Typical French house with damp walls Pic: Rod Fleming
Penetrating damp is the result of water coming through the walls.
Once you’re sure no water is coming through the roof by following the previous articles in this category—and the saving grace of that kind of leak is that it is very obvious and marks its presence clearly—the next issue is this one. Here’s an excellent overview of the problem.
I’ll take time for another of my provocative asides here. I’m pretty convinced—actually I am totally convinced—that there is no significant problem of rising damp in most traditionally built houses, at least as long as they have been left that way. Note that last bit. I’ll come back to this later.
Meantime, if we discount the possibility of rising damp in most cases, we must look elsewhere for the source of water and there are two issues to address here.
Three different types of tiles: tuiles mecaniques, tuiles plats and modern cement tiles Pic: Rod Fleming
Damp in your old house and how to deal with it. Part Two in a series explaining where damp in old buildings comes from and what you can do to combat it. Most of the advice is applicable anywhere.
Before worrying about how to get rid of dampness that is already in the house, it makes sense to make sure no more can get it first. There are a number of important areas where unwanted moisture can make it into your house. The roof is the easiest to deal with so we’ll tackle it first.
DIY works in progress
DIY materials for your house in France
A good many incomers to France have no idea where to go to get the materials for their DIY restoration of an old French house. I have even heard of British second-homers filling the car boot with bags of cement and bringing it with them, which is laughable. This article is intended to help.
Rainy Day in Burgundy
Just about the first thing that everyone notices when they get their dream house in France, and I base this on an admittedly unscientific but extensive post-prandially-conducted survey, is the damp. Unless they have bought in the Midi, of course. For those further north or west, it is a big issue.
Ask anyone yourself. You’ll soon see that this is the case. You might be forgiven for thinking that parts of France were perpetually under water, from the stories you hear. They’re not; it just can seem that way.
In order to get some sense of perspective on this, let’s examine a few facts. Large areas of France are indeed very wet. A quick glance at the map will show that weather systems coming in from the Atlantic under the prevailing westerly wind have a choice; they can either swing up north and east and drench Wales, Ireland, the north west of England and of course Scotland, or they can slip in over the Bay of Biscay and take up residence in France, where they will be nicely bottled up due to the fact that from the Med to the Rhine Basin there is a rampart of mountains which prevents any further progress.
I understand that this is to do with the exact position of the jetstream, a system of ferocious winds at very high altitude.
Normally, summers in Central France are reasonably dry and very warm. Just what the holidaymaker likes, apparently, and perfect for ripening all that lovely plonk.
It’s a lot of fun to repair your own fiddle.
I have one fiddle that is over two hundred years old, which I found in bits, with all her varnish stripped. She would surely be worth more financially if I had had a restorer fix her, but I did it myself, she sounds and plays wonderfully, and I get a real kick out of the fact that I saved her myself. Because, believe me, she was kindling-wood before.
That brings me to an important point. There is one rule which you should bear in mind whenever you touch an instrument with a mind to fixin’ her.
DIY fiddle repair
After a little while in the violin world, I know you will have seen this reaction: you have just gone into your friendly music shop and said, “My fiddle needs a new bridge. Can you sell me one?” You are shocked as the light outside dims, the interior of the shop becomes gloomy and the owner, in a voice that would render the bravest heart weak, intones, “You must never, ever, attempt to do any work on your violin yourself. Oh no. That is for the luthier to do. Now get ye hence and practise your scales.” And he refuses to sell you a bridge blank and you scuttle off with your tail between your legs thinking that everyone else in the shop must now consider you an uneducated oaf.
Well, you’re not.
Part Two of the series on how to repair your own violin
Basics of repair
There is a grand tradition of fiddlers who repair their own instruments, as I said. Just because you happen to be a player does not make you useless, after all.
To repair your own instrument gives great satisfaction. I have one fiddle which is over two hundred years old which I found in bits, with all her varnish stripped. She would surely be worth more financially if I had had a restorer fix her, but I did it myself, she sounds and plays wonderfully, and I get a real kick out of the fact that I saved her myself. Because, believe me, she was kindling-wood before.
That brings me to an important point.
Houses in situations like this often have damp walls. Pic: Rod Fleming
In the past walls were rendered and plastered with lime. Lime is a truly wonderful material that can be bent to a whole series of uses, but as a render on stone it is unsurpassed. It ‘breathes’, allowing moisture to escape and suppressing damp walls. This is because it is very porous. So why are there damp walls in so many old houses today?
France is divided, basically, into the north, where tuiles plats were traditional roof covering tiles, and the south, where tuiles romaines are found. There is a line just south of Chalon sur Saone where you can see this change quite clearly, and you know you have officially entered le sud, even though the Mediterranean is still hundreds of miles away. I always stop for a glass of wine in a café when I pass this point. Roofs in the north, with their flat tiles, tend to be steeply pitched, whereas in the south the pitch is much more gentle.
Pic: Rod Fleming
Everyone will be familiar with the beautiful poplar trees that make valleys in Burgundy and elsewhere so charming to the eye. Poplar produces straight-grained timber of prodigious length. The wood is soft and easy to cut, and it holds nails very well. It resists splitting firmly because is has an interwoven grain, so it is tricky to plane well; better to use a power plane. But poplar is in any case best kept for rough work.
It has two big disadvantages; it can to warp severely as it dries, so great care must be taken in stacking; and insects just love it. Poplar should never be used unless it is treated or painted, or else the woodworm will have a field day. However, it is reasonably resistant to rot, and as long as it is used with care, is a useful timber. It is cheap and plentiful, light and easy to handle.
Unfortunately, poplar is usually grown individually, in long thin avenues, or as windbreaks along the edges of fields, and more rarely in plantations. Its presence in the beautiful valleys of central France is a great asset visually. However, this causes a problem when it is cut for timber.