Monday, 18 September 2017

My Knobs' Patina


One of the eternal debates in restoration is "how much". We have all seen over-restored buildings which have lost their character. On the other hand, one would rather that one's restored building is distinctly distinguishable from a ruin. Where is the happy middle ground?

This, in microcosm, is the same debate when polishing brass. Too much polishing and it looks like new brass; too little polishing and the metal looks too tarnished.

Anyhow, I am currently polishing a job lot of brass door knobs. I have completed the 5 on the right stopping before I reach an overly polished look - which is often the flaw with modern brass items. The 4 on the left have some remaining lacquer coating, which accounts for the "gold" colour with brown regions where the  lacquer has worn off. In fact, I initially interpreted this look as gilding coming off and I avoided polishing to stop the loss of more gilding to expose the underlying unattractive surface, which I though might be iron.

The two in the middle have the full brown patina that brass develops over time: not unattractive but not the gleaming surface the Victorians aspired to. My personal preference is to have shiny highlights where human touch would naturally keep the surface shiny and tarnishing in the hollows. This combination celebrates the range of finishes and provides contrast.

In some people's eyes, I have over-polished the knobs. However, in time these will tarnish, so you can't really get it wrong. 

You can see some of the knobs have an appealing "rose brass" colour, where there is presumably a larger copper content.

And to end with a tip: wire wool is better and infinitely faster than Brasso to polish brass. :-)





polishing of my door knobs in progress

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Victorian Hardcore

Yesterday, as we had access to a digger, we decided to do some landscaping of the grounds of Balintore Castle. When I say "landscaping" please put away all notions of Capability Brown: this was removing dead trees, old tree stumps and the scrubby overgrown on the bank above the tennis court that had sprung up over the last 50 years or so. Two bonfires were kept burning throughout the day to remove the organic waste.

To finish-up,  Gregor started to clear away the mud he had churned-up on the east castle drive. To his great delight he discovered the original Victorian hardcore track hidden beneath a century or more of accumulated earth and grass.

The Victorian track turned out to be considerably wider than the current overgrown path extending in the uphill direction for at least another yard, so Gregor excavated the path and cut away the muddy banks on each side for a full 100 yard stretch.

The result of yesterday's endeavors was to turn what has always been a narrow, dark and damp path into an impressive, light and airy drive. When Gregor comes back from his holidays and if we get access to the digger again, I would love the whole drive to be excavated in this way. Car access to the castle would be immeasurably improved.

Sadly, I have no before photos as the improvement was a spontaneous decision!

newly excavated east drive - looking east

newly excavated east drive - looking west





Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Underfloor Heating: The Pour

I have put a short video of the start of the screed pour at the end of this blog entry, so if you are the impatient sort, you can jump right there! 

To say I was having kittens this morning is an understatement: there were so many ways today's screeding of the kitchen wing floor could go wrong.

I had followed the company's guidelines on arranging the sub-floor construction for a minimum screed depth of 50mm. However, I discovered on the company's costing spreadsheet just last night that they were only going to supply 40 mm! Their area estimate of 111 m2 gave in consequence their volume estimate of 4.4 m3. The company were only bringing 4.75 m3, so their tolerances were already very tight.

In last night's panic I did my own calculations using multiple depth measurements to get an average screed depth for each room. The kitchen in particular introduces huge uncertainty as the floor height is all over the place because it is above basement vaulting. The sub-floors of all the other rooms in the kitchen wing were installed at different depths so nothing was standard. This was despite me emailing plans to try to ensure consistency! :-) Anyhow, my own calculations gave a figure of 4.5 m3, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I was in the company's window. However, I had a niggling doubt that the screeding would run out because of the previously mentioned discrepancy, and dashed off an email to the company about the inconsistent depths in their documentation. I hoped this would cover my back.

Gregor and Andrew arrived early to hold my hand, which was very kind of them. However, when the workmen arrived from the screeding company, Andrew and Gregor headed off to do some landscape gardening in the grounds of the castle. No-one else wanted to take responsibility for the screeding so I had to be on site myself. Indeed supervising the screeding was the principal reason for my current stay at the castle, and I had known for years that no-one else wanted to do it. This is as it should be of course – I was paying the money – but it didn't make it any less nerve-racking.

I showed the workmen the room layout, the finished level I wanted and explained the existing irregularities in levels e.g. stone slabs at opposite ends of rooms which you would assume were at the same level, were out by up to 13mm. I even started miming with a slate tile, assuming that gesture and show would remove any ambiguity in what I was saying. One of the workmen must have picked-up my nervousness, as he said “We do this every day, we know what we are doing.”. I had no doubt they knew what they were doing, but was concerned they were doing it with my money :-) and that I had not communicated properly the non-standard requirements of the castle's restoration.

Before any pouring, the workmen placed a large number of small metal tripods in each room. Using a laser level the workmen screwed down a circular plate built into the tripod, to the final floor level. The pour would be complete when it reached the level of these circular plates. Using the measurements obtained the workmen came up with a figure of 5 m3. I was warned that, in consequence, they might need to fetch another lorry-load of screed and that this would cost me an arm and a leg. My panic increased!

The workmen wanted me to tape a few bits of pipe and a few lengths of expansion strip down to ensure they would not float during the pour. I was eager to oblige as I just didn't want anything to go wrong. During the pour, they said that by going just 2 millimetres lower in each room, that they thought they could manage with 4.75 m3. I readily agreed! There was another panic in the former scullery, as they had to go higher than the requested floor level to ensure some pipes would be properly covered - but would this cause the screed to run out?

So yes, I was on hand to make some quick real-time decisions – again as it should but my adrenalin was definitely on high! My mouth was going dry, and when your body responds, you know you are giving birth to kittens. :-)

There was a hump in one part of the kitchen floor, isolating a low area which I had identified as problematic. One of the workmen found this and asked if I wanted him to kick some screed in there. My response: “Yes, please!”

At one stage, I could see some pipes in the kitchen rising slightly above the surface of the screed. This is called “crowning” and I was trying to assess how bad it would be. However, the workmen do a second pass where they spray the screed with a hardener and tamp the surface with a T-shaped tool. Thankfully the crowning disappeared after this.


The whole pour only took about 30 minutes – much quicker than the preparations and indeed much quicker than the subsequent cleaning up. As the pumping finished in the last room with the workmen running out of screed, it looked to a first approximation that there had just been enough screed and that the levels were about right. I deliberately did not look too closely as what had been done was now a fait-accompli and I could check things over accurately once the screed had dried. I was too worried about falling into the liquid screed, and spoiling the good judgement and care which had accompanied the pour.

I was asked if they could pump out the remaining contents of the wide bore pipe on the grass. I asked “Well how much is in there?” as I didn't want to pollute the castle grounds. It turned out there would be quite a lot, so I asked if they could fill some containers instead and I could use this to fill voids in the entrance hall floor. We had cleared out the entrance hall just in case there was any remaining screed. In the end we managed to get a couple of full barrow loads on the entrance hall floor. This was some last minute running around I was not expecting – and yes I was panicing! :-)

The most important thing, I guess, is that the membrane Andrew installed did not leak – hurrah! We had gone round this a number of times taping any holes or places where leaks might occur.

In fact the screeding is such a major and long anticipated landmark that I cannot believe it has actually happened. Acceptance may take some time, perhaps after 48 hours when one can actually walk on it? I will do another blog entry with the "after pour" pictures.

Huge thanks to Danny and Norbert of East-West Flooring for bringing their professional and good-humoured charm to a stressed-out castle laird!




kitchen tripod invasion 
scullery tripod invasion

pantry tripod invasion

bowser from front

bowser from rear

bowser from side

 Danny (bucket) and Norbert (hose) in action


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Underfloor Heating: Ready for Pour

The pour of the liquid screed floor in the kitchen wing at Balintore Castle is teetering on the brink of becoming a reality. :-) This has been delayed 3 years by a variety of factors, out of my control sadly, and this part of the castle has in consequence been frustratingly unusable for all of that time as everything had been pulled out in preparation. Things get real this Tuesday when the workmen arrive, so fingers crossed there are no leaks in the black plastic membrane, or the wine cellars beneath will be filled at £300 per extra cubic metre !

This blog post forms a room-by-room visual record of the kitchen wing before the pour and could form a useful resource when locating the pipes in the future. If there are two views, one will be the reverse angle to get all the pipework on camera.


Many thanks to Andrew for his sterling work in laying the pipes - he invented two special tools to get the job done! :-)

Covered Walkway

Note Andrew's wiggle when an odd number of runs fits the width! The boards protect the pipe as we need access through the utility room door.



Bedroom 1 (former Coal Cellar)


Utility Room (former Dairy Larder)


Bathroom (former Meat Larder)


Bedroom 2 (former Pantry)




Bedroom 3 / Snug (former Scullery)



Kitchen/Living Room (former Kitchen)


Under my intimations of its superior heat distribution, Andrew branched out from his pedestrian boustrophedon to a archimedean spiral, nay, a double spiral due to the size of the kitchen floor area.




Corridor Radiators

The slab floor is intact only in a single room in the kitchen wing. So for this room (an interior corridor) we had to use two large radiators instead of underfloor pipes. These radiators and a few others were obtained for the princely sum of £1.19 on eBay and fit the window alcoves perfectly. This is not a coincidence, this was years of searching! :-) The radiators come from a mansion flat next to the Albert Hall in London. Needless-to-say the shipping was the more expensive part of the bargain.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Saving Mr. Frog

Today's good weather made it the day for laying the oil pipe for Balintore Castle's kitchen wing. The trench had been dug earlier, but the oil pipe and ducting to protect the pipe underground had only arrived late yesterday.

Unfortunately the 50 metre run of 50 mm ducting I had bought came as two 25 metre rolls - definitely not as advertised. Thankfully my friend Andrew came up with his own way to connect ducting, employing a section of plastic down pipe and some duct tape.




connecting ducting: stage 1



connecting ducting: stage 2



connecting ducting: stage 3

We had previously dug in 100 mm yellow ducting under the "track" round the castle so access round the building was maintained. Today's job was to insert the 50 mm black ducting through the 100 mm yellow ducting, and to insert the 15 mm oil pipe inside the black ducting. This reminded me somewhat of the Arab dish where you stuff chicken inside sheep, and then stuff the sheep inside a camel!

The debate was the order we did the stuffing, where to do this, and in which direction. It could have gone any way. The following was our approach and thankfully it did work out:


  1. push the 50 mm ducting through 100 mm ducting starting at the oil boiler end
  2. pull the end of the emerging 50 mm ducting laying it on the surface
  3. push the 15 mm oil pipe through the 50 mm ducting starting at the oil boiler end
  4. pull the end of the emerging 15 mm oil pipe and take it to the location of the oil tank
  5. pull the second 25 metre roll of 50 mm ducting over the oil pipe from the tank end
  6. join the ends of the 50 mm ducting
  7. back-fill with digger


I jumped into the trench to hand dig out the highest parts as the oil pipe / ducting combo was following a bit of a roller coaster trajectory. It felt like being in a WWI trench. Then I spotted the Mr. Frog. 


Mr. Frog stuck in trench


There was no way he could get out on his own and he was going to be entombed by the back filling. However, Mr. Frog did not want to be caught and he sure knows how to hop! Finally, I had Mr. Frog in my hands and asked Andrew to take him and release him away from the trench (which I myself at that moment was stuck in). However, Andrew did not want to touch Mr. Frog and in his moment of his hesitation, Mr. Frog hopped out of my hands back into the trench. A second, third and fourth chase ensured as Mr. Frog kept escaping from my hands. Finally, I got him on the edge of the trench and Andrew took him away on a spade.


Mr. Frog being rescued


Andrew cleared a large section of the slope between the east drive and the castle terrace of dead tree roots and whole scrubby trees. It's amazing the power the digger has to literally uproot these in a single action! As we rolled a tree stump down the bank, I spotted Mr. Frog in the immediate path of the stump. How ironic, we had saved him from being entombed only to then squash him! There was nothing I could do. As I was about to tell Andrew what we had done, there sat Mr. Frog unscathed and blinking at us. I was happy again!


the tree root that almost squashed Mr. Frog



Thursday, 7 September 2017

Installing Oil Pipeline

Apologies for not updating this blog as frequently as I would like in recent months, but rest assured restoration activity at Balintore Castle has taken priority over blog writing, which is as things should be. Recent work has focused on the kitchen wing to catch that time window before winter weather makes everything much more difficult.

The underfloor heating pipes in the kitchen wing have now been laid by my friend Andrew, and these are currently awaiting the "the big pour" of liquid anhydrite screed by a specialised company. This is scheduled for Tuesday September 12th, and I can't wait for this to happen as it is the major turning point for the kitchen wing. Once the floor is down, we can start building upwards. In fact, everything was pulled out of the kitchen wing in preparation around 2 years ago, so the whole area has been frustratingly unusable.

The other side of the heating system is installing the boiler and oil tank. My previous intention was to install a Ground Source Heap Pump (GSHP) as a heat source, but after contacting a few firms the capital cost emerged as sufficiently high that it would jeopardise the whole project. I still intend to install a GSHP longer term, but in the short term using oil makes economic sense as the installation is so much simpler.

To this end, Andrew was generously loaned a digger for free, and we have been digging in the oil pipe ourselves. :-) We need a 50 metre run, starting in the boiler room (the narrow window with 3 panes); coming out perpendicular to the wall and then turning a right angle northwards to reach the oil tank on the bank by the track - so that it can be filled easily by the tankers.

I have attached some pictures of the trenching work in process. These will also form a useful visual record of the location of the pipeline! :-)




yellow sheathing running from boiler room to 90 degree bend
Andrew has worked as an agricultural mechanic on New Holland equipment, and commented that he has always wanted to work with one of their diggers instead of just fixing them. Andrew: your wish has been granted! You can see the smile on his face.
Andrew in digger action
The metre deep trench revealed that the ground underneath the castle terrace, after a thin layer of top soil, largely consists of a very claggy clay. We suspect that this clay was brought from nearby in Victorian times to level out the terrace.

Bill and Gregor inspecting Andrew's trench from the 90 degree bend to the bank beside the path
Having a digger also allowed us to start landscaping the site around the castle which has been overgrown and neglected for many years. We have pulled out dead tree stumps, carried away fallen branches and trees, buried rubble and cut back overgrown yew trees.

Cutting back the yew trees, in particular, has brought in much more light, and we are starting to appreciate the grounds as the garden they once were. The picture below shows the start of the yew branch bonfire. It is now considerably bigger.

I am a somewhat reluctant gardener at the best of times, but seeing the slope from the east drive to the castle terrace emerge from the overgrowth, made me want to install a feature similar to the iconic water cascade at Chatsworth! Watch this space. :-)


In the meantime, the pruned yew branches have built a respectable bonfire!


yew branches cut away from oil tank location piled into bonfire configuration

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Gate Lodges: Tim's Plans

Having recently purchased the gate lodges of Balintore Castle, thoughts naturally go to how these structures could be brought back into use. So when my friend Tim asked me if he could measure up the buildings and draw up plans as a project for his course on historic building design, I was delighted. Tim is the presiding genius behind "The Big House Instagrammed" which is a Facebook page featuring country houses around the UK, with an emphasis on the ruined and the Welsh.

Tim's project brief was to design a modern element as part of a suggested reuse of a historic structure, and in the three plans below he has succeeded spectacularly. He even got an A for the project! The proposal includes a small glass extension to the east lodge. Due to the size of the lodges Tim did not want to make the extension too big. Ironically, neither of us is a huge fan of the current vogue for adding glass extensions to historic buildings. 

Tim has used both lodges, splitting them up into "day living" and "night living".  Both lodges have a toilet ;-) to avoid any midnight trips across the drive to the other lodge. Little did Tim know that this echos the historic use of the buildings, with a bedroom in the west lodge and east lodge containing the remainder of the domestic accommodation. I recently found this out in a phone conversation with David Storrier who I mention in a previous blog entry.

Click on the images for an enlarged view, and click on the image captions to access the original PDF files.

Balintore gate lodges - proposed external plans 

Balintore gate lodges - proposed floor plan
Tim's plans really work well as a ground level solution. He has obviously thought about the layout very carefully, and the kitchen is a triumph of resourcefulness with units against the existing wall and glass elsewhere. This would definitely appeal to the tourist market, if the gate lodges became holiday lets. Plenty of food for thought in these plans. The gate lodges are surprisingly tall, and there is additional scope for a mezzanine level or an upper floor to relieve the accommodation pressure which forces split-lodge living.

Thank you Tim!