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Holding Up My House and Other Projects: The Foundation

Well, I guess we have to start pedaling faster, internet-wise at least. I’m certain I could bore you all to tears for another week or so, regaling you with stories of nailing some block or other somewhere on the back of my house, or turning a screw in a busted hinge. But I’ve got other projects I can show you in tedious detail. There’s no need to beat on this horse any longer. It’s shod, if not dead. So let’s get to the denouement, shall we? How did we finish? Or more accurately for one of my projects, did we finish? You betcha.

We’re more or less done futzing with the dry rot up high, so we can work down closer to the ground. It takes longer to climb down a ladder to get to the lunch table, so we prefer to work at eye level. We finished stripping off the acres of 1/2″ exterior plywood they wasted used to cover over the back of the house. We saved it all, and we’re going to use it, trust me. And we’re not going to paint any of it that dreadful blue color, either. In the last picture, you can see the two bands of timbers that span the back of the house, which help support the house over the big door openings. Bugs and rain can get inside the house between them, so we’re going to cover them up somehow. We’re not just going to nail the siding over them. We be smarter than that, if not exactly smart in general. We’ll build a canopy roof over the doors, to protect them from the elements. I’ll wager there was something like that on the house when it was built, and it fell off, and the owners installed another ceiling fan somewhere instead of fixing it.

So we start with one of my favorite topics, a WATER TABLE. This is how you make one, in a hurry, if you feel like it. You set the table saw on 10 degrees, I think, or thereabouts, and you take a 1 x 8 pine board and set the fence at 5-1/4″, and cut the lower piece, which now has a sloping bevel on the top. Now take the cut-off strip, which had one beveled edge of course,  flip it over, set your fence for 2″, and rip it again. Now you’ve got a parallelogram piece that naturally sits on top of the big piece at the correct angle, with one beveled edge flat against the house, and the outside edge is magically plumb. You can put flashing and so forth where the top cap meets the wall, but it’s overkill. The angle of the cap makes water run down and away from the house.

In this case, we cut a rabbet on the lower edge, because we’re going to slip a roof underneath it, and we need room to do it.

The new water table is located at about the spot were the new roof-lette is going to go. We wove in new pine clapboards to mesh with the old, cedar clapboards. If you pull the nails carefully from the lower edge of the old claps, this is possible. I’m not here to tell you it’s easy, however. Oh look, there’s the ghost of another boarded up window in the wall.

Alrighty, then. The water table(s) are in place, there are patches all over the place where the wood was punky and needed to be replaced, and we’ve started painting, even. There are at least two or three things that look like and then a miracle occurs in this photo. Four barn doors have magically appeared, and one shed door, too. Hell, they’re even painted and have hardware. And some paint has materialized from some where. To save time, here’s how we managed that:

The Barn Doors:

We took apart so much stuff, and saved the material, that we could make the doors almost entirely out of the trash pile. The window glass is simply four leftover storm window panels we found in the basement basement when we moved in. They boarded up the windows, but they saved the storm window glass for some reason. The door frames are that same, insane beam we demolished in one of last week’s episodes, cut into useful stiles and rails. The solid panels in the doors are made from the 1/2″ exterior plywood that formerly covered the back of the house. We had tons of it, and used it for all sorts of things. We assembled the doors using a domino joiner to make the mortise and tenon joints, and backed them up with very long saberdrive screws. That’s a superfast way to make a utility door. What, you don’t have a domino joiner? Sucks to be you. We held the glass in the openings with a barbaric picture-frame arrangement made from the cut-off strips of the joists we pared down last week to help support the floor upstairs. We bought some strap hinges and steel handles and latches at the local Mardens. If you’re unfamiliar with Mardens, you’re obviously not from Maine. Shopping at Mardens is a Maine tradition, like bean suppers or refusing to wear your seat belt when you drive. It’s like what used to be called a five and dime, only much, much shabbier.

The Shed Door:

Under an enormous pile of leaves, discarded roofing, and other trash in the back yard, we discovered one of the original barn doors at the bottom of the heap. It was made from the same beaded board  that people once reserved for utility areas in your house, instead of on every surface in the kitchen, living, dining, bath, and bedroom areas on every house on home and garden television. This beadboard was a 7/8″ thick, and appeared to my eye to be made from chestnut, a tree species that has long since been wiped out by some sort of blight. Chestnut is (oops, was) awesome wood. Naturally rot resistant, light but strong, easy to work with regular tools, not bad to look at either. Despite being over 100 years old, and languishing for a good, long time at the bottom of a heap of debris, in a mud puddle, some of the boards were still usable. We made the sort of gothic door you see on the left out of it, and some leftover framing lumber.

The Paint:

We made the paint, at least the green paint. We’d chosen a Ben Moore color called Providence Olive for the body of our house. We chose it before we realized that Ben Moore paint had skyrocketed in price to something like 60 bucks a gallon. We didn’t have that kind of scratch, so we improvised. I went into the basement and got all kinds of leftover alkyd primer and paint I had in the basement. We mixed it all together, and it made a kind of cool pukey blue. I bought a few pints of raw sienna and raw umber colorants, the same sort of things they squirt into your paint at the store to make it a color. If you add raw sienna to pukey blue, you get a warmer green color. If you squirt in raw umber, you get a much warmer, somewhat darker green. You know, Providence Olive. There was so much raw wood on the back of the house that it should get alkyd primed, anyway, so we painted it with our redi-mix paint and called it acceptable. You couldn’t tell it from the correct color anyway, and it had so much pigment in it that it was better than standard paint. We bit the bullet and shelled out for Montgomery White for the trim and Mayflower Red for the doors. It’s the best Victorian color scheme I’ve ever come up with.

Then we took all the little bits of framing lumber left over and made cripple rafters and lookouts and some other framing members I forget the names of, if I ever knew them. We nailed them to the exposed timbers, and sheathed the mess with salvaged 1/2″ plywood, after we flipped them over to hide the blue paint from my sensitive eyes. We used it to make the soffit, underneath, too, to keep out the bugs.

The lumber yard had a deal on cedar shingle bundles, so my boy and me grabbed some and nailed on three courses on the sheathing. We slipped some wooden flashing up under the water table and over the shingles to finish it off. That little overhang shields the doors from the weather pretty well. It also allows us to open the doors a little and slip outside to shovel snow, if we need to. Before, the snow would be banked hard against the house.

Here’s the actual owner of the house, inspecting the work. You can see the new foundation wall between the doors, under the window we restored to its original place.

And of course, the inamorata of all home improvement shows, before and after photos:

We do not aspire to greatness here. We do not aim for perfection. We do not hope for much at all, only that with some effort, we will be able to achieve an effect that allows intertunnel visitors to be able to tell which image is the before, and which is the after. It’s ambition, of a sort.

[We’ll show you how we fixed other stuff on the house in future installments. If you want to read the entire saga of fixing the basement from start to finish, you can read it here.  To support this site, please recommend it to internet friends, and hit the Ko-Fi tip jar if you’re feeling flush]

Fold, Spindle, Mutilate, and Rock Steady

Alton Ellis makes me happy.

Sometimes I thing reggae music, or at least the rock steady version of it, can fix any rock or pop song, even the ones like this Junior Walker song that didn’t need any fixing. It’s fresh and familiar at the same time, the holy grail of cover bands.

Or you could rely on Toots to brighten your Sunday. I often do. Toots and the Maytals took this one from West Virginia to Saturn and kept going.

Come on, cover bands. Give it a try. Fold, spindle, and mutilate that shite.

Water Tables and Other Discontents

So when we first moved to western Maine, things were different and strange. The people who lived here thought I was different and strange. I thought they were different and strange. I’ve been here a while, now. I’m no longer different, just strange. They’re no longer strange, just different.

I went to the lumber yard. I know my way around a lumber yard, there’s no terrors for me in there. It frightens folks accustomed to Home Depot, where you’re more competent about what’s on the shelves than the clerks. Regler people go into a lumber yard and there’s just a battered formica counter with a husky fellow glaring at you from behind it who say, “What do you want?” You have to tell them. You can’t point like an infant to stuff on the wall. All the good stuff is out back stacked in barns. You’re not getting out there until you buy something. It’s just you and the dude. So you open negotiations. You start out in a convivial mode, something small. You say you want a 2 x 4. I can’t get in any trouble with that, can I? Then they shoot back, “Stud length?”, and you’re asea all of a sudden with your decks awash. They have their own lingo, basted in a lumberyard patois, and you’re a stranger in there.

I’m a stranger in there for other reasons. I’m this weird out-of-towner who bought a house no local would touch with a ten foot pole, which by the way they have in the back, two dollars a foot. So I go in there, and start asking for things, and strike out for entirely different reasons.

“I need some cedar clapboards.”

Blank stare.

“Um six inchers if possible, but I’ll take eights if that’s all you have.”

Blank stare. Then:

“You want a what now?”

“Cedar clapboard. You know, bevel siding.”

“You mean vinyl siding?”

I may have said, “Sir, I would rather be pulled apart by horses and have my entrails barbecued in front of me while I watched than put vinyl siding on my house.” Or I might have said “No.” I can’t remember, it was years ago.

“Oh, do you mean pine siding?”

“You have clapboards made out of pine?”

“Sure. How many do you want?”

“Well, I want those, only made out of cedar.”

“I’ve heard of that, I think, but I’ve never seen one. Maybe the boss knows how to order them.”

“Never mind. Give me the pine. I’ll get used to it.”

Cedar clapboards were a fundamental building block of my existence for half my life. I might be able to calculate how many miles of them I’ve nailed onto houses, but I’m lazy and have a headache. It is however, impossible to determine how many miles of them I’ve painted, until quantum computing comes online. Let’s call it a lot, and move on.

But time and distance are real things, and need to be accommodated. They don’t do that around here. I’ve learned all sorts of stuff about my new home, a lot of it from my new home, as it were. Pine clapboards are awful. They’re full of knots that need to be sealed, they’re twisty and too soft to suit me. I could have gotten in high dudgeon about climbing down from tradition, at least until I saw the price. They cost about a quarter of what cedar claps would. I would have embraced the clerk like a brother, but for the intervening counter. I’ll take a bunch, and cut out the worst knots. Maybe I belong around here after all.

So we have to put the fabric of the house in order, too, not just jack it up like a Chevy with a flat. Let’s see what’s what.

You heave up the forty-foot ladder and get your face right in it. There’s a temporary patch I put in on day one to keep the largest animals out of the attic. Now we have to really fix the eave and wall where holes in the roof had done their work for somewhere between 25 and 50 years.

That’s some funky framing, y’all. That’s what’s called dry rot. Dry rot happens when wood gets wet, over and over. Don’t ask me, I didn’t name it. The bluish stuff you see is blown-in insulation. The denizens of our dojo weren’t entirely daft over the decades. Back maybe 50-60 years ago, some fairly competent workers drilled myriad holes in the house, blew in insulation in a lot of the house, and covered up the holes fairly well. Back in the day they used to remove lengths of clapboard and drill holes only through the sheathing to do their work, and then replace the clapboard. Nowadays they mostly drill through everything and plug the hole with what looks like a wooden cork, and your house gets acne.

If you’ve ever heard a spray foam insulation sales pitch, the first thing out of their mouths is that blown in insulation settles, so put in foam. Hmm. Enough water has sluiced through the giant hole in the roof to make a 2×4 stud completely disappear (look at the slot next to the other rotten stud), but the insulation is still standing there.

There are generally two kinds of loose insulation: cellulose or rock wool. Cellulose is just shredded newspaper treated with borates to make it flame retardant and make bugs avoid it. Rock wool is spun from mining slag. It’s basically fluffy rocks. It can’t burn and bugs hate it too. I couldn’t tell just by looking at it which kind it was. It tasted like rock wool. Don’t ask me how I know that.

At any rate, we patched up the framing and skinned over the eave and wove in some fascia and clapboards, and it didn’t look half bad. More like 75 percent bad. But it’s three storeys up and the squirrels are the only ones who will see it up close.

Then we came down low and put tar paper, claps, and trim over the sheathing. When we first moved here, a neighbor, who no doubt thought we were strange, was removing all their vinyl windows and replacing them with vinyl windows. You read that right. Some people just like talking to salesmen, as Kevin Spacey once said. They asked us if we’d like the old ones, because they were just going to the dump. We took them all, and fixed the hinky balances and so forth. We opened up 11 boarded up windows and put the freebies in the holes. There’s one now:

Around the driveway side, we had a different problem.

That’s a little shed someone made along the way by enclosing the posts that held up the porches on the second and third floors. Then they dumped soil against it and paved the slope down to the back of the house.

We can’t get rid of it, fix it properly, or live with it. You know, like Congress. So we did something funky. We jacked it up, which was easy because it didn’t weigh much, put in new footings, patched the posts, excavated a slot next to the wall, slipped in some pressure treated studs and plywood, and concrete board, then stuccoed it. It’s not the Taj Mahal. It’s not even the Garage Mahal, but it will last until I’m dead and can let someone else worry about this dump instead.

A long time ago, I was supervising the construction of a fast food restaurant. There was a meeting in a trailer-office with various project managers and site supervisors and customers and assorted dirty men. The town the restaurant was being built in was twee, and the restaurant plans were most decidedly not. The town took the plans and got out the red pencil and added various colonial, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and any other old-timey gimcrack they could think of, and wanted it pasted all over the building. The customer’s project manager was looking the plans over, trying to see what it would all cost, and asked, “What’s that thing called, at the bottom of the wall, above the foundation?” Everyone in the trailer tied their shoes, or looked at their watch, or scratched themselves, and generally did anything except answer the question. Finally, I said, It’s a water table.”

There was a pause, and then they all burst out laughing. They didn’t know anything, but they knew it couldn’t be called that, and I must be an idiot to think so. I’m sure they’re still telling the story of that guy who thinks that, you know, thing, down at the bottom of the wall, above the foundation, is called a water table.


I don’t buy ink by the barrel, but I have an inexhaustible supply of pixels, so I’d just like to say, to an audience that spans continents, that it’s a water table, you giggling imbeciles.

[Tune in tomorrow to see me settle old scores and do some more work on the house. And tell an intertunnel friend about Sippican Cottage]

Ribbon, Ribband, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

If you don’t mind (I’ll bet you won’t), we’re going to have to speed things up, and I’ll just wave my hand and tell you that there was a second step called and then a miracle occurs, and we ended up with beefed up framing all over the basement basement. For just a taste, here’s what we did to beef up the basement floor, which is overhead.

Those are 2 x 8 framing members. However, old house lumber isn’t sized like new house lumber. We had to run the 14-foot-long joists through a table saw and take about 1/4″ to a 1/2″ off them. They’re way, way undersized for the span, but no one asked me how big they should be back in 1901. Besides being too small, they’re spaced too widely, and somewhat randomly. We had to decide whether to “sister” the new pieces to the old pieces, or decrease the spacing between them. I performed intense calculations using my razor-sharp powers of observation and my encyclopedic knowledge of building practices, looked at my son, shrugged, and said, “I dunno. Whatever.”

They’re sitting on a flimsy cleat, mostly relying on being nailed to studs that extend up through the next floor for support. That was a common practice in balloon framing back in the day. Houses aren’t built like that anymore because lumber in long lengths is rare and expensive. It also leads to very bad fires, because smoke and flames have an easier time racing up the wall from floor to floor. My house isn’t balloon framed everywhere. It’s post and beam where it’s the biggest pain in the ass to work on, and it’s balloon framed in the worst places for that type of framing.

The thin, pine board the whole floor is resting on is called a ribbon (actually a ribband, but everyone calls it the other thing), and it makes me nervous. Let’s fix it, and lift the wall into place at the same time. Like this:

First we get some proper framing lumber under those joists and over the ribband. Then we use jacks to lift the sidewall until it lines up with the back wall again. Then we extend the corner post (there’s the post and beam shite again) to meet the very large sill. Finally, we support the new, beefy ribband with 2 x 4s on the flat, also extending to the sill. Like this:

We installed fire blocking, which segregates one floor from another. If you look at the first and second sheathing boards, you can see that the side wall was lifted about four inches or so at the back corner. I’ll have to patch up the sheathing and the clapboard siding later.

It’s finally time to start working on the foundation. In many cases, we would have been required to dig a hole five feet deep where the foundation goes, directly underneath the wall we’re going to support, and we’d have to do it with shovels. Yeesh. I’ve done it, it’s not fun. However, while the fellows that built my house were somewhat mercurial, they weren’t stupid. Down a few inches below ground are giant granite blocks that served as the foundation and footing. The part that used to show above ground was brick, and was ground to dust, but the granite is harder than Chinese arithmetic and never budged:

That railroad (trumpet) jack I told you about earlier is basically holding that entire section of wall, and three floors above it in place. It’s sitting on an oak plinth, on top of a big steel plate, with a big steel plate on top of it, too. Man oh man you just put a length of steel pipe into the yoke of that bad boy and turn it and the house goes up. It’s amazing. Then you tighten up the screw jacks to catch up. Wonderful.

We’re dumb, but we’re not dumb enough not to tie the part of the wall we’re building above ground to the granite part below ground. I drilled some 1/2″ holes in the stone, and pounded some #4 rebar into it. Rebar has its own system of sizing. Each number corresponds to 1/8″. So a #4 is 1/2″, and a #8 is 1″ in diameter, etc. We put some rebar horizontally, also, and tied it to the vertical bar. It just has to be held in place until the concrete fills the form. We also put in anchor bolts. Normally you place the bolts in the wet concrete, and then fit the sill to the bolts. We’re working upside down and backwards and sideways and obliquely, so we drill holes in the sill first, put the J bolts through, and hook them on the horizontal rebar, which is good practice.

All that is a pain in the arse if the form’s in place so we do it first. Then we start fitting the concrete form to the very uneven ground outside and the even more uneven concrete indoors. Like this:


We took apart the ridiculous beam we demolished and used some of the pieces to make the form. It had so many spikes (large framing nails) sticking into it, it reminded me of a porcupine pulled inside out. It was a beast to disassemble, but we were on a budget and we have to substitute labor for material wherever we can.

Hey look it’s our free cement mixer. The wheelbarrow was left out on someone’s curb during the Festival of Trash, so it didn’t cost anything. The teenaged boy wasn’t free, exactly. He isn’t getting paid, but I had to buy his mother dinner a few times before she agreed to marry me. Money in the bank, I figured.

So we mixed up a bunch of concrete with our hoe, which is plenty hard work, shoveled it into the form, and “rodded” it by plunging a leftover piece of rebar into the wet mix to get the air bubbles out of it. And just like that, we have a two-car garage/pigsty/barn under our house again.

[Tune in tomorrow to see if we can make this place presentable, now that’s it’s not going to fall on our heads. And tell a friend about Sippican Cottage]

North American Termite Map Is the Name of My Bellamy Brothers Tribute Band

I once tried to make a joke about my house. It’s an old joke we reserved for particularly rundown properties we were renovating back in the day. I said, “It’s not a house, it’s a million termites holding hands.” If you’re working with the kind of person who’s used to pooping in a porta-pottie, it will pass as a joke, anyway. I live in western Maine now, and instead of a snicker, I got corrected. I was informed that there are no termites here. This was news to me.

That’s right, I’ve moved so far north that all the termites froze to death. I checked a North American termite map to be sure. Interestingly, North American Termite Map is the name of my Bellamy Brothers tribute band. But I digress.

So we don’t have termites, just the occasional bear in the back yard. But carpenter ants are a hardier sort of animal. They set up shop in the beam over the big barn door opening, and got jiggy wid it. If you spot carpenter ant infestations, it’s usually too late to save what they’re gnawing at. They gobble up the insides of things, but leave a thin wall of wood between them and the outside to fool the unwary.

The carpenter ants were all as dead as the termites, and for the same reason I imagine. It occasionally reaches twenty below zero Fahrenheit around here, and that takes care of lots of pests, and cuts down on door-to-door salesmen, too. But the ants did plenty of damage before they moved to Florida, just like vinyl siding salesmen do, and the beams would have to be replaced.

I’d already purchased as much lumber as I could afford. The magic money tree in the back yard also can’t stand subzero temperatures, and was permanently out of order. Instead of selling a kidney to buy more lumber, I decided to try my hand at box beams. Besides, the last time I tried to sell a kidney at the hospital, they objected because I brought in a bag with thirteen of them at the same time. This elicited more questions than I care to answer about my affairs.

Back on topic, what are box beams, you ask?

If you watch Better Homes Than Yours, or anything else on H&G TV, or search the intertunnels, this is what you’ll be told:

A Wood Box Beam (sometimes called a faux beam) is a non-structural 2, 3, or 4-sided hollow beam meant to look like a solid beam

Well, at my house, that sort of thing is always called a fake beam. We don’t dignify it with French adjectives either, although we might call it merde, but that’s a noun. No, a true box beam is an interesting structural assembly made from wood, that can take the place of big framing components like door headers, while using less material. It’s made like this:

I’ll link to the document I found for box beam construction. It has span charts and so forth. Those are important, or would be, except they’re all in millimeters and hectares and hogsheads and rods and whatever else they use in the antipodes. But knock yourself out if you speak soccer measurements.

The fellows who built our house over a century ago loved box beams. The entire wraparound front porch roof is supported on box beams atop columns, including a nifty curved section. They didn’t have plywood, so they used regular pine boards and framing lumber. But these box beams never bowed a fraction of an inch, even with some serious snow loads on them. The porch foundation collapsed of course, but the box beams rode untroubled on their shabby underpinnings. We’ll fix that side of the house later.

So let’s build some box beams.

We have some 1 x 8s we were going to use to beef up the floor. Some of the floor would have to make do with less beefing up than a can of Dinty Moore, but c’est la vie. I laid it out it out with a hot pink speed square, either because I’m a very exciting person, or it was the only one they had at the store.

Oh boy, we have plenty of little blocks. We did this whole job, and many others, and never had a dumpster.

We make a sandwich:

We lay it on its side, and glue the bejeezus out of it:

Then we nail it like crazy, because we have a nail gun. If we had to pound all the nails by hand, I’d still be down there.

Et voila, a box beam in place:

I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t deflect at all under what is a pretty substantial load, but it didn’t need to be perfect. If I had let all the glue set properly before I installed it then it probably wouldn’t have deflected at all. It hasn’t moved any more in ten years, so I’m calling it a win and turning off the outfield lights.

So once again, with our two box beams in place, I made the same mistake I always do. I started feeling pretty good about the project. Just then, a strange face peeked around the corner. It was a normal sort of male human face, I meant no insult. But where I live, any face is an unusual face. We exchanged hullos, and there was an awkward silence. Then he announced he was the code enforcement officer for the town. Code enforcement is code for: building inspector these days.

This surprised me about the same as if he announced he’d just returned from a flying saucer ride with a bigfoot at the controls. If memory serves, that is the plot of Star Wars, but that’s not what I mean. I had no idea that the town had any sort of formal building department, or anyone to lord over it. Our town has been like musical chairs led by an arsonist since the 1970s. A handful of people would leave town, arsonists would burn down a couple of houses, and we all kept going around in smaller and smaller circles. There hasn’t been a building permit issued in this town since Jimmy Carter started banging nails on Habitat houses instead of banging on the economy like a cathode ray TV set with the horizontal hold on the fritz. What could this guy possibly want with me?

“Did you pull a building permit for this project?”

“Er, no. I didn’t know we had a building department.”

“Well, we do. I’m it.”

“I’m doing all the work myself. We’re not changing the house’s footprint or adding on anything, or hiring any contractors. I didn’t know you needed a permit to fix your own house.”

“Well, that’s generally true. But when I can see your building project from the highway by the river, or from a low flying plane, you need one.”

“How much is it?”

“Thirty-five bucks.”

“I’ll go down to town hall this afternoon and get one.”

“Great. I’ll be there. Say, what are you doing here?”

So I took him on a tour of the project. I showed him how the screw jacks worked, and how we were going to beef up the framing, and explained how the box beams were constructed, and where we were going to restore the foundation. He seemed quite interested. Then he left.

I went down to the town hall after lunch, and there he was behind the counter. I handed him the moolah, and he handed me the usual cardboard placard. I know how these things go, so I asked him how I should contact him for a final inspection, and if he wanted to perform any incremental inspections, like the foundation or framing or whatever.

“Oh, I’m not qualified to inspect your work. I barely understand what you’re doing. You can inspect it yourself when you’re done.”

Man, I love Maine sometimes.

[We’ll slip a foundation under this mess soon. Tune in tomorrow. And tell a friend that Sippican Cottage is back.]

Interestingly, Elastic Deformation Is the Name of My Smashing Pumpkins Tribute Band. But I Digress

Well, we’ve got to get rid of the remaining obstacles to progress. No, I’m not talking about politics. I was referring to the last two sets of Damocles detritus left by the ghosts of tenants past. Remember this little number from a few days ago?

It was an attempt worthy of Canute to stop the tide of subsidence in the back of the house. It’s all wrong and silly, of course, but it’s still doing something. This is where the “selective” in selective demolition really matters. You can’t just start knocking things out of your way, because you’ll introduce motion. Motion is bad in construction. Once things start moving in a house, they tend to have a cascade effect. My house isn’t constructed as well as a house of cards, but it’s the same general idea. You have to be careful how you disassemble stuff. I can’t fix the mess until the mess is out of the way but the mess is in the way so I can’t fix the stuff. It’s a Yossarian beam.

The beam you’re looking at is ridiculous. It’s four 2 x 6s nailed together, with another 2 x 6 nailed flat on the bottom of it for good measure.  People have all these ideas in their head about how the world works, but the world doesn’t really cooperate with ideas very well. Reality intrudes, sometimes on your head. That’s something like a ten-foot span, and it’s holding up a lot of weight. Several floors of weight, and a roof, and my wife making lunch. A beam (you can use a chart for headers over doors and windows to find this out) made from four 2 x 12s, twice as big as what they made, is only rated for an 8′ span. The beam they made is maybe half as strong as it needs to be, and looks it. And of course, after they figured that wood is strong, so just add more of it, they doubled down with concrete is indestructible, and just plopped the column jack on a two-inch thick concrete floor, instead of a making a footing to properly support the weight. They didn’t understand that the floor is only there to keep your feet from getting muddy when you’re looking for your skis in the fall.

As you can see, the beam is smiling at us, and the foot of the column on the right can faintly hear Mandarin being spoken. Also, if you look at the side wall over yonder, you can see that someone tried to pour a concrete wall on top of the granite blocks, next to the brick infill. It stopped some of the slouching on that side of the house, but because of the funky way the house is framed, the back wall of the house can move independently of the side walls. It just kept sinking into the slough of despond I call a back yard. Eventually, we’ll have to jack up the sidewalls independently of the back wall, and when they catch up, support everything and nail it together. Right now, the beam has to go.

Here’s what we set up to safely remove the beam and columns: Next to nothing. There’s a temporary shoring beam set up on the left, and a temporary (“fly”) wall set up to hold up the floor. That’s all it took to replace all that lumber and the columns. We used two cut-offs from the screw jack posts to spread the load on the floor and catch two intermediate joists, and two 2x4s from the dump to hold the thing up. The diagonal cross brace matters. It keeps the posts from bending outwards, and I needed a place to hang an extension cord.

We built all these temporary supports using nifty saberdrive screws. They start their own hole, have serrated threads so they don’t slip, and they cut through anything wood-like. They clean out their own hole while they’re being driven, and walk your dog and mow your lawn for you, I think. They’re easy to remove from temporary supports and reuse them over and over because the star point heads don’t strip out like Phillips head screws. They look like this:I can tell they’re better than anything else, because they’ve disappeared from every hardware store and lumber yard within an hour of my house. If they sucked, I could still buy them.

Now we have to get rid of the last Damocles pig sticker. There’s a small steel beam tucked up at the ceiling, sitting on two columns. We gotta be careful with this one:

The main carrying beam for the house is sitting on that. It’s supposed to sit on that big timber column in the back wall, and you can see it bending while it tries, but the post is way too sunk into the raccoon’s conversation pit down below to meet up with it. I’m not worried about supporting the weight on the beam. It’s a short span and only one floor is sitting on it because of the odd way the house is framed. I’m worried about dropping that iron thing on my son, who I like, or me, who I don’t like nearly as much but who else will look out for me? You can’t lower column jacks, really, and even if you could catch that steel beam when it fell (no thanks), if the columns topple over they don’t feel good when they hit you. So we put a single screw jack under the beam, that’s all it took, and knocked together a cradle under the beam before we removed the steel columns. Like so:

The thing was heavy, but two men, or more accurately, one lazy man and one barely man, could slide it out safely and get it on the ground.

Now we have a different problem, caused by all the other problems, but hidden until now. The back of the house is concave. It makes sense. As the foundation wasted away, the back wall slumped, and it started to bow outward at the bottom and bend inward up higher as the upper storeys and the roof pushed down on it. Once we lifted the house off the ground, the bottom swung way from the basement.  That’s because of some creep.

No, I’m not referring to myself, or the former renovators of my house. I’m referring to a property of wood. According to the American Wood Council, creep is defined as:

The time-dependent deformation of loaded member undergoing elastic deformation.

If you don’t speak Wood Esperanto, I’ll translate: If you bend a piece of wood long enough, it stays bent. Ours did. Before we could put a foundation under the center of the back wall, we’d have to cajole it back into place. Here’s how we did it.

First, we put a big lag eyebolt into the big timber sill. Like this:

Then we lag bolted a chintzy Harbor Freight winch to the (charred) main carrying beam. We formerly used the winch to pull a woodburning furnace into our basement. Don’t ask me about that little interlude, or you’ll get another month-long saga.

Anyway, the Heir cranked that mother, and when the wall was back somewhere close to where it belonged, we nailed two of those lovely free 2x4s to the floor framing and the sill to make triangles, which are stronger and sexier than rectangles, with the added benefit of being easier to stumble into over and over, which I did.

We were feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point, which is always a mistake. We looked at the ground under one of the big, newly freed barn door openings. Ruh roh Shaggy:

Sawdust is one thing. Cellulose talcum powder like that is something else. Let’s look up above.

Yup, we got visited by the two most unwelcome guests a remodeler can meet, and both in one day: Carpenter ants, and then a building inspector.

[Tune in tomorrow for more remuddling fun, and tell a friend about Sippican Cottage]

Lumbering Around the Back Yard

Alright, we’re going to need some lumber. There’s no way around it. We have to spend money. Luckily, we did this job ten years ago, and lumber was plenty cheap then compared to now. It didn’t seem cheap at the time, because no one had any money back then, especially me. Lumber is expensive now because everyone has so much money that money is damn near worthless. The effect is the same. In any case, we have to be thrifty.

So it pained me to buy pressure treated 4x4s just to use them as the shafts for our screw jacks, so I didn’t. I bought them to use as shafts, all the while planning to cut them up after and fix the front and side porches with them when we were through. Nothing would go to the dump, except me, looking for more wood to take home. There are some regular old SPF (spruce, pine, fir framing lumber) 2x8s in there, too. The floor above the basement basement was laid out in the “every once in a while on center” motif, instead of the usual 16″, so we’re going to add some joists to take a little of the sproing out of the floor while we’re at it.

Before we begin banging nails, we have to determine what’s what, once and for all. Any medic will tell you can’t stop the bleeding properly until you find all the exit wounds. We had to figure out a proper height for the back wall of the house, and aim for it. That doesn’t mean I was going to put the house entirely to rights. I’m of a practical nature, and practically speaking, the house was just north of a tear down project. I know how to completely renovate a house, and truly straighten everything out. I also know when it just ain’t worth it. Good enough is good enough, I always say. We’d just like to stop listing to port when we walk through the kitchen.

So we laid a level on the wall to get some idea of how bad the house had sagged over the last century. Look at the difference between the level and the lines on the back of the board sheathing. Jinkies, this is going to take some effort. The house has too much slope for plumbing pipes, never mind a supporting wall. There’s a lesson in there, too. No house slumps like that all at once. If it did, it would get it over with and collapse in a heap tout de suite. What happens is that slowly, over decades, it loses a little bit of its underpinning at a time, and slouches a bit, and then a bit more, etc.. Then someone tries to deal with the result, instead of the actual problem, and adds props and patches and whatnot. The house slowly morphs into another shape. And something that takes a century to move is going to put up quite a struggle when you try to put it back. At that point it isn’t really a renovation. It’s somewhere between an intervention and an exorcism.

I figured out what we could get away with,  and made a reference mark on a foundation wall in a handy spot. The mark itself didn’t signify anything. It was simply there so that every other measurement could be compared to that mark. You can do a lot of renovation and building work with simple approaches like that. If you watch TV, you’d figure you’d need a laser level and other fancy electronic stuff in there. Good luck using it in the forest of props holding up the floor above. Besides, we don’t have the time and material and manpower necessary to hit laser lines anyway. When good enough is good enough, you can use simple tools and barbarous measuring schemes and rules of thumb while hitting your thumb, and get a decent result. We just used a long level, a short level, some straightedges, tape measures, a plumb bob, and some string to lay everything out and keep track of it. They built the pyramids with just that sort of stuff, and a little ingenuity. What do I need a particle accelerator for?

Now we’re doing demolition in earnest. If you get your construction cues from shelter shows, you have a very warped idea of what demolition entails. TV thinks that women who weigh nine stone perform demolition by kicking their foot through walls and giving each other high fives. They’re generally wearing open-toed shoes and safety glasses, an amusing combination.

When you’re doing renovation, you don’t just wreck everything by smashing at it. The exact term for the operation is selective demolition. You’re supposed to remove what isn’t staying, and make room for the new stuff. You take things apart, preserving what’s still sound. You don’t wreck stuff in a frenzy. I’ve done all sorts of construction, and people hurt themselves most often during demolition. They’re terrified of ladders and power tools but don’t have any respect for rusty nails and things falling on their heads.

Selective demolition is especially selective when it’s hard to figure out what the hell the people who came before you were up to. You don’t want to start whaling on things that might have pipes, or wires, or structural functions they shouldn’t. We took the basement basement apart like an unexploded bomb. We appraised the function of each piece, which was generally comic relief, and then removed it. We use pry bars and a sawzall, generally. As quickly as possible, we’d clear out the remuddling puckerbrush and add the screw jacks we were going to use to raise and support the house. Like this:

That’s a big, steel plate that one is sitting on, that we found down there and repurposed. By taking the place apart, instead of just wrecking it, we were able to salvage all sorts of lumber, too. There was more than enough material down there to make all the repairs they attempted to make. They just didn’t know how to actually fix anything.

Each thing we removed opened up the construction vista and let us get at something else, which was gratifying. After a while, we were able to remove most of the cobwebs, which we assumed were structural at first, due to their density, but they turned out to be mostly decorative. The big thing to get out of the way was the ridiculous steel beam sticking out of the back of the house. First we had to get the back of the house suspended on five screwjacks inside and out, like this:

Steel be heavy, people, but we smart. Not smart enough to avoid buying this house, but smart enough to drop the beam on some round iron pipe and roll it out. Aah, now we can really start working.

In the next photo, you can see a ten-foot 4×4 beam we’re using as cribbing. There are three, ten-ton bottle jacks moving everything skyward. They all have steel plates on top of their plungers to keep them from simply boring a hole in the cribbing. You lift with all three, scurrying from one to the next to keep it moving evenly, then turn the wing screws you see at the foot of the jacks. You turn the screws by banging on the wings with a rubber mallet. That area you see where the bottle jacks are working is where the foundation is supposed to be, but isn’t. And so you see why the screw jacks are located both inside and outside the wall, instead of relying on anything pushing straight up. It’s durn difficult to built a house in midair, and then slip a foundation under it, but we’re going to do it.

[More foundation tomorrow. Feel free to mock me in the comments, and tell a friend about]

The Sippican Cottage Spiffy Sawhorse Saga

I asked one of my old girlfriends to model a Sippican Cottage Sawhorse. She shoulda shaved her legs, and I’m not sure about that hat.

Alright, here is where I admit embarrassing things. As opposed to the other 2,874 entries on this website, where I only admit awkward and bewildering things. Before we start banging any nails, we’re going to take another detour, and get all logistical on you. We’re going to make two sawhorses. You see, we’re going to be handling lots of long pieces of lumber, eights, twelves, and fourteen-footers, and they’re a bear to work with when they’re on the ground. We’ll save our backs and get them 24″ plus off the ground, and work on them right where they’re being used, instead of manhandling them into my shop and re-enacting a Three Stooges episode when we swing them around in there.

So, you’re wondering, what’s so embarrassing about building sawhorses? If you’re a devotee of Sippican Cottage, you know they’re going to be rudely fashioned and just about usable, just like everything I make. That holds no terrors for me to admit. No, it’s the timing of this little interlude that reddens my cheeks like Ben Nye would. I promised I’d show a reader how to make a real carpenter’s sawhorse a while back, and I’m just getting to it.

I promised on June 3rd, 2005.

No, really, I was blogging back in 2005, back before they called it blogging. I offered a daily dose of intellectual pablum appended to a website I kept to sell furniture I made. I posted a picture of my sawhorses, and someone emailed me and asked me to write down how to make them. I said sure, I’ll get to it.

I promised to post the dimensions again in 2008. Didn’t do it. I think I promised again in 2012. Fell down on the job. We’ve morphed seamlessly from embarrassing to mortifying at this point, but I’m pretty sure I promised again in 2017, and 2018, but I’m not certain of that, or of very much else.

But it’s a long road that has no turning. Here’s how to make Sippican’s Spiffy Sawhorses

I’ve got pitchas to help you out. They’re not really difficult to make, but they’re really sturdy and useful.


Ambush and a French Twist

We’ll get back to fixing the basement tomorrow. Until then, enjoy Donald Fagen’s love letter to growing up in New Jersey in the fifties, and trying not to glow. I imagine it’s more amusing than the Oppenheimer movie. It’s got a touch of Tuesday Weld.

Lagging Behind the House

So let’s get cracking. Let’s see what we have here. There’s the boat I made in the basement, one house ago, that never got launched. If the rain ever gets biblical again, I’m ready. Other than that, leisure is just a word in the dictionary. I’ve seen it in there, long ago, but I can’t remember its definition, so the boat is just in the way all the time.

Ah, yes, the white door. It’s a very old door, much older than the house, which is over a hundred years old. The house is Victorian, the door is Colonial. It had a thumb latch instead of a knob. That kind of old.

Someone who might have been good at something, you never know, but certainly wasn’t good at carpentry, framed out a barbarous opening to get out of the basement they had just boarded up. They figured wrong, I imagine, and the door didn’t fit the opening they made for it, so they cut four inches off the top of the door to make it fit.

The resulting doorway was remarkable. I appreciate remarkable things, because they are so rare. That’s what makes them remarkable, isn’t it? Anyway, that doorway was precisely the wrong height. It wasn’t basically the wrong height, or sorta the wrong height, or even demonstrably the wrong height. It was subtly, perfectly the wrong height for a six-foot-two person, which I used to be, before I started exiting the house through that door. Now I’m slightly shorter, because that door frame would catch my fontanel, which was just starting to firm up, and give me a headache every day, as if I needed another one. I have uttered bad things while passing through that doorway. I must admit, however, that scraping my scalp on that door, over and over, was ultimately good for me. It took my mind off my throbbing ankle from bashing it into the bizarrely placed I-beam in the dark a few seconds before.

That green cabinet there was a hoot. It came with the house. I opened it up the first time with a Bowie knife in my off hand, because I had no idea what I’d find in it. It was as empty as a politician’s promise, thank Jeebus. It was pretty old, and had a ghostly, faded hand drawn label that said Civil Defense, which gave me a chuckle. Wrap your head around this: In the event the Reds decide to push the button down, it appears the local citizenry was supposed to cower in this basement for safety. I’m not sure it would withstand an atomic blast. I’m afraid to be in there on a breezy day.

So let’s start peeling back the layers of this remuddling onion and see what we’ve got. Hmm, we’ve got basically nothing. That pocket you see at ground level, the one with a couple of bricks stacked on top of a concrete block, some insulation, and a raccoon’s futon, is where the foundation that holds up the back of the house is supposed to be.

There’s a random metal column, sitting on enough concrete to hold up a Kia, not a house. You can see the original sheathing on the house being revealed. Plywood is a fairly recent invention. Back a century ago, the outside of your (American, northeastern) house would be entirely sheathed in 7/8″ thick boards like these. The plywood you see there is, you guessed it, another boarded up window. We’ll put one back in there, so I can actually see what I’m cracking my shin on, at least until we get rid of that I-beam.

More openings are revealed. The basement basement is basically a two-car garage, with a window between the doors. Apparently, I’m a lucky guy. Not many people discover a free, two-car garage under their house.

I’ve always been lucky. My wife paid five bucks cover to get into the nightclub I was performing in back in the day, and luckily I married the hell out of her before she sobered up and figured out how weird I am. I’m also lucky that no one ever asks my wife if she’s lucky. I shudder to contemplate the answer.

Over on the left there, behind the bicycle, we stripped the wall and found yet another boarded up window. It inspired me to go back and review the deed for the house, and all the associated documents from the bank. I couldn’t find any former owners named Nosferatu, or Alacard, or Van Helsing, or Peter Cushing, or anything similar. I was sure I would. Who else would live like this, on purpose? It’s a dark and bloody mystery. Just like the basement.

If you’re going to get into the housing game at this level, you’re going to have to learn to roll with the punches, and the cracks on the ankle and the scrapes on the head. People with more money than me can act as they please, and write a big check and have someone competent nuke everything from orbit and set it to rights. I gots to do the mostest with the leastest, so I’m always on the lookout for a corner to cut, or more accurately, something I can save instead of replace. There, underneath that nasty plywood, I found two courses of very, very substantial timbers that ran all along the back of the house, over the original barn door openings. By some miracle they weren’t rotten, even though they’d been exposed to the weather for forever and a day. They were acting as a giant header, and the wall framing above it was nailed to it.

It’s an unusual arrangement, but it was strong as hell to have survived the depredations of the denizens of the house for a century. I liked it, and wanted to keep it, but I didn’t quite trust it, sort of like how I feel about our cat. And how she feels about me, I imagine.

Hey, leave me out of this. I’m not currently doing anything bad.

At any rate, I simply beefed up the existing structure by adding four very large galvanized lag screws at each framing member. It was a beast of a job to get them in. Old lumber be tough, people. We pre-drilled and waxed the threads and prayed and cursed but they still went in hard. I rummaged around in that drawer we all have that’s filled with stuff you’ll never use, but you’re afraid to throw out. If you’re like me, you’re always in that drawer looking for something more than all the other drawers combined. I found an air wrench I got for free with an air compressor I didn’t get for free. It made that glorious farting noise as it turned that you’re familiar with if you’ve ever sat in the waiting room of a tire store.

So we’re lagging behind the house. Sounds like progress, don’t it? Even if it doesn’t sound like English.

Month: July 2023

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