The Epic Mess. Also known as “Fixing the Fireplace”

Last time I shared the saga of two hand hewn barn beams that made their way from the task of holding up a barn in Jay County, Indiana, to adorning a stone-covered hearth wall in our home some 50 miles away here in Madison County, Indiana. it was a multi-step saga with frequent messes being made along the way, but the biggest mess was yet to come.

IMG_4884fireplace
The original brick fireplace, probably added in the 1950’s to this 1880 house. The interior wall is stripped to the studs, and what you see here is the original wood lap siding that covered the exterior.

It’s hard to believe, but this is the cleanest my living room would be for a quite some time.

Fiberglass insulation is a very good thing. But it’s a bit like Dr Seuss’ Cat In The Hat’s expanding pink bathtub ring. It ends up everywhere, onto surfaces that you’d never expect. A major component of this fireplace wall project was getting rid of the terrible drafts that had plagued us since we moved in in 1989. The only time we didn’t notice them was when there was a blazing hot fire in the fireplace insert. Otherwise, the living room was a minor arctic zone. My husband Rob attacked every nook and cranny with a vengeance, utilizing all materials available. Insulation, expanding foam, plastic; there’s probably a semi-load of it all packed into that one wall. To quote Burt Reynold’s classic line in the Dukes of Hazzard movie; It was closed up “tighter than a tick’s ass.”

frozenfish
Lucy tried to bring this frozen bluegill back into the house with her every time she went out for a potty break.

My marginal housekeeping skills exacerbated the stray insulation’s viral effect in the house. It’s two story, with fourteen wood steps leading up to the bedrooms. Diligent vacuuming would have went a long way toward thwarting the spread of this stuff. But alas, diligent vacuuming is totally Not. My. Thing. So, with the help of 13 pound Jack Russell Lucy, and her hairy little feet, itchy fiberglass insulation crumbs infiltrated the entire house. All the best seating destinations, the plush throws that we snuggled with on the couch and recliner while watching tv, our king size bed… Four little Jack Russell Terrier feet made sure they all had their share of itchy fiberglass particles.

Without getting into the TMI (too much information) zone, I will share an unfortunate discovery that I made during this project: The good news is I have discovered and am totally enthralled by the merits of high quality, wool socks. They’re super cushiony, warm (but not too hot) and not itchy as expected. When I put a clean pair on, they’re part of my being 24/7 until a trip to the laundry is deemed appropriate. In the morning, I hop out of bed with my wool socks on, into my jeans and am off to the barn to feed the horses.

But wait, there’s more (and this is the bad news)… Ever think about what the bottoms of your feet touch when you put on your jeans? The answer is: The inside of them – all the way from the waistband to the ankles. So, in the morning I come in from the barn, grab my coffee and sit down at the computer. And I notice the back of my waist is itching, the backs of my legs (and higher) and the backs of my knees. What’s that prickly sensation coming from? It took me a loonnng time (because it was a loonnng project) to figure out that I was tracking fiberglass insulation crumbs inside of my own pants via my beloved wool socks. I’m currently laying most of the blame on the dog for spreading the stuff onto the bedroom carpet, but probably a little more effort with the vacuum on my part would have gone a long way toward solving that problem.

I breathed a sigh of relief once the insulating was finished and the whole works was encased in a plastic vapor barrier and sturdy plywood covering – as that left the next step entirely in the stone mason’s hands. What I didn’t know was that the mess they would make would make all previous messes pale by comparison.

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Now, don’t misunderstand this statement. These guys are pros, and they took appropriate mess-containment precautions. But when you’re dealing with powdered rock-glue, actual rocks, and the necessary procedures to concoct the rock-glue (mortar) into something that will reliably hold the rocks to the wall – stuff goes everywhere. Because this room can’t really be closed off, Lucy was at it again, with her hairy little Jack Russell feet – making sure masonry dust remnants were tracked into every corner of the rest of the house.

IMG_5449fireplaceThis process took several days, and because we’d shoehorned ourselves into other scheduled projects the masons were already working on, it ended up spanning weeks as they worked here only when weather kept them from working outdoors on the other jobs.

Apparently there is a great deal of chemistry involved – making sure materials were appropriately applied and dried before the next step. A special screen mesh was screwed to the walls, covered with a thin coat of mortar, that was scratched with a tool that looked like a miniature leaf rake. After that dried came the nitty-gritty (and I don’t use the term gritty lightly) as they used additional mortar to affix the stones. These (the stones) were delivered in large skid-based baskets. The masons would tote in whole piles at a time so they had plenty of variety to choose from to achieve just the right uniform AND random appearance. So they could see at a glance the various stone options available as they worked, those were spread out in, you guessed it, what looked like yet another huge mess.

But what they were creating was beautiful… and occasionally I’d succumb to the urge – and sit on my plastic-covered couch, watching them work. It was infinitely more entertaining than watching tv. In reality, it was the ONLY alternative to watching tv for weeks, as the tv was disconnected and moved to another location so it was out of the way.

This is the iron horse head that ended up residing over the mantle. How that came to be mine is a story all in itself. You can read it here.
This is the iron horse head that ended up residing over the mantle. It is by far the most expensive purpose-less item I have ever purchased in my life. How that came to be mine is a story all in itself. You can read it here.

The vintage iron horse head that I paid a fortune for – only to have it sit on a file cabinet in my office for years – because it was too heavy to hang on a wall – finally gets a deserved place of honor with this fireplace wall project. Rob took the threat of a 100+ pound hunk of steel crashing down on whoever was putting a log on the fire very seriously… he added extra studs to the wall behind where it was to hang, and through-bolted the whole works for even more security. Then, he welded up a sturdy steel mounting bracket to serve as liaison between the sculpture and the wall. To make the whole deal even fancy-er and more complicated, the stone masons sliced another millstone that we found on the farm (remnants from the Kelly Axe Factory) and set that into the wall as a backing plate/decorative frame for the horse head.

What an amazing thing – all this stuff; hand hewn barn beams, millstones, an insanely heavy iron horse head… all acquired at different times – with no particular purpose in mind, have now converged in our living room to create this incredibly beautiful wall. I wish I could boast that we carefully curated all the items with this vision in mind, and through careful orchestration, it became a reality. But, frighteningly, I suspect that it could have just as easily turned out like an episode of Hoarders.

IMG_5458millstone
Here the masons are evaluating the depth and placement of the sliced grinding stone. Most days I needed a paper bag to breathe in – to help with my freaking out – as the only thing protecting that big beam we spent months on – selecting, prepping and carefully finishing – from the wreckage of splattered globs of wet mortar, was a single layer of tar paper. As frightening as the in-between mess was, in the end it DID all wipe up with just a wet rag. Whew.

This whole iron horse head with the sliced millstone behind it idea brings up another facet of remodeling adventures that I have discovered along this journey. That of the role of The Kooky Woman Asking for Ridiculous Things.

When I first hatched the scheme of using the round axe grinding stones as part of the masonry work, it was for the outside chimney. I knew the grinding stones we had on hand were much too thick and needed to be cut to a thinner configuration so they’d be the same depth as the rest of the material being applied. I assumed the builder’s supply company that was delivering the stone for the project could accomplish this task. I’d been to their facility and it had an impressive array of stonework examples and products used to create said stonework. So, I called them and tried to explain what I was needing done. Their KWART (Kooky Woman Asking for Ridiculous Things) sensor was apparently on in full force that day, as they quickly supplied me with names of other companies that specialized in “that sort of thing”. After a few phone calls, I was left feeling like I was asking for the impossible. I explained to them all, as best I could, what I was trying to accomplish, and described the material I had on hand to do it with.

At which point I was treated with innuendos of unsuccessful attempts, ruined expensive equipment, and undetermined, scary prices. Discouraged, I abandoned that idea and planned, instead, to use some manufactured flat square stone for the surface behind my beloved horse head.

But the tables turned when the masons arrived the first time to discuss repairing the chimney. Because we have dozens of these grinding stones, they’re incorporated into landscaping around our buildings, beside the driveway, etc. Many were very visible from the mason’s truck as we stood in the driveway discussing the details of the chimney project. I didn’t want to enter the KWART zone again, but I thought “What the heck?” and once again inquired about utilizing the stones in our projects.

Chimney before and afterFB

I cannot put into words how glorious it is to engage in a project with someone who has the capacity for creative thinking and problem solving – instead of trotting out a laundry list of what could go wrong: “We could probably do that.” and “Those look like sandstone, which is really easy to cut.” words were music to my ears. Without further fanfare, my masonry saviors took the selected round stone out back and proceeded to accomplish exactly what they set out to do. Even the scraps from the cutting process were beautiful, so I fished them out of the dumpster and they ended up adorning the top of the chimney. As if meant to be, the pie-like slices aligned perfectly with the pitch of the roof, and the creatively-inclined masons placed the upper stone pieces with such sensitivity that one would never suspect they were an after-effect made using pieces salvaged from the garbage.

The cardboard horse head mockup served us well in the planning process of the fireplace wall. I feel a little sad to toss it in the trash. For now it's proudly surveying the wreckage that is my office.
The cardboard horse head mockup served us well in the planning process of the fireplace wall. I feel a little sad to toss it in the trash. For now it’s proudly surveying the wreckage that is my office.

After that, the inside fireplace wall project proceeded as expected, until the time came for me to specify EXACTLY where the round stone and horse head would be positioned. Again I was freaking out at the pressure of such a monumental decision. Left to my own devices, I did what any sensible graphic designer would do – I fabricated an exact replica of the hundred pound horse head from infinitely more portable cardboard. Just to be fancy, I printed an actual size image of the horse head with my desktop printer and pasted it onto the cardboard. I endured considerable heckling from my husband and son over my over-kill of this mock-up, but at least it let me sleep at night – knowing that I had done all that was humanly possible to determine the exact correct position on our hallowed fireplace wall.

I think the stone masons had a few KWART-inspired thoughts when they saw my ridiculously accurate cardboard horse head hanging there on the plywood wall the day they arrived to commence work. But I must smugly say that that cardboard facsimile earned it’s keep as it was placed on the wall multiple times as the grinding stone was set, and then again to evaluate the placement of hole for the hanging bracket through the millstone, AND the light fixtures on either side.

IMG_5461 horsehead
These stone masons came highly recommended to us as they’ve done numerous jobs on major construction projects in our area, working with MUCH bigger budgets and with professional architects and designers – that scenario ensures an impressive results from the get-go. But I think that they may have been as pleased with the outcome of this low budget, KWART-directed project as with the high-falutin’ jobs.

IMG_5523fireplace The completed wall. I think that little Lucy is most happy to have a warm fire to lay in front of once again. We struggled a LOT with the choice of materials for the fireproof hearth/floor. Previously it had been tile. And because the sub-floor under is wood, the tile had cracked. In a fit of outside-the-box thinking, we wondered how a thick steel plate would work. It is, of course, unbreakable. And it absorbs heat from the insert gloriously – a footwarmer like no other for man and dog!

I still can’t get a good picture that gives this justice, but this is the best so far. The stone wall is much warmer in color and more dramatic. The light fixtures are dimmable, so the horse head fairly glows with it’s patina’d opulence. None of that is evidenced in any picture I have taken so far. You’ll have to take my word for it.

IMG_5523fireplacecroppedAnd that silver whale? It was a gift from my mother-in-law Judy. She’s always had an eye for the unique and playful – this whale is designed specifically to hold water – for humidifying the air as the heat from the stove prompts steam escape via his blow hole on top. In another potentially hoarder-esque moment, my son Jordan was able to produce from his bedroom a tiny brass whale that is an EXACT replica of the large aluminum version perched on top the stove. Another impulse purchase made, many years ago, with no forethought as to an application for display. Here in central Indiana, we are NOT a nautically-inclined family, but with our unplanned whale-inspired theme here, maybe God’s sending a lesson our way?  Should we be studying Jonah’s story?

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

24 thoughts on “The Epic Mess. Also known as “Fixing the Fireplace””

    1. Thanks for the kind words! We had hoped to apply some sort of distressing to the steel plate, but couldn’t figure out how. Rob was a farrier (blacksmith) for many years and knows how to do metal work, but applying enough heat to make the steel soft enough to put marks in would also have caused it to warp and not be flat any longer. I briefly campaigned for putting it on the road and letting trucks run over it for a while. But even that would have caused it to no longer be perfectly flat.
      So, we left it just as it was when he brought it home from the steel yard. They cut it to the exact size and rounded the edges and corners for us, so it was infinitely easier than tile or stone to install. Except for the weight. We had to roll it in on a series of pipes because it was too heavy to carry. Initially, I really wanted the plate to span the whole distance between the two upright beams, but there’s no way we could have managed that much more weight.

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  1. I love your creation of “KWART” ! I may have to steal it, since I have felt like that many times in the restoration of our 100 year old farmhouse, which is nowhere as involved as yours!!

    I love your fireplace wall. It is wonderful. I agree with you that the mason’s were glad to have the KWART’s cardboard horse head since they used it for reference several times during the process of creating your wall. May your energy keep up to complete the project!

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    1. Thanks for the kudos on the cardboard horse head. I don’t know if my brain is skewed from looking at the computer all day – and my work involves designing layouts that are attractive in 2D only… But I get really twitchy when it comes to 3D/environmental stuff. And I knew with all the extra preparation going into fastening that heavy thing to the wall, that a do-over was highly unlikely if it looked to be too high or too low.

      And feel free to use KWART – it cracked me up when I realized it could be an acronym after I strung those descriptive words together. Then I hurried off to Google to make sure it wasn’t already some slang term that was inappropriate… I didn’t find anything so hopefully it’s a safe reference!

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