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Posts from the ‘Interior’ 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.    

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.

For her eyes only

I’m a natural light fanatic. After a few overcast days, I morph into Mr. Grumpy Pants. And this whole daylight savings business is a load of bollocks. Who cares if it’s dark in the morning when you’re groggy anyway? Given my innate craving for natural light, it’s only with great reluctance that I install window coverings in my place of residence. It took nearly two years for me to put blinds in our last house, even though the bedroom was ground level and street-facing.

At the Ordinary House, I’ve spent more time removing window coverings than installing them. But we face a similar visibility problem in our new master suite. It’s upstairs, but nearly every window has a line of sight to the street. This means that we either tuck into a corner to get dressed, or fumble around in the dark in an effort to avoid scandalizing the neighborhood. But, sometimes you want to shuffle around the bedroom in your boxer shorts and Bugs Bunny slippers with complete confidence that the neighbors aren’t watching.

master bedroom

Add in Weezie’s need to catch Z’s during daylight hours after overnight shifts, and it’s clear that our need for privacy and light control wins out over my craving for sunlight. Late this summer, when Louis was rousted by sunrise at 4:00 a.m., sleep deprivation forced the issue.

Our desire for permanent, effective and easily controllable window coverings led us to one obvious solution: shutters. Rather than face the hard sell and inflated prices of local dealers, I decided to order our shutters online from The Shutter Store. I was attracted to the site by reasonable prices and extensive customization options. The day after I submitted the order, a real person called to confirm the details. Then, we waited…

…and waited…

…and waited, and waited, and waited. Nearly ten weeks after clicking “order”, the first pair of shutters arrived. Now, I realize they were probably shipped on the slow boat from Guangdong Province, but two-and-a-half months is insufferably long in the age of streaming video and Amazon Prime. Sadly for us, we only ordered one pair of the five we need so that we could be sure we liked them before committing to the full order.

Fortunately, the shutters were worth the wait. They’re solid poplar, painted a crisp white with chrome hardware. The installation was quick and relatively straight-forward.

shutters unhung

The first step was to assemble a three-sided frame with bowtie-shaped plastic pegs.

corner peg

Then, I lifted the frame into place and screwed it to the window jamb, using nickels to space the frame away from the sash to maintain operability of the window.

frame install

The shutters were affixed to the frame with hinge pins. A few shims here and there to adjust to the old house wonk, and voilà! Beautiful plantation shutters.

hinge pin

The two-and-a-half inch louvers are large, allowing decent views out and plenty of natural light in. When closed, they do a good job of knocking down the light levels. One option that The Shutter Store offered that was important to me was the ability to adjust the height of the mid-rail. Our upstairs windows have unequal sashes – note how the rail aligns with the meeting point of the sashes on the window.

shutters after

With any luck, in just ten more weeks, we’ll be able to turn our room from sun-drenched to somnolent with the flick of a tilt rod.