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December 2008
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February 2009

how you treat woodwork makes all the difference

...Just make sure you do (mostly) the opposite of whatever this woman tells you to:

From Rita St. Clair's house/come column in today's Chicago Daily Herald:

Bargains are always alluring, and never more so than now. But while good deals can indeed be had in today's housing market, the "buyer beware" rule remains very much in force in regard to fixer-uppers. An old, or even not so old, home that "needs some work" can prove to be a great buy or a financial sinkhole, depending in part on the dimensions of the buyer's dreams.

In deciding whether to invest in an old house, my advice is to resist the cute-puppy syndrome and to make an unsentimental assessment of how much a rehab will really cost. Then weigh your willingness to bend the project to fit your budget.

Q. We need advice regarding the semicircular front hall staircase in an old Dutch Colonial style home we recently bought. A previous owner stained the oak steps and the entire balustrade, including the stringer. It's a medium stain but still looks pretty heavy in an average size entranceway with a wooden floor and with lots of wood paneling and moldings. We had intended to cover the stairs with a patterned carpet, but that turns out to be difficult and expensive because of the circular turn in the staircase. Can you suggest a different treatment?

A. The simplest of several options is to paint most of the woodwork - not just the staircase itself but the adjacent moldings as well. In a relatively small space, I'd go with a light color for all the painted surfaces, including the stringer, the spindles on the railing and the risers but not the tread of the stairs. Then, to produce an attractive contrast, I would use a dark stain on the floor, the treads of the steps and the staircase's handrail.

Paint over the wood?! This woman should not be writing a column on restoration, conservation or style in general! That's just ridiculous, and is an absolutely last-ditch option when all else fails. Why ruin future generations' enjoyment of the space just to save a few bucks? It's not worth it - we have a duty to conserve our homes, not ruin them ... I assume this person would also advocate covering coved plaster ceilings with acoustic texture, putting plastic slipcovers on furniture instead of, you know, actually sitting on it, carpeting over hardwood floors...

She starts with good advice and then veers into the ridiculous, stupid, and cruel. And to top it off, after this excerpted portion, she goes on to advocate carpeting stair treads in Arts & Crafts homes, a practice that Gustav Stickley himself once (purportedly) called "an abomination." Yes, accent and show off your beautiful wood by covering it up. Pave the backyard, too, while you're at it.

for sale: 4 bed/2.5 bath, Los Angeles CA, $899,000

First of all: real estate agent Marty Walker has one of the best heads of hair I've ever seen. I'd commit crimes to have that hair on my head. Same goes for this house, except I wouldn't want it on my head. This beautiful 3,000+ sq ft, 4/2.5 1907 Craftsman is simply gorgeous, and the newly-restored interior woodwork really shines. Marty, if you read this, send us some high res photos - we'd love to see the rest of it!

old craft, new tech

081203-Rainer-Spehl-1 Rainier Spehl, a woodworker specializing in display materials and exhibition stands for clients like Nike, Dior and Gucci, has built a wooden laptop slipcase for Apple portable computers. There's no price - we assume that if you have to ask... Spehl us developing his own line of furniture and products (including some interesting public compositions) and takes commissions from a variety of private clients including the large firms mentioned above.

Some of his work is a little stark for my taste, but there's no denying his excellent integration of grain and texture into otherwise very modern contexts. A Craftsman approach to materials pops up in the most unexpected places!

Alternatively, check out Brian Kelly's pretty plywood & cork laptop case.

getting rid of black mold

Our good friend and regular contributor Joel McDonald sends in the following, a followup to his last article - in November 2008 - on locating possible black-mold outbreaks (a must-read for anyone considering buying a home, or rehabbing an older house):


Just kidding. It's not as bad as all that. Molds and their relatives are all around us. Their spores can be dormant for long periods of time, only to become active and start reproducing when conditions are right. The conditions they need, as you probably know, are moisture and not too much light. It helps if the place is poorly ventilated since that allows moisture to build up -- but with enough moisture many molds can grow even in a draft. Your basement, for example, is what mold spores probably dream of when they're resting. Damp, lonely, nobody coming around trying to bother you all the time -- absolutely heavenly, if you're a mold spore! Even in areas of the country that you might think of as being too dry for mold to grow, all that's needed is a chronic spill or a little leak in an unventilated space, and moisture buildup can lead to mold growth.

The question of how to prevent the growth of black mold is pretty easily answered - keep the environment dry. Do that and you've pretty much got the problem solved.

What about the condition where the mold has already gotten ahead of you, and it's growing one of your interior spaces? You'll want to remove the source of moisture, of course, and in most cases this can be done by using a dehumidifier. If there has been a flood or leak, and not just a normally-moist environment, then you'll have to first pump out or mop up, and use plenty of ventilation to dry the space. Use the biggest fans you can get. It may take days or even weeks, and you might be able to get started on mold removal in the meantime, but there's not much point in trying to get out all the mold if the place is still wet. You should at least wash off the surfaces with detergent and water, and spot-dry the affected areas as best you can while the space is being dried out. If wallboard is affected, and it looks like it is more than surface deep (warped or swollen panels) go ahead and remove the worst-looking part to expose the spaces between the studs and evaluate whether you have to remove more wallboard for drying and cleaning the inside of the walls.

When you have the humidity under control, you can start on the serious business of killing the mold.

You might prefer to just go to the grocery or hardware store and find a commercial preparation to do the job, but some people prefer to avoid the use of strong chemicals. The use of bleach is sometimes thought to be a strategy for getting rid of mold, but its use has not been recommended by the EPA and there are drawbacks to using it -- it can be dangerous to handle anywhere outside of a washing machine, and if combined with other common cleaning ingredients such as ammonia (Caution: Don't!) it can produce dangerous fumes.

For absorbent and porous materials such as insulation, carpet, and acoustic ceiling tile, you may just have to get rid of the material if is has mold growing throughout and not just on the surface. In most jurisdictions you can discard it with other household refuse that goes to a landfill, and it may be a good idea to put it in trashbags if you can. You can expect to have better success with walls and floors, particularly if they are smooth. Even with porous materials, though, there is a chance that a good cleanup might work; depending on what the material is and how much it will cost to replace, it could be worth your effort.

Cleaning Up Naturally

Plain white vinegar applied full strength is an effective mold killer. It may not restore the original appearance by itself, but any stain remaining after a good dose of vinegar will have no living mold and can be cleaned or painted over with a high degree of confidence that the mold that was there will not grow back. Spray or brush it on, full strength, and scrub a little if needed. The familiar smell is not too disagreeable for most people, and it will dissipate after a while.

Other natural remedies listed by the Household Mold Guide, which has a number of useful recommendations, are tea tree oil and grapefruit seed extract.

Mold should not be ignored. While you might think of it as nothing more than an unsightly mess or an inconvenience, it can cause a variety of illnesses and -- since it relies on the digestion of organic matter such as wood and fiber to live - it eats your house. Getting rid of mold, and preventing its recurrence, is worth whatever effort it takes. So you may have to move, really - move yourself to action and dry it out, clean it up!

This article was presented by the ultimate Boulder real estate specialists of Colorado, Automated Homefinder.

Humphrey House: greening a classic bungalow

The Humphrey House blog details a total, top-to bottom green remodel - keeping many original features but altering the underlying materials and design to make it as energy-efficient as possible - of a beautiful 1920s Chicago bungalow. This is probably the most complete houseblog I've read in a long time. They carefully document every single project (in photos and drawings) - including the little mistakes that we all learn from -  in the seemingly-endless quest to turn this drafty but pretty home into a showcase of modern green technology, techniques and materials.

They are also maintaining a list of trusted Chicago contractors in the sidebar, so if you're looking for someone to take on a modernization project on an older home in that area, this is a great place to start.

glass subway tile from Anchor Bay

Arizona's Anchor Bay Tile, one of the largest online tile vendors, is now selling glass subway tile in a variety of colors.

“We are proud to add this new tile collection to our already large selection of ceramic, glass, wood and metal tile,” said Steve Khan, founder and president of “These tiles are available in a 3” x 6” size and come in beautiful colors that offer numerous unique design possibilities for any interior designer, architect or do-it-yourself homeowner who wants to add a classic subway tile design to any room.”
Khan also pointed out that glass subway tile is becoming more popular with his customers because of the timeless beauty it brings to any project. “Glass subway tile is a perfect choice for classic, modern and contemporary decorating styles and works well in areas such as in the kitchen as a backsplash, in the shower as a modern upgrade or as a subtle colorful complement to a tub surround or bathroom vanity backsplash,” Khan said. He added that his commercial customers find that glass subway tile works well for restaurants and hospitality projects.

case study: this old barn, Rejuvenation-style

Toh_house From the website of our sponsor, Rejuvenation Hardware - from their customer stories section:

When Amy and Pete Favat set out to build their dream house - a prefab version of a timberframe barn - old world tradition joined hands with modern day technology. Their story was originally chronicled in This Old House.

Designed and built in New Hampshire, their home's modular panels were trucked to Weston, Mass., for on-site assembly - which went much quicker than a customary from-the-ground-up barn raising.

Simple Fixtures with the Right Fit

With a marriage of rustic charm and industrial elegance, this distinctly 21st century house (and its owners) demanded well-crafted lights that "had the right vibe." And that's where we came in.

Now, a pair of Rivertons flank the front door, a good fit amid the sturdy beams and weathered wood. And a series of Jeffersons look lovely hung in multiples above a stone pathway. Says Amy, "We felt these fixtures fit in well with the overall style of our home, and we love the warm glow they give the house at night; it's cozy and inviting."

Tradition Goes Out on a Limb

Now that Amy and Pete's new home is finished, it's exceeded their expectations. "We did not want it to feel like just another house. It's not your typical home at all. It is part barn and part tree house."

For photos and the full story of the Favat's prefab timberframe home, visit This Old House.

for sale: 1915 Cox Estate Home, Saratoga CA: $1,095,000


This is the first time the Cox Estate Home is being offered to someone outside of the Cox family. Built in 1915, this home has been designated an historical property by the City of Saratoga.

Neglected for many years, this home is now looking for someone to restore her to the beauty that she deserves! According to the Saratoga Heritage Website, this is an excellent example of the Craftsman style of architecture, with its squat creekstone pillars, stone chimney and broad low pitched roof. It was built by Joseph Cox on part of the Cox family’s 315 acre Saratoga holdings. Joseph’s father, William, had come to California by covered wagon in 1852 and had become a prosperous rancher. Up until July 2008 the house was still occupied by members of the Cox family.

  • home: 2174 sq. ft. / lot: 17,305 sq. ft.
  • 3 car detached garage
  • 4 bedrooms
  • lovely wood surfaces throughout, original glass in much of the house
  • new composition roof
  • new copper repipe throughout
  • possible candidate for Mills Act

For more information visit and see photos in our Flickr set.

traditional meets modern in Andong, South Korea


We just got back from a week in Korea where we met & from which we brought home our adopted daughter. During the trip, our old friend Youngji and her sister Eunji drove us all over the country, including a stop in Andong to visit with their parents, who were staying at their "winter house," an apartment in that city. Just outside the city limits sits the "summer house," which their father designed a few years back and hired traditional craftspeople to build.

The house is new, but traditionally-designed (or at least traditionally-inspired). Architecturally it was a marvel: simple and humble on the outside, but large and beautiful inside. It was wide and low, with a small second story on one side - housing only two small square bedrooms with windows on three sides of each and a bit of storage. The staircase itself was very steep, and with the open spaces underneath looked more like a ladder - or a bookcase!

The wall of screen doors pictured here opens in two ways: the individual panes can be unlatched and swung inward, or the entire wall can be unlatched and swung upward, where its free end can be hung on hand-forged iron fixtures attached to the ceiling beams. This allows summer breezes and light to fill the entire house when the weather is good. The house sits aside numerous rolling orchards and wide-open farmland - surprising in this country that is mostly steep mountains and valleys - and is situated right on the base of a low set of hills looking out over this open land.

The entire house was full of great wood accents, all of them just as much architectural as decorative. The master bedroom, in a sort of satellite peninsula built onto the side of the house with a mudroom/airlock - which acts as a temperature buffer between it and the main house - is built on top of a giant and foot-thick stone slab; a wood or charcoal fire is lit below it, from outside the house, which warms the floor (the rest of the house uses the more typical steam-heated floors common throughout Korea, underneath beautiful Eucalyptus-looking wood floors in the main rooms and a soft organic flooring somewhat like Marmoleum, in the same pale yellow that I saw in many other Korean homes, in the bedrooms).

I am told that no nails or screws were used in the structural work of the house - all the beams fit together, and the walls are made of yellow clay brick covered in a mud mixture, and then wallpapered with rice paper.

The unique coffee table shown here, flush on the floor (the house had no seating other than thin but soft cushions, as all sitting happens directly right on the heated floor), was made from the base of a 300-year old fallen tree. The house has very little furniture - a few small bedside tables, a wooden chest or two, and a big beautiful rough-hewn bookshelf off the master bedroom, so the intricate beauty of something like this table really shines.

recycling materials "being dumped as landfill"

Here's something that really chaps my hide, and which gives yet more credence to so much criticism of new recycling & "environmentally-friendly" industries as being guilty of greenwashing but not really improving anything:

Thousands of tons of material put out to be recycled by environmentally conscious Britons secretly ends up at landfill, it has emerged.

Around 240,000 tons of paper, glass and plastic is either dumped or burned after being collected in green bins and bags by local council staff, according to the Local Government Association, which represents town halls across the country.

However, the true amount could be much higher as only around half of local authorities submitted their data.


The article goes on to detail that this is a result of recycling efforts not being well-funded rather than one of private contractors pocketing public money and then simply trashing collected refuse, but it's still sad to read.