May 1, 2017
Nick is joined by Scott Sidler of the TheCraftsmanBlog.com and Austin Historical in Orlando, Florida, to discuss a range of topics, including Scott’s tips on restoring historic windows in your own home, as well as the story of how a man who moved to Orlando, Florida to “work for the Mouse” came to run one of the most successful historic home restoration and preservation websites in the world. It’s hot down in Orlando, so why cool not off for a while with a nice easy-listening episode of PreserveCast?
[Nick Redding] Sometimes in the world of historic preservation, things can get a little complicated. Whether you make a career out of working on older buildings or are just starting out on your very first project in your own home, everyone can use a helping hand every now and then. That’s when Scott Sidler and his brainchild, The Craftsman Blog, come in. Scott is here today to share with us how he started one of the most popular preservation blogs in the world, as well as what preservation is like in his neck of the woods, Orlando, Florida. This is PreserveCast.
[SPONSOR] This episode of PreserveCast is brought to you by Howard Bank.
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From Preservation Maryland Studios, in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Scott Sidler who is a preservation contractor and founder of Austin Home Restorations and is joining us today from Orlando, Florida. Scott, good to have you.
[Scott Sidler] Good to be here.
[NR] So you’ve joined us from that hot bed of historic preservation, Orlando, Florida [laughter]. And the first question we try and dive into, just because it kind of paints a picture about the individual that we’re interviewing on PreserveCast is, how did you get into this? How did you become what you are today? And how did you find your way to preservation?
[SS] Well, like a lot of people I’ve talked to, I bought an old house. My wife and I, when we first go married, we bought a 1929 bungalow. We’re still in it. And I bought it with the intent of doing some home improvements and fixing some of it up thinking I would do some of it but I’d hire contractors to do some of the other stuff.
When I was in college, my parents bought a house built in the 1700s and I’d just – when I’d come back to visit at vacation, I just thought it was so cool seeing these hand-hewn timbers in the basement and seeing the wavy glass, and just all the history in this old building, which was just too cool. It was in downstate New York. So that kind of led me to want to buy my own old house. My wife agreed, thankfully, and we started working on it. And I’d noticed as I was taking time off of my full-time job as a performer and was taking time to fix up the house. And I couldn’t find tradesmen to do things. Like, I wanted plaster and I wanted to restore the windows. So I just started looking online for information and going to the library for books and digging up whatever I could and realized that there was really nobody around here doing it. And my neighbors were asking for help. So I thought, “Hey, I’ll put myself out there as a kind of a historic handyman,” and it just grew from there.
[NR] So what year would that have been?
[SS] That was 2009.
[NR] Okay, so you kind of just in a sense fall into this because of necessity, and then by today, how many people are reading your blog on an annual basis?
[SS] Right now we have about 1.2 million readers every year, which is just crazy to think. And then my company down here in Orlando is eighteen employees and [we] keep growing.
[NR] So how, in a span of a few short years years does that all come together? So The Craftsman Blog comes out of this interest in preservation and you start doing some of the work on your own. And you think, “Oh, well, I need to share this information.” So you put together The Craftsman Blog. How did that come together and how did it start to really pick up steam and become this sort of behemoth that it is?
[SS] Well, [laughter] actually it was – my wife jokes about it all the time. But when I started it, she was like, “I don’t understand why you’re taking that extra time to write this stuff down.” Because I’d just write, like once a week, I’d post something and she’s like, “Just, what a waste of time,” and […] it’s the one thing I can get her to say she was wrong about in our marriage, which is impressive [laughter].
But I, really, I started writing a few posts because I was getting the same questions from clients saying, “Well, I want to know how to do this.” And I was tired of writing the same e-mail three, four, five times. And so I just wrote that e-mail, basically, into a post, put it on the blog. And when they asked the question, I just gave them the URL and said, “Go here.” It was just, really, out of necessity to make my life a little easier as things got busier.
[NR] And it started primarily focused on windows. Is that kind of the area where you focused?
[SS] Actually, the first things I focused on was local stuff, the local historic districts because they all have different regulations as to what you can do. And people wanted to know what was okay in their neighborhood. And so I wrote on those local historic districts. They’re still up there. I hate for anybody to read the first stuff I wrote because it was always kind of – I think it looks so awful compared to what is going out now. But it’s still up there and I started writing on house styles like what’s a colonial revival, what’s a bungalow, and some of the architectural elements because people had questions there. And then I started writing more in DIY. And the biggest question people had to was about windows. Windows and plaster, it seems, there is always questions about those, so…
[NR] And do those questions primarily come from people in Florida or are they coming from everywhere?
[SS] It started in Florida and now it just comes from people all over the country. And I get a good deal of people from the U.K. and it’s just crazy to get these emails from people all over the world asking, “How do we do this?” or “How do we do that?”
[NR] So that all makes perfect sense. You put together this blog platform. You start answering questions and start developing a following. But a lot of people have blogs. Not everybody gets a million people to their blog a year. How did that happen? Was there a strategy behind that? Did you advertise? Was there social media? What gets you to that level?
[SS] It’s all been word of mouth. Social media has been really helpful for us to an extent. But a lot of what I focused on was questions that I came up with in the process of when I’m doing the work. I was like, “I don’t know how to work with this particular balance system on a window.” Or, “I don’t know what’s the best way to strip paint. What’s the best way to – how do I fix cracked plaster?” Questions that people were asking me and I was asking. And once I dug up the answer, I would put it on there, and a lot of traffic just comes from, honestly, just straight Google searches. People searching for, “How do I do this?” A lot of the traffic are people who’d never heard of me, never knew about The Craftsman Blog. It just showed up at the top of their Google search, and they got the answer to the question that they were looking for.
[NR] Yeah. I would say in the interest of full disclosure before I even realized who we were interviewing, I knew The Craftsman Blog because I was one of those people [laughter]. So I was restoring historic windows on a home that my wife and I own. And I needed to find… I wanted to know what the difference between different glazing compounds was. And nobody had anything. And then my wife and I were searching and she’s like, “Well, have you seen this? Look. This guy, it’s like really knows his glazing compounds.” And so there you go. So that’s how I found you before –
[SS] A dubious honor.
[NR] Yeah. I mean, and you really do. I mean, you really know your glazing compounds too.
[SS] Well, my father-in-law shared a blog post of mine with me by accident not knowing it was from me. He’s like, “I want to do this to my floors. What do you think of this guy’s techniques?” [laughter] I was like, “I wrote that, Dad!” He had no idea. So it’s like Google’s been a good friend of ours for the blog. I focused on writing evergreen content, stuff that’s going to be useful to people all over the country, all over the world. Try to answer the questions they have. And that’s what’s got our traffic where it is today.
[NR] So before we talk about some of the other work that you’re doing and sort of the wizard behind The Craftsman Blog, what’s next for it? Is it just continuing with the evergreen content? Is it – I mean, are you hoping to expand it? Are you happy with where it is? I mean, I don’t know. I mean, you need two million people a year? What are you looking to do?
[SS] I mean, I’m always tinkering. So we just went through a major redesign just a couple months ago. Since a lot of our traffic is people just Googling finding the post, reading the post, and then disappearing into the Internet again, I’ve tried to make it a place where – again, I’m trying to answer those questions that people have. Some of them are in posts. Trying to do some more video coming up. We’ve been adding more video content on our YouTube channel, which people are always asking for more video. It’s easier to learn how to do things when you can watch someone.
[SS] And then trying to… One of the big pushes we’ve had right now are trying to get some of the products into our store that people are asking for. A lot of the restoration tools and products are kind of hard to find or they’re from suppliers. Like one of our putty suppliers, they don’t even have a website. They don’t care to have a website. They’ve been making putty for seventy years the way they do it and they don’t need any more business. They seem to be happy with it. So I’m trying to put things like glazing putties and whiting and random tools and supplies that people just can’t find in their Ace or Home Depot on there so that they can come to us and find the tools and supplies they need. And then also a directory we just rolled out to help people find a local craftsman. Because that seems to be a challenge too, is finding somebody who understands – it’s easy to find a window replacement company in every town, but it’s not always easy to find somebody who’s willing to fix up and restore old windows, or plaster, or whatever it is. But there’s a directory on there now so you can find somebody in your area. And we’re always searching for new people.
[NR] Yeah. And so The Craftsman Blog though, is that a component of your business? I mean, obviously, I would imagine with a million viewers you’ve been able to monetize it in some way or at least I hope you have.
[SS] You know with the product sales and some advertising here and there it does make some money. But it’s not much. I’ll get people coming over who are referred from the blog and they just happen to be in central Florida and they’re like, “Hey, I had no idea you were so close. Your company’s right here.” Because there’s plenty of links to Austin Home Restorations, my brick and mortar company. And so I’ll get a lot of jobs from it in that side, but mostly I just keep putting out the content and hope it helps people. I feel like if you put good things out there in the Universe they tend to come out. What you sow, you reap.
[NR] Alright. Well, I like that and it’s a good segue to talking about your business, Austin Home Restorations. And why don’t we do that after this break? We’re going to take a break here. We’re talking with Scott Sidler of Austin Home Restorations and the mind behind TheCraftsmanBlog.com. We’ll be right back on PreserveCast.
And now t’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Close your eyes and picture it: Orlando, Florida. Does the image in your head involve a theme park? As Scott is about to get into, there’s a lot more going on in Orlando than theme parks. And as I’m about to get into, there are plenty of theme parks outside of Orlando.
In fact, if you’ve ever driven along Route 40 in Howard County, Maryland, you’ve might have noticed the haunting castle walls of what was once one of Maryland’s most beloved theme parks. If you were old enough, you might even remember passing through the gate of those walls into the Enchanted Forest. The Enchanted Forest opened to the public on August 15, 1955 just one month after the opening of Disney Land. It was the brainchild of Harold and Geraldine Harrison. The married couple started out as the owners of a motor court and restaurant along Route 40 East. But upon hearing of the plans for a new north-south highway, Interstate 95, they decided that the cut in traffic meant that they had to get into a new business. Unfortunately for them, they both had the foresight like Walt Disney on the West Coast, that the growing post-World War II middle class would want to seek a new kind of family entertainment.
Unlike Disney, they didn’t have a media empire to help them get funding for a huge complex or cutting-edge rides. Still, they forged ahead without any mechanical rides and the result was the Enchanted Forest. A fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed park featuring open green spaces and cartoonish statues, buildings, and landscapes for children to explore, like the houses of The Three Little Pigs or parts of Alice’s Wonderland. Charging only 25 cents for admission for the first few years, the Enchanted Forest became a local favorite and a feature of family tourism on the East Coast. Perhaps another key to its early success at a time when Howard County Public Schools were segregated, the Enchanted Forest was fully integrated starting on opening day. At its peak, the park welcomed around 300,000 visitors every summer. Over time, the park expanded to include rides like giant slides and a safari tour. But the old world charm of the Enchanted Forest could not keep up with the newer ride-heavy parks and the shifting taste of children towards arcade games and other activities. The Harrison family sold the park to a developer in 1988, who turned the vast majority of the grounds into a shopping center in 1992. For a short period, the park reopened but closed again after, and remained derelict and abandoned for much of the 1990s and 2000s. But our story doesn’t end here!
In 1999 the first grassroots preservation efforts began with the forming of the Friends of the Enchanted Forest. The group saw little success in their goal of saving the many characters and structures for future generations until Martha Clark, owner of Clark’s Elioak Farms in Ellicott City, took an interest in the old park in 2004. Martha decided to take action and spoke to the company running the shopping center about moving pieces to her farmland. The first piece to be moved was Cinderella’s giant pumpkin. After seeing the joy the pumpkin brought the child visitors, Martha enlisted help from the community to begin moving more items. Now, most of the original pieces have been cleaned, restored, and moved to Clark’s Elioak Farm where they are once again open to the public to entertain children and families.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like some grassroots preservation action to me. Now, let’s get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air in the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re talking with Scott Sidler of Austin Home Restorations in Orlando, Florida. He is also the writer and the genius behind TheCraftsmanBlog.com. And for our purposes, as I disclosed earlier, he is the man who helped me find the right glazing compound. [laughter] So, thank you for that again. And before we took the break, we were talking about your actual day-to-day business and what it is that you do in Austin Home Restorations. And that leads me to the question of what is the preservation scene like in Orlando? What is it that you do? How many employees do you have? And what’s preservation like down in the great State of Florida?
[SS] Well, it’s certainly not the city that everybody thinks of when they think of historic preservation. There’s a million jokes to be made about Orlando. And, I mean, just like a lot of people in this town, I came down here to work for “the Mouse.” So I worked for Disney for about ten years when I was first down here. Orlando is not very forward thinking when it comes to preservation. They just want to trudge forward and demo as much as they can, and move on and build new things. So they’re not focused on it. There are, I think, seven historic districts in the city of Orlando. Orlando is very much two cities. The City of Orlando and then there’s the attractions. The attractions is Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, all of them. Downtown Orlando is a quiet little town, lots of old buildings from the teens, ’20s, and ’30s, and a smattering of a few from the 1880s and the 1890s, when it was a big citrus growing region. Preservation… I spend more time educating people why they need to preserve their buildings than I do actually just – a lot of other towns, I feel like people go out and they just say, “Of course we’re going to preserve. Well, why would you not?” Like up in New England where things are 1700s, 1600s. But here, they just don’t seem to understand it as much so a lot of what we do is education.
[NR] Do you think that that’s changing at all as the mid-century modern movement becomes – you know, people are finding more value in that? I mean, obviously, Florida has a lot of that, I would presume, and Art Deco and all those sorts of things. Are people getting more into it because of that or is it still kind of missing that preservation ethos?
[SS] I think there’s more awareness of it. I think the fact that it’s on television more with a lot of the shows that are out there on the networks, the cable networks. People are starting to understand that you can restore, and it can be beautiful, and it can be awesome. And, honestly, in a lot of cases it should be restoring. It’s better. And so I’ve noticed a little bit of a shift because when I first started, there was not anything on television about how to restore or do anything like that, other than This Old House. And that just, to a lot of people in the Millennial generation or Gen Xers, it was just some old fuddy-duddies working on an old house in New England. They are starting to see that it can be cool to restore and preserve. And I think that’s a good thing for us.
[NR] So speaking of that, what kind of work does your company do? I mean, obviously, you’re writing the blog at night or something like that [laughter]. But day to day, sort of soup to nuts preservation, do you focus on windows? What’s the background there?
[SS] I’m a preservation contractor, is what I call myself. Right now, we have just a ton of windows. We’re booked for probably the next six months on window restoration, which is great. We’ve got a big shop crew. We’ve got eighteen employees overall. We’ve got a branch up in Jacksonville and starting one in Austin, Texas too. We understand window restoration. We’re good at it. We’re fast at it. We make them look great. We make them last. And then here, locally, we do a lot of things, like we’re working on a brick-and-mortar jail that is from the 1800s that’s really in danger of falling down. We’re trying to stabilize it, repair the bricks, add all kinds of things to it to get it working they way it should structurally. So we do everything from siding, bricks, plaster work, windows is a big thing, so a little bit of everything. Kind of a one-stop shop for preservation and restoration in Central Florida and across the State of Florida, really.
[NR] So you talked about windows and that’s, obviously, something that a lot of people have challenges with. And in every old home, they generally always need help. And you mentioned that your –
[SS] There’s a ton of of them in every old home, too.
[NR] There’s a ton of them and they always have problems. And I can speak from experience because I redid – I don’t know… it was like twenty of them or something. You talked about how you’ve made the process quick. You know what you’re doing and it’s sort of a resource that you can get very specialized in. What kind of technology or set up do you use to increase the efficiency on that? Have you devised any cool strategies that people should know about?
[SS] I don’t think anything too technologically crazy. I don’t have any robots in the shop or automation or anything like that. I hired a lot of very skilled craftsmen and women that can come in here, and we’ve tested and tested everything to go, “Okay, is it faster to scrape the flats first or to work on the profiles?” And things like that. We have an order of operations that we do. Little things like we use a steam box for removing the glazing putty. It softens it up and goes a little bit faster. We use tools like pro scrapers and different things to keep the lead paint dust down.
We just have a lot of people specialized in what they do best and they work through it, and it’s a little bit – not quite assembly line I wouldn’t say. But people specialize in different things in my shop and we have a site crew that knows how to get the windows out, the openings boarded up and protected and restored, and they bring them back to the shop. And those people know exactly what to do when they get windows – how to restore the hardware, the paint, new putty. They know how to do everything there. So we’ve really specialized in it and with that kind of specialization, we can start moving faster. That’s been my goal, is I feel like the faster we can go and keep our quality up, the less windows end up in a landfill.
[NR] And as you mentioned before, there is a window restoration company in every town – not a restoration, there’s a window replacement company in every town it seems like. But if there’s not a window restoration company and the replacement folks have a done a really good job of just sort of getting that advertising out everywhere. Everybody hears about window replacement.
[SS] Oh, my gosh.
[NR] So you’re doing the Lord’s work out there to get people aware that there’s an alternative to that. And I guess, sort of as a conclusion to all of that, if someone is thinking about rehabbing their windows rather than replacing them, any sort of tips of the trade that you would offer as they begin to pursue a project like that? If they’re going to try and take it on DIY? I mean, what are the big takeaways? What’s the most important thing that you would share on The Craftsman Blog about that kind of stuff?
[SS] Yeah. I think with windows, I always like to say, “They’re not complicated. It’s just wood, putty, and glass.” That’s really all there is to it. There’s no “specialized this” or “specialized that.” That’s all there is on your windows. So it’s very much within the reach of anybody. It depends what your issue is on the window. Weatherstripping can be very simple to do on these windows. And there’s been a lot of testing by The Window Preservation Alliance, Window Preservation Standards Collaborative, showing that weather-stripped original windows can be just as efficient as the current energy codes require them to be. So just as efficient as a replacement window and you get to keep all that historic fabric. You get to keep the look of those old windows. Everybody thinks that you’ve got to have double-pane glass. You really don’t with the storm windows, interior or exterior, because there’s companies that make those interior storm windows that work really great at air sealing. It’s about keeping the air out. And then you can work through the windows. It’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time. Very slowly, take your time. Don’t pull out ten windows for the weekend and think you’ll get them all done. You’re going to have plywood up for [laughter] months.
[NR] Yeah. You’re going to live in a very, very dark house [laughter].
[SS] Yes. You’re going to live in a cave and you’re going to complain and you’re going to be miserable. Just pull out one. Figure it out. I’ve got lots the free tutorials on the blog that can walk you through step-by-step how to do everything you need to. And once you get a feel for it, you’ll understand if you have the time to do all your windows or if you can just – a lot of clients just take their time and they do it over a course of many years to get them there and restored. And once they’re there, they’ve already lasted eighty or a hundred years. So the idea of replacing it with a window that’s got a 20-year warranty seems absurd to me. They’ve already proved they can last a century. Why not let them last another century?
[NR] That’s a pretty good point. I like that. Well, you’re obviously passionate about this. You’ve worked on a lot of different projects, some pretty cool stuff that you’ve shared on your blog and elsewhere. We always ask. It’s a hard question. Everybody always says, “Well, that’s a loaded question. That’s very difficult.” But we’re going to ask it. Favorite building that you’ve had the opportunity to work on in your career?
[SS] Favorite building I’ve had the opportunity to work on so far?
[SS] Probably, it was here in Orlando, actually. We worked – it was one of our first large, I think, our first commercial job. And we did the 1926 train station here. We restored all the windows and doors. And built some windows and doors to match what were missing. And we were early on. There were four of us when that job started. I hired three more people. So almost half of my crew was totally new to this. And it was a little bit crazy trying to train three people with four people who knew what they were doing. But it was – we were very small, very close-knit group of people. And it was really cool to get to do that. And now, my shop is maybe half a mile from that train station so I get to drive past it on my way home every day. And it’s really cool to see that they’re still there and still doing well. So that felt like we’d come into our own by doing that project and getting it done right.
[NR] That’s pretty cool. And I guess the takeaway there, too, is if anyone’s taking their family to go see, as you described, “the Mouse,” maybe they should stop off and go see the train station or Orlando.
[SS] Right, there you go. [laughter]
[NR] Speaking of that and where you’re located and your information, people want to get a hold of you, would like to hire you if they’re down in Florida, or they want to find out more about your blog, what’s the best way to get a hold of Scott Sidler?
[SS] Really, the best way is go to TheCraftsmanBlog.com. There’s a contact form on there. You can fill it out and those e-mails go straight to me. If you are in Orlando or Central Florida area, then you can always visit our company page, which is AustinHomeRestorations.com. You can always check that out. That’s got pictures of some of the work we’ve done here. But yeah, those are the two ways to get in touch.
[NR] Well, that’s great. Well, Scott, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you for what you’re doing because for those of us working in the trenches of preservation, we need people out there championing this and telling people it’s easy, and telling them that it’s important to do, and clearly you’re reaching over a million of those people every year and that’s important work. So thank you for all you’re doing for preservation.
[SS] Well, thank you guys for having me on and for also putting together a preservation podcast because I know there’s not that many in that category. So it’s good to have us out there.
[NR] Well, with any luck we’ll have the same listenership that The Craftsman Blog has in just a few short years.
[NR] All right. We’ll talk to you again soon.
[SS] Alright, thanks.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Historic home restoration can be overwhelming sometimes. If you are local to Maryland, did you know that Preservation Maryland has its very own directory of contractors and craftsmen that assist in home restoration needs like Scott Sidler? Check out PreserveList, a directory of skilled craftsmen and home improvement providers.