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Mea Culpa – Hard Lessons Learned

By Dan Cooper Share:

A humorous look at restoration

They say that doctors bury their mistakes, while we in the old house field just paint them over. After countless restorations of my own homes and others’, I have learned the following truths the hard way. Please, do as I say, and not as I did…


1. Never wallpaper with someone you share a bed with. It will bring out the aspects of both of your personalities that the other finds most loathsome. And if you must undertake this task together, agree beforehand that one of you will shut the hell up the entire time. I once sold wallpaper to a married couple who were both police officers and who intended to hang it together; I refused to ship the order until they promised that they would lock all of their firearms, unloaded, in a car trunk.


2. Assume nothing: That 1870s gas nipple protruding from the ceiling medallion is probably no longer pressurized, but if you’re on top of an 8 foot ladder with a pipe wrench on a Sunday afternoon, you can be darned sure it’s live. And the nearest tube of pipe dope is a good 15 minutes away, if the hardware store hasn’t closed yet.


3. Never buy cheap paint, or you will be repeating this to yourself as you apply the fourth coat of white that still isn’t quite covering the old white. Never trust a paint chip; they magically transform into the wrong color while you’re at the paint store. Spend the $10, buy a quart, and apply liberally. You can always box the remainder into a gallon to ensure that you don’t run out.


Beware of a shop vac with wheels... especially near the top of a staircase

4. Beware the wheels of the Shop-Vac, especially at the head of a flight of stairs. I was sucking up joint compound dust from a bedroom that I had just taped and sanded, tugged on the hose, and the entire appliance just rolled on down, popping open at the seventh riser. The ensuing cloud of dust rapidly blanketed the entire first floor as if volcanic activity had occurred in the parlor. Even the once-black cat looked like a powdered-sugar doughnut.


5. A four-foot level offers a quartet of potentially different interpretations of plumb; and just like a Middle School choir, they’re all a little bit off. Split the difference between the readings, and then average that with how it appears to your naked eye. If it still looks weird, have a beer and try again. Repeat as necessary.


6. You can’t transport Sheetrock on top of a Jetta. The flapping starts around 10 miles per hour, no matter how many bungee cords you’ve used. It’s also very embarrassing having to retrace your route on foot to pick up all of the snapped-off corners.


7. Avoid power tools after 9 pm. Every horror story starts with “It was late, and I was trying to finish a job…” As of this writing, I still have all ten digits, although I did have an 1880s corner block snag in a table saw, kick back, and slam me square in the sternum…the lights went out for a bit, and I was forced to wear the Scarlet Badge of Shame for weeks. Its impact was so forceful that others could actually discern the molding profile on my skin.


8. Auction previews are there for a reason. Suddenly noticing that wonderful Aesthetic Movement footstool as you return from the snack bar and thrusting your paddle into the air will win you what looked to be an amazing steal. Too bad you didn’t notice that it was actually the top section of a fern stand onto which someone had stapled a little pillow.


9. Never leave a hammer or tape measure on top of a step-ladder that is taller than you, i.e. out of sight. Not only will you forget its presence, you will then move the ladder, and said object will immediately plummet, at full velocity, towards something fragile like a set of stacked glass cabinet doors.


10. Nailguns are not toys. Write this 100 times. In blood.


Our staff features writer, Dan Cooper has been working on old houses for over 20 years, and also writes for Old House Interiors, Period Homes, Cottages and Bungalows amongst other magazines on the subject of architecure, antiques and design.

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