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Posts from the ‘Carpentry’ Category

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.