Monday, March 31, 2008

Dans sa Niche

Earlier in the week, the stars did align and our tile setter and our plumber repaired and replaced the cracked and misplaced tiles. Unfortunately, drying grout meant that nothing further could happen, so there is not much else to show except...

Ta-da! Actually, it's a Toto, a Toto Nexus

One bathroom fixture is in its permanent place! The new toilet is in its niche and fully operational, although modesty prevents us from using it because our windows are bare. Maybe one moonless night one of us will sneak in and try it under cover of darkness. Its flush, which we have tried, is quiet as promised. It looks much better here than in the future tv room where it's been sitting like a piece of dadaist sculpture for ages.

Upstairs, I’ve been using the studio for priming and painting our windows. It’s not art, but it is still painting, just with less scope for creativity and much lower allowance for going outside the lines.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There is always something

The promising start to the day

Yesterday our plumber came to install some of the fixtures in the bathroom, but once again some little details have arisen to block our progress. First, the rail for the hand held shower came with the wrong hardware which made it difficult to mount to the wall. Unfortunately, after the rail was mounted the plumber discovered two little hairline cracks in the tile, which will mean prying out the cracked tile and replacing it.

The hairline cracks in the tile

We hope the tight fitting rail won’t give the plumber as much trouble coming off the wall as it did going on. Our plumber discovered another problem when he tried to install the toilet. One square glass tile from the slightly raised glass tile border is in the way (this in spite of the template I made to determine tile placement!). It too will have to be pried out and replaced with a porcelain tile. Supposedly all this tile repair and fixture installation will resume on Thursday when the stars will align and bring both our plumber and tile installer into the orbit of our bathroom on the same day (we’ll see).

The x marks the culprit tile impeding the toilet installation

Yesterday did bring two successes: the shower drain is now connected, and we have a new sleek pump on our boiler. The original boiler pump was very old and had been leaking oil for a couple of months.

Our new streamlined water pump (left) and the old pump languishing in a bucket

Last October the house next door sold to a young couple with a small baby and a big dog. We were happy to have another family move in next door. They turn out to have very ambitious plans for their house and very deep pockets. In addition to the full renovation they are already doing on the existing house, this spring they plan to begin an addition to add 35% more floor space to their home. We genuinely like our new neighbours and they have been very generous about sharing their plans with us, but we are still a little worried about how the changes may affect us. One of the additions to their house will be only a couple of feet from our property line. In particular we worry that if they roof the new addition with the same kind of steel roof they currently have, the resulting annual avalanches of snow will fall right into our side yard and will prevent us from planting the small trees we had been hoping to plant in our much anticipated secluded side garden. We are determined to smile and bear everything graciously. We must keep calm and stay optimistic. Plus, with weather like this, it’s hard to believe we will ever be gardening again.

The backyard earlier today during yet another snow storm

It is spring here in name only. I know it must be spring somewhere. I wish I was there.

Forced cherry branches--my make-believe, indoor harbinger of spring

Two more of our backyard trees—serviceberries this time—have been completely girdled by rabbits. This is proving to be a very costly winter.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bathroom (still in) Progress

The familiar bathroom corner with tile finished, but many other details still in progress

A Fleeting Glimpse
While the tile was being installed in the bathroom, we had a great sense of progress and thought we caught a glimpse of the finished room, but the sense was fleeting. A long list of steps remains before we can call this renovation complete. Since I last wrote about the bathroom, the tile has indeed been completed (although there are a few voids in the grout that Harry says he will come back to rectify once everything else is finished). We are very happy with the look of the tile. It looks fresh and clean and at one with the house. We have met twice with the excellent furniture maker, Erik Van Miltenburg, of Metrik Studio who will be building our bathroom vanity in white oak veneer (we chose veneer over solids because of its greater stability in a moist environment like a bathroom). We went to approve of our veneer choice at A&M Wood Specialty last week.

We also painted the bathroom with Farrow & Ball Modern Emulsion paint in White Tie for the walls and Pointing on the ceiling. (Watch a YouTube video critical of Farrow & Ball paint colour names here.) We have used Farrow & Ball Estate Emulsion on the uneven plaster walls in other rooms of our house to good effect. The Modern Emulsion formula has slightly more sheen, but will stand up better to the moisture in the bathroom. We were a little surprised by how quickly the paint dried on the walls, which were well-sealed with three coats of primer, but it may have had something to do with dry winter air.

Window & Trim Refinishing
We stripped over 100 years worth of accumulated paint from the bathroom window frames and the wooden windows using a product called Peel Away 7, which is available in Canada from Sherwin Williams. It is a caustic but largely benign product which encapsulates the paint, breaks its bond with the substrate, and allows you to scrape off the residue without creating dust or chips. It worked, to a point. After several applications, we are down to the initial layer of primer which is so much a part of the wood that it doesn’t want to budge. Intitially we were hoping to reveal clean wood so we could stain it to match the window trim, but we’ve decided to paint the windows and window frames and stain only the trim. Because of the layout of the room, we need to finish and install all the window trim before we can move the tub into place. Last week I finished stripping the windows and repairing the window putty where it was chipped. Now we just need to prime and paint them before reinstalling them in their frames.

One of the painted windows about to be stripped with Peel Away 7

Our neighbour, who happens to be a fantastic wood worker and a builder of finely made woodworking hand planes, is milling a window sill for the new smaller window in the bathroom. The rest of the wood trim will be the original ash moulding, refinished. Two weeks ago I bundled up the trim and took it to a furniture refinisher who stripped it of its century old shellac and grime (using a water-based stripper and a ‘flow-over’ method as opposed to the destructive ‘dip’ method). The wood came out looking so beautiful that we are loathe to finish it, but of course we will. The man who did the stripping phoned me to demand that I never paint the trim. He was good natured, but quite adamant. He said that the wood came out too clean to be painted and he insisted that if I were set on paint (which I’m not) then I should first seal the wood with Benjamin Moore one hour finish, which would allow the trim to be more easily restored in the future.

Our wood trim--stripped filled and sanded (left), and stained (right)

What is it with men and wood? I agree that the natural wood is beautiful, but I don’t feel an affinity for it in the same visceral way some men do. The debate over how to refinish our never-been painted wood trim is bound to come up again and again over the course of our renovations. It’s a big decision because light is scarce and wood, though beautiful, can really darken a room. I spent much of the last two weekends on the newly stripped trim—sanding or scraping off bits of residue, pulling or hammering out old stubs of nails, and carefully filling all of the old nail holes with water based wood filler. It is a tedious job, but necessary. We also tried out our stain—a water-based wood stain from Minwax in White Oak. It looks good in the bathroom—light like the rest of the room, but clearly showing the wood’s open grain.

Most of the next steps pertain to trim, fixture installation, shower glass, and stone slabs. Last weekend we went to a stone slab warehouse in Toronto where we fell in love with a Calacatta marble, which we plan to use for the vanity counter, backsplash, and and shower bench.

A slab of Calacatta marble

Today we were going to install our light fixtures in the bathroom—just to cover up all the holes in the walls and ceiling and make it look more finished, but we discovered that the drywallers had cut the holes a little too large. So today I patched the edges with sheetrock. These little unanticipated details of home renovation cause the most frustration because they cost so much time.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's Out of the Box!

If you have been anxiously wondering when I would reveal the contents of the giant shipping crate (which I wrote about earlier, here), the secret is out. The crate contained….our new fireplace.

Despite its venerable age our house never had any fireplaces--only stoves. A fireplace is something we’ve always thought was missing. Although we love a wood fire, insurance considerations and mild asthma meant a wood burning fireplace wasn’t a real option. We are pretty delighted with our little gas fireplace. It is manufactured in Canada by a small company called Thermart that began by making compact fireplaces for yachts. Yesterday and today, Eric Bauman of Bauman Mechanical installed it for us in the niche we’d built for it in our eating room wall.

The evolution of the fireplace niche and a brief glimpse of the outdoors

We positioned it just above table height so we can dine by firelight all through the long winter and on chilly nights all year. We first discovered the company a couple of years ago when we were looking for a shallow, direct vent, low BTU fireplace that wouldn’t take up a lot of space in a small room. The fireplace fits in a standard 6” wall and protrudes only another 3”, which makes it one of the thinnest fully vented fireplaces available.

The fireplace in its niche and with its cover

We didn’t get around to ordering our fireplace until this year, and we’re lucky we waited because the new model has a switch that doesn’t require electricity, which means our fireplace will run even during a power outage. It has a thermostat which automatically turns the flame on and off and a glowing blue remote control. Thermart has a very interesting collection of fireplaces and also does custom work. We chose the LE model called Clarity, which is the simplest of the bunch. The style is sleek. Since we weren’t trying to mimic an historic fireplace, we though the plain geometry and stainless surround would look great with our future kitchen appliances. We get a lot of pleasure every time we get a chance to buy a product from a small innovative Canadian company. We’re surprised we don’t read more about Thermart in design magazines and newspaper columns.

Now you'll have to wait (breathlessly) to see how we finish that untaped drywall.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Butterfly Update

After exchanging email with a member of the Toronto Entomologists' Association (who seemed thrilled with my news), I discovered that I had spotted a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa). This butterfly species is remarkable for being able to survive our harsh winters in adult form. They hibernate in tree bark crevices or any suitable niche and emerge early in spring to feed on tree sap. So I guess the rabbits and the butterflies are out for the same thing. Anyway, I'm delighted with my new status as amateur entymologist or, more specifically, lepoderist. Butterflies in Ontario, in mid-March, with not a flower in sight--amazing! It almost makes up for the rabbit inflicted destruction, but not quite. Here's one more close up:

Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antopia) on March 12th in southern Ontario

Bad Rabbits

The (possibly fatally) wounded crabapple with new wrap

A pair of rabbits girdled my crab apple tree last night, despite my twilight attempts to scare them away. All that remains is a ½” strip of bark connecting the canopy to the roots. I planted that tree in memory of my beloved Nana and I can’t believe it might be destroyed. I had wrapped the trunk of that tree and many others in the fall, but we’ve had so much snow that most of my protection is buried. In the spring I am going to try bridge grafting the bark, but I think the damage may be too great. I am devastated. The crabapple is not the only casualty—my flowering dogwoods and magnolias are badly damaged, my mugho pine stripped of needles, and my sand cherries, which I don’t care about so much because they grow so vigorously, are virtually chewed to the ground. I am channeling Elmer Fudd right now, but I’m sure my efforts to control the rabbits will be just as ineffective as his.
For the first time in my life I am considering a pet dog.

This afternoon I was looking out at my wounded crabapple and watching the birds at the feeder when I was sure I saw a butterfly flit by. I did! And here is my proof:

I have never seen a butterfly this early. Where could it have come from? I have no idea of the species. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a photo of it with wings spread, but it is more dramatically marked inside with some bright pale spots and darker wings. If anyone can identify it, I’d love to know what it is. This must be one of the earliest sightings of a butterfly in our region. It’s certainly mine.
Does this look like butterfly weather to you?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Surface Testing

I love the look of honed limestone and marble countertops, but I know that both stones are very porous and stain, scratch, and etch easily. I am not a pristine cook or a quick cleaner, so there's a great likelihood that staining substances will sit on our counters for hours (or, dare I say it, possibly days) at a time. So, for a laugh, the last time we ate some Indian take-out food, we decided to experiment on a small 4" x 4" square sample of honed, untreated, white limestone. We spread oily curries full of bright yellow turmeric and tomatoes on the stone as well as some tea and red wine for extra effect. As expected the oils and curries soaked right in. After about an hour, we rinsed off our stone sample and looked at the stains. It was a disaster--red yellow and brown oily splotches marred the surface. Then we tried to clean, first with dish soap and a cloth, then a cleaner, then a combo of vinegar and soda powder. We managed to lessen the stains somewhat, but the blotches remained. We laughed and realized that limestone, at least soft white, honed, unsealed limestone, could never work in our kitchen. But then something happened. About a week later, we took another look at our stone sample, which we'd left sitting on our current counter as a reminder of our folly, and to our amazement, the stains had vanished. TRULY VANISHED, by themselves, as if by magic... What did it mean? Was the limestone so porous that the stains just continued diffusing into the stone until they were so uniformly spread out that they left no mark? Had our cleaners somehow worked, but at an imperceptble pace? We decided to repeat our experiment.

So a couple of weeks ago we covered our square sample of limestone with (clockwise from top): tea leaves and water, sharpie, olive oil and turmeric, red wine, olive oil and mustard, spaghetti sauce, more red wine with tin can imprint, and plain olive oil.

We let the staining substances sit on the limestone overnight. In the light of day, the stone looked like this:

The next step was to rinse off the stone. This is how it looked after a rinse and a scrub with dish soap:

Obviously, a simple soap and cloth clean-up wasn't enough. We next tried vinegar, to no real avail, then a combination of lemon juice and baking soda. The lemon baking soda combination did lessen the stains somewhat, but the traces remain, and the smooth honed finish is rough and pitted. Here is the stone sample today:

Our limestone sample after stains and our attempts to remove them

So, our experiment is at an end. We believe that most stains could ultimately be removed from limestone with lemon juice and baking soda, but at the expense of the smooth honed finish. Of course, limestone and marble can be re-honed, and both surfaces would be sealed periodically to lessen their vulnerability. Still, stains are bound to happen. I think I might enjoy a counter that revealed its history, but N is not so sure. We love the look of real stone but may have to opt for something else. So, steel and zinc are options, as are the new quartz and acrylic products (although I'm not really a fan of their uniform manufactured look). I'm very partial to light counters for their reflective qualities--otherwise I would consider soapstone, which can be beautiful, but too light absorbing for our long dark winters. Luckily, we still have quite a bit of time before we'll be choosing our kitchen counters. The bathroom is still our current priority and we're planning on a marble vanity top (well-sealed) for that room. Stay tuned for a bathroom update in the next day or so.