Stumbling In the Dark


After uncovering the knob-and-tube wiring, I called my electrician friend, Tim. I don’t mind fishing new wire or pigtailing to add a plug, switching out a fixture or putting in a new switch. But when it comes to abandoning and replacing a wiring system that scares me and that I don’t understand, well…time to write a check.

And good thing. Once he got into it, Tim found out things are far more troublesome than he or I expected at first look. (OK…very bad thing…but good thing I didn’t try to tackle it.)

It turns out about 80 percent of the house is still on the knob and tube, and things are apparently double-dipped, double-wired, double-jointed, double-somethinged that I don’t begin to comprehend. I know the word “double” factored in. So when Tim dropped the one circuit that I thought powered three rooms on the second floor (about 30 percent of the house), 80 percent of the house went dead (which makes no sense; I must have missed something). And this is despite having plenty of empty slots in the two panels (it used to be a two family)…but more vexing, also having lots of circuits in use on said panels. So what they heck do they go to?! I dunno. Tim is figuring it out, running new wires and getting things in shape (and up to code) as much as possible for now. But it’s going to take at least another day of work.

So for tonight, I have full power (read, light) in only two rooms (my current computer room and one bathroom), along with random working receptacles in select and non-contiguous other rooms – and in said rooms, only some of the receptacles are working. (I guess that would explain the circuits that are in use…but the mapping is illogical, and I am part Vulcan.)

But Tim, bless him, is smart. He made sure my router, computer, coffee maker and refrigerator are all getting juice. The heat and hot water are gas. I think I’ll live.

I just hope that tomorrow he doesn’t uncover more crazy. And leave me completely in the dark.

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Might as Well…

LR-ceilingHmmm…the living room really could use a chandelier. And it’s directly under the room in which I’m pulling floorboards anyway. Hmmmm…

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A Widening Gyre

This person is (or was) an ass.

This person is (or was) an ass.

My staircase project is spiraling out of control. After uncovering a live wire buried in plaster right where I need to secure the new landing and turn on the stairs, I had to make some exploratory cuts in the ceiling to trace the line (so I can abandon that no-longer necessary hall light). But that same circuit powers the first-floor hall light (the one I’m taking out), the two front rooms on my second floor, and my bedroom, which is in the middle of the house.

So with the ceiling already cut open and in need of eventual repair, well, why not run new grounded electric to the room that will be my study? (I’d prefer a dedicated line for my computer and its peripherals.) And if I’m doing that, might as well also fish a new line up for the other front room and my bedroom.

To trace those lines, I had to start taking up floorboards – not a big deal, because some hack made enough crappy cuts years ago that it was pretty easy (in most cases) to see where it had been removed before. And pre-cracked.

It seems that hack might have lived a lot longer ago than I thought; there’s still live knob and tube in the floors. Or the hack left the knob and tube and simply added some new wiring, because there is also some abandoned knob and tube, and a hydra-like collection of circa 1950s Romex. There are also a lot a cobwebs.

I hate the color red.

I hate the color red.

What fresh hell is this?

What fresh hell is this?

So, in order to most efficiently and inexpensively (for future projects) put the staircase back to rights, I first have to run new electric to three rooms (and I might as well add a plug in the second-floor hall while I’m at it).

While investigating the wiring path to my bedroom, I discovered that what I thought was a chase for the third floor HVAC vents is in fact only partially that; it’s about twice as wide as it needs to be…and I could, with things torn up anyway, pretty easily reroute that HVAC in a less obtrusive manner — might as well; the walls will already need patching.

So, to build a landing and two steps, I am running electric, pulling up floorboards (then putting them back, of course), moving ductwork and patching plaster. All on the floor above.

Redoing the bath ought to be easy by comparison…If I ever get to it. That will be a total gut job – it’s much easier to rebuild if first you can destroy.





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Let Me Explain. No, There is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.

That light (and exposed wire) will be disconnected.

That light (and exposed wire) will be disconnected.

On Facebook, I posted this question: “Best angle grinder for cutting thick plaster?” Thank you to those who answered that question. And thank you for the other advice. But – with the exception of a RotoZip – I already tried it. Or I am not going to, following expert, on-site advice.

In short: I need to rerun a lot of electric to replace wires currently buried in plaster (in no conduit) on exterior walls – real, old, adamantine plaster over brick. I had two electrician friends over. I had an expert plaster guy over – a guy who does lots of work on old plaster, not drywall. We’re all on the same page.

Instead of hammer drilling multiple channels into the plaster and brick to run electric and conduit to meet current NEC code, we’re going to abandon the existing wire (and hall sconce, because it’s no longer necessary) and fish new wire from the panel up through the interstitial spaces in an interior wall, then come across the ceiling to pop up to the second floor for plugs on an exterior wall. There, I’ll have to remove the baseboard and drill out a small amount of brick to bury conduit; but the plug location is already cut into the baseboard (dammit), so I suppose I’ll put new outlets in the same spot. One less plaster repair, I guess.

I’ll also run new Romex to two interior walls on the second floor at the same time (at the moment, they’re on the same circuit; they won’t be). But that’s not quite as much trouble.

Up that partial wall on the left, and across the ceiling...

Up that partial wall on the left, and across the ceiling…

So, I have to take down enough plaster and lathe on the ceiling to get at the necessary joists (to which I’ll attach the new Romex) across the width of the hall – and to remove the old gas line that’s poking out. (I might relocate the chandelier to there – that must have been a fixture location 100 years ago.)

I have tried an oscillating multi-tool with a carbide grout blade. I have tried scoring, scoring deeper…then deeper still, then “chiseling” with a sharpened flathead screwdriver between those lines. I have tried cutting it with a drywall knife … well, no. I skittered the knife across the plaster for 10 minutes. I swear I heard the plaster laughing. Or maybe that was the birds/bats/squirrels scuttling in the chimney…hard to tell.

With the new electric run, I’ll be able to finish the stairs. And, I’ll have properly grounded outlets in what will be the study – so I’ll be ready to build bookshelves and a computer desk there, instead of having to hang out in my ersatz study, where my computer currently shares space with the litter boxes. (It’s the former second-floor kitchen – the only room upstairs with grounded plugs.)

The future home of built-in bookshelves and a desk, once I install a plug and wiring that is not older than am I.

The future location of two bookshelves and a desk, once I install a couple grounded plugs. And redo the bathroom.

The plaster guy, after taking a look at the exposed edge of plaster (at the top of the stairs where I took out the 1950s-added floor in the open well), and hearing what I’ve already tried, recommended an angle grinder. He specifically said to not use a recip saw, unless I was prepared for a far larger plaster repair bill. And yes, there will be dust. There are also dust bunnies, and cat-hair tumbleweeds in my house. I’ll be fine.

When I’m done, he’ll come back and put the ceiling to rights, and patch the walls where necessary. His expert help will allow me to more quickly move on to the next task: tearing out the existing bath. My destruction skills are quite advanced.

So anyway…I’m going to buy an angle grinder. I’m leaning toward a DeWalt. The Makita is alluring, but more spendy.

And yes, that’s the short version.

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The Snowball Effect


It’s cold and grey here – a great day to hunker down in the house and get some work done. On the list (after making coffee, which is always job no. 1) was to chip off the plaster where the framing for the landing and bottom two stairs will go.

Next was supposed to come the framing and stringers, then scavenging floorboards from the third floor for the landing. I figured I could get that all done by Sunday afternoon.


As everyone who’s ever owned an old house knows, there are always surprises, they are rarely welcome ones and they are never cheap.


Yes, that is fabric-wrapped wire that’s been embedded in the plaster. It must run all the way up the stairs to the three-way light switch at the top – and that’s tied in to a three-way switch on the front wall next to the doorway, both of which operate a light fixture in what was the hall to the second-floor apartment. In other words, there’s a great deal of that wire under the plaster running hither and yon in three walls – two of which are plaster over masonry.

There will be no finished front staircase in my immediate future…or even the framing for one. There will instead be a colossal mess, followed by a colossal check to an electrician.

Anyone want to buy a kidney? Or a Shaker stepback cupboard? (I think the cupboard will last longer.)










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Time & Money. Mostly Time.


You know the saying: We plan; the gods laugh.

I fully intended to by now be ripping out the bathroom on the second floor, and framing a new doorway from my bedroom to said bath. (The current design is circa 1985; the only spa-like touch is the cloud of steam that turns the room into a sauna when I shower. It’s causing the wallpaper to bubble off the walls, and the ceiling paint to peel. There’s an exhaust fan in the plan.)

But my front stairs are still in a state of disarray; I refuse to start on another major project before the current one is less sub-functional.

I’d like to blame the work stoppage on my cats. Along with some feline dental work I put off for too long, I had to have a growth removed from the base of JJ’s tail. And the other cats were overdue for checkups, shots, etc. That consumed all the funds I’d set aside for near-term house projects. My excuse doesn’t really fly, though, because I’m doing the stair work myself; I’m not so strapped for cash that I can’t afford a 2×12 for the framing. I’m just too strapped for time.

There’s the day job (always lots of deadlines there), plus some freelance editing that’s been keeping me crazy busy (Christopher Schwarz’s latest is at the printer and Hayward is close behind. As is the premier issue of Joshua Klein’s new magazine, “Mortise & Tenon”).  And my couch is comfortable.

But this weekend, darn it, I’m going to scavenge some floorboards from the third floor to finish the landing (that sound you hear is the gods cackling).

The two bottom steps? Well, those may have to wait until I come across the right stock. And the cats are healthy. (Reclaimed thick, wide and long pine is a bit dear.) The spindles and railing? Eh – what’s life without a little danger?


These kerf cuts in the original riser are cool. Too bad the last 6″ of the curved treads and risers on the bottom two stairs got lopped off a half-century ago.

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Ibuprofen, Please


This house rehab stuff was easier 12 years ago, when I dug into the first one.

After a Friday evening and Saturday morning spent running up and down ladders with a recip saw to cut out stud walls, and tearing out tile with a 26 lb., 60″ long iron wrecking bar over at Christopher Schwarz’s new (old) Lost Arts Press building, I was too tired and achy on Sunday to do much hard physical labor.

I need to get a move on tearing out all the old unused wiring, ductwork and sundry other crap on my basement ceiling, and removing a 70s-era bar from what will be my finish and hardware storage area. Maybe next weekend.

Instead, I took down curtain rods and patched those and various other holes in the living room walls…then sat on the couch for a little while drinking coffee while waiting for the plaster to dry.

But I’ve little time for relaxation. (Also, I suck at relaxing.)

vare-wiresFor almost a month, I’ve been staring at electrical wires overhead as I’ve lain in bed at night – even covered in wire nuts and electrical tape, the wires were more attractive than the large (and dusty) brown ceiling fan formerly there. That situation was due not to laziness, but to a backorder on the fixture I bought…which was then damaged in transit, then on backorder again for the replacement.

And because everything on my second floor seems to be on the same circuit (for now), I can work on electric only when the natural light allows. But it is dark when I leave for work in the mornings and dark when I get home at night, so I had no choice but to haul my ass off the couch and haul a ladder up the stairs to install the new fixture while the sun was out (well, not the sun so much as a watery thin light filtered through clouds).

Installing a ceiling fixture by oneself when ones arms are already sore? Ouch. But it was worth the pain. No more bare wires, and I can finally see into the corners of my room at night.


I should have made the bed. Oh well.


By then, the plaster was dry, so I painted the living room, changing the dull and damaged mustard color for a calming dove gray.

That was probably a mistake; it was getting dark outside and the only illumination in that room comes from the chandelier in the hallway, and a 60-watt floor lamp. I likely missed a spot or two (and I probably need to apply a second coat). I’ll find out next weekend when I’m home during the day.

As much as I dislike Daylight Saving Time, I’m thankful for an excuse of “dark” to sit on the couch instead of working in the evenings. If I give them a few days of rest, my arms, shoulders and gluteus might just stop hurting.

Twelve years ago, 26 lbs weighed less.

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