Pennsylvania Limestone Farmhouse Renovations to an 1863 farmhouse built of limestone

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.


June 23, 2013

Good-bye to Wall-E

Filed under: Basement,Deconstruction,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 4:46 pm

Since we renovated the roof of the stone building, the heat for that part of the house has been the pellet stove in the basement. That means the bedroom upstairs got pretty cold in the winter.  And because most of the chimney was torn down, we  had a stainless steel vent that emerged out of the chimney about 3 feet aboveground.  The vent looked like Wall-E from the movie and looked ridiculous… but it’s now gone.

We have decided to install a geothermal heat pump in the old part of the house (when we did the renovation we drilled 2 sets of wells with the intention of later installing a heat pump for the old part of the house).  That means a lot will happen this summer.


1. Remove the pellet stove and all the 1950s ducting from the basement.

2. Move the basement shelving that stores paints and another shelving that stores Lisa’s canned goods so they are not in the way when the heat pump is installed.

3. Clean ALL the furniture out of the old part of the house. Which means where do we put it? And so…

4. Clean up the old classroom in the barn (when Lisa homeschooled the kids).

5. Remove the last vestiges of the chimney (and Wall-E) from the outside of the house.

6. Gut the rest of the interior of the old house. Such as tile ceilings, sheetrock over plaster, and the staircase added in the 1950s.


So to start the whole process, today we began with cleaning the old classroom in the barn and cleaning out the basement.

We then started in the basement by removing the woodstove.  We put it on a pallet, then slid it over to the bulkhead and attached a towing strap to the pallet and used the tractor to pull it up out of the basement.  The following photos show the sequence.






And now the basement looks like this…


I can’t seem to find a photo of Wall-E, probably because it was pretty ugly and I didn’t think of it until I had ripped it out of the ground. But you can see the old chimney in this photo (just to the left of the door – cast concrete sections with no liner – great 1950s technology!). All that is left now is a hole in the basement (the goes nowhere) and this outside.



There is still cleaning to do in the basement, but it’s pretty much ready for the contractors.  Expect more posts in the next few weeks, especially when the old house gets completely gutted!  Exciting but dusty times ahead!

February 24, 2013

Hollows and Rounds

Filed under: Stairs,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 5:39 pm

One of my Christmas gifts was a recently-published book on making mouldings using hand tools, specifically hollows and rounds (H&R). These are wooden planes used until the early 20th century to create moldings.  A half set of H&Rs is 18 planes in matched pairs with increasing radius from 1/8″ to 1-1/8″. Below is a photo of the set I bought recently (but missing the No. 4 pair) and the soles of a matched pair.


I have 1 pair tuned up and ready to use but need to buy some sharpening tools to get the rest in shape (even though they are in quite good condition overall). Plenty to keep me busy!

Below is a photo of the plane irons. You can see one has a concave profile and the other is convex.  The convex is not too difficult to sharpen but the concave is going to require some conical sharpening slips for sharpening and a flexi-shaft grinder to shape the profile.  The set of H&Rs that I bought were made in London probably in the late 19th century so they need some work to recover from neglect.



To make mouldings you also need a rabbet plane to cut rabbets to minimize the amount of wood to be removed by the H&R planes.  I bought an old rabbet plane on ebay that was made by the Sandusky Tool Co. in Ohio that had a 1″ wide sole. Unfortunately, the plane was warped and the sides were worn.  Using the jointer I narrowed the width to about 7/8″, flattened the sole, and ground the iron to fit the new dimensions of the plane body.  It will no longer be a collector’s piece (not that it was at all rare) but it is now a useful woodworking tool. I may eventually have to box the corners with a harder species of wood, but for now it works quite well.



My first attempt with these planes was to make cove mouldings to go against the risers just underneath the stair treads. I started by cutting a dado with the rabbet plane. I used a marking tool to scribe a line indicating the width of the dado, then held the rabbet plane at an angle to track the scribe line as I gradually cut the dado. After a few strokes at an angle you can hold the rabbet plane vertical and cut the dado.


That left a satisfying pile of shavings on the floor.



After the rabbet plane I used a No. 8 round plane to cut the cove.  The sides of the dado guide the round and you keep track of the disappearing rabbet to make sure you are cutting evenly along the moulding. In the photo below you can see the dado has almost disappeared.



And then you’re done. The nice thing with cutting the moulding with a plane is that you don’t have to sand like you do after using a router. Although by hand it took me 10 times longer! I hope to get faster over time…



Below are the results of my first attempt at making mouldings by hand. Not perfect but given that each of these will be underneath the lip of a stair tread I don’t think anyone is ever going to notice.



Now only 8 more stairs to go!

One final note for this week, I found some money (besides pennies from the 1950s)… a Mercury dime that fell out from underneath the rubber mat nailed to the original top step of the stairs. Not that all our investment in the house has now paid off… the dime is worth about $2-$3 mostly because of the price of silver.


February 17, 2013

Firewood 2014 Time

Filed under: firewood,kitchen — Duane Diefenbach @ 5:04 pm

We have had 2 weekends recently with below-freezing temperatures and little snow – perfect for cutting wood.  Left over from last year were still 2 trunks of dead standing white oak (each about 20″ dbh) on the hillside. They had to be dropped downhill because of their lean, but with the frozen ground and slope they were easy to haul down with the tractor and truck.

Here’s what we dragged out and had cut and piled in the yard by lunchtime. Two pickup truck loads from 2 logs!



This year Ethan got some experience with the chainsaw, which led him to comment that now he knows why I like to cut my own firewood (because it’s fun!). That was only after about 15 minutes of cutting (before he even got warm enough to take his coat off) – but if he’s happy I’m happy (and grateful for the help).



Today we dropped some cherry trees overhanging the fenceline.  Two more truckloads and I think we’re done for next year.  Between the 4 loads we just cut and what we won’t burn this year (see this post from March 11, 2012), we should be all set for 2014.  Now we just need to split and stack it all.  Also, after lunch we cut a truckload of box elder to use as firewood for the workshop – box elder is pitiful heating fuel but contains enough BTUs to take the chill off my workspace.

So once again we have another pile of something in the yard.



Update on the house

This past week I finished the paneling above the range hood in the kitchen. These panels had to be removeable so that one can gain access to the vent and power for the range hood. I used 4 pieces of poplar as framing to attach the panels.  The side panels will be attached from the inside and the front panel will be attached with brass screws from the exterior. In the photo below you can see the framing – and the sad fact is this area has been exposed so long we were used to it… But I did get lucky attaching the piece on the ceiling as it fell exactly on a joist (that runs parallel, not perpendicular, to the outside wall!



Here’s the finished product!


Next I finally made the “double” door needed to access the space under the prep sink. I used 2 pieces of solid cherry… and have it sanded and fitted and now just need to finish them.


So you may ask, “Is the kitchen is finished?” Not really – need to add cove molding to the baseboard, cover the framing that forms the toekick under the cabinets, and probably make one last upper cabinet to go above the prep sink. And we have been doing some thinking about a pattern/mosaic to tile the wall between the range and hood.


February 7, 2013

New Stairs in an Old House

Filed under: Dining Room,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 11:07 pm

For the past 8-10 days Lee Cowan Design+Build has been rebuilding the original stairs. Based on the pitch and amount of space, the only way we could design the stairs was to have angled steps at the bottom that made a left-hand turn up to the second story.  You’ll see what I mean in the series of photos.

This photo is a little confusing, but you just have to ignore the temporary support posts and header.  You can see one stringer installed and some of the framing for the wall.



Once the wall was constructed the temporary header could be removed. Now you can see 2 stringers installed along with the header installed (right side of photo) so that about half the staircase can be exposed



The next photos is taken from the stairs going to the basement, and they show how the stairs will make a 90° turn at the bottom. Again, keep reading and more photos will make some sense of this.



Below you can see some of the framing for the angled treads. After getting this installed we were afraid there was not enough headroom to clear the ceiling of the second floor, but decided to wait until the treads were installed to make any decisions about how to deal with it (with the header installed we could potentially shorten a joist and make more headroom).



With the stringers and framing installed some treads and risers could be installed. Starting from the top down. Lee did a great job of making the stairs match the slope of the second floor (seriously!).


Because the original house was finished in white pine I used some pine that I cut, dried, and milled from the property. I had 5/4 pine available so all the treads, skirts, and trim can be 1″ like the original house.

When the treads and risers for the angled steps were installed it really started to look like a set of stairs! And fortunately there is sufficient headroom for most people to climb the stairs without bumping their head.



Deciding how to trim the exposed stairs and the header, as well as the trim that joined the header to the stairs took some discussion with Lee.  Unfortunately, at this point I was beginning to run out of pine and had to use some red pine for some of the risers and other parts (note the darker colored risers in the photo above).

The final major task was to make a newel post and the handrail and balusters. I made the newel post from some red maple milled to a final dimension of 3-1/2″ square.  The handrail and balusters are pine. I made everything very simple to match the simple construction of the house.


Here is a final photo of the new staircase along. With the sheetrock installed it almost looks like it was original.



The door on the left was removed from the closet that is now the top of the stairs – I am going to use it for the door to the basement (and it may be original to that space? Who knows?).  But there is still a lot left to do.

1. Make the cove molding to go under each tread and to wrap around the expose portion of the staircase. I am planning to do this with an antique set of hollow and round wooden planes I recently purchased. More on that later.

2. Make a couple pieces of trim to finish covering the header.

3. Sand everything! Prime it. And at least one coat of paint (no color decisions have even been discussed at this point).

4. Frame in the doorway to the basement. Hang the door.

5. And that’s probably not half of it! Stay tuned.

January 26, 2013

Back to the Old House

Filed under: Living room,Stone house restoration — Duane Diefenbach @ 5:57 pm

Holidays and other projects in the shop have stopped any progress on the new part of the house. Although now that it’s a cold, snowy day we decided to tackle preparations for restoring the original staircase in the house.  This involved first cleaning our the remainder of our “junk” out of 2 closets that were created in the 1950s (where the staircase used to enter the second floor) and the upstairs hallway. This area has pretty much been a disaster since we gutted the downstairs room that contained a bookcase where the stairs used to be (see this post).

So the task was to remove the floor installed upstairs (see photo below) as well as the interior walls and cedar-chip paneling from the closets. Then we needed to put a header and supports in the basement under the first floor, and then a temporary header with jacks to raise the the second floor – because when the staircase was removed they also removed the load-bearing support for the second floor. It was why Ethan’s old room and the hallway was like a trampoline and it had about a 1″ slope over 6 feet.



Below is a photo where the staircase used to end at the second floor. We (Ethan and I) have gutted the interior and started removing the floor. The musket leaning by the doorway is in case the Rebels attack (this house was built during the Civil War). And after everything was removed and you can now drop from the second floor to the basement, if you want.  Something we need to fix before guests with little kids visit.




There is actually a remaining top step, which is simply 1″ pine that is well worn. Also, I discovered a piece of original woodwork used as a ship for the framing installed in the 1950s. I am not quite sure where it was used in the house but it is only 1″ pine that had mortises cut in it along with a dado and a bead trim.  I am thinking it was part of a door frame. But the mortises are quite delicate for a doorway.  Anyway, when we peel more of the 1950 changes to the house we might be able to figure it out, but it is the first piece of woodwork in the house that actually has an embellishment to the trim.


So now that everything had been gutted and hauled outside into the back of the truck, we set up a header and jacks to remove some of the slope in the 2nd floor. We won’t be able to make everything level but more importantly we can restore some support and remove much of the bounce upstairs.Right now there is only about 1/2″ of slope over 6 feet!  Over the next few days I may each day jack up the floor a bit more, but not by much.




So that’s where we stand. Now we are hoping to get Lee Cowan to come back and rebuild the staircase.

December 28, 2012

Lots of Doors

Filed under: Exterior,Front door,kitchen — Duane Diefenbach @ 3:23 pm

The doors that have been completed in the past couple of months include all but one kitchen cabinet doors, the front door to the addition, and a storm door for the front door of the old house.

The front door is essentially complete and here is a photo. Note the pull for the doorbell is installed and I have a brass plate that says “Pull” to install.

The kitchen doors took a lot of work. There were 7 in all.  Almost every door is a slightly different size and I made the panels out of a single piece of cherry.  Here is a photo of the doors with the panels with 2 coats of finish installed in the frames (unfinished). I had to fit each door and make adjustments with a hand plane.

After they were fitted I finished them and here they are installed.

I still have one door to complete in a corner of the base cabinets. This door has to be a bi-fold door to open near the fridge so I have been putting it off, although it won’t be too difficult.  The other to-do item is a series of cherry panels above the range hood. Then the kitchen should be complete except for possible cabinet above the prep sink (above the base cabinet lacking a door).

The other door I have been working on has been a storm door for the front door of the old house. After a year of being exposed to sun (and rain/snow) the interior paint has really taken a beating, especially the side exposed to the west.  It’s clear that a storm door is a necessity to protect the entry way.  I designed the door to be similar to a four-panel door except that the top 2 panels will be windows that can be replaced with screens (if you so wish). I used antique cast iron hinges and modern brass doorknobs.

Here’s a photo of it installed. I used the same paint I used for the storm door in the rear of the stone house. It is a green similar to the green we used on the addition but darker.  I think it looks ok – decide for yourself.

Now we just need some stone steps to the front door of the old part of the house (although it would fit in well in Vermont without a front stoop)! And we’ll see how often I have to restore it because of damage from sun and rain.

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