Our New Old House

1918 Bungalow


Channeling the craftsmen of the past?

I’m very close to finishing my first paint stripping project. There were two wood doors in the basement of my house when I moved in. Both had several layers of paint. I never planned on putting these doors back up in my house so I decided to use them as practice pieces so I could learn how to strip paint. Maybe it’s the fumes from the mineral spirits, but as I’m nearing the final phase of restoring the wood to its natural beauty, I’m getting really sentimental about this door.

I had never used a heat gun before but through a little experimentation on the door, I learned how. I learned how long is too long to leave CitriStrip on a project (3 days = way too long.) I learned the miraculous power of mineral spirits to dissolve even the gooey-est mess (3-day old CitriStrip.) I learned that wrapping a terry cloth towel around a flat head screw driver is a great way to get the gunk out of carved molding and cracks.

Most importantly, I learned why these houses are called Craftsman houses. In uncovering the layers of paint I uncovered a timeless beauty that was built to last for generations. Even though the design is simple and functional, every surface and joint is constructed with skill and care. The men who built this door paid attention to the grain of the wood, made sure the saw’s cut was perfect, sanded the door by hand, lined up the joints in the molding by hand. Their hands, not some lifeless machine, touched every part of the door. Nearly a hundred years later, the quality and beauty of the door still glows warmly, bearing the scars and wrinkles of age, but no less beautiful for them.

Those of us who fix up old houses can sometimes see the benefit in “flipping” a house quickly, using all modern materials, making a house clean and functional, but not really taking the time to seek out its inherent character. That’s fine for some houses. In fact, it’s really the best thing to do for a lot of properties. But when we come across a house that still has all that beautiful Craftsman quality buried underneath the layers of paint, paneling, and wallpaper, we discover that a quick fix and a coat of paint just won’t do it justice. We feel a responsibility to the craftsmen who built the house, and through the process of restoring it to its original beauty (or updating in a way that maintains the house’s unique character) we feel a kinship to them.

In a way, I feel like an apprentice to each of the master craftsmen who built all the parts of my house. On some days I’m a lowly plaster mixer, fumbling around to find the correct ratio of powder to water. On other days I’m a carpenter’s apprentice, learning to double check my measurements and square up my work. But since I’ve never done any of these things before, I’m relying on the house to be my guide to how to fix what’s wrong with it. I guess in a way I’m getting instructions from the craftsmen themselves through the work they did on the house.

This may be getting a little metaphysical, but it’s hard to describe the feeling I get just placing my hand on the bare plaster that’s been covered up for 60 years under layers of wallpaper, or running my hand along the bare wood I’ve just stripped and prepared for varnishing. Something inside me wants to send a message into the great beyond to all those craftsmen, saying, “I appreciate the care you took in building my house. I’m doing my best to learn how to continue caring for it. In the meantime, please excuse my fumbling.”

I don’t think I expected to feel this way when I started out on this project. Brandon and I really looked at the house as an investment, a great experience in the meantime, but ultimately with our eyes on the prize of getting a good return for our money. There was nothing wrong with that earlier mindset, but I’m grateful for the new understanding and appreciation I have for my house and the people who built it.


[tags]doors, paint, photos, woodwork, craftsman, bungalow, house building, rehabbing, old houses[/tags]

Tags: , , ,

4 Responses to “Channeling the craftsmen of the past?”

  1. February 23rd, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Jenni@ThirteenEleven says:

    Great post. The old houses do have a way of communication, that new houses don’t. Every time I go inside a newer house, you think that’s nice everything is done, but it ends there. When you walk in an old house, the feelings and thoughts are so much more.

  2. February 23rd, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    gimbler says:

    What a nice post. Thank you for putting that feeling into words. Sometimes when my husband and I are laying in bed and he’s watching TV I find myself instead of watching with him just studying and apreciating the craftsmanship that went into the perfectly aligned mitered corners of the closet door trim. I marvel at the skill and care taken to make them “just right”.

  3. June 18th, 2010 at 9:31 am

    devin rolfe says:

    question… did you ever try Formby’s Refinisher on any of the wood..??

  4. June 22nd, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Kelli says:

    Answer… nope, so far I’ve just been focused on stripping the old paint and varnish off. I’m open to hearing about options to use to finish it later though.

Leave a Reply