How to Fix a Sash Weight

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Our house has the old kind of sash weights. Those sash weights perform two functions. They counterbalance the window so that it moves up and down freely and, since this is Los Angeles, they knock together loudly in an earthquake letting us know the rough magnitude and whether we should duck under a table.

When we moved into the house nearly every sash cord was busted and none of the windows functioned. Repairing these old windows is as lost an art as Roman augury. Most homeowners and house flippers here throw out the old windows and replace them with the sort of cheap sliding aluminum portals like you find on 1970s era truck camper shells.

That’s too bad, since the old windows look a lot better and are easy to repair. Here’s how you do it:

1. Look for an access panel in the window channel. If there is one, you’ll be able to access the weights and tie the cord to them through the panel. We weren’t so lucky. If you don’t have an access panel you’ll need to remove the window trim on either the inside or outside of the house in order to access the weights and the broken cord. I chose to remove the outside trim since it would make less of a mess and be easier and more forgiving to patch up.

2. If the cord is still in good condition you should be able to just retie it to the weight and the window should be back in operation. If not, you’ll need to get some replacement cord at your local hardware store.

3. To install a completely new cord remove the window from the frame and locate the circular hole seen in the diagram below:

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Tie a knot in the end of the sash cord and use a small nail to secure it in that hole. Thread the other side of the cord through the pulley and secure it to the weight as seen above.

Having lived with old windows now for seventeen years, I’m a fan. The cord/sash weight/pulley combo works a lot better than many newer windows I’ve dealt with. The downside is that the cotton cords break eventually. But they are easy to fix.

Pack Rat Palladio

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Admission: I’m a column hoarder. And the past few days I’ve been laying about, recovering from minor ailments and watching, through binoculars, a nice old house get demolished. I had my eye on the columns from the front porch and I just happened to be watching as the workers started pitching those columns into a dumpster. Summoning a reserve of foolish energy, I ran over and asked the workers if I could have the columns. I now have four more columns for my collection. Kelly is concerned.

Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few columns. I think their abundance has something to do with the Dwell Magazinifiction of our old neighborhood. As poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay put it, “As public sex was embarrassing to the Victorians, public classicism is to us.” The mid-century modern crowd just doesn’t dig the Doric, the Ionic or the Corinthian. Columns, molding, wood siding, old windows and many other ornamental details have fallen out of favor and are ending up on the curb.

House flippers loss, my gain. I’ve put my column collection to work as a grape arbor:

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As garden follies:
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And a pretentious flanking of our back door:

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I’ve done a bit of indiscriminate column hoarding too. This tacky one should probably have been let in the street:

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As soon as I recover from last week’s kidney stone surgery, I plan on restoring the four I just scavenged for use either as a shade covering for the back patio, a neo-classical clothes line or an extension of our rose arbor entry.

Perhaps someday I’ll aspire to something as grand as the broken column house in the Désert de Retz.

Haint Blue

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In the wake of our recent discussion of scrub jays and paper wasps, Donna, one of our regular readers, tipped me off to the Southern tradition of painting porch ceilings haint blue to discourage nesting insects — and restless spirits (“haint” derives from “haunt”) — from making themselves at home in our living spaces.

Haint blue is not a single shade of blue, but refers rather to a blue used for this purpose. The actual color could run from soft powder blue to true sky blue to bright teal.

While the cool, airy white porch with a blue ceiling speaks to elegant Victoriana, I’ll note that the practice probably does originate in the traditions of the Gullah or Geechee people, brought to this country as slaves. They’d mix up lime paint in various shades of blue and paint not only their ceilings, but around doors and windows–around every opening into their home, to protect themselves from evil spirits.

I spent a little time ( a very little time, admittedly!) looking for some solid historical writing on this haint blue business, but found nothing but hearsay. The same basic info seems to be distributed all over the Internets,  which means the resource pool is pretty small, or pretty shallow. Nonetheless, I think the idea of a blue porch ceiling very appealing, if for no other reason than it extends the open sky into our living spaces.

All this business is novel to me, a Westerner born and bred, but perhaps some of our readers from the South will have comments or experience with haint blue?

In the meanwhile, our front porch is overdue for painting, and I think I’ll try a blue ceiling this time. I’ll let you know what the wasps (and spirits) make of it.

For more information, the good folks over at Apartment Therapy have a post which covers the basics of what the Internet knows about haint blue:

Pretty and Practical: The History of “Haint Blue” Porch Ceilings

And Donna’s original comment pointed to this show, called You Bet Your Garden.

Thanks, Donna!

Why Architectural Graphics Standards Should Be On Your Bookshelf

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Let’s say you have an uncomfortable breakfast nook and need to make some adjustments to the seat depth and height. Or you’re really ambitious and want to make a couch out of pallets. How do you figure out the right dimensions? This is why a long tome called Architectural Graphics Standards should be on every DIYer’s bookshelf.

It’s remarkable how much just a half inch can make a seat or table uncomfortable. That we’re a freakishly tall household contributes to the problem. Thumbing through Architectural Graphics Standards, I was able to diagnose the issues in our breakfast nook. The bench is too narrow and the cushions too high. I’m going to spend today correcting those problems.

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There’s a lot more data in Architectural Graphics Standards, of course. Should you want to build split ring wooden trusses, a greenhouse, or spend an evening pondering the arcana of wood joist connections, it’s got you covered.

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And, naturally, I want my own fencing piste.

A new copy of Architectural Graphics Standards is available but a bit pricey on Amazon. There’s also an abridged and less expensive student edition. If you fish around the nether regions of the interwebs you can find free pdf versions of dubious ethical origin.

Thanks to John Zapf of Zapf Architectural Renderings for tipping me off to this book, lifting my mood and, in the same visit, setting us up with a new turlet and plumber.

In Defense of Molding

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Like those invasive Argentine ants, house flippers are busy digging, churning and transforming our old corner of Los Angeles. One of the most obvious markers of a house flipper around these parts is the ubiquitous horizontal “flipper fence.”

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Another unfortunate sign is the disappearance of interior molding. Note the example above. In the process of ripping out interior walls, built-in cabinets and other period details, the molding often ends up in the dumpster. For some reason, it’s never replaced.

This is unfortunate. Molding is both functional and ornamental. Functionally, it serves to hide the inevitably imperfect intersections between walls, ceilings, doorways and floors. Conceptually, it creates a hierarchy between rooms (the living room should have larger molding than the bedroom, for instance) and it serves to mark a transition between spaces. It feels different to walk through an ornamented door than it does through what is merely a hole punched through a wall.

Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra derided molding as “dust catching” and, to this day, you’ll never see any crown molding or baseboard in the pages of the influential Brahmin lifestyle magazine Dwell. But I doubt high minded design is driving the aesthetic of the house flipper set. Rather it’s simple cheapness and, perhaps, a lack of skill. This is a real shame when you’re paying nearly a million dollars for a thousand square foot shack in a city that, let’s just say it, ain’t Paris.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to put up molding and it really does hide bad drywall work or old lath and plaster problems. Our 1920 bungalow, thankfully, had most of its molding still in place. I replaced what was missing (even though my carpentry skills do leave a bit to be desired).

If your molding is missing here’s a video on how to replace it. Baseboard is even easier, and has the added advantage of protecting your walls from vacuum cleaner bumps.