Stairway to heaven


So after 15 years perhaps I had enough of climbing through the trapdoor  cut in the upstairs floor – this had been done as I thought due to the state of the chimney wall – where the new stairs was to go – I could be crushed if the wall decided to collapse such was its state.  Also the wall was not top of my priorities and a staircase couldn’t be installed as that would hinder fixing the wall – so a real chicken and egg situation.

So I always like to start a new project at the beginning of each january – it has to be challenging yet not go on for too long otherwise I wander off both mentally and physically – so a new stairs it would be. Of course it has to be cheap so I bought 3 sheets of plywood – 3/4 inch and got out my router. The stairs will be scrapped once I get around to getting the house close to completion so it’s a trial run and will let me see what needs tweaking before I do the good one; also it will be abused no doubt so I don’t have to think about being too careful with it.

I have only built one staircase so far and no complaints – it is still standing.


My first attempt at a staircase – off by a few centimetres here and there but it works


The original staircase – sitting in our barn – maybe 200 years old or close to. See all the rusted nails used probably to attach carpet – the runner would have been very narrow as see paint marking boundaries on sides.

If you look really closely you will see the top part of an old boot was used to patch part of it – bizarre. Rot has had its wicked way with it – helped along by woodworm and old age I will store it until it becomes invisible – yes all hoarders reach this spiritual level of denial and blindness.  Just a pity our significant others dont have this super-power !!!


So from the above to the ensuing steps, no pun intended

Image0463From this

Image0599To this

20150202_125605To platform structure, angled turn of step

A satisfying stage


Sizing the steps


Fitting using some gentle persuasion

I just used screws and routed grooves for the threads – these are standard 9″ x 2″.

So all in all it probably cost just over 100 euros – still 2 years of use and counting , still serviceable

Fitting the risers

To this



Part 3 -redoing jobs already done and talking about lime mortar

Look before you leap – or duck before you end up in a heap- low door ways

When initially tackling the problem of replacing existing lintels I got stuck in the mind that I am just renewing what is there; that is speak for not thinking things out and leading myself into places I would prefer not to be really; such as mismatching door heights in the entrance.

Well it started with putting the supporting wall in where the chimney used to be, RSJs were put in to carry the floor above, a block wall with steel was the quickest and cheapest and most practical – so yes cement was used where needed. This lead on to having a lower doorway into the parlour room which is picture one; these lintels I had put in at the same time as the window lintels as I was becoming very quick(?) at it and was replacing everything in its original position – mistake. So when the RSJ was put in it gave higher head clearance not to knock your head against every time you walked into the room (sounds a good idea) and coupled with my find at the Traditional Lime Co. store  in Tullow  Co. Carlow of antique matching original pine doors so I just had to take the lintels out.

Practical building tips

However when you look at a wall that has a mix of brick and stone and how everything knits or had knitted together prior to my removing the chimney wall I had my reservations about the stability of the wall under the new lintel. So great care was taken in not disturbing the wall too much, a very important note for anyone working on old stone buildings such as this – DO NOT USE A PNEUMATIC DRILL. Vibration will or could unsettle the surrounding wall and cause it to collapse; the lime mortar is like dust and undisturbed will last hundreds of years but once disturbed it can be catastrophic.

Lime Mortar

Again I use 3.5 NHL in a mix of graded sand  2.5 : 1 lime mortar. I use a small cement mixer, put in a small bit of water and add the 2 shovels of lime to get a slurry mix going and then gradually add the 5 shovels of gravel as they call it in these parts, bit by bit. It is important that not too much water is added as too much leads to excessive cracking; it is ideally a stiffer mix not a typical cement mortar consistency.  Also the mix needs a lot of turning and to aid that I throw in a few fist size cobbles to pound it, typically I would mix for 20 minutes plus.

I admit to being slow at what I am doing – I am not paid by the hour – I would be a millionaire if that is the case! but to prevent the mix which is now in the wheelbarrow from drying out I cover it with plastic and keep it out of direct sunlit. Sometimes if I am being too precious with my skills I have to add a tiny bit of water to get it pliable again – called knocking up –  with a heavy hand but generally in our climate that is rare. If you are working outside and there is a strong combination of sun and wind your mix could dry out too quickly and to counter this spray with water and a cover to avoid excessive shrinkage.

Of course when filling into walls or such I use a good bit of water to dampen the surrounding material, nothing too strong just a pump handsprayer this prevents your mortar from drying out too quickly.

Lime mortar was used sparingly, it was expensive (still is) and was not layered or shoveled on the way cement is now in building a stone wall, so always have a bucket of smaller flatter stones for filling those gaps that occur between stones – the stability of a stone wall is based on stones not on the mortar. So a lump hammer and chisel will eventually produce that searched for stone you could spend an age looking for and cuts down on the amount of mortar you use.

Do not use in wet conditions or if have to cover immediately.

For pointing and dashing drying out too quickly is a problem so cover with hessian or tarp; it has been recommended to me 15 to 25 days considering the conditions but I only have done repointing and roughcast on the exterior walls in late spring and summer – longest I had it up was 7 days as we get very windy weather where we are and it was soon ripped off.

For new exterior it was also recommended to keep dashing layers thin and good drying out times between. My first layer has been on 10 years now — reckon that should be long enough.

Cold weather – setting time is long  through carbonation – (see Pat McAfees best selling book –  Irish Stone Walls for reference – ) and you do not want frost on it – in fact once temperatures drop I never used it outside – a constant temperature is ideal once well into spring  for me – unless working inside with mortar I wait to do work.

Where I was taking out lintels and putting in smaller thinner concrete ones sometimes I had huge gaps around and behind them so once you establish your desired level for your lintel fill in, around and behind them.  Dont leave unsupported stones behind your new beautiful wall front – pack in and use long or big stones to add stability to the wall and so spreading the wall load more evenly.


Standard assortment of small shovels, trowels, shovels X2 one for gravel and one for bagged mortar.

Cement mixer

Wheelbarrow and buckets for carrying up ladders or for working from on small job to avoid air exposure of main mix and thus causing it to set more quickly

soft brush for clearing out dust and old mortar to leave a clean solid base for new mortar

hard flat specialised brush for tapping in your finished work where pointing on wall surface

low pressure sprayer for water in damping work and surrounding wall – creates greater adhesion to surrounding stone or brick work.

To get mortar in deeper and more compressed use a thin trowel, I use 1/3  and 1/2 inch wide with 6inch long blade, especially if I am putting in mortar to difficult spaces – they are very cheap and save your fingers from all that rubbing and pushing in.

Of course use gloves at all times as the lime is bad for your skin, don’t leave it on you long as it can be painful; wear steel cap boots, eye protection and long sleeves etc etc.

Another good blogsite is cottage restoration – – a finished project – done by professionals – excellent example of full job done in quick time

also see blogsite by old builders company – a goldmine of pictures on a huge range of buildings

IMG_0005As I have said before how dangerous the roof was; well no pictures survive from the time of taking the roof off –  we get alot of lightning strikes here and many computers have died taking with them the various stages of restoration.  However with a limited budget and just having to seal up the building from the elements I had to put some sort of roof on the structure so I decided on a corrugated one – cheap and cheerful.

Another step in getting up there had to be addressed – all monies were going into the other house as we wanted our comfort so compromise came not having scaffolding around the house – it would have  been there mind you for nearly 2 decades as not all outside work is yet finished – 2016. So once the roof was off you are in a race against time as water running from the top of the wall down has a tendency to collapse the structure this I was warned from the start – no bare wall tops.

So what to do ? well I decided to cover the wall tops with lengths of plastic – weighed down with water-filled milk bottles on strings either side of the wall –  this kept the rain out for nearly 2 years until I got the upstairs floor in – then I would have a safe staging to work on in getting the roof up.


I acquired cheaply a light scaffold tower which is on wheels; I use it everywhere around the yard and houses, it has got to be one of the best buys ever. It can go to 18 feet high and with added stabilizers it has been invaluable as it can carry a good quantity of stone as can be seen from the above picture.

As you can see putting in the joists I wanted to stick with the original 5 by 2 inch joist so that I wasnt cutting out bits of wall but in hindsight I should have put in 9 by 2 inch and saved myself alot of hassle. The receiving sockets for the joists just needed to be cleared out and in alot of instances be fixed up – please excuse my lack of proper building terminology because I don’t have it and I expect this blog would appeal more to the amateur then the professional anyway.

So to make the walls safe I put in new lintels and with each stage of replacement I got quicker and more adept at building a solid structure so putting in the joists further knitted the building together –  however for 2 years there wasn’t a roof on the structure due to time constraints, as in work etc . I had put down planking which I imagined I would be throwing away after sitting exposed ( well I did have plastic sheeting on it but after months of walking on it of course it is going to fail) so that I could put on the wall-plate , which is a 3 by 6 inch wood  which acts as a topping on wall so that the rafters can sit level.

I had never done this before but it was very satisfying to get them level along the length of the outer walls – what was a bit disconcerting as the back wall is several inches lower than the front wall – 6 inches perhaps and of course the bow in the front of the building. Next step I had a  local engineering firm make wall straps – these are flat iron strips with a 90 degree top to attach to the top of the wall-plate and a corresponding lower spike to go into the wall lower down to hold the wall-plate in place.

A friend at the time came in very useful having built houses himself and helped put the rafters up with me – putting the centre-board up which is the ridge at the highest point of a roof was the challenge after that hand cut rafters were put in at a leisurely pace.  This was due to another baby arriving, bringing our brood up to 4,  so added to 9 cattle, some pigs, hens, ducks, turkeys and the odd horse and donkey perhaps; the house had to wait.

I can still remember after the 4th baby arriving saying to myself; just put the tin roof on and you can walk away for a few years knowing the hardest part is done – so that is what I did a month or so after she arrived. It was a bit hairy without much scaffold around the house – well a 6 foot by 4 foot wheeled one worked well and I saved myself a fortune on not having to hire or buy scaffold.

Letting go

At a time when the scale of the project dawned on me and doing it practically solo, I needed to be ruthless and conserve as much energy as possible by focusing on the core of the building not as in this case a poorly built rear extension that was more liability then anything else; it had to go. It had been the previous owners kitchen – very basic.

Also at the time the house was a low priority shed (with possibilities) on the edge of a yard – without any back garden there was no immediate plans to restore it into a livable house; that could be planned later should the garden ever be bought. In the mean time the bungalow was ever expanding due to our ever expanding brood so with a job, kids, animals and veg garden, time was an ever decreasing component of a hectic life.

The previous owner had retained adjoining land and what was the house garden became the neighbours entrance to his land so I didnt get fully into the project until the garden became part of the property many years later.

If you look at the level of the extension you will see that it obviously was made for a shorter person, the level of the roof line is already low as it is – of course people were shorter in those days. In the intervening years we had a pig living in the kitchen for a number of years – so the story of having pigs in the kitchen are true!

The walls of the extension were leaning and were made of rough stone and mud  but heightened by a few concrete blocks – it had to be the most dodgy construction I have ever come across. A skim of concrete  plaster kept out the elements but it must have been very damp as it was laid straight on the ground without any foundations.

It was satisfying taking the sledge hammer to this part of the building and was one more step towards a tidier house as this part of the house is very visible from the road passing close by.

The above picture shows the back garden newly acquired and area dug out as tons of soil had to be hauled to make it level and no ugly extension.



Chimney – look familiar

The Mayglass restoration cottage is well worth a view on line; see Heritage Council website ,see here Wexford professional restoration – see how similar the shape of the pyramid of bricks are. This chimney also is not in good health, picture on left, when last visited there was a crook put under the wooden lintel to hold the whole thing up. It is an older house but not by much – it is thatched and unfortunately unless heated year round it suffers rapid decay.  The owner deserves our deep gratitude in preserving such a gem – this is a true time capsule.

While taking visitors to Dunbrody Abbey I was drawn to ruins of an old house adjacent to the site and discovered the remains of a very familiar size chimney in the wall, bottom picture on left – my  chimney is the one without the sticks – it had to be totally rebuilt from the base up.  My aim for the future is to have a liner in the chimney attached to a stove in the main room downstairs.

Chimney dilemma

Never did I think how much the chimney would occupy my time. The wood lintel  ( see stepped brick structure is in what would have been the kitchen area) it sat on apart from only being 5 inches by 5 inches, was rotten. See below


Chimney supporting beam, now retired and dont have the heart to cut it up

This house had not been occupied in 30 years – unless you call pigeons inhabitants and so , wet and damp gets into everything and weakens inferior woods. This chimney being incorporated now into a free-standing wall – the only significant keying in was by now rotten wooden lintels into the front of the house; this gave me more than a few moments of self-doubt as to whether I was up to fixing this monstrosity.

In the end I decided to keep the centre wall which had the unusual feature of the smoking chamber which had stones lining its roof; this became a major goal for me to preserve as I had never seen this before. I will dedicate a much more detailed account of how I have incorporated this into my restoration.


If you look at the chinmey breast below, large pic, these stones were incorporated into the right-hand side of the slope of the structure

So one fine day I pulled down the brick chimney and crawled carefully up onto the roof with my kango hammer drill and took down a very well-built cement mortar chimney – it was a terrible pity but the under lying support for the upper part was just to fragile and difficult to fix.


It is difficult to see but in the picture featuring the stairs, to the right of the window at the stairs you can make out more weak poles used as lintels – carrying alot of stone wall above them. Holding these poles in place was a column of mud bricks, yes MUD, I have kept a few as souvenirs.

Most of the stone lintels in place had been cracked by previous handimen??? hammering supports in to hold tin or wood rendering them useless. Internally the lintels seemed to be made from reclaimed ship timbers and it was recommended to reuse them –  I did and the mortar shrank back from the wood so I took them back out and put in ye old concrete ones.  As you will see later I have overcome my fear of taking them in and out again as needs arise.