Friday, October 19, 2012


At the Ugly Duckling, the soaring ceilings of a vintage home in the tropics were at one point sacrificed for the convenience of an updated heat and air system. We love having heat and cool air on demand, especially during the sweltering summer months here in North East Florida, and while we miss the tall ceilings from our rental, we do not miss the fun of having to pay an exorbitant bill to heat and/or cool our house.
We don't.
Since our air ducts run through space inside the house (inside the ceiling, exactly), they are well insulated and thus our heating and cooling system runs more efficiently and is more affordable. Loosing 12 inches isn't too bad of a sacrifice.

What I don't like at all are the industrial looking ceiling vents we have in our downstairs rooms.
Just ugh!
They clearly aren't the fun, hip industrial kind of thing.

Don't say I didn't tell you.
Just ... blegh.

Anyways, since I haven't managed to source an inexpensive place to buy decorative vent grills (it's a decorative thing I'm not willing to spend $100/pop on), I finally decided to do the next best thing:


 I took down all five downstairs vent grills, scrubbed them to within an inch of their lives (And gosh, did they need it!) and gave them a quick make-over with a light coat of spray primer and white satin spray-paint.

After they had dried sufficiently to be handled I plopped them back into place and screwed them in again. The weather has cooled down beautifully so we are currently running neither heat nor air which means they get to cure in place.

So. Much.Better.

Even the husband was pleased with how they turned out. He was never bothered by their old look but considers the new 'do a definite improvement.

Oh, spray-paint, what would we do without you?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Quickie Quikrete Fix

Replacing the crappola metal railing with a so much prettier, sturdier and better looking wooden railing really got us into the mood to continue loving on our porch for a little longer.

You see, when we bought the Ugly Duckling, not only did it have the ugly metal railing, it also had an equally rusty hand rail right - Smack-dab! - down the center of our stairs. Along with the equally ugly metal awnings above our windows, it was one of the first things to go.

Gone but not forgotten.

Unfortunately removing the handrail left behind a crater where the rusted bolts along with the movement from a half-loosened railing had broken out part of the concrete of the porch. Meh! It looked like a gnarly monster had taken a bite out of our porch's front edge. Fair warning, those pictures aren't pretty and they don't really improve much at the end of this little project. Flaky paint never makes anything look pretty, and the paint job on our porch is definitely failing or rather, rubbing off and revealing a red underlayer. We have plans to powerwash, sand and re-paint, once we're completely sure which colors to paint our house.

 [Oy ... not pretty]

Anyways, back to the problem on hand: chewed off edges on our concrete porch.

Luckily, HGTV came to the rescue. Ever since buying the house and embarking on DIY project after DIY project and learning that, no, a lot of things take waaaay longer than a weekend (because you don't have a 30-man crew as a back-up), my relationship with HGTV has been a bit strained. This has led to a severe reduction in HGTV consumption on my part but fortunately I tuned in on one of those Home and Patio show episodes where they introduced Quikrete's repair mortar in a ready-to mix pouch. "Add water, knead, apply, done!" sounded just like what I needed, especially the repeated confirmation that it would indeed stick to and bond with existing concrete.

 [It's in the bag ... including the yellow spackle spatula]

 During my next trip to the blue box I spied those bags tucked away in the corner with all of the other concrete mixes and fixes and decided to take the chance. At just about $5 for the bag it was a very inexpensive little adventure.

 Following the instructions on the bag I cleaned the gnarly edge and removed all loose bits. Then I measured and added the water to the mix, released the air and gave it a thorough kneading. Then it was on to spackling!

Call me weird but I enjoy spackling (and mudding), getting it all nice and even. I applied the concrete mix in layers, making sure to press the first layer firmly against the old concrete to ensure a good bond, and then building it up to form the step's edge. The instructions said that the mix would remain workable for 20 minutes, and that's exactly what it did.

 [Still wet but whole!]

Like I said, not all that much prettier but at least the crater is gone and the step doesn't look like a half-eaten cookie anymore. Thank God for small blessings.

It has now dried and is actually rock-solid. We were skeptical about how well it would bond to the old concrete but it did and it's not going anywhere. Even the color has changed enough to blend in better with the existing grey so I'll be able to hold off on painting the porch for a bit longer.  Those $5 were well spent, if you ask me ;o)

Monday, October 8, 2012

All railed up!

 Here are the two (really dark ...meh) pictures I snapped right before the sky broke open and a deluge of rain threatened to wash us right into the ocean miles down the road. 

While we knew we really wouldn't have enough time to put up the next piece of railing before all hell broke loose (rain, thunder, lightening and little light make for a bad DIY setting unless you can move your project indoors), but we just -had- to rip our the last two pieces of rusty ugliness.

 Here are the husband and Little Man madly screwing and hammering away at old rusted bolts reluctant to let go. This time the angle grinder had to come to the rescue.

Like a breath of fresh air! Literally. So nobody could go flying off of our porch we plopped bottom and top rail into place until we had time and better weather to continue with our porch railing project.

Just shy of 12 feet this was our longest piece of railing (the sides only measure about 8 feet) requiring a total of 33 spindles spaced 2 1/2 inches apart.

Here you have the side rail for comparison. It's so short, it's cute!

Mio came to check out our progress wondering what on earth Mom, Dad and Little Man were doing outside.He prefers chasing grasshoppers around in the back yard, but visiting the porch cat and keeping an eye on us and the street while dozing nearby wasn't too bad.

 Here you can see the two slots on the columns that I mentioned in the last post. They are designed for a wooden rail to slide right in and work perfectly!

Bottom rail with spindles slotted in and awaiting the top rail.We finally got the hang of it and zip-zoomed through building and installing railing No. 2 and No. 3. (Now the husband can't wait to build our fence, he says).

Aaaaaand the top rail is ON! Instantly the porch felt cozier. We are going to add one or two 'feet' to the bottom rail to help support the weight over the entire length and to keep it from sagging but for now we just wedged two small cut-off pieces from the rail underneath.

The picture doesn't quite capture the change in 'attitude' of our house. The solid, visually stronger wood railing not only adds historical character to our house (which was sadly lacking in the thin wrought-iron railing) but visibly anchors the house, especially the ground floor, by re-introducing horizontal lines to the architecture.

Of course, we are not completely done. We still need to pick up the final top rails, have beveled edges cut into those and install them, caulk around the spindles to prevent moisture from getting in and finally, paint the railing, but, man, it's looking so so good!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Getting a handle on things

With a signed CoA ("Certificate of Appropriateness") in hand, the husband and I just couldn't wait to get started on re-building our porch, replacing the rusted wrought iron railing from the 80s with something a lot more historically appropriate made from solid wood.

Time was up for the rusted ugliness!
Over the time for sharp-edged brackets!
No more wibbly wobbly flimsy metal!
Aside from talking to our contractor and getting inspiration from books and driving through the 'hood, I'd found two places with information on porch railings for a vintage/historic house I thought especially helpful

"The porch railing and other features of a porch" by This Old House Guy
"Dover Projects: How to build a porch railing" by Peter from Dover Projects

Since the Ugly Duckling is a vernacular house from the Bungalow/Arts & Crafts period and exhibits some of those characteristics, we didn't have to worry about a fancy curly-cue railing. Plain and simple was our motto.

First, we drove over to the blue box to buy a whole Jeep-load of supplies. Alright, so all we bought were pressure-treated pine, exterior screws and small exterior brackets (to attach the railing to the house on two sides of the porch).  I may or may not have pulled the "poo' lil' female embarking on a DIY project" card at the blue box to have them cut my 2x2s to a multitude of spindles just shy of 23" ... heh.
This shopping spree came in at just under $100 with materials for all three railing parts (two sides and one front).
Not bad at all (and much less than the husband expected).

Then came the "Big Measuring." We cut the top and bottom rail to size for our first opening (the one right next to our current entry door) and then played with the distance between our spindles until it looked right while making sure to meet building codes by making sure a 4.5" sphere would not be able to pass through.
I favored a slightly narrower gap between spindles than the husband but in the end it all worked out okay because there was a slight mistake in our measuring math and the spindles ended up distanced just the way I wanted them in the first place. Much to the husband's amusement, really.

Here are our spindles (2x2s), pre-drilled and lines up, and our bottom rail (2x6) with screws in place. We have never build a railing before but here's the technique we came up with:
  1. Measure center distances between spindles
  2. Drill through bottom rail and screw in exterior screw
  3. Pre-drill spindle
  4. Line up with screw in rail
  5. Tighten
  6. Rinse and repeat
  7. Turn over and repeat for top rail

Since this was little Man's idea of a good ol' "man work," we roped him in to helping and he especially enjoyed screwing in the spindles with the husband while I sat nearby marking the center of the remaining bundle of spindles for the other sides.

Then came that glorious moment when we removed the rusted wrought iron railing and sent it back all the way to the 80s! The bolts were rusted tight, painted over, or crumbling and breaking in the oddest places and thus a real pain to remove, but we did it and, man, did it feel GOOD!
Our only regret: they don't burn or else there would have been a merry bonfire burning in our back yard that night, with dancing and drinks! As it stands, we'll be driving the pieces over to the junk metal place and see how much somebody is willing to pay us for them. Muhahaha makes me feel positively evil and giddy at the same time.

Not too impressive without the top rail in place yet but at least the metal railing is gone - gone - gone! I'll have to snap a better picture but if you look at the column on the right you can see two black spots on its left side, one right beneath the grey base stone for the smaller top. These two black spots are bolts that held the old railing in place but even more important they are right in the center of cut-outs in the ashlar bricks (cast concrete bricks to look like rock) that indicate where the original railing would have slotted in. That's how we got our measurements for our replacement railing and that's how the railing is secured on that side. It slides right in and fits like a glove.

Speaking of fitting like a glove, ...  Tada! Our new railing, part 1, in place! The only thing missing is the 2x8 that will top off the 2x6 top rail. It will have beveled edges for a better hand feel and so that water can run off more easily and won't create any moisture issues.

We are madly in love with our new railing! It's rock solid and looks just -right- in its place adding much needed weight to the visual appearance of our Ugly Duckling. Husband always laughed when I started talking about our house needing "the strong porch railing because it is lacking horizontal lines" but now, now he knows what I meant.

Unfortunately we got rained out the rest of the weekend and so we had to postpone finishing our porch railing until the next so stay tuned! There will be more railing coming going up soon!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

COA is like ABC

Back in January I gave you guys and gals a quick preview of what we had planned for the front of the house (read about it here), and I'd even whipped up a little visual sneak preview to give everybody an idea of what our Ugly Duckling would look like with all these changes.

Mind you, except for the fence, the entrance door and a few minor details, this is pretty much what the Ugly Duckling would have looked like in her prime. And it feels -so- right.We are feeling confident enough in our DIY skills to tackle both porch railing and fence (and leave the door to our lovely contractors) but before we could tear out the ugly rusted metal railing and replace it with something pretty we had to file for a COA, short for "Certificate of Appropriateness."

No worries - this blog post will remain work safe :o)
Nothing inappropriate going on here!
Move along, move along.

In the spirit of preservation in a national registered historic district, any changes to the -outside- of a historic house (Except for painting. You can paint your house Barney purple and nobody can stop you. True story!) has to be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission before work can start. To make things a bit easier and faster, possible changes are divided into smaller ones or standard alterations/restorations that can be approved administratively and larger/complex ones that require a public hearing at a monthly Historic Preservation Committee meeting. The first ones are free of charge, the second kind costs you $300.- to present it to the committee. As its own version of Rock-Paper-Scissors, you could say it's our own game of Repair-Restore-Replace.

Since our porch railing affects the outside of our house, we needed to file for a COA. For that we downloaded the form on the Jacksonville city page and started filling it out with our property information, contact information, and a brief description of the work we were planning to do. We included a simple drawing with measurements of the wooden railing we were going to build and attached pictures of the old rusted railing and the slots cut into the ashlar bricks indicating the historically accurate placement for our railings.

Alright, so that sounds more complicated than it really was. I mean, all I wrote was "replace rusted wrought-iron railing on front porch with a new wooden railing" along with a drawing and some photos.
Not rocket science. Really. It sounds more intimidating and complicated than it really is. The average HOA sounds more intrusive and controlling than our HPC with its regulations.

That's not to say that things can't get complicated (more on that maybe in a future blog post, and no, it wasn't us) or cannot go wrong, but this was pretty straightforward. I faxed it over to the office on Friday and had my approval by email on Monday - woot!

-Now- nothing would stop us from ripping out that crapola piece of wrought iron railing.
Good riddance!

So stay tuned!