trim, we then declared that we needed to live in this space once again!

Here is a taste of what we have accomplished… details to follow!

(as for most photos in the blog, click on the image to get a better view)



The living room still needs a second coat of paint on all the trim and some finish carpentry around the window sashes. Otherwise, it is pretty much finished (except we have some new furniture needs with all the space).


The dining room needs a new front door (to replace the 1950s vintage door) and a door to the basement installed.


Also, we think we have figured out the colors for the stairs. The trim will be a paler shade of yellow with the newel post and balusters matching the trim and walls, respectively.  The steps will may become a slightly darker shade of blue depending on how the second coat turns out.  Thank you Liz for your help with colors!

A lot has been accomplished the past week or so and we’re not sure where to direct our energies at this point. It might be some furniture (like an entryway pieced that will hide our dog food, recyclables, and charging cords for multiple devices!).

The Porch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Duane Diefenbach @ 8:12 pm

A major task to finish the front porch was to put a “finish”on the concrete pad that is the foundation for the final surface. Originally, we considered concrete pavers a possibility but after doing the back porch we wanted a more elegant and finished look for the entryway.

We investigated real bricks with mortar and selected a style of brick that is manufactured with the “historic” look – that means it has waves, rolls, and cups after it is fired as well as variation in color… just what we wanted.

We hired the mason who did the stonework in the house to come and lay the brick. We used a 90° herringbone pattern edged by bricks in a soldiered pattern. It was not easy.

You can see the 750 bricks purchased to cover the porch. My job, as apprentice, was to learn how to mix mortar (my first batch I added too much water) and strike the brick (that is, finish the mortar joints between bricks).

photo (1)

Here the progress we made the first day…


Striking brick is not that easy and it takes practice using the tool (called a “slick”) to add and smooth mortar without making a mess of everything. About Day 3 I almost got good at it!.

Here’s the progress we made by Day 2.

photo (4)


On Day 3 we didn’t finish laying the last brick (we kept looking for it!) until 9:30pm and cleaned everything up by about 10pm.

photo (5) photo (6) photo (7)

The final product, however, looks spectacular! Thanks to our mason Dave Walker.


So this project that I expected to take 1 day (maybe 1.5?) actually took 3 long days to complete. But it’s done and looks beautiful! We need to let it cure a bit before we wash and clean it with a mild acid.

April 15, 2014

Finishing Walls and Floors

Filed under: Dining Room,Living room,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:05 pm

Doing the plastering (actually, joint compound to be technically correct) took a lot of time. Not only did drywalled joints have to be finished but all the plaster required multiple skim coats to patch cracks and holes and smooth the complete surface. I have great admiration for the plasterers who did this house because with plaster you cannot sand out your mistakes – you have to finish it perfectly smooth. And they did just that because I never found a single mistake in the ceilings.  Plus they did not have halogen or LED worklights to help identify imperfections.

Here is a photo of the living room with the plastering almost completed. You can see the wall where I repaired rather than replaced the lath and plaster.  The ceiling has drywall installed to cover the opening for the former stairs and those edges where it met the original plastered ceiling had to be feathered to match.



And here is the living room with the walls finished and the floor sanded. I am pleased with the results but don’t look too closely in the corners and around the windows (especially the window on the left where it meets the wall).


In the dining room every single plastered surface had to be skimcoated.



Once the walls were finished and primed I started sanding the floors.  The rest of the house was white pine but this room had the floor replaced sometime in the 1930s or 1940s (I’m guessing) with 2″ wide strip flooring. As you can see, this floor was never sanded or finished and was a dark brown. I assume the original floor just plain worn out because this was the kitchen in winter, the main entrance, and probably where baths occurred (we found razor blades behind the wainscot that was installed probably around the same time).

I expected the strip flooring to be yellow pine, but I think it is actually red pine because it has a lot of resin and a deep red and yellow coloring. It is also hard wood and seriously cupped such that sanding with my 8″ random orbit sander was slow going and I was running out of sandpaper!  So I rented a drum sander to level the floor using 20 and 36 grit paper. It took several hours, but I was able to level most of the floor and the edge of the room and other areas I could mop up with my belt sander and 8″ random orbit sander.


Here’s the floor completely sanded and ready for the finish. It doesn’t look that great, but actually all the abuse over the years leaves a patina that looks great.  The abuse includes hundreds of nails and nail holes (literally, hundreds), stains from spilled fuel (?), scratches, and dents.


The finish I apply is 4 coats, beginning with 1 coat of sanding sealer (dewaxed shellac), followed by 3 coats of an oil-based polyurethane. The polyurethane has a golden tint (as does shellac) that gives the wood a warm color. The first two coats of polyurethane are gloss because it dries hard and fast. The last coat is satin but takes several days to dry before you can move furniture into the room. Below is the room with the first coat of gloss applied.  The red pine has great color that does not show up well in the photo.



The greatest thing about being at this stage of the house renovation is that we remove the plastic zippered “door” between the new and old part of the house! Below are before and after views from the new to old part of the house.


The other task downstairs was deciding what color to paint the stairway.  We decided to continue the wall, baseboard, and trim colors from upstairs to the dining room. And the living room will have the same colors as the upstairs guest bedroom. But what about the stairs?  The olive green of the baseboard would be too dark and I think a different color for the steps and risers would accent the stairway. With the help of our friend, Liz (a self-described frustrated art major – her words, not mine!), we decided on a deep blue that has some shades of gray/black (I think – anyway it looks “colonial”). The photo below shows the stairs with the paint job only half completed – the diagonal trim under the steps will be the same mustard color of the other vertical trim.  The stairs need 2 more coats of paint (I used a urethane paint for stairs that does not require a primer, but that means more coats to finish).


With the vertical trim painted it looks a little better. But with the walls and trim just primed it is difficult to imagine the final result. That should happen this week!



April 13, 2014

A Digression… Finish Carpentry

Filed under: Dining Room,Living room,Stone house restoration,Uncategorized — Duane Diefenbach @ 8:42 pm

One of the things that has slowed my progress on this house has been moving from modern power tools to the hand tools that were likely used on our home. Because of this “disease” of mine I decided to do the finish carpentry in the downstairs rooms with hand tools. This post shows what I did and maybe (partially?) explains why it took so long!  😉

This window used to be a door… from the old kitchen to the basement. Soon it will be a window again. However, the finish carpentry first required that a stool be constructed that was about 18″ deep and 42″ wide.  Then side casing was added, then head casing across the top, and finally an apron underneath completed the woodwork.



To make the stool I started with a piece of white pine about 22″ wide and 45″ long. I planed the board using hand planes. First a #5 Stanley to remove the coarsest imperfections and I finished with a #8 Stanley to smooth the surface. The underside was left unfinished.



Then a rabbet was needed to fit into the window frame so that notches in the stiles of the frame allowed the stool to nicely meet the lower sash.  To make the rabbet I used a rebate plane that I bought on eBay and restored.


I then cut the stool (using crosscut and rip saws) to fit the window so that the distance from the sash to the “wings” on each side (that will be underneath each side casing) was correct.



This is how the stool fit at this point.



Once the stool was fit to the sash then I could finish the “wings” to length and depth (with respect to the side casing).


Fitting the side casing at this point was relatively simple. The side casing is nailed to wooden blocks installed in the stonework as well as nails that come up from underneath the stool.



The next step was to install the head casing. To hide any imperfections (and later movement of the wood, or house), the carpenters for our home cut a rabbet in the head casing to join the side and head casings. See photo below. I used a different approach to hide imperfections in matching side and head casings in the new part of the house (see this post).



So here’s the window with stool, side casing, and head casing installed.



The final carpentry required is to install the apron, which is nailed to the two blocks that support the stool.



Now “all” that’s left is for the plasterers to finish the wall! (and that would be me)

The Final Push…

Filed under: Dining Room,Living room,Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 5:11 pm

…to get the major work completed on the old part of the house!  Sorry there has been such a hiatus but the 2012-2013 hunting seasons stopped work (on the house) for a while as well as other things like this small end table for PASA to auction at their annual meeting.


And then there was the issue of overcoming inertia in tackling the plaster work downstairs.

So here are some pics of the upstairs. Work is complete except for:

  1. Doors for 3 closets
  2. Trim and final paint around all window sashes
  3. Shelves and racks in the closets
  4. Two storm windows

So really not that much left to do!  😉

Here is a photo of me sanding the floor. Fortunately, most of it was bare wood but all the areas near the walls had some paint – either intentional coats or drips from paint jobs.


Sanding is a miserable, dusty, backbreaking, knee-stiffening job. But the results are worth it. The patina from 150 years of abuse makes the floors look beautiful especially with all the dents, scratches, nails, stains, etc.


Currently, what will be our guest bedroom is serving as a living room. It looks like this:



And the office could be another guest room!



So the next major task(s) to complete is the downstairs (including the stairs) of what will be the dining room and living room. In the future living room I had to finish plastering around two windows because the one on the right used to be a doorway to the kitchen, and the one on the left used to be a doorway to the basement. Also, the ductwork for the upstairs had to be enclosed. The ceiling and floor in that corner of the room used to be a stairway (see the posts for July 2013). If you look closely, the wall between the ductwork and window is partially original plaster and joint compound. This is the only place where I took the time and effort (and expense, hot mud is expensive) to repair the last plaster – mostly because I wanted to see if I could do it.  I can but it was not easy.


The chase for the ductwork will also provide for another run for the central vac! (see photo)



The dining room required sheetrock along one wall to replace lath and plaster beyond repair, restoration of baseboards, repairs to window trim and door trim, and finishing trim on the doorway to the basement and upstairs. Here are some photos of what had to be, or what was, done:



After all the finish carpentry was completed I had to joint compound everything – finish sheetrock joints, fill major gaps/holes in damaged plaster, and skimcoat all the plaster in both room. That was really mental block and the major reason for the delay in progress.

So this post really updates everything that has (or has not) happened since last September. In the next post I’ll document how the finish work is going.




September 2, 2013


Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:00 pm

The past 6 weeks have been all about plastering sanding, more plastering, and more sanding the upstairs.  Labor Day weekend was all about finally painting – and it took a day-and-a-half. When you have 8 windows, 3 closets and 5 doorways there are lots of corners and trim to paint around. This aspect of the project has been a challenge to stay motivated because it’s the tiny details that need to be addressed to when finishing with plaster – even the slightest hollow or bump stands out when painted.  And it’s when you go to paint that you find all the spots you should have sanded or filled..

Looking back through the photos I realized how much has been done. After my last posting I stripped all the paint off the trim and in early August our niece, Kate, who lives in Virginia came to visit, along with a friend of Molly’s from Colorado.  Everyone helped prep the old plaster so that it could be skimcoated (make sure the joint compound adheres) and primed all the trim upstairs. And everyone had fun as you can tell from the photos!


The step was to start skimcoating the ceiling and walls. I did this by first using joint compound that comes in bags and you add water (called hot mud). This stuff cures via a chemical reaction and is harder than joint compound that comes in buckets already mixed (and cures by drying). I used this to fill big holes and gaps – and then benefit is that once it cures another coat can be applied even if it isn’t quite dry.  Here is an example of how I used this stuff – below are some photos of the chimney in the room that used to be Ethan’s bedroom.  Some of the bricks were exposed as you can see in the photo below. I first patched the holes with the hot mud and did the finishing with pre-mixed compound because it is much easier to sand (2nd photo).  The third photo shows the finished wall.




Here are two photos of the skimcoating process. The photo on the left shows my very first attempt at skimcoating – I just did a small area in the corner to get a feel for mixing the hot mud and applying to the wall.  Since I bought the 90-minute setting joint compound I had plenty of time to use up each batch (most of the time – a few half-buckets ended up getting dumped in the woods because it set up before I could finish!). The photo on the right is when the walls are just about done – the whiter joint compound is the easy-sand pre-mixed stuff.



And here are a series of photos showing the results of hours and hours of work. This window was where you used to walk up the stairs from the old part of the house into the 1950s addition (on the second floor).  The stone was rebuilt and I framed in the window sashes and framed the interior trim.  Then I built up layers of hot mud to create the finished window well.


Below the plastering is almost ready for the final finish of pre-mixed compound.


And below is the finished window that just needs the trim painted.


In the next post I will have more photos of the upstairs painted and the floors sanded with a coat of sanding sealer.

July 30, 2013

Lots of Work Ahead

Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:02 pm

It seems like most of the renovation recently has been coming to the realization that more plaster has to be removed from the walls or ceiling.  And that I need more drywall to replace the lath and plaster. As a result, Molly was intruded one early morning (no earlier than 8am) with drywall transport through her room.



This is because our old bedroom wall had to have all the plaster removed (see earlier post where I tried to save some).



Here are a bunch of photos of what the upstairs looks like now as we install drywall, restore trim around doors and windows, strip paint, and prime trim.



July 28, 2013

Sutherland, Virginia 1902

Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:25 pm

One of the items we found in the most recent renovations was a letter dated December 28, 1902 written to the third residents of our farm.  The letter was postmarked January 1, 1903 from Sutherland – and we assume Virginia based on information to follow. The actual letter is dated December 28, 1902.

The letter was written to Frank and Helen Lutz, who resided at our house from 1902-1920.  They did not own the property but rented it from the widow of Reuben Valentine (who built the home) and from her daughters who inherited the property when the widow died in 1908. So the letter was written to the residents of our home the first year they started farming!

According to the tax rolls for 1902, the Lutz’s paid $220 in tax for 4 horses or mules and $75 in tax for 3 cattle.

We found the letter folded up and affixed in plaster that was used to close up the original door to the largest bedroom in the house. Given that the plastering occurred about 1951 or 1952 why would you fold up a 50-year-old letter and stick it in the plaster? The letter was chewed upon by mice and bugs over the past 111 years but the postmarks were legible. The 2¢ stamp of George Washington was pretty expensive given it costs less than 50¢ to mail a first class letter today.

Here is a photo of the letter and the stamp.



As you can see, some of the paper has been lost over time, but there is enough to decipher much of the contents of the letter. Molly and I sat down and transcribed the following (items in brackets are our best guess and —?— means it was illegible or lost forever):

Sutherland                                December 28, 1902

Mrs. Helen Lutz

Dear Lutz’s, I will try —?—- a few lines.  [We are] well and hope to find you all the same.

—?— this is a nice climate to live here in winter time for it isn’t cold. [There] is generally a frost in the morning but it generally —?—- off when the sun rises.

There was nearly 3 inches of snow here. It only stayed a little over a day and then it was all gone.

I suppose there is lots of snow still —?— how are you enjoying farming and are you glad —?— another year. Sometime I think of getting out (our?) —?—- a farm for a —?—- a change.

The people down here don’t do much farming here. They raise mostly cattle and a few [vegetables?] and sweet potatoes.

I think —?— shall —?— and —?— PA about the middle of April for I’m going to Buffalo, NY about that time.

This is all at friends hoping to —?— soon. —?— give me all the news you —?—-.

Sincerely Yours,

—?— E—-


It would be really interesting to be able to read the last name, and possibly investigate where they lived in Sutherland, VA.  We assume it was Virginia because Sutherland, VA is near Richmond and the weather (frost at night and snow that lasts only a day or so) sounds appropriate for that time of year.

The amazing thing is the letter was received in Mill Hall, PA on what appears to be January 3, 1903 – only 2 days after being postmarked in Sutherland, VA!!

July 22, 2013

The Plan

Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:20 pm

What I have not done very well on this blog is show where we are headed with the project.  Mostly because that takes time developing drawings, etc. that I don’t have – so instead I have focused on what has been accomplished. But the remodel upstairs has been different for a couple of reasons. First, it is difficult to take photos that give a good sense of the size and relationships of different rooms. Second, we are undoing changes implemented in the 1950s, discovering how the upstairs was originally constructed, and implementing changes that, in some ways, change the character of the 2nd floor of the house even though we have restored the original stairs and doorways.

So hopefully what I provide in this blog will give you a better perspective of the 2nd floor of our house.  To begin, I have drawn how the 2nd floor existed when we bought the house in 1999.  I’m sure a real architect is rolling their eyes at my drawing, but maybe some explanation will help.  First, the staircase from the first floor (middle of plan) took you upstairs where if you turned right you entered bedroom 1, if you went straight you entered the 1950s addition (that we have removed) to access the full bath and bedroom, and if you turned left you entered a hallway area and could access bedroom 2.


After we deconstructed the upstairs we discovered that originally there were 3 bedrooms upstairs. When you walked up the stairs (lower left of drawing) and went straight you entered bedroom 1, if you turned 90° you entered bedroom 2, and if you did an almost 180° turn you entered bedroom 3.  Notice there are no closets and in bedroom 1 a stovepipe entered the middle of the floor from the living room downstairs and exited in the chimney access in the wall.  This also explains why our light switches upstairs were in the middle of the room (not near the doorway) because electricity was installed before the bedroom doors were moved in 1952.


Our plan has restored the original staircase, added a closet in the bedroom, added a closet in the hallway, and added a closet above the stairway.  Because you have to go through a former bedroom to get to the current addition we have decided to make that area a study/office area.  We don’t really need another bedroom and we can always use more storage space!



Hopefully this give you a better perspective of how the stone part of the house has changed over time.  And perhaps what you are looking at when I show photos of our progress.

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