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Posts from the ‘Carpentry’ Category

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.

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.    

Positive reinforcement

One day I’m going to write the crassly titled book, “Sh*t people do to old houses”.

I’ve seen some real forehead slappers while poking around aged structures. Take, for example, this attic that burnt to a crisp and was left in place by the owners with no reinforcement:

burned attic

This is a particularly egregious example of homeowner-on-house abuse, but even well-loved homes like the Ordinary House suffer scars of neglect, laziness, or well-intentioned but unknowing house butchery. The structure of our kitchen ceiling (and master bedroom floor) is a perfect example of this last category.

The joists that form the ceiling are rough-sawn 2x8s that span nearly 16′. These days, that same span is barely handled by 2x12s, and not without a fair amount of bounce in the floor. Even with this knowledge, the plumbers who last “remodeled” the upstairs bathrooms saw fit to chop out large sections of the floor joists to fit their pipes. The worst example looks like this:

chopped joist

For reasons that I can’t explain, the plumbers drilled away nearly half the width of the joist for a distance of about 6″. If that wasn’t bad enough, when faced with the fact that the shower drain was directly above the same joist, rather than simply move the shower, they cut a deep notch to allow the pipe to pass through it. For all intents and purposes, this joist had zero structural capacity once this was done. In an attempt to patch up their mess, the builders positioned a section of LVL (a very strong type of engineered lumber) next to the joist and bolted the two pieces of wood together. Then they notched that. [rolling eyes] 

Many of the adjacent joists had similar notches. It’s a testament to the resiliency of wood structures that this floor didn’t sag any more than it did.

old ceiling

While we’ve got the kitchen ceiling down, we’re replacing the upstairs plumbing. Knowing that we’d need to make more holes and notches to get the new plumbing in the floor, the plumber stopped his work so that we could assess the situation. I quickly made up my mind that we needed to reinforce the existing structure with new full-length “sisters”, joists that are glued and screwed to the existing lumber.

joist sisters

In order to run the new plumbing, I decided that we would build a completely separate ceiling structure below the existing one. Fortunately, there is enough height between floors in this part of the house that we can have two ceilings and still pull out a 9′ finished ceiling height.

Last Monday, the plumbers came and ripped out all the upstairs plumbing. The next day, a good friend and contractor colleague began reinforcing the existing ceiling and building the new one. We’re fortunate that the downstairs bathroom has a shower, so we’ve been able to bathe. Yesterday, the plumbers began piecing together the new pipes.

It’s decidedly unsexy work, but sexy’s not worth it without the peace of mind of knowing that our floors are strong and our pipes are leak-free.  In my next post, I’ll show you what the finished ceiling looks like.

Eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

In architecture school, I shied away from the professors who had short careers in the real world before retreating into academia. I was born into a family of self-sufficient builders and engineers, so I’ve long been wary of anyone who lacked the resourcefulness to translate their book learnin’ into day-to-day pragmatism. Now that I’m a registered architect with more than a decade of experience, I continue to believe that there’s no substitute for real world experience. I’ve learned more about building and designing while renovating my own houses than I have from everything else I’ve done in my career.  Until you’ve nailed together a stud wall or run a new electrical circuit, it’s hard to really appreciate what it takes to build something.

Today, I’m getting a fresh lesson in the realities of renovation. I guide clients through this process every day, so it’s easy to get desensitized to the stress of working on an old house. Unless your pot of gold is limitless, work on existing buildings is never dull.  Projects on the Ordinary House keep me in touch with the gut punches that renovation delivers regularly. It’s the best continuing education I could ask for.

Since last week, we’ve hired a plumber (really) and today a small crew of three guys got started. Two hours into the work day, my phone rang and Matt, the lead plumber, delivered this news: “Man, it looks like the last plumber in here used a chainsaw on your floor joists.”

I had two immediate reactions:

1) Thank you, Matt, for stopping work and picking up the phone. Anxious for a paycheck, many contractors would have gone ahead and done their own hack job to put themselves one step closer to pay day.

2) FML. Somebody remind me again why I enjoy this?

random plumbing

We’ve set up a meeting tomorrow with a county building inspector to get input on what he’ll pass on inspection. Loaded with that information, we’ll develop a plan to reinforce the floor joists and keep the plumbers moving. Until then, I suppose we’ll just have to get used to the toilet sitting in the upstairs hall.

toilet in hall

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

It wasn’t long ago that all kitchen cabinets were custom. Just a few weeks back, a veteran carpenter and I were shaking our heads at the shoddy build quality of the cabinets he was installing in a high-end kitchen renovation when he began reminiscing about the days when he and his colleagues would set up their saws in the kitchen and show off their craft by building sturdy cabinets on site. Those times are long gone and most mere mortals choose to use modular factory cabinets to keep their kitchen projects on budget.

The number of cabinet companies competing for our business is mind-boggling. I challenged myself to name as many manufacturers as I could in one minute and came up with this list: Diamond, Kraftmaid, Dynasty, Omega, Plain & Fancy, Merillat, Crownpoint, Ikea, Cliq Studios, Schrock and Bulthaup. And those are just a fraction of the companies that are producing cabinets today.

If money were no object for our kitchen project, I’d head straight to the nearest Plain English showroom (London) and hook myself up with a roomful of their lust-worthy, inset door cupboards. Because they’re British, you can call them ‘bespoke’ without coming off as a poseur.

plain english cabinets

But since we can’t afford to drop forty G’s on cabinets, we’re forced to consider more reasonable options. I used Ikea cabinets in our last kitchen and I’m convinced you can’t beat them for value. But their door styles and case sizes are limited and I don’t trust any particle board cabinet to last indefinitely.

In search of a sturdier option, I ran across Barker Cabinets, an Oregon-based cabinet manufacturer after my own heart. They have a niche operation that’s perfect for an over-do-it-yourselfer like me. Their cabinets are shipped flat-packed and ready-to-assemble, and can be customized down to the quarter inch in most dimensions. They have a decent selection of door styles available in a number of different domestic wood species, though their finish options are limited. One feature that stands out is their cabinet boxes, which are made from 3/4″ plywood, a specification that’s becoming rare even on high-end factory cabinets. Best of all, their prices are extremely reasonable, especially given the extensive customization options.

I ordered a small sample cabinet from Barker to evaluate the build quality and ease of assembly in person.

A box containing the cabinet arrived on our doorstep last week. The contents of the package were carefully packaged with shrink wrap to hold everything together and styrofoam blocks to protect vulnerable corners. First impression: extremely positive. If all of their cabinets are packed this way, it’s a sign that the company truly cares about their product.

box contents

Unwrapping the box’s contents, I noticed that each piece of the cabinet is labeled with a sticker for easy identification. The fasteners are neatly divided into plastic bags, and a clearly illustrated assembly manual is included. The plywood case pieces are finished with a clear varnish that seems reasonably durable. I ordered an unfinished Shaker style door in alder with a maple panel. The door is extremely well built with crisp corners and a smooth face that’s nearly ready for finishing. I haven’t decided yet whether we’d pay up for prefinished doors or try to paint them ourselves. Why I’m even considering the latter option after four months of fence painting is a discussion for another day.

cabinet parts

Assembly was a cinch, and took about twenty minutes including breaks for pictures.

First, you install the hinge plates.

hinge plates

Next, the box is assembled with aggressively-threaded Confirmat screws.

box assembly

The back face of the cabinet slips into a dado groove carved into the case.

cabinet back

The soft-close hinges slip into pre-drilled cups on the door and are affixed with two small screws.

hinge cup

The finished box feels solid, and looks good too.

cabinet box

Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of Barker cabinets based on my initial impressions:


  • reasonable prices
  • customizable sizing
  • 3/4″ plywood cases
  • dovetailed drawer boxes
  • nice selection of solid wood doors
  • high-quality Blum hardware


  • limited finish options
  • require assembly
  • intimidation factor for the inexperienced consumer
  • website could be more polished
  • approximate one-month lead time

These cabinets aren’t for everyone, but they seem tailor-made for me. I expect to order a room full of them in the coming months.

On the level

Drop a marble anywhere in our house and it’ll roll to the other end of the room, and not necessarily in a straight line.

“Level” is a vague and long-forgotten concept between these walls. As a neighbor describes it, this is the type of house that a carpenter walks into, looks around and announces: “By the hour.”

The massive oak beams that support the floors eat saw blades for breakfast, but the results of their centuries-long battle with gravity are betrayed by their noticeably saggy mid-sections. The droopy joists require us to keep shims handy for quick leveling of off-kilter furniture. It’s all very charming, at least until you’ve had one too many to drink and find yourself wondering whether it’s you or the house that’s leaning.

Wood structures move a lot. Day-to-day and season-to-season, a wood house is growing and shrinking, torquing and turning as it reacts to changes in temperature and humidity. And, although wood is exceptionally strong for its weight, it eventually fatigues when placed under constant load, resulting in that characteristic old house sag. For a particularly impressive example of this effect, check out the wavy roof line of the Fairbanks House, the oldest known wooden house in the United States, built in Dedham, Massachusetts around 1637 (don’t believe the chimney):

fairbanks house

Clearly, the beams in that place are totally tuckered out after 376 years of reliable service.

I’ve always know that our dining room floors were out-of-whack, but in preparation for the kitchen renovation I decided to take some quick measurements to see what I’ll be up against when setting cabinets. I whipped out my trusty laser level to project a level line across the room.

level line

At the living room side of the room, the laser line registers at 33 1/2″ above the floor.

low end

But by the time you reach the opposite end of the space, the same line is 35 1/8″ above the floor.

high end

I’ll save you the trouble: that’s a 1 5/8″ difference across 18 feet.


Truth be told, most of the height change occurs in a short stretch of floor where it slopes abruptly for no discernible reason. And the floor is more or less level in the other direction. The cabinet installation will be challenging, but to the casual observer nothing will seem out of whack, except that the cabinet toe kicks will be taller on one end of the room than the other.

And when the kitchen project is complete, the countertops will be the one truly level surface in the house – at least until the weather changes.



Stairway to heaven-ly heat

Two major obstacles stood in the way of installing central heat and air in our house. The first, inadequate electrical service, was taken care of recently when we upgraded to 200 amps of power. A less costly, but no less vexing issue was the fact that our attic was only accessible from the top rung of a step ladder through a minuscule 18″ wide scuttle hole. Barely adequate for this scrawny dude to shimmy above the ceiling, it certainly wasn’t large enough for a furnace and full-size sheets of plywood to make it up there.

scuttle hole

(In case you’re starting to question our taste, I do realize that the color clashes in that photo are nothing short of horrific, and assure you that they are NOT intentional.)

An attic stair was the only solution to our ceiling access problems. Fortunately, finding a home for the sizable hole required for these was easy. In the sitting room at the top of the stairs was a unsightly set of metal louvers disguising an absolute beast of a whole-house fan in the attic.


This thing looks like it was pulled off the nose of a Beechcraft King Air 350i Turboprop.

attic fan

Unfortunately, we never used it because the knucklehead who wired it reversed polarities causing it to blow air down, holding the louvers in the ceiling closed, rather than sucking air out of the house as intended. For the record, whole-house fans aren’t well-suited for this climate. Our cool summer nights are typically accompanied by high humidity levels, so even though the fan might have lowered temperatures downstairs, it would have been sucking in sticky, uncomfortable air. Then as that air heated up throughout the day, you’d end up with a soupy, sweaty house. If you live in Flagstaff, Arizona or Portsmouth, Maine, though, a whole-house fan can be a lovely thing to have.

Our attic is actually fairly pleasant as far as attics go. It’s tall, has beautiful 2-1/2″ wide oak ceiling joists that make walking easy and old-school wood joinery that makes my heart go pitter-patter.  And this time of year it’s not Hades-hot.

Without belaboring the details, over the course of two days I managed to do the following:

  • disassemble and remove the whole-house fan (a huge thank you to my uncle Gregg for his assistance with this – his ingenuity seems limitless, and I would certainly have killed myself trying to do it alone)
  • slightly enlarge the existing hole for the attic stairs
  • install a wood header to frame the opening and support the stairs
  • install and adjust the stairs for a perfect fit

I haven’t had many opportunities to use my carpentry skills since moving to Hillsborough, so it was nice to see some sawdust flying again. There’s a fair amount of work left to be done to patch the portion of the hole not occupied by the stairs and to trim out the opening, but the stairs are functional which means that we’ll have a furnace up there this week or next.

finished stair

We paid a few extra bucks for a nice set of aluminum stairs with insulation and weatherstripping. The hope is that they’ll prove a bit more durable than standard wooden attic stairs and that they’ll help stem the tide of warm air that escapes through our ceilings each day.

The HVAC boys are in the house and we’re like a couple of kids on Christmas morning watching the install progress.  Until they’ve got us up and running for good, we’re much more comfortable thanks to our neighbor David, who kindly loaned us a large kerosene heater that puts our electric radiators to shame.

Better housing through chemistry

While crawling around the house with the painter looking for wood that needs replacing, I spotted one windowsill that was particularly ragged.

Sitting inches from the roof for a few hundred years will do that to a piece of wood. Still, it’s remarkable how solid the remaining material was; old growth wood is amazing stuff.  We could have paid a carpenter untold sums of cash to replace the sill with lesser-quality wood, but I saw a great opportunity to try an epoxy patching system sold by Abatron, a company that’s endorsed  by historic preservation organizations around the country.  The system consists of two steps: the first is to soak the wood with a consolidant that solidifies the dry rotted and damaged material.  This creates a solid base for the second step, that starts with the mixing of a two-part epoxy putty with the consistency of Play-doh.  You stuff the mixture into the void you’re filling, shape it to roughly the final shape of the profile you’re matching, and sit back to let the chemical reaction of the resin and hardener do its magic.  A few hours later, the patch is rock solid.  I sanded this patch with a random orbit sander, gradually carving it to the shape of the original sill.

The cured material is waterproof, flexes with the wood and will never rot.  Reports of its long-term adhesion are good, so I’m optimistic that this is a fix that will help this sill live on for many more decades.  The epoxy system is not cheap.  This patch probably consumed $15-20 worth of material.  But when put up against the carpentry costs of replacing the sill, and knowing that the original material lives on, it’s an absolute bargain.