Saturday, October 24, 2015

Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke...

I have always loved the movie Mary Poppins.  Mary Poppins was the movie I watched over and over and over again as a kid, the one I watched so many times that it shriveled up and died in the VCR, tattered strands of tape all twisted up and hanging out of the VCR slot.

Mary Poppins was released by Disney in 1964.  At that point, my house was already a respectable 44 years old.  Geek factoid: The production used the sodium vapor process for the combined live-action and animation scenes.  I love how the Wikipedia article on the sodium vapor process says it's very simple in principle, and then proceeds to describe it over several rather complicated paragraphs.  Basically, it involves illuminating the live-action stuff with a very specific wavelength of light and a bunch of other wizardry for combining that imagery with other footage.  Disney used this process a lot and the 1960s and 1970s.  It could be done with more precision than bluescreen and also did not pose limitations on makeup and costume colors.  The Mary Poppins team won an Academy Award for their use of this technique.

Mary Poppins depicts London in 1910 ("It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men!"), at which point they were probably burning coal in their fireplaces (blech!), sending plumes of grossness through their chimneys to "up where the smoke is all billowed and curled".  This was 10 years before my house was built, and I'm actually not sure if coal ever would have been burned in my fireplace.

Anyway, I just had a chimney sweep come and work on my chimneys!

Chim chimminy, chim chimminy, chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be...sort of.

The cold season is coming on (kind I write this, it's about 90 degrees outside), and in my endless quest to reduce drafts in this old house, I decided it was time to deal with the chimney.  It didn't have any kind of damper or cap on it; it was just open to the sky.  Consequently, rain comes in, and heat goes out.  Plus, I'd never had it cleaned or inspected for problems.  I have no intention of actually burning anything in it (because why?), but I thought it would be a good idea to make sure it wasn't going to, you know, fall over or something.

The main chimney (there's another one for the stove vent) is made of river rock that somebody in 1920 probably just went and picked up from the Santa Ana River wash (which you certainly aren't allowed to do anymore).  It has a lot of character, and it matches the chimneys and adornments on a lot of other craftsman-style houses in my neighborhood.

My river rock chimney. Photo Copyright 2013 by Andrew Morang
I had a chimney sweep come and give my chimney a complete inspection and cleaning, and he also installed a cap and a damper.  (He did wear a top hat, but he swapped that out for coveralls and a respirator when he was actually cleaning.)  He said the everything was in great shape, although overdue for a cleaning.  But, we had some problems with the damper that he didn't notice initially, and I had to get him to come back to fix it.

Clean fireplace
A top-sealing damper is a clever little device that sits on top of the chimney and can be open and shut as desired via a pull chain or lever inside the fireplace.  When shut, it clamps down over the chimney hole to keep warm air from escaping.  If you're going to burn a fire, you open it to let the smoke out.  This little assembly sits inside a cage with a roof over it to keep animals and rain out even if the damper is open.
Chimney cap with top-sealing damper

Damper pull chain
Unfortunately, the damper didn't seal adequately after the initial installation.  Most chimneys are flat on top, but mine slopes outward.  The damper seal kind of hung out over this sloping part, leaving an air gap underneath.  Also, the damper lid, when closed, was misaligned with the damper seal.  When I went up on the roof and discovered this, I was very disappointed.  Bummer.  Had to call the chimney sweep, have an awkward conversation, and ask him to come back to fix it.  At least he was extremely nice and professional about it.  It was also really helpful that he was technological enough to receive photos of the problems by text, so he immediately understood exactly what I was talking about.

He came back and fixed it, and this time I went up to the roof with him to inspect it.  I should have done that the first time.  Lesson learned: Suck up the awkwardness and inspect the workman's work while he's still there.  Better to catch the problem immediately.

Damper problem #1 - air gap under cage
Damper problem #2: Misalignment with seal
Check your workmen, step in time, check your workmen, step in time, never need a reason, never need a rhyme, check your workmen, step in time!

Hollywood doesn't make movies with dance scenes like this anymore...

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Oh, rot! My windows are decaying...

Rot.  "Oh, rot!" is a slang expression meaning "Nonsense!"  Rot is the name of a tributary to the River Danube in Germany and also the name of a village in Sweden.  Unfortunately, it's also something affecting the windows in my house right now.
Charming window

Recall that my house has charming but slightly weird inward-swinging casement windows.  Although the insides and outsides of these windows have been painted 8000 times, nobody ever bothered to paint the top or bottom of the swinging frame.  Consequently, the wood has been exposed to the elements for 95 years.

At some point, I noticed this fact, particularly that the bottoms of the windows were in pretty bad shape.  I thought I should put a coat of primer paint on them just to keep the protected, but when I started prepping them for that, chunks of wood kind of fell out, and I realized that they needed a lot more attention than a quick coat of primer.  Yay, my windows have dry rot.

The bottom of one of my windows, in very bad shape.
True dry rot is caused by fungus that grows in the wood and basically eats it, breaking down its structure.  The wood becomes soft, cracked, and brittle.  I don't know for certain if my windows actually have true dry rot, but they certainly have the symptoms.

So of course I had to fix the windows.  I purchased a handy-dandy dry rot repair kit on Amazon which contained all the necessary ingredients.  The procedure went something like this:

  1. Take the window off its hinges, put it in the garage, and use a utility knife and pokey tool to remove all the wood that wanted to come out.
  2. Liberally brush on some wood hardening liquid to the exposed wood.  This stuff is great.  It soaks right in (my windows literally sucked it up) and makes the wood nice and hard and a little shiny.  It's almost like a very thin water-based varnish, and supposedly it kills fungus.
  3. When the first coat of wood hardener is dry, brush on a second coat for good measure.
  4. Let the wood hardener dry for a day.
  5. Fill the holes in the wood with an epoxy-based wood filler.  The stuff that came in my dry rot repair kit came in two tubs.  One looked just like peanut butter, and the other looked rather less edible.  You daub out equal quantities of each and mix them together, and then you have about 20 minutes to work with it before it becomes too tacky.
  6. Let the wood filler set for 24 hours.
  7. Sand down the areas you filled to make the surfaces nice and smooth.
  8. Thoroughly vacuum the windows to clean up all the dust you made while sanding.
  9. Prime paint the exposed wood and the newly-filled areas.
  10. You could put a top coat of paint on if you want to, but I'm not going to bother right now because the windows really need to be refinished anyway.
Wood filler, after sanding it down.

After prime painting
This project has taken me a while.  I got started in July, and I still have 2 of 13 windows to do.  I can do at most three at a time (based on time and space limitations).  Plus, I have to do it when the weather is nice enough for me to remove the windows for a while.  I ended up doing a lot of taking windows down and putting them back up.  Once the wood filler was dry enough, I could put the windows back up to let them set and then take them out again when I was ready to sand and paint.

Painted-over window hinge
Another slowdown was the fact that 4 of the windows had stuck hinge pins.  Like the insides and outsides of the windows, the hinges have been painted 8000 times, which is not particularly conducive to operation.  Thankfully, although I procrastinated on the stuck windows for quite a while, they did not turn out to be all that difficult to unstick.  I just squirted them with WD40 and then pried the hinge pins out with a tiny screwdriver.  I wedged the tiny screwdriver under the pin and banged on it with a hammer.  I then cleaned the hinge pins with more WD40 and some steel wool, and I'll lubricate them with something before I put them back permanently.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much life these windows have left in them.  They are all operational, and I think my repair will hold for some time, but they really need to be refinished and re-puttied, some of them need their hinges reset, plus they are old and drafty.  And they have lead paint on them, which means that refinishing them will be a little complicated.  Is it worth expending this effort, or should I replace them entirely (probably at considerable expense)?  I like their historical charm, but I also like energy efficiency and reliability.  I'm not sure what to do and will have to think about it.