Friday, December 29, 2006

Upstairs bathroom: removing the wallpaper

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, rehabbing the upstairs bathroom is the latest project we’re working on. Since I’ve already started, I’m going to take this opportunity to catch you up on what’s been done so far.

As luck would have it, when we purchased our home the only room that had wallpaper was the upstairs bathroom. While every single room in our home needed some level of repair and/or updating, only one room needed to have wallpaper removed.

What a project. The blessing in disguise was the fact that our walls are plaster. That meant I could be a little more aggressive with a sharp putty knife while removing the wallpaper. The bathroom is only 5 feet by 11 feet, so it’s not a large a room. (See my post Upstairs bathroom: primer for dimensions and a photo of the blueprints.) Plus, the bathroom’s walls have tile on the bottom half, so the total amount of wallpaper to remove isn’t too great (in terms of square footage). With all that said, it was still a headache.

The wallpaper could best be described as foil-based (or foil-faced). That meant that solvents designed to loosen wallpaper wouldn’t penetrate the foil. The photo to the right shows the results of simply using the solvent. It just didn’t work.

Removing the paper turned into a three step project. First, get as much of the paper – both the foil face and paper backing – off with the putty knife. That left behind remnants of the paper backing over much of the walls. The photo to the right shows the backing paper left behind before I had my technique down.

This photo shows how much of the foil and backing paper I got off with the putty knife once I had my technique down. One sharp putty knife and a lot of steady, downward pressure. (I’ll discuss the aftermath of this technique, and the resulting addition to my to-do list, below.)

The second step was removing the paper backing that was left behind. I used a mixture of 60 percent vinegar, 40 percent water, sprayed onto the walls with a spray bottle. After letting that mixture soak in for a five or so minutes, I’d hit it one more time with the solution and then use the sharp putty knife to easily remove the paper.

The final step was to go back with the same vinegar/water solution one more time. I sprayed small areas of the wall then used a damp sponge in a circular motion to remove whatever wallpaper paste was left on the wall. I had a bucket of clean water nearby to clean the sponge frequently. This took a lot of elbow grease and some areas took a second pass to get all the paste off.

Those plaster walls are dreadful when you need to cut a hole in them and you’ll hear more about that when I install new light fixtures above the sink. Plaster is like having concrete on your walls. But with the wallpaper removed, you can truly appreciate those virgin plaster walls (virgin meaning they’ve never had paint on them, unlike our other plaster walls throughout the house). Extremely smooth and very durable. The only problem: cracks.

Before I launch into repairing the various cracks in those plaster walls, I’m going to show you how I repaired the divots I made in the plaster with the sharp putty knife while removing the wallpaper. It’s a delicate balance removing wallpaper. You want to use enough pressure on the putty knife to keep the edge under the paper so you can remove as much as possible with each pass. However, that same pressure often works against you when the edge of the putty knife digs into the wall. I’ll show you images of the damage left behind, and how to repair it in my next installment.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Front elevation

Front elevation? I thought you we supposed to be working on your bathroom!

I know, I know... I just thought that since I’m sharing the experience of rehabbing my home, you should at least know what the outside of it looks likes. I’m not procrastinating; really, I’m not!

Here’s the front elevation blueprint...

Here’s a photo from September 7, 2002, shortly before we closed...

And here’s a photo from yesterday, December 27, 2006...

The most notable changes thus far:

  • You can see the cool front path! Notice in photo one they weren’t visible. That took an afternoon of scrapping the overgrown grass from the top of the stones to reveal the path. Neighbors thought I installed the path and simply marveled at the fact that those stones were there all along.

  • We took down the tree to the right of the front bay window and upstairs dormer.
    Remove all the overgrown landscaping in front of the bay window and added more manageable plants.

  • Mother Nature took down the pine tree off the right corner of the garage. Made us sick to our stomachs then; makes me sick now. It hurts to lose a great tree.

  • The vines on the right side of the house still exist; they’ve simply dropped their leaves for this season. They’re attractive in the summer, but you MUST stay on top of pruning them or they’ll take over the entire side of the house.

  • New roof. No, we didn’t replace the cedar shingle roof with a new cedar shingle roof. But as you’ll note in the photo to the right that was taken during construction of the new roof in the spring of 2006, the new composite roof closely resembles the traditional cedar roof. The decision to use composite over natural wasn’t solely based on cost. Since we had to re-deck the entire roof, the cost of the composite roof was only a couple of thousand less then the cedar roof. The biggest deciding factor was long-term maintenance. Since a cedar roof is supposed to be cleaned and treated every five years, we were swayed to sell our traditional souls to the more maintenance-free composite roof.

Lesson learned: If you have pine trees that start showing big areas of dead needles, and if those needles have little black dots on them, call an arborist, stat!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Upstairs bathroom: primer

Before I dive head first into the myriad of tasks I need to complete to give our upstairs bathroom a facelift, I’d like to give you an idea of the space we’re working with.

Room size:

5 feet wide (not including deep closet or the shower and toilet nooks) by 11 feet long.

Pre-construction photos:

First, here is a photo of the upstairs bathroom on the original blueprints (north is up)...

Next, here’s the detail of the shower and toilet nooks on the west wall...

Here’s the east wall on the day we moved in...

And here’s the west wall on the day we moved in...

Isn't that wallpaper the tops? I can't believe we're taking it down!


Nothing has changed between the time we moved in and now. I simply say “on the day we moved in” above because the changes to the room have been minor and nothing we’ve deliberately done; assuming you consider cracks in the plaster as a minor change. The cracks have slowly appeared along the wall and ceiling joints within the shower nook as well as along the plaster seems on the ceiling. (They used narrow, 16-inch-wide, sheets of plaster board on the ceiling of the bathroom. At every joint you can now see a crack, side-to-side down the bathroom ceiling. More on the repair of those cracks later.)

There are also larger, more concerning cracks at certain intersections of walls, and walls to the ceiling. I’m certain these cracks – which were found behind the wallpaper – had been there for years. The cracks along the ceiling were – in my opinion – the direct result of a certain beloved family member refusing to use the shower fan while in the shower, thus creating a tropical environment in that small room during hot showers.

Let me digress for a moment. Shortly after we moved in, a shower fan was added to the room and wired with the light in the shower. The thinking at the time was that if you were going to shower, you’d have to have the shower light on. And if the shower light were to be on, so too would the newly-installed bathroom fan. It was perfect, exit one small detail: I guess some people can do without significant light while showering.

And the excuse from the violating family member: “the fan is too loud.” Now, who purchased said loud fan? That same family member, who essentially purchased the cheapest fan possible. I totally agree, it is extremely loud, but it also serves a very important purpose.

Lesson learned: you get what you pay for. Buy a cheap bathroom fan and it’s going to sound like a jet taking off. I’ll be resolving this problem with a new fan later.

Monday, December 25, 2006

1939 Blueprints

Yesterday I took the time to photograph the blueprints of my Cape Cod home. Yes, despite the fact that the house is almost 70 years old, we have a copy of the original blueprints. Hopefully the images will help illustrate each room's dimensions as I'm working on it.

Speaking of working, I'm taking the week off between Christmas and New Years to work on our upstairs bathroom. More to come on that!

Have a safe and merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Getting started

Welcome to the Old Home Blog. I'm going to take you along with me as I continue to restore, maintain, and cherish, my 1939 Cape Cod home. It's full of charm; and challenges. For example, it's raining today, three days before Christmas, and there are two different leaks coming into the house. One in the attic and one in the dining room.

The attic leak is around the chimney and is a complete mystery. The chimney was tuck-pointed in spring and a new roof was put on in late spring. The roofer is supposedly coming back after the rain stops to take a look at it. He said that about three weeks ago too.

The leak in the dining room has been there since the day we moved in. We re-sealed the flat "sunning porch" that's directly above that leak to the tune of about $2,000. Didn't solve the problem. So persistent was that leak that I ended up cutting out a portion of the dinning room ceiling to see exactly where it was coming from. Better to cut it myself than come home from work to see the entire ceiling on my dinning room table. The image to the right shows the leak prior to cutting into the plaster ceiling. Still haven't determined where that leak is coming from. I'm certain you'll be hearing more about my battles with that leak in the future.

So here's my first piece of advice for you: if you ever consider buying a house with a flat roof, turn and run. Either that or (A) be prepared to coupe with leaks or (B) be prepared to reconstruct the roof so it's no longer flat. If money were no object, that's what we'd do. Have a contractor come in and extend the roof line from the front of the house to the back, covering this retched sunning porch. Sunny porch... it's on the north east corner of the house! The sun almost never hits it! Just another thing to make me shake my head.

Before I dig too deeplying into the projects I'm currently working on, maybe I'll take you through the projects I've already tackled. Look for those soon!

Happy holidays!