• As If!

    Posted by Steve on Sat, 12/30/2006 - 12:02am


    Here's the dubious segue to an on-topic post.

    My local dog run is under political attack from some panty waist co-oppers who started a petition this week to close it down because of barking dogs at 8am. Don't these people have frikkin jobs? But I digress.

    So we're going to have a summit with the various Owls Head dog run groups: the 7:30-9am "breakfast club" (my dogs' pack), the 10-12 noon "lazily retired", etc., elect a spokesmodel and assert ourselves in The System to save our precious dog run and perhaps convince the Parks Dept to spend a few bucks making some sorely needed repairs. Screw these whiners; we need a new fence!

    I was put in charge of the effort. So tonight Karen and I visited our local Mexican restaurant, Casa Pepe, to see if they would be willing to host our little G8. It turns out that Jimmy, the owner, is a dog owner, uses the dog run and actually helped build it. He was only too happy to help. Cool.

    Karen and I decided to stay for margaritas and she made the comment that it looked like I was on the last lap of the bedroom renovation. "As if," says me.



    She accused me of dramatizing and asked me what I still had to do before I could move back into the bedroom. Six napkins later, I had it all written down:
    • Complete hallway wall/ceiling prep and prime
    • Remove hallway closet door and re-trim
    • Install hallway baseboard and casing trim
    • Order and install oak crown moulding in bedroom and hall (note to self: eighty feet!! Clear the credit card balance.)
    • Build raised panel under hallway window opening
    • Build raised panels under two windows in bedroom bay windows
    • Build louvered panel for center window in bay for steam element (note to self: contact Richie @ Sessa Plumbing for vent dimensions, which he says are critical for proper convection.)
    • Strip paint from passthru closet door
    • Rip passthru closet door to square (currently 1" out of square)
    • Hang passthru closet door, bedroom entry door and new closet double doors
    • Construct, hang and trim overhead closet doors
    • Build convex baseboard for curved closet corner
    • Build and install shelf over east wall wainscott
    • Install chamfered trim and cap moulding inside window frames
    • Do final woodworking trim tuning - 1/4" quarter rounds over any gaps, plane overlaps
    • Prime drywall and plaster inside new closet.
    • Install cedar paneling in new closet (~200sf)
    • Install ten foot closet pole
    • Construct and install three drawers for dresser
    • Construct frames for cupboard doors (stained glass inserts later)
    • Cut shelves for cupboard
    • Construct frames for hallway windows (stained glass inserts later)
    • Sand, sand, sand all woodwork
    • Stain, stain, stain all woodwork
    • Three coats water-based urethane on all woodwork
    • Patch nail holes with putty
    • Re-prime bedroom, ante room and hall with tinted primer (color TBD)
    • Tighten existing floor with galvanized screws into joists
    • Scuff sand floor to remove high spots in bedroom and hall
    • Float wood floor leveling compound in bedroom and hall
    • Install 30 pound floor felt
    • Install staple-down engineered floor
    • Install stair edge trim
    • Cut, stain and install shoe mouldings
    • Cut, stain and install dresser kick
    • Install new door locksets and knobs
    • Final coat of urethane on all woodwork
    • Paint the walls
    • 400 grit sanding on all woodwork followed by Butcher's wax and buffing
    • Construct media center rack
    • Order new king-size bed and frame
    • Use it!

  • The Mystery of the Ducts To Nowhere

    Posted by Steve on Sat, 01/20/2007 - 12:21pm


    (Or "Why A Duct?", with a tip o' the hat to the Marx Bros)

    This house has ancient, single-pipe steam heating. From what I've been able to determine from digging in these walls over the past seven years is that it's always had steam heating. Nothing interesting there.

    What's baffling is why the house also has ancient metal air ducting buried inside the walls. I discovered this shortly after I moved here when I ripped down the basement ceiling and found three vertical ducts to nowhere. Over the past hundred years, various plumbers and electricians had used them for service pulls. So did I when I ran 3/4" copper to the second floor bath, the central vac piping and various electrical branches from the basement panel.



    I moved the renovation activity into the upstairs hall two weeks ago. After ripping off an old baseboard for replacement, you can see one of those ducts here.



    Here's a closer look. The ducts are a fairly heavy gauge steel wrapped in another layer of corrugated steel, which functions as plaster lathing. It's real nasty to work with. It takes quite a bit of effort to knock a hole in this stuff. Because the ducts aren't anchored to anything, you can't use a saw on them. They just flap around, loosening the surrounding plaster. And after you succeed with tin snips you're left with metal edges as lethal as a machete blade.

    There used to be an old baseboard outlet here. I hate baseboard outlets. They're inconvenient and a trip hazard when anything is plugged into them. My intent was to move that outlet up the wall. But once I removed the baseboard and saw the ducting (which I'd forgotten about) I decided I liked my unlacerated flesh more than I hated baseboard outlets.



    Since all the original upstairs moulding was painted poplar and I was going for natural wood, I ditched the old baseboards and cut some new ones on my router table. They're identical to the originals with the exception that they're red oak.

    PS: the gap at the bottom of the door casing is to accomodate a new engineered floor. The baseboard will get a shoe moulding so a gap doesn't matter. PPS: that white electrical device is an Insteon home automation repeater. It will go away after I install the Insteon wall switch above it.

    I've dumped a lot of grief on big box stores in my blog but I have to give Lowes props. The Brooklyn Lowes carries the nicest red oak I've ever seen... much nicer than Dykes or even Rosenzweig. The grain is so clean and the boards so straight, uniformly colored and well-seasoned that they almost look fake. It makes Home Depot's pathetic hardwood look like skid lumber.

    Anyway, back to these puzzling air ducts. Being compulsive about such things I wanted to know why the original builders installed forced air ducts in a house they knew they were going to plumb for steam heat. Maybe the builder changed his mind halfway through?

    I decided to widen the investigation to my neighbors. What I found was even more enigmatic. Every house in my row as well as the row across the street was built with forced air ducts. But what's weird is that the actual installed heating systems alternate with each succeeding house: steam, forced air, steam, forced air. Was this some kinda control study into this new fangled forced air heating?

    If that's not a riddle wrapped in a mystery, forced air depends on an electric fan. But this house had gas lighting when it was built. The old gas pipes are still in the ceilings and walls, some running next to the vertical ducts. I know the electrical wiring here wasn't original to the house so there couldn't have been an electric blower when it was built.

    A retired, greybeard plumber had the answer. In the olden days, these homes would typically have been built with a wood or coal furnace in the basement. It fed into a steel plenum with dampers which then branched off into ducts. The warm air rose by convection -- no fan necessary. Often, there are no return ducts. Floor gratings allowed the heavier cold air to fall to the floor below and eventually back to the basement.


  • How to blow $300 in three seconds

    Posted by Steve on Sat, 02/03/2007 - 9:01am


    Six years ago, I was building the bar for our new restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. The bar was four plywood cabinet carcasses with a laminated mahogany top.

    A friend of mine and I stood freezing in the unheated storefront staring at the chop saw, the bar, and a sixteen foot piece of 8" rabbeted mahogany cap moulding we were going to use to trim the edge. The object of our fixation was a ninety degree corner. It's a simple cut except when the moulding costs $18/lf and it's the last last piece that Dykes has. We only had one chance to get it right. Which one of us had the juevos to make that cut?

    We spent an hour measuring, second guessing, aligning the saw, making test cuts on scraps, postponing the inevitable. John was fed up and proved he had the bigger pair. The cut worked. Well, close enough for his Harbor Freight Special miter saw anyway.

    Last night I started on the crown moulding in the bedroom and hallway reno - ninety feet of it overall. That includes the three bay windows, two standard windows, seven doorways, the wide opening between the bedroom and its anteroom (both sides) and the built-in cabinet.



    While the cost of the red oak crown moulding ($2.50/ft) is nowhere near as frightening as that bar moulding you can still make an expensive mistake which will render seven or eight bucks worth of lumber useless, except maybe to trim a yuppie dog house. The rule of thumb is that if you blow a crown moulding cut, the bad piece will be about 1" too short to re-use anywhere else. Prove me wrong.

    Making matters more interesting is that you cut crown moulding in a miter saw upside down and backwards. The saw's deck represents the "ceiling" and its fence the "wall". The lean angle of the crown in the saw has to be precise as well.



    But the cutting formula is pretty simple, if not intuitive:

    For an INSIDE CORNER:
    • LEFT SIDE of the corner
      1. Miter RIGHT.
      2. Save the RIGHT SIDE of the cut.
    • RIGHT SIDE of the corner
      1. Miter LEFT.
      2. Save the LEFT SIDE of the cut.
    For an OUTSIDE CORNER:
    • LEFT SIDE of the corner
      1. Miter LEFT.
      2. Save the RIGHT SIDE of the cut.
    • RIGHT SIDE of the corner
      1. Miter RIGHT.
      2. Save the LEFT SIDE of the cut.
    I can't remember this to save my life so I have it written on a crumpled piece of legal paper that I tape to a nearby wall whenever I'm cutting crown. I should probably get it laminated.

    Fortunately, applications like this don't usually require coping the joint but measuring is pretty critical, particularly with regard to the angle. When in doubt, I make practice cuts on scrap pieces (those botched cuts at least have some cadaver value). A half-degree can make the difference between a seamless cut and one that won't glue well or, worse, is a half-inch off high on the other end.

    On to the actual cutting, I used to manually hold the moulding against the miter fence. Since the top and bottom edges of crown moulding usually form a right triangle that generally works. But I ran into consistency problems where that angle was off by a few degrees, making joinery problematic. I decided to invest in a pair of accessory crown moulding stays for my Dewalt DW708. It's way overpriced for what it is but it can save a lot of work and wasted lumber. You can see them in the pic above.

    What I usually do with crown is overcut it by a quarter inch or so then close in on the final cut by slicing away little slivvers till the joint is tight. This gives me the opportunity to adjust the angle of the cut slightly in case things aren't as level and plumb as they look. It means a lot of trips up the ladder but look at all the money I save on health clubs.

    One thing to remember: a sliding compound miter saw can cut in two axes (yeah, I had to look up the plural spelling of "axis"). Don't overlook that fact when you find that a corner isn't joining tightly. Sometimes your miter is fine but the two walls are off plumb/level. For this corner I had to dial in 4 degrees of bevel along with 18-1/2 degrees of miter to get the joint that tight.

    I usually prefab the moulding details over doors and windows on the floor then slip them into place. By the way, the woodwork is all red oak. It's all different colors because some of it has been sanded to 220, some of it's still raw and some of it is 100+ years old. Since it's all going to be sealed and stained it should all blend pretty well in the end.



    PS: this door was a real problem. Here's a shot of the same door before I stripped, reframed and rehung it. It's original to the house but for some odd reason it was almost 1.5" out of square. So was the framing and, no, it's not a settling problem. In an early blog post I mentioned my suspicion that the workers who framed this house probably liked their liquid lunches.

    I've yet to find a flexible corner clamp for gluing up crown (at least one that works) so here's a tip for mouldings with short corner returns like some of these: use a glue roller to smear a thin coating of glue on both joint faces. Let it dry for a minute then hold the two pieces in place for about three minutes till the glue gets tacky and takes hold. Gently lay it down and do the next assembly. When you're finished with that one go back and drive a couple of brads in the corner. If you try to do this while the glue is still moist the pieces will almost certainly slip out of alignment.

    Freestanding crown needs to be supported at the top, if only because sooner or later some chucklehead is gonna try to do a chin-up on it. In the past I've used angled blocks for support but I'm going to try something new this time, employing my new best friend: spray foam insulation! It's very sticky and has excellent tensile strength. If you've ever tried to clean dried Great Stuff off a wall you know you'll probably take the paint with it. So I'm gonna drive a few protruding screws with fender washers into the header behind the crown and fill the "bowl" inside the crown with urethane spray foam insulation. What do you think?


  • The Mystery of the Vanishing Paint Brushes

    Posted by Steve on Tue, 02/06/2007 - 10:59pm


    I thought I was suffering from early dementia. Over the several months of this bedroom renovation I've lost a bunch of paint brushes. I'd clean them and stick them... hell, I don't know where. I just couldn't find them again.  At least four reasonably new paint brushes were missing.  What was even stranger is that several paint brushes that I thought I'd stored in my basement shop two flights down were also missing.  Just the good ones with the soft bristles. 

    I found them today, laying on the floor at the rear of my new closet. I know I didn't put them there. With all the construction crap that was stuffed in there, the only life forms that could get back there are my two cats and maybe one of my two dogs. Or maybe a poltergeist screwing with me.

    The reason I found them is because my new closet doors arrived from InteriorDoors.com.

    I was originally going to build those doors myself but with real-world work demands approaching "life sucking" I decided to outsource. I've bought from InteriorDoors before. They do excellent work at a reasonable price. I usually order blank doors from them but this time I decided to buy them pre-hung. I'm glad I did. At this stage of advancing renovation burn-out it was worth the extra two hundred bucks not to have to spend a day mortising and hanging two incredibly heavy oak doors. As it is, I probably won't have time to hang them till this weekend.

    The total cost of these two 18" doors, with shipping and hardware, was $641.

    Thankfully, the new Drupal software seems solid. But just to make sure I kept my nose glued to the logs this afternoon looking for anything amiss. I was really impressed with all the traffic I was getting until I did some reverse DNS checks on those IPs. 90% of the traffic was search engine bots spidering my site! First googlebot, then Inktomi, then Live.com. At one point I had five "guests" showing on the blog and all of them were bots!

    It's kinda creepy in a way.


  • It depends on what "almost" means...

    Posted by Steve on Mon, 02/12/2007 - 12:31pm


    I've been looking forward to this day for months. Almost all the trim, the doors, cabinets, etc are done! What's "almost"?

    By "almost" I mean that the center of operations moves downstairs to my shop. The remainder of the trim work -- the cabinet doors and drawers, the panels under the bay window, the stained glass window, the overhead closet doors and even the curved baseboard moulding for the closet corner have to be fabricated. I need my stationary power tools for this stuff.



    "Almost" also means that I need to make a decision about whether or not to incorporate bolection a/k/a rabbeted panel a/k/a panel inset moulding into the wainscotting. I couldn't find this stuff at my local lumberyards or online and the router bits I ordered which I thought might work didn't do a very good job of it. I'm hoping the router geeks at this weekend's Somerset NJ Tool Show will have some answers for me.

    PS: the closet doors look like a bad panel lamination job in this photo. Actually, they're five panel doors. You just can't see the rails very well in this shot.



    "Almost" means that I haven't framed the "attic" door opening over the closet or added crown above the closet door. It's a lot easier to mortise for hinges after the doors are built and the pieces are on the ground. And I don't know if crown on that closet door will even look right with that cabinet above it. I'll need to see it with the cabinet doors in place.

    "Almost" also means I haven't made the lid for the top of that tall wainscotting yet. I haven't decided whether or not to do that with oak plywood and a hardwood banding yet. It would save me a small bundle over 1x10 solid oak if I did.

    "Almost" means that I have several days of sanding ahead of me, and probably a couple of not-so-skillfully-cut joints that will need to be hidden from critical eyes behind 3/8" quarter-round.



    So then what's the big deal? You ain't near done yet, fool. It means that I can migrate most of my tools back downstairs to the shop, with the exception of the SCMS, nail guns and sanders. But mainly it means that I can get rid of about four trash cans full of scrap lumber and drywall... stuff I've been tripping over for weeks. I saved it in case I needed a shim or a filler piece.

    We have a major snow storm coming Tuesday night, the same night as my garbage pickup, so that stuff probably won't get collected for days. My friend around the corner said I could dump it in front of his place. His pickup is tonight and he's been in Puerto Rico all week so he has nothing to put out. So clean-up is today's priority.

    Here's another crown moulding tip for door and window pediments. When working with old plaster walls you can drive yourself batty trying to get the return pieces to fit snugly to the wall. For instance, a new doorway will probably (hopefully) be plumb but the surrounding wall may have settled a few degrees off plumb. Or the wall may have a bow in it. The solution? Don't bother showing off your saw and scribing skills. Take a piece of crown moulding, pencil the profile on the wall, take a screwdriver and hammer and chisel out the plaster. Then just cut the return piece so that it ends just below the surface of the wall. You're going to be repainting after a project like this anyway so what's a little caulking repair? Just make sure to stain and finish the trim before you caulk.

    PS: that little gap between the crown and the pediment below is for expansion. You need to be careful about making compound mouldings too tight during the dry winter months. Otherwise, a 90-degree, 98% humidity July day could result in that crown moulding corner splitting open.


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