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A flue fiasco

Just in time for warm weather we pulled the trigger on capping our chimneys, a project we’ve delayed for more than three years. Our house has survived two hundred seventy-something years without caps on the chimneys. When a fireplace is actively used, this is a sustainable situation. When it’s not, problems arise because critters move in.

Each spring, like clockwork, chimney swifts newly arrived from South America set up house in our living room chimney. Although there was a certain charm to hearing the plaintive chirps of the baby swifts as they were fed by their parents each evening, the knowledge that the byproducts of those feedings were accumulating above our damper was a bit off-putting.

In addition, I’d noticed a squirrel had taken a keen interest in our middle chimney, often settling atop it for long sunbaths in the late winter. More on that later.

A few weeks ago, I called the local chimney “experts” to work up an estimate. We decided to spring for durable copper caps to make this a once-and-never-again project. To sweeten the deal, we also elected to reline one of the chimneys so that we could use the living room fireplace. Although our house has 8 fireplaces (maybe 9), due to age-related deterioration of the masonry, we can’t use any of them until they’re lined properly.

My dealings with the chimney folks did not have auspicious beginnings. The first sign of trouble was when the estimator called and couldn’t figure out which chimney was which – his field technicians hadn’t relayed that information to him, even though I made a scale drawing of the roof and suggested it might be helpful for them to take it back to the office.

Later, the estimator called again to deliver the news that the liner “won’t fit” in our chimney flue.  Since this was the first mention of any difficulty despite an hours-long site visit a few days earlier, I was miffed, and asked for some time to think things through. The next morning, with no interim conversations, an estimate that included the lining of the chimney appeared in my inbox. Confused, I called the estimator back and was told that he had made arrangements with a chimney supplier to fabricate a custom oval liner that would fit neatly in our flue. Although the estimate total was stomach-churning, we went for it, anticipating the luxury of a crackling fire on crisp fall nights.

Meanwhile, my gut was screaming, “These guys are a joke.”  Silence, gut.

Fast forward to installation day. Again, inauspicious beginnings: the lead tech commenced hauling out bag after bag of pourable cement insulation that would be used to insulate the new liner, although I had specifically requested that we use a less permanent fiberglass wrap. After a long conversation, I conceded to using the insulation in the interest of moving the job along.

An hour or so later, I heard some loud banging and raced downstairs down to find the installers attempting to indelicately snake a 30 ft. long steel liner through my brand new kitchen. I screamed “STOP!” and politely explained the idiocy of what they were about to attempt. Taking matters into my own hands, I grabbed every scrap of cardboard I could find to fashion corner protectors for my newly-installed cabinets and walls. Then I helped to carefully steer the liner to the foot of the fireplace.

chimney liner

Next, the techs set up scaffolding and a winch on the roof. Once they had the liner connected to the rooftop hoist, they began slowly pulling the tube up the chimney. For the first fifteen feet or so, it was like a “hotdog down a hallway”, as they say. And then, a piercing screech as metal dragged across brick. Peering up the chimney, one of the workers in the living room yelled to his colleague on the roof, “What’s the problem?!”

A pause. “It’s stuck,” came the reply.

They weren’t kidding. The liner was wedged into place and wouldn’t budge in either direction. A variety of tools started to emerge from the crew’s supply vans. At one point, I’m fairly certain I saw someone sitting in my fireplace shoving a garden hoe up the flue. It turns out that our chimney flues twist 90 degrees halfway up. Why the chimney crew hadn’t figured this out prior to installation day, I’ll never understand. I was deliriously upset at this point, and had to excuse myself to confer with my wife.

“Send them away,” she suggested. This, unfortunately, was not an option given that half the liner was still draped across our living room floor.

The lead technician retreated to the corner for a hushed phone conversation with the owner of the company and then, channeling his inner surgeon, announced that he would have to “go in”.

“Go in?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re going to cut into the chimney from the outside to free the liner.”

The one and only ground rule I had given this company from the very first phone call was that they were not allowed to touch the exterior of the chimneys…period. The brick is historic, fragile, and held together with lime mortar, which nobody knows how to use anymore.

Those of you who know me know that I maintain a fairly even keel emotionally, but I’m certain the veins in my forehead looked like a bowl of spaghetti at hearing this news. Believing that the liner was actually stuck, I conceded to the chimney breach. But when I heard the sound of the electric grinder spinning up to speed outside, I went to the fireplace and leaned on the liner with all my might.  It budged, a little at first, then more freely. I raced outside, ordered the grinding to stop, and asked the crew to get the liner out of my house.

I called the owner of the company and scolded him, more politely than I should have, for completely botching the entire operation. He admitted their fault and fed me a bunch of nonsense about using this as a “teachable moment” for his staff.

“Neanderthals can’t be taught,” I thought.

I made it clear that I would not pay for anything related to the chimney lining and asked that they cap the chimneys and leave our house, post haste.

Two days later, a different pair of technicians showed up to cap the chimneys. I reminded them that I had seen a squirrel sitting atop the middle chimney and asked that they verify for certain that no squirrels were in the flue before installing that cap.

A few hours later, they finished up and insisted that it was impossible for a squirrel to get into the middle chimney.

The following morning, I looked out our bedroom window and, sure enough, a squirrel was frantically circling the new cap on the middle chimney, gnawing at its corners. I suspected that this was an adult female squirrel trying to access babies that she had nested in the chimney. Fearing that she would chew directly through our pricey new copper caps, I spent the better part of the morning racing up and down the roof in an attempt to scare her away. After awhile, it became clear that there were only two ways this was going to get resolved: either momma squirrel was going to get her babies back, or she was going to wreck shit.

I called several wildlife control guys who were more amused than helpful when I described the situation. The only useful piece of advice I got was the suggestion that there was only one place the baby squirrels could possibly be: on top of the damper. While Weezie monitored the premises for the psychotic momma squirrel, who had temporarily retreated to plan the second wave of her attack, I set to work trying to free the damper which was weighed down by bird crap, chunks of old bricks, and (spoiler alert) a squirrel’s nest.

It took half an hour of vacuuming and persuasion, but the damper finally popped up and revealed a couple of furry baby squirrels, very unhappy to have their morning slumber interrupted. I transferred as much of the flea-ridden, ammonia-scented nest into a cardboard box as I could and carefully tucked the babies into their new accommodations. Problem (partially) solved.

squirrel baby

Unsure of what to do next, I turned to the world’s greatest repository of completely random information, YouTube. I quickly learned that squirrel moms will relocate their babies to backup nests if their primary home is compromised. So, I needed to get the babies to a place where their mom could find them when she returned. With some scraps of wood, I fashioned a stool that would straddle the ridge of the roof and support the box-o’-squirrels, not far from where there nest had been.

squirrel box

With the box perched on the roof, I sat down to wait for momma squirrel. As dusk settled in, and squirrels began scurrying across the yard towards their nightly hideouts, my target scurried down the electrical service wire to our house, scaled the side of the chimney, and planted herself on the ridge of the roof. Clearly, she could smell her babies (it would be hard not to, those are some funky critters). After a few minutes of poking around the box, she finally found the kids, tucked them into a ball in her mouth and took off to greener pastures.

I caught momma squirrel’s initial explorations on video. You can see her sniffing around the box, clearly confident that her babies are nearby, but not yet sure where to look. I apologize for the quality – I wanted to move in for a closer view, but I didn’t want to scare her away:

Thankfully, the squirrel family seems to have adapted to their new home and hasn’t returned to our rooftop. People sometimes ask me why I’m so reluctant to hire contractors to work on the house. This whole frustrating ordeal is a great example of what can happen when you mistakenly hire someone that doesn’t care about doing a good job, which seems to be frustratingly common in the trades.

To recap, after a lot of grief, we now have:

0 working fireplaces,

1 damaged chimney,

2 fewer baby squirrels in our house,

and 3 sparkly new chimney caps.

copper chimney cap

Was all the grief worth it? Absolutely not. It’s nice to have the chimneys capped for good, but next time I hire someone, my gut gets the last word.

Until then, I’ll strive to attain the level of Zen-like chill that our dog Meg has mastered:




Less unfinished

Y’all. I’m back. Technically, I haven’t gone anywhere, I’ve just been busy. REALLY busy. Starting-an-architecture-firm busy. It’s true: my shingle’s hung, and business is good. More on that later.

“So, what’s been going on with the Ordinary House?” you wonder. “Surely you’re done with that kitchen by now – right?”

With my head hung in shame, I’m here to report that, no, the kitchen is still not finished. But it’s less unfinished!

In my last kitchen update, I was using an old-fashioned hand plane to bead the edges of some trim stock, because self-flagellation seems to be my em-oh. When it came time to install the trim, I was confronted with a fresh challenge, another fantastic opportunity to take on something difficult to slow the project down.

The inside edges of all my trim stock were beaded, like this:

beaded trim

Trimming out a single door or window with beaded trim is easily accomplished with a miter joint,  each end of the board cut at 45 degrees. It’s one of the most common joints used to join door and window casings, and most of you can probably see an example of one from where you’re sitting now:

mitered trim

But, imagine a scenario when you need to join two pieces of wood that aren’t the same width – a miter joint doesn’t work any more:

unequal miters

Or, what if you want to trim a group of windows with vertical mullions between each opening? With beaded trim, you can’t rely on a simple butt joint to join the boards. What to do?

Enter the jack miter, a type of joint that (appropriately) was used frequently in colonial woodwork. The jack miter is a very simple combination of a butt joint and a teensy-weensy miter joint that happens to be maddeningly difficult to achieve with modern tools. Here’s one I made where the trim between the top of a door opening and the bottom of a transom window intersects with a vertical casing. Notice how the bead is continuous around both openings:

jack miter

They’re easy to miss, but the mitered portions of the joint only extend the width of the bead on the edges of the boards. Across the rest of joint, the boards simply butt together. Making those tiny mitered cuts required me to build a crazy contraption to guide the workpiece in the table saw.  If you look closely you can see the pencil layout marks for the miters on the face of the board, and one of the miters already cut:

jack miter sled

With the miters cut, I used a router to trim away the remainder of the wood.  A little glue and a biscuit, and you’ve got a beautiful, stable joint that’s as fixed in its position as Wayne LaPierre at a gun control rally.

biscuit jack miter

Aside from making a good-looking connection between two boards, cutting jack miters in my trim is a way to continue the tradition of craft that began with the folks who built the Ordinary House back in the 1700s. In each room of the original house, the fireplace mantels are joined with jack mitered boards:

mantel jack miter

I have endless admiration for men who knew how to make joints like this, without benefit of 1.6 zillion Google search results, YouTube videos, pre-milled lumber at Home Depot, and electricity to power a router and table saw. But, achieving a similar result to those men using 21st-century methods was a nice way to make a connection across the ages, and to do right by this long-neglected house.

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


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


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


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


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


french village

or of a quiet canal-side village:


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:


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Happy Halloween 2014

With a few minutes to go before 8 o’ clock, we’ve already been visited by two groups of trick-or-treaters. One more and we’ll set a new Halloween record for the Ordinary House. Last year’s meager showing confirmed what we learned in 2012: we’re a low-yield, off-the-beaten-path street, and our house is bypassed by all the ghouls, ghosts, and Elsas wandering in search of a sugar high. We’re no less prepared though, with plenty of candy on hand and a fat jack-o-lantern glowing on the porch. After a pop culture themed pumpkin last Halloween, this year we opted for a more cultured, high brow design. I call it the Mona Lantern:

mona lisa pumpkin

I thought is was a pretty good likeness of Leonardo’s chef d’oeuvre until a trick-or-treater asked, “Is that Jesus?”

Oh well. Happy Halloween.