For several years, I’ve been working on an old house in a town not too far away. The building is believed to have been built as a one room blacksmith’s shop. Around the middle of the 19th Century it was doubled in width, and became a home. It’s not on any historic registers, not even the town site, but the post and beam construction of the front left section, joined together with trunnels, suggests that it may date back to the 18th Century.
At some point, a wing was added on to the rear, perhaps another old building that was moved to the site and tacked on, judging from the irregular floors. All sections of the house have post and beam construction and low ceilings, suggesting an early construction date. Generations of owners have added their own touches to this cozy and unique home, including a full width shed dormer in the front, smaller gable dormers in the rear section, and a side porch
One of the first things we did to this house was install Andersen architectural windows, replacing a mix of old wooden sashes stuck in hand-made frames, a few old Andersen 200 series windows, and some vinyl replacements. Many of the rough openings in this old house had no headers or sills–the window openings were for the most part just openings cut through the wall. I added the missing framing before installing the windows.
Andersen’s pre-manufactured exterior casings offer several appearance options, from the brick molding of the 50’s to wider 4″ traditional casing shown here. Assembled and applied in the factory, the casings are easily removed for installation, held in place by a hooked extension on the wide nailing fins.
Upstairs attic room
The upstairs room in the rear ell was a challenging project, with its intersection of old roof lines, gables, dormers, valleys, seriously out of plumb walls and a rolling floor. There was no such thing as square or level and I had to measure the angle of every board I put up. The end result was fascinating! The intersection of the roof line and dormer walls create the unusual ceiling shapes in the photo. The front door of the room leads to the original part of the house and the rear door exits to the back stairway.
The front stairs were the next project. They are narrow and steep, and the carpenter apparently didn’t own a square or level. Every step meets the stringers at a slightly different angle, but he just cut every step square regardless, gaps be damned. Fortunately when he determined the rise of each step he also underestimated the bottom one and left a large top rise. This made it possible for me to encapsulate those old steps with new risers and treads.
There was no room to expand or widen the stairway, but making each step consistent and adding a 7/8″ nose definitely made the stairs feel safer. You can see in the picture that I’ve added a slight molding detail that defines the top of the stringers. Drywall had been installed over the old plaster a few years ago, in line with the top of the stringers. Here’s what they looked like in 1985.
A previous owner had attempted to turn the rear stairs through the kitchen wall rather than out a now non-existent back door.
Apparently the 19th Century carpenter did not know how to build winders, so instead he created box-like steps which a later owner covered in ugly green shag carpeting. The trick to not falling down these stairs was to step down to the box on the right, then step to the left, then squeeze down the final three steps. Otherwise you could fall three feet from the middle of the stairs to the kitchen floor. I’ve never seen such bad stair planning in my life.
The solution was to gain some space by opening the kitchen ceiling a bit to add headroom for a couple of lower steps, build proper winders at the turn, and recess the doorway at the top landing so you didn’t step out first onto a dangerous step. As it turned out, the only things holding the old stairs together were the staples in that old shag carpeting! We went from a very dangerous situation to nice oak stairs with an excellent 10″ run and 7 1/2″ rise.
I don’t have a good “before” picture of the rear stairs, but here’s a photo of the cut I made in the kitchen wall and ceiling where they intersect the rear stairway, in order to create sufficient headroom for the steps below the winders. When I pulled the insulation out I saw that the post that should be holding up this beam had separated and dropped an inch.That required a trip to the basement, where I carefully jacked up the beam under that wall and added a support post to keep it there. You can see the new post in the basement stair photo below
The next thing to tackle was building new basement stairs before the existing ones collapse. This required taking about 18″of floor space from the rear entry area in order to accommodate longer stair stringers and add more “run” to each step. The existing rise was 8″ but the run of each step was only 7″ with no overhang! Those steps don’t fit my clunky feet, so sometimes I would go down them backwards like a ladder, holding on to the one 2×4 handrail. I consider a 7 1/2″ rise and 10″ run for each step just about ideal. There was no way to get the full 10″, but I was able to add an inch to each run, plus an inch of overhang that didn’t exist before. Each new step is a full 2×10 (9 1/4″).
In the summer of 2015 and we started on the front master bedroom. Dormers had been added in the 20th Century, but the ceiling height was only 6’7″. We removed the so-called ceiling joists (three 2×6 boards tacked onto 1×6 boards), and about a foot of blown-in cellulose insulation. The photo below shows the room after we framed the ceiling to 8′ (in the middle). You can see the old ceiling line above the closet doorway. In the background is the room shown at the beginning of this post.