The beauty of Douglas fir

Is Douglas fir the most beautiful of all the softwoods? I love it most because of its clear, straight grain. It’s mostly used for building, and not that often for furniture, but it is very recognizable. It is a beautiful pinkish-red colour when new, interspersed with darker stripes, and ages to a reddish-brown. It may be most beautiful when quarter-sawn, so the growth rings are relatively perpendicular to board faces. Douglas fir, or Pseudotsuga menziesii if you want to go all botanical, comes from the Pacific Northwest, and BC, where trees can be 200ft tall and up to 6ft in diameter. The last of the towering behemoths that once blanketed the region.

Tight surface grain, lightly sanded.

Problem is, that it’s not exactly a “fine” wood. The stripes that make it beautiful to look at also are hard on hand-tools – largely because of the difference in hardness between the earlywood and latewood. It also has a tendency to splinter, which isn’t great when trying to build furniture. It does machine well, but also dulls cutters, a bit of a double edged sword.

That being said, it has fewer resins than other softwoods, so doesn’t seem to have a problem with paint or even clear finishes. Staining works too, but the light-to-dark variation in growth rings may lead to some discolouration. To my liking the most beautiful grain is the quarter sawn.

The end grain showing the tightness of the growth rings.

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Norwegian wood culture (ii) – construction

Traditional buildings in most parts of the world reflect an intimate knowledge of a climate, a building material, and activities typical of a culture. The Norwegian landscape is rugged and mountainous, comprised of deep crags, vast fjords, and thick forests. Some would say it is harsh, even in contrast to Sweden with its more gentle valleys, and archipelago. Dwellings for both humans, animals, and storage had to be built to deal with the cold, snowy long winters. 

The wood building cultures of Europe can be loosely tied to the kinds of forests found in the differing regions. Some places, like the Germanic regions, France, and England were ideally suited for growing open, deciduous forests such as oak. This lead to a dominance of post-and-beam construction. In the more northern regions including Scandinavia, and Russia, coniferous forests dominated, and log buildings became the most dominate form of construction. Eventually these building techniques intermixed forming a vast repository of building styles. This occurred in Scandinavia during the most significant period of its early history, the age of the Vikings (790-1100AD). The ship faring culture which evolved lead to social, economic, and architectural changes in the Scandinavian way of life. Ships provided a means of experiencing other cultures, and provided access to wood technology evolving elsewhere in Europe. 

Storehouse from Søndre Tveito (ca.1300) constructed using logs.

While many other cultures in Europe used wood in some way in their crafts and buildings, in Norway wood was used for the majority of buildings up until the 19th century. Norway’s agrarian economy had two effects on the wood culture. On one side, it limited opportunities for importing building materials. On the other hand, although wood was plentiful, labour was not. Despite these shortcomings, Norwegians built a large repertoire of knowledge related to woodworking. The core woodworking tool for hundreds of years was the axe. It was used to fell trees, hew logs, and shape notches. This is likely the reason why the axe became such a symbol of Scandinavian woodcraft. Drawknives were used to smooth the surface of the logs. Apart from those, chisels, planes, and auger were used. Saws were known, but not very common, most likely because an axe could be used with more precision.

Storehouse (loft) from Søre Rauland, Nore and Uvdal. The ground floor, or bur, was built around 1209, and constructed of logs. The upper loft (1509) is stave built. The building originally stood on a low foundation, and was lifted in the 1700s.

Wood is in many respects the ideal building material. It is easily carved and moulded to particular shapes, but also has incredible structural qualities. Wood has great strength with respect to its weight, with the bonus of elasticity. The principal structural member is the tree trunk itself, which can be used as either a horizontal or vertical supporting, load-bearing member. The trees used by the Norwegians were likely well seasoned before being used. Seasoning was often a long process which occurred well before the trees were felled. This was achieved using two techniques: ringbarking and “Blæking”. In ringbarking, the two outmost layers of the tree near its base are removed around the entire circumference. This kills the tree in a very slow fashion, removing the sugars, and drying the tree before it is felled. In Blæking, or tree injuring (spot barking), bark is chopped off at random over the entire trunk. As the tree heals, the sugars are pushed out and replaced with resins (this makes them more rot resistant). Structural components were often hewn from Scotch pine, curved pieces from birch, and connectors from Juniper. 

A log constructed farmhouse set atop a stone base with a traditional sod roof (from Bjørnebergstølen in Hemseda, ca. 1790)

There are two main types of historic wood construction in Norway: stave and log. These have been used effectively for constructing many different forms of buildings thoughout the ages. From the Middle Ages to the 1900s, many wood buildings were made using notched log construction, or lafting, a method that came to Norway during the Viking age from the east, e.g. Finland. Lafting made use of timbers that were notched at the corners and horizontally stacked upon one another. The Scandinavians perfected lafting, both from a technical and aesthetic perspective.  An older form, stave construction is a method of building with posts, staves, as the load-bearing elements, with the use of vertical planks to form walls. It was often used for constructing outbuildings like barns, and sheds. Forerunners of Norwegian stave buildings likely had posts which were dug into the ground, which made them susceptible to rotting. From about 1100, posts were set on beams laid on stone foundations. The lower rectangular frame is constructed of sill beams, set atop stone foundations. The beams are joined into the corner staves in some manner, e.g., dovetailed into grooves and secured with wooden pegs. Vertical plank walls were inserted into a groove in the sill beam. In some cases the narrow spaces between planks were closed with a tongue-and-groove joint. Although the corner posts are staves, the vertical wall planking is reminiscent of the staves of a barrel. The most prominent buildings of this form which still exist are the pre-reformation Stave churches. 

Some thoughts on Roubo’s bench

Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier” (The Art of the Carpenter), was published between 1769-1775, and shows a somewhat different bench to that of Diderot’s. The differences lie in the M&T joint used to attach the legs to the bench top, the fact that the edge of the top is now flush with the legs, and there is a drawer under the right end of the bench-top overhang. Roubo’s bench was a monster in terms of the size of its structural components. The bench top was 5-6 inches thick, is 20-22 inches in width and varies in length from 6-12 feet (“but 9 feet is normal”), and constructed of elm or beech. Plate 11 (Volume 1) shows the bench, together with a depiction of the various components of the bench, and what Roubo terms a “press“, effectively a leg-vice, 4-5 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. It had a large wooden screw through the middle, used to apply pressure, and secure a workpiece.

Fig.1: Roubo’s workbench from Vol.1, Plate 11, showing details of leg construction, and bench devices, including the “press”, quasi leg-vice.

Now consider the upper portion of Plate 11, depicting the “Interior view of a carpenter’s shop“.

Fig.2: Interior view of a carpenter’s shop

Look closely and it is evident that the exact bench as depicted in Fig.1 does not actually appear in the carpenter’s shop. The benches in the picture are obviously larger (roughly 8 feet in length), which is not unusual based on the size of the doors etc. being constructed. While the front edges of the bench do appear to be flush with the legs of the bench, the legs are not attached using a through mortise (some may argue this has been left out because it is too detailed, but the picture itself is very detailed). There is also no drawer on the right end. Scan the room, and there is also no evidence of the leg vise in use, or even in view. Most work is still being done using a holdfast, or planing stop.

Roubo also discusses a cabinetmakers bench, in Volume 3. It is shown on Plate 279, with a description on pages 803-806. Roubo suggests it is of German origin, possibly derived from the numerous German cabinetmakers in Paris. This bench has both a tail-vice, and two leg vices, one fixed, and one sliding. The leg vices are slightly different to that of the one shown in Plate 11, as they seem slightly more curved at the ends, and incorporate a parallel guide at the base.

Fig.3: The German workbench from Vol.3, Plate 279.

On Plate 14 (Volume 1), there is a figure of a joiner planing a board on a bench (Fig.19), again without the legs mortised through the bench top, and no sign of the leg vice. Was the drawing of the leg vice on Plate 11, a mere afterthought, something added after viewing the leg vice of the German workbench?

Fig.4: Plate 14.

An 18th century French bench

In Denis Diderot’s 18th century multi-volume epitome, “Encyclopédie” (1751-1777) there are a bunch of differing woodworking benches. Below is Plate II from Plate Volume VII (Planches tome VII) (1769) Menuisier en Batimens (building joiner) showing a carpentry workshop with various activities underway.

Extract from Plate II

A sample picture of a bench can be found on Plate VIII, where the bench is known as a table. The description of this bench can be found in Volume X [MAM-MY, pp.346a–357a], under the heading “Menuiserie“, on page 356. It introduces the bench as “a necessary item, upon which the joiner does their work“. What is interesting is that the only tool provided to the workers by the master carpenter was the valet (A), or holdfast, all other tools they had to provide themselves. This means that the holdfast was likely one of the main means of holding the work to the bench. These benches have a number of holes for holdfasts, but no clear indication of any vises being used.

The bench is described as having a large top (B) which was 5-6 inches thick (which gives you an idea of there size of the holdfast), 2½ feet wide, and 10-15 feet in length (now imagine constructing this bench!). The bench was assembled using (through) mortise and tenon joints, with four legs (C), and spacers (stretchers, D). The underside of the stretchers were covered with planks nailed against each other, providing a place for tool storage. On the top left of the bench top is a tool holder (E) where tools like scissors, chisels (F) etc. can be stored. In the left-forward portion of the bench is a square hole (G) into which fits a piece of wood (H) which holds a cast iron planing stop (I). The device is moved up and down using a mallet. Just in front of this on the side of the workbench is a wooden crochet (K) for holding large items.

1000 year old Viking wood carvings

Whereas woodworking in general has evolved into the use of precise machinery to make perfect furniture, wood carving hasn’t changed that much from 1000 years ago. Wood carving is more of an art than a craft per se. Whereas one builds a piece of utilitarian furniture, a carving is often for the sake of decoration. Not withstanding that a chest or chair can be embellished with carvings, elevating it to more of an artistic form. Of course we often don’t know much about ancient wooden carvings because they don’t stand the test of time very well. Some of the most interesting are the artifacts from the Oseberg find in Norway from circa AD 834. (If you are interested in Viking ships, check out my post on the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo).

Carving was an important part of Viking society, and many different surfaces were carved, including most prominently the prow of Viking longboats. Carvings existed in form of relief carving, incised carvings and openwork. Wood carving was important in part due to the availability of materials, but also because other forms of visual arts required materials such as paper and stone which were not readily available. The all-pervasive nature of this art form lead to all manner of household wooden artifacts being carved, from spoons to chests. In the Oseberg artifacts, both the cart, and the sleighs are covered in ornate carvings.

Carving on the Oseberg cart

The most interesting carvings in the Oseberg artifacts are those of the animal head posts. There were five of them in the Oseberg burial mound, yet one is in such poor condition that it is not exhibited. The remaining four offer an exquisite view in the world of the Viking wood carver, sometime around 800 AD. There has never been any certainty as to the exact use for the posts. Four are 50cm in length, with the remaining one attached to a wooden shaft about a metre in length. It is possible the animal head posts were carried in some fashion, maybe for religious processions, or as walking sticks? It is unlikely they had a practical use.

The Academic close up.

The heads are part of a common motive for many of the carvings of the Viking period – animal figures. The style shown in these figures is part of the animal ornamentation, which had arisen long before the “Oseberg” period, and continued long the Viking age (e.g. carvings on Stave churches). It says a lot about a culture that produces such artifacts. The heads could be representations of everyday animals, or mythological beasts of some sort. The four heads are named as follows: The Academic, The Lions Head, The Baroque, and The Carolingian.

The four animal heads: Academic, Lions Head, Baroque, and Carolingian

The intricacy of the work is phenomenal, and must have required highly experienced wood carvers. Two are even decorated with small silver nails. The heads are made of maple, which is odd considering it is a hard, dense wood, likely not easy to carve. It is possible that maple held some significance. Other woods that were available during the period, namely walnut and oak. But the grain of oak can sometimes be difficult to carve, and may not have held the fine details the same as maple. Maybe maple was chosen for the lightness of the wood, or the fidelity of the fine detailed work?

The woodworking tools from the Mästermyr Find (adapted from Birkebæk, F., Vikingetiden, 1983)

The question of course is what sort of tools did these carvers use? Obviously the quintessential axe was used in preparing an appropriately sourced piece of wood, usually to the rough shape required. Wood shaves and drawknives were probably used to prepare the surface of the wood, with possibly spoon augers used to make any large hollow openings. There is no doubt most of the shaping could be achieved using simple carving knives, files and rasps. Although chisels have been found in various archeological sites, few if any are small enough to perform the sort of detailed work seen on these animal heads. The most conclusive evidence of the type of tools used by Vikings hails from the Mästermyr chest, found in Gotland. It contains tools for smithing, carpentry, joining, and woodcarving.

Norwegian wood culture (i)

Medieval craftspeople were often guided by the presence of building materials within the natural environment. In the forested regions of northern Europe trees provided the raw materials for many of lifes conveniences. Wood fueled fires used for cooking, warmth, and for producing iron, salt, charcoal, and tar. Most notably wood provided a material which could be used to build boats, furniture, and houses to shelter from the elements during the long, cold, dark winters. By Medieval times the southern regions of Europe were devoid of forests, and stone had become a much more common building material. In contrast, the northern reaches of Europe had a more rugged terrain, covered with vast expanses of forest. This set the scene for a unique wood-building culture throughout Scandinavia, but particularly in Norway. From the builders of Viking ships, to the stave churches, and farmsteads, nearly over 800 years of construction focused on a single material – wood.

There were many reasons for this lengthy dependence on wood as a building material. Firstly, it was abundant. Secondly working wood required only simple tools, in many cases an axe would suffice. Wood was also cheaper, and easier to build with than construction materials such as stone. Trees exist in a form that is readily adaptable to many types of structure. Stone on the other hand first has to be quarried, transported, and shaped – tasks that require specialist tools, and trades. Wood could be manipulated by artisans who were familiar with it as a building material, e.g. a shipbuilder could easily transfer their skills to building a house. 

A storehouse from Søre Rauland, More and Uvdal (left), and stable from Grønneflåta in Nore and Uvdal (1750-1800). The lower floor of the storehouse (the bur) was built in 1209.

Norwegian wood culture survived for such a long period because very little changed in society that would have resulted in grand architectural changes. This design consistency may have been strengthened by Norway’s natural environment and agrarian way of life. A good majority of the population lived in rural, isolated areas. There may have been little contact with the outside world that would have facilitated changes in building techniques. Nor was there a need, as the buildings were well suited to the tasks they were designed for. What it did do was allow the craft of woodworking to mature past the utilitarian through the use of ornamentation. Many of the simplest buildings used to store food and everyday goods are adorned with the most intricate carvings. 

Carved decorative panels and door from a stave church at Årdal i Sogn, circa 1200. They came to the University Museum of Bergen in 1867 after the medieval building was demolished. 

The traditional architecture of of Norway can be symbolized by two types of wooden buildings – farms and stave churches. Scandinavia was on the whole a much more agriculturally-oriented society than the rest of Europe. In Norway, daily life occurred on farmsteads that were often in isolated communities. These farms were self-contained settlements, containing an assortment of differing forms of wooden building. As Norway was a sparsely populated country, there were never many “public” buildings in the landscape. The exception was the stave church, which was often situated amongst a group of farmsteads. These two structures represented opposing sides of Norwegian life: the farm represented the private and secular, the church the sacred and public.

This ensuing posts look at various aspects of Norwegian wood culture. There is in reality much to learn about Norwegian wood building techniques, and if you are interested in learning more, I would suggest two things. The first is visit Norway. You will see wood construction techniques that equal those found in Japan. You will see traditional gutters made of wood, and wooden slat roofs – even on newer buildings. Secondly, obtain a copy of Norwegian Wood: A Tradition of Building, by Jerri Holan. It was written in 1990, and it’s likely one of the few comprehensive books on the subject written in English. It covers just about every aspect of wood construction, as well as in-depth analysis of farms, stave churches, including drawings, methods of construction, and a multitude of photographs, including many of innate carving work. If you like architecture, take a walk into the wild side of what once was, and possibly could be again.

Identifying mystery planes: Bespoke plane-maker?

In a the comments section recently, a reader (Jim K) asked me to help identify a plane. It is a bullnose plane, from the U.K. with the initials “LLN” on its side. I managed to find a similar plane online, a shoulder rebate plane with the same LLN marking. Given my literature, it was seemingly impossible to find any information relating to these planes. Online it was similarly challenging (although online always is).

It seems like a plane that could have commonly existed, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of sales out there in the inter-web. Were theses planes constructed in some small town industry, or was it a bespoke planemaker? There are inherent similarities between the shoulder plane and the Record shoulder rebate plane No.041. The design shares the same curves and structure, so I imagine this plane might have been modelled after it?

The mystery LLN bullnose plane
The shoulder rebate plane

The planes were both sold on eBay and described as being made of bronze. This might be because hand-machining bronze might be easier than other ferrous metals? On first inspection it doesn’t have the same colour as brasses commonly used in modern planes, but given there are many differing type of brass, with differing percentages of copper and zinc, it is hard to determine the exact type (short of some type of testing, see Refs.). The bullnose plane has a blade made by Edward Preston & Sons, but blades don’t tell the full story, as they are easily substituted.

Were these hand-made once-offs? There may be some tell-tale signs. Here are some of my thoughts (using some close-up pictures provided by Jim K.):

  • The planes have a large percentage of their sides dedicated to decorative depressions. Traditionally, larger manufacturers added these depressions sparingly (probably due to their expense). Edward Preston produced a lot of planes with very decorative sides.
  • On many rebate planes, the depressions are textured, but in these planes they are not. The depressions have a coarse look to them, implying that they were cast, or roughly machined in some manner.
Image showing the depression regions of the sides of the bullnose plane (JimK)
  • Sometimes the depressions are made in the process of “sculpting” a relief to form a logo, or other letters. Some manufacturers, when adding markings such as ‘MADE IN ENGLAND” form them in such as manner that the top of the letters are cut slightly lower than the side of the plane. The LLN markings are not.
  • These planes are generally cast, then machined. There seem to be milling marks on some edges of the plane (e.g. top), which is not unrealistic given the nature of bronze, The image below shows this in addition to the rough casting internally. The lines of the curves of the plane body, don’t seem precise, there are places where they seem a bit jagged.
Rough milling marks (JimK)
  • There are a lot of parts on the lever cap that seem roughly finished after casting.
Rough finishing (JimK)
  • The LLN mark is different on both planes, leading one to believe the maker was experimenting. Most manufacturers don’t use such large markings on the side of the plane.
  • On the shoulder plane, the knurling on the blade depth adjustment mechanism differs from that on the lever cap (an inconsistency which a manufacturer wouldn’t allow).
Textured detail on a Preston rebate plane

It is therefore quite conceivable that both these planes were bespoke planes made by a planemaker in a local area, not unlike modern planemakers. Popular Mechanics ran articles on casting with bronze throughout the years, so it would have been somewhat easy to do in a good home workshop. Here is an article from Sauer&Steiner who talks about five unfinished bullnose plane castings he bought from England.

NB: It is possible some parts on these planes were cannibalized from other broken planes, and the bodies built around them. If anyone else has ever seen this make, please let me know.

Refs:
R.E. Edwards, “Casting Bronzes in the Home Workshop”, Popular Mechanics, May 1932, pp.867-869
“Simple Methods Identify Metal of Broken Castings”, Popular Mechanics, Sept. 1940, pp.477-479

The twelve tools of Christmas, 2020

2020 hasn’t exactly turned out to be a great year. Getting stuck at home for this amount of time is a bummer… but it is somewhat good for getting small projects done (or at least that’s the theory). With the supply-chain being what it is this year, best to get in early.

  1. The Anarchist’s Workbench by Christopher Schwarz. (Lee Valley, C$34.50), but it is a free PDF download. If you like historical books, this is the last in the Anarchist series, and looks at the history of workbenches.
  2. This was on my list last year, but makes it again… a Japanese tool, more specifically a plane (kanna). I have bought two planes from Tokyocraft on Etsy. They always have great second-hand Japanese tools, and reasonably priced.
  3. An axe from Toronto Blacksmith. I haven’t bought one yet, but they seem well designed, nicely made, and local.
  4. Ever wanted a Stanley No.1? Likely too costly, but now there is an option from Lee Valley, the Veritas Bevel-Up #1 Plane. A different take on the No.1 with a bevel-up blade. (C$249)
  5. Need a tiny pocket plane. something that would fit in an. apron pocket? Try the Veritas Pocket Plane. This thing is tiny and so well made. Veritas is a true innovator when it comes to planes. (C$119)
  6. Japanese saws are easy to use, and quick. What about a Convex Crosscut Kabata, designed to use the natural arc of your arm as you saw. (C$39.50)
  7. Not really a tool per se, except for drinking coffee in the workshop, but the Kupilka seems like a cool idea. Made of wood fibre and thermoplastic they are made in Finland. (210ml, Canadian Outdoor Equipment C$28.75)
  8. A carving tool from Chipping Away perhaps? This Canadian store is a one-stop shop for carving tools… from beginner to experienced carver, there is something for everyone, including some neat bird carving kits.
  9. Combination blue (4000 grit) and yellow (6000-8000 grit) coticule sharpening stones from Belgian. Various sizes and slurry stones, from Fendrihan.
  10. Sharpening stones need flattening? Diamond lapping plates, 300 and 800 grit (C$65 and $80 at Knife).
  11. It may seem odd to use a broom, versus a vacuum, but there is something inherently satisfying about using a hand-made broom to clean up wood shavings. I have a couple from the Granville Island Broom Co. Less noisy too. Or perhaps a Swedish dust brush or Japanese Bunnuku dust pan?
  12. Sometime in the workshop a folding rule is a convenient way to measure things 1-2m in length… way better than a tape measure. Big Bear Tools has Hultafors brand in 1 & 2m lengths, in wood, aluminum or fibreglass, metric/imperial. For a great overview of these oft-forgotten measuring tools, check of the Hultafors website.
A 210ml Finnish Kupilka

There are also a myriad of custom hand tool makers out there. Maybe a beautiful handcrafted custom hammer from British company Kinetic Customs, or a replica Medieval tools from Daegrad Tools in Sheffield (England).

Things you should know about owning an old house

Houses were built somewhat differently in the past. In fact even those that were built as “workers cottages”, i.e. built quickly or cheaply are better built than some houses today. Lumber used in construction is often old growth, and closer to the true dimensions of 2×4. That being said, here are some things I have learned over the years of owning an old semi-detached house. This is a follow on from a past post, Buying an old house? Make sure you know something about its life.

  • Power-washing – Power washing is good for a lot of things, but not old bricks, or art least not at high pressure. Low pressure, maybe with come sort of detergent might work. Old bricks were likely not of made too the same standards as today, and high pressure power-washing will pit the surface of the brick, making it even more porous. I’ll live with the patina rather than make the brick look new. The pictures below show the pitted, power-washed brick (left), versus the old brick with its inherent patina (right). (My neighbour had the power washing done on the central shared column of the semi, which I stopped as soon as I realized what they were doing).

  • Lathe-and-plaster – There is nothing inherently wrong with lathe and plaster, and walls where it is sound can be left alone.
  • Trim and doors – Trim and doors were often varnished as new, and painted numerous times over the years (likely at some point with lead-based paint). Stripping 50+ years of paint is *not* trivial, and unfortunately may not be worth it (I have tried). Even the best “green” chemicals will have a hard time. Either repaint over them, or actually replace the trim/doors. On another note, trim is often made with wood that dries an incredible amount, making it very brittle to remove (i.e. it basically splinters). I replaced all the trim in my house with similar historic-era profiles made of poplar (from Central Fairbanks Lumber, Toronto).
  • Open concept – Lots of people think this is a great idea, then proceed to delineate “rooms” with furniture. While it may seem like a good idea in a small house, rooms do have a function. Smells from the kitchen permeate through open spaces much quicker (unless you have a good exhaust fan, something people rarely think of). While a lot of houses like semi-detached do not have load-bearing walls, you have to think a little about the fact that walls do serve a purpose.
  • Basement lowering – Our basement is 6 feet tall, which is enough for us. Many people who buy semi’s end up lowering the basement, to get 7-8 feet of headroom. These old basements were never designed to be lived in, and there are issues with lowering them. Foremost, if you lower the basement, likely the sewer line will also have to be lowered, which may require some sort of engineering to make it work. Walls will need to be underpinned as well.
  • Back-flow valves – Three words… “get one installed”. Many semi-detached houses share the sewer line somewhere in the front of the house. If you have trees, you will have roots, and all the fun that comes with them. Installing a back flow valve prevents stuff back flowing into the basement if there is a blockage (it’s happened to us twice because of tree roots, and the valve worked perfectly). Maintain the back-flow valve.
  • Sewer lines – If your house has clay pipes, and it might, get them inspected, and if needed replaced. Often the place where the pipes attach to the cast iron stack is a problem after 75+ years, although the stack itself might be okay. If you don’t have a 4″ PVC clean-out access point in front of the house, you likely have some level of clay/cast-iron pipe.
  • Insulation – Outside walls in old houses are rarely insulated, especially upstairs. If you want to improve the insulation on an old house, fix the exterior walls, and insulate the attic. Roofs were often built without ventilation, because heating was much reduced than it is today. I tried all manner of ventilation, but found the best approach is to use close-cell spray foam under the roof joints to make the attic a semi-conditioned space. This actually helps lengthen the lifespan of a roof, as the attic does not become an oven in summer, and a freezer in winter. In winter, the coldest it gets is 10°C. Make proper choices, and have insulation work done by a reputable company.
  • Roofs – Semi-detached houses often have a mix of peaked roof (front), and flat roof (back). Good, modern flat roofs generally last a good amount of time because of the multiple layers involved. Asphalt shingles just don’t and they are so environmentally unfriendly it isn’t funny (and 30-year roofs do *not* last half that time). Spend the money once, and put in a 50-year metal roof.

Removing rust – Vinegar and saw blades

Last year I picked up a Sandvik saw from the front yard of one of my neighbours. I was just going to harvest the bolts from the handle. When I looked at it the other day I realized it was quite a good saw. It’s missing a bolt, but it has the cool scrolling serpents on the handle. Likely it was once a Sandvik No.277, 26″ (12 PPI/11 TPI) saw. But the markings on the saw are all but gone, largely because they are not etched, but screened on. There is nothing really remarkable about these saws, largely because there are so many of them out there – but the Swedish steel is good.

Here’s what the marking should look like on my saw.

Now the saw blade had a good amount of rust on it, and the conundrum with saw blades is how to remove the rust? Rust on a blade can make for a very dirty cut, and a saw that tends to stick in the kerf. Not good. It doesn’t matter the quality of the steel if the tool doesn’t actually work. Now a traditional route for removing saw blade rust is various grits of wet-and-dry sandpaper (silicon carbide), and some form of oil-based lubricant. Not exactly green though, and I don’t use stuff like WD40 unless I have to. Evapo-Rust is good, but frankly it isn’t exactly cheap, and things like saw blades need a fair amount of coverage. What is the cheapest, easiest way of doing this? Vinegar.

The saw blade showing the rust (part of it was removed already because I tried using a bag to hold the vinegar and saw)

Part of the problem with saw blades is inherently their awkward shape. The best option would be a long (plastic) tray to lay the blade in, like a boot tray perhaps? An alternative is a plastic bubble-mailer cut open and turned into a trough. Remove the handle, place in a tray, add vinegar, and leave the blade to soak for 6-8 hours. The vinegar does its job, stripping the rust, and leaving a smooth gray surface. I found that generally the rust and any other contaminants on the blade end up as coagulated sediment in the liquid. After taking the blade out of the vinegar, you can neutralize it with some baking soda.

Bubbles forming on the surface shows the rust removal is in progress.

The downside? It stripped away what remained of the markings. But there are limitations to every treatment. It also leaves a layer of black (Ferric) acetate on the blade, which is quite messy to remove, but a scrub with a scouring pad under water will wash away most of it (I would wear gloves, because the acetate is kind of messy). I have also use Barkeepers Friend to scrub the acetate off (careful to scrub it off quickly, as it too is acidic). The blade can then be finished with some 400 grit silicon carbide paper to provide some sheen, and then waxed to prevent further corrosion (I use Veritas Tool Wax). There is little point to shining saw blades to a pristine condition, as old saw blades will likely never achieve this, and frankly who cares, if they are to be used.

The end of the process, showing the rust debris lifting from the blade, and the black acetate colour of the blade.

Vinegar is cheap, biodegradable, and easy to use. It’s not instantaneous, but it does work. The vinegar I use is plain old grocery store vinegar at 5% acidity. You can also use cleaning vinegar, which is circa 12% acidity, but I don’t know if it works quicker or more aggressively. Some info on the web adds salt to the mix – salt (NaCl) + vinegar (acetic acid) produces HCl, which is a stronger acid, but frankly it isn’t warranted, and isn’t exactly safe.

The blade after cleaning, and waxing.

If you want to check out what happens to a bunch of tools left in a bucket of vinegar for 19 months, check out this post Vinegar rust removal, 19 months later.