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Reviving Old Houses: Organizing For Work

Planning Ahead

The decision-making, mortgage-shopping, and papers-signing are now behind you. You are eager to put right all of the problems in your wonderful old house, transforming it into the house of your imagination. How to begin? Successful house renovation requires that you plan ahead, lest in a few months you be like the man who jumped on his horse and ran off in all directions—and lest your house look like the house that Jack built when you get through.

Nothing is so sad to the house renovator as to discover, “I didn’t think it would look like that when I started this improvement.” This realization is often followed by the equally sad experience of tearing out last year’s restoration only one year later because you did not think ahead. Proper planning will save you many renovator’s headaches, and good lists will:

• Keep you doing first things first

• Enable you to make the best use of your time and money

• Permit you to garner free or cheap materials for upcoming projects

Making a List of Priorities

You have made a list of things that need to be done on this house. Now is the time to organize your data into lists of priorities, with lots of white space for adding things and making explanatory notes. Next to each item on your lists make a note of the probable expenditure of time and money required. Note also what materials will be needed for each project; for long-term projects you will often be able to collect materials well in advance of work on the project, allowing you to search out sales or secondhand materials.

• list 1: Those projects that need immediate attention because cosmetic or structural degeneration is ongoing, delay will radically escalate costs, or family safety and health are at risk

• list 2: Those projects necessary for adequate livability, judged by aesthetic, emotional, and practical criteria

• list 3: Those projects you would like to do in the foreseeable future

• list 4: Those projects that you know will be nice—or necessary—to do eventually

• list 5: Fun projects, to be saved for their recreational and encouragement value; like garnishes to a good meal, they should be interspersed with the more serious fare

A word of caution. Many renovators, especially new homeowners, become overwhelmed by the tasks they have overtaken and “burn out” before their dreams are realized. To avoid this problem:

• Don’t do too many fun things while avoiding the imperative projects in List 1, thus playing your way into inevitable disaster.

• Don’t open up too many cans of worms at one time; finish as much as you can before starting something else.

• Don’t embark on projects you haven’t enough time or money to finish in the time allotted.

• Seek the encouragement of other house renovators.

Pictures and Drawings

Before you replace a single board or drive a solitary nail, take pictures of the house, including shots of the ugliest features of the building. These will form the basis of a pictorial history of the renovation of your house that will be a wonderful memento, a historical resource, and personal encouragement as you see how far you have come.

As important as these photos will be “for the record,” they serve a very practical purpose as well. Take straightforward shots of each side and of each detail, such as an ornate peak, a small porch, or a bay window, and use these to make working drawings (“blue prints”) of your house. Specifically, you will need drawings of:

• Elevations (a flat view with no perspective) of each side (scale: ¼” = 1’)

• Details of smaller features that will need restoration or change (scale: 1” = 1’ or larger)

• Floor plans (outlines of the floor(s) of the house), including all windows and doors, stairways, fireplaces, plumbing fixtures (scale 1/4” = 1’)

These drawings might be assigned to your teenager or a friend who has just taken a drafting course. But even without experience you can make drawings adequate for your purposes. Once drawings are made, make several photocopies of the originals, and experiment only on the copies, retaining the masters for your files.

• Draw in pencil (to facilitate erasure).

• Collect as many dimensions as possible on a rough drawing.

• Use dimensions you know to estimate dimensions you can’t reach by measuring the distance on the photos. Such dimensions might include the width of a siding board or window casing. Note these visual measuring marks right on the drawing.

• For floor plans, indicate the total size of windows and doors, including surrounding trim; estimate 6 inches for wall thickness; make one plan for each floor.

• Draw every contemplated change on a photocopy before proceeding; don’t add even a shutter unless you try it out first on a copy.

• Make a set that “grows” with the house, revised only after the actual change is made.

Alternative, Penny-Pincher Solutions to Common Problems

Many of the most common problems in old houses are rather superficial and can be solved temporarily, or even permanently in some cases, by cosmetic tricks that are both quick and inexpensive. Here are a few suggestions.

Quick Tricks for Common Problems:

Problem

Penny-Pincher solution

Bad walls

Cover with rugs and tapestries

Apply wallpaper, which not only covers a lot. but even strengthens the plaster “skin” (large cracks and holes should be filled with joint compound and lightly sanded before paper is applied)

Modernized bathroom

Use primitive furniture or old dresser mirror(s)

Use old lamps or lighting fixtures

Too small door or window

Install shutters to enlarge the opening visually

For window, in stall a window box

Plywood flush door

Apply wood panels or moldings in a pattern similar to other doors in the house

Screened-in porch

With decorative wood trim, outline on the exterior any gingerbread, moldings, or balustrades that have been covered by screening

Plain, bare rooms

Hang lamps, rugs, blankets, tapestries, or large pictures

Bricked-up fireplace

Hang a mantel and install a metal “cover” where the fireplace opening should be

Construct an imitation hearth by laying bricks without mortar, keeping them in place by a length of quarter-round

Missing pocket doors

Hang portieres (heavy curtains), suspended by wooden rings from a heavy wooden rod

Missing ceiling lights

Install overhead fans

Hang wall shelves to accommodate appropriately styled lamps, such as wired oil lamps

Mount stained glass offset from walls, with lights behind the glass

Use painting lights to illuminate wall

hangings

No closet space

Build large, free-standing wardrobes

Use camelback and wardrobe trunks freely for additional storage

Develop attic or basement for long-term storage space

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to Restore—What to Improve—What to Remodel

The question of what to improve, what to restore, and what to renovate is a difficult one. The answers to it are almost as many as there are restorers and renovators. Even historic preservationists, who spend weeks looking for authentic nails and carefully excavate layers of paint to find original colors, have to make decisions about what to improve and remodel. Any house from the nineteenth century that has a bathroom has most likely already been improved, and most old houses have been somewhat remodeled during their history. Sometimes one finds a 100-year-old Victorian era house that was remodeled six or seven decades ago into a perfectly charming and very valuable English Tudor, the merit of which isn't diminished by the renovation.

The terms remodel, renovate, and restore have very specific meanings. Remodeling implies modernizing a room or house with the intent of making it more attractive, convenient, and comfort able, but not necessarily conforming to the style of the original Renovation means to improve an older structure while at the same time maintaining some of its original character. The word “reviving” in the title of this guide is most closely akin to “renovating.” Restoration is the most particular and specific of the three, and means an attempt to replicate the original structure exactly, whether or not it's convenient and appropriate to modern life. The following guidelines might help the beginning renovator:

Restore

• What is within reach financially and practically

• Items that have to do with the exterior appearance

• Architectural features that have to do with the interior appearance

• Visible features that especially delight you

• Items that will not require the destruction of perfectly sound improvements of a former owner

• Items, the restoration of which will not create major and continuing maintenance problems

Improve

• All systems, such as plumbing, heating, and electric, when they require replacement

• Invisible construction details

• Strategic matters of convenience

• Insulation and other features that will prevent heat loss and adequate cooling

• Those areas that will dramatically reduce energy and maintenance costs

• Paints, putty, fillers, papers, varnishes, and floor coverings

Remodel

• What you perceive was inexpressibly ugly even when it was new

• What has been irrevocably and poorly remodeled by former owners

• Areas and details that aren't the primary focus of the house visually and that will not change its identity

Seven Ways to Destroy Your House

1. Modernize or reduce the size of a porch

2. Screen and especially enclose a porch

3. Install modern and /or smaller windows than original

4. Modernize the main entrance doorway

5. Add any kind of artificial siding.

6. Lower a high ceiling

7. Divide rooms

Information Resources

You need not know everything about renovation, but you should learn where you can find information about specific problems or techniques as the need arises. Here are some of the places to start

• How-to books on specific skills, such as

• Carpentry

• Plumbing

• Electrical wiring

• Heating

• General books and web sites on remodeling, renovation, and restoration

• Journals and magazines

• Building supplies people

• Other home renovators

• Your own observation of

• Construction projects

• Local restoration efforts

• Historic districts in other communities

• Old house and garden magazines from the era of your house and the twenty years following (find them in public and college libraries)

Careful planning and recordkeeping not only can save you hours and days of precious time but they also can help you keep costs as low, and as manageable for your resources, as possible.

Use the suggestions in this section to:

• Make your lists of priorities

• Make good photographs and drawings of your house

• Consider alternative timesaving and /or money-saving solutions to problems

• Evaluate the extent of renovating or restoring really necessary

• Arm yourself with as much information about all aspects of your project as you can muster

With all of this in hand, you are now ready to get down to work.

Tools

As you approach this project of house revival, you will need a few tools beyond that marvelous collection consisting of a one clawed hammer, a broken screwdriver, a bent ice pick, and ma! functioning pliers that you may remember from your Aunt Mamie’s kitchen drawer. With those she seemed able to nail together, take apart, or pry open anything she desired, but that was her special gift. You probably aren’t gifted in quite the same sense that Aunt Mamie was, and , besides, the job that you intend to do is most likely more sophisticated and more ambitious, and there are certain basic carpenter tools that are fairly essential if you are going to do a passable job. Perhaps one or two of these things may be just my cranky old idea of what you need, but for the most part I think you will find these useful.

Basic Carpenter Tools

• Handsaw

• Hammer

• Screwdrivers and chisels

• Tape measure or folding rule

• Framing square, with both 16- and 24-inch blades

• Combination square that makes both 45° and 90° angles

• A 2- and /or a 4-foot level

• Nail sets of varying sizes

• Utility knife with replaceable blades

• Carpenter’s scriber, or pencil compass

Sometimes you will be able to find old, secondhand tools (particularly saws) that are better than inexpensive, poor-quality new ones. Be sure not to choose a kinked, or warped, handsaw, which you can spot by looking in a straight line down the teeth. The time- honored standards in handsaws are, for rough work, an 8-point saw and for finish work, a 10-point (referring to points per inch).

I prefer wooden-handled hammer because if the handle breaks, it can be replaced. Some people keep a lightweight (12- or 14- ounce) hammer for finish work, but I find that having one this light causes me to make mistakes. A 16-ounce hammer is standard for general work. If you get a bigger hammer for rough work, make sure it's one that you can control; some would tire out a world-class arm wrestler who used them very much.

Get what you can in screwdrivers and chisels, but don’t spend all your nickels on them. It’s good to have at least three chisels: a 1/2-inch and a 3/4-inch chisel, plus an extra of any size for rough work. Most important Keep your chisels sharp.

In measuring tools, the choice is largely between metal tape measures and folding wooden rules. Some folks prefer tape measures, but the wooden folding rules are the time-honored standard of the carpenter and a pleasure to use. Keep the blade on the tape or the joints on the folding rule oiled.

If you buy squares secondhand, always check their accuracy. To prove that the tool has not been bent out of square, use it to trace a large square with a sharp pencil on a piece of paper or plywood. The line for the final side should end at exactly the beginning point for the first side.

To check the accuracy of your level, draw a horizontal line on a wall with the bubble showing level. Next, with the side of the level that was against the wall now facing you, draw a second line right beside the first line. The two lines should be exactly parallel. Do the same thing drawing vertical lines.

A nail set is a punch designed to set nails below the surface.

The utility knife is sometimes referred to as a box cutter and has blades similar to razor blades. It is the only thing made that does a good job cutting wallboard. Keep a sharp blade in it for wall boarding, and save the old blades for rough work such as cutting roofing material. The knives with slide-in blades aren't tough enough for carpentry work.

The carpenter’s scriber looks like a pencil compass but it's shorter. You must have this tool, or a pencil compass, in order to duplicate the shape of a piece of molding or to fit a piece of plasterboard to an irregular wall.

Pulling, Prying, and Ripping Tools

• Two goose-necked wrecking bars, a short one and the biggest one you can find

• Pry bar

• Nail puller

The heavy-duty wrecking bar will be a magic tool when you need to tear things apart. Use this, instead of a hammer, when you need to pull nails.

The pry bar is shaped like a wrecking bar except that it's flat and about 1 1/2 inches wide by 1/8 inch thick. It is surely one of the most wonderful tools ever invented. For years I had used a couple of old tire irons until I discovered that these pry bars are as much better than my old tire irons as a Rolls Royce is better than a motorbike. Be sure you buy a good one, for, because of its small dimensions, it must be tempered very well if it's to withstand the stress you will require of it. Use it for prying off moldings, lifting up wallboard with your foot while you hold the board in place with your chin and nail with your hands, and for many similar jobs.

A nail puller is a heavy iron gadget about 18 inches long. To operate it, you place its two little jaws on each side of a nail head, then slam down the pounding mechanism driving the jaws into the wood beneath the nail head. After that, you use it like a regular wrecking bar or the claws of a hammer to pull the nail out. I bought mine thirty years ago and have found it indispensable.

Other Helpful Tools

You probably already own many other helpful tools, and you maybe forced to add one or more others as particular jobs pose special needs. These might include:

• Self-contained chalk line

• Carpenter’s axe

• Hand sledge and sledge hammer

• Vise

• Sawhorses

• Long surveyor’s tape

• Block plane

• Smooth and /or jack plane

• Tack hammer

• Sliding T-bevel (for capturing angles other than 450 and 900)

• Tin snips Stapler

• Putty knife

• Broad knife (4- and 8-inch) Pocketknife

• Vise grips (looks like a wide putty knife)

The chalk line is needed when you are trying to mark the location of joists or studs behind your wallboard or for getting a straight starting line for roofing or siding. The line is chalked as it's pulled out. You then put it in place, draw it tight, and snap it.

A carpenter’s axe is indispensable to me. Used with care, it serves as a heavy hammer (watch it though, you can cut yourself badly on the back swing), a stake maker, or a tool for cutting things down to size.

A hand sledge with a 10-inch handle is very useful. You should keep one, however, only if you know that you are absolutely free from the tendency to see a bigger hammer as the ultimate solution to every difficulty. For instance, a hand sledge isn't used to make big things fit into too-small places. (Conversely, it's a pity that no one has ever made a good board stretcher for boards that are just a bit short. Do-it-yourselfers—not to say also, carpenters—have wished for them for many years.) A sledge hammer has a much longer handle than a hand sledge and is about three times heavier.

A vise might be mounted on a bench or a sawhorse. A friend of mine has one bolted on a 3-foot piece of 4x8 so that it's more or less portable. An iron carpenter’s vise is probably more useful than a wooden one, but it would be really convenient to have both.

Rather than use your grandmother’s antique chair for a work surface, build yourself some sawhorses with fairly wide tops, and with legs either splayed or built like an old-fashioned park bench. In the latter case, make them of 12-inch stock, low enough so that you can comfortably and securely hold a board with your knee while you saw it.

Power Tools

• Electric drill

• High quality bits, including wood bits

• Portable jigsaw

• Portable circular saw

• Grinder or belt sander

• Cordless screwdriver

• Reciprocal saw

• Table or radial arm saw

The drill and jigsaw can be cheap. Often you will find them on sale around Father’s Day. Just having the tool is nine-tenths of the benefit—the other tenth is the quality of your particular model. If you can afford a little bit better grade, buy a medium-priced circular saw, for it will usually get the hardest wear of all the tools mentioned here. The next tool to upgrade would be the disk sander, in order to get one with more power. You may sometimes have reason to run this continuously and this is hard on the cheap ones.


radial arm saw

If you are able to get a reversible, variable-speed drill, you would find it a very good investment, because you can use it to drive screws. Special Phillips screws are made to be driven with power equipment, but it's also possible to put in slotted screws with a variable-speed drill if it will go slow enough. A cordless screwdriver is another luxury you may come to crave.

The reciprocal saw is one of the most wonderful tool inventions of the last few decades and , to my knowledge, no one has come out with a cheap one. You will use a reciprocal saw to cut holes in plaster walls, or in floors or baseboards to install electrical outlets. It is great for cutting water and soil pipes. It is held something like a tommy gun with the blade coming out of the end where the bullets would spray.

Both table and radial arm saws make using salvage materials easier because you can rip up boards into any size you need. With the radial arm saw you move the blade over the board, whereas with the table saw you move the board over the blade. A grinder or a belt sander is also helpful to have. To save money, you could use a rubber tie-down to strap a portable disk sander to a bench or stand and use it as you would a stationary sander or grinder for sharpening tools.

All of these power tools are a delight to own, but they may represent a large investment of your resources, too, so hold off on them unless you are lucky enough to find inexpensive, or better yet, free ones.

Outdoor Equipment

• Wheelbarrow

• Shovel

• Pick

• Digging bar

A wheelbarrow is a great help. Please don’t buy one of those little things that are hard to distinguish from a child’s toy. Get a contractor’s wheelbarrow, and you’ll be glad you did. Similarly, buy a good shovel and a good, heavy-duty pick.

A digging bar, once called a crowbar, is an important tool, and one you may be lucky to find secondhand. The heavier it's , the better. They were once produced commercially for use as levers to move big crates in warehouses. I’ve got a homemade one fashioned out of an axle from a piece of old farm machinery. Recently a blacksmith friend re-pointed it by heating it red hot with a welding torch, hammering it to a chisel point on an anvil, and plunging it into a plastic milk carton full of old motor oil to re temper it.

Whether homemade or commercially manufactured, digging bars are a marvelous aid for digging holes, starting a hole for a stake, prying things off a wall, ripping up sidewalks, and the like. Old-time ditch diggers and grave diggers would have never thought of starting a hole without a digging bar; and when the job was complete, the sides were so straight that the hole might have been sawed out.

Electrician’s and Plumber’s Tools

• Pair of large pipe wrenches

• Flange maker

• Tubing cutter

• Electrician’s pliers

• Needle-nose pliers

• Wire strippers

• Hacksaw

• Flashlight

Pipe wrenches are always needed in a set of two, because you secure the pipe with one and remove the fitting with the other. If you are going to do any plumbing with plastic pipe, you can probably borrow pipe wrenches for the few times you will need them.

If you are going to do a lot of work with copper tubing, you will need to buy a propane torch, flange maker, and a tubing cutter, but you probably can find a local hardware store that cuts tubing to order.

Painter’s Tools

• Brushes

• Roller

• Roller pan

• Extension handle

• Lid lifter

• Stepladder

• Extension ladder

• Tarps

Good-quality brushes are a necessity. Some people think they can’t paint, but the real truth is that they can’t paint with the awful brushes they have always tried to use. For a good start, you will need 4-inch and 3-inch all-purpose brushes and a 1-inch sash brush. Get a paint roller and pan as well as an extension handle for the roller. Both ceilings and walls are much easier to paint if you can stand on the floor rather than on a ladder.

If you buy the cheapest paint rollers on sale, you can throw them out at the end of the particular job. Medium-priced roller frames are usually the best buy. The cheapies tend to come apart, but I haven't been impressed with the advantages of the high- priced ones, sometimes called professional models. Some are made with heavy handles and ball-bearing rollers.

Use a good lid lifter (or an old worn-out screwdriver) to open cans, so you don’t ruin the points of your good screwdrivers.

You need a couple of step ladder, and an extension ladder. (“You can never have too much money or too many ladders,” the expression goes.)

A good canvas tarp (or several of them) is helpful, but you can always use plastic drop cloths or old bedspreads or sheets. I think plastic sheeting as a floor cover is a pain in the neck because it absorbs nothing and you are thus apt to track wet paint all over the house. Plastic sheeting is useful to cover up furniture, appliances, or radiators during painting. Just remember to handle it carefully if you remove it before the paint dries. Paint tends to stay in a liquid state longer on the plastic than on the wall and it’s easy to spread it around. The advantage of a canvas tarp is that unlike bedspreads and sheets it won’t leak and yet unlike plastic cloths it's absorbent.

“The bigger the better” is the rule in tarps. Half the burden of painting is that you really need to be able to wrap things up well and cover up a large area. A common problem of amateur painters is that they are inadequately equipped with drop cloths and thus may either slop paint all over everything or else take forever and a day to paint one room.

Caring for Brushes and Rollers

• Wash your brushes out in mineral spirits when using oil paint or in water when using latex paint, then wash them out very well in laundry detergent and warm water, cleaning them with a wire brush.

• If you are using latex paint don't store the brush or roller in water to keep it soft: it will become saturated with water and drip all over the place when you use it again. If you need to apply two coats of paint, it isn’t necessary to clean the brush or roller between applications, however, even if the second coat isn’t done for several hours or several days. Instead, wrap the brush or roller in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer: it will keep indefinitely.

• save old brushes for rough jobs.

• No matter how the roller mechanism attaches to the frame, the thing tends to get clogged up with old paint right at that point.

Where and How to Get Tools to Restore Your House

• Purchase new only as a last resort

• Basements and garages of relatives or friends who no longer use them

• Classified ads

• Flea markets

• Household auctions and estate sales

• Secondhand stores and pawn shops

• Retired builders

• Bought with your house

• Internet: eBay; online shops

Some Precautions to Keep Tools from Ruining Your Life

Tools have a way of doing that to some people. The situation is something like a poor man who wins the lottery, after which the proceeds in one way or another begin to take over his life. Tools are your servants, not your masters, and you must keep them that way. Here are some general rules and cautions having to do with your collection of tools.

• Don’t become a tool “freak”; you are renovating a house not collecting tools.

• You need good tools, of course, but not necessarily the best ones.

• Avoid letting antique tool collecting become a fad. Buy old when you can, but don't put all your means into tools.

• Accept all gifts and inheritances.

• Keep your tools clean, sharp, and otherwise in good condition.

• Keep your tools hung up or on shelves. Boxes are good only if you have a problem with security and safety in your work area.

• Make a carrying box to take with you to the location of the job.

• When you have finished a job, put your tools away.

• Take a little time at the end of each work session to pick up wood and paper scraps and just generally neaten the work site. You’ll feel much more like returning to the job if things aren't a mess.

Collecting Old-House Treasures

Every renovator needs a treasure room. When the pharaohs of ancient Egypt built their pyramids, they always built a room to fill with inexpressibly rich treasures, stored up for the next life. Your treasure room is in view of a much nearer afterlife, for it will contain all the things you can store up that you will eventually use to renovate your grand old house. It may be a barn, a large room in your house, or even an attic, if there is good access. A friend of mine has a 200-foot chicken house filled with rich treasure. The treasure room needs to be dry and well lighted. It may also serve as a workshop and will at least be a place for you to keep your tools. But it's primarily a place for storing the treasure you need to renovate your home if you are going to be able to do so on a shoestring budget.

Some of the things you put in your treasure room will someday be virtually priceless. These include:

• Old doors

• Windows

• Doorknobs

• Porch balustrades

• Porch and stair balusters

• Mantels

• Moldings

In many cases you would have a hard time buying these for any price at a minute’s notice, and in months and years to come they may be harder to find than they are now. We are struck with how often it happens that someone tells us that such-and-such an item is very scarce and very expensive, and we are reminded that at one time we could have had several or a dozen of them for the mere carrying away. I once carried porch balusters for more than a thousand miles and then kept them for nearly a decade when they became an essential ingredient in a sleeping balcony I was building. Right now, I wish I had twenty or thirty more balusters to build a round turret at the end of my porch.

Your treasure room will also have more ordinary possessions.

Your primary purpose is to gather items you will eventually need for some large or small work of restoration or unanticipated repair, organized into cans of old screws, old bolts and nuts, and nails arranged by sizes. You’ll also need a place for paint storage and a place for leftover wood and other building supplies. Your collection might include:

• Boards

• Studs and planks

• Nails

• Hinges

• Screws

• Bolts and nuts

• Plywood (substantial pieces only)

• Insulation board

• Glass

• Pipes

• Vents

• Heat registers

You will surely include leftovers from other projects. Every time you buy nails for a specific job, you might have from a handful to several pounds left over. If you mix them up or leave them all over, they are almost useless and you will use four times your allotted share of nails for your lifetime. and have you ever tried to buy one screw to replace the one that has broken on a door hinge? In most stores, instead of one screw, you will have to buy a little pasteboard card containing four screws, costing about a third of what a box of 100 screws would cost in an old-fashioned hardware store. If you have a treasure room, you’ll have twelve screws you took out of another door you removed the week before. You can probably cut your small parts bill by 80 % in one year if you have a well-stocked treasure room.

Treasure Room Rules

If you are to have a real treasure room and not a mere replication of the city dump, you will need to follow a few rules.

Keep your treasure room orderly. The pharaohs could dump their gold into their treasure rooms in lavish disarray, but they did not intend to have mortals rooting around in them looking for spare parts. Your purpose is to be able to use your treasure in this life. You need to be able to find a piece of pipe or a doorbell someone gave you so you can put it into use. If you don't exercise discipline, your collection will surely descend to chaos.


Organize your tools and supplies by installing pegboards and shelving.

To this end it's well worth your time and expense to look for some metal or wooden shelves. You will want to have a section for paint and separate places for lumber, nails, tools, hardware, and the like. I like to use plastic dish-pans for bins to store loose items on the shelves, If you can get some metal shelves, they will be excellent because they will not rot nor succumb to termites— nor be a temptation when you think you’d give almost any thing for the right-size board, and the right-size board is exactly the same dimensions as your shelf board. In a pinch, some old planks laid on cement blocks make an adequate shelving system, though cement blocks have become expensive. Be sure to leave lots of space for growth so that you don't have to rear- range things continually as you add to your collection.

Periodically spend time cleaning up and throwing out. Dismantle as much as possible. Usually you will want only a small part of every piece of junk you collect. Don’t waste your space by saving it all. Throw away what is useless. There are things that you will never use. Throw them out. Like all the rest of us treasure keepers, your temptation will be to keep everything. Throw away:

• Used nails

• Short and irregular pieces of wood and plywood

• All but whole sheets of wallboard

• Old wire

• Old electrical fixtures (unless antique)

• Dried out paint cans

Find room for fresh treasure not yet stowed away. So that the half dozen shutters and a porch swing someone gave you don’t end up on your front porch or in the hall, sewing room, or bathtub, you will need a temporary place for your treasures until you put them in permanent storage or in place on the house.

Keep your room safe, sanitary, and respectable. It must not be a haven for rats, roaches, opossums, termites, or other free loaders, such as the neighbor’s cat. Some of the above rules will help.

Reserve space for a work area on a cold day. You will need to paint, strip furniture, build cabinets, rebuild shutters, or putty windows somewhere, and , especially in inclement weather, this may be the best place to do it, here in the midst of your tools and treasure. If you have managed things right, this will be one of the happy places in your house to spend an afternoon or an evening doing something useful, while passing the hours in deep and profound contemplation.

Such a treasure room—organized, well-kept, sensible, and disciplined—will be a source of incalculable savings and personal satisfaction. It will also make you a favored friend among other renovators, restorers, and remodelers, and able to call in an unlimited number of IOUs when you, too, need spare parts or a spare hand.

Pre-used Materials; or, One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Treasure

One of the major ways you can pinch pennies is to use second hand materials. This assumes, of course, that you have the time to invest in their procurement. But remember, there is an ultimate economy in investing hours instead of dollars in your house. Find time! You’ll be glad you did. This is one reason to prioritize and to put off labor on unnecessary things in order to buy time to collect free materials.

Hassles with Pre-used Materials

  • Storage (they look like trash—and your neighbors may think so, too)
  • Huge time investment in their procurement
  • Danger in their procurement
  • Transportation back to your house
  • Harder to work with than new materials

Benefits in Pre-used Materials

  • Usually free for the carrying away, or at least a tremendous savings
  • Source of invaluable material often impossible to buy elsewhere at any price
  • Often better material than new
  • Sizes match old sizes (for example. framing lumber)
  • Ecologically responsible

The benefits clearly outweigh the hassle. Storage isn't so much a problem as it might seem. If the only place to store your materials is outside, polyethylene tarps with fibers embedded in them (the ubiquitous blue tarps that you see everywhere) are cheap, tough, incredibly long-lasting, and absolutely waterproof. Time spent procuring free material is no hassle at all and can save you thousands of dollars on the cost of renovation. You may even be able to sell some of your finds to other renovators. You will get your reward for the time and trouble when you see a beautiful floor laid out of 100-year-old hard pine, with its beautiful dark red color showing a richness that's not seen in any new wood, no matter what kind of stain or finish is used to treat it.

To obtain materials at no cost, you may have to:

• Agree to remove a house or barn

• Enter into a cooperative venture with another renovator

• Get permission from an owner or contractor to salvage materials before scheduled building demolition

• Get permission from the owner of an abandoned building to take specific parts

Often it's easier than it might seem. Owners or contractors who are going to tear down or burn a building will often see your request to take some of their materials, as a small amount of help in carrying the pile of junk away. E.g., a builder friend of mine helped me acquire a huge load of 2x4s, as well as other almost-new materials from a large deck he had just demolished in order to build an insulated sunroom for a client. An unbreakable rule in getting freebies like this is, “Take what you can get and take everything that you get.” The first time you turn down a load of junk that a well-meaning friend has gone to the trouble to save for you, you will begin to cut off your supply.

Where to Find Pre-used Materials

• Good: Materials salvage business

• Better Building demolition (on site)

• Best, Free

“Free” Houses

You might even get a surprisingly good, complete house with out cost, although often “free” houses are of poor quality. Because of the high cost of tearing down a building commercially, an owner may want to get rid of it badly enough to be willing for you to get the whole thing on the ground and reduced to scraps, after which he will pay for the final clean-up himself, if it's a very good house, you might have to pay a few hundred dollars for it. In that case, however, there probably will be some goodies to sell that will repay the investment many fold.

On occasion, business concerns give houses away to anyone who will move them in order to avoid blame for destroying an old building. A number of fine buildings have been given away by churches in our area for this reason. If you run across a building that no one is willing to move, it could be an excellent house to tear down and well worth your time.

Problems Encountered in Tearing Down a Building

Safety is the first concern. Extreme care should be the byword for all demolition activities. Good shoes (never tennis or running shoes) and a hard hat are the dress code. A tetanus shot within the last ten years is imperative, as is, also, a good health insurance policy. Demolition is dangerous. But then, it's no more dangerous than boating, football, or hunting, if you pay attention to safety.

Looting is a real problem. In many areas—even in areas where there aren't many other crimes of theft—they will descend on your house like Attila the Hun and his boys. Several precautions will cut your losses:

• Work from the inside out as much as possible so that you can remove all the goodies before they become exposed. For instance, begin by removing all

• Brass doorknobs

• Chandeliers

• Good bathroom fixtures

• Valuable windows and doors, especially leaded-glass windows

• Mantels

• Staircases

• Board up open windows and doors when you leave the site.

• Carry away everything that's loose.

• Ask the police and the neighbors to watch the house.

• Attach “No Trespassing” signs to dramatize that the site isn't a community free-for-all.

Clean up is the big problem of demolition, unless you have been given permission to take what you want before a contractor runs through the remains with a bulldozer. Obviously, not many people are going to give or sell you a house and then allow you to leave the site looking like a war zone. In rural areas, you may be able to burn the building. Check first with the local fire department, and then take extreme precautions against grass or forest fires. Some fire departments welcome a chance to hold a fire drill at such an event. They may ask for a small donation, but often they’ll burn an old building down for no charge. You’ll still have a lot of trash to haul off if you burn it first, but it will certainly be reduced.

On the other hand, you might contract with an earth-moving or grading contractor to break up the remains before burying or hauling them off some place. If you can make arrangements to dump on some nearby lot where they need fill, you will save a lot of money on the deal. If there is a cellar hole under the building, it may be possible to push the rubble into the hole and cover it up with dirt. Selling a small part of the materials you have garnered from this house might pay for this clean up.

What to Save

• Timbers

• Foundation sills

• Framing lumber

• Boards

• Window and doors

• Window and door frames

• Siding (even if only the reverse face is acceptable)

• Molding

• Flooring

• Trim hoards

• Hardware

• Chandeliers

• Lighting fixtures and parts

• Mantle

• Bricks

• Tiles

• Stairway parts

• Stair balustrades and newel post

• Window seats

• Bay windows (mark them before disassembling)

• Plumbing fixtures

• Shutters

• Porch posts

• Porch balustrades or balusters

• All decoration -- interior or exterior

What Not to Save

• Wiring

• Electrical boxes

• Linoleum

• Lath (except a few pieces for shims)

• Plaster

• Short pieces of lumber

• Boards that have split as you loosed them

• Nails unless they’re hand-forged or in some way decorative

• Roofing, except good tile or slate

• Water or sewer pipes, except copper, which can bring a good scrap price even if its not in good condition

Storage of a Disassembled House

Very few renovators have the luxury of covered storage for the huge amount of materials a disassembled house provides, so you will most likely store them outdoors. Normally you should plan to stack them where you will not have to move them.

• Arrange your storage pile neatly by categories.

• Remove all nails.

• Use cross pieces (called stickers) between lumber every so often to provide

• Ventilation

• Warp-free storage

• Easier access

• Keep things up off the ground (put cross pieces on cement blocks).

• Never put wooden materials on the ground, where bugs, snails, and other creepy-crawlies will turn the pile into a condo.

• Cover materials with large, reinforced polyethylene tarp, tied at the corners to cement blocks so you can move the blocks to borrow from or add to the pile.


Stack lumber using stickers every so often to provide ventilation and easier access, and to prevent warping.

Moving a House, or Part of a House

In certain situations you might consider moving a house to use as an additional wing to your present house or as the main house, with your present house made into a guest house. You can find these bargains by watching legal and classified advertisements in your newspaper.

Often, houses that must be moved are free, or surprisingly inexpensive, often, as I have said, because an owner is faced with negative public opinion or really would prefer not to destroy a lovely old house. The small price for the house itself is deceptive, however, because there is considerable cost to moving a house. Even so, it's often a great bargain.

House moving is a task for a professional. Nearly always, the local authorities will require proof of insurance on the part of the mover. The cost of the moving is based upon how low to the ground are the power lines, how wide are the streets, and whether the house to be moved is located near the new site, or at least near an open street that's a clear shot to the new site.

In cities, the second story is almost always removed, after being carefully marked for rebuilding. Sometimes a large house is cut down through the middle to get the portions into street-sized units. In other houses, appendages are removed, according to the structure of the house, determined by the framing under the first floor. One of these appendages removed from someone else’s house- moving project might be your best bargain. Often for a small amount of cash, house movers can get one of these on a flat-bed trailer and move it to your lot for a new wing on your old house.

In rural areas, or in cities where there is no problem with trees or wires overhead, it's not uncommon to move the whole house— porches, roof, plumbing, and kitchen cupboards—all in one piece. Even so, porch roofs need to be shored up with braces going from the side of the main building and foundations removed in order to get the iron beams under the house, and , later, to allow the house and its supporting beams to roll away on its journey to a new address.

Another way to move a house is to mark it, take it apart, and reassemble it. Ordinarily, one does not mark each single piece, since all the rafters are presumably the same and the floors and decking on the roof could be put back together in any order. In any case, make a good set of drawings of the house before tearing things apart or you might find that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t tell this pile of lumber from a jigsaw puzzle.

Whether you are looking for materials and supplies, or searching for an entire building, with a bit of patience, hard work, and organization you can collect what you need for little, if any, cost.

Arrange a place to store your finds, be ever on the lookout for possibilities, keep your treasures organized and manageable, and observe commonsense safety rules, and your savings and re sources will mount.

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