Sippican Cottage

It Doesn’t Have To Be That Good To Be Better Than Nothing

Well, it might not be finished, but it’s done. No, the other way around. Bah. The laundry room is completed enough to call it one.

Of course it really never stopped being a laundry room, except for a few hours a few times. For a while it was like a typical laundry room. A dark, cold, undifferentiated hole in the ground with bare light bulb that somehow increased the gloom, and a chugging drain hose from the washer to make sounds like the cat with a furball to keep you company. It wasn’t elegant for a while, but we got our laundry clean and the bottoms of our feet dirty, just like regular folks.

We’re old hands at working around regular domestic activities. It’s much, much more convenient to build things and then use them, but we don’t have that kind of time or money. We settle for pretty good, and don’t grumble. Hell, it’s a laundry room where there wasn’t one before. It doesn’t have to be that good to be better than nothing. Perhaps I’ll put that on my business card.

So yesterday we painted the last door and all the window and door trim one last time. Today we scurried around and tried to figure out which screw in the hardware bucket belonged to which hinge. But we got it done enough to pollute the intertunnel with some pitchas. Here you go:

Wow. Borderline orderly down here. A couple of old carpets make trudging back and forth less trudge-y. Mrs. Cottage likes having a desk there to plop the baskets on, within easy reach of the machines. We both use the sink all the time for all sorts of things. It’s a gloomy day today, but the room is always bright, with two fairly big windows and four LED discs in the ceiling.

If you look back the other way, you can see the old brick wall straight ahead, and the wall we added on the left that separates the laundry room from the portion we reserve for more barbarous arts.  If you look hard enough, you can see the loop handle in the floor where the floor hatch opens. The floor is perfectly flush now, and sturdier. Here’s what that used to look like:

Plenty of room for a dart alley, but the ceiling is a little low for me. You really have to stick the double twenties. You can’t float them in. Veterans of Irish pubs are used to low ceilings. I’ve been in more Irish pubs than the police, so I qualify as a veteran.

This used to look like that:

Hey, remember this charming little grotto? I love the carpet squares on the floor. They had to be the nastiest surface in our time zone. Decades of grime were ground into them. I wore a full respirator mask when I pulled them up. Not for any particular hazard. They’re not full of lead or asbestos or anything. But I didn’t want to catch jungle rot, or beri-beri- or yaws, or leprosy, or tetanus, or ebola, or whatever else might be lurking in the pile. For amusement, it doesn’t get much better than when you flip the carpet over and the label says it’s made by Amoco.

Hey, don’t laugh. My old construction friend Steve used to testify to anyone who would listen that Shell station burritos were the best burritos in the world. He’d never miss a chance to buy one in any Shell station we passed at mealtimes. Me? I never missed a chance to miss a chance. So maybe Amoco carpet isn’t that strange. It’s a tossup which might be healthier to eat.

Here’s how it turned out, after we demolished most of the pipes, and moved the big ones closer to the wall, and added a window, and a door we picked up during our town’s festival of trash, and fixed the stairs, and laid a new floor:

The door is solid fir. In pretty good shape for something heading to the dump. However, it was covered with little stickers of some form of cartoon characters I didn’t recognize. My kids watched SpongeBob and Jimmy Neutron and stuff like that. I’m not sure what’s on the TV now. I’m sure its something along the lines of a singing and talking platypus that cooks meth in mom’s single-wide or some other equally wholesome hijinks.

We insulated the floor below, and the ceiling above, with blown-in dense-packed cellulose. We insulated all the walls, too, with a melange of salvaged fiberglass batts, foam board, and more cellulose. It stays a little warmer in there than in the rest of the basement, but the real payoff is the sound deadening. You have to open the door at the top of the stairs and listen carefully to hear if the machines are running. It used to sound like an out of plumb bowling alley all day in the kitchen when we had the washer and dryer in our master bathroom. My poor wife had to listen to it all day long when she was in the kitchen, so she’s happy. Of course, I’m happy, too, because with the the lack of noise upstairs, I can finally hear the voices in my head again. They’re full of bright ideas, and I missed them.

[Thanks for reading and commenting and recommending Sippican Cottage to your internet friends. It is much appreciated.]

Hatches, I’m Depending On You, Son

The laundry cubes were thumping and spinning again, so the pressure is off. It’s good to keep disruptions of your daily routine to a minimum. Of course this whole project is one, big honking disruption to everything, but we don’t mind too much. Little by little the butterfly comes out of the worm. This place ain’t no butterfly, but it’s starting to at least be a moth.

Wandering down the passage to the stairs, you can see that we’ve boxed in the poop pipe. It’s a cast iron job that runs straight up through the house and right out the roof. Ugly as other people’s children. We have to leave the cleanout exposed up near the ceiling, but we re-jiggered it so it doesn’t stick out so much, and clonk the unwary tall visitor in the head.

Heading back the other way, we have to finish the floor over the hatch to the basement. In the comments yesterday, Anne got really confused, and asked me why I didn’t just disassemble the whole house to make the stairs under this hatch less steep. She’s laboring under the misconception that I’m trying to do a good job. I ain’t. If it makes you feel any better, do the same mental arithmetic I do: I didn’t build a crappy staircase. I built a fantastic ladder. See? Problem solved.

This hatch always stuck up out of the floor, and the hardware on it used to trip me every time I passed by on my way back from getting a bag of wood pellets. We’ll solve that problem right now. We beefed up the hatch something awful. I made a version of a torsion box. It’s a sandwich of plywood and solid insulation, and it’s about four inches thick now, and doesn’t feel like a diving board when you walk over it anymore. It gets mighty cold down in the carhole, so it can’t hurt to insulate the hatch to a fare-thee-well.

There used to be a portion of the granite foundation wall sticking into the room in the corner on the right. We boxed that in and insulated it quite a bit with the same sheets of extruded polystyrene insulation. It’ll keep it infinitesimally warmer in the laundry room.

This click lock flooring is good enough for what it is, where it is, and what it cost. It just sort of lays there, though. It’s not attached to anything. That won’t fly on a portion of the floor that’s on hinges. Or more accurately, it will fly. I cut all the pieces to size clicked them together into a single assembly, and glued it down to the plywood subfloor. I shot some small nails around the perimeter to hold it down a little better.

I bought a heavy duty pull ring at the hardware store, and buried it in the flooring and plywood. It’s flush, so no more tripping. There’s not much more to say about the last picture, so I’ll just let you revel in the amazing assortment of tools I have on hand. Two drills from the tenth century, I think. They came with ni-cad batteries back in the day, which died after many years of use. I couldn’t buy any more batteries, because everything had shifted to lithium-ion batteries. I couldn’t bear to throw the tools away. Years later I learned you can plug the lithium-ion batteries into the old tools and they work fine. Then you can ponder the environmental improvements we’ve made my mining charming metals like nickel, cadmium, and lithium by the mega-ton instead of using copper extension cords.

There’s a J roller in the picture. If you lean on the handle and roll it back and forth, it really lets the glue know you want it to stick. There’s a hammer over there by the brick wall, so I’ll have something to trip over, just for auld lang syne. There’s not one, but two kneeling pads, because even though I’m not officially in the way yet, I am getting old.

We took the old handle grip off the top of the door and put it underneath, to give you something to grab if you’re closing the hatch behind you. As you can see, adding a little floor area on the left was worth the trouble. It’s a small landing, but it is a landing. Before we fixed it, you ran straight into the wall at the top step.

You can see the sandwich construction of the hatch in this picture. A 2″ x 4″ frame, with 1/4″ thick luaun ply on the bottom and 3/4″ OSB on the top. It weighs a lot, and it feels just as sturdy as the rest of the floor when you walk on it, which is faint praise, I know, but better is better. It does get foot traffic, because as you can see, the dart board is already on the wall above it.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and recommending this blog to your friends. Don’t forget there’s a tip jar in the corner. We wager on the dart games, and I lose a lot. Thanks!]

It Was Already There So I Used It

We’ve already waxed philosophical about the stairs to the laundry room. Wrote lyric poems to risers and treads. Sang the praises  of sturdy handrails. But there was another set of stairs appurtenant to the laundry too. The stairs to the carhole. Ugh.

I’ve re-posted a picture of these stairs for your enjoyment. I can assure you that no matter how bad they look in the photo, in real life they were much, much worse than they look. If you walked on them, they swayed like a car salesman at midnight at a Christmas party. In a sane world, you’d just avoid them completely. If you’re new around here, I don’t live in a sane world, or even in the same time zone as one.

In the winter, these stairs are the only practical way to get into the carhole. The snow outside makes it impossible to go around and open the carhole doors to get in. Back when we were still burning firewood for all our heat, we’d stack eight cords outside in the summer to dry. Then we’d bring them into the carhole sometime around Halloween. Every day, we’d have to descend and ascend these stairs, carrying five gallon buckets filled with firewood. We used to look at the weather report in the morning, and figger how many buckets of wood we needed to get through the day. When it was really cold, and the wood furnace was really rocking, we’d have to feed it every two hours. That was twelve buckets of wood. For the life of me, I can’t understand how we did it, going up and down those stairs, carrying all that wood. I must have survived, because I’m typing this, but I’m not sure about the kids. I’ll be right back. I’m going to count them to make sure.

They’re not speaking to me yet. It’s been years since we burned firewood, but they hold grudges, I guess. I can’t say I blame them. But we have the correct number of them, so let’s move on.

We’re back to fuzzy pictures. Sorry. But as you can sort of see, the stairs were accessed through a barbarous hatch. To further make the trek up and down the stairs more amusing, when you reached the top step, your nose was touching a brick wall. As you can (almost) see in the photo, we demolished those stairs. I think I did it with a dirty look, but I might have used a hammer and a pry bar as well.

The opening was too short for a run of stairs, so they were pretty steep. I didn’t want to change the floor framing to make the stairs less steep. Too much heavy work, and expense. Besides, they’re not everyday stairs, so ripping the house apart to fix them wasn’t worth the effort. When you buy an old house to fix, you have to adjust your thinking to your new circumstances. Whenever you see half-finished renovations in houses for sale, you’re looking at people who don’t pick their battles properly. They think the way to renovate a whole house is to spread whatever money you have thinly over the whole thing. That’s a recipe for a real estate auction. Doing things sequentially when you’re sure you have the dough and the time is a smarter move. Just remember to do the most important things first. You know, like removing the house numbers so debt collectors can’t find you.

So the stairs would still be a short, steep run, but much sturdier. I did extend the floor framing at the brick wall to leave a foot or two more space at the top of the stairs. I pushed the other end further into the carhole, to keep from making the run of stairs even shorter and steeper. I have to duck going down, but not up. I don’t mind.

First, you have to cut stringers. They’re tricky little things if the stairs are in the fancy portions of your house. You have to gauge the height of the first and last riser cuts to accommodate finish flooring. This stair is easy, because there’s no flooring in the carhole, and only a thin sliver at the laundry room level. I see from the pitchas that we must have fixed these stairs in the summer, because we aren’t wearing our mukluks and wolverine furs yet:

I have no idea where we were working to end up with this picture. The spare heir is carrying the stringer down the driveway to the carhole. He’s smiling, which also confuses me. Oh well, we cut it somewhere.

As you can see from this pitcha, the stairs are plenty steep. We’ll build the whole thing out of framing lumber. We’ll install hanger brackets at the top to affix it to the floor framing.

A flight of stairs made from beefy lumber is sturdy, but it’s smart to put some form of brace about halfway up to stiffen it up. It’s not quite so bouncy in the middle of the run. Besides, the post was already there, so I used it. It was already there, so I used it is kinda the theme of the house, I guess.

[To be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Hot Air Chicane” Is the Name of My Nickelback Tribute Band. But I Digress

Well, digital life is finally catching up with real life at the cottage. I spent most of yesterday painting doors and trim in the laundry room. It needs one more day of work, and it’s hard to find the hours in the day, what with regler work demands. So writing about the laundry room has become performance art, not just construction. Live performances add an element of tension to an act. Can he finish? Will he finish? Who cares about some laundry room in a benighted burgh at the edge of the map? I dunno. But we must press on.

We’re in the portion of the proceedings where I need to say, and then a miracle occurs, and lots of things appear magically. The ceiling is insulated and drywalled and filled with downlights and painted. The walls are all in place, taped and mudded, sanded and painted. The finish electrical is mostly done. That’s a 220-volt plug for the dryer, with a “periscope” vent sticking out of the wall near the floor. The vent is a long, rectangular hot air chicane that transfers the dryer exhaust straight down into the carhole ceiling, where it takes a left and makes its way outside to a vent hood. The hot and cold water lines are salvaged hoses with braided steel jackets. I don’t bother with regular rubber ones. Bound to fail. These are something like 30-years-old and going strong.

What’s that thing in the corner, you ask? Where did that come from? Where do I get one?

It’s very simple. If you’d like a laundry (slop) sink in your house, simply build a gas/station convenience store, receive too many sinks for the utility area in a botched order, try to return one, get told to throw it away because shipping it back costs more than it’s worth, and then save it in your basement for fifteen years or so. Then install it on top of tile left over from the platform your pellet stove sits on, in front of subway tile left over from your bathroom remodel. Easy.

If you’re wondering why there’s suddenly an oil slick or something on the floor, it’s because we got lucky at the Orange Place again. No, there are no common streetwalkers at the Orange Place – yet. I’m referring to the aisle they keep for stuf nobody wanst no more cuz it aint fancy or nuthin and its marked down an sheeit. I’m fairly certain the sign didn’t say that exactly. I’m paraphrasing. But I’m capturing the vibe, trust me. They had some dreadful lay and click not-particularly-wood-looking-wood-look stuff for less than the cost of the pad you’re supposed to put under it. I wasn’t going to get a bahgan like that, and then hand it right back, so we found a cheap vinyl sheet that will do the trick for a pad. We bought a big pile of super-cheap flooring, all they had, and it was just enough to do the room.

Either I’m moving too fast to be photographed clearly, or my wife is taking the pictures again. I know which way I’d bet. We laid in a threshold piece to start the festivities. We’ll put the doorframes and baseboards in after the floor is in. We made all the wood trim out of lumberyard pine. If you strategically cut out all the worst knots, it makes great paintable trimwork. We’ll install them already primed and painted, and then just give them one more coat in place to finish the job.

If you’ve never laid a floor like this, it’s kinda comical. It slides all around on the trash bag pad it sits on. I pulled it out away from the wall quite a bit to work on it, and then slid it back in. It’s supposed to be able to move around some with temp and humidity changes. We were doing a lot of measuring here, to save as much waste as possible. There was barely enough, and you couldn’t get any more if you messed anything up. It concentrates the mind.

The spare heir did a lot of the floor. It’s easy and almost fun. Almost. There’s a tongue you fit into a groove, and sort of hinge it down to lock it. To connect the ends, You put a block on one end and bang on it with a hammer until the tongue slides along the groove in the long dimension to join the butt ends. That’s what the lad is doing in the pitcha.

Once we’re past the platform for the sink, the floor is clear sailing. We had to build the platform because the floor was too out of level to plop the sink directly on it. We can level the washer and dryer with their adjustable legs, but the sink would look weird up on stilts. Besides, I’m tall-ish, and raising it a bit helps when I’m washing out paint brushes in it.

There’s a loop of yellow romex wire sticking out of the wall. Insulated copper wire is color coded. White is 14-gauge wire, suitable for 15-amp circuits. Yellow is 12-gauge wire, suitable for 20-amp circuits. The smaller the number, the bigger the wire. Don’t ask, me I didn’t come up with the naming scheme for copper wire. That wire will have a baseboard electric resistance heater attached to it after the floor is in. If you see a loop in a wire like this, it usually means that it’s going to serve more than one fixture. There will be another baseboard heater on the other side of the wall. These heaters will probably get very little use, because electric heat costs more than bad government. But in a pinch, we can keep the towels from freezing solid in the washer if we have to.

Later that same day, we got the laundry back in service. Mrs. Cottage took one of her famous fuzzy photos to commemorate the event. The floor needs additional work around the trap door to the carhole. We’ll get to it.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting. Don’t forget to recommend Sippican Cottage to your friends, buy a book, or hit the tip jar. It is greatly appreciated]

Hey, The Thing Is The Thing and That’s That

So the drywall’s going up. I used up a lot of scraps left over from other projects. There were all these ticky-tacky areas that needed small pieces, so it was easy to use the leftovers up rather than chuck them out. On the right there is a sort of bonus room. The partition behind the washer and dryer formed one wall of this room, so we finished it off. It’s a fairly spacious closet, or a small utility room, take your pick. The water heater is in there. The hot water heater.

It’s funny, but there are two kinds of grammar nazis on the intertunnel. The first cohort, of which I’m a proud member, knows how to spell things, and points out when things aren’t spelled no good, naw. The second cohort hates these grammar nazis, and endlessly chants that speling doesn’t matter, you looser. But they’re just another kind of nazi. They pitch a fit if you tell them that paid is a word, and payed is another word, and it matters which one you use if you just got handed a paycheck and not an anchor rope. They don’t like to be corrected, but they’re fanatically devoted to correcting things that aren’t wrong.

Take the term hot water heater. The kind of internaut who can’t select the correct version of you your you’re to save their lives loves to take umbrage when you call a certain appliance a hot water heater. They get their panties in a knot over ATM machine, and calling multiple Lego blocks legos, too. God help you if you misspell Tatooine near them.

People try to correct my grammar from time to time on the internet. I’ve had people try to correct me when I called spelling grammar, which it is. They’re always wrong. Always. And I’m here to tell you that they’re always wrong about the term hot water heater.

Domestic Hot Water is a thing. In construction, when a thing becomes a thing, it gets called a certain thing, and that’s that. You can modify the thing with adjectives and adverbs and such, but it’s not amorphous. The thing is The Thing. The water that flows out of the tap when you twist the left-hand knob at the sink is domestic hot water. Or in the case of my bathroom sink, it’s cold water until I go down and swap out the pex pipes that feed it, because I hooked them up backwards. And the thing that produces that thing, hot water, is the hot water heater. You can call it the domestic hot water heater if you want to be a stickler. But “water heater” is vernacular, and “hot water heater” is canon. Period. End of story. And I don’t care how many ill-informed Snope-y typed people agree with you. Looking for citations on the internet is looking for accomplices, not looking for information. I’m the the citation in these parts, pardner. Now draw!

So our hot water heater will have a home of its own, along with the manifold that distributes domestic hot and cold water from the service coming in to all the fixtures in the house. And lots of cans of paint. It can get pretty cold down there in the winter, so enclosing a room with all the water and paint will make it easier to keep a small portion of the basement at 32-1/2 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of the whole thing. We’ll save a few pennies.

To actually enclose the room(s), we’re going to need one of these. Go ahead, guess what it is.

Yes, you guessed it, it’s several pieces of scrap lumber inexpertly screwed together by a bad carpenter. But it’s also a Thing. It’s a door jack.

It’s hard to work on doors. if you lay them flat on a workbench, it’s hard to get around them. It’s awful to work on the edges of a door when it’s lying flat. And edges are where all the work is, generally. So you make a door jack out of crap that you’re tripping over anyway, and save your back some aggravation. The slot (the jaws) is slightly wider than a standard door is thick.

If you’re smart, you make the cross-piece out of something bendy, and put it up on two blocks, like this one. That way, when the weight of the door hits the bendy part, it bows down and pinches the door tightly. When you lift up on the door, it bends back, and the jaws open up. If you’re working on fussy doors, you can pad the jaws, but we don’t do fussy around here, remember?

We bought two cardboard doors at the Orange Place, and rescued a solid fir door from the dump during the town’s Festival of Trash. We’ll be able to close off the laundry from the Basement Basement, and the rest of the basement, and use the fir door to make the utility closet with the HOT WATER HEATER in it cozier.

The Orange Place has a website. It’s a nightmare, like most online shopping sites. It assaults you the minute your turn it on. Things appear unwonted, and everyone’s yelling everything. If I wanted to see visions and hear yelling, I’d go to the tavern, thank you very much. What I wanted was a 6′-6″ door slab.

A normal door is 6′ -8″ tall. Well, a normal door in your house. In my house a normal door is a full seven feet tall, and weighs more than a HOT WATER HEATER. But the ceiling in the laundry is very low, and I can’t fit even an 80″ door in there. The Orange Place website said they didn’t have any 78″ doors. I went to the Blue Orange Place website, and they said they didn’t have any either.

So Mrs. Cottage and I went to the Orange Place to buy two 80″ doors, which was a drag. I’d have to cut a lot off the bottom, and they’re mostly hollow, so I’d have to put in blocking to beef the door up after I trimmed them. Kinda defeated the purpose of buying a cheap door slab. I was looking for quick and dirty.

So we went to look for the wrong doors, and it turned out the Orange Place had a whole bunch of 78″ doors. They don’t know they have them, but they do. There was lot in stock, which is unusual for a specialty item, but then again, if you don’t try to sell any, you probably won’t.We bought two, and ran out of the place like robbers.

I imagined the website and the store anthropomorphically. Two mean girls from high school who’ve gotten a little older and still hate each other. They sit two cubicles apart. A haze of hairspray lingers in the air. They apply hand lotion every ten minutes. And they’re not on speaking terms, no matter how many struggle sessions the bosses make them attend.

[To be continued]

Avoiding the Sudsorama at all Costs

After the demolition was complete, and the windows in, we could get on with the drywall work. We pulled down the insulation we found here and there in the ceiling. We’ll re-use it somewhere else. Once the room was enclosed, we performed our leaf blower insulation trick on the ceiling to really accomplish something anti-BTU-ish. The ceiling is low in there, so it was a breeze. I didn’t even have to stand on a stolen milk crate.

That bank of drawers you see on the right in the last photo is my chop saw stand. All of my tools are going to have to move to another corner of the basement. I’m not doing as much woodworking as I used to, so I can make do with a smaller work area. The table saw used to be located in the middle of the room, so I could push 14-foot boards through it. If I never push another 14-foot board through anything, it’ll be too soon. Besides, even in the smaller workshop, if you position the table saw properly, you can open a window and still cut a 12-foot board.

Of course this was the scene of a crime. It was where the original electrical service panel once hung. If you’ve never worked in a wooden electrical panel before, I can tell you it’s a treat. I cut the modern-ish circuit that fed the knob and tube wires in the box. That was the end of the last of the overhead lights everywhere upstairs, but c’est la guerre. Once it was dead, there was no more live knob and tube wires in the house.

That wooden box was built like Masada. It was lined with asbestos, so we couldn’t just whack at it, either. I put on enough NIOSH mask to avoid mesothelioma, and then pried the whole thing apart gently, while spritzing it with water to keep any dust from flying around. The pieces went straight into heavy double bags, got zipped, and I exhaled again. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to dive to the bottom of swimming pools and hold on to the drain grate in the bottom and see who could stay down there the longest. I was young and full of vim. Now I’m not young and the vim needle isn’t on empty or anything, but it’s not topped off, either. But I do declare I held my breath for an hour and a half this time. New record.

Well, we slapped in some partitions and screwed up some drywall, among other things, and got the white cubes of suds rollicking again. I found four turned table legs I made somewhere back in the mists of time, and attached them to each other with some aprons, and plopped a tabletop I glued up fifteen years ago and never used. But we’re back in business boys and girls, which is the important part. The laundromat ain’t for us.

We tried the local laundromat back when we suffered our infamous Geyser of Excrement episode. Or more accurately, Mrs. Cottage was forced to try it. She informed me that the clientele at the local sudsorama was like People of Walmart, if you distilled them in casks of methamphetamine and garden soil first. Only the bottle redemption center can compete with it. People will wash anything in a laundromat. It’s not their machine so they don’t care much about what happens when you need to use the washer they just used to rinse out their horse blankets and car floor mats. Gasoline soaked clothing seems to be another favorite in our area. My wife was unsure whether everyone who used the machines before her worked at a 7-11, or dabbled in arson, or both, but they sure did splash around in the stuff. So our washer and dryer could only be out of service for a few hours, because I like being married and stuff.

Everyone who reads my blog should go out and buy a ramshackle place of their own, and fix it up and live in it. I heartily recommend it. I also heartily recommend that you take the day to day operation of the household seriously, and plan ahead like this. There’s subfloor under the washer and dryer, and drains, and a working GFCI plug, and a light overhead, and a trash barrel, and a table of some sort to put the baskets on. Little things like that mean a lot in these situations. And you won’t smell like gasoline. Unless you want to, I mean. I cast no aspersions. Gasoline smells better than Brut cologne, and burns about the same as Hai Karate.

[To be continued]

We Use Electronic Tubes!

Well, we stripped the old wood paneling off the walls to see what’s what in there. That particular paneling, blah brown with black grooves somewhat randomly spaced in it, gave me the shivers. If you haven’t figured it out already, I was born in the basement, and never brought up. And that basement where they kept me was a desert of paneling and drop ceiling tiles. So I didn’t know what I’d find underneath the stuff when we encountered the same pattern in my latest basement, but I was more than willing to find out.

We found most everything, as you often do in an old house. When the house got blown-in insulation back in the day, these walls must have been wide open on the inside. The only way to imagine how cold it must have gotten down there in the winter there would be to go outside in February. I try to go outside in February in May. It’s warmer.

So the insulation crew nailed whatever they had handy over the studs to hold in the rock wool. They seemed to have a lot of wooden boxes, and took them apart to get the 1/4″ thick wooden sides to use in lieu of anything expensive. That means the house got insulated before cardboard completely took over for wood in packaging. That would be about the turn of the twentieth century in the rest of the United States, and maybe a few years ago in Maine. All ideas, especially bad ideas, start elsewhere, and only catch on in Maine after everyone everywhere else regards them as vintage, or retro, or passe. I’ve heard disco might eventually gain some traction in the Portland nightclubs, but I’m skeptical.

There was lots of amusing stuff added over the years to patch up holes. Here’s a favorite:

Ugh, there’s that paneling again. Did they only make one color back in 1968, or what? Anyway, a fellow who used to live here in the 1950s and 60s used to fix TVs and radios in this basement. I’ve got pictures around here somewhere, courtesy of one of the long-time residents of this neighborhood. Mr. Tubes had a nifty delivery van in the driveway and a sign on our roof to alert the passersby that he was totally tubular.

Found them:

Before you all comment on the arctic wintry wasteland we inhabit, I feel it’s incumbent on me to point out that these pictures were taken in early November. It ain’t even winter yet.

I’m far from the first person to use anything they could lay their hands on to do anything they felt needed doing in this place. I found this stapled over a hole under the paneling:

It’s painted on actual canvas, like van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or Dogs Playing Poker, or some other masterpiece.  Fancee.

I don’t know who the BLICANs are, but their sign painter gets my vote, anyhow. It’s a daisy.


[To be continued]

Better Is Better Than Nothing

I know how you all worry. You see crazy pictures of me performing lunatic operations in bizarre circumstances, and worry that I might fall down and hurt someone you actually care about, like my wife and children. Don’t fret. I eventually installed a bona fide railing going down the death stairs to the laundry. It’s attached to a fare-thee-well to honest to goodness wood framing now:

The cat, of course, is trying to kill all of us all the time. She’s taken up a strategic position to trip the unwary. She doesn’t mean anything by it. I don’t think she’s ever purposely killed anything. I have noticed that many, many rodents have perished under questioning, however, when she brings them back to her precinct house to interrogate them about something or another.

I’ll paint the walls later.  Manana, jefe. I became fairly fluent in Spanish back in the day, when I was a welder in the desert. I learned the difference between the dictionary and the real world there. According to the dictionary, manana means “later.” In practice, it means “much later, or never.”

The railing is on the correct side now. There was a little stick for a railing on the left-hand wall before. If you grabbed it in an emergency, it would have snapped, just like your femur would have a few seconds later. If you have a winding stairs, you want to force the traffic to the wide side of the winders, so we did.

For additional safety, let’s put a window at the bottom of the stairs. There’s a boarded up hole there where a window used to be. It threw light on the landing at the bottom. We’ll put one back, and a matching window in the other boarded up hole nearby.

Hey, remember this picture?

It’s from our upstairs bathroom renovation saga. Those window frames were toast. Rotten, sagging, and filled with bees and bat guano. We pulled them out and replaced them with some twenty-year-old vinyl windows we rescued from someone’s trip to the dump. Like this:

Well, the window frames were all shot, but the sashes were slightly less disreputable than average in our house. We saved them for later. It’s always later at our house, so we’re going to use them in our potential laundry room.

If I’d known I’d be writing about this, I’d have taken some pictures while I made the window frames. You might have found them interesting. Sorry, I was too busy doing it to record it. But here’s what it looks like in place:

Nothing fancy. The windows will likely never be opened, unless there’s an emergency. I didn’t bother to put in any balances to move them up and down, or sash weights and cords on pulleys like the rest of the windows in my house. I don’t know what kind of emergency might erupt that would cause you to climb out this window instead of walking another twenty feet in either direction to a door that leads out, but you never know. Maybe if the cat trips a tax assessor on the stairs, and he breaks his neck, we can dispose of the body out the window. No one ever goes looking for tax assessors, so we could leave him there indefinitely.

I looked online for a video of someone making a window frame for a double hung window, to edify and amuse you fine folks, but nothing’s doing. Everyone either has no idea what they’re talking about, or uses $100,000-worth of stationary tools to make something they think is fancy. This ain’t fancy. In general, the window jamb is simply made from four pieces of wood. A sill, two side jambs, and a head jamb. Then there’s lots of little ticky-tacky trim work.

Here’s a diagram of an old-fashioned window:

The sill is a little tricky. When the knuckleheads former residents demolished the windows and filled in the holes, they took out everything, including the sills. I had to make everything you see in the image. The sill is slanted down and out, just like me. It’s supposed to shed water, so you have to cut some fancy angles into the back of it to get it to sit flat on the wall framing but slope outward on top. You can make the sill out of a piece of 2″ x 6″ lumber, if you’re not prone to mistakes. I made it out of a piece of 2″ x 8″ lumber. Infer from that what you will.

All the pieces for the window frame can be made if you have a table saw with a tilting blade, and a chop (sliding miter) saw. The sill has “horns” on the outside, to catch the outside window casing, plus a little extra.

Here’s a picture with the exterior sill, interior sill (stool), the interior casing, the parting bead, the side jamb, a window stop (it has three screws you remove to get the sash out if need be), and the exterior casing. And some weeds. They’re actually maple trees, but that’s considered a weed around here.

If you remove a stop, you can see the 45-degree bevel on the top. That fits into the only really complicated piece of woodworking, the head stop:

The head stop covers the gap where the top sash meets the frame.  It has to be notched to accept the parting bead that separates the sashes, and has the matching 45-degree cut to meet up with the side stop. It looks like this on the workbench:

So, the sashes needed plenty of putty love, and the interior side is still that nasty blue color my whole house was dipped in at one time, but they worked out fine. The exterior used to look like this:

Now it looks like this:

So, it might not look good, exactly, but as we say around the cottage, Better is better than nothing.

[To be continued]

The Love Child of Professor Irwin Corey and Fagin

Astute reader and commenter Blackwing wondered aloud in yesterday’s comments if our house was worth saving. What could its value possible be? How could all this effort pay off? It’s not a dumb question. So I’ll try to answer it. What’s my house worth?

Well, it’s worth a lot to me.  More than money, really. Without a house, by definition I’m homeless. I’m not young anymore, so I can’t be sexy homeless. You know, a scruffy indie band drummer sleeping on a different strange girl’s couch every night. I’d be wino-sleeping-behind-the-7-11-grade homeless. You know the look. The love child of Professor Irwin Corey and Fagin. That’s not for me. Plus I have a family, of course. I got some estimates but they came in low would never farm my kids out for medical experiments, or palm them off on Dickensian relatives who would refuse them seconds in their gruel bowls. Not my style. And my wife needs a home to keep the rain off her cat. No.  No house doesn’t work for the Cottage family.

But that’s not a dollars and cents answer. I’ve looked on many a spreadsheet for construction projects, and there’s never a column labeled “Sentiment.” I’ve already told you that our house cost less than $25k. I’m not sure how much lower a house can go before you start comparing it to pup tents and yurts. But let’s get someone else to put a value on our house. Someone with a gimlet eye for what a house is worth. Someone with beaucoup info at the ready. Let’s ask the insurance company.

We went without insurance on our house for ten years. No one would sell us any. Believe me, we looked hard. The only offer of any kind we received back in the day was from Lloyd’s of London. They said they wanted $1,500 to send an appraiser to look at it. If he approved of it, they’d apply the money as a lump sum down payment on the policy, which of course would be much more than that. If he didn’t approve of it, they’d keep the deposit money anyway. Every other insurance company turned us down flat. They didn’t understand our house, and didn’t believe me when I said I could fix it. It didn’t cost enough to make it insurable. All they saw was the price tag. But we’re trying to figure out value. Not the same thing.

But now we have home insurance. We finally found someone who likes money at an insurance company. He must be the only one. I don’t want to say the road to insurance was a long and arduous one, but we started looking when our spare heir was nine years old, and when we finally found an agent who would sell us a policy, it turned out that he was once in one of my son’s college classes.

Our policy is written by a regular company. A household name company, really. Super Bowl ad kinda company. Just so you understand that the numbers we were given are the same sort of numbers that the average American sees when they insure their snouthouse. The insurance company does an estimate of what it would cost to rebuild your house if it was a total loss. It’s an interesting estimate, because it’s based on putting the house back the way it was before it was destroyed. What would it cost to rebuild our house, according to the insurance estimate?

Section 1 – Property Coverages and Limits

A. Dwelling     $635,000

Other Structures  $63.500

I questioned him closely on this. I abjured the need to point out that coverage is the plural of coverage, and stuck to less orthographical topics. I offered that there’s no way we could sell our house for anything like those numbers. Wouldn’t the company rather insure the house for what it would sell for? Nope. They insure a house for what it would cost to put it back the way it was, before you heaped those oily rags next to the woodstove, or left a pit bull alone with a candle burning, or whatever regular people do to make trouble for themselves. The number represents the true value of all the components of the house, (re)assembled in place.

It’s amusing to me, because I know people whose houses really are worth that kind of money, and their insurance replacement estimates aren’t any higher than mine. They don’t have a metal roof or masonry fireplaces or big porches or solid oak woodwork or cedar clapboards or five-foot-square windows, or birch strip flooring. Their houses are smaller, plastic and OSB boxes, filled with undifferentiated plastery spaces inside, with painted particle board trim, and not much of that. If it wasn’t for their granite countertops, nothing much in their houses would be worth more than a trip to the closeout aisle at the Orange Place.

Anne, another pleasant reader and commenter, asked me where I might go to find cheap building materials. I’m living in it. I’ve got $730,000-worth of stuff right here, and I only paid $25,000 for it. Subtract out the land it’s sitting on from the purchase price, and I paid maybe five grand for the 10,000 admittedly poorly arranged two-by-fours that make up the place.

So I’m making a laundry room. It needs windows. I’ll make them out of some sashes we removed somewhere else in the house. Because I’m going to beat the value out of this house if it kills me. Or it. Jury’s still out on who will collapse first.

[To be continued]

Schroedinger’s Bevel Square, and Other Discontents

Well, we’re back at it, trying to fix the stairs that lead down to our potential laundry room. I was gratified to discover that I wasn’t a complete spaz. I’ve been tripping on those stairs for years, and I was tripping on them for a reason. The risers only had a passing acquaintance to each other, instead of being a uniform height.

Starting from the bottom of the stairs, the first riser was short about 1-1/2″. Someone had installed an additional layer of very thick flooring back in the day, and the stairs weren’t modified to conform to the new baseline height. That’s a pretty common occurrence in old houses. The next two winder (pie-shaped) treads were sitting on risers of varying dimensions, somewhere between wrong and pole-vault height. They must have taken a stab at the dimensions back when they built it, but were flummoxed by the winding layout. The rest of the risers were off by a 1/4″ here, 1/2″ there, until the top step which was another pole-vault height. The kitchen floor must have been installed last, and the stair builder forgot to incorporate it into his calculations. That’s also a common problem. When you’re cutting stringers for your stairs, the first and last notches are usually different than all the rest. You have to take finished floor heights into account.

So the risers on our old cellar stairs are all over the place, and the treads are too shallow, and there’s no nosing. This began to knit itself into an opportunity. Instead of ripping out the existing stair, why not build a new one on top of the old one?

Since the first step is too low, and the last step too high, adding a 3/4″ thick tread on top of the existing treads would fix both problems. I could add shims under the new treads to make up for all the risers that were too high. I simply had to find the shortest riser, and make all the others conform to it. I was going to contact the bar owner from yesterday’s essay, and ask him for advice on how to nail a tread over another tread, but I didn’t want to wake him. How hard could it be?

But the treads are still not deep enough. So what? I’ll put on new treads that are 1-1/4″ deeper, and round over the nose. After I shim them and attach them to the existing treads, I’ll add a new riser that sits on top of the new tread, and helps hold it in place. We can put a little molding under the nosing. That molding will cover any gaps left from shimming the treads to make the riser height uniform. Now the treads will all be at least 9-1/4″ deep. Not great, but much better. More than half of my foot will land on it for a change.

Hardwood stair treads are expensive if you buy them as blanks. We’ll make do with lumberyard pine. We made blanks and the spare heir varnished them. Like this:

The big one in the foreground is a blank for one of the winder stairs. They taper down to almost nothing on the inside, but are more than twice the depth of the other treads on the outside edge.

You start at the bottom, fit the tread, sit the new riser on top of the new tread, plop the next tread on top of that, and make your way up the stair. The molding under the nosing will cover any gap between the riser and the next tread. I had to shim the treads on the second two winding treads a lot, but the stairs ended up more or less uniform.

In installed wall stringers before the treads. you can see them on either side of the stairwell. Once they’re in place, you have to fit the treads in between them. How do?

You can’t just cut them all the same length. The walls bellow in and out. Hell, you really can’t even cut the ends off square. You have to fit the ends to the stringers. Here’s how you do it.

First, you spend four hours looking for your bevel square.  The first hour is spent in fruitless frisking of all your toolboxes and workshop drawers. The second and third hours are taken up with interrogating your children, of course. “By all that is right and holy, try to remember where you put the bevel square. Please oh god please remember what you did with it last time.” Then you give up and search around again in the same places you looked three hours before, hoping that your bevel square was involved in some kind of quantum entanglement and might re-appear at any moment. Then you perform multiple sessions of thought experiments in the Schroedinger’s Bevel Square vein. Maybe it’s both there and not there, you muse, and then swear. Swearing doesn’t help you find your bevel square, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and feels better than plain musing.

Then you finally give up and go upstairs with a hangdog expression on your face and you and your wife go to the Aubuchon and buy another bevel square. When you return home you go to throw the bag and receipt away and you see the old bevel square stuck between the trash bin and the shelf. This is why I have seven bevel squares. Well, I think I do. They’re around here somewhere.

So you use the bevel square to measure the angle between the wall stringer and the riser. It’s usually something like 92 or 89 degrees or something, but I haven’t been able to find my protractor since 6th grade, so there’s no way I’m measuring that. No need to, anyway. You just lay the bevel’s stock (the thick wooden or plastic part) square on the back of the tread blank, and mark the line where the tongue (the metal blade) rests. Then you lay the blank on the sliding miter saw and adjust the angle until the blade is aligned with the mark, and one side of the blank will fit against one wall properly. Now what?

If you try to measure inside dimensions like this, you’ll fail. I know, I’ve failed at it, long and hard, many times. It’s hard to get interior measurement correct with a tape measure. It’s easier with a wooden folding carpenter’s rule, but your children lost that fifteen years ago. Besides, the other side isn’t square either, so a single measurement won’t be enough. You have to measure fore and aft and connect the marks and cut that. Here’s how the old-timers did it: Pinch sticks.

There’s a lot of “satisfied hammer owners” on YouTube. That’s what I call (well, Kliban calls) folks who spend more time arranging their tools than using them. That makes it hard to find anyone doing things quick and dirty. There are umpteen guys using $30,000-worth of stationary tools to make elaborate “pinch rods” with brass fittings and mahogany parts, but really, it’s just two sticks from the scrap pile. Just cut a long stick in half at a 45-degree angle, and slide them past each other until the beveled tips hit what you’re measuring, and pinch them with your fingers. You don’t even need the clamp used by the nice fellow in the video who’s dressed to rob a train.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting, and recommending Sippican Cottage to your interfriends, and buying my book, and hitting my tip jar. It’s greatly appreciated]

Tag: fixing the laundry

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