Creating and furnishing a perfectly proper parlor -Part I

Originally published in 2001 on the "Old House Chronicles" website.

Copyright ©2001 By Nina Stine

It all started last August when I cuddled up to my husband Tom, looked lovingly in his eyes and whispered in his ear. "Do you know what I really want for Christmas this year?" He waited with that "I know this is going to involve a lot of work" look as I told him, "I'd love to sit in my finished parlor this Christmas with my loving family gathered around me."

Tom sighed; he knew what this meant. Lots of dusty dirty work and long hours. "Let's see what we can do," he replied.

When we moved into our home, the parlor was the room in the best condition. Not that it didn't have its problems -- cracked plaster, deteriorated wallpaper, only one electrical outlet (and that was cut into the baseboard), the ceiling light was not functional, there was no insulation, and last but not least was the pesky problem with termites. If you stepped on the floor on the west side of the parlor you just might go straight down to the crawl space. We put a piece of furniture over that place to make sure no one fell in. Even with all its problems, though, the parlor was still a room to relax in while the rest of the house was in chaos.

Several years ago we had taken the plaster and lath down to check the wall for termite damage, insulate, and rewire. The parlor was now insulated and wired and then it sat while we finished other projects. We'd just close the door and try to pretend the mess wasn't there, but when I'd open the door the beams and bare wires would stare at me and ask, "When will it be my turn?". The room did have a use, however -- after someone would complement the latest stage of restoration, we would open the door and show them how depressing everything seemed just a short time ago.

Drywall prices went through the roof during the past year, and we kept hoping they would come back down, but finally we gave up and bought enough to cover the ceiling. A pair of stepladders came out and it was time to begin. If you have ever tried to put drywall up on a ceiling, you know it can be a daunting job. Try as I might, I just didn't have the strength to help push the drywall up. While Tom was thinking about how to accomplish the job, I went across the lawn to his folks' place and begged for help. They were happy to lend assistance and the job went rather smoothly after we had some extra help, although Tom didn't seem too pleased when a piece shifted and knocked him off his ladder. I still don't know how, but like a cat he landed on his feet, and even though he likes to complain about his bad knee we finished the job.

A short time later we got the money together for the 10' drywall to finish the walls. While Tom was cutting and screwing drywall, I got on the phone to call some drywall finishers who do small jobs in their spare time and on weekends. More disappointment set in, as one by one they said they were just too busy, but maybe in a couple of months they could get around to it. Now, one of the jobs Tom hates is taping drywall, and I just can't seem to master it, even though I've tried on past projects, but like so many times before, we had no choice. I really wanted the job done by Christmas, as our daughter and son-in-law were moving to Tucson on the first of the year and I wanted their last Christmas here to be special. Somehow it got done, slowly, a little at a time.

One of the outstanding features of this room was the mantel. There was never a fireplace in this house, but the builder must have wanted a mantel as the focal point in the formal part of the house, so the narrow chimney that ran all the way to the floor was framed on both sides to give it the illusion of a larger size. The mantel itself is made of pine, but like all the woodwork in this room it was grained to resemble walnut or rosewood, a common practice in the late 1800s. The unusual feature is that the skirt under the mantel shelf has a hole that the stovepipe ran through, and the area from the skirt to the baseboard (where you would normally expect to see the firebox) was wallpapered. We are sure there was a coal stove originally, but as times changed, it was replaced with a gas heating appliance. We know this because when someone installed the gas pipe, they just cut a hole in the baseboard, ran the pipe through, and installed a gas shutoff, ruining the baseboard. The wallpaper behind the stove just didn't look right, so we installed black marble with white veins that came right off the shelf at the home store. Everyone who has seen it has been impressed, and it was neither very expensive nor hard to do.

A couple of weeks after my subtle suggestion, Tom walked in one Saturday afternoon, his prized gear-drive circular saw in hand, and I knew it was time to begin. Seeing him take that saw to the floor was hard. The wood chips and sawdust swirled around as a large, gaping hole slowly opened, exposing the dirt that had been hidden for the last 110 years. I love my heart pine floors, but, thanks to those pesky little termites, I knew that part of the floor was beyond repair. I waited breathlessly to see what we had in store, and the first sight that greeted my eyes was several skeletons. No, it wasn't the former owners; just a few animals that had crawled under the house and died. We spent about a half hour checking them out and came to the conclusion that opossums had made a nest and then met their demise under our floors. After we checked out that unusual find, we separated the floorboards that could be saved and took a look at the floor joists. Fortunately, just one joist was bad enough to need replacing. Sometimes such small revelations can bring relief to an otherwise depressing project. The sill was in pretty good shape except for one place at the front that needed to be supported. Tom spent the better part of that day getting the old joist out, engineering a new pressure-treated beam, and repairing the old sill. While he was busy working on the floor, I was pulling out the window sash to rehab. These were the last 3 of 22 windows that I had to renovate, and at least that was very exciting.

That nasty saw cut in the floor was a troubling sight, but Tom assured me that it would disappear when he finished. The replacement flooring was installed, and although not a perfect match, he didn't seem bothered. "We can just use a little stain on those pieces to darken them to the approximate color of the old floor," he said. (It even worked, blending in so you almost can't see the difference.) Now it was time to take a road trip again (as happens almost every weekend during each project) to the home center, various tool stores, and lumberyards. This time was a little different. We started at a specialty hardwood supplier, where we picked out some wonderful walnut boards, then to the tool store for a couple of new router bits, and the home center for sandpaper and other basic supplies.

Later that evening Tom came in carrying some plywood strips, various pieces of scrap wood, and the router. My job was not the most difficult, but he assured me it was very important. He laid the plywood on the floor and told me to stand on it, then he ran the router along the edge, making a groove in the floor. I was the ballast to hold the template from moving! After putting a few blocks between the template and the wall, he cut another groove in the floor. Slowly a pattern emerged as he continued around the perimeter of the room. While I cleaned the grooves out and vacuumed the room to clear the debris, he headed back out to the workshop to rip those beautiful walnut boards into narrow strips, which he nailed into the grooves to make a wonderful contrasting border, even making small curved pieces to jog around the mantle. He was right, the saw cut disappeared, and most people do not realize that the border wasn't always there.

We are fortunate that we have a couple of tool rental stores that are only about fifteen minutes from our house, because there is no way we could finish these hundred-year-old floors, with their old varnish and paint, without a commercial floor sander, and we certainly can't afford one of them! It took a whole day to sand the floor, but while we had the sander we also did the upstairs and downstairs halls. Now it was time for the finish. The rental store also sold special polyurethane floor finish, and the polyurethane we used in the other rooms hadn't held up too well, so we thought we'd give it a try. Five alternating coats of gloss and satin finish (to give the product more depth), and we were ready to move on to the walls and ceiling.

The drywall was all up and finished, the floor was repaired and refinished, and the windows were close to being refinished. That is my job, even though I sometimes have trouble keeping the panes of glass in one piece. This old glass is brittle, and I sometimes think it will break if I just look at it the wrong way, but I love looking out through that wavy old glass with its bubbles and imperfections.

After we removed the sash, parting strips, ropes, weights, pulleys and hardware, it was out to the shop for that time-consuming task of window restoration. First I remove all the glazing, putty, and whatever else someone has used to seal the window glass through the years. Then I carefully pry out the glazing points, and with a little luck, the glass. The heat gun comes next to remove the many layers of paint on the outside while preserving the paint-grained finish on the inside. Some fine sanding, and it is time to begin the reassembly process. I start by applying some linseed oil to the rabbet on the inside of the frame, replacing the glass, installing new glazing points, and then the glazing. After it is smoothed, the sash is set aside to harden for a while. There are three two-over-two windows in the parlor, making twelve panes of glass to deal with. A long, slow process, but well worth the effort to save the wonderful old wavy glass and original wooden sash.

Now is the time to paint the window frames. The heat gun is the tool of choice again as the layers of old paint peel away on the outside of the frame. The pulleys and hardware get wire brushed and painted so they will be ready to go back in. A coat of oil-based primer on the sash and frames followed by two coats of high-quality latex paint, and these windows are ready to go back together. We put new braided nylon rope on the weights, put in the top sash, replace the parting strips, and then the inside sash. Now the room was ready for the finish work, but first would be the long process of choosing the wallpaper...

Next: Part 2, Wallpapering