We postponed the eviction as long as possible, but it was finally time to ask the bees to leave - politely, of course.

The first time we visited Comstock House in 2006 we observed that there was a thriving colony of bees buzzing around a cranny in the north wall. This was not of great concern; we planned to have the building tented and fumigated before we moved in, and the exterminators vowed there would be no creeping, crawling, gnawing, boring, or flying survivors of their lethal visit.

But those fumigators hadn't encountered our hearty honeybees. About six weeks later, an afternoon came when the north side was again black with a swarm. I asked my old neighbors at BeeKind in Sebastopol for help, and their "structural extraction" expert, Coral Pawka, made the first of his many visits. It was first hoped that the new activity represented scavengers from other colonies seeking to steal remaining free honey. But traffic continued; Coral placed a screen over the entrance (you can see the staples in the closeup below and video) to no avail; the bees still tunneled under, around, and ultimately in. There was no denying that The Bees were back.

BELOW: Coral Pawka removing the first honeycomb, June 26, 2009 (Photo: David Bacigalupi)

Bees rarely were spotted in the living areas of the house, so we were resigned that as long as they didn't bother us, we wouldn't bother them. Since there was still a honeycomb in the wall of unknown size, it was a good thing that a new generation of bees were homesteading it; in old house restoration forums, horror stories abound of deserted, oooozing honeycombs discovered rotting inside walls and causing mold problems. But the colony was large enough in 2009 to throw a swarm in March and another in May. Combined with the need to soon start reshingling the upper floors of the north wall, we were left with no choice but to evict our squatters.

The operation took about ninety minutes (condensed down to four minutes in our video) and was done by Coral Pawka. After smoking the entry hole, he ripped off the shingles quickly; sounds of cracking wood and the squeak of pulling nails apparently make bees uneasy -- yet actually pulling off the boards and exposing their world to the outside has a calming effect, because it relieves them of having to ventilate the hive by fanning the honey with their wings. Oh, the things we've unexpectedly learned.

This was a disorderly, "messy" comb that was a decade old or more, as shown by the deep brown brood comb. It was a popular location; besides our fumigation three years earlier, Martha Comstock Keegan says that her mother had someone come by to remove bees from that wall a few times in the 1970s or 1980s (although what those beekeepers did is unknown; clearly, the shingles, sidewall, and interior plaster had never been removed before now).

The final tally was approximately 4,500 bees; Coral Pawka, who, except for his bee hat, seemed better attired for a day at the beach, says he suffered only a handful of stings.

LEFT: Frest honeycomb RIGHT: Older, darker brood comb

LEFT: Bees at the hive entrance before start of removal (Photo: David Bacigalupi)
RIGHT: The same location after the hive was removed. Note that the back of the lath and plaster wall are shiny with residual honey.


Finishing the porch project meant that the largest job in the entire Comstock House restoration had to begin: reshingling the entire house.

(RIGHT: Jim Scotchler nails the first shingle, October 27, 2008)

I was anxious about starting the shingling phase, I confess. Despite months of research into shingle preservation treatments, the winning product was a dark horse that came up for consideration late, and I was using a custom formulation, to boot. My only real-world testing was spraying the treated shingles with chlorinated water for ten weeks during a hot summer. Would the stain hold up through winter storms, or would it wash off? Turn black in a few years? And what about those eastern white cedar shingles from Canada, eh? That wood was green, not kiln-dried ("they've been sitting in the yard for awhile, though," assured the helpful Oregon distributor); would they shrink or warp? My 4AM cold sweats were that we would spend ten$ of thousand$ on reshingling, then be faced with the sickening decision of whether to tear off everything and start again.

Also, my hopes of finding someone competent - or even willing - to lay the shingles were fading. One candidate showed up three weeks past our scheduled meet; another said he'd only take the job if I switched to Shakertown prefabricated panels ("ya can't tell the difference!" he barked); and another insisted that eastern white cedar shingles - which he'd never seen before - were just too flimsy to last more than a few years. Why yes, San Francisco Bay Area winters are far more severe than any wimpy New England nor'easter.

If I hadn't met James Scotchler, reshingling would have been limited in 2008 to replacing the shingles torn off the southeast corner during porch repairs. But Jim and I immediately hit it off, and we spent an hour lost in conversation about nails, weaving corners, the lamentable trend towards greater shingle exposure to save a few bucks, and more. He is indisputably the perfect man for this job, and it was our greatest good fortune that he was available.

Jim works with a simple set of hand tools that would all be familiar to the workmen who originally shingled Comstock House. Clockwise from left: A pry bar and hammer for removal of old shingles and nails; a measuring tape; a nail stripper (called a nail turner when it was patented in 1895) which hangs around his neck and dangles nails out a slot in the bottom; a block plane; a shingling hatchet with the type of gauge patented in 1875 to easily check the height of shingle exposure; a simple knife; a roofing speed square similar to the 1898 model. Not shown are the double-dipped zinc "Stormguard" nails made by Maze Nails, which Jim believes are the finest available today.

As his very first task, Jim Scotchler used a water level to set a precise level around the entire house, including corners. (You could spend upwards of $1,000 on a laser system to do the same thing, of course.) Using a cylinder filled with water to a certain height as his base measurement, Jim attached flexible plastic tubing that would show him that precise level found in the container anywhere around the house, assuring that the shingle courses would always line up. In the sequence below, he is shown preparing to set the level on a free-standing front porch column, using the previously established level on the nearby wall.

Each new shingle is first hand-dipped in a custom preservative mix by myself and allowed to dry for at least a day. Pictured below is an early version of the "shingle farm," where inverted wet shingles drip 'n' dry against a low fence of chicken wire. Thanks to efficiency suggestions from Jim and David Jessen (contractor and once a pro shake shaker), I was soon able to dip 3x this many shingles in the same amount of time.

As the worn shingles came off in demolition, three epochs became apparent. There were still some survivors from the original 1905 construction in out-of-the-way places, such as under the nook on the south side of the porch, those shingles dated by a mill stamp discussed in a separate Restora Obscura post. All three porches apparently were rebuilt at some time (c1950?) with the skirts and surrounding walls recovered. And finally, there was significant reshingling on the south side that probably followed repairs made after the 1969 earthquake. This shingling was done with varying degrees of skill, but even the better work shows they were unclear about their fundamental mission. The objective isn't just applying shingles to walls prettily - really the easy part - the goal is to protect the house with an absolutely impermeable wood skin.

The difference between James Scotchler's craftsmanship and his predecessors is best demonstrated with his care in weaving the shingles around corners of the house, seen at right. Shingles are interlaced, with alternating edges and finish nails as insurance against cupping. These corners are as tightly sealed as any flat stretch. By contrast, earlier shinglers worked straight up the current wall with no concern about the corners, so gaps appeared as the shingles warped. Water got in, via rain and the old poorly-aimed sprinkler system, which actually hit the house. Worse, bugs of all sorts found these gaps to be welcoming doorways.

A similar contrast can be found on the northeast inside corners. Jim's shingles are butted tightly against a 1x1 inch redwood strip; the old work shows no effort to seal the intersection.

The worst of the worst was found on the south wall at the second story level, where a layer of shingles was thrown on top of the original layer. The top shingles were also applied without care, with exposure depth varying between 4-6 inches and poor nailing. It not only looked funky, but was infested with wasps who found plenty of space for nest building between the layers.

To our surprise, Jim discovered that the west wall of the back room still had its original shingles - in the sheathing there were no nails hammered in, or holes from nails pulled. Ultra-worn shingles had been also found on the south wall (left, below), but that was somewhat expected because that side is heavily weathered by both sun and rain. In both locations, there were a few top courses that were more like cardboard thread, with only a few wood fibers remaining. In the photo to the right, a sheet of paper was delicately slipped behind the fragile remains of what was once a shingle one-third of an inch (about 8mm) thick.

Below: Stripping and reshingling the attic level was the greatest challenge. Once the old shingles and paper was removed, light flooded into the attic as not in a hundred years.

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