If you've ever tackled any type of renovation or home improvement project in an old house, then you know full well how that 1 project tends to bleed into some number of neighboring rooms or floors or entire additional projects. That's the situation I find myself in with the basement.
My near-term goal was to remove the bathroom from the basement. That's it. Yada yada yada, I'm now engaged in a variety of activities from one end of the basement to the other. One of those activities is excavating the remnants of an old curb of sorts in the southwest corner of the basement so I can finish repointing that area and then pour back the missing sections of curb (even though I have no idea what purpose they served).
While digging out crumbling mortar and broken bits of concrete/granitoid floor from the missing section of curb, I discovered this buried in the dirt:
It's a piece of clear, super thin glass with some embossed words and letters: "OTTO", "PHARM", "GRAND & GR", and "ST LO". I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I'm pretty sure that if I had the rest of the bottle or whatever this came from, it'd say something like this:
OTTO (LAST NAME)
GRAND & GRAVOIS
You know I had to find out as much as I could about Otto and his pharmacy.
Here's what I came up with.
Otto was Otto Ude, a seemingly well-known south city pharmacist and postal clerk who operated a pharmacy at 3600 South Grand Avenue from 1887 through 1939. Right outta the gate my first question is how does a piece of a broken bottle that can't possibly date any further back than 1887 wind up under the basement floor of a house built in 1878? I'll come back to this later.
First, let's back up a hair. 1876. The area around the Grand & Gravois (pronounced, correctly or incorrectly, GRA-voy) intersection was farm country.
For the uninitiated, most of St. Louis's streets follow a traditional grid system and run north-south (like Grand) or east-west. Gravois is one of the few oddball streets that runs diagonally across the map, making for some goofy intersections with the gridded streets. Anyhow, the area around Grand & Gravois was farmland in 1876.
By 1903, 16 years after Otto had opened his pharmacy, the area had begun to develop.
That was Otto's pharmacy for 50+ years, 3600 South Grand Avenue, about 1.5 miles from my house, and where the broken piece of glass I found originated.
So who was Otto Ude?
Let's start with Otto's dad, George Ude.
George Ude was a prominent north side druggist who, at one time, also served as the President of the St. Louis College of Pharmacy AND was the Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge. During the Civil War, he'd been a lieutenant in the 1st Missouri Light Artillery Regiment.
George seemed to like the attention that came with his lofty community standing and successful pharmacy business, and landed somewhere between being a lady's man and a creepy old dude. Maybe he was a bit of both. In 1892 he went missing for a few days; his oldest son Waldemar, a physician, suspected he had eloped.
That was Otto's dad, and likely the inspiration for Otto's foray into the pharmacological world.
Otto Ude was born in 1866 and - surprise, surprise - attended the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, where he graduated in 1884. That meant that at the ripe old age of 18, Otto had received all the education one needed at the time to become a pharmacist.
In September of 1887, Otto Ude opened a pharmacy at the intersection of Grand & Gravois in south St. Louis. Per newspaper accounts of the day, Otto was just as likely to fill prescriptions for people as he was to fill prescriptions for cattle.
At some point Otto married Christine Eime, evidently one of the first female pharmacists in the St. Louis area, and they'd go on to have 2 children, Freida and Edgar. Edgar fought and was wounded in WWI, but survived. A graduate of what's now known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology (formerly the University of Missouri - Rolla), Edgar retired in 1957 from the Phelps Dodge Corporation, having served as their chief chemist. Freida is sort of a mystery, as is usually the case with females due to being referenced in old records by their husband's name, not their own.
Otto, like his father, was involved in a variety of business and political endeavors. He served as the President of the 11th Ward Republican Club in the late 19th century, he was an officer in the Southwestern Mercantile Association, and he was a postal clerk, having had the Gravois (Postal) Station installed in a back room of his drug store in 1898.
In 1939, he retired. The newspaper account will do a better job of summarizing some of his achievements over the years than I could, so here's the clipping:
Given Otto Ude's pharmacy's prominent location at the intersection of what would become two very busy streets, and given that his occupation was one that was relied on by countless people, he was a well-known and cherished individual. The 1907 South Grand Avenue Review summed things up pretty well:
OTTO UDE - Druggist
Grand and Gravois
There is no man of greater importance in any community than the druggist on the corner. We go to him when we are ill and we go to use his telephone and bother him with questions, when we are well, his store is a bureau of information, the post office, newspaper advertising branch, the express office, and the popular meeting place of the neighborhood. We buy from him everything from carefully compounded medicines, when we are sick, to ice cream soda and bon bons, for out best girl, when we are well. He's everybody's friend and everybody comes and goes in his establishment, as if they held an interest in the place. Well, everybody feels an interest, even if theo don't hold it, in the drug store on the corner, and they and everybody makes himself pretty much at home if the druggist happens to be the right sort, and the store prospers. Such a popular establishment is conducted by Mr. OTTO UDE, located at Grand and Gravois. The store is handsomely fitted up, and everything is installed for the comfort and convenience of the patrons, including a fine soda fountain, where delicious drinks are served. The prescription department is under the personal supervision of Mr. Ude, and only the purest drugs are used. Every courtesy is extended all patrons and the corner is very popular.
Otto Ude, neighborhood fixture for 50+ years, son of a Civil War veteran, father of a WWI veteran, and husband to a pioneering female, passed away in 1947. I hope he enjoyed his post-retirement years.
As for how the broken glass, which couldn't be older than 1887, and how it came to rest under the basement floor that I thought was built in 1878...as it turns out, there are multiple layers of basement floor concrete. The granitoid finish, it looks like it was added some years after the original construction, and my suspicion is that when the basement got a makeover sometime in the 1910s or 1920s, that's when the floor was redone as well. That's when a bottle of who knows what from Otto Ude's drugstore was left on the basement floor and covered over with concrete and mortar.
So maybe the basement floor, the top layer, isn't entirely original. That said, it looks like the original, bottom layer of concrete is the exact same composition as the stuff used to make the pool I unearthed in the yard, so maybe the pool is older than I originally thought.
Regardless...that little chunk of glass, which is crazy thin and fragile and I have no idea how I didn't destroy it with how I was attacking the demo...it was a pretty rad find.
Maybe a week ago, I got myself this pole saw:
It extends up to 30', which in reality, is a super insane amount of reach. But, it's allowed me to get to tree limbs I had no other rational way of reaching previously, and has been worth every penny. However, the tree karma powers that be did not appreciate the purchase.
Yesterday, NYE 2020, I threw a pic of the house on instagram and gave it some foo-foo verbiage regarding 2020 not being the end of the world, hopefully 2021 will be better, blah blah blah. Here's that pic:
Again, the karma fairies weren't happy with my dismissal of 2020 and eagerness to get the 2021 show on the road.
How do I know these things? Because today, 1/1/2021, I woke up and, when I let the dogs outside first thing in the morning, discovered this:
And all of it came from this:
That tree is stupid tall, and of all the trees in the yard, was probably the most complete and sturdy-lookin' of the bunch (aside from its lean, thanks to the maple tree in the front yard).
Not anymore. The bulk of the upper half of the left side of the tree came down sometime last night. I don't know if the limbs fell independently of each other, or if a couple fell from waaaay up high and took out the rest on the way down, but there were a LOT of limbs - big ones - on the ground this morning.
What made the limbs fall? Ice.
Everything was covered with ice overnight, and the weight of the ice on the limbs, which are already pretty heavy and droopy to begin with, was too much for a lot of the limbs to bear.
I was out in the yard, all bundled up -- it was raining and cold and icy and muddy and sucky all the way around -- with my saws by about 8am. One of my helpers came out for some moral support:
From there, it was cut, drag, stack, repeat. Somehow, as far as I can tell, in all the carnage there wasn't any damage to fences or houses or anything like that, so that's a plus. And the yard's gonna smell all piney and Christmasy for a while, so that's OK too.
But man, those limbs were BIG and because they were all green, pretty heavy. I probably had 3 dozen substantial limbs come down, many of which were definitely chainsaw-worthy. I wound up with a pile of brush that's almost 6' tall, and plenty of stuff I still need to cut up.
I would have completed the job, but limbs were still snapping off and falling. I was doing my cutting outside the tree's canopy and marginally out of harm's way, but at one point I had to just drop a saw and run; I was out from under the tree but I had my back to it, heard a big snap, and didn't bother turning around to see what came next...I just ran.
Several limbs had snapped off but were hung up in the tree, and I figured it was better to try to bring them down on my own versus letting them dangle and come down whenever they felt like it. Both dogs do a lot of sniffing around near that tree, and the last thing I wanted was for a limb to come down on a dog.
So I got out the big 30' pole saw, got 'er undone to maybe 20' or 25', and started cutting and poking and pulling and pushing and prying, whatever it took to get the rest of the limbs down.
I was successful, but it was a dicey operation. With one of the limbs, I had to do another drop-the-saw-and-run maneuver. With another big limb, I should have done that but didn't, and calculated that the limb would miss me when it fell. I also hedged my bets by being ready to act in case it didn't.
Luckily it did and everything worked out fine, but at that point I decided to put everything away, go inside, and wait for better conditions before finishing the project. The limbs can wait. I can't put them back in the tree, what's done is done. I've got a mess of needles to clean up and, now, another wonky-lookin' tree, but Mother Nature does what Mother Nature does and sometimes there isn't much anybody can do about it.
The good news?
The basement work had been wearin' me out and I hadn't been attacking it these past couple days. Now...working inside, staying dry, causing damage that I'm pretty much in control of, not having big, heavy ass things try to fall on me...it doesn't sound so bad.
(But I still really kinda wish 2021 had NOT started out this way...)
Until a few days ago, there was a full bathroom in the basement. It was located here:
Now, there are zero full bathrooms in the basement. There is, however, a substantial mess to clean up, but that's a story for another day.
I didn't want to demo the basement bathroom - which I'm not going to replace - just yet because going from 2 full bathrooms to 1 full bathroom will present some hygiene challenges when it comes time to redo the lone remaining bathroom. However, the basement bathroom was in the way of tackling some critical projects so she had to go, and I'll cross the hygiene bridge when I get to it.
The exterior of the bathroom walls looked like this:
The inside of the bathroom looked about like this:
Standard stuff: tile floor, shower, sink, toilet, wallpaper on drywall, cooked GFCI outlet, etc. I wound up demo'ing the space because 1, I'd already torn into it a little bit during a recent round of demousification,
and 2, there's a big beam I want to replace and the western bathroom wall was right up on it. I'll have to build a litany of temporary walls during the project to support the main floor, and some of those temporary walls will have to go where the bathroom was.
The demo hasn't been all that exciting, but the bathroom - like the rest of the "finished" basement - is a weird mix of stuff that looks like it was done by legit tradespeople, and stuff that looks like it wasn't even done well by amateur DIY standards. As such, and because I'm living in the house and need its MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) systems up and running, all demo is really more like deconstruction, because there's no telling what's hiding inside the walls.
For example, there are dozens of junction boxes buried in the walls (that's a code no-no) and, in general, rat's nest wiring:
Knowing that's what's in the walls and ceiling, I can't just get real feisty with the sawzall or even a hammer or pry bar.
There are plumbing setups that some people, myself included, frown upon, like this:
That's a galvanized nipple threaded into a brass fitting. I won't bore you with the science that doesn't even seem to be universally agreed upon, but short version, that setup (galvanized steel in an otherwise copper/brass system) has caused corrosion inside the galvanized nipple. I didn't take a real good pic of it, but it's there and if let go long enough, it would drastically diminish the inside diameter of the pipe and subsequently drastically diminish the water pressure coming out of the shower head.
Some people say this situation (galvanic corrosion) doesn't occur with a setup like this, but I've seen it with my own eyes. Between that and the ridiculous number of elbows used in the plumbing to zigzag around all sorts of stuff, I'm led to believe that maybe the work was performed by somebody other than a true professional or somebody who really knew what they were doing. Just like with the electric, this means I have to proceed cautiously and tread lightly.
Oh, and I can't forget the mice. They made homes everywhere, like here:
If you look kinda closely, you can see little bits of chewed up insulation paper facing all piled up across the door jamb. That's the work of some rogue mice. Because I don't enjoy having dead mice rain down on me, all ceiling demo is done halfway slowly so when things do come down, I'm not directly in the line of fire.
Otherwise, the demo has progressed about as well as could be expected without having a dumpster on site. The massive pile of demo'd material in the floor gets in the way a bit, but I'll get to enjoy the long, arduous walks out to a street-staged dumpster soon enough.
The tedium of deconstruction hasn't been without a few exciting moments.
When peeling back the drywall around the window, I realized that the original window casing had been left in place:
It's not real noteworthy from an architectural point of view, but it's always interesting to see how something was originally finished. And since none of the other basement windows had any of the original casing, I wasn't expecting to find any on this one, the last one to undergo any demo. But there it is, and it looks to have been 2-, if not 3-piece casing with a little bead detail in the apron. Pretty fancy for a basement window!
The other thing that caught my eye was the paint job on the plaster wall that was behind the more modern wood-framed wall:
I don't think the paint is original to the house's construction date, but it's certainly plenty old, and it's sort of amazing (to me, anyhow) that way back when, somebody didn't just throw 1 color on the wall, they took the time to paint kind of a faux wainscot/panel thing.
In a basement.
These old houses, especially the smaller ones like mine, there wasn't an inch of wasted space. Granted, the space may not have been used all that efficiently and 19th century floor plans are typically deemed functionally obsolete by today's standards, but still...this was the work of somebody who had such a deep appreciation for what they had that they wanted to dress things up - including finished plaster walls in basements in a pretty small house - any chance they got.
Anyhow...that's where things stand now. The dumpster gets here in a couple days, and work will resume...after about 50 trips carrying debris out to the street.
That's my house.
If you Google Street View my house, that's it.
You can scroll up and down the street a little bit thinking you'll find a decent angle to peek through the trees and see the house, but you can't. It's just overgrown shit jungle, nothing more.
That's my house, if you Google Street View it.
Look in the bottom right hand corner of the pic, see the downed tree branch? Per the neighbors, that was a regular occurrence. The trees - and yard in general - went unmaintained for years, big tree limbs got too heavy from the burden of carrying weight they shouldn't have been carrying and/or they died from any number of things, and they'd fall to the ground.
And they'd lay there, sometimes across the sidewalk, sometimes across a fence, sometimes in a neighbor's yard, until somebody other than the homeowner offered to take care of the mess.
If you Google Street View my house, that's it. And it's f'n embarrassing.
On the one hand, I see that image and I cringe because I wanted to be farther along on this rehab project than I currently am (if you know me IRL, you know that I could have finished the entire project in 4 months and I'd be pissed that it took me THAT long). The only places where I made any noticeable progress in 2020 are the basement - where I never go unless I'm working on it or doing laundry - and the yard, which isn't saying much because the shit show couldn't possibly get any worse than it was when I closed on the place.
Needless to say, the basement is far from done and so is the yard. When viewed in that light, it's all a bit disappointing.
But I'm not viewing it in that light.
That's the house, my house, a few days ago.
Truth is, I made a shit load of progress in the basement. I probably still have a mice or 17 scampering around the space, but whatever. The basement is 95% gutted. The basement is dry. The basement is dangerously close to being ready to support some big, big noise that I'll get around to making sooner or later on the main floor, and it's ready because I personally removed about 9 million loads of nasty drywall, framing, insulation, suspended ceiling, plaster, mouse carcasses, and plywood that had made the place a wreck.
And the yard...like I said, far from done. Ridiculously far. But it's come a ridiculously long way, too, and I have the yard waste dumpster receipts and fire pit ash to prove it. No more tree limbs on or against the house. No more invasive Japanese Knotwood, all of which I pulled out by hand. Trees and bushes have been trimmed about as much as I can trim them from the ground, or roof, or bed of my truck. The neighbor to the east cut down a bunch of overgrown hedge and vine stuff along our shared fence, because he no longer felt like he needed to screen his yard from the ignorance that had gone on in mine before I bought the place. I found some sort of ancient, super rad pool, buried and seemingly lost forever. 5 cubic yards of masonry garbage was dug up and removed. I actually got some grass to grow.
Now, Roscoe is getting increasingly comfortable spending time in the yard, and Freckles...she'd live out there if I let her. She's still got that puppy energy, she loves to run, and she LOVES playing "fetch", so I spend a lot of time out there with here; I can't tell you how many people walk past the house and do double takes, or how many neighbors compliment my efforts, after seeing the place in the shape it was in for years and years and years.
I could tell you all about the things I wished I'd have gotten done this year, or my frustration with being limited in some cases, like with the giant maple tree in the front yard (I can cut limbs down...but I can't regrow the big upper ones that are long gone), but really, anything in 2020 that isn't a total disaster is borderline cause for celebration.
I work in construction management for a global life science company that does something like $18B in annual sales. We make, currently, over 100 products that go into COVID vaccines, test kits, etc., although the number of overall products in the company's portfolio is something like 300,000. We have 8 facilities - some production, some administrative - in St. Louis, and I couldn't tell you how many worldwide but it's a crazy number. The St. Louis group, which consists of about 2,500 employees, spends something like $20M annually on capital projects and I help manage them. Could be new parking lots, could be office renovations, or, like right now (among several projects I have to get wrapped up by 12/31), it could be a 4,000 SF lab/freezer farm/cubicle area to support the production of some component of a COVID vaccine.
When the virus first became something of widespread concern, most of the non-production personnel were directed to work from home. Our engineering group, of which I'm a part, fell into a weird half-and-half category. The older members of the group were told to work from home, period. The non-older members of the group - 4 of us - were assigned to specific facilities, asked to work from home every other day, and on the days we could come to our designated sites, we had to work from our vehicles in the parking lots. No going into the buildings. We tried to continue with our projects, but it was tough.
A few months back, due to some retirements in the group and very, very slightly relaxed virus protocols (and after the addition of all sorts of cameras and gadgets and temperature scan things installed at every door of every facility) the engineering group was allowed to come back to work, on site, full-time. But it's weird. The building where my desk is, it normally has about 900 employees; now it has maybe 50. Total ghost town. Empty cafeteria. Giant chunks of empty building. Empty parking lot. Silence.
But we've pushed forward as best we can. We've had something like 70 positive virus cases among employees, and who knows how many times that number of quarantines due to contract tracing. One of our guys lost his wife. Some of our vendors, big burly construction types, have gotten choked up when telling us that they can't do a site visit because they're quarantined at home while a spouse is in the hospital struggling with the virus.
Recently, one of my colleagues' wife tested positive, so he had to quarantine for 2 weeks. When he was ready to come back, he tested positive and the 2-week clock started all over again. Between that and 2 retirements in August/September, that means instead of 4 people doing what I do, which we had when the year started, right now we have 1: me.
The end of the year is always insane, as department managers try to spend every last dollar they can for budgetary reasons. With 4 people, it'd be insane. With just me...if I can tread water each day, I call that a victory. My day may start at our Spruce facility with the lab project, but then I have to go check on a flatwork project at our Dekalb facility. If I'm lucky, I may have time to squeeze in a trip to the roof to see how the roofers are doing. While I'm on that side of town I stop by the Cherokee facility to check out a locker room renovation, then it's over to the Broadway facility to see how the exterior concrete work is going. Then it's back to Spruce, and probably the Laclede facility as well since it's just across Market and we have security upgrade work taking place at both locations. Lots of phone calls, emails, texts. Dealing with EHS. Dealing with security. Punchlists. Getting approvals for crane lifts and hot work and flammable coating applications. Figuring out incorrect invoices, submitting purchase orders, answering contractor questions about design, or laydown areas, or what work can be done one what days and at what times.
And that's before lunch.
After lunch, it's the same thing all over again, although the real fires don't usually seem to crop up until about 2pm, which makes the end of every day a total fiasco.
I've worked holidays, Saturdays, Sundays - today was the final day of a 13-straight-day stretch - and the last day where I only clocked 8 hours...probably back in September.
Long story short...the paychecks are cool, but the house rehab...just hasn't been a whole lot of time for it lately. But it's OK. The virus will pass, at some point, and I've been fortunate to remain employed and relatively unaffected personally by the virus. The house is under control, I got 1 of 2 student loans paid off in the meantime, and before too long, the stars will line up just right and I'll really be able to get after this rehab project.
Last weekend I decided that I wanted to decorate the house a bit for Christmas. I don't have any exterior receptacles near the front of the house, so lighting was out. I settled on a couple big red bows, partially because options were pretty limited (shelves were empty). But I got them attached to the front porches columns, I stuck a couple electric candle thingies in the window, and that's good enough for this year. I haven't decorated a house of my own for Christmas maybe ever, so it's a start.
And that's the point. This little house - I really like it more and more each day - needs a shit load of work, and it'll get done at some point. But all things considered, I'm pretty happy with the start that I got.
Let's get this outta the way first: if you're not startin' your days off with a 3+ mile hike through the woods with 2 dogs, you're missin' out. There are lessons to be learned (or, at least reminded of) and fun to be had.
Roscoe, the elder statesman of the two, he's been on literally 1,000s of hikes and park excursions in his nearly 12 years of life, so it's all old news to him. He doesn't move as fast or nimbly as he once did, but he still gets the job done and he still enjoys doing it.
Freckles, who is 14 months old, she's learning how to navigate things without being leashed. She's done pretty well with it so far, although I have to be selective with where we go and what times we go there. She REALLY enjoys the hikes.
Taking the 2 out on hikes (or, "adventures") is very much like the real life version of the story of the tortoise and the hare. Roscoe moves at a solid, steady clip. He won't dazzle anybody with athleticism or daredevil shenanigans, but he's reliable, calm, and seems to always think of a way to overcome (go around, really) any obstacle he encounters. Freckles would sprint everywhere she goes if I let her, and she really likes being the frontrunner. She's not very big and doesn't always make great choices, but she ATTACKS life with a ridiculous level of fearlessness and excitement.
When it comes to the basement repointing effort, inspiration can be drawn from both dogs.
On the one hand, there's, like, 8 million stones that have to get repointed. If I think about it in those terms, it gets a little overwhelming and I have to remind myself that if I tackle the work in small, manageable chunks - slow and steady wins the race, right? - I'll eventually have it all knocked out.
On the other hand, because I can overthink just about anything to death, when I encounter a masonry situation I'm not real familiar with or know how to handle, I do my best to NOT think about it too much and, instead, just get after it. The hare didn't win the race, but it probably didn't get too hung up on any trivial details in its pursuit of victory.
I am not a mason, nor have I ever really done any repointing work. The exterior brick needs it pretty badly in several spots and rather than learn on the outside of the house, where all the world can see my work (and mistakes), I figured I'd cut my repointing teeth in the basement, where a few sections of wall could stand to be redone and if any of it turned out horribly, not too many people will ever see it.
So, what have I learned in the early stages of my basement repointing effort?
Before I started repointing anything, I watched about 3 dozen YouTube videos where I saw about 3 dozen different repointing methods employed, each one claiming to be the "right" way to repoint stone. Awesome.
Which mortar does one use? Type N? Type S? Type O? Type M? The differences between the mortar types boil down to their ratio of cement to lime to sand. In theory, different mortars are good in different situations, but for example, a lot of people will disagree about when and where to use Type N vs. Type S. In my case, I chose Type N; it's a good general purpose mortar and because my foundation stone is limestone, Type S's compressive strength is a little steep.
Am I supposed to prep the stone with a little water before slapping in the mortar, or do I apply the mortar to completely dry stone? I hit the cleaned out joints with a couple shots of water from a squirt bottle. Sure, it adds a miniscule amount of water to the mortar and potentially causes it to cure to a marginally lower strength than if I hadn't introduced the water, but the water 1, knocks down the dust on the stone, allowing the mortar to adhere to the stone better than if the stone were dry, and 2, it works as a bit of a lubricant, enabling me to really push the mortar waaaay back into the deeper spots I can't reasonably get to with any tools.
What tool(s) do I use to apply the mortar? A trowel? A jointer? A spoon? The palm of my hand? 99% of the time, I use a grout bag and a couple small jointers. Occasionally I may use a trowel to smooth out a mortar surface, or maybe apply the mortar by picking some up with the trowel and sliding it into a joint with one of the jointers, but mostly it's grout bag and jointer(s).
In my book, prep is just about as challenging as getting mortar back into the joints and looking good, but it's way more work and way less fun. However, there isn't any sense in trying to rake out perfectly good, rock-solid mortar, so if I hit a patch that doesn't want to budge, I leave it as is. For the mortar that's in bad shape, which is most of the original stuff - and some of it has legit turned to dust due to water infiltration - I use this thing, a chipping hammer that's intended to be used for knocking slag off of welds:
It works surprisingly well and is kinda like having 2 tools in 1, and the more tools I can wield with each hand the better. I use the pick end to beat on the old mortar and loosen it up, and I use the chisel-like end as sort of a scraper, running it through all the joints to really chew up the old mortar. For any little nooks and crannies this hammer is too big to get into, I use a crappy old flat blade screwdriver to clean things up. Then I shop vac the joints and suck up as many little crumbs and dust as I can.
What's really important is cleaning out the joints as deeply as I can; this obviously allows me to get more mortar in the joint and make for a stronger end result than if I only cleaned out the joints to a shallow depth. Likewise, having a really deep, cleaned out joint allows me to have a little room to work with the jointers and the more room I have to work, the better the end result looks. Plus, the more stone I can apply fresh mortar to, the stronger the wall becomes.
Shaping the fresh mortar once it's between the stones so that it looks decent is sort of an art. It doesn't seem like it'd be all that difficult, but there is a razor thin line between the amount of pressure required to flatten or shape the mortar without having it move in all sortsa unintended directions and the amount of pressure that will make the mortar an unsightly, swampy mess.
It can be frustrating work. Sometimes the stones' shapes don't allow for ideal jointer angles, or multi-directional tooling options. Sometimes I can get a spot flat and smooth, but in the process I pulled too much mortar out of the joint. Sometimes I feel like I'm about to apply the perfectly light amount of pressure for a final pass, only to pull a Lennie-and-his-puppy and totally demolish what I'd just worked really hard to get lookin' good. Sometimes I have 8-10 joints going, and I can't seem to get any of them lookin' right and I kinda feel crying wouldn't be inappropriate.
But patience - not my strength, if you know me in real life - is critical. The mortar will slowly start to cure and stiffen up a bit, it'll become easier to work with, and the joints will end up lookin' pretty decent. That is, as long as I take a deep breath, clear my head, focus on 1 joint at a time, get it as good as I can get it, and come back to it again a few minutes later if I'm not happy with it.
In my book, timing is everything when it comes to applying mortar to the stone joints and shaping it, and probably the thing that's most difficult to discern from all the YouTube videos out there. There is an optimal amount of time to let mortar sit in a joint before working it. There is an optimal amount of time to let a worked mortar joint sit before coming back to work it again. There is an optimal amount of time to let a final version mortar joint set up before hitting it with a brush to smooth everything out and clean off all the mortar boogers. And, there is an optimal time to let everything cure before using a little water to clean up any mortar slurry on the stone faces. Of course, this all varies depending on the depth of the mortar joints and how much mortar is being dealt with, but doing everything without waiting a little bit between steps, or waiting too long...bad news.
Timing is critical. Once I had that figured out, the work became a whole lot easier.
I still struggle with it sometimes, and I dunno that it's the kind of work that's ideally suited for an OCD perfectionist, but I definitely like seeing the end result.