Sunday, May 24, 2015

The French Farmhouse: Farmhouse Rock

After much research and much measuring and remeasuring, I decided that my French Farmhouse would be a "high house," partly because I liked the idea of an exterior staircase leading from the lower-level barn and storage areas to the living quarters above, and partly because the limited space that I had didn't really leave room for any other style. I also needed to have space for the dovecote at one end of the house and some room in the farmyard for a bake oven, a well, and a chicken coop. What I mostly needed, of course, was a larger "real" house with a bigger work room and wider doorways. But I had to "make do," - so I did it by building the high house. 

The French Farmhouse, like my Victorian and adobe houses, is dated ca. 1853 (its current fictitious date) but it was originally built in 1713 by the present owner's ancestor and has remained in the same family for all of those 140 years. You will meet the various occupants of the farmhouse at a later date.

Below are some of my evolving preliminary sketches and floor plans for the farmhouse. I continued to improvise and make changes as the house took shape, but at least I had usable guidelines to follow. As usual, I had a hard time with the "construction math;" I had to constantly remind myself that the styrofoam is one and a half inches thick. That changes the house dimensions a whole lot.

First rough sketch. (Actually, all my sketches are rough; that's as good as I get!)

Getting a bit more complex - down to details.

Struggles with the staircase. Here?

Or here?

Or maybe like this; and I'll change a few other things as well.

Or maybe better this way after all? Did I have to use non-erasable ink for this?

Okay, time to firm up these plans and get them down on graph paper. This is the plan for the lower level, consisting of boy's room, barn, and wine store. And the staircase starts here. Going up.

And this is the upper-level plan, consisting of the main room and the girl's room, the porch, the down staircase, and the dovecote off to one side. (I changed the location of the staircase again later.)

I bought a 4' by 4' piece of fiberboard, which is very heavy; but I had to be sure that the base was strong enough to support the house, which I knew would be heavy because of all the tiles on the roof.  Robert, my husband, cut it down to my desired 4' by 28" measurement. He had a tough time of it! He had only one sawhorse; do not ask me why. He had no workbench, so he had to use a ladder laid flat on the garage floor. The safety button on his power saw was broken off, so he had to push the button down with a screwdriver at the same time as running the saw. YIKES! This is a man, by the way, who was a military career pilot; he flew fighter jets and air-refueling tankers for 30 years. So maybe because of that precision training (or possibly not) the base board that he cut turned out perfectly straight!

I drew the floor plans onto the base board……..

……..and drilled holes along the wall lines, then hammered in nails (a little larger than the drilled holes) from the bottom side so that the points projected upward, providing anchors for the styrofoam walls. I aligned the rows of nails with a small hammer to be sure they were all straight up.

I also spent some time at this point, when I was scrawling the names of the designated rooms onto the board, in practicing the proper pronunciation of the French words: chambre (bedroom); salle commune (main room); pigeonnier (dovecote) - all to no avail. For "commune" I tried to pucker my lips in the English "U" sound, and while holding my lips immobile in that position, pronounce a long "E" sound. I felt like Eliza Doolittle.

I cut the wall pieces from styrofoam, and it was time to start applying the wallboard joint compound so that I could form stones on the walls.

I got the idea for making the stones from a New England Miniatures blog tutorial on creating stone floors, but the method worked beautifully for the walls - and I later used the same method for making flagstone floors. I first drew the outline for the stones and let the joint compound set up a bit.


Then, using a tiny putty knife, I shaped rounded stones in the joint compound and let it dry for about 24 hours.

The shaped stones have been formed on the lower-level back wall. I have left blank spaces where the inner partition walls will fit against the back wall.

Stones have been formed on the end wall of the lower level barn.

I have begun painting the stones and "mortar" on the walls.

I also embedded a few "real" stones randomly in the walls by adding a dab of joint compound to each small stone and pressing it into place. I had debated whether to use all real stones for the lower level walls, but I thought that would add too much weight to the farmhouse; it does need to be portable, or at least movable. So using the easily molded, easily sanded, and easily painted joint compound seemed the best solution.

The painting continues on some of the partition walls in the barn.

I used so many different mixes of paints for the stones that I eventually lost track of my "palette" and just improvised every time I needed more paint. 

The ceiling pieces have been cut……

……..and tried on for fit. And the ceiling fits!

While the ceiling piece was temporarily in place, I decided to experiment with the exterior staircase, which leads up to the second-level porch. (My French/English dictionary didn't have a word for "porch.")

With the ceiling and stairs in place (for the moment) I also cut and tried out the support walls for the porch and staircase. So far, so good.

More walls; more stones. Will I ever be finished with these stones? Ever?

The interior and support walls have been mounted and secured. (With toothpicks and glue, as usual.)

And it was time to spread the "earthen" floor in the barn. If you happened to read my previous "Adobe Dreams" posts, you may remember the nightmare of a mess that I made of the adobe's earthen floor. I learned from that experience; for the French Farmhouse, I just used more joint compound, and voila! Instant earthen floor!

This was the first coat of paint that I used for the barn's earthen floor; the second coat was a little lighter.

I used the faux-stone method from the New England Miniatures blog to create the flagstone floors in the wine store and in this room at the end of the barn. This will be the son's room, separated from the main barn space by the low partition wall that you see on the left of the photo.

I hope you'll join me next week as the sticks and stones and styrofoam saga continues. The next post will be more about sticks than stones. We've seen enough of those for a while.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Adobe Dreams 5: Simply Messing About in Mud

I was so excited when it was time to put in the floor of my adobe house. I had done quite a bit of research on the early New Mexican adobes and decided that I definitely wanted mine to have an earthen floor. The method sounded simple enough. I was using information that was meant for someone building a full-sized house, which meant that the floor for a miniature house would be even simpler. Wouldn't it?

The basic instructions started with the obvious thing: Any soil that can be used for making adobe bricks can be used for the earthen floor. Easy as mud pie. I had a good-sized vegetable garden in my back yard, and since it was winter, the garden was barren of plants; all that dirt was mine to take. So I carried out a trowel and a bucket and took some. It wasn't New Mexico dirt, but Nebraska dirt was good rich dirt. And after all, I assured myself, dirt is dirt is dirt.

The next step was to sift out lumps and rocks from the soil. Done. Then mix the soil with water to the consistency of fudge. I had to estimate that with a rough guess. I can't remember ever making fudge; I just eat the finished product.

 Pour mud onto the floor. That was an easy step.

 Level with something that won't leave marks on the surface. I'm sure that was easier in my miniature house than a real one. I leveled and smoothed the mud using my hands, a rubber spatula, and a soft rag.

 I was instructed to let it dry for ten days. Because that drying time was meant for a full-sized house, I thought it was logical to reduce the time to one-twelfth of ten days, since I was building in one-twelfth scale. But my superior math skills wouldn't let me calculate that, so I just kept checking the mud until it looked and felt dry, which took about two days. I don't know whether that equates to one-twelfth of ten days, but it might be close. Or not. But wait. Something is seriously wrong here. The mud floor is dry, and there is absolutely no resemblance to an adobe brick. This dried mud is black. As black as…black as Nebraska dirt, which is way blacker than New Mexico dirt. So I chiseled out all the black garden dirt and started over.

 I began my starting over by visiting Yankee Hill Brick, a local company that obligingly sold me two bags of non-black dirt. One was a red dirt with a high clay content and the other a buff-colored dirt that was sandier. I mixed the two together, hoping to happen onto the right ratio of one to the other.

 The right ratio did not happen. The color was perfect, but the cracks were way too large.

 I had the really good time-saving idea of pouring a third mixture, using more sandy "buff" dirt and less red dirt, directly onto the first cracked layer.

Which was not, after all, such a really good idea. The third pouring, although cracking less, pulled away from the walls and floor and curled up as it dried. Too much sand? Still too much clay? The color was good, but I had to pull it all up and start over, sacrificing that nice color.

So, back to the garden for more black, black dirt. Since the black dirt had dried well, I thought I would try it again for my fourth pouring. I was reluctant to use the red dirt with the higher clay content, but I mixed the buff dirt in with the black to lighten the color of the mixture.

The dried fourth pouring resulted in large cracks and some shrinkage, but it did not curl up and die as  the third pouring did, so I decided not to remove it.

Instead, I mixed up another batch of garden black and Yankee Hill buff and poured the fifth layer right over the fourth. I figured that the mud wasn't likely to crack in exactly the same places, so the new layer should fill in the existing cracks. (While creating others in new places, unfortunately.) But I had finally completed the instruction to let it dry!

 For the next step, I was instructed to fill any cracks with a "slip" - mud thin enough to pour from a container with a spout, which I did, using the same garden black and Yankee Hill buff, only much thinner than fudge. The color is not bad, although not approaching perfect. I do know when to quit.

 The slip should dry for three or four days before sealing it with a mixture of ox blood and wood ash. I admit that I didn't follow the instructions here; I substituted a mixture of linseed oil and fine wood ash. And I did not try to calculate one-twelfth of three or four days for the drying time. I just made my usual wild guess.

 The floor looks darker in this photo than it actually turned out. But it was darker than I liked, so instead of following my final instruction to apply a liberal second coating of the blood and ash mixture, I created a concoction of a reddish stain, floor wax, and linseed oil. I did, however, apply it liberally.

 The earthen floor was finished at last, and I was pleased with it, even if the process was not, as my 
instruction book led me to believe, "as easy as making mud pies!"

Thank you for sharing my adobe flooring fiasco. This post is the final one for my adobe experience, but not an end to the fun! My next post will begin in the south of France, where I'll embark upon the many adventures and adversities that I encountered while I built the French Farmhouse - using, of course, my favorite materials: sticks and stones and styrofoam. 

I hope you'll come along with me. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Adobe Dreams Part 4: The Grand Tour

My adobe house is finished at last! Not that I was in a hurry to finish it, because I was having so much fun; why would I want it to be over? On the other hand, I had been working on the house for about ten months or more, as I mentioned in a previous post, and was ready for a change. I'm not really sure about the number of hours that I spent laboring over the adobe; it was only afterwards, when I was asked many, many times how long it had taken me to build the house, that I realized that it would be sort of nice to have an answer.

All I know for sure is that I spent three winters working on the adobe; I never worked on it at all during the summer and autumn months. The first winter was actually early spring, but cold enough to be labeled winter, and for the following two winters I continued the work. But of course I'm talking about Nebraska winters, which can sometimes be as short as four months and sometimes as long as six months.

But it was finally finished, inside and outside - and now it's time to take a tour.

We'll begin by viewing the adobe from the front, as we approach the entrance through the wall that surrounds the house.

 Guarding the front door, we find Honey and Martin, who hardly bother to greet us. Martin is more interested in guarding his food bowl and Honey in protecting her bone!

When we enter the house and turn to the left, we'll be in the living room. The kiva fireplace has an extended bench, or banco, that provides a cozy seat on the sheepskin rug. Ana Luisa's silver tea (or coffee) set, which was a wedding gift, is on the trunk in the foreground.

In the nicho over the tea set, there is a traditional pueblo "storyteller" figurine; she is singing and telling stories to her children.

You may notice that Ana Luisa has rearranged some clay pots, after acquiring a new one that she thinks looks very well beside the fireplace.

If we had turned to the right upon entering the house, we would find ourselves in the kitchen, where a fire is almost always kept burning, or at least banked, in the "shepherd's" fireplace. Ana Luisa has vegetables drying on the shelf above the fireplace now, but the shelf can also be used for warming and drying a shivering shepherd after a cold night watching over the sheep. The kitchen door leads out to the courtyard, providing Ana Luisa quick access to the oven and the wood pile.

After living in the house for several years, Ana Luisa and Joseph bought a new wood-burning stove that makes quick work in the kitchen for Ana Luisa; she was accustomed to spending many hours cooking with only the fireplace. 

We're back at the front entrance and ready to go upstairs to the bedroom. As you pass the nicho over the big clay pot, take a look at the carved kachina doll displayed there.

There is a second kiva fireplace in the bedroom. The tin bas-relief of Christ that hangs over the bed is a little treasure that I found in Germany. 

This photo shows the bedroom ceiling and the stairwell that is protected by a low wall. The terra cotta piece that hangs on the wall beside the window depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I'm always surprised that miniature pieces have miniature shadows! (There is no way that I can explain this thought process.) The belt with silver and turquoise trim and the beaded moccasins were the first items that I found for the adobe house. The bed was originally a shiny mahogany one that I found at a sale and refinished. The flower design is a combination of stencil and free-hand painting. It wasn't quite what I had envisioned, but I decided to let well enough alone - I figured that it would only get worse; I don't draw all that well!

Ana Luisa and Joseph have no closet (nor many pieces of clothing) but they do own a beautiful carved trastero that is very useful for storage.

Now let's walk out of the bedroom door into the upper courtyard, where Ana Luisa sometimes sits in the shade with her sewing.

Now we're back downstairs and have just walked out of the kitchen door and turned to the left. There is a rain barrel there, positioned underneath the canale so that Ana Luisa can have soft rain water for the washing. She also has quick access to the horno in case the bread is burning.

But if we turn right from the kitchen door, we find the wood pile with chopping block and axes. Joseph prefers to cut the wood for cooking and heating, but Ana Luisa is strong and very handy with the axe if  she needs extra fuel. The apple butter paddle and a bucket of apples wait for her attention - one more chore to finish.

As we leave the adobe house, we look back at the ristras (strings of red chiles) that hang from the vigas on the kitchen wall. Honey and Martin are very lazy today - they've hardly moved since we arrived.


Let's take one last look at Joseph and Ana Luisa Cantrell's adobe home. May they have many happy, busy years being part of my Adobe Dream.

I hope you've enjoyed the tour of my adobe house. I know that I said that this would be the finale of the "adobe experience," but then I remembered that I had also planned to share one of the most troublesome aspects of building the adobe house: pouring the earthen floor. And what a mess that was! So now there's ONE MORE adobe post to come. Please stay tuned for the next episode, in which I reveal my shortcomings in the realm of mud.