Category Archives: design/build

The Journey from Concept to Completion

Warning: This blog post should only be of interest to woodworkers, philosophers, and possibly a few barflies. Everyone else can spare themselves and skim the photos below.

What this project lacked in size it made up for in duration; one year from concept to completion. Twelve square feet of lovingly sculpted surface. Hard to imagine it could take that long to build something so small, but maybe once you understand the process it took to build it, well then it might just make perfect sense.

Design

The design process was relatively simple. As we framed out the wet bar space, our client wanted to do a raised counter-top bar. Something custom, something special. I love hearing those words because it usually means we’re going to do something fun, something different. So we looked at the space and then looked at a golden ratio/nautilus shape sketched on a board. It seemed to fit the space perfectly and the client loved the lines. We talked about building it out of wood species that would contrast each other, like walnut and maple, reminiscent of a ying-yang and that whole eternal battle between good and evil. Alright, not really, we just thought the contrast would look good. Our client happened to have a piece of walnut she had been holding on to for just such an occasion. We settled on the basic design above, all we had to do was find some highly figured bird’s-eye maple for the field. How hard could that be?

Material Procurement

Turns out, pretty f-ing hard. It was the single biggest challenge on this project. Highly figured bird’s-eye maple occurs naturally in maples, but very rarely. The material we were looking for accounts for less than 2% of all the maple milled here in the states and Canada. Local wood shops and hardwood suppliers have small quantities that come through and are quickly picked over. Long story short, it took months to find a supplier (Gilmer Wood in Oregon) and weeks to finally get the material. The folks at Gilmer took the time to pull the specific material we wanted, wrapped it up and shipped it to us, sight unseen. Gulp. The material did not look all that special upon arrival. In fact, it looked like it had been driven over a couple of times at the airport. The boards were also warped, and there was no sign of the “highly figured” bird’s-eye in its rough sawn state. Oh boy, I thought, this could be an expensive lesson.

Planing

After a few passes through the planer the character of the maple was revealed and it surpassed expectations, which was a huge relief. Take the time to slowly plane the boards, removing a slight amount of material with each pass. If you rush the material through the planer, the “bird’s eyes” (tight-grained clusters of little knots) will tear out leave lots of little divots in the material where the “eyes” were. Patience Grasshopper!

Joining

With the surfaces planed they were arranged to optimize the material for the final appearance, then joined with biscuits and glue. Mmmm, biscuits.

Gluing up the sub-top edge.

Sub-top and Acclimatization

After laying out the design onto the joined maple boards, the curves were rough cut with a jig saw. The maple was scribed onto a 1″ thick piece of plywood which was also cut to shape. With the two pieces clamped together the 2″ edge profile was sanded smooth and square all the way around. Despite the maple acclimatizing in Colorado for several months already, it shrank another 1/4″ across the grain in just a couple of weeks of hot summer air. The sub-top was easily trimmed to fit the shrunken maple, better now than with the rail on.

Walnut slab ripped into strips.

Walnut Rail

To make the big slab of walnut bendable for our curved rail,  it was ripped it into strips. But what thickness? Experiment with your material, get to know it. Strips too thick will break when bent around a small radius, strips too thin are laborious and can act like paper, edges cupping as the glue dries. The sweet spot for this wood with this radius seemed to be 3/32″ if bent dry, 3/16″ if soaked in water prior to bending. Finish nails were worthless, staples were the only fasteners that held the rips in place. This was an extremely time consuming process. You need working time with the glue to run longer strips around the curve, but then there’s the wait time until critical clamps can be removed to run the next layer.

Starting to glue up the railing.

Half of the rail glued up, thinking about butterfly placements.

Butterfly Joinery

To further highlight the contrasting colors of the two wood species, butterfly shaped pieces of walnut were cut and mortised into the maple. Decorative butterfly joinery, if you will. This was process in and of itself that started by laying out the walnut butterflies in a randomly logical fashion. Once we settled on the layout, blue tape was placed on the maple and the walnut butterfly on top of that. Then, with extreme care and precision, cut the tape around the butterfly and remove the cut-out. With the orientation of the butterfly marked for consistency, check the piece against the cut-out and make any small adjustments before rough cutting with the router.

Little router, big mess.

Check the piece against the outline before proceeding with a chisel.

Chisel with care, always mindful of the surface edge.

This is where both a clear mind and a sharp chisel are required tools. A dull chisel could tear the edge. A lapse in judgment could mean deep scars on the piece, or yourself. Sharpen your chisels religiously, or regularly, whichever will make you do it more often. Practice makes perfect, I mortised several butterflies on a scrap piece before I felt comfortable working on the big one. Initially I had trouble seeing the tiny lines scored by the knife and found pencil lines too thick and hard to follow with a chisel. So I used the blue tape cut-out method described above to clearly outline my cut. These are the kinds of things that need to be ironed out on a test piece, resist the temptation to test something out on the final piece.

Micro adjustments with a file.

Placing the butterfly over the mortise, it should flirt with going in but you still want it tight. Use an a file to make small adjustments and to ensure the side of the mortise are smooth and match up with your butterfly. Then take the file and put a bevel on the bottom edges of the butterfly piece. Don’t get carried away, the bevel will get the piece started into the mortise, but you still want a tight fit for the top portion of the butterfly.

Bevel back the bottom edges of the butterfly.

Glue up the edges and with a small block gently tap the butterfly into place. Work the butterfly piece in carefully, if it binds at one end the piece could break. Clean up excess glue and then immediately cut the butterfly off at the maple surface and sand smooth. By sawing it while the glue is still wet, any imperfections in the joint will be filled with glue and mixed with sawdust to conceal the flaw, to an extent.

Cut flush with a trim saw.

Sand, sand, sand…

Sand smooth.

With a dozen of the butterflies in place, the whole bar-top was sanded smooth. It was during these long hours of relative mindless work that I was reminded of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, well that and the movie The Karate Kid. “Danielson! Wax on! Wax off!”

It’s been a good twenty years since I last read Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel, ZAMM: An Inquiry into Values. The book explores quality, truth, and the conflicting perspectives of romantic and classical ideals, I think. Like I said, it’s been a few years, I should probably re-read it before summarizing it here. Regardless, I do remember the author asking this approximate question;

“What is quality and how do we define it?”

It remains to this day, a very good question in my mind. It is a question that I’m faced with often as a designer and as a builder. It is a question that is not easily answered since what is regarded as “of quality” can be hugely subjective. One man’s seven is another man’s three. There are few in this world that have ever seen a true ten on the quality scale, and fewer still that ask for it. So when a client asked for a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted piece of the highest quality, I was humbled but jumped at the challenge.

Finish

With the piece sanded, blown free of dust and then wiped clean, it was time to seal it up. We opted for the typical bar top finish of clear epoxy. Again, get familiar with your material before working on the finish piece. The two-part epoxy used here had about twenty-five minutes of working time before it started to harden, then it’s tack free after six hours. So tent your work area and seal it off to prevent dust or bugs from settling on the finish.

Seal coat.

Finished!

After the seal coat, the final pour was about 1/8″ deep. Take a small torch to the epoxy to remove bubbles and make sure there’s plenty of good light to inspect the surface bubbles or shallow spots that need attention before drying.

The picture above is the only one that comes close to capturing the visual properties of the bird’s-eye maple, it is truly mesmerizing. After the final install, the client said, “It’s exactly what I had envisioned!” Thank goodness.

While it’s very rewarding to see the finished piece and to have a happy client, I think what I’ll remember best about this project are the long hours of focused thought and energy that allowed me to push my craft beyond what I thought possible. Or as Robert Pirsig would surely argue, it’s not about the tools or materials but the joinery, I mean, journey that it takes you on.


Garden Patio Comes to Life

What we loved most about our new home when we bought it a little over four years ago was its enormous potential. We didn’t love the multiple layers of wallpaper or the mauve carpet throughout, nor did we care for the eighties era cabinetry in the kitchen. With the exception of one mature tree (a rare elm in Denver) and several bushes, the lot was a homogeneous wash of kentucky bluegrass. Too much to water and way too much to mow. Yes, it would take a lot of work, but this house had the potential to become something even more special than it already was. Here’s a picture from when we first looked at the house back in 2007.

Ain’t she cute? The house had been lovingly cared for over a century and we fell in love at first sight. We discovered my wife was pregnant while the house was under contract, making the move all the more necessary. We did a cosmetic remodel to the interior before moving in, but it wasn’t until the second year that we had time to tackle the outdoor living space we envisioned. This is the north side of the house after tearing out the sod.

Our vision was relatively simple: create an outdoor space where we could relax and/or play with the kids. We had already torn out the sod on the sunny south side of the house and planted a garden. For the shady north side of the house we wanted space to entertain, space to play, and we also wanted to create some separation from the unoccupied neighboring property.

Before I continue, I should clarify that I have a habit of saying “we” when “I” is really a lot more accurate. “We,” my wife and I, used to do these projects together but ever since she first got pregnant the “we”s have turned into “I”s. Take note expecting dads…

So at the start of the project there was this mature lilac bush that we wanted to keep, the problem was it was in the wrong spot. Now, keep in mind that I would not recommend doing this to anyone, but it is possible. I didn’t know if the bush would survive but thought it was worth trying so we, I mean I, dug the thing up and moved it about six feet so it was centered outside our bay window. Backbreaking work, but it was worth it as the lilac is now the center piece of the patio garden. This photo shows the lilac in its new location as well as the french drain installed along the drip edge of the house.

With no gutters on the house there is a considerable amount of water that falls along the edge of the concrete walkway, so we wanted the new patio to protect the foundation by shedding water away from the house, but we also wanted to keep that water in our yard to benefit our landscaping. A permeable sand-set patio with a french drain and an area drain seemed like it would work but we weren’t 100% sure.

Below is a picture with most of the patio set. To the right of my son’s foot is the area drain (connected to the french drain it discharges in the lawn out front) and to the right of that is the sand box. We reused brick found on our property to “warm up” the square concrete pavers from the box store.

The side door of our house functions as our backdoor so this area sees more traffic than the front porch. In a tray in front of the lilac bush are hundreds of clumps of moss that we (I) painstakingly saved from the sod tear out.

It doesn’t really show in these pictures, but the moss is now growing in the garden and in the joints of the pavers, which makes it feel like the patio has been there a lot longer than it has.

For some strange reason I thought it would be a good idea if we (I) added a 1,750 lb. boulder to the garden. I still think it was a good idea. I just wish I had hired a crane to drop it in there.

We added the pergola the following summer using salvaged wood (a 16″ x 20″ x 20′-0″ beam was quartered to make the posts) and fence components (metal cross pieces and cables). The posts are mounted to tapered concrete piers and appear to float in space, giving the somewhat massive structure a bit of levity.

With a big rain storm water collects at the low point of the patio where a wisteria vine climbs the pergola. The wisteria seems to like the additional water as it is now blooming for the forth time this season. We continue to encourage the wisteria to grow over the pergola, and morning glories have filled in the horizontal screen along the back of the patio. Yes, it’s been a ton of work and it’s taken a few years to get it done but we are so enjoying our outdoor living space right now.

It’s hard to describe how this patio has transformed our house, but it is truly dramatic. We sit in the sun, we sit in the shade, we eat meals and we saddle up for adventures, we play, we relax. It has become a much needed extension of our living space and the best part about it: it cost next to nothing. Ok, there were a few hard costs (the square pavers-$600, the boulder-$40, the fence components-$80) that totaled less than $1,000. Considering how much value we’ve added to the house, spending that money now seems like a no brainer, right?


Rain Screen Beetle Kill Siding

The abundance of beetle kill pine here in Colorado makes it a very affordable and sustainable building material. Most pine species are considered soft and often are riddled with knots, so while it can be used untreated for rustic furniture or trim indoors, untreated pine is not known for its durability outside. Which got me thinking…

How could I incorporate this inexpensive, readily available material into my newly framed 7,200 cubic foot man cave as a siding application?

Traditional lap siding and vertical board and bat applications set the material directly against the building paper which leads to bending, warping, cupping and cracking as the siding material is weathered unevenly. Beetle kill pine, milled down to manageable lap siding thickness, would surely fall apart over time as knots pop out and cracks develop.

What if rough sawn 1×6 beetle kill was attached to furring strips to hold the material off the wall, with gaps between the boards it would allow it to breath on all sides, right? When it rains, the whole board gets wet. When the sun is out, the whole board dries out. The obvious drawback is the additional waterproofing and flashing needed to make the surface behind the “rain screen” watertight. But with the beetle kill being so cheap, and with an abundance of free labor, I decided to give it a try. Ladies and gentlemen…may I introduce to you…The Rain Screen Experiment.

After painted cement panel siding was applied over the house wrap, the rain screen areas were flashed with metal, then 6″ adhesive flashing with the black, 30# building paper over that.

With the 3/4″ furring strips anchored securely to the frame, the rough sawn pine boards were cut to length and sealed with two coats of a stain/sealer. It should be noted that the pine was originally purchased from the mill after a spring snow storm and the material was, shall we say, damp? So we stacked the boards on stickers and allowed them to dry for several months.

And here is the finished appearance. The cement panels cost about $1/s.f. for the material, the beetle kill pine was about $0.60/s.f. but with the flashing factored in it was also about a $1/s.f. The upside of this project is that I was able to side our garage for very little money. The down side was that it took an embarrassingly long time to finish. Oh well, as I tell my clients, there are three major components that dictate the course of any project, money, time, and quality. You can only control two of them, so choose them wisely! In this case I opted for a quality finish on a tight budget, the schedule flew out the window a long time ago.

With the siding complete the experiment begins, how will this material hold up over time?


process

A decaying horse shed was in dire need of replacement when I was asked to take a look at shoring up some of its buckling walls.  We talked about emergency repairs, more permanent measures, and the possibly of replacing it with a larger structure.  The homeowners wanted to replace it, but expressed doubt that the city would let them do much more than repair it because of the non-conforming status of the property. 

With a little investigating into the local zoning code, a provision was found allowing said lots to be treated as conforming lots provided the gross lot area is at least 80% of the zoned lot requirement (2 1/2 acres).  The property itself is only 1.79 acres, but with the “gross lot” allowance extending to midpoints on two adjacent streets, the property is 81% of the zone requirement.

Grab the sledge, this shed is coming down.

We actually used pry bars and hammers to carefully remove the wood siding, windows, and what little of the timber that was salvageable. All to be reused in the new “barn” to give it a sense of context and history.  The old horse shed was probably built at the same time as the original farm house in the early twentieth century. 

The original farm house has since been replaced by a Colonial Revival, and  the clients wanted to keep the new barn in that same tradition.

This is the north end of the house, closest to the barn.

I think where this structure really shines is on the inside.  I worked with an engineer to figure out how we could use tongue and grove 2×6 that would serve as the wall sheathing as well as the interior wall finish.

The result is a warm, lofty feel.  Elements from the old shed keep the new structure true to it’s dirt floor roots.  Old posts find new life as table legs.  The original windows are now in the cupola, and the old siding provides shelving material.

The word barn implies that there are livestock here, which there aren’t.  In fact, the electrical inspector made me go down to the city and change the use of the building from “barn” to “garage” because we didn’t ground the foundation and was thus non-habitable, even for livestock.  Haven’t missed a foundation ground since.  Didn’t matter to the owners, they use the barn to house planting and pottery activities, a small tractor and yard equipement.

Mortice and tenon knee braces at each end of the ridge beams had to be “encouraged” into place as the glulam beam was lowered into place.  One of many details I’ve drawn over the years that looks great on paper but proves difficult to build in the field.  Not much fun if it’s not a challenge.