A Long Hiatus


It's been three years since I've written anything about the house. That's a long time.

It hasn't been that we're not busy, but we really haven't made a whole lot of substantial progress on the house, at least the kind of progress that's obvious. Andy and Jack spent the last three years doing reenactments--battle events, demonstrations and living histories--and I spent those years making uniforms, becoming so familiar with 19th century tailoring and clothing construction that, when I looked at a contemporary clothing pattern I realized I had almost forgotten how to put in a zipper. We now have an impressive array of Civil War uniforms and civilian clothes, enough almost to outfit through the whole 150th anniversary cycle. There's more about their unique hobby on another page.

Beyond spending a lot of time on the Civil War, (not only on clothing but research and writing on the period), we've been enjoying being parents. After spending so many years working hard to make the house both liveable and comfortable, we realized our time right now was better spent enjoying Jack's high school years. He's been involved with marching band at Spotswood High School and, after marching season, there's Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, and all the social stuff that high school offers. He has one more year at Spotswood, and then he hopes to enter Virginia Military Institute.

Jack at VMI

So what changed to refocus our schedules on the house? Jack got his driver's license and can drive himself to reenactments, and everywhere else he used to need us to go. And while neither of us would have missed the experiences over the past years (I thought nothing could get me to cook over an open fire in 90-degree heat while wearing a corset, just as nothing could get Andy to dress in multiple layers of wool and carry a ten-pound musket while wearing ill-fitting brogans with heel plates and sleeping on the ground with only a tarred groundcloth between him and all the ticks and chiggers in Virginia, but parenthood is funny that way) it's also a relief to be freed up enough to work on the house again.

We're hoping this summer to finish repointing the exterior, which should end the problem of moisture wicking through the walls. In an old brick house such as ours, the basement, which is also brick, isn't parged, or made waterproof on the outside walls. The old bricks absorb moisture from the ground. The mortar, being softer and less dense than brick, is supposed to draw the moisture out of the bricks, keeping them from softening, conduct the moisture up above ground level and let it evaporate. The same principle applies to the walls that are exposed, all the way to the roof. Bricks suck up rain, mortar draws it away and lets it evaporate.

Over time, old mortar fails and, when it does, it loses the ability to pull moisture out of the bricks and away from the interior. When that happens, it has to be removed and new mortar put in place. Failed mortar (below left, showing weak mortar and repointed joints) doesn't just weaken the exterior facade; it actually becomes leaky over time and, uncorrected, ends with moisture going inside the house and damaging the walls, which are made of plaster laid directly over the bricks.

good and bad mortar interior damage

The picture on the right shows what will happen to the walls inside. This also happens if the brick house happens to be painted, thus sealed, on the exterior. The moisture has nowhere to go but inside. This is in the dining room, where the paint started to peel as the wall efflouresced even as I was painting. From this, we drew two important lessons: it's essential to get the exterior walls done before we do any more work inside, and neither latex nor oil-based paints are good for these plaster walls. For the rest of the interior, we'll use natural plaster and chalk-based paints, the kind that will let the walls breathe. The colors will be somewhat more muted than a standard palette, but they won't peel or discolor or pop off the walls.

To this point, I've repaired about three-quarters of the exterior, leaving the house with a patchwork kind of look. (Why is it that I'm the one doing the repointing? That's easy: 1. We each do what we're good at. 2. This is an activity that does not involve power tools. 3. I'm the one who's good at heights.)To fix the piebald look and return the entire house to a uniform aspect, once I'm done with all the repointing, we will take a dark red pigment that approximates the earlier color of Riverbank, mix it with a loose slurry of mortar and sand, and paint it on the entire house. This will return the house to one uniform shade of red and it'll also form a thin coating that will seal all the little microfissures in the bricks and provide a little additional protection for the outside.

Our other warm weather project for this year has been window restoration, a subject we're warily circling. The windows need serious work, so Andy is making a screen blank that will fit into a casement, allowing us to remove the window, repair the casements which are, in some cases, rotted, and fix the windows themselves. Once the windows are done, returned to their original condition, we'll fit storm windows on the insides and return shutters to the outsides. This particular job will take much longer than one season to complete, but we have to start somewhere, just like Andy started rebuilding fences by picking a spot and getting to work. He's got three hundred feet done, and some twelve thousand feet left.

So, as we approach our twelfth anniversary here at Riverbank, we're attacking projects with new energy, having had a nice layoff for family. I've been writing novels, Andy has been busy with maintaining the farm and, with Jack, keeping our stores of wood filled for the winters. We've got the gardens, and the river, and the house and the animals to mind. Life is anything but dull.

gun safety lesson
Jack teaching his cousin about gun safety and target practice.

Back to What's New?