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Life through rosé colored glasses

I discovered the recipe for the perfect vacation:

1 part France.

1 part boat.

Mix with 6 liters of bagged wine – enjoy!

After mingling with the bros in Punta Cana last year, we opted for culture, serenity, and independence for this year’s spring vacation. Weezie and I are rabid Francophiles, so our vacation planning often goes something like this:

Reid: “We could go to the Balkans…”

Weezie: “Or France.”

Reid: “Don’t you want to go to Poland?”

Weezie: “Maybe, but we haven’t been to France in awhile.”

Reid: “I read an article that says Montenegro is absolutely beautiful and completely undiscovered.”

Weezie: “France?”

Reid: “France.”

And so we found ourselves in Port Cassafières, a small port barely a kilometer from the Mediterranean, receiving a brisk introduction to our 29-foot Cirrus B canal boat.

Cirrus B

This was to be our home for a week-long, self-drive cruise along the Canal du Midi, the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic across the southwest corner of France. After a laughably short introductory cruise and a long orientation to the galley kitchen (this is France, after all), we were wished “bon voyage” and sent on our way.

Several incredulous friends have asked, “Don’t you need a permit to pilot a boat by yourself?”

The short answer is “no”. It seems crazy, I know. If somebody tried to do this in America, you’d have to sign a disclaimer the size of a phone book and personal injury lawyers would hand you their business cards as you boarded your craft. I’ve always admired how Europeans don’t feel compelled to legislate against stupidity. And, to be honest, they’ve idiot-proofed these boats.  The hulls are festooned with rubber bumpers and the top speed is limited to a leisurely eight kilometers an hour.

For me, this vacation was a sublime blend of relaxation, physical activity, and sight-seeing. With the exception of the locks, which were nerve-wracking the first few times through, the unhurried pace, breathtaking surroundings, and fully self-supported vessel made it easy to de-stress and concentrate on enjoying the journey.

Our boat was equipped with everything necessary for a comfortable voyage, including a cozy double bed:

Cirrus B bedroom

 a bright dining and living area:

Cirrus B dining

a full galley kitchen:

Cirrus B kitchen

and a tiny, but tolerable loo:

Cirrus B bath

With our creature comforts satisfied below deck, we were free to spend our days at the outside steering position, puttering from port to port. A typical day went something like this:

Wake up.

Cruise down impossibly picturesque canal lined by allées of plane trees.

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi

Lock up or down.

locking up

locking up 2

lock

The locks were never boring. Some locks were automatic, while others were run by lock-keepers. Occasionally, we went through alone.  More often, we were shoe-horned in with several other boats, bumping and bobbing as water rushed into (or out of) the the gates.

Eat lunch, à la française.

lunch 2

lunch 1

lunch 3

escargot

Just kidding!  We didn’t eat the snail. We did, however, eat a bunch of his buddies at a bistro in Paris. Escargot: proof that absolutely anything is edible if it’s served in a piping hot pool of butter and garlic.

 Lock up or down some more.

locking up 3

locking up 4

fonserannes

The photo above is of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back locks at Fonserannes, just outside Béziers. This seven step staircase lock takes your boat up or down 70 vertical feet over the course of an hour. We tackled this lock on our first full day of cruising, gazed upon by hundreds of curious, camera-toting tourists. After that trial-by-fire, every other lock seemed easy by comparison.

Take a cultural excursion.

Like a bike ride through a vineyard:

bike ride vineyard

poppy

or a tour of the the winding streets of a postcard-perfect hill town:

capestang

french village

or of a quiet canal-side village:

lesomail

or ogle the colorful buildings of a port city:

narbonne port

or hike to an awe-inspiring site like the Étang de Montady, where a bunch of overachieving 13th century monks decided it would be a good idea to drain an entire valley full of wetlands by dividing it into pie-shaped wedges that drain to a single center point:

etang de montady

or to the Malpas tunnel, excavated BY HAND over eight days in the year 1679:

malpas tunnel

Park the boat.

in a sleepy hamlet, surrounded by other boaters:

lesomail2

or in the middle of nowhere, with a view to a hill town in the distance:

sunset 1

or smack dab in the center of a bustling city:

narbonne port 2

Watch the sun set:

sunset 3

sunset 2

narbonne sunset

Repeat.

This is my happy place, at the wheel of our Cirrus B.

driving boat

New life goal: acquire a French canal boat, even if it’s this one:

sunken boat

On another plane

I love tools and I’ve accumulated a collection of them over the years that gives me the ability to tackle nearly any home improvement project. Since moving into our house, I’ve become fascinated by 18th century building techniques, and I’m consistently awed by the quality of work that builders were able to achieve using only their muscle power, ingenuity, and a few hand tools. In today’s age of power-everything, it’s easy to forget that hand tools can be quicker and easier to use for some construction tasks, with no sacrifice in the quality of the finished work, and with a whole lot less noise.

When it came time to install casings around the windows and doors of the new kitchen, I wanted to match the delicate bead detail that appears on the original trim in our house. I could have bought a router bit, chucked it into the router and gone to town, but the annoying voice in my head insisted that that approach would be way too straightforward. Eager to try out a different approach, I ordered a wooden hand plane from the Internet with a blade shaped to cut a beaded profile on the edge of a piece of wood – big mistake. The plane was as dull as a butter knife, and I could have achieved the same finish quality by gnawing the board with my teeth. Frustrated, but not yet ready to go the route of the router (pun intended), I ventured to Pittsboro, a small town similar to Hillsborough about an hour’s drive to the South. There, on the second story of an old building on the main drag is a place that I should never be allowed to visit with a wallet again, a collector’s tool shop stuffed to the rafters with antique hand tools.

With some guidance from the gregarious shop owner, I selected an expertly sharpened beading plane and rushed home to give it a try. Old moulding planes are beautiful objects.  Most of them are fashioned out of a solid block of beech wood, giving them a nice weighty feel and a beautiful appearance.

beading plane side

The surface that rides against the work piece is called “boxing” because it’s almost always made of boxwood, an extremely dense, hard-wearing wood. The butt end of this plane is marked with the size of the profile (3/16″) and the manufacturer’s stamp (Casebeer Reed & Co. in New York), and the other end features the original owner’s mark (C. Altfelix).

beading plane owners mark

Using this tool is hands down the most satisfying woodworking activity I’ve ever experienced.  As you slide the plane across the wood it creates long, delicate curlicue shavings and makes a satisfying “zzzzziiiiiippppp” sound.

beading plane shavings

After about a dozen passes, the plane carves a perfectly smooth, delicately rounded bead.

bead profile

Whereas routers are obnoxiously noisy and unwieldy machines, using a moulding plane is almost meditative, and so, so satisfying. Nothing short of a video will suffice to demonstrate what I mean. If you watch this and still don’t understand, I suggest you never try woodworking – it doesn’t get better than this:

If these walls could talk

If these walls could talk, I imagine they’d ask me, “What the hell took you take so long to put us up?”

To which I’d snap back, “Well, if you would stand up straight, I might’ve had you looking pretty long ago.”

Yes, folks, after a long hiatus (from blogging, not building), I’m proud to report that there are bona fide walls in the kitchen.  There’s a lot more than walls, in fact, but that’s a subject for another post.

Since I seem to be constitutionally incapable of doing anything the easy or inexpensive way, after insulation, instead of picking up the phone to call the drywall dude, I decided to torture myself by installing wood planks on walls so wavy you can get seasick just looking at them.  And since that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I installed them on the ceiling too.  On the spectrum of preservation orthodoxy, I have fairly liberal views, and don’t believe houses like ours should be allowed to stagnate as museum pieces.  Even so, the idea of using drywall here seems downright heretical.

Our house has lots of simple horizontal plank walls, mainly wainscoting in secondary spaces.  Many of the boards are impressively wide, measuring nearly 18″ across in some cases.  In the days of old-growth wood from virgin forests, a piece of wood that wide could be counted on to lie flat.  But nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to even find lumber that wide, and if you did it would almost certainly be warped, cupped, or bowed.

Eager to replicate this look, I set out to find the widest boards I could that wouldn’t completely break the bank.  The local lumber yard was able to locate some beautiful Southern Yellow Pine tongue and groove planking.  The material is intended for floors, but there’s no reason it can’t run up the walls or across the ceiling too.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the lumber; the boards were straight, flat, and nearly knot-free. 

Southern Yellow Pine

120 twelve foot boards were delivered to our driveway in long, plastic-wrapped bundles.  The first lesson I learned about Southern Yellow Pine was that it’s heavy.  Really, really heavy.  I carried two of the six stick bundles into the house by myself before handing over my man card and asking my wife for help with the rest.

Since the house doesn’t have sheathing behind the exterior siding, I was intent on priming all six sides of every board to slow vapor transmission and prevent water vapor in the walls from damaging the paint finish on the paneling over the long term.  Knots in pine wood are infamous for bleeding through paint, so I used a shellac based primer, Zinsser BIN, that will lock the pine resins in place for good.  A priming station on sawhorses and a mini roller made the work go quickly, but it still took nearly four full days of mind-numbing priming to coat all the boards front and back.

priming station

I started installation on the ceilings, which turned out to be relatively easy. Since the new false ceiling framing was perfectly flat and level, I was able to tack most of the boards in place with little trouble, aside from a few bowed pieces that took some persuasion to get straight.  I built some jigs to act as a second pair of hands to hold the boards in place while I nailed them off.   Most tongue and groove boards are blind nailed through the tongue so there are no visible nail heads.  But with boards this wide, I was nervous that only one nail per board wouldn’t be adequate to keep everything in place, so I resorted to nailing through the face of the boards.  This will make for some fussy prep work prior to painting, but at least I’m confident that the boards will stay put.      

ceiling planks

The walls were not so easy.  First, I covered them with 1/4″ thick drywall to act as an air barrier.  Siding and wood paneling are anything but air-tight, and I wanted to reduce drafts through my fancy new rock wool insulation.

On the walls, it was important that the first course of paneling be dead level around the entire perimeter of the room.  I took my time with that, and then things got interesting. 

first board

In trim carpentry, there’s one concept that’s actually more important than level or plumb: straight.  The human eye is remarkably good at picking up extremely small deviations from straight, and our walls are anything but straight – they curve and bow and hump, and everything else a wall can possibly do.  Without boring you with the gory details, suffice it to say that there’s an entire Canadian forest worth of cedar shims behind these walls.

plank walls

In the world of architecture, there’s this idea that if something looks easy, then you’ve done your job right.  I don’t toot my own horn loudly or often, but I’m sure most people who see the new walls probably wonder what all the fuss was about.  They look straight, even – easy.  So, maybe I did something right.

plank walls 2

I’m pleased with our choice to use wood – the texture and feel of solidity that it gives the walls is worth it.  The subtle imperfections of the wood feel right for the house in a way that a perfectly smooth drywall surface never would.

Best of all, the kitchen no longer feels like a construction site.  It feels like a room.    

Walls of stone

A few weeks ago we had our first “snowfall”. Slushy white flakes fell from the sky for several hours one morning, prompting hordes of North Carolinians to run to the nearest grocery store to buy a month’s supply of milk, bread, and toilet paper.

I took the white stuff as a sign from God that I should probably go ahead and start insulating the kitchen walls already. Lucky for me, Lowe’s had called several days earlier to report that the insulation that I ordered was available for pickup.

At the store, the clerk asked me if I thought I could fit the entire order in my car. I responded with a confident “yes” just as his coworker turned the corner with a forklift carrying a pallet of insulation the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. Fast forward several minutes and we were both leaning hard on the third bag of insulation, trying desperately to shoehorn it into the front passenger seat. We were eventually successful, but I dropped my earlier swagger and muttered: “See ya in an hour.”

After a few trips back-and-forth to the store, the insulation was all chez Highley.

rock wool bags

So, what was so special about this insulation order? Lowe’s carries the pink stuff, right?

I didn’t use the pink stuff. I used what I strongly believe is the most underrated insulation product available today: rock wool.

I hate fiberglass insulation. It’s ferociously itchy, casts off clouds of glass fibers if you even look at it the wrong way, and is extremely difficult to install well. I also hate foam insulation. Mark my words, the same guys that show up on job sites in moon suits today to chip out asbestos and lead paint will still be showing up twenty years from now to remove spray foam insulation once everyone realizes it causes you to grow a third eye.

I’d never had the opportunity to use rock wool before, but I’m now a card-carrying advocate for the stuff. Here are a few reasons why it beats the pants off its closest competitor, fiberglass:

Rock wool has a shape.

Rock wool batts are blocks of material with a definite shape that retain their dimensions even when handled. Fiberglass batts are flimsy, floppy, and amorphous and require all sorts of banjo work to keep them from sagging during installation and long after. Rock wool is lightly friction fit between studs and stays where you put it without any additional support.

rock wool shape

Rock wool is water resistant.

Pour water on rock wool and it’ll puddle on top. Sure, if you turn a fire hose on it, it’ll eventually get wet, but incidental water rolls right off it. And like sheep’s wool, even when it’s wet, it still insulates. In a house without sheathing like ours, where it’s inevitable that water will occasionally work its way into the walls, this characteristic gives me peace of mind. Fiberglass insulation turns into a mold farm when it gets wet and loses nearly all its insulation value.

rock wool water

Rock wool is fire resistant.

Have a gas fireplace? You know those little tufts of material that are piled below the logs to imitate glowing coals? That’s rock wool. The stuff is made of – you guessed it – rock, so it simply doesn’t burn even at temperatures that would reduce fiberglass to puddles of molten glass. I sincerely hope that we never put this characteristic to the test in our house, but there’s comfort in knowing that the insulation might at least slow down a fire, heaven forbid.

Rock wool is easy to install.

Because rock wool batts have a definite form and are somewhat stiff, you can cut them very precisely with a bread knife. When you encounter obstacles like electrical outlets, you can actually cut recesses that fit snugly around them directly into the insulation. As you can imagine, there’s not one regular stud bay in our entire house, so the ease of cutting and shaping the batts to odd configurations made a good insulation job easier to achieve. I also found rock wool to be surprisingly non-itchy; I installed it over two days in a short sleeve shirt with no gloves and experienced no discomfort.

rock wool cut

Rock wool absorbs sound.

Because it’s so dense, rock wool is a very effective at acoustical isolation. The leading distributor of rock wool in the States, Roxul, markets a separate line of products solely intended for sound absorption. We installed it in the walls of the powder room that adjoins the kitchen to preclude any awkward Thanksgiving dinner moments. I noticed an immediate deadening of sound in the kitchen after the rock wool went in. The same density that makes rock wool an effective sound barrier also makes it more resistant to airflow than fiberglass batts which have a tendency to act like oversized air filters.

rock wool batt

Of course all these advantages come with a small price premium. Rock wool runs about 50% more than fiberglass insulation, but significantly less than foam, dense pack cellulose, or any of the other exotic insulation products available. For me, that’s a reasonable price to pay for what I firmly believe to be a superior product. This won’t be my last time packing the car full of the stuff.

Overdoing it

A word of advice: never celebrate the one-year anniversary of a one-room renovation project, no matter how ambitious it is. I’m ashamed to say that we recently blew threw that milestone after life did its very best to sap my enthusiasm. But recent weeks have played witness to some honest-to-goodness forward movement. I’ll share details in posts to follow, but among other things we’ve recently passed framing, plumbing, mechanical, and electrical rough-in inspections, re-insulated the walls, purchased appliances, ordered cabinets, and started to install wall and ceiling surfaces.

Even under the best of circumstances, though, I’m a slow designer and builder. I’ve accused myself of overdoing things in this forum before, and now I’m going to show you how that plays out, and why the most mundane tasks take me days to complete.

A couple weekends ago, it was finally time to install a cap for the duct to the new hood vent. Here’s how the last guy to renovate our house did it:

old vent

Nice, huh? Cut a hole through the siding, slap a vent cap over it and get back to the serious business of drinking beer. To this day, this vent leaks voluminous quantities of outside air and is no doubt a bug superhighway in the warmer months.

I knew I could do better.  A lot better.

First, the nerve-wracking portion of the project: I cut a hole in the house:

hole in house

I want to be clear that I was NOT drunk when I cut the hole. But, I’m pretty sure the guy who installed the siding on this side of our house was. The hole and the window are both dead level. The siding is anything but. I could have skewed the hole, but I figure we’ll put new (level) siding on this side of the house someday.

Here’s a closer look at the hole. You can see the old white oak framing, the siding directly on the studs, and the blown-in cellulose insulation, undoubtedly the itchiest and dirtiest material known to man.

hole up close

Next, I primed the edges of the exposed siding to seal them against moisture.

primed edges

Without sheathing, there’s nothing to attach a vent to, so I framed a supporting structure just behind the siding.

back framing

With a sturdy frame in place, I flashed the opening. An aluminum drip flashing protrudes over the siding at the bottom of the opening, flexible flashing tape wraps over this flashing and up the sides of the framing. The tape extends underneath another aluminum drip edge at the top of the opening. Working from bottom to top like this establishes a continuous path for water to drain down.

flashing

After flashing, I built a custom wood frame to support the vent and trim out the siding. The frame has a cap with a tapered top and a drip kerf on its bottom side. The frame has thick wood sides that mimic the nearby window trim. I primed it on every surface and put it in place with stainless steel screws.

frame

With the frame firmly affixed, it was finally time to install the vent cap. I ordered a copper cap with a damper and a bird screen. Yes, I could have bought a flimsy galvanized vent at the home center for significantly less money, but this one will last a bazillion years and look good doing it. I put a thick bead of caulk along the top and sides of the rear of the cap, but not along the bottom to allow any incidental water to drain. The cap was screwed in place with brass screws.

caulk vent

installed vent

After caulking the gap between the wood frame and the siding, I applied two coats of paint. I think it looks pretty good and it’ll keep looking better as it weathers from orange to brown to verdigris.

complete

And that’s how I translate a job that took the last guy a couple hours into a weekend-long project.

It’s a tupelo, honey.

We got a tree.

tupelo

I can hear the naysayers mumbling, “Where I come from, we call that a twig, not a tree.”

But, as they say, the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, and the second best time is now.

After ridding our side yard of the “decorative” stump that loomed over the lawn, we began a protracted search for a replacement tree.  As I do, I developed a long list of mandatory criteria that no tree could ever meet. It needed to live a long time, it needed to look good year round (but especially in the fall), it should be large, but not too large, and it needed to be happy in the heat of central North Carolina summers. We considered and rejected nearly every sort of tree commonly available at the local nursery: crabapple (too messy), maple (too common), cherry (too ephemeral), hawthorn (too thorny), dogwood (too slow-growing), redbud (too short-lived), oak (too big).

At an impasse, we decided to defer our selection until spring, giving us time to brainstorm new options. But, a chance encounter with one of our neighbors, an amateur tree buff, resulted in an unexpectedly perfect suggestion: a tupelo tree. Now, as far as I knew, Tupelo was just a town in Mississippi. Turns out it’s a type of tree too, alternately known as a black gum. And, in case you’re wondering, tupelo honey is honey made by bees collecting nectar from tupelo trees. As I read more about the tree, the more of my requirements it met.

It’s native, growing naturally from Canada to Mexico.

It’s big, but not too big, maxing out at 60 – 80 feet tall and 25 – 35 feet wide.

It has a tidy growth habit with a straight trunk and branches that emerge at ninety degrees from it.

It’s drought-tolerant once established, and can tolerate a range of soil types.

It’s long-lived, averaging 250 years, but specimens 600 years or older have been identified.

And, best of all, tupelos have spectacular bright red fall color, similar to a red maple.

The tree might not look like much now, but in a few decades, I’ m confident our tupelo will be a familiar fixture in our corner of Hillsborough.

What a difference a ray makes

At long last, after a lazy summer and a slow fall, I’ve managed to find some honest-to-God momentum on our kitchen project. Last weekend it was time for one of the most transformative changes yet, the addition of a window in the west wall facing the backyard.  Other than bathrooms, the kitchen-to-be was the only place in the house that didn’t get light from more than one direction. So, after discovering old termite damage in the wall during demolition, we decided to remove the affected siding and framing and replace it with a window.

Here’s what we started with:

before window installation

You can see the termite tunnels across the back of the siding, and the ghost of a diagonal brace that I literally swept away when it crumbled to the touch.  This portion of the kitchen is hand-hewn post and beam construction, like the main portion of the house.  I suspect that it was a separate structure, perhaps a kitchen house, that was dragged to the site and incorporated as a portion of the north wing of the Ordinary House.  It appears to be a similar vintage too, dating to the mid-to-late 1700s.

As I’ve made clear in the past, there’s absolutely nothing plumb or level in our house. The post on the left side of the picture above was once plumb, presumably.  Now, however, it’s got so much lean to it that I had to make large tapered shims that went from 2 1/2″ wide down to nothing over the course of 5′-0″ in order to create a plumb opening.

I ordered a wood double-hung window from a local supplier. Since this is likely to be the only window we add to this house, I splurged on a double-hung from one of my favorite window manufacturers, Loewen. Hailing from Canada, Loewen builds beautiful windows with straight grain Douglas Fir. They have nice historically accurate details: tall bottom rails, skinny muntins, and an option for a thick exterior sill. I also ordered the window with preinstalled casings to match the adjacent windows.

The window arrived several weeks ago, and I waited for a good opportunity to stick it in. When the weather report for the weekend looked favorable, I called in reinforcements in the form of my uncle, an experienced and talented carpenter. We began early in the morning by cutting the hole for the window.  It was a nerve-wracking moment knowing that the house would be wide open to the elements until the window was in place.

window during

And despite the wonkiness of the house, it only took about 6 hours of measuring, cutting, shimming, leveling and screwing to finesse the window into place. Because the siding of the house sits directly on the studs, and not on sheathing, we had to pay extra attention to waterproofing details and achieving a tight fit. In the end, we were left with this: a beautiful window that looks very much at home, almost as if it has been there all along.

window after

window after outside

The vibe in the room has been completely altered. The visual connection to the backyard and the additional light make it a far more pleasant place to be. And now I spend a lot of time staring out a portion of the wall that I spent many months avoiding.

after window 2

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