Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I've put some new sheet rock on the walls and some framing around the window, and it's starting to look more like a place where normal people live. Here is the before and after.

Up to this point I've focused on details that no one will ever see: the framing and the metal window straps that I designed. So it was a little sad to cover it all up with sheet rock. Maybe this is why surgeons leave it to others to sew you up? Maybe they would prefer to pass you around to their friends for show and tell, at least for a few days?

After the wall and baseboards are painted I will be putting a clear finish on the windows. I found some nice pine for the frames, which are designed to match the windows in the rest of the house (it's only partially finished in the photo). But Cheryl and I want this one to be natural pine instead of painted white. So it will be more sanding, but now delicately and by hand with the fine sandpaper so that the sawdust is as fine as goose down.

I continue to wonder I if am the luckiest person ever.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Quarter Round

He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden.

Yesterday we decided it was time to put the dining room back in order. But we had one remaining task: put down the quarter round, a narrow piece of wood with a rounded side that ties the baseboard and floor together with just a bit of detail. You might say that quarter round is the plain and lesser cousin of crown molding. Most of the quarter round is missing from our house, and we are not quite sure why, but it has especially annoyed Cheryl from the start.

The quarter round has been in the garage for a week now, and I have been hoping, like Tom Sawyer, that someone would come along and paint them for me. One morning I came up with a idea to put notches into a piece of wood so that the quarter round strips would stay in place while I painted them. What a cool idea (my brain said to me). In effect, I tricked myself into painting the wood.
There were 18 pieces of quarter round to paint. What if I had 180 pieces, or 1800 pieces, or what if I knew that I would be painting quarter round every day for the rest of my life? Could such a prospect cause me to rethink the nature of existence? If you keep your business email like I do, just go back a few months and read one or two at random. From a distance, your real job can lose the sense of variety that you feel day-to-day. Apparently I have been painting strips of wood over and over and over for years, so why not be happy and make the best of it.

Update: the quarter round is down and Cheryl helped by putting the final touches the installation. She has always been interested in the baseboards. Cute, right? Sometimes it nice to work together.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Master Chemicals

For centuries the master builders of the world made do with simple hand tools and common materials. Stone and steel, wood and brick. A great tradition of master carpenters passed techniques from teacher to apprentice, a brotherhood of professionals that continues to this day.

But today we have the Internet. Besides, the real carpenters are very expensive, so why not just "do it"?

Allen and I slid the window into place without much trouble. What a relief! The metal straps that I made and screwed into the sides of the window worked perfectly. You can barely see them in the photo to the right (one is shining just above the window on the left side). I saw this technique in a video on the web, so it must be a good idea, right?

The cynical among you might say "metal straps? in Florida? Won't they just rust?" Yeah, they probably will rust, but I will be dead by then and you won't have me to kick around any more with all your negativity. Besides, this is where modern chemicals play a role.

One of the coolest things to play with is expanding foam. It comes in a spray can, and you squirt it into an opening and watch it go. The master carpenters of times past did not have this foam, but I have it. Here is the window with foam squirting out. This stuff is very sticky and forms a tight seal around everything it touches, including my metal straps. It will keep the moisture and ants and termites away from the pine frame of the window for (my) foreseeable future.

So who is the master now, Willow? (She remains unconvinced.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Negotiating with Adversity

Cheryl was away this weekend, chaperoning kids at a Model United Nations event, where students get to pretend that they are ambassadors while learning to speak the language of diplomacy (how to obfuscate when necessary to advance an agenda). Cheryl has a much less cynical outlook than I, which is important when students look to you for advice.

I spent the weekend with a more mundane project, replacing the breakfast room window. If I were a diplomat, I would say that the experience was challenging but the house and I are better for it. In reality, I have my doubts.

To start, I removed the trim from around the window. I had suspected a problem on the right side. I poked a hole into the wallboard, and where I expected to see a 2 x 4 piece of lumber I saw a void, not a good sign. So I removed the wall board on all sides to discover that the wood was completely dissolved is some places, and it some places it just turned to dust in my hands. Notice to the right there are two pieces of lumber (upper left corner of picture) that stop about half way down. The bottom portions of these are gone.

Normally replacing some framing like this is no big deal, but we have a stucco house--the outside layer of stucco is attached to the framing. To avoid cracking the outside wall (or worse) I would have to be very careful when nailing or doing anything that might put pressure on the outer wall.

I was not surprised to find that the old window was reluctant to leave its long-time home. I threatened it with my sledge hammer, but the window knew that my threats were empty, that doing so might crack the exterior. But like an aggressor nation in the security council I gestured and spoke with theatrical bluster. Oh yes, I have the big weapons and am not afraid to use them.

Two or three hours later, the window was out. Then the remaining old lumber had to pulled away from the wall, again with all possible gentleness. By this point I was reduced to cajoling and deal-making, expressing my deep understanding of their plight and apologizing for the sins of the former occupiers and for not coming to the rescue sooner, before it was too late. Concessions were made and the wood agreed to be removed.

Putting in the new framing presented the same challenges, so I used screws whenever possible to reduce the shock of driving nails into place. After two full days of work, including 5 or 6 trips to Lowes and Home Depot, I still have a big hole in the wall. My friend Allen is coming over at lunch to help put the window into place (if it will fit). More on this tomorrow.
Diplomacy is the art of patience and compromise. Do or say whatever is necessary, claim victory, then move on.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Red is Gray and Yellow, White

The varnish is down. I used an oil-based finish to give some amber color to the wood. It takes a few days to dry completely so we are walking around in socks and speaking in whispers. We scold Willow whenever she starts her spinning and jumping and Snoopy dancing, which is more often that I ever noticed before.

For the next few weeks (or maybe months, or maybe forever), the floor will be too shiny for my tastes. As you can see, the light bounces off of it like water. This didn't happen in the dining room and laundry room, which are older floors, but the new floors are pretty glossy. I could buff them or I could lightly sand and touch them up. I could start all over if I wanted to.

The second photo is a shot from overhead, with Willow staring into the kitchen wondering why her food bowl is no longer in the corner (where it has always been) but is instead upstairs where she has been sequestered for several days.

There's nothing special about the color differences in these photos. We make these adjustments in our brains all day long while developing our own personal sense of the true nature of things. The floor is sort of amber in my mind. To Willow it looks like a vast Frisbee field. To Cheryl it finally looks finished and she can have the Christmas party (it's never too soon to start planning).

But the project goes on. Tomorrow I am painting base boards and getting some new quarter-round to install in all the rooms, back on my hands and knees using my new nail gun. We also need to pick up some nice tile to create a mosaic for the divider between the breakfast room and living room (a section that is now a gaping strip of concrete).

Oh yes, the project goes on. This is no time to sit and stare.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

As Good As It Will Get

I must admit, I like to take sandpaper to wood. I like to see the grain reveal itself as the finer sand paper is applied. Sanding is an art form that can never be mastered, and it is a task that can never be finished.

I like sanding by hand and hearing the swish, swish of the paper. But for a job this size (because now I have added the dining room and laundry room, both of which need refinishing), I needed to rent some big tools. Big, loud, foul, bad-tempered, dangerous tools that cut things into tiny pieces. A drum sander can rip a layer of oak away in seconds, turning hardwood into a powder, which explains the picture to the right. I hung some plastic here and there to prevent the dust from wandering into other parts of the house. If Dexter had a thing for wood, it might look like this.

Normally, I am into big tools. I spent Sunday with the big sander, punishing my poor floor with brute force. Soon I learned that the sander would not reach several tight spaces in the kitchen and pantry and (almost to my relief) it became clear that I would need to be down on my hands and knees sanding by hand for three days, studying the boards face to face, working where the big sander could not reach. You might say "What a lucky guy, on his hands and knees for three days" but don't be so quick to envy me. You have your share of fun, too, I'm sure.

Willow drools and sheds hair and Cheryl spills things, and the poor, unfinished and defenceless floor could not survive without its protective coat for much longer. I cannot sand forever, no matter how much I might like. A deadline had to be imposed, and today was it. Time to varnish. So here I am, waiting for a coat of varnish to dry so that I can apply another.

Now there's nothing to do but wait. The time for sanding is past.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Floor is Down

Here's Willow sitting in what now seems to be a very large breakfast room. I spent the day moving all my hand tools, table saw, air compressor, air gun, nails, screws, paint, tar paper and extra lumber (enough to do a small room) to the garage. All the plastic is off the floor, and now it's swept and vacuumed.

There's still more to do: rent a sander on Sunday, put on 3 coats of varnish--one each night before we go to bed so Willow doesn't get her paws in it. But now it is nice to see the clean, empty rooms. No more work today.

I took some pictures of the new threshold piece I created this morning. Sweet, but the pictures don't capture its true essence, how it just kisses the bottom of the door to the garage so that the smallest ant could not squeeze through even one of its little feeler things or butt whiskers (or whatever you call them). I showed the threshold to Cheryl and she pretended to be impressed (good enough for me).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Nature Break

About three feet to go and the floor will be down, not counting the parquet strip that is driven from my consciousness several times a day because I can't decide on the design.

Yesterday Cheryl came in all excited and said "you've got to come see this." Just outside, next to our stone porch, we have some cactus-looking plants that I've taken for granted since we moved in. But now they have these fantastic flowers coming from them. It's my intent in this blog to document each plant in our yard, to figure out what is there, what it is called, how not to kill it, and so on. I have a long way to go, starting with this plant (that fortunately appears to be pretty tough and able take care of itself).

But now it is back to the floor to finish it. Next step is sanding, then put down the finish. The parquet design will come to me in a dream, maybe?

Also, for years we have had orchids in the yard and in the house, and we haven't had luck getting them to bloom, but then we noticed this one yesterday. How cool! If you click on the photo, you will see the new blooms and Cheryl being pleased with herself for willing them into existence.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Yesterday I began laying the floor in the breakfast room, but these boards run in the opposite direction (though I suppose it would be more correct to say that the breakfast room boards are perpendicular to the kitchen boards--not that it matters, but if the boards could be said to have a starting point and a direction, which in my mind they do not, the word opposite might imply that the boards would be running along the same line, like cars on the freeway, but maybe I haven't given this enough thought...)

Here's Willow sitting on the threshold between the kitchen and breakfast room . She and I have been discussing how best to design the transition from one room to another, and she is not in complete agreement with my design, but I can't fight with her about every single decision. The project needs to go forward or it will never be done.

Also notice the plastic. I spilled a drop of coffee on the floor yesterday and had to sand it out. Unfinished oak is like a sponge.

For some reason, when the previous owners remodeled the breakfast room they made the floor joists 1/4 inch higher than the kitchen floor joists. They compensated by using 1/2 inch plywood (instead of the standard 3/4 inch) for the subfloor. This decision caused the breakfast room floor to eventually sag and bounce around like a trampoline. I hope they can live with themselves.

Because I don't want to do this project again any time soon, I put a 3/4 inch subfloor in the breakfast room, making it 1/4 inch higher than kitchen, just enough to trip you if you are one of those people who just shuffles along, probably with bad posture and a bleak outlook. Please. Cheer up a little bit.

Here's a picture of the strip of oak I made yesterday to join the two rooms. I spent about 30 minutes making this piece, shaping just to fit the breakfast room (in the upper portion of the picture) and sloping down into the kitchen. I asked Cheryl if she thought I should nail it down (which might split the wood and cause me grief) or glue it down. I wondered if she would call me a wuss and dare me to nail it. But she recommended gluing it. Willow still refuses to comment.

Cheryl and I had an early anniversary dinner last night at a Brazilian restaurant. We had a very nice time. I remain the luckiest guy ever.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

3 by 4 by 7

Yesterday in yoga class I was compelled to recognize how I had blown my inner peace. Anger is a poison that you give to yourself hoping to affect someone else. Martha, our instructor, is a really sensible, down-to-earth person, and she says these things (reading from various books) at the end of class while we are in Savasana.

It all started when I realized that the lumber store (a national chain of discount lumber) had short-changed me. The boards come in bundles, and it seemed like a lot of wood when I went to pick it up. So I didn't realize the problem until Tuesday. The facts were simple: I ordered 335 square feet and they gave me 265.

I've read that our brains are segmented according to evolutionary stages. The primative part of the brain prompts us to breathe and reacts to pain and pleasure. The newer part tends to favor one book over another and makes us want to be cool. When we get into unfamiliar territory, like cavemen lost in the woods at night trying to get back home, we tend to rely on the older part of the brain.
I had the facts straight when I called the lumber store. The bundles are 3 boards wide, 4 boards deep and 7 feet long. We learned this math in grade school so I didn't expect an argument. But on the phone the store manager assured me that I was wrong. He said he was looking at the paperwork from the home office--it was the final word. I tried to walk him through the math, and he would follow me to the end but then retreat into denial. The man was either a fool or...
Then something in the brain snapped. You do this for a living, goddammit! I shouted into the phone. I won't repeat the rest of the conversation. I did threaten to sue him at some point, so I can assume that the newer part of my brain also got in on the act. If reincarnation is a reality, I probably have moved from coming back as a toad to coming back as a worm.
About 30 minutes later I got a call from the regional supervisor who apologized, and today I will go to pick up the extra wood. May God have mercy on my soul.