Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Yank's House - Lime Wash

The first job we had tackled way back at the start had been to strip all the old plaster off the basement walls. It was more like muck than plaster – it was so wet. Now a year on it had dried out incredibly well. We decided to leave the stone walls exposed to let them breath but to brighten the basement up we would lime wash in brilliant white. I had a vision in my head how this would look. When I was a little girl my Aunt Maggie lived in a whitewashed thatched cottage in Co Sligo. We spent several wonderful summer holidays there as children and I remembered the wonderful white walls so romantically well. However before we could whitewash our walls we had to clean them and to point all the stone with new limecrete.

We power-washed the basement walls before we put down our new floors and washed all the dirt off them. Then in summer 2007 my brother-in-law Martin and my sister Bridget came from Australia to stay with us. Martin had worked on restoration in Ireland before he left for Australia nearly twenty years ago and had continued this type of work there so I dragged him to Longford a couple of times to help and show me what do. He was so good at pointing, very fast and efficient – I wished I could hold onto him but alas he returned to Australia and left us to tackle the job alone. I think our Irish summer was far too cold and too wet for him.

My sister Bridget and husband Martin - starting the pointing
Before we could start pointing the stone walls we had to scrape out the joints between the stones removing any loose filling and leaving a gap for the new mortar. This was slow and dusty work. Then we would make up a mix of limecrete and together we would tackle a wall. Pat at one end, me at the other, our aim to meet in the middle. The joints had to be dampened and the mortar filled in with a small trowel. Then after a short period the joints were brushed, to give a smooth finish. Every so often you had to go back over what you had done and spray it with a soft mist of water to slow down drying and stop the moisture from getting sucked out of the limecreat mix too fast. Some days I would be left pointing on my own while Pat tackled other jobs. It was very slow, but I enjoyed it. At the end of the day I could admire what I had done. I found it very satisfying.

One Saturday we brought Daniel, our son with us to help. After about 30 minutes he turned to me and said ‘I’m glad you enjoy this Mam because you couldn’t pay any one to do it’. Another day David, our daughter’s boyfriend came down and cleaned off a whole wall for me, scraping out the spaces between the stones. I remember well one Saturday in April 2008 turning to Pat and saying it’s finished. It had taken nine months of Saturdays to complete.

Pat tackled several other jobs during this time also. He plastered the side walls of any windows where the brick was not good enough to leave exposed. These turned out really well. I love the way the light hits them. He also replaced rotted wooden heads over some of the windows and doors with new timer and rotted wooden windowsills were replaced with brick ones, built from old reclaimed bricks from our favorite salvage yard. Royal Meath Architectural Antiques & Salvage Company

During this time we had also started to first-fix the electrics and plumbing. These were jobs we couldn’t do ourselves but never the less made work for Pat. The plumber would ask for a hole here or there and the electrician looked for walls chased. All these jobs were very time consuming. But once they were done we were ready to lime wash the basement walls.

I ordered two buckets of lime putty from  Traditional Lime Company in Carlow. When I opened the buckets and saw the beautiful creamy buttery lime putty I knew I would enjoy working with this material.

We bought an attachment for the drill to mix the Lime putty with water and made buckets of lime wash. We could have added some colour to this mix but for the basement walls we decided to do them white as it would brighten up the space. You have to be careful applying the lime wash as a splash in the eye would be very painful. Also we found it a bit messy and would be covered in the stuff by the end of the day.  It took several days and several coats of lime wash to cover the stone and it is a continuous job to keep white but we love it and it has turned the basement into a bright cheerful place. I have since heard that woodworm don’t like lime wash much either – so two stones with one stroke. Great!  

Pat lime washes the timber also - we read it was good to kill woodworm

Lime wash isn’t like paint. It dries to a dull chalky finish. It is easy to apply with a soft brush. We love the result – but judge for yourself and let me know what you think.

We left the odd stone naked cause they look so lovely

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Yank's House - Basement floors part 2

Okay – so our next dilemma was how to finish off our floors. As I said our budget wouldn’t extend to a stone floor and even clay tiles. Ceramic tiles would create a seal on the floor trapping in dampness so this wasn’t an option for us either. Back on the internet I searched for a cheaper solution. 

We considered making a limecrete mix of lime and sand with some colour added and laying a finished slab. We could maybe polish this later. We also made inquiries about having the slab stamped. This is a process used on concrete patios and drive ways which gives a finish that looks like stone or brick.  The stamps are expensive to purchase and we were worried we might make a mess doing it ourselves. We did find a contractor but he had never worked with lime and had never stamped a floor indoors. He didn’t want to take on the job. 

I then got it into my head that we could make limecreat tiles. We could use moulds to make the tiles and dye to colour them. Back on the internet I found a supplier in America The Mold Store  who could supply 4 by 4 inch rustic moulds. We decided to give them a try. I sent away for the moulds and some different dye colours, red yellow and black. The order arrived without any hold-ups.

My moulds - stacked in shed

 Our first attempts were not very successful, they were full of air  holes. It made no difference how much shaking we gave them – my arms were falling off. To make these tiles successfully we needed to be able to give them a good shake and get all the air out of the mixture. It also took a few experiments with the dyes to get a colour we were happy with. We decided to make terracotta tiles and plain tiles (granite sand and lime). We would lay these in a checker-board pattern. 

We now knew that to make these we needed to be able to vibrate all the air out of the mix and make the tiles strong  – we needed a vibrating table. I found one on ebay and it was purchased and delivered within a week. This made the job much easier. 

A well used vibrating table

I spent evening after evening in the garage vibrating tiles for the floor that summer (Pat had other jobs to do in the evenings – like cutting grass and hedges and general maintenance around the place) but when winter set in and the evenings got dark and cold Pat took over the tile making and did a batch every other night. We would make up a mix in the cement mixed – one night terracotta the next night plain – just so we didn't get bored. Okay, I hear you all laughit is easy to keep us amused. We only had 16 moulds so it was a very slow job. 

Now the main difference between making tiles with lime and making them with concrete is the drying time. Lime is so much slower to dry. We found we had to leave the tiles at least two days before we could turn them out of the moulds. We had to mist spray them with water every day so they wouldn’t dry too fast and crack. Even at this they were still very soft. We would lay them out across the kitchen table for a further two days spraying them regularly to help carbonation. Then when the next batch was ready to take out of the moulds the set on the kitchen table was moved onto the kitchen windowsill. By the end of the week we could hardly see out the window they were stacked so high. On Saturdays we would pack them into a box and take them down to the house where we stacked them on a pallet in the basement. Then the whole process started again for another week. 

We spent the winter months making tiles. We didn’t lay them on the floor until the following summer. By then the new LECA and lime floors were totally dry and the tiles fully matured. We had no idea how these tiles would work out. They appear to be getting harder the longer they were made. Whether they would be hard enough to stand up to the ware and tare of us walking on them only time would tell. Now several years later – happy to report – we still have a floor.  

The day we started laying the tiles, Pat was back at the cement mixer - mixing a sand and lime mix to set the tiles in. He then laid this on the floor, a small area at a time and I followed behind him setting the tiles into the mix. It took two days to get them down. We had to give the subfloor a good spray of water before we started and keep a spray can of water on the go all the time, dampening the floor continuously.  Because of the LECA underneath the floor was drying out fast.

Putting down the tiles. I sat on an old pot to save my back

Then a week later we came back and pointed the space between the tiles - again with a limecreat mix. Our daughter Theresa came down to help with this job and spent the day on her bum filling in the gaps with us. She was a great help and it was great fun having her at the Yank's house. The finished floor looked great.

Finished floor - with tiles pointed.

 Around the same time as all this was going on Pat and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I decided that this momentous occasion warranted a week off from the Yank’s house. I booked us a few nights in a five star hotel in rural Spain. We hadn't had a holiday since we had bought the Yank's house and a holiday was definitely needed. The hotel we stayed in was a converted farmhouse and barn – now I hear what you are thinking and yes you are right. We returned home full of ideas. One of these ideas was to copy a stone floor we saw at the hotel. It was made up of ordinary flat stones you would find lying about set randomly in a limecrete floor. It looked so organic and old – We wanted to give it a try. So on our return home we went stone picking and when we felt we had enough to do the floor in the hall between the two basement rooms we had a go. It turned out just as we had imagined. 

At this stage I should mention Henry O’D Thompson of The OldBuilders Company.  I found his web site while surfing for information and was able to see extensive photographs of work carried out by Henry and his team. I knew if anyone was to understand our love for this old building this man would. So not been of a shy disposition – when we were trying to decide how best to do our floors I phoned Henry and ask his opinion. I found him very helpful and willing to share his expertise. Later when faced with the dilemma of how best to seal the limecrete tiles I sent him an email and asked his opinion again.  And when we put down the little stone floor I emailed him again to ask about sealing this floor. Henry hasn’t had much success with floor sealers. He said

The thing about these kinds of floors is, yes they get grubby, but after a few years grubby looks good, the patina you see on old stone floors and wood floors does not LOOK grubby do they !.

So with this in mind we are leaving the floors naked for the moment. We will coat the limecrete tiles with some linseed oil before we set them in the limecrete but that is all. Again this may be something we need to come back to in time. 
When I asked Henry what he thought of us making the limecrete tiles he said the world needed people like us – prepared to experiment. I sent him photos of the finished floors and he loved them. 

Henry is a lovely man and I appreciate all his advice and the time he took to speak to me on the phone and to email me. His name is definitely on the invitation list for my first garden party!
At the end of one winter making tiles we only had enough for one room. I couldn't face another winter making tiles so instead we decided to purchase some slate for the second floor. We laid these leaving a square space between them which we floored again using limecreat and flat stones. I am going to let the following photo explain what I mean.  

Putting down the floor
Finished floor

We are very happy with the finished floors. Everyone who comes in comments on them. People often say weren't we lucky so many of the old tiles survived. They ask us were these floors always here. They cannot believe we made the tiles ourselves. Over all we believe the floors add to the character of the building and because they are made of lime they are very dry and allow the building to breathe.  
However we have had one visitor who commented that the Yank's house is not very luxurious and that we will not be able to walk around in bear feet. This person is probably right.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Yank's House - Basement Floors

the basement kitchen

The basement floors in the Yank’s house were concrete over rubble. These had been very damp when we first got the house but had dried out well, so we hoped we might not have to dig them out completely. However when Pat’s nephew came to do the plumbing for us he needed a trench dug across the kitchen floor. Ever the romantic, I hoped we would find lovely stone flags but this only reviled the full extent of the dampness — these floors would have to come up.

Pat hates using any kind of heavy equipment or machinery on the house, so using jack hammers was out of the question. I joke with him that he is worried he might hurt the house. I had seen a TV program once where builders had moved a small digger into a house to dig out basement floors. This would never happen in the Yank’s house. Pat approaches every job with care and respect for the building. So digging out the floors was a hard slog.

First the concrete had to be broken with sledge hammers, then the floors were dug out manually with shovels and lastly the rubble barrowed out of the house a wheel barrow at a time. All the while, Pat took care not to damage the structure of the house. For the first time I felt useless. This work was much too heavy for me. Pat’s brother Brendan helped. It took them a week to dig all the floors out. This was the most unrewarding job we had tackled to date. Once the floors were out the basement was covered in muck and looked much worse than it had looked when the concrete floors were there. It felt like one step forward was two steps backwards. Pat said he now knew what it must feel like to work on a chain gang. 

muck floors

I had never imagined such muck and water could be trapped under the concrete. It made me even more determined never to use concrete on the Yank’s House.

Once the floors were out we were faced with the dilemma of how best to tackle the damp. We wanted to put in floors that could breath — in keeping with the approach we had taken with the walls. Putting down plastic and modern insulation was not an option. We had read that this only caused the damp moisture to travel under the plastic towards the walls where it would rise and cause further problems.

I looked into the possibility of using hemp in a limecrete mix but was worried that it would take too long to dry and mould might develop. I sent Edward Byrne (The Traditional Lime Company) a text asking for advice and he suggested I look up LECA, an expanded clay pellet aggregate. I was able to find information about this on the Internet and decided this was the way to go. The LECA comes in two types, coated and uncoated. The coated LECA is used as loose fill insulating aggregate. The uncoated is used with lime and water for a limecrete mix.

Once the decision was made The Traditional Lime Company were able to source the LECA for us.

The floor area was first covered in breathable mesh membrane. This is like the membrane we use in our gardens to keep down weeds. We then spread four to five inches of dry coated LECA 10-20mm over the whole area. These look like chocolate Maltesers.
First layer - Dry LECA

black mesh - timbers for walking on over first layer
Pat builds up layers - wet layer

This was levelled out and another layer of breathable mesh membrane placed on top. For our sub-floors we prepared a mix of three different sizes of uncoated LECA, 1-4mm, 4-10mm and 10-20mm with lime.  This was mixed in the cement mixer at a ratio of 3 LECA to 1 lime with water and applied as one would a concrete sub-floor. This sub-floor was laid to a depth of four inches. Once the new floors were in the basement dried out very well. It was a great success. 

mix for sub-floors
Finished floor

Sub floors down our next dilemma was how to finish them off. Our budget wouldn’t extend to a stone floor and even clay tiles were working out at thousands of euros. Ceramic tiles would create a seal on the floor trapping in dampness so that wasn’t an option for us.I am going to keep you all in suspense for a little while longer ... next posting will reveal all.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Yank's House - Windows

The yanks house has wooden sash windows. When we first bought the house most of the windows were stuck closed while a few were stuck open. Some had all their glass intact others had broken or missing panes. All had woodworm. A few had rotting timber. On a positive note all still had their original brass catches but this wasn’t immediately obvious as they had been painted over.

When we took the first pair of sash windows home to repair we used paint stripper to take the old paint off. It was difficult to remove the paint without damaging the wood, especially the narrow glazing bars. The paint stripper caused the paint to bubble but it still needed to be scraped away. It took several layers of paint stripper before the wood started to show through. 

Pat working on the windows

Once the paint was removed the window needed to be sanded. The catch was still intact on this first set of windows so I started sanding it back also – removing the paint and dirt. Gradually the catch started to shine back at me. I called Pat and we examined the catch. We were delighted when we found a lovely old brass catch. It cleaned up like new. From then on we took the catches off and cleaned the paint off and polished them up with loving care.

After stripping the paint from the first pair of sash windows it became apparent that we needed some other way of doing this. It was difficult to get the paint off the fine glazing bars without damaging them.

Now I am totally addicted to home improvement programs on television. My family can bear witness to this. On one such program I saw doors being taken to a caustic bath for dipping. This got me thinking – could I set up a dipping bath to clean the old paint off our windows? To make things even better I discovered this also kills woodworm.

I was able to purchase caustic soda in my local hardware store. We set up a shallow dipping tank in the back garden. We had just enough liquid in it to cover the timber bar of the window. By rotating the window we could do all four sides. Once the window was dipped the paint got soft and milky. The window was then removed from the bath and hosed down with water until it was clean. We then left the windows to dry.

Once dry the windows were ready for a light sanding and any necessary repairs could be done. If you want to use caustic soda to remove paint but you don’t want to use a tank you can paint on the caustic soda diluted in water and it will still dissolve the paint but it is a bit messy. I should mention here that dipping is only advisable on soft wood such as pine. Hard timbers should not be dipped as it can cause the timber to split. This discovery speeded up our work on the windows and later we dipped doors and shutters also.

In all we had sixteen windows to remove, repair and refit. This was slow work and continued throughout our first winter. Pat would bring one or two windows home at a time. Once these were ready we put them back into the house and he would take home two more. At the start I helped with the windows but as winter closed in on us Pat spent many evenings alone in the shed.

First window we repaired

The first two windows we fixed were very rewarding. As I previously said we removed the sashes from their frames and took them home. Meanwhile I worked on the frames anytime we were at the house stripping and treating them for woodworm. I then painted the fames with metallic paint advice received in my paint shop. I gave the frames two coats each sanding between applications followed by two coats of white hard gloss paint. The two sashes got the same treatment at home.

The pulleys were rusting and stuck. Pat cleaned and oiled them and got them working again. The cord was rotten and broken so it had to be replaced with new cord. These first two windows didn’t need any woodwork repairs a reason why we opted to start with them. At last the day arrived when we were ready to reinstall the windows. It took a bit of time to work out the pulley system on the first window and in particular the length we needed to leave the cord. But once we got the balance worked out and the first one installed we did the second one in half the time.

Satisfied the windows looked good from the inside and worked well, we skipped down the stairs, delighted with ourselves and dying to see them from the outside. It was a bright sunny autumn day and the windows with their wobbly glass sparkled in the light. Pat looked at me and said ‘We have given this house back her smile’. It was a lovely way to describe what the house looked like with two freshly painted clean windows in place. Every time we installed a new window I felt the same satisfaction. The old sash windows give the house back her sole. They were full of character and charm that we could never have achieved with new replacement windows. 

3 top windows fixed

 We had found two lovely restored sash windows at the salvage yard that I just couldn’t leave behind me. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what we might do with them but later we decided to use one of these to replace an old steel window that had been installed in the basement at some stage in the past, while we used the other to replace a smaller window at the back of the house, also in the basement. This let more light into an otherwise dark room.

Pat had to make the openings in the walls bigger so these windows would fit. At the same time he installed the meter box for the electricity and the necessary trunking. We were lucky to have Jason, another family connection to help build up the stone and brick around these two windows. Jason is an excellent stone mason and brickie. After one weekend these two windows looked like they had always been there.  

New window replaced old iron window

The frames for the window sashes were fairly good throughout the house until we reached the basement. Here the damp and wood worm had taken their toll on the timber. Pat took out one frame and brought it home. He copied this to make new frames for the remaining basement sashes. Daniel helped make these frames. He has always had an interest in woodwork and loves working with tools. We had invested in a chop saw, a plane and a router.

When all the windows were back in the house we were well satisfied. To onlookers we might appear a bit mad. We have no double glazing or sophisticated draft exclusion. Our glass is bubbled and scratched and we have refused to replace glass that has fine cracks. The timber is anything but perfect and some sashes are loose while others are stiff and difficult to open. But we have the satisfaction of knowing we did it all ourselves. These windows would have cost a small fortune to replace and we believe the character of the house would have been altered forever. Every year since there has been something that needs attention. We have now painted our windows three times. Currently one of our windows needs a new wooden bar. But we will struggle on to keep them because for us they are worth it.