Stone House Reno: 1. Notes from the rubble
April 5, 2009
It’s been nearly five years, but it seems like yesterday that we started to empty out the old stone house attached to my parents’ home on Young’s Hill. The plan was to renovate the space and for Bet and me to move to the farm when the project was complete. We vowed to build it all, floors, doors, windows, cabinets, but first we had to clear away thirty years of accumulated stuff which filled the building.
After a summer of trips to the dump with overloaded trailers, we looked at the dark, empty house and decided to make every effort to bring natural light into the building. Partitions had to go. We settled upon a cluster of cabinets and a bathroom around the central stairwell, and the rest would be open on the main floor.
In the early seventies my dad and I had replaced the staircase, a window and a few walls when my sister moved into the house. The previous renovation had come in 1953 in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel. The Youngs had done extensive work to the plaster, dormers and upstairs windows at that time.
According to the evidence, though, the most significant event in the life of the house had occurred long ago, during the time of square nails. At some point a major fire burned through the floors and charred half of the timbers in the house, as well as darkening the stone behind the plaster over a wide expanse of the southern wall. Apparently the fire put itself out, because wide tongue-and-groove boards were quickly nailed into place over the scorched timbers, the hearth was torn out of the west wall (leaving a huge cellar-to-attic gap behind the plaster), and new brick chimneys (and stoves, I guess) took over the heating duties.
Not until 1854 did Ontario laws change and allow a full second story to go untaxed, so upstairs the late 1830’s stone cottage had a roof line sloping down to within three feet of the floor. What’s worse, the ceilings drooped downward toward the centre of the house, increasing the claustrophobic effect.
The upstairs was also a warren of little rooms, a useless hallway, and decayed, 1950’s casement windows. We decided to gut it all, raise the ceilings with new joists, put in insulation and a good vapour barrier, and then devise a new floor and heating plan to make better use of the space.
When we started in the basement you could have thrown a cat through one hole in the northwestern corner. The cement truck operator showed me how to run concrete into the forms and then build a wooden funnel so that the wall would fill right up to the stones above the gap. It had never occurred to me that concrete won’t flow uphill.
The only real insulation around the old windows was generations of wasp nests. The wasps had done a pretty good job of filling up some large cavities behind the panels, but didn’t seem all that annoyed about having their ancestral homes removed. In three seasons of work around the wasps I don’t know of anyone who was stung. Wasps are a docile lot.
One interesting item as I tore away at the old walls was the studding and lath with which the walls were built. The hemlock studs averaged about 2X3 in profile, but the back side of each was fitted to the wall with a few chops from an axe or hatchet. A nail into the floors, top and bottom, and friction against the stone behind secured this portion of the wall until the lath went on. I would love to know from where that sawed lumber came in the late 1830’s. Some of the roof planks are 20″ white cedar, but they show the definite tooth marks of a circular saw.
To my amazement the original lath consisted of 6″ hemlock boards, split several times at one end and then nailed to the stud. The builder apparently worked his way along with the hatchet, spreading the split board as he went until it covered an area about double its width. Then the plaster oozed into the cracks in the board. I had never seen such a thing before, but Curator Anna Greenhorn was pleased to show me similar lath in a preserved ceiling of the Old Mill in Delta.
The new wall studs came courtesy of Rowswell Lumber. At the time Ed kept full-length pine logs in a beaver pond, and thus could cut stock to order. I needed a lot of 9 ½’ studs, and Ed said, “No problem.” Lacking hatchet skills, I used my trusty band saw to fit the new studs to the walls. That winter I discovered the laser. If nothing else is straight in the building and you have to start somewhere, a laser level screwed to a stud in a corner can be made to provide a vertical line from one end of the building to the other and can serve as both a line and a plumb bob if you know enough to start fitting the studs from the other end. By the time I got to the last wall, I had figured that one out.
For other articles in this series check: