Walls, Water and Wiring: The State of Renovation at the Old Farmhouse

I suppose anyone who has done a major, strip-it-all-down-to-the-studs type renovation will think this project is no big deal.

Thing is, I didn’t know we were starting on a strip-it-all-down-to-the-studs type renovation.

I honestly thought we’d tear off cheap panelling, pull down ceiling tiles, pull up carpet…and then tackle our 132-year-old project with a lot of sandpaper and plenty of paint. Hang some new light fixtures and curtains and call it good.

Boy. Was I wrong.

Every time you pull something down or off or up, you risk yet another nasty surprise.

First it was the walls. We yanked off the reeking, disgusting fake-wood panelling so popular in the 1970s and found paper. We tore back the paper to find beautiful, near-perfect tongue-and-groove wood walls. (See the photo to your left.) I assumed we’d have to steam and scrape off remnants of wallpaper and yank out nails and that’d be it: gorgeous, original walls to work with.

Nope. As we go from room to room, wall to wall, we make all kinds of discoveries–very few good ones.
Among the discoveries we’ve made are…

Water Rot
We live in a wet, rainy area. Nothing we can do about that. And the water has given the house a beating over the past century plus. Along the south side of the house, lots of wall is missing due to water damage. The planks were yanked and paper slapped over insulation intended to fill the gap. Yes, paper. (See the photo to your right.)
rotted south wall in living room

In some places, the boards were still in place, but rotted through. Yanking them out took zero strength. After we took this photo, the rotted wood was out in less than a minute. The planks practically fell off the wall.

“Let’s Put the Door Here Instead”
Remodelling is normal. People change houses as needs change. Apparently with our house, the need to move doors was great. So far four walls uncovered used to have doorways in different places than they do now.

Wiring Stupidity or “Why Save a Wall When You Can Simply Destroy It?”
The rot is what it is. This is the Pacific Northwet, after all. But cutting out perfectly good, beautiful wood walls to install wiring…??!

The house is 132 years old. Built in 1890 in the then remote valley, it didn’t have electricity or plumbing. We don’t know when our house was wired, but we do know how: sloppily. Upstairs someone cut out huge portions of the wood planks from floor to ceiling, wired in plugs and lights, then slapped sheetrock over without any insulation, care or mudding. Me? I would have carefully removed the wood planks, then carefully replaced them. And I would have only removed what was necessary, not 8 foot by 6 foot sections, good gracious!

Between water rot, wiring choices, moving doorways, and changing chimney holes, we’ve found only one intact wall in the entire house. (It’s in the video. It’s the one wall I was thinking about cutting into. Now I’m not!)

Why Wallpaper?
Uncovering the walls has also been educational. When we first started, I was surprised to see the carefully crafted yet unpainted dark wood. Although grateful to see the virgin surface to work with, I wondered why it was unpainted. The house is small and dark walls only make the rooms seem smaller. After a couple of weeks of intimately getting to know what will become my next home, scraping and peeling and discovering, I realized something: These walls were never meant to be seen! They weren’t so carefully milled and finished and fit together to be admired. These walls were put together well because that’s how people did things back then.

The issues we’re encountering–beyond age-related–are the result of what was done to the house after it was built, not when. We’ve yet to find a thoughtful patch, change, repair or adaptation.

It is what it is! It means a lot more than the sandpaper and paint I at first envisioned. It will simply be more work to restore the house than I originally thought. Because now I realize that’s what we’re doing: restoring. We’re bringing the farmhouse back to life. Then the small farm itself will be resurrected soon after. And our work will be thoughtful and careful, just like the work of the original builders.

Stay tuned.

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