Cookstove and Cast Iron

September 30, 2018

We got the cookstove into the house and I hung up a bunch of my cast iron pots and pans (I haven’t found and unpacked them all) and my father’s bread bowl. This is the west side of the mudroom.

I was very pleased to use a steel pot rack I had bought in 1986 but put into storage in 1991 when we moved. After twenty-seven years the rack was red-brown with rust. I worked on it with a wire brush and spray-painted it black. Since the ceiling joists were not spaced helpfully, I hung it from the one available and then drilled holes in the steel and bolted the back two sides to the walls to hold it level.

There is still a bunch of work to do in this room. I have to panel the bump-out under the pot rack which hides the exhaust pipe from the kitchen stove. I have to refinish the blades of my grandmother’s ceiling fan. The cookstove has to be hooked up. Tom and I are going to build a base for the cast iron sink I found in the back of a neighbor’s barn, and then I have to figure out the plumbing. We have to finish building the lockers (Tom was sick this weekend), I have to varnish the lockers, and hang the rest of the locker hooks. I have to trim the edges of the brick behind the stove with moulding, I have to nail quarter-round along the baseboards, and I have to put a coat of sealer on the walls. All three doors need painting or staining.

So — the room is far from finished. Nevertheless it makes me very, very happy to have it coming into focus after dreaming of it so long. Yay!

New Apartment Deck Rails

September 23, 2018

I started this post five weeks ago.

All summer I’ve been meaning to replace the railings on the apartment deck. Gary and I built the deck in 2013, long before I’d had a plan for the house, and our only concern for the railings had been safety.

Now that the house is up, I have wanted the railings on the apartment deck to match the main house porch.

Using a credit I had at Lowe’s, on the way home from a trip to Vermont I stopped and purchased a few dozen balusters.

I figured the job would take about three hours. Since all the old rails were treated lumber, I could reuse them. I would just pull them off, cut them down, rehang them, and screw in the balusters. Easy-peasy!

[The top of the house looks so ratty because the builder scraped it last July for painting, and then never painted.]

It was very, very hot but my tenant was away and I had to get the job done. I assembled all my wrecking tools.

Just getting the old rails off, and removing all the dozens of nails, took most of the hours. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my shirt. The remaining posts wobbled in place like loose teeth.

I wasted another hour trying to cut down the old rails and reuse them. They were cupped and twisted. The 1×6 capping boards had dried into long tortilla chips that cracked across at the knots.

OK, time for Plan B! I drove into town late that day and bought fresh 2x4s for rails and 2x6s for caps.

The next day went faster. After taking down the previous day’s sad efforts, I got up the new rails on the east side, countersinking the screws.

The five-year-old posts were themselves dried and twisted, but I did not have time or energy to pull them out. I did the best I could. Allen’s voice said in my ear, We ain’t buildin’ a church.

My backyard shop for cutting the long boards had to be a bit creative.

I worked my way around the deck, drilling the countersink holes and then bracing each post plumb before drilling in the rails.

I laid out the first capping board, hiding the screws by drilling them in from below.

Next, balusters. Math is always baffling to me, but I managed to figure out equal spacing down the length of the rails, marked it top and bottom, cut the balusters to fit, and, standing on my ladder, drilled them in.

Oh dear. Something’s wrong. I squinted at the balusters with a sinking heart. I went inside to my computer to check. Yes, code baluster spacing is 4″ maximum, and mine were spaced at 4.25″.

I climbed back up the ladder, took down all the rails, rejiggered the math, re-marked the rails, and put the balusters back up at 3.75″ apart.

The next day marked Day Three of my “three-hour project.” Of course with all the other farm chores, each “day” was only a few hours, but it was still a bit discouraging.

The temperature was in the 90s. It was too hot to wear a baseball cap to shade my eyes. My t-shirt and jeans were clammy and sticking to me. Sweat ran from my hair to puddle in my glasses whenever I looked down. I took my glasses off. Better to be fuzzy-sighted than underwater.

I had already put up the capping board on the west side of the deck.

The job now was to cut and put up the capping board on the long south side. This board had a 45° angle on both ends. I could not use the old board as a template because it had shrunk almost a full two inches.

Time was running out. I was due to leave for Ami’s surgery and had a thousand chores to accomplish before then. But I had left this board to cut when I was fresh because I knew that with my difficulties with math and spatial relationships, the odds were very high that I’d reverse the angles or cut the board too short. I went over it and over it in my mind before I cut. Then, with difficulty, I levered the heavy 12′ treated board up onto the deck, climbed up, and lifted it into place.

It fit!

And that’s where I had to leave the project before I drove to Connecticut. The steam in the picture is from the sweat in my pocket.

Though my tenant assured me he would not fling himself through the openings to fall off the deck, the unfinished railing has been a reproach to me ever since. Unfortunately, between work and other priorities, I’ve had no time.

However yesterday he was away hiking, and I cut and put up all the remaining balusters.

It’s not perfect, but it’s done. Yay!


September 22, 2018

The past few weeks have rushed by. I didn’t plan well, scheduling events for every weekend in September, not only the first month of school but the fall crunch time on the farm. It’s all been fun but I have been anxious as I’ve made lists, worked steadily, and still heard balls dropping. I haven’t slept well. Last week I woke up with another episode of atrial fibrillation. It passed before I had to teach but it was a warning shot across my bow. I’ve cut back on my coffee and am trying to climb into bed earlier and make the lists shorter.

After work yesterday I was eager to drive to Connecticut to see Jon, Amanda, and Ami. I also have a stack of things to bring them. However I was tired (I did barn chores early in a downpour before joining the 7th grade camping trip to fry breakfast eggs and sausage for the children over a fire), DH and I had only had one evening together in a week, and he is due to leave again on Tuesday. I rescheduled the trip and stayed home to try to organize and re-center.

After a week of silence, my builder has returned to start painting the second story of the house. Every few days he appears for a few hours, and gradually the house is losing its piebald look. His hostility and lack of communication poisoned my summer, but it turns out I am utterly unable to hold a grudge. He seems completely oblivious and sunny and talks to me just as he always did, and inevitably I am listening in the old friendly fashion. He is clearly never going to do all the work originally promised, and I will have to hire others to do that work. He has cost me dollars I do not have. However — “In person I can’t stay angry,” I said to DH.

“I noticed.”

The builder gave me an estimate of $480 to paint the posts and railings of the front porch. I can’t hire someone to do work I can do myself, so although I loathe, loathe, loathe painting, I’ve added it to my list. Because he only added the railings for the mudroom porch and end of the front porch in the last two weeks, those will need to season until spring before I can paint them. So we will have another year of the unfinished two-tone look.

I remind myself to focus on what is important in life. It is not paint.

Labor Day

September 3, 2018

Labor Day! Today is my last day before the crunch of the school year starts in earnest.

Yesterday was pleasant. I mucked the barn, brought the cows in, spread manure, moved the sheep, and then came inside to do a few loads of laundry and scrub bathrooms during a brief rain. Afterward, I went back out to weed the apartment garden, weed and rake the apartment path [DH drove in from a work event at this time and took the photo above], and then mow. I mowed for hours and the place looks much more respectable.

It is a bit discouraging to realize that it is September 3 and Nick the builder has completed very little of the unfinished work that I paid for in June 2017 and I believed would happen by June 2018. While I was in Connecticut a few weeks ago he returned to repair the holes he cut in the dining room walls to find the water leak, and put up the railings on the mudroom porch. Last week his father and uncle came one day and installed the porch ceiling. But everything else languishes and I’ve heard nothing about a timetable. My financial advisor told me that I was a lot of the problem: “You didn’t stay on him.”

I hate harassing people. It’s frustrating to think that it’s up to me to chivvy someone into living up to his word. This summer Nick informed me by email that he would not repaint the faulty dining room ceiling (he promised to do it many times), the contracted “plumbing the house” did not include exterior spigots, “exterior painting” meant only one coat, and “interior painting” did not include doors and windows. I have been quite upset by all of this but have had no outward reaction. The same financial advisor had told me that getting angry or threatening legal action to get the work done would be counter-productive since one doesn’t want an enemy working in one’s home. What I notice is that whichever way you slice it, it all appears to be my fault.

Thus it was soothing to rest my sore knee and sore heart, and mow. I have a lot of chores for today but if the rain holds off, I’m going to work a couple of hours of mowing into the mix.


August 12, 2018

Almost ten months ago, back in November, I put up concrete backer board in the mudroom to go behind my wood cookstove. (Projects here take a long time.) I planned to cover the backer board with brick veneer, and slowly over the months had bought the necessary boxes of Old Mill “brickweb,” bricks sliced in half and glued to sheets of webbing. Reviews said the brick was super easy to install. The very heavy boxes had been delivered and were stacked in a corner of the mudroom.

I am always nervous when faced with a project that requires skills I don’t have. However, I couldn’t put this one off any longer. My builder had emailed that he was going to return, and one of the things on his list was connecting my cookstove. I had to put up the brick and move the cookstove into the house.

I began by putting up temporary trim on each side of the backer board to guide my edges. The right side was easy, just a straight 2×4. For the left I had to get creative in the narrow space. Finally I used the cut-off tongue of a piece of my wall paneling.

To cut the bricks, I bought on sale a grinder with a diamond blade (and also bought eye protection and a mask). Putting the blade on the grinder was tricky. Though I’m accustomed to reading directions, I could not find anything in the directions that looked like the tool in my hand. Finally I drove it back to the hardware store and threw myself on the mercy of the boys behind the counter, who have known me for years. They laughed. Apparently this is a common problem with Makita directions. To have a tool that looks like the drawings, the tool must first be disassembled. Five minutes later I was in business and heading home.

Now I had to mix my thin-set mortar. I had inquired of the company what product I should use if the bricks were not simply decorative but subject to heat behind a cookstove. Their tech person replied, “Modified thin-set.” I bought a bag and mixed it carefully in a five-gallon pail according to directions on the package. While the mortar set up, I rewatched the installation video on the Old Mill Brick website. Start at the top, and work your way down the wall so the bricks stay clean. The process seemed almost as easy as press-on lettering. This would be a snap!

It was only after I watched my first section of bricks slide down my wall that I realized all the videos show installation with mastic adhesive, not mortar.

Sweating in the humid heat, covered with sloppy mortar, and near tears (what expensive disaster have I created now?) I forced myself to stop and think. OK, I’ll start from the bottom. Since I had to have an air gap, I found a piece of wood to use as a shim under the bottom row. I found my drill, a fistful of screws, and my four-foot level. And I started over.

With my spatula trowel I threw mortar on the hawk, and with the smooth side of the tiling trowel I smeared mortar onto the wall. I raked it with the notched side. Then I pressed the brick into the mud. I put screws into each sheet to hold it level while it dried. As the sheets still had a distressing tendency to sag, eventually I cut a 3/8″ shim and used screws and shim together to hold things in place.

In an effort to keep the bricks below clean, I taped paper over the completed rows.

Clean was an elusive goal. I had mortar on my hands and arms, on my face, in my hair. My shirt and jeans were smeared. Thankfully I’d covered the mudroom floor with drop cloths — wet mortar regularly slid off the hawk and trowels in ugly grey blobs and then I stepped in it and tracked it. Meanwhile the porch was gritty with red brick dust and it was so hot that whenever I put on the protective glasses to cut more brick, the glasses fogged over immediately.

I had been predisposed to think I would enjoy working with brick. My early readings of the memoir Cheaper By the Dozen, which described Frank Gilbreth getting his start laying bricks in the 1880s, had made me believe that laying brick was something any reasonable person could do — even if I didn’t conduct time and motion studies or reduce my motions from 18 to 4. What I didn’t count on was the ticking clock of the setting mortar and how this pressure would unhinge my brain as I rushed back and forth outside to cut bricks.

At one point in my feverish hurry, I decided I would track less mess if I took off my shoes. (My brain was unhinged.) I promptly stepped on a tool. I registered the pain but was in too much of a rush to pay attention. I only realized that I had cut my foot when I was puzzled by bright red blotches all over the drop cloths and porch deck and finally noticed that my sock was soaked with blood.

After four hours, I had only put up a third of the small wall. The videos had suggested this much could be done in ten minutes. However I needed to stop, clean all my mortar-encrusted tools (including the drill and level), do barn chores, and fix dinner.

As work on the wall had to be fitted around many other chores, it turned out that I always worked in four-hour chunks of time.

The second day was much easier. I had no expectations that it would be a snap. I had everything ready — shims, drill, screws, paper towels for my hands — so there was no panic. I also had a tarp to keep the brick clean.

The wall slowly grew.

By the third day everything was going smoothly until I realized belatedly that I had not covered a 10-inch section of 2×4 at the top of the opening for the stove pipe. [See first photo, above.] Of course, I had thrown away all my scraps of concrete backer board back in November. I called the local lumberyard. I called the school. No one had a scrap of backer board lying around. Would I really have to buy a five-foot sheet for a 10″ x 2″ sliver? While I dithered, my bucket of mortar was hardening inexorably.

I called Damon.

“Sure, I got some in my garage behind the stove you can cut a piece off. When you comin’?”

“Right now!”

Well, he was on the road — but I was welcome to stop by his garage.

What a great friend. I threw my grinder, a square, and an extension cord in the truck, rocketed across town, let myself into his garage, and in the gloom marked and cut off a piece. I rushed home.

Of course, I had also thrown away the half-dozen extra metal spacers Larry had made for me. (“When will I ever use those?”) Now I had to think fast and improvise. I needed something non-flammable and one inch thick — what? what? I rummaged in the garage frantically. The answered turned out to be four washers and two big nuts on each screw.

Whew! I got the piece in place and the bricks mortared just in time.

The wall was finished, except for grouting and trim. I wasn’t worried about trim…

… and grouting, how hard could that be? I had bought a grout bag and an 80-lb bag of Type N mortar, as recommended in an email from the tech at Old Mill Brick.

The idea was to fill the grout bag and squirt grout in all the crevices. “Just like cake decorating!”

Again I watched the relevant Old Mill Brick instructional video. In the first moments, the demonstrator intoned, “You do not want to use Type N mortar, it is too difficult. Always use Type S.” What?

My experience with instructions for DIY projects is that they are often vague and sometimes, as in this case, contradictory. I’ve been told directly that men never read directions, so writing directions is not a high priority. Back in 2006, when I complained about the lack of clarity in the directions for building my barn, the company countered, “Have you ever built anything bigger than a breadbox?” In other words, I should already know. I thought crossly that the words “easy” and “for beginners” should be eliminated from all DIY advertising.

I drove back to the lumberyard and bought a bag of Type S mortar. I mixed it and grouted the brick. I suppose it was like cake decorating, if your cake was being decorated with mud by a crazed three-year-old.

My forearms ached from hours of twisting the bag and I would wake up the next day thinking I’d developed rheumatoid arthritis in my right hand, but the wall was done. The grouting and tooling was very far from perfect but I had no more energy.

Two days later, the wall is dry.

Now I just have to move the 400-lb. cookstove in from the garage! I’m sure it will be a snap.


A Driveway At Last

August 11, 2018

Thursday was D-Day: Driveway Day. Here is Damon in the skidsteer at the edge of the highway at 7:00 AM, waiting for the first gravel truck to appear. Like his father Allen, Damon arrives early; he had warmed up the skidsteer at 6:45. He told me it was raining in town. We crossed our fingers and prayed the storm would miss us.

I limped down to the barn to do chores and when I got back Damon was smoothing the first load of gravel on the upper part of the driveway.

I went off to move the sheep. When I returned again, the third truckload of coarse road mix (called “crusher run”) was being delivered. The driver, George, would tailgate the load of twenty tons, dropping it in a long pile.

Damon would follow immediately behind him, spreading.

He had to work quickly to flatten the mix while the truck was turning around by the barn, so it would be able get out of the driveway again.

In the meantime, however, the second truck arrived. This less than desirable situation would have made me frantic — how foolish of the gravel yard to send both trucks at once rather than stagger them all day long — but the men were unfazed. There was nowhere on the narrow upper driveway for the second truck to pull over, so this driver, Albert (my neighbor), pulled it into the trees.

George squeezed his truck out to return to the quarry for another load…

… and Albert backed out of the trees and started down the driveway in his turn.

This process was repeated all day long.

After the driveway was coated with coarse stones, Damon switched the order to fine. While trucks and equipment roared and beeped over many hours, the storm blew away and the sun came out.

Due to the timing of the deliveries, Damon would have periods of intense labor followed by a long lag while the trucks drove the hour round-trip to the quarry. In that time he worked on the driveway, smoothing and scraping.


I bought him a big lunch and he ate it. He got out of the skidsteer to sit in the sun. He watched me weed the apartment garden and offered helpful comments. (Glaring at the flowers: “I’d rip all that shit out.”)

The next load of crusher was dropped near the house.

Damon created parking for three cars.

The eleventh and final load made a small “overflow parking lot,” by the upper gate to the south pasture.

One of the many great things about Damon is that after so many years, he, like his father, knows the tasks on the farm and automatically problem-solves for me. It is hard to express how much it has meant and still means, to have another brain thinking and planning on my behalf.

Damon knew I needed to move my winter manure pile away from the barn. “We should do it while you got the machine.” During the years when he could not work, Damon had sold his dump truck, but he called a friend with a dump trailer, and together he and Corey moved the pile.

They were almost finished when Corey’s trailer battery, like Larry’s years ago, went dead. Remembering the job of mucking out Larry’s trailer by hand, I groaned internally. However, Damon lifted the dump box with the skidsteer and the load slid out. Thank you, God!

Damon pushed the new manure pile together, and on his way out of the pasture, flipped last year’s pile (which had weeds growing on it). After a year of rotting, it has shrunk to half its previous size. This pile is on my list to spread in the next couple of months.

By now it was almost 6 PM. Damon was so tired he was bleary. My bad leg was throbbing. I washed the skidsteer bucket and tracks in a fog. He drove it up the clean new gravel and parked it at the top of the property for pick up. At last we were done. The driveway was finished.

“It’d be good if we had a roller, smooth it out,” Damon said as he sat in his truck, ready to leave. “But it’ll pack down.”

The driveway will require maintenance every spring but the biggest work and expense are done. I am relieved and happy.

*   *  *

Meanwhile I leave town next Wednesday to go to Connecticut for my granddaughter’s operation. I just heard in an email from my builder that he plans to return at that time. While it will be good to have work completed, the timing adds a lot of chores and pressure. (Among other things, he put a lot of 16-foot lumber and materials in storage when he left and expects me to have it all out and ready for him to work.) I have written the list of everything I have to have finished before I leave and am trying to plot the next four days hour by hour.

Rock-Picking the Backyard

August 8, 2018

My “backyard” is a mess. The man I paid to grade around the house last summer promised to return with a load of crushed stone to spread over the weed barrier I’d put down under the basement window. He never came back.

My builder has since declined to build the finished porch stairs, so the stairs are now on my list. (He had cut down and hung the former interior construction stairs so we could pass inspection for the mortgage.)

Weeds have taken over.

A thorny thicket of raspberries blocks the back entrance to the mudroom.

The builder also decided he now will not build the small 4′ covered porch here. I am going to talk to Tom and my friend Len at Shelter-Kit and see if this is a project Tom and I can do together, or even that I can do alone.

In the meantime I need to mow the weeds and spread grass seed. Before I can mow, I have to pick the rocks. Rocks are everywhere.

I’ve been trying to spend an hour a day collecting rocks. For now I am bypassing the big ones and only pulling those a foot across or smaller.

They always add up quickly.

Rock-picking is tedious work and hard on my bad knee. However it’s mindless, familiar (I’ve cleared every inch of the farm in this way), and ultimately satisfying as I add another square foot of clean ground to my total.

The wagon is old and groaning under the load. This afternoon I will empty it, pull a few hundred more stones, and spread grass seed. Then I will mow the weeds to fall over the seed as mulch.

At least that is my plan.