Stone House Reno 3: Floors and sagging timbers

April 26, 2009

The windows conquered, our thoughts turned to the floor.  The original builders had fitted half-squared cedar timbers into the stone foundation.  Over them they nailed thick, wide, tongue-and-groove planks.  Later floors came along as needed.  We were loathe to tear up the 14″ boards in the kitchen, but they didn’t match the height of either the dining room’s yellow pine or the birch in the parlour.

Much thought went into a plan to level the floors out.   Once we pulled up the yellow pine we found that on the way to the back door the boards underneath were worn so thin we could almost see through to the basement.  To make a base for the new planking I laid out a pattern of ribs rather like the “floors” on a boat, carefully band-sawn to the contours of the worn floor and nailed in on nine inch centres. The new ash boards would sit on them. Maybe all those years of work on the old cruiser weren’t wasted, after all.

When every plank is a one-off and you’re in no particular hurry, there’s no reason not to make the flooring over the high spots thinner than the rest of the floor.  I improvised when I could, and the floor’s slopes and undulations gradually disappeared to produce a relatively flat surface.

It’s a good thing I don’t rent much equipment:  it took me twenty days to lay the ash on the ground floor.  In so doing I covered a large register, an abandoned stairwell, a trapdoor, a dumbwaiter through to the basement, and many miscellaneous holes cut over the years.  In one doorway the flooring hovered above nothing but the stone foundation.  It’s a good thing ash is strong.  After a few days with my drum sander, though, the ridges and valleys had disappeared and revealed quite a nice floor.

Then came wiring, insulation, vapour barrier and sheetrock.  At last we could heat the building to a comfortable temperature!

At this point I threw rational planning to the winds and installed a ceiling:  we needed something finished to look at, so 400 square feet of v-grooved basswood from the woodlot went up between the timbers on the kitchen ceiling.  We tried not to notice how much this smooth, clean shape reminded everyone of the bottom of a boat.  The elephant in the room was the way the upstairs sagged down just about where our kitchen island was destined to sit.

Unable to come up with a plan to deal with the problem above me, I chose to ignore it and devote the winter to building kitchen cabinets, two rows high, with muntined glass panes, a built-in china cabinet, pantry, kitchen island, the works.  I even managed to install a 7 inch flue for the range hood through two feet of stone wall.

Then we started the upstairs.  As we removed partitions, the upstairs floor became more and more like a trampoline.  It got to where guests were afraid to walk across it.  Turns out all of those little rooms upstairs were hanging from the rafters and holding the floor up.  Now they were gone.  When the sheetrock arrived for the room above the kitchen, I had to prop up one sagging timber or risk an ugly crash.

Two months of agony passed with a variety of failed solutions to the support problem.  Finally I bit the bullet and installed some cross beams.

I had spotted a couple of possible candidates in the haymow of a strong, but unsightly building on the property.  It needed to go anyway, so I tore into its frame with my chain saw, and shortly I had two magnificent ash beams of the proper length, grayed and worn smooth by years of contact with hay and traffic.

The beams were easy to handle with my tractor outside the house.  Moving them through the front door was another matter entirely, but I was able to flag down a passing forestry crew and get them to move the 350 lb. timbers to within reach of my pulley blocks in return for a few collectible pictures of Queen Elizabeth.

To place steel jack posts in the studded walls I had to take the cabinets down, of course.  The actual work wasn’t nearly as agonizing as deciding to do it.  The job also produced one unexpected benefit:  Bet helped with the first timber.  She had never been around such an operation and for some reason she flat-out admired the way I raised the beam into place with a couple of ratchet straps.  It had been a long time since I had done anything which made an impression upon her like that, and I basked in the adulation.

The second timber went up without an audience, and I was able to close the walls back in and restore the cabinets to their places.  A third beam found itself beneath a similar expanse of timbers in the living room.  This one had a rather nice mortise in the middle. I made the mistake of telling our son that the wooden pin in the mortise was a hanging point for a child’s jolly jumper.  My too-obvious campaigning for a grandchild must have spooked him because we didn’t see him for a couple of weeks thereafter.

For other articles in this series check:


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