Pennsylvania Limestone Farmhouse Renovations to an 1863 farmhouse built of limestone

April 13, 2014

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.

July 14, 2013

Miserable Weather for Renovating

Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 8:12 pm

It has been mostly sweltering and rainy in central Pennsylvania.  Not perfect weather for remodeling a house. Most of the work since my last post has been upstairs. Ripping out plaster and walls and rebuilding and wiring.  The bummer is that I was hoping most of the plaster could be repaired but it turns out most has to be ripped out. And I just don’t have the time or money to do anything other than drywall.

When you start removing things you begin to see some interesting repairs in a 150-year-old house.  For example. Here is where the stovepipe from the first floor used to go up through the second-floor master bedroom for heating.



And here are a couple of patches for what appear to be knotholes in the floorboards



And my favorite is the fairly numerous holes chewed by rats. Some were stuffed with rags but if you look just to the left of the white baseboard you can see where the top from a tin can was nailed to across a chewed hole. Of course, you can see numerous other chew holes to the right.


To date, we are fairly certain we are free of rats and mice.  However, when we bought the house in 1999, the day we took ownership we went down in the basement and saw a rat get up out of its nest in the window well!

Upstairs Ethan and I installed flooring to replace where the stairs came through to the second floor. Ethan got good at measuring and marking floorboards and we filled the space except where we had to leave an opening for the HVAC ducting from the basement to the 2nd floor.


While Ethan and I worked on the stairs Lisa was ripping up particle board that was nailed about every 6″ in Ethan’s old bedroom.  This was painfully slow, backbreaking work and you can guess why Lisa looks a little stiff in this photo.



Now that a good part of everything was ripped out. It was clear we needed to remove some wallpaper. Upstairs there were about 3 layers of wallpaper on the ceiling that came down fairly easily.  The wall had 3-4 layers but some were painted and there was a coat (or two) of latex on top.  Downstairs there were 4 layers on the ceiling and 2-3 layers on the walls. Very time consuming to remove, and it was a hot and humid day, and it took ALL day.


Our old bedroom has wallpaper under yellow paint under blue paint. Not fun!


I finished up at 10pm on Sunday night in the downstairs dining room.  Lisa couldn’t take any more but if I returned the steamer by 9am on Monday it was only a 1-day rental for the weekend.  In the room below you can see that there were a number of repairs with plaster of Paris (the yellow plaster).


Lisa cleaned up the disaster on the floor (it’s black because we covered it with roofing felt) on Monday.

On Thursday (July 9th) I took the day off to work on the house and came to the conclusion that most of the yellow plaster wall in our old bedroom had to come down. Most of the keys were broken and the layers of plaster were separating. So this is what it looked like when I finished.



However, I think removing the plaster might have been meant to be, because behind the lath I noticed a bay full of “stuff” that had fallen down behind the attic stairs. So I pulled a few pieces of lath off the wall and started pulling junk out. Most of it was chewed up by mice and rats, but I found some interesting items.  The first thing that fell out was a bottle of Wildroot Dandruff Remedy (40% alcohol!). The bottle and labels are in almost perfect condition, including the cork stopper and glass pull on top.



All in all, I found a leather belt and buckle, suspenders, parts to a rimlock, an enameled bakeware catalog with recipes, tin lids to some containers, Christmas card sample (from Chicago), a sales letter from B. A. Noll, General Merchandise in Zion selling animal medicine (to Mr. Frank Lutz who lived here 1902-1920) , a ladies footstocking, a grocery bag from a Bellefonte grocery store, and some old agricultural newspapers. Unfortunately, most of the paper was chewed up pretty badly by mice and rats.



Most interesting, was a letter I found folded up and stuck behind the old doorway to our old bedroom (and covered in plaster done in the 1950s) was a letter written to the Lutz’s in December 28, 1902. I haven’t had time to completely decipher the letter (chewed wherever folded and faded and written in pencil) but the stamp was $0.02. The letter writer was from somewhere warmer than Pennsylvania because they wrote about frost at night but it disappeared as soon as the sun came up.

This past weekend we began rebuilding the house with wiring (more than 1 outlet per room!) and drywall to cover the spaces made by removing plaster. More info on that effort coming soon.

July 9, 2013

4th of July Marathon

Filed under: Living room,Stairs,Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:50 pm

It’s felt like a marathon but with not much running involved. Just lots of dirt and sweat beginning on the 4th and continuing through the long weekend. And lots of sweat is an understatement because it was in the mid-80s the whole time with high humidity. I began with removing the stairs that were installed in the 1950s.  Two joist were cut from the second floor to make a space about 48″ wide to go from the first to second floor – and a joist was removed from the 1st floor to provide access to the basement.  The stair treads were solid oak and trim was pine all finished in stain and then varnished.  Removal was not difficult but took time because when I finished you could fall directly from the second floor to the basement!

Here is a photo removing the treads.



When I got near the bottom of the stairs I pulled up a tread and found a 1952 nickel, which would be right around the time the stairs were built. I like to think the contractor left that there to be found by someone.  All in all I found $0.49 in quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies.



After removing the treads I removed the drywall that then exposed the window that until now provided light to the basement (it used to be the entryway from the old kitchen in the 1950s addition to the basement – you can see a photo of this window as a doorway in this blog entry).


Once the last of the stairs were removed I found that there was even a linoleum “rug” on this floor with newspapers underneath.  When they built the stairs they didn’t bother to remove the linoleum!



So when all was said and done this is what the living room looked like. Much bigger with 2 window openings to the front of the house.



The next step involved reflooring the 1st and 2nd floor openings.  I started by installing a joist (with the help of Ethan).



And then we used flooring from the attic (and left over from what was used in our master bedroom). However, we cut the flooring to width to match the original existing flooring that was removed in the 1950s.  This meant we had to mill tongues and grooves in the flooring. I think the end result will look good, but right now the rough, dirty attic boards look horrible next to the refinished original floor.



Part of the difficulty of replacing the flooring was that they cut the floor next to the joist (and non-load-bearing wall). To install the new flooring I had to chisel out a short piece of old flooring and then hammer in place the replacement section. This took a lot of time, but we have everything installed except for a space for the geothermal company to install a chase for ducting to the second floor.

The second floor was a little easier, because Ethan and I had experience installing the joist and we didn’t bother matching board widths. The space on the 2nd floor is going to be closets so no one will really see the mismatch in floorboards. Updates on this work is forthcoming. I’m too tired right now to finish this blog entry!



July 1, 2013

Beginning of the End? I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel…

Filed under: Stone house restoration,Upstairs — Duane Diefenbach @ 9:21 pm

So Saturday we spent the day moving out of the stone part of the house. On Sunday we began de-constructing the stone house.  We started in our old bedroom by removing the linoleum “rug” and saving the 1948-1951 newspapers underneath.  I then ripped off the “blue” paneling.  This is what the room looked like before and afterwards…


Apparently, the room was a bold yellow walls with dark brown baseboard and window trim.  We assume the ceiling was wallpapered but was since painted white.

We then started on Ethan’s old bedroom by removing the acoustic tile ceiling and the particle-board overlayment on the floor.  Unfortunately, once we started on the ceiling we realized we had a problem.  Over the years, rook leaks had damaged the plaster ceiling and the tiles simply hid the problem. Most of the ceiling plaster had to come down.  As well as the plaster in the interior walls.  What a mess. Here are some before/after photos.



Of course, on Sunday Ethan got up early to finish cutting some firewood to length that he is going to sell to make some money. He started at 7am cutting wood with the chainsaw. We started about the same time throwing de-construction material out the window.  At 10am we were visited by the local inspector.



The inspector (our neighbor, Bill) informed us that because we violated the Zion village noise ordinance he was going to have to serve us with a $100 fine.  And then because there was no permit in the window that we had another $100 violation.  I told him I didn’t see or hear any chainsaw running and that the “construction” work was because of water damage and we didn’t need a permit!

We spent the rest of the day removing acoustic tile ceiling in the upstairs hallway, exposing the stairway area, and removing more plaster from walls.  We still have a lot of plaster to remove – and is it ever messy work!  Here is a photo looking towards Ethan old room with the original doorway exposed on the left and the current doorway on the right. What we learned from all the demolition is that the reason all the light switches were in the middle of the room is because the doorways were moved!



We then exposed the framing around the stairway that was installed in 1950.  What we discovered is that there was a lot of hidden space underneath the attic stairs.  Below are before/after photos of the stair area.



All this makes it seem like a pretty simple day, but by this time Lisa and I were pretty worn out. To finish out the day we decided to accomplish 2 things (beside vacuuming up much of the mess). First, recover the cut nails from the lathe we removed from the walls – these little nails are very expensive to buy today so it is worth the effort saving them!



Second, we decided to open up the original door to our old bedroom.  I started from the bedroom side…



And then from the other side it looked like this…




And finally the original opening was exposed.  Directly behind the photographer (Lisa) are the stairs that were original to the house.  You walked up the stairs directly toward the bedroom.



What I need to do is make a map of the current and original floor plan of the upstairs. Not sure if I will have time, but if I somehow get inspired I will try to add that to the blog.  The 4th-of-July weekend is coming up so we plan to make a lot of progress on this part of the project.

June 29, 2013

Moving Out

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

We spent today moving everything out of the old part of the house. Where to put it all? The barn really is not a good storage area because it is so damp.  So here is where things went: (a) the old classroom in the barn has become the TV room with air conditioning, (b) our neighbor has (had) an empty spare bedroom, (c) the attic, and (d) various places in the addition.

Right now I am sitting at my desk in our bedroom. The bathtub is full of antiques, and Molly and Lisa are watching TV and eating popcorn in the classroom with the dogs



The stone house is pretty much empty, full of echos, and ready for deconstruction.  In our old bedroom the paneling has to be removed, and the linoleum “rug” will have to go.


Pitching the rug was a somewhat difficult decision because it was installed about 1951 and underneath was lined with newspapers.


In fact, there was a March 18, 1951 funnies section from the Philadelphia Inquirer that looked like new!



In Ethan’s old room we have to rip out the door frame to the old closet and make it smaller to accommodate the stairway ledge. Also the ceiling tiles will be removed and the particle board that covers the original pine flooring will be removed.



Then we have a lot of 3/8″ sheetrock to remove and find out if the wall dividing his room from the hallway is original or was installed in 1950. I am not quite sure if the wall is original because the doorway trim is modern dimensional lumber, but maybe they just moved the door like they did in our old bedroom.  We shall see.



Downstairs in our living room (that was partially restored about 5 years ago) we will be removing the stairs that were installed in 1950. This will make the room much bigger and restore access to a window that used to be the doorway to the basement from the kitchen, but it will take a lot of work to undo everything. Removing the stairs will involve restoring floor joists and flooring.  I am going to mill some leftover pine boards we took out of the attic (and used in our master bedroom) to fill the space in the living room.



The dining room does not need much deconstruction, except to remove some lathe where the plaster failed.  I plan to replace the lathe with sheetrock and then plaster over to match the remaining plaster.  There will be a lot of plastering to do in the house so I bought an electric sander that has large sanding discs and can be hooked up to a vacuum to minimize dust.


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