Refinishing home radiators

I’ve learned a lot about refinishing old home radiators this year and thought I’d share some of my hard-won knowledge. Our project involved refinishing original 1899 radiators with ornate details and some replacement radiators added or swapped over the life of the home. In all, we refinished all eight hot water radiators on the first floor this year using a variety of techniques depending on their weight, style, and location.

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It started with “floors and trim”

There were two big goals for 2015: Refinish the floors & trim, and restore the north facade of the house. We decided we’d split them into two phases: floors & trim in the spring, facade in late summer. But as spring arrived, things got more complicated than that. As usual.

If you’re refinishing the floors, that’s the time to refinish the radiators, right? And if we’re making the first floor look great, we might as well do the stairs. And we should probably fix those doors. And the windows. And if you’re hiring a window expert, they better look at those attic windows ASAP, right? Soon, you’re disassembling an entire floor and your projected costs have grown 50%.

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Communing with a historic home

Sometimes I wander around the house and just look at things a little closer. I’ve learned some tremendously interesting things by doing this.

For instance, the “public” areas of the house (main rooms on the first floor) have a style distinct from the “private” areas (kitchen, second floor), right down to the hardware and door patterns. Tonight, my mind focused on the bead pattern that repeats on the main stair case in wood *and* on all the door knobs and plates in the public areas.

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The value of being young and stupid

I’m working on putting together a photobook of our work on the Sullivan House. It’s gotten to the point now where I have trouble conveying the energy that’s gone into its restoration when giving a tour. I have all of these photos on Facebook and elsewhere and no way to show them to someone who’s physically in the house. Every tour is different because it depends on what I happen to remember at that moment and what the guest is interested in.

Woodbridge House in Detroit interior

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The decision to mortgage

Most folks don’t get to decide whether to get a mortgage. If you want a house, you need a mortgage, full stop. My situation was a bit unusual. I managed to buy the house for cash, then used money from friends & family and signature loans to complete most of the repairs. The house means a great deal to me, and many more folks than me have invested their time and money in it. Allowing a bank to put a lien against it, especially after our nightmarish experience with the Beierman Ave house, seemed really risky.

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The “polar vortex” descends on the Sullivan House

After our New Years’ guests departed, a new unwelcome guest arrived. Michigan was enveloped in the heart of the polar vortex that descended from the north in early January, sending temperatures plunging into the danger zone. With it came more than a foot of snow, dumped over the course of three days. For a week, most of our attention was focused on finding and blocking drafts in the house, and trying to stay warm.

The month of January broke the all-time record for snowfall in Detroit, set in 1908, with over 37 inches records. On February 1st, to celebrate, it dumped another inch. A week later, another foot. Yesterday, it came down again. All the stores are out of shovels and salt, and our snowblower broke last year and cannot be resuscitated. You could sum our experience as: 5 guys, 1 shovel.
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An hour with Tony

He was willing to sell. Then he wasn’t. Now he was again. So with an envelope of cash, I set off to the east side to meet a man named Tony to right a wrong.

Well, sort of. The “wrong” was one of the two major wounds inflicted on the historical quality of the Sullivan House before I bought it. One was the floor joists in the carriage house being cut. More on that in a minute. The other: its missing stained glass window. I’d tracked it down and thought I had arranged to buy it, but Tony’s sentimentality for the window made him back out. Some unexpected bills brought him back to the table.
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Party in the fallout shelter

My basement is a fallout shelter. The 1950s yellow and black sign, complete with radiation symbol, points the way down the dank stairs. At the bottom, a short metal door surrounded by crude metal flashing. The walls around you are damaged and irregular. You feel a sense of claustrophobia grow as you descend to and thru the passage.

What you find on the other side is a cross between a serial murderer’s lair and a scene from the television series Hoarders. Walls built of scrap wood and paneling surround you. A confusing circle of doorways, long missing their doors, leads you thru the damp basement across filthy cement floors and under thick cobwebs. Thousands of feet of galvanized pipes and wires run this way and that, the remnants of eleven decades of revised decisions.

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Pieces of old musty cabinetry, spare tools, and years of junk surround you. An empty frame here, a frameless mirror there. One room is floor-to-ceiling filled with junk, accentuated by two 1970s porcelain toilets side by side in the middle. Coal and mold stains on the brick foundation walls and columns, creepily illuminated by a few old pull chain light that mysteriously burn out with alarming regularity. Everything seems wet from water seeping thru the walls. Radiator pipes are everywhere and you duck between them, narrowly missing the disintegrating cloth that covers a think layer of asbestos.

This is that basement. The one every horror movie warned you never to enter.

So I decided it’s where we should throw a 4-day party.

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Taking DIY up a notch

On Saturday, Aaron and I attended an all-day workshop presented by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. It was for historic property owners and covered topics like wood window restoration, lead dangers, plaster repair, masonry, and weatherization. They also handed out a Resource Directory of folks who do restoration work in the Detroit area. Man, where was this two years ago!? It was like being casually handed a treasure map. I’ve already emailed a company to get a quote on facade repairs.

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Let the sunshine in

I’ve been having more frequent conversations with my nextdoor neighbor, who has shed more light on the history of my house. For instance, the three trees along the street in front of our houses were planted by the previous owner. He’s told me stories of how homes on our street traded hands. And just the other day, he told me about the missing window in my stairwell.

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An abrupt reversal of fortunes

Back when everything went to hell on closing day, I can’t impress the importance of this passage enough:

After some back and forth with my family, it became apparent we had made a grave error. I had many thousands of dollars less available than we thought. My careful plans and budgeting evaporated, buffers transformed into impossible shortfalls.

By “many thousands” I meant “tens of thousands”. It was an epic accounting error that I never truly overcame. One day, I’ll write down my own thoughts on how the middle class is locked out of Detroit. For now, the aforelinked article is great reading. The short version is: how the hell are you supposed to get affordable loans to fix a house when you can’t take out equity against it because it needs repairs? You don’t.

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The little things you ignore

I bought the Sullivan House over a year and a half ago. We’ve renovated the kitchen and bathroom, had chimneys repaired and removed, dug out the foundation, had new rain gutters installed, and painted the entire interior. Hundreds of man hours and tens of thousands of dollars have been poured into this house.

Today, I finally picked the mailbox up off the porch and hung it with two screws.

Spring breaks

When the weather finally broke, it did so with conviction. Two weeks of perfect weather announced spring’s overdue arrival. At the Sullivan House, it meant open windows, and open doors. The safety gates I installed at both sets of porch stairs plus a backyard privacy fence means the dogs get free range from the front porch to the backyard in warmer weather.

As plants and weeds started poking out of the ground, we quickly pivoted priorities to landscaping before it could get out of control. Our mantra is low-maintenance. Anyone who visited us frequently in Warren knows how overwhelming that yard was (double lot, huge hedges, huge beds, and a pond). We can tackle projects, but everything falls apart when it’s time for regular maintenance. We all hate mowing the lawn. Overgrown lawns and hedges were hallmarks of our previous home.

So my plans to sod our backyard disaster here didn’t ring true. We still had ivy around the perimeter and the south side of the yard was still mostly covered by it, but it was largely crushed by the backhoe and subsequent foot traffic in the central part of the yard. Thistles had come last year in force and it took days to beat them back. Sod seemed the obvious solution, but I felt like that much more lawn would put us back into motored lawnmower territory.

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To Hell and back: A year later

An incomprehensible amount changed in the year and a day since everything went to Hell. I fell in love. I became a Detroiter. I own a toolbox now, am a mean hand with a drill, and can coat a wall in drywall mud like a pro. I’ve painted walls 35 different colors, met dozens of new people, and vaulted over fences to answer cries for help. I have a contractor, an electrician, a boiler specialist, an attorney, a mason, and a hundred volunteers. We bought a stake in the city and brought a house back to life. Everything is different, and so, so good.

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The pub comes alive, or, “suddenly, a dining room”

The last unfinished area in the living space of the house was the dining room. I’ve taken to calling it “the pub,” and its full name (courtesy of its five sponsors) is the “Mighty Worriers Mead Hall.” I really like its position at the rear south corner of the house, out of the normal traffic flow between the front and rear doors. It has very heavy wood trim and crown molding (including wood beams across the ceiling) that immediately made me want to style it on a classic British pub.

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Have you thought about tearing it down?

These days, when I get the frequent “How’s the house going?” question, my answer is that our remaining big-ticket items are the rain gutters, siding, and carriage house. I have a contractor hired for the gutters, the siding is on tap for summer 2013, but the carriage house is a story unto itself that I only tell if they really want details.

One of the last wooden carriage houses in Woodbridge

If I recite the carriage house’s litany of problems and recommended repairs (a long list of structural reinforcements), the inevitable next question is, “Have you thought about just tearing it down?”

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Asbestos go bye-bye

All geared up for asbestos abatement

When one buys an historic home in an historic district, one generally acquires certain materials that were used to build said home in the era in which it was produced. Those materials, as has been revealed by modern medical science, are listed now in this more enlightened era as “hazardous” materials. I speak of things like asbestos and lead.

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A week in Detroit

I’ve been living in Detroit for a week now. In that time I have:

  • Eaten in Mexicantown twice
  • Shopped at Eastern Market
  • Walked my dog around the neighborhood every day
  • Walked to Midtown
  • Gone to the “Dlectricity” special event in Midtown
  • Rescued a neighbor’s dog
  • Met 3 new neighbors
  • Been awoken by a midnight street party next door
  • Watched as the only favorably-viewed city official, Police Chief Godbee, resigns amid scandal

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Time to get into Detroit

The city inspection was… enlightening. After all my panicking over details, the inspector was completely relaxed and complimented the work we’d done. “A lot of these places are terrifying. This is a lot better than I expected,” he said after we’d completed the first floor.

When I asked about the criteria for passing, he basically indicated we weren’t anywhere near passing, saying, “Man, everyone fails. New buildings fail. They think they have paint on the walls but it’s just primer,” and so on. He probably checked even more boxes than the first inspection. Some of them weren’t even accurate, but it seems a moot point for now based on the rest of our conversation.

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Pulling the trigger

It was difficult to pick up the phone. It was time to deal with the thing that’s been weighing on me for nine months and it felt like the edge of the high dive. In the end, I had to drive downtown anyway to fill out the form to get a new city inspection. My destination was the Wayne County Building, the site of my closing day existential crisis. But this time, everything was different.

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The cold returns

Tuesday was the first day of autumn in Detroit. Technically the Autumnal Equinox is Saturday, but Tuesday was the day the weather changed from shorts to pants. It was the day that hot tea mid-afternoon became a brilliant idea to ward off the chill. Down at the Sullivan House, the warmth coming from the now-functional back loop (half) of the radiator system felt wonderful on my cold hands.

With the cold came a powerful recollection of the numbness of last winter when we were focusing on bare necessities and worried for our safety. It’s amazing the difference that light, heat, and solid doors make on your perception of a place.

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Gently sways the carriage house

When I got to the house Saturday morning, I was ready to start tearing the roof off the carriage house. Our friend Ryan drove into town from Wisconsin to help, and a dumpster had been delivered for depositing the carnage. But you know the day is going to have a twist when Andy, our contractor, greets you with “You want the good news or the bad news? The good news is it’s a sunny day.”

When Andy had climbed the ladder to the carriage house roof, the entire building shifted. Further review of the structure inside made him believe the entire building was listing to one side and might possibly be ready to tip over. Our plans for the day were immediately scrapped and reorganized, and we made some calls to get a second opinion on the carriage house’s condition. I did my best to remain calm.

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My morning commute

We’ve been working our tails off to get moved into the Sullivan House by the end of the month. It’s a breakneck pace, and it’s wearing us down pretty fast. I arrived at the house before 8am today to have the kitchen floor measured. Today was special because several key things came together.

First, we now have wifi. Internet means I can do my job (for Vanilla Forums) from the house. Second, we have a water filter installed and a microwave. That means… hot tea!

I sat out on the porch for the first half of my day, the morning summer sun rising. Joggers, deliverymen, neighbors walking dogs, flier hangers, and the postwoman all passed by. A neighbor moved in. I waved to a lot of people. And worked. It was a perfect peaceful morning and I got a ton done.

As I sipped on my tea to keep warm, it hit me: this is my new morning commute. After all this moving crap is done… I get to sit on the porch of our new castle to do what I love while the neighborhood hums quietly around me.

Glorious. Onward.

Fever pitch

It’s a downhill boulder now. Boxes are packed up at our old house, we’ve moved several things already, and contractors are at the house almost every day working on getting things ready.¬†Oven delivery

Today we accepted delivery of a new stove, and a masonry contractor came out to give us a quote on chimney repairs. The Soley guys are just about finished installing the ultra high-tech condensing boiler system that makes our basement look even more¬†like a mad scientist laboratory. They’ve also re-plumbed the hot water line in the house, replacing a bunch of useless old galvanized pipe, and removed the old water tank.

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Zero hour

It’s getting down to the wire. Renovations are ramping up to a fever pitch. As of this moment, we have calls out to Comcast, a plumber, a scaffolding contractor, a masonry repair contractor, and a roofer. The new boiler system is halfway installed, and the majority of the interior has been primed with at least one coat of primer.

Boiler

Boiler!

The problems we had with primer peeling off in massive sheets are gone, as oil-based primer has solved the issue. The last “frighteningly high-up” surfaces have been covered with primer, and the kitchen is nearing completion (paint is done, sink is installed, light fixtures are up, and fan is installed). Continue reading

Roller coaster

I got sucker punched, so I snapped right back. I got together a mess o’ gear, donned goggles & mask, and tore into that mold-infested space with a crowbar and a huge bucket of bleach water.

Terror building as I prepare to enter the void.

I took out two big bags of shattered drywall and found… nothing. Well sure, there was some white and yellow mold, and there was indeed a strip of black mold by the opening. But that strip quickly fell to my spray bottle, and its expected siblings were nowhere to be found. The darkness and stench had fooled us.

Actually... it kinda looks OK. Huh.

Suddenly, I had a manageable project again.

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Sucker punch

Last week was a setback. Today, it was a sucker punch.

Andy and I were investigating why the walls in the rear stairwell were always damp. I’d previously determined the walls outside weren’t leaking, but we went outside and had another look anyway. Nope, still fine. But the walls were definitely abnormally damp, even after repeated priming and spackling. Then Andy said those fateful words: “It can’t be coming up from the ground, can it?”

He asked if it was wet under the stairs. I said “You can’t get under the stairs, it’s sealed off,” and my stomach dropped a little as I could see where this was going.

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Setback

For the last week or so, we’ve been sanding, prepping, spackling, and priming the front foyer and front main hallway of the house.

It took four days and nine coats of primer to turn the formerly pink plaster walls white:

Primer on walls in Sullivan house

White walls!

It was exciting. The walls were old plaster, dyed pink from some previous wallpaper (most likely), and a bunch of us put a ton of work into patching, sanding, and priming them. It took nine coats of primer (two of PVA primer and seven of Killz) to get to these smooth white masterpieces, ready for painting.

The hallway complete, we started sanding and priming the round tower room in the front of the house yesterday. Perry and Kyle helped prime and we got one coat on the entire room.

Today Lincoln, Nicole, and I returned to continue priming. I poured the primer and got ready to apply a second coat to the foyer.

That’s when I noticed the blister.

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Raise the roof

Today I made a decision on the carriage house roof. We’ll be removing the old roofing materials ourselves and building the subroof. Then a professional roofing company will install a metal imitation shake shingle roof. It will be the second truly major expense of this project, on par with the boiler and heating system repairs. And, we’ll be doing it in the next month.

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