Monday, September 18, 2023

Parting Shots



Hard to believe now, but it was all over by the first week of June


It was pretty much inevitable, given our situation: age gets to us all in time, presenting novel issues that make work that once was easy suddenly arduous to complete. The process of aging is all about this effect: what one once took for granted, or at least found not hard to do, becomes more and more difficult. Some of us look farther down that particular road and see it complicating life to the point where it becomes something entirely different from what it once was. I'm one of the lucky ones who, while not yet at the point of being unable to do the work, can foresee a time when that eventuality comes about. So that was one factor in our decision to sell.

Maintenance holidays eventually end: here Vern Krahn restores barge boards

There's also the financial reality of inhabiting a heritage structure: they require ongoing investment in order to remain fully viable. There are always services needing upgrading, issues around sourcing things like compatible storm windows that keep the house warmer in winter, ongoing appropriate rehabilitation of degrading wooden components (see picture above) and replacement of those bits that are now wearing out, like the cedar shingle roof (maybe eight years left, if the right things are done to prolong its life). None of this is simple, all of it requires discretionary money to purchase skills, and in retirement, money comes to be in short supply for many. There is also management  of the processes that renew the building (the individual contractor doesn't actually do this, or at least you don't really want him to be the one who is doing this, so you yourself need to serve as the general contractor on the job - which is demanding work that entails understanding the job fully). Also, at our place, there were long-deferred plans to develop an unfinished storage attic using a staircase with a landing and a west-facing dormer, which would enable us to access perhaps 900 square feet of added living space, including a much-needed second washroom off a master bedroom. We had been evolving plans to realize this dream when our life suddenly got complicated with the inheritance of a Pender Island property that similarly needed major investment. We couldn't afford to do both projects, so we chose to reinvest in restoring the Pender property. We don't regret that, but it turned out to be consequential.


Re-roofing the house with perfection cedar shingles in 1998


These two realities (a lot of work needing doing, plus insufficient funds to bring it all off) eventually converged in retirement, making sale and a move more or less inevitable. We saw it coming a couple of years back, yet wanted to keep going for the time being so we could enjoy the place we had put so much of ourselves into. This post covers the things we managed to tackle over the last couple of years, prior to actually putting the house up for sale - things that, in retrospect, we are proud to have seen done on behalf of a most deserving house.



Facade renewed in time for the centennial

A recurring theme these days is just how much actually needs doing on an older house, a dynamic that has intensified as I've aged (perhaps the reality is that the aging process magnifies this effect). You simply have to stay with it in order to remain contemporary: no maintenance holiday lasts forever, and many such holidays inevitably come to a close on your watch, especially if you've dwelt there for a while. It was thus not surprising when one of the very first things I had initiated on assuming my tenancy here - replacement of the wooden gutters on the rear of the house, including restoring the missing downspouts - now obviously needed further attention. The gutters were replaced back in 1989, a year after I bought the place.  I managed to source old growth cedar guttering to replace the original ones (milled to an authentic profile by Vintage Woodworks) but I naively employed a carpenter who, while technically qualified, wasn't seasoned at working with wooden gutters. In fact, I'm almost certain this was his first undertaking on an arts-and-crafts house, and while he didn't do a terrible job, he did miss some obvious things, like replacing the fascia boards on the south-west section, which were starting to have issues as rot from the existing spent gutters had reached back into them.


Scene of the crime: restored wooden gutters en route to premature demise


Instead of informing me they needed replacing, this carpenter found just enough viable wood to attach the new gutters to. He also didn't know to use pitch (or a copper-based preservative, inset photo at right) to condition the new gutters, which dramatically increases their longevity. As a result, the replacements were already rotting out thirty-three years after installation (the original pitch-treated cedar had lasted nearly seventy-five years)!

And by then the fascia had only deteriorated even further. So there were now decisions to be made and, pivoting from the purity of my initial choice to stay with wood (wiser with hindsight) I had metal gutters in a compatible profile installed, with larger (and thus fewer) downspouts needed. There were numerous advantages to going this route: the metal gutters are wider than the wooden ones, making it easier to clean out the build-up of oak leaves and debris in fall (especially given the roof's drip ledge, which makes it difficult to extricate leaves from wooden gutters). Plus, larger downspouts don't block as readily as the narrow ones, which plugged every year with the onset of fall rains, with predictable consequences. So these are big advantages in drainage and I am very pleased with the results.


Metal gutters, fascia and downspouts placed

I think it would be fair to say that it got much more difficult to get anything done to heritage standards with the advent of the pandemic: costs rose dramatically while booking times became markedly longer as pandemic conditions combined negatively with the ongoing process of skilled artisans retiring or passing away. These dynamics complicated everything to do with renewal, including something as small and seemingly straightforward as re-cording a double-hung sash window. This is a job that periodically needs doing in a house with double-hung windows, sooner rather than later if the occupants have painted over the sash cords at some point (rendering them brittle and hastening their demise). The previous time I needed sash-cord replacement done, the masterful Vern Krahn was still available for small jobs like that - yet even someone so knowledgeable needed a couple of hours (it's very finicky work) to re-cord a double-hung window. It takes a certain finesse not to damage the window frame. But alas, Vern was no longer available, so I resorted to the market and tried booking several heritage carpenters who were on the municipal heritage list, but ultimately it was just too small a job to gain their attention. Then, out of nowhere, along came Brook Baxter, a highly skilled carpenter who had done fantastic work for us rebuilding the place on Pender Island. Brook had time for an add-on project on the weekend, and was intrigued by the job, as he'd never done it before. I couldn't believe our good fortune!



Brook was game to explore something entirely new


We began the process by doing some research, which means seeking advice from people with greater knowledge, in this instance Brigitte Clark of the Victoria Heritage Foundation. I wanted to use authentic components for the job but found that nearly everything came with some amount of polyester in it - which is as inauthentic as it gets in a heritage building! I asked Brigitte about sourcing genuine sash cord - 100% cotton woven with a special braid - and she knew where to get it! Thanks to the folks at Acklands-Grainger on Government Street, I secured a supply of genuine cotton sash cord, at a reasonable price.



The real article: 100% cotton braided sash cord, polished


Brigitte's contributions to the window project continued with the sharing of a couple of pamphlets on the value of retaining heritage windows, plus one dealing directly with sash window-cord replacement. I also watched several You Tube videos on restringing cords, to develop a clearer idea of the steps involved in doing it right. It's a bit complicated, as there are heavy counter weights within the window frame that enable easy movement of the sash up and down (in a double hung window, there are two counter weights inside the frame on both sides, allowing both sashes to operate easily). Brook is a quick study, and very curious about the nature of wood construction, so he was quick to figure out how to go about tackling this project. Initially it involved finding a couple of removable panels giving access to the weights.

Counter-weighted sash windows vent well

The counter weights are surprisingly heavy, and they operate in constrained spaces, side by side. But with genuine sash cord, they work well and will last long - if the installer knows what they're doing. Getting the weights out is a real chore, but Brook was totally inventive at this work.



Counter weights, rotted cord, tools and parts used to get there

Restringing the cords is where the real skill comes in. Even the knot used to attach the cord to the counter weight is complicated - not just any knot, but the precise one that knowledgeable carpenters use, firm and durable. Brook, who is a skilled fisherman, knew his knots from boating, so this piece came natural!



Finesse with knots is integral to successful re-cording


I'll resist getting into the minutiae, but there's a lot of knowledge that goes into restringing the cords on double-hung sash windows. I'm all admiration for Brook's willingness and ability to learn on the fly, which powered this job to completion.


Thing of beauty: cord restrung, right knot

I can't say enough about Brook's skill and panache in bringing the job off, and to a very high standard indeed! I thought enough of his stellar work to make him an extra special brunch, but honestly, I am in awe of his craft skills in carrying the job out.


Finishing up: master craftsman at work

Brook's work on the sash-cord replacement inspired me to tackle some more tasks myself. A redecorating project for the room ensued after the window was restrung and the cupboard retooled for better storage (also Brook's handiwork). The decorating project went on through late winter into spring, with a rhythm of its own. I did about two or three hours a day on it, which kept the job inching forward over time.

Redecorating is ninety percent prep and ten percent painting


Later that year, in November, I had an unexpected and meaningful connection with the family of the building's first occupants. I had become Facebook friends with Kim Barth Kembel some years back. Now she and her daughter-in-law Shansi Zhang proposed visiting us at Grange Road late in 2022, on their way up-island. Kim is one of Joy Savage's daughters. Joy, who was Hubert and Alys's daughter, married Alfred Barth, both of whom I was fortunate enough to be in contact with over the years. Joy and Alfred were kind enough to share copies of the 1933 and 1951 floor plans of the house, drawn by architect Hubert Savage, which among other things put to rest the notion that he may not have designed his own home. These floor plans have been a huge aid in developing an understanding of the building (I am resolved to make sure the Saanich Archives has copies for their records). It was absolutely special to meet Kim after knowing her long-distance for years - she recalled a summer vacation here on Grange, in the company of her mother while Alys was still alive. It was an entirely memorable experience for Susan and me. I was thrilled to be able to point out to her Joy's signature, just discernible on the concrete art-deco steps at the back of the house.


With Kim Barth Kembel at Grange Road

"Joy, 12-5-30": the date the steps were cast, with Joy present

I was earnestly trying to mobilize myself to keep on getting things done, even as it became harder with  pandemic restrictions, supply-chain constraints, and most craft attention now focused on new construction. One consequence was that there were much longer booking times for everything. This was certainly the case with refinishing the claw-foot tub in our sole bathroom. It badly needed redoing, as its synthetic finish was really worn and there were multiple chips too. The booking time for the Bathtub Doctor (the outfit that does the best job) was over six months, which meant it wouldn't be finished until March 2023. The six months prior to the booking were tough ones all in. My sister passed away in winter 2023, an event that was emotionally preoccupying. As it happened, The Bathtub Doctor was scheduled to recondition the tub the same week we were away at my sister's funeral. Talk about quirks of fate! Fortunately, our son Bryn was quite able to manage the job in our absence. The Bathtub Doctor did an excellent job too, which helped me to feel a bit more optimistic about getting things moved ahead around the house.



Refinished tub in afternoon light

A really important job that I absolutely wanted to see done before putting the house on the market was having the shed reroofed. The shed was designed as an eye-catcher that would be seen from the kitchen. I was concerned about the condition of its roof, as it sits under oak trees and accumulates a lot of debris. I'd been chatting with Jared Brokop, who runs Brokop Roofing, about whether we were at the point of needing a new cedar roof installed. Initially he thought not, due to the super-tight spacing of the shingles on the original roof. Upon close inspection, however, he determined that the shingles were becoming spongy (so no longer shedding water effectively) and that a replacement roof was definitely needed. This conversation happened during the winter, when roofing activity typically pauses. But we agreed Jared would tee the work up as soon as there was open weather in early spring. 



Early in April 2023, a three-person crew got to work on the shed


Suddenly in early April, the job was on. A three-person team arrived on a Saturday and began stripping the old roof off, then replacing it with number one 'perfection' sawn cedar shingles. This type of roofing is now a very expensive proposition, so we were fortunate the roof was as small as it is.



Three people working meant the job proceeded rapidly


I was very excited watching this work unfold, which it did very rapidly, basically over the course of one weekend. The new roof had an impressive impact on the eye-catching shed as seen from inside the house. I'm used to this building's overall effect, but I'd forgotten just what a strong impression a brand new cedar roof makes!


The weather cooperated fully in the short window needed

It takes incredible skill to do cedar shingling to a high standard, but Jared and his team have such skills in spades. A lot of finesse went into the job. And, because they were well-organized in the way they went about it, the mess was pretty much controlled and removed as part of the process.


They almost finished the job over the course of a weekend


As it turned out, Jared had to come back to finish up the ridge cap the following week. It wasn't long after they were done that the balmy spring weather headed south and it started hailing. Welcome to the world, new roof!

Roofs take a beating, twelve months a year

It was a busy spring for us, as we were now cruising towards putting the place up for sale. This leant a sense of urgency to getting things done: for example, for a long time I'd wanted to replace a the two wall sconces I had installed in the living room 25 years earlier - bona fide period-ware, they just didn't go with the rest of the decor. They also didn't make for the indirect or shielded (therefore interesting) light that fits so well in an arts-and-crafts house. This is a cardinal sin in an important space like the living room! It happened that for the project on Pender, we used an oriental-style lantern to good effect. We just happened to have a couple of wall sconces left over from that project. These iridescent lamps were installed in early May of 2023, and we are very pleased with the light they give off.


Of all the things I wanted to see done before I left Grange Road, repairs to some damaged panels on the Lawson Wood frieze were at the very top of the list. Somehow, almost magically, the super-talented Simone Vogel-Horridge managed to squeeze this work into her busy schedule. The frieze is one of the things that convinced me to purchase the Savage bungalow 35 years ago. As entrancing as its effects are, there were nevertheless several damaged areas (whether by exposure to daylight, chemicals leaching from a previous wallpaper behind it, or from outright human error) and they needed attention. This is not work for amateurs. It takes immense skill and vast knowledge to undertake repairs to historic wallpaper. Simone has these skills, but the challenge was getting her attention for a relatively small job. We managed to slip this one in just under the wire!


Simone exploring colour matches in preparation for repair



It had always irked me that the signed frieze in the living room had deteriorated at a number of points. Stuart Stark recommended Simone as someone who could work magic in a situation like this, and he was right. It took a long time, and a good deal of patience, to get Simone's attention on this project, but once she was seized of it, things really flowed.


The serious business of identifying accurate colour matches

If memory serves, Simone and her assistant Will visited us in early December 2022, to undertake a detailed assessment of what repair of the frieze would involve. It would be some months before they returned to complete the work, but they needed to produce entire replacement panels that would blend with the original artwork. Luckily, I had acquired two Lawson Wood prints in the same frieze pattern (in entirely different dominant colours) that served as a template of how he rendered his clouds - Simone copied this detail with absolute veracity, as it was key to two of the missing linking spaces.


Will preparing to position a replacement panel, for colour comparison

Simone was hard at work adapting the base colours so they blended better with the rest of the frieze, which had been discoloured with smoke from tobacco and the fireplace over many years. Her way of dealing with this was brilliant: she literally adapted her base colours to mimic the effect the smoke had had on the original frieze.


Simone conditioning a replacement panel

To say I was excited by this development would be rank understatement - it was a form of magic being worked in the interests of original art that I valued immensely.


New panel prior to being conditioned to mimic smoke effects


I was more than pleased with the results of this long-delayed process. We had already concluded the sale of the house prior to the rehabilitation work being done, so it was doubly magic for me. Here I was, through Simone's agency, getting to make a final contribution to the uniqueness of the Savage bungalow, while being on the way out the door. This was entirely special, and a fitting consummation of the relationship I had enjoyed with this spellbinding building over thirty-five years. The only thing I regret about the experience I've had here is having to actually bring it to an end. But in life, perhaps it doesn't get any better than that.


Conditioning the clouds to mimic smoke effects

Panel conditioned to better mimic the effect of tobacco smoke

I have been most fortunate in my time here to work with so many skilled individuals, without whom the Savage bungalow would not have been restored as remarkably as it has been. I want to share this with them now, as it's been an honour to have the opportunity of working with them all. Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my heart!

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Connecting With Stone


A rough stone base links this 1913 bungalow to its rocky upland site

When I said ‘yes’ to buying an old house built on a stone foundation, I had no idea of the new headaches I was agreeing to as a result. We tend to see things made of stone as permanent (part of their charm) whereas materials like wood we more easily accept need periodic maintenance. But stone needs attention too, only over much longer intervals if it's been well done originally. And as many do with houses, I went for the whole enchilada without closely examining all the parts, then gradually awoke to the realities of the work needed in order to stabilize and repair the building.

As I settled into my new home, I began noticing among other things that its sturdy stone base in fact sported several breaches. It turns out that seventy-five years of exposure to weather with minimal maintenance will do that to a foundation held together by mortar. The materials comprising it were ordinary, mostly collected on site, and randomly set without conscious patterning or coursing. A lot of different shapes and sizes of stone had gone into that foundation, with a crazy-quilt of seams as a result. Here and there enlarging cracks offered openings to the shallow crawl space behind them. Earth shifting, courtesy of forces like tree root expansion or earthquake tremors, plus the effects of freeze-thaw cycles, can crack and degrade even sturdy walls over time. In some spots the base of the wall was actually coming unstuck and starting to dilapidate.



As roots grow and expand, they raise the soil and easily crack rock walls

A section of wall broken by expanding roots, needing attention


I also began noticing signs of slapdash fix-ups, careless work that had simply smeared mortar across the face of the stone. These sloppy repairs (what the English call 'bodges') leapt to the eye like carbuncles. So of course my first thought as a naieve homeowner was to involve someone more skilled (‘call the plumber!’) to address the problem.

But back then I didn’t know anything about stone masonry, so I talked a bricklayer I’d hired to fix some spalling chimney bricks into patching an area on the south wall. I simply assumed the skills required were one and the same. He was a bit disinclined, a cue I should have taken, but then agreed. Once his patching was done, I completely got his hesitation. In contrast to the neat bands of mortar he placed so precisely between the courses of the bricks, his approach to stone involved smearing mortar across the joints. I’m unsure why irregularity of form should cause that response in a bricklayer, but the results were unfortunate for the look of the foundation. Later, I spent a few hours chipping away the worst of the smeared cement, to make the joints recede in emphasis and restore something like the original look.
Mortar smeared across the seams obscures the look of a stone wall
A section of rubble stone foundation wall whose base has been rebuilt

While watching the bricklayer go at this work, I realized how ungainly his attempts to get the mortar into these wandering seams actually were. Using a pointed mason’s trowel for the carry and a smaller one to push mortar into the seams simply didn’t cut it. A pointed trowel may be a great tool for dressing a brick before placing it, but for infilling irregular seams in a rubble stone wall it clearly wasn’t working. The outcome argued against continuing down this path. The thought dawned that I myself needed to learn how this type of work should be done, so I could avoid further damage to the look of the building. I don’t know why I opted to get personally involved rather than just finding a skilled stone mason, yet it was but a small step from there to working directly with stone. 
Ongoing repair: buttress needing attention

A stone base under a house creates a distinctive impression, gluing the building firmly to its site in a particular way. If the rock used is taken from the site itself and the building sits on bedrock, the house feels at-one with the landscape. But let that look become marred by walls entombed in concrete and the stone is thereby demoted to an indistinct element in a matrix, causing the original aesthetic to recede. Taken far enough, it disappears entirely. You may as well have a full concrete foundation as have rocks masked by mortar. I thought it important not to go any further down that path.
Seams slathered in mortar for a messy outcome

So that's when I naievely began what is now twenty-five years of working with stone and mortar to repair and make things. I wasn't inclined to DIY by nature, had no skill at all when I began, but was intrigued by the medium and resolved about its importance in maintaining the heritage asset. And I was a gardener, so had some limited experience making loose rockery walls to retain beds, with an inclination to pile rocks together as a result. I decided to begin by tackling the most visible breach first, upping the ante considerably. It appeared at the centre of a low wall between two tall battered piers supporting the house’s most prominent feature – an elegant entry verandah that one walks by on route to the front door. It appeared that a few weaker chunks of rock had popped apart, causing a crack to appear.  

My first job site: a serious breach in the low wall between the piers

I hadn’t a clue how to go about making a repair, so I began by observing some of the masonry work in progress around the region, which was mostly of the low stone wall type. Here in Victoria rock is always breaking through the landscape, dotting it with outcrops and larger hills not fully covered with vegetation. Bedrock breaking through the landscape defines dramatic contours, and loose rock on the surface seems to prompt a lot of boundary marking with stone walls. And because this material is local and often not much worked before using, the results often feel natural and fit for their surroundings.

A small knob of glaciated bedrock protruding through the ground

Rocky outcrops define a landscape with oaks, firs and arbutus groves

Regional character: rock outcrops, Garry Oaks, boundary walls

The operations I observed and the masons I chatted with all used mortar made from scratch, combining sand, cement and water in mechanical mixers to produce large batches at a time. My first problem was that none of this apparatus would fit in at my site, which had no place to store and mix sand and cement that would not have been an eyesore and in the way. Nor were industrial quantities of mortar actually needed for the relatively small and picky repair work I’d be attempting. How to access mortar in small quantities was an initial obstacle to getting started.
Bodged work stands out, doesn't last

Things stalled there for a while, until the puzzle of making mortar solved itself with the discovery that it came pre-mixed in 25-kilo bags – not exactly a blinding insight, but until you know of the possibility, it doesn't exist. I learned about it purely by chance, in a buddy’s back garden, when he enthusiastically shared his rather exuberant approach to building a low retaining wall. I watched fascinated as he whipped up a small batch of bagged mortar in a plastic pail (‘just add water and stir’), then proceeded to use another one of those pointed trowels to rather awkwardly place it. It was a eureka-moment - here was a way to make mortar that was manageable for repairs.

If sourcing mortar is essential, it’s also necessary to have tools suited to the work of mixing it up and placing it without undue mess. There things stayed murky a while longer. To repair an existing wall, you need a way of transferring small quantities of mortar to niches of varying size. This is quite picky work. And moist mortar is prone to sliding on metal, a bit unpredictably. And you need to place it with enough precision, in awkward spaces and at odd angles, to avoid marring the face of your stones. Otherwise, you risk the look of entombment, which is pointless and inartistic. 
Successive bodges mar this stone wall, which even drains aren't saving

Stone retreating behind mortar, now imprisoned in concrete

As I began preparing the breach for repair, I anxiously watched the opening enlarge beyond the apparent problem and the scale of the job increase in tandem. I'd improvised a partial solution to the transfer problem by selecting a compact drywall knife in preference to a trowel. Initially I chose it just to mix up the mortar in a pail – its continuing utility evolved naturally from there. A compact blade offers a horizontal platform from which small quantities of mortar can be eased into seams.  I am still using Quebec-made Richard knives to this day, both for repair and for new construction.
Impractical mason's trowel above, useful Richard knife below
Yet another tool was needed in order to transfer the mortar from the knife to the seam and to work it into place. One day, watching a city worker setting stones in a piece of sidewalk art, I noticed he was using a table knife to fill and dress the openings. He allowed that he’d ‘borrowed’ it many years back from his wife, but hadn't ever returned it. He used its narrow blade deftly to work the outside of the seam, so the mortar stayed within the lines and even had a bit of a finished look to it. 

Intrigued, I borrowed an older knife from my own kitchen, a strong but thin steel blade with a bit of ‘give’ to it. The combination of firmness and give enables a surface tension that’s useful in working mortar into crevices. It mimics the design of a mason’s pointing tool, which has a similar spring or tension to it. I soon realized I would need to get mortar into spaces too tight for the width of the knife's blade, so I also acquired several of the pointing tools used by masons (I'm still mystified why the mason I originally hired opted not to use pointing tools to push mortar into the seams!).
Basic tools: kitchen knife (right), Richard knife, four tuck pointers

While I was still stymied by the challenge of making mortar, I bravely allowed myself to start the job by removing the defective pieces. This phase of repair typically establishes the real scope of a project, as loose material behind the breach comes to light. Here it revealed the presence of a brick pier, obviously meant to support the verandah floor in the vertical plane but now tilting alarmingly due to brick disintegrating where it contacted wet ground. Evidently it was the movement of the pier that had caused the wall to crack and come apart. This new problem caused me some anxiety about proceeding at my skill level, but I decided it was better to know about it and attempt a repair than to neglect it and soon cause a bigger problem. I was also realizing I'd have to replace some rocks that had actually broken apart, and that compatible materials needed to be found.

Securing the brick pier before fixing the wall

Getting to the point of mortaring anything took a very long time, but a logic for placement emerged once I located some suitable stone and dry-fitted it as best I could. A skilled stone mason would be able to visualize an outcome without needing to mock it up, but as a beginner I needed to see in advance as best I could. The trick lies in finding material that mates well with what is already in place, so the patch doesn't call attention to itself. Here the challenge was to fill up the opening as much as possible with a single piece while maintaining a vertical alignment consistent with the rest of the wall. And then to place it and seal it as though it had always been there, leaving no blatant traces of repair. It complicated matters that in this location the bedrock dipped somewhat.
Candidate replacement stone being positioned for fit

There was a lot of loose rock lying about the place, but nothing that felt right for the opening I was dealing with. So I began scouring highway cuts and old excavations looking for local materials, which back then could more readily be found. Finding useable material is part of every job, and compatibility is always an issue when working on an existing structure and striving for seamless repair. Nothing shouts 'bodge' like stark contrasts in materials – unless it’s sloppily applied mortar. My first structure was well-weathered at seventy-five years of age, made of local stone of various colours and textures – the opposite of ‘green’ stone of uniform colour. Mating new and old was a challenge that had to be met with careful selection. 
Many years later the repair doesn't stand out unduly

Replacement stone is broadly compatible with the original rocks

Eventually I found what I thought was a suitable piece for the biggest opening, then assembled a supporting cast of smaller pieces to fill gaps to neighbouring stones as well as other crannies in the wall. It took a painfully long time to complete this small project, a result of proceeding slowly with awkward hands learning to slide mortar carefully into place (a moving target that) and then smooth it to a uniform face. A comparable awkwardness might be the one a boy experiences when first trying to guide a razor over the contours of the face. The kitchen knife however quickly proved invaluable, and in time a rudimentary process for transferring mortar also evolved. The trick was keeping it where wanted despite gravity-fueled tendencies to travel where it wasn't. I kept a wet sponge and toothbrush handy for cleaning sloppage from the stones. Vertical seams are bedeviling, even to this day. A special tool for vertical placement is an obvious gap in the repairer's tool bag.
Massive stone pier also needing base repair

When finally completed, this first project gave me a sense of satisfaction far beyond the modest scope of the work. I felt I’d opened a door to the world of stone building and won some knowledge through the execution of the work, despite offending many rules I was then totally unaware of. And while my hands would be busy with restorative projects indefinitely, completing just one prompted me to wonder what it would be like to make something from scratch. That experience actually lay close to hand: while passing many an hour staring at my repair's slow progress, I'd also noticed that the massive uprights supporting the verandah roof were beginning to come unglued at the base. While one of these could be repaired as was, my intuitive feeling was that the other needed a foot, or plinth, added to truly secure it. It appeared that there was a brick support at the heart of the stone pier, and that as with the wall, the bricks were spalling where the base sat on moist rock.

Looking back on it, this was a very big leap for a newbie. The implications were potentially large, because I was about to modify an original design that was substantially intact. Indeed, aesthetically and from a distance, it wasn't at all evident that anything needed to be done. But looked at closely and carefully, it was obvious that it did or else risk the integrity of the original column down the road. And I knew I wasn't capable of rebuilding that pier to its current standard. So I decided I would proceed by laying out the design for a base completely before placing any stone permanently – and only go ahead when I was satisfied it would be aesthetically compatible. This was a brave step along the problem-finding/problem-solving continuum.
Making the plinth to feel it was always there

This second job led to more searching for appropriate materials that fit the existing composition. It was only a minor amount of new construction, but visually it had to be right and so it too advanced at a glacial pace. As compatibility was imperative, I studied the shape of the existing construction and the way the rocks had been put together for a subtly rustic effect. Eventually, by endless playing around, I got what I thought was a goodish look, meaning one that didn't stand out as incongruous or arbitrary. And with my evolving skill in placing mortar, the job moved slowly but steadily forward in execution (new construction is far easier than repair for managing the mortar). When I look back on this small yet prominent project, I’m amazed I tackled it with so little experience. In effect, this repair is what launched me on the path of new building with stone. Looking at it twenty five years on, I take satisfaction from the fact that the eye doesn't notice anything amiss, that what was an original artistic ensemble before my hand was on it, remains one after.
Weathering elements like powder lichen help the plinth blend in

Down the line there were many such repairs (and still are) plus a whole lot of stacked garden walls between me and the next bit of new mortared construction. But my choice to tackle repair myself had launched me on a path that continues to elaborate itself 25 years on. I haven't become a stone mason by any means, and it's certainly too late to acquire true journeyman's skills in any systematic way, but my skills have developed in the ways needed to do the jobs of repair and addition required in my own milieu. And using those skills has become an increasingly expressive act that continues to hold my imagination. 
Dedication: this piece is affectionately dedicated to my too-early-departed friend Dennis McGann, a hugely talented designer, communicator, and artist
who, among many important things, inadvertently turned me on to bagged mortar. Dennis respected and cultivated craft in all his doings and equality in all his dealings with people. He was a fine person who is sorely missed.