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On the level

Drop a marble anywhere in our house and it’ll roll to the other end of the room, and not necessarily in a straight line.

“Level” is a vague and long-forgotten concept between these walls. As a neighbor describes it, this is the type of house that a carpenter walks into, looks around and announces: “By the hour.”

The massive oak beams that support the floors eat saw blades for breakfast, but the results of their centuries-long battle with gravity are betrayed by their noticeably saggy mid-sections. The droopy joists require us to keep shims handy for quick leveling of off-kilter furniture. It’s all very charming, at least until you’ve had one too many to drink and find yourself wondering whether it’s you or the house that’s leaning.

Wood structures move a lot. Day-to-day and season-to-season, a wood house is growing and shrinking, torquing and turning as it reacts to changes in temperature and humidity. And, although wood is exceptionally strong for its weight, it eventually fatigues when placed under constant load, resulting in that characteristic old house sag. For a particularly impressive example of this effect, check out the wavy roof line of the Fairbanks House, the oldest known wooden house in the United States, built in Dedham, Massachusetts around 1637 (don’t believe the chimney):

fairbanks house

Clearly, the beams in that place are totally tuckered out after 376 years of reliable service.

I’ve always know that our dining room floors were out-of-whack, but in preparation for the kitchen renovation I decided to take some quick measurements to see what I’ll be up against when setting cabinets. I whipped out my trusty laser level to project a level line across the room.

level line

At the living room side of the room, the laser line registers at 33 1/2″ above the floor.

low end

But by the time you reach the opposite end of the space, the same line is 35 1/8″ above the floor.

high end

I’ll save you the trouble: that’s a 1 5/8″ difference across 18 feet.


Truth be told, most of the height change occurs in a short stretch of floor where it slopes abruptly for no discernible reason. And the floor is more or less level in the other direction. The cabinet installation will be challenging, but to the casual observer nothing will seem out of whack, except that the cabinet toe kicks will be taller on one end of the room than the other.

And when the kitchen project is complete, the countertops will be the one truly level surface in the house – at least until the weather changes.



6 Comments Post a comment
  1. curt #

    That pretty well sums up the challenge of all old home renovators. Good illustrations.

    September 3, 2013
    • jrh #

      It’s always something! Sometimes the predictability of new construction is a relief, but overcoming the challenges of a lumpy old house is always more satisfying in the end.

      September 5, 2013
  2. Is this the wood color and walls that was left by the last owners or your painting?
    Drove by the other day and loved seeing how nice the outside looks, well kept lawn and those cool umbrellas…Last week Karen and I were visiting with Thelma Mayo, our going on 101 year old “second mother.” She was there since the “get go” and cleaned every corner of the house. We shared some funny rememberances…Please do invite sister Karen and me over at your convenience. We would love to see your improvements and tell you and Wheezie more stories!

    Zacki Murphy

    September 3, 2013
    • jrh #

      We have yet to touch the interiors, so anything you see was done by previous owners. So the outside improvements are providing an effective cover for our lack of indoor progress. That’s all about to change though!

      September 5, 2013
  3. Leslie #

    The comments about old houses mirror exactly what happens to aging bodies! The reason the floors aren’t level is so that when small children push their toy cars down the floors, they will “run” on their own until they hit the opposite wall (the cars, not the children)

    September 4, 2013
    • jrh #

      But no pressure, right?

      September 5, 2013


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