Thursday, January 31, 2008


I can't take credit for that title; it's John's. Might be my favorite title on the whole blog, though, since it encloses in one word the spreading horror I feel this morning at what happened last night. No, nothing burned down, nobody was injured, nothing remotely permanent went wrong. But a dream was lost, my friends.

The dream was that we'd get done tonight. By done, I mean not (of course) truly finished, but done in a way that would let us take a break in February—which, as you might know, begins tomorrow. We have all the hard stuff done. We wanted to get our dining/living rooms painted this week and then draw the line in the sand. To that end, we chose a paint color Tuesday night ("Gingerbread") and bought the paint yesterday, thinking that by tonight we could put a second coat on, pop some champagne and come up with something appropriate to say to mark the occasion. All was going according to plan, except:

This color is so freaking ugly.

It's orange. Orange! Why did we paint half our house orange? What happened in our brains to make us choose this? Not just one brain, mind you. We both thought it would work. I was deluded into thinking we had chosen some nice shade of brown. (Perhaps because gingerbread is brown? Yes, I like that explanation. It allows me to blame the person who named the paint color.) The white trim is popping out like crazy—imagine you're in the day-care room in the mall, near the restrooms, where parents park their leaky-nosed children in the care of unqualified teenagers while they go shopping for tennis bracelets or Shih Tzu calendars. That's what the orange and white is like. And the subtle colors of the beams and ceiling are getting way overwhelmed. I feel like a sophomore design major whose project was just given an F by a professor I have a crush on.

There are a lot worse problems in the world than the color of our walls. But for some reason I'm feeling a major amount of embarrassment over this. We're not sure what to do. I don't think we'll bother with the second coat tonight; we could just paint it white and start over.

On the way into work this morning, as I was gnashing my teeth about this and John was trying in vain to comfort me, we noticed that we were behind a True Value semi-truck with this printed on the back: "Follow me to your perfect paint color."

- Erika

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Monday night we were back in the attic, which, by the way, is much warmer since we installed a proper door in place of the plywood that has been there since we moved in. This time in the attic, we were working on the attic hatch. The gap for the stairway to the attic measures about nine and a half feet by about three feet. Pretty large. Most normal folks would construct something out of plywood, maybe a simple 2x4 frame on four sides, hinges, trying to keep the beast light. But not us. No, instead we stuck to this funky idea of incorporating one of the extra interior doors that was original to the house. It's solid wood.

Sunday night we knocked together the frame. We built it like a stud wall, 16"o.c. and all. The reasons were so it would be strong enough to support the door on its frame and also so that it would be strong enough to walk across when it's closed.

First thing to remember is that the door itself is not a functional part of the hatch. It's purely aesthetic. We centered the door on the hatch frame and screwed it in with plenty of 3" decking screws. Next, we picked through our stack of scrap birch plywood (leftover from the ceiling project) and found ones that would fit.

Rather than measure and mark, as we did with the ceiling, this time we just held the pieces against the frame and traced. All but two of the cuts were done freestyle with the circular saw, no guides. Time is of the essence, and the actual edges would be hidden against the attic floor anyway. Then Erika marked where the screws would go and I used the ol' forstner bit to drill the 1/2" flat-bottom holes, halfway through. In them, we sank the screws and kept our traditional 1/8" gap for design. The whole idea is that this hatch paneling would match the ceilings.

The thing weighs a ton. It is very, very heavy. Not a very practical hatch. But, we're scheming on a pulley and counterweight system that will make it easy to open.

We are very happy with how it turned out. It looks ultra funky. A door on the ceiling, over a stairway that looks like it leads to nowhere.

- John

Monday, January 28, 2008

Latch, then hatch

We took a nice walk around the property Sunday morning with Matt and Emily, then had some omelets and sent them on their merry way. Repaired to the attic to finish up the door project.

These were easy steps compared with Saturday's tasks: Building stops (we robbed from our stash of ½ x 2 ½ trim wood; not cost-effective, but whatever) and screwing them up along with weatherstripping. Then cutting a special piece out of a 2x6 to fill in part of the door frame that was missing. This tested John's skill freehanding the circular saw. It basically was a case of multiple modifications. Originally, where this door is, there was a window. Then somebody built the deck and put in a door, with a not-exactly-textbook door frame. Then we come along and further rig it up. So at this point the door frame is made of like five different types of wood, all in different dimensions. This is a prime example of what we here at Permit the Frog like to call "trickycuts."

Into the new special piece would go the little hole for our latch. We got the knob and handle into the door after some fiddling, then John marked where the latchplate would sit on the frame. Chiseled out a shallow area for the plate and a deeper well for the latch to slide into. It's funny how you go in and out of doors a zillion times in your life and never think about whether the curved or flat part of a latch faces outward. Just takes a second to figure it out, but you'd never have a reason to bother until you had to install it. John caulked up the frame outside while I made a list of all the tools we had assembled in the attic during this door installation. (That's for February, when we have time to Get Creative With the Blog. Look out, loyal readers.)

Anyway, here's what we had now: a door that opens, closes, locks and makes a halfway decent seal on three sides. (Still need a rubber sweep on the bottom.) Yeah!

You know what this means? It means that the last project of any consequence or anxiety before we can close out our loan is DONE. Done!

Another awesome thing is that, in doing this project, we spent all this time in the attic and out on the little deck. Notable for two reasons: One, it's like being in a different house up there, because you can see over the trees and appreciate this big sweeping view we have—very exciting to think about when we can use this space for actual living. We really haven't spent much time up there.

Two, it reminded me very much of the first weekend we worked at our house, last March. The weather was similar. Back then, we'd gone through the crawlspace hazing and then headed up to the attic to take out that broken bay window, and it was the first time we really saw our view. Now here we were on the last weekend of this phase of renovation, and we're up there again. But there's so much behind us now. It really was pretty moving.

OK, so that's not the end of Sunday. We have to make an attic hatch and John has come up with a nifty design involving a leftover interior door we have floating around. We—mostly he, actually—got it framed out last night. We'll attach the door and some plywood tonight and put it on hinges.

Stay tuned for some major celebrations.

- Erika

Final Saturday

There isn't a whole lot left on the list, people. The last of the tricky tasks was dealing with an exterior door install in the attic. Since we moved in, plastic and plywood have substituted for this missing door to the attic deck. Everything we had read on the subject said that framing and hanging and exterior door is tedious and often difficult work. So you know, we said what the hell, let's just buy a pre-hung door and nail that puppy in and be done with it. We deserve a little break by now, right? Well, our rough opening was only 79 3/8" and the standard exterior door, pre-hung, required an 82" opening. Of course.

So Friday evening I made it to the Habitat Store minutes before closing so that we could buy the old salvaged wooden door that we picked out the day before. I noticed that it was cracked all the way through. The guy who usually helps us at that store started looking through doors with me. Originally, we wanted a door with windows, preferably one large, full length window. Now, all we wanted now was a door that would fit so that this project wouldn't be delayed. We lucked out and found a steel door, insulated, with full-length double-paned insulated glass. The only problem is that it was going to be about two inches too tall. Nothing a metal cutting blade on the trusty circular saw wouldn't be able to handle. Sold.

Saturday morning, we took care of a couple of random things and then pulled down the plywood and plastic from the attic doorway so that we could have a look at exactly what we were going to be dealing with and assess what materials we would need to purchase. We decided that we wouldn't have to buy any lumber, aside from a pre-made oak sill/threshold. The rest of the shopping list consisted of hinges, a latch/knob set, and some weather stripping.

Oh, and here's a first: The header above the door frame is level! Seriously, we didn't do it! Imagine that...we hadn't run across a single level or plumb thing existing in this house since we started and now, starting one of the last big tasks of the project, we get a level header.

The oak threshold that I bought turned out to be too small. We needed a six or seven inch-wide one, and this was only five. Looks like we'll be building the threshold, as well. We had some treated 1x8 pine left over from the columns project that we thought would work just fine. You're supposed to use a hardwood for this because of the heavy traffic it receives. Well, the attic deck threshold won't be receiving that sort of traffic, so no problems there.

We cut away and pried up some subfloor that functioned as the previous door's threshold. Shortly after, our friends Matt and Emily arrived, down from DC to pitch in with the final push. And, they brought lunch! After filling our bellies and a short tour of the place, they took on the job of planing and sanding the porch rails and stair hand rails. It's amazing what their hand work did to these 2x4 rails. The corners have been shaved off, replaced with subtle, irregular contours. Very nice to touch.

Meanwhile, Erika and I had been slowly measuring, figuring, and doing some cutting. Our threshold turned out great. We shimmed it slightly so that it had a gentle outward slope, and cut a 45 degree angle on the outside edge of it for a smoother transition. It sits flush with the flooring on the inside.

Next, we cut a 1/2 inch thick, 6 inch wide piece of wood to run the height of the door, on the inside-right edge of the frame, and a similar piece across the top. We kept the previous frame's 2x4 in place on the left side. By our calculations, we had arrived at the correct frame size.

We measured the height of the opening several times and then measured the door and marked it for cutting. There was a metal piece running the width of the door along the bottom edge, a cap of sorts, held in by four screws. They all came out except for one, its phillips head quickly stripped. Hmm. Ahh..hacksaw. I cut a notch in the screw. There, now it's a flat head! Out it came.

Matt and Emily had been helping us keep morale up this whole time, entertaining us with third person observations and perspectives that we can't get when it's just the two of us, in a cold, dark attic, trying to remain focused and on task. It was a good boost. Plus, they brought us hot cocoa!

Now it was time to take a couple of inches off the bottom of the steel door. We propped it up so that the end to be cut was outside on the deck (in the snow) and Erika and I fell into our routine of lining up the blade and clamping down a guide. I triggered the saw and as it sliced into the steel, the sparks flew. Wee! But, the guide wasn't working out well and the blade started to travel off the mark. So we just took the guide off and I free handed it. No shortage of light, with those sparks. The blade diameter wasn't enough to bite all the way through on the first pass, so we flipped the door and came at it from underneath. A perfect cut.

The next step was to stand the door up in place and shim it up from underneath to keep it propped in position while we marked where the hinges would mount to the frame. This went smoothly, with Erika outside, keeping the door from falling that way, and Matt and I inside, shimming, tapping, and then marking.

Someone with more foresight than I - either Erika or Emily - suggested that dinner get started downstairs while Matt and I forged on. I was determined get this door hung. I didn't know what time it was and I didn't want to know. I traced the new hinges onto the door frame and carefully mortised the door frame (chiseled the shape of the hinges, 1/8" deep so that they will sit recessed, flush with the frame). The hinges fit perfectly so I put a couple of screws in each one.

Now for the moment of truth: Matt and I lifted the door and guided the hinges. The top one went it, the bottom one looked to be about a 32nd off, so I gave it a few light taps with the hammer and the door slipped right in. High five! Sweet! We tapped the pins into the hinges and called Erika and Emily upstairs to check it out.

Downstairs, wine was flowing and I jumped into the cooking fray. I noticed the time: 10:30. Yup, sounds about right. By 11:30, we sat down to home made mac and cheese and tomato, black eyed peas with onions and garlic, collard greens, home made biscuits, and some chicken fried up with cayenne and an egg/flour batter. Apple crisp for dessert! More wine, anyone?

The meal, music, company, and day of work: all damn fine. A memorable "final Saturday."

- John

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Head first

I feel like we're actually running through January. Another metaphor I used last night was "boxing match." This is a crazy series of work days right now, trying to get wrapped up before February. Last night we crossed one of the last notable hurdles in our quest for completion—building railings for the porch stairs.

We knew we wanted these to match the railings we just put on the porch itself, height-wise, and we'd been talking over the design during our commute, trying to think through it as much as possible before the time actually came. Not that it's a complicated design, but this kind of project always presents some unanticipated problem.

Right after work I painted a couple more samples onto the dining room wall. We're still looking for the right color in there. Getting closer. Is copper too dark? Do we want something more red? Help?

On to the railings! First major task was to install 4x4 posts halfway up the stairs. We did a bunch of math and cut the first post. John also notched out the stair tread so the post could slide in against the stringer. Then he predrilled the post so we could put 5" lag screws through it.

As he was predrilling I thought more about our math. Uh-oh. We forgot something. If we wanted the stair rails to begin at the same height as our porch rails, the entire stair rail would be much lower than we'd figured. John had read that the hand rail should be 36" above the front edge of each tread. Ours was going to be less than 29". We solved this problem by looking in a different book and finding the answer we wanted—that a good height is 30" off the middle of each tread. Great! On with the plan.

Next there was a long frustrating sequence of attempts at getting that post positioned just right (correct height and plumb) and bolted in satisfyingly. The night closed in around us. I imagined that we were completely alone on a dark rocky planet, that just beyond our drop light and house and cars was a vast void in which nothing breathed or stirred, and no light shone. This did not make me feel better. Then we got the post bolted in pretty well and kept going.

Put up the top rail after figuring out an angled cut at top and bottom. John started marking and cutting the lumber for the right side of the stairs before we even got both left-hand rails screwed up, which I still think was kind of a trick to get me to keep working until we finished the entire project, although he denies it. (To be fair, he did ask if I wanted to stop, and we made a deal that we'd quit at 10:30 no matter what, which we did not.) Long story short, thanks to the fact that the second time through anything is always way faster, we did get the right side done too. Can't say it was fun, but it feels good that it's finished. And that working outside, in late evening, in January, is now behind us!

You may now walk up our stairs and stand on our porch in complete safety.

- Erika

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Well, we're still on track, though sometimes it's a real push. We successfully built and installed our porch railings last night. You'll remember what was there...those white picket fence-looking things. We wanted something very simple, more minimal. So we went with two horizontals only, like a horse paddock fence.

We settled on proportions and figured out how to design it and verified our measurements. We continued to measure, cut, level, plumb, fasten. Determined to complete this in one night, we pushed on until 10:45. And we did it.

Looks good, too. We'll probably run the block plane over the top corner edges to soften them a bit and add some depth and irregularity. This weekend we'll prime them and paint 'em white.

Tonight, our goal is to build and install hand rails on the porch stairs. They're going to match the new porch rails...same proportions, same idea. Very nice.

- John

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The next-to-last weekend

Friday night, we painted the kitchen Sonoma!

That's a nice orange-yellow, Mediterranean sort of color. We were to realize later that it was not exactly what we thought we were getting-thanks again, Blowe's paint department-but at this stage in the game, there's really zero time to linger over paint choices or regrets of any description. We like it fine.

Saturday morning, I put a second coat on while John went into town for supplies for our porch repair project. He returned and helped me finish up painting along with some caulking, and we broke for what we thought would be an hour and a half of cleaning up before my parents arrived. Just then they called and said they were five miles from the house. We literally ran around cleaning until they pulled into the driveway, our standards of decent living dropping by the second.

They hadn't seen the place since late September when we put in the second beam, so there was a lot to show them. After the long tour and some snacks, we roused ourselves with difficulty: John, Mom and I headed outside to work on porch joists, while Dad started planing the first beam and posts. It was the type of grey, eyes-half-closed winter afternoon-somewhere in the 30s-where you could easily slip into a pleasant coma if you stayed on the couch long enough.

The joist project is sort of a blur in my mind, but I remember Mom holding up joists on her shoulder or back while they got fastened in (you can't quite stand up under the porch), and a general cheeriness as we measured, cut, and nailed. Put in 8 new joists between the old, bowed ones that were pulling away from the center support. We had our circular saw and a bunch of other tools under there in the dirt with us, and when we'd step out from under there was an icy carpet of snow all over the lawn. We worked well past dark. Mom was a good sport when we decided to go for all 8 instead of stopping after 4.



Meanwhile, inside, Dad had done all the power planing on the oak beams, leaving the chisel work for the next day.

We'd been making a tomato sauce all day and now we ate it with pasta and eggplant parmesan. Eagerly to bed.

- Erika

Sunday morning, after some breakfast sandwiches and a third round of coffee, we got back to it. Erika's mom continued the long and tedious task of painting all the white things white in the kitchen with great patience and accuracy, while her dad started securing the oak posts to the wall studs.

I'm too tired to do this bloggins any justice. We did too much. We spent Saturday afternoon/evening through Monday night outside in below freezing weather kicking out the porch project.

Sunday, we removed the old picket railings (Erika accomplished this with the Sawzall), constructed a new porch column from 1x8 planks (matching the original) and a new column base, jacked that corner of the porch roof up, knocked out the old column and installed our new one, and replaced about a half dozen rotted tongue-and-groove floor planks with fresh lumber.

The prob:


Newly constructed:

Raise the roof:

Out with the old:

In with the new:

Originally, we thought we would only replace a couple of planks in the column at the opposite end of the porch, maybe just cut away the rotten sections and splice in some new wood. First we cut with the circular saw, then finished it off with the reciprocating saw:

But after reconstructing and replacing an entire column with relative ease, we figured we'd be better off doing the same thing at the other end. We'd need to get more 1x8s, though.

By the end of the day, all of our kitchen trim had been repainted, as had the kitchen and bathroom doors and trim. It looks awesome.

Also, the posts had not only been bolted to the studs, but Marty had cut eight diamond from a piece of walnut that he had milled decades ago (from the root of a walnut tree), bevelled their edges, and chiseled out around each bolt hole where he set the diamonds. Our posts with diamond-shaped inlays are classy. Quite.

Monday morning, Marty and I left the house before dawn to get some more lumber for the second column. Frigid. Before we got back to work, we feasted on banana walnut pancakes, an amazingly rich yogurt with honey, blood oranges, plums, bacon, coffee, and orange juice. Then back into the below-freezing temps with all our tools to replace the other column.

We knocked out the existing column and replaced a few tongue and groove planks that ran under it. Then we built a new base for the column. The bases are 10"x10" squares with all four top edges bevelled 45 degrees and four 1/2"x1/2" grooves cut to criss cross underneath, for water drainage. We were working quickly.

It was mid afternoon and our family was saying goodbye. With continued luck, we won't have to work so hard the next time they visit - we will actually be able to leave the property and have some fun around this beautiful county. Or maybe we'll just stay in and cook and eat and relax. Who knows what we'll do...but we do expect things to be far less brutal!

Erika and I pushed on, determined to finish building and installing the column and intent on completing the replacement of the remaining rotted floor planks. We ran into some snags while aligning our new assembly with the existing column top plate, but after a few misfires we found the correct positioning. We got the column good and plumb then let the jack down, bringing the porch roof down upon the column with a little creak. Very nice. We nailed the column in place and turned our attention back to the planks.

The plank replacements went smoothly. Chiseled a space on either end so I could drop the Skil Saw blade, run the saw along the seam to the joist, rip out the plank, clean out the old tongue, chisel off the neighboring tongue, cut the new plank to length, line it up and slide it in, nail it down. Etc. Actually, we used our usual carpentry method: Prepare (cut, clean), measure the lengths for all the planks we'd cut, cut 'em all at once, slip 'em all in, nail 'em all down. Assembly line.

It was dusk. Didn't even spend a minute admiring the work. We just started cleaning up all the saws, hand tools, debris, lumber scraps, uncut pieces, and so on. With the porch clean and swept, we removed the ashes from the furnace (a few days overdue), then went inside and cleaned the house and vacuumed stray wood chips, mud clumps, and saw dust.

It was only 6:30 but it felt like 10 o'clock. What a weekend. We're still on track with the unpublished January Challenge, pretty much. Next up: build and install the porch railings and porch stair hand rails. This will be at night. It's still pretty cold (35 degrees) and it's drizzling out.

We'll rest in February.

- John