Knob & Tube Wiring...Very SCARY Anytime of the Year!!!

This is a photo project on knob and tube wiring; a form of electricity delivery of days old. For some reason, I have seen more knob and tube wiring this year than in any other of the past 18 years… combined.

To stress to you the danger of knob and tube I have purposely given this project… shall we say… a seasonal theme. Hope you like it.

Here is a photo of some of the ceramics that I found in my Victorian (c.1891) in Oak Park before I removed them for the following photo.

This wiring is located in my basement. They were attached to one of the main support beams. Notice how the traditional knobs (round) were not used in this location. These square shaped wire holders were called “cleats” and to the left is a ceramic fuse box. From what I have read, this fuse box could possibly have been a neutral fuse; a fuse that, when it blew due to overload, still left a live hot wire somewhere in the system!

So what is Knob & Tube Wiring, anyway? Simply, knob and tube wiring is one of North America’s very first electrical systems for building structures. Most commonly used in these parts from about 1880 to the 1930’s, knob and tube (aka K&T) remained an inexpensive form of electrical wiring even as newer safer technologies developed. In the early 1900’s as electrical wiring techniques improved, K&T was half the cost of covered or protected (in pipe) wiring systems.

The above photo is alarming. This is what we discovered in the original plaster ceiling when we removed the false ceiling this year. The home’s original lighting was provided by gas fixtures. Brass gas pipes were throughout the home feeding various fixtures that burned for light. When electricity for homes came along (knob and tube), it was easiest to fish the wires along the same path as the gas piping. You need to be careful with these gas pipes if you find them in your walls for they could still be connected to the homes gas main.

The name, “Knob & Tube”, refers to the fact that the system utilized ceramic “knobs” (mostly round) to wrap coated wiring around and then run to another knob where the wire may have made a turn and then run to another… until it reached its destination of a light fixture or switch. The knobs have holes in the center. The knobs would be hammered with long nails into floor joists, building studs within walls before the plaster was installed, or on roof joists in attics. When you needed to get a wire through a piece of wood in the building’s structure then the electrician or home builder used ceramic “Tubes”. The craftsman would drill a hole in say a wall stud, place the ceramic tube in the hole and then run the coated wire through the tube on to its next destination. Basically, the ceramic tube is protecting the wood from being touched by an unprotected electrical wire.

I found these traditional knobs in my home’s attic. The attic kinda creeps me out, you know?… Like you are not really alone...? Anyway, what is even more interesting are the protruding wires. See them? This is most likely the central electrical feed. The main would have entered the house from outside up into the attic. Then the main was split off into several branch circuits and snaked throughout the home.

OK, Steve, what’s with the little scary characters. Those are actually finger puppets I got at Pumpkin Moon in Oak Park. These photos I use the puppets in are a “hat tip” to a very awesome photographer out of Italy, Luca Rossini.

 So why is (knob & tube) SCARY!?!?!?! Well, it is very scary to have this type of wiring still existing in a home as a source of electricity. Chuck Allen, a licensed home inspector for National Property Inspections, serving the Chicago area, tells me K&T wiring is dangerous for a number of reasons. “(Wire) insulation becomes brittle and falls off exposing energized wire. Energized circuits may prove hazardous to human health (electrocution) and in some cases poses a real fire hazard since the connections of wires is generally loose and can arc.” says Allen.


This type of ceramic K&T fixture is called a cleat. It is just another form of wire anchoring and feeding within a home. I found cleats used in my open unfinished basement area only.

Look at how long that nail is. And look closely at the nail head. That is a type of cloth padding used under the nail head so that it didn’t damage the ceramic.

Now, my own home had K&T wiring when we moved in the house in 2000. We immediately had a professional electrician (Ron LaRosa of R&L Maintenance - (708) 383-7110) come in and clean it all up.

This is a classic shot of the wires running through the ceramic tubes. The tubes protect the wire from rubbing up against the wood and possibly causing a fire.

But here is something Chuck told me I was never aware. This old form of transmission of electricity around the house relied on the air gaps in the walls where the wires ran to provide additional cooling for often overloaded circuits. As a real estate professional that is around old homes everyday this means you better make sure you have no live knob & tube when you go to blow in insulation in your old home’s walls!!!

“When 130 years old YOU reach, look as good YOU will not, hmm?"

That’s right… I just quoted Yoda from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Well, Yoda said “nine hundred years” not “130” but still… the point is made.

Our houses are old! You buy this Victorian built in the late 1800’s or even a brick Colonial built in the 1920’s or 30’s… and the first thing you want to do is start making it look … grand again. Some go about doing that by just gutting the entire place and starting with a clean slate. That is absolutely fine. Did you take the time to stop and look around at what the house has to give you before you do that gut rehab? The homes hardware is the first place I always start

Our 1891 Oak Park Victorian had drawers built in the closets when we bought the home in 2000. We are only the 3rd owner of this very old home so much was left in original condition or… painted over.

The drawers in the closets were made of very inferior grade pine. They were falling apart just looking at them! But we immediately took note of the drawer pulls and saved all we could find. (photo above of original drawer pulls as we found them in 2000) Then, in 2005 when we decided to renovate our kitchen we knew exactly what pulls were going to go the Amish cabinets. The pulls are not made of any special metal no fancy brass or pewter. They are most likely pot metal. Pot metal was an inexpensive melding of whatever metals were available at the time. The metal had a low melting point so it was easy to form. Here is how the pulls turned out.

After removing any paint with a chemical stripper I usually put the hardware on a 6″ bench grinder fitted with a wire wheel.  This takes off any remaining tarnish especially on the solid brass.  Now, purists would not like this method of restoration.  That’s OK… I am not a purist.

You have to be careful when grinding the hardware.  You do NOT want to use the wire wheel on the grinder for things covered in years of paint.  You must remove the paint with a liquid or gel stripper solution first.  Grinding the paint off creates paint dust and the paint could contain lead. Unfortunately, the same goes for the pot metal. The pot metal is an unknown mixture of metals and could contain small quantities of lead. You need to wear proper eye protection and a dust/particle mask.  Some people may think it a good idea to use some form of leather glove while using the grinder.  I do NOT do this as I found the gloves can get caught by the wire wheel and get pulled into the grinder.  

And always after grinding or stripping to the finish you like… coat the hardware in a few layers of clear lacquer before re-installing.

Handles on our china cabinet...

Show Us How to Marry the Old with the New!

In Oak Park & River Forest… we have old homes. And I am always sooooo fascinated by how a homeowner and/or their designer can blend the modern luxury features we crave today with the 100+ year old house they own.

Sometimes… I see it go oh so seriously wrong. The hot-tub in the basement? You know… in the basement that holds your heat boiler and pipes? That basement that is unfinished and never meant to be finished and then in the middle is… this hot-tub!! Oh no.

I had the privilege of selling this home. The owner just … everything they did to this house… they did RIGHT! Sure it is my job to boast about my client’s homes and tell the buying community “how awesome is this home?” But I just had to show you photos of this home so you can see for yourself.

The home is a NW Oak Park classic meaning there are a number of these lighter brick center-entrance Colonials in this particular area of the Mann School district. Take a look at these photos of the more traditional rooms. The sunken living room is so bright and beautiful. Transition through the classic grand entryway and into the formal dining room with perfect custom lighting touches.

Look at the sun pouring through these windows! How can you not be happy with all that vitamin D!!

So unique - these arched bi-fold French doors that separate the dining room from the formal entry foyer! Original… unpainted… amazing.

But look what you find when you enter the kitchen. It is new as of 2011. Is it modern? Absolutely not! Is it beautiful and does it fit this home? The white marble. The custom cabinetry painted and NOT just one color! The subway back-splash. Price the home well and it is a kitchen like this that can be the reason a home sells.

My client built this kitchen to cook and bake with her child. What better reason is there to build a kitchen like this?

My wife Julie and I re-did our kitchen almost ten years ago and there is no better end to the day than coming home knowing the two of us have a perfect space to prepare a family meal. No better snowy Saturday than seeing your daughter baking on her own. No better anytime than seeing Julie and the kids making something in the kitchen… from scratch.

Do you need a $70,000 kitchen to have these everlasting memories? Certainly not. But if you are renovating a kitchen and you plan that kitchen with this vision in mind… no matter the budget… I really do not think you can go wrong.

If you know me or this blog you know I am all about the details. So this homeowner has created a masterpiece of a home. It is classic vintage with all the upgrades you could want. Beautiful new kitchen, zoned central HVAC, water prevention systems and the master bath even has a steam shower! But what did they leave? What details did they look at when they were renovating and say… “How can we save that?… How can we incorporate that into our new vision ’cause that needs to stay!!?” This gorgeous colonial again impresses.

The crystal door hardware with brass back plates remains as originally built throughout the home.

Bathrooms… I think renovating a bathroom in a classic home is one of the hardest tasks when it comes to preserving the details set in the home when it was originally built. The trends pressure us to go ultra modern, high tech, bright and new! But an ultra-mod or new looking bath can really throw the balance of a beautifully vintage home. So what can be done? Do you have an old vintage bath? What can you save in this bath that can keep the character of the home yet still offer you a fantastic new place for everyday use, comfort and luxury?

Take a look at what the owners did with one of the 2nd floor full baths. They replaced the plumbing fixtures, re-tiled the floor and kept this beautiful wall tile with unique gold accented accent tiles. Is it the most amazing update bath job in the world? Did it cost a fortune? No, but is it fun? Is it cheerful? Yes!! I loved this bath and this tile so much I had to get a detailed shot.

For many who love vintage homes the love stops at the front door and they cannot wait to rip out the entire inside. This beautifully restored colonial is about keeping the vintage and adding the new where you can. Bravo!

A Charming Victorian is Reborn

Living in an architecturally historic community, one will see renovation taking place everywhere. And what does the historic governing board of a historic village love to see?… Returning to original.

This beautiful CV (Charming Victorian) in Oak Park was originally, lovingly cared for by my friend and client, Susan and her husband before they sold it. This renovation occurred after their move by the new homeowners. The exterior was stucco and you could tell that the stucco was most likely NOT the original siding.

In Susan's time as the homeowner, the interior was full of some of the most beautiful woodwork I have ever seen. There was no central air… no fancy kitchen… no new baths (it only had one!!!)… but the character inside this rather small Oak Park home was like no other I had seen in the past 15 years of residential real estate.

Look at the house (above) after the stucco has been stripped off. The original clapboard (most likely cedar) appears to be in fantastic condition. Before tearing off an added covering on an old house like stucco or asphalt shingles, a contractor would tell you to to estimate needing to replace about 700-1000 linear ft. of the original cedar (for a house of this size).

Take a close look at the far right side of the home’s front porch. See that black wall? That is not original to the house. The very small addition was to provide for a large cedar coat closet on the inside of the house. Crazy, huh?

This “addition” was done not long after the original build date of the home. It is actually built over what was originally that section of the front wrap-around porch.

In 2013, the home was purchased by a young couple and Susan moved closer to work in the city. And then, as I often drive by this area of Oak Park because my kids are in the middle-school near by… I started noticing something. The CV was being transformed from a Charming Victorian to a Victorian Farmhouse reborn.

The new owners painstakingly worked the home from one stage of restoration to another. And look what they did!!! Beautiful.