August 30, 2013

Puff pastry and local peach treats

I'm still working through the last batch of puff pastry I made, in which I think I put a bit too much water. It turned out a little tough, so it hasn't been flying out of the freezer. Lately we have been getting amazing peaches with our CSA, so I took the opportunity to make some desserts with the puff pastry and these seasonal delights.

August 22, 2013

A tiny stretch of fence, in Red Cedar

There used to be a dilapidated stretch of fence with a gate at the end of our driveway, to close off the back yard. Some years ago it rotted past the point of any use as an actual barrier, after spending a while being reinforced with plastic chicken fence. Early this spring Becky asked me to make a functional fence + gate there of some sort, so we can let Child 1 (2.5yrs old) hang out in the back and not have to worry about him escaping if we go up to use the bathroom or fetch lunch.

I fairly quickly put in some pressure treated 4x4s,

screwed up more plastic chicken fence, and repurposed a section of garden lattice as a kind of gate. However, I had plans to do a nicer job on the fence, and use it as a test bed for some ideas about how to redo the fence around the whole property.

Last weekend I finished up with the nicer version of the fence and gate, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. The lot is made from clear vertical grain ('CVG') western red cedar, purchased at Anderson McQuaid. A&M is not usually the cheapest place to get stock, but their pricing on CVG red cedar is actually not bad; cheaper than two lumberyards I called, and a bit more than an internet supplier in another state. Anyway, this was not a tremendous amount of wood, so I figured the convenience of A&M was worth it.

Western red cedar is a lovely wood to use for exterior projects. It is grown sustainably in the pacific northwest, mainly in British Columbia, and there is reported to be more red cedar forest now than there was 100 years ago. It is not in fact technically part of the cedar family, but rather part of the cypress family. It is highly rot resistant, straight grained, and with few knots. Of course that was especially true for the CVG grade I bought, which is the absolute cream of the timber industry. The wood cuts and carves wonderfully, and is surprisingly strong for its very light weight. An added bonus is the sublime smell released when working it. It doesn't seem to gum up blades and bits too much.

On the down side, it is quite soft and takes dents and other marring easily. The end grain is pretty rough when exposed unless cut with an exceptionally sharp, fine toothed blade. The preferred hardware material for use with cedar is stainless, but I already use stainless torx drive screws whenever possible. It can also be tricky to paint, but I've so far had good luck with some one coat exterior stuff from Behr that advertised its compatibility with cedar. I opted not to paint this fence; while I am not in love with the gray color exposed wood weathers to, I am even less excited to have to scrape and repaint fencing. I'm using this same wood to do the trim on a tiny back porch exit, and the paint is doing ok so far. Maybe we could think about a solid color stain for the future; I don't have much experience with that class of finish so I don't know how suitable it would be.

In the vein of using this stretch as a lab for trying out some ideas for the full fence, I set out to design the fence panel itself. Becky favored a picket style, feeling that the less formal look went better with our un-fancy Victorian two family than a more formal close spaced square spindle fence panel might. We both thought it would be cool to have something unusual at the top of the pickets however. At some point I had seen a sort of round eye design at the top of fence pickets, so I tried out something like that. Wanting a little more interest, I added some slight relief carvings to give the appearance of a loop with a half twist.

Post Covers
The post covers were made by milling a rabbet and matching groove on the edges of the face pieces.
These were glued together using waterproof yellow glue.

After assembly, a bevel was added to match the design I'm working out for the porch trim.

The routed bevels were given a lamb's tongue stop treatment with a chisel.

I made up 5 post covers, one of which was painted to be the terminal post of the back porch handrail (not shown in the below picture).

Post Caps
I happened to have some 5/4x8  spanish cedar around, so I tried gluing two layers of this together, then chopping squares from it. I got a tenoning jig for the table saw to cut the top bevels, but my saw can't put the blade up far enough to cut the whole bevel, which is probably just as well from the standpoint of possible undercutting of the clamping pressure zone in the jig.

So I cut four sides, rotating 90 degrees between cuts, then finished it off with a japanese saw

and a couple minutes with the hand plane.

Plus a little sanding, and I was happy with the results.

We'll see how the glue joint stands up to weather, but I think for the main fence I'd rather use 2x stock in CVG red cedar and not have the glue joint. Spanish cedar is an amazing wood, but I was sad to find out that it's tropical, and thus much harder to feel good about using it. The caps are held onto the post covers with pocket screws on the post covers, which are later hidden by an inverted mahogany basecap molding from A&M.

The fence rails are 5/4x4 red cedar, toe screwed with stainless screws long enough to get into the inner post.

Then a small piece of spanish cedar molding is put over the screw heads with stainless 15ga nails.

I think for a 2.5m long fence panel, the 5/4 might not be strong enough to support an adult climbing on it. I'm now thinking I would do two 19x90mm pieces; one on either side of the pickets, both top and bottom.

When thinking about a fence design, Becky favored a rectangle section picket style rather than some of the more formal looking square element styles you see around here. We both thought it would be neat to put something a bit unusual at the top of the picket. As I mentioned above, I took a cutoff piece and started fooling around to work out a circular design, then copied it to the other pickets.

I had a 35mm forstner bit from putting cup hinges in another project, so I drilled  through holes with that after marking from the test piece.

then bandsawed the outer arc

 and sanded to smooth it out. I used a sanding disc in the table saw, then a finish pass with the palm sander.

Eased the edges with a small roundover bit in the router table

Now for the carving. I have almost no carving experience and limited tools for it, so I tried to think of something that wouldn't take much skill, wasn't too complicated, and could be done quickly even by me. This little relief detail is what I came up with, which makes it look like the top circle has been twisted around by 180 degrees on the picket. I think it looks pretty good and with some practice they go quickly. First I score with a marking knife.

Then some quick chisel work to define the reliefs

Usually a second pass with the knife is needed to free up hanging chips left from the chisel work.

Each top gets four little relief details.

This was an early one, so its a bit rough. Later ones got smoother and faster. I still gave each one a few swipes with the sander at the end.

I did fear that this was going to be too much work to do on all ~500 pickets that the full fence would require, but since it was for this tiny section I figured I could do some gratuitous and unpractical labor as an experiment.

Finally I finished the fenceposts and put them up. Each is secured with two #8 flathead stainless wood screws in both the top and bottom rail.

I can tell you I am now pretty quick at the chisel details. I made about 25 pickets for this project, each one has four carved relief sections. By the end it was taking me about 5 minutes to do all four for one picket. I'm also not shooting for the same level of work that I would if I was making indoor furniture. This is a fence after all, not furniture for the Queen!

Thinking about scaling up and doing 500 posts, I think the outside arc shaping is the biggest challenge. I tried to whip through the last set of pickets on the bandsaw, but you still have to be pretty careful and rushing makes them misshapen. So I think the thing to do is get the kids to help me build a small CNC router to do the round profile, then chisel the details by hand. Might even be possible to rough the reliefs in with the CNC, then finish them by hand.

It wouldn't be hard to build a little stepper motor type tabletop machine using some junk I've got sitting around. I could do two or three picket ends at once. Some alignment pins or even just lines on the bed, and some Staco clamps to hold the work in place lower down the picket out of the carving area. We'll see.

While doing fencepost ends (which happened over a period of months on and off), the kids would often come down and want to do some woodworking.

They are very young, but enjoy trying out the tools and experimenting with wood.

Red cedar scraps are well suited to this. By the way, japanese saws are great for kids.

Violet helped me drill all the inner holes

then sucked up the wood chips with a hose from the dust collector.

Just in case you are wondering, I do have the kids put on safety glasses (and usually earmuffs too) if we are using a power tool. So Violet would have put on her glasses in the drill press picture before we actually started drilling. I don't make them wear glasses when using hand tools.

With the fence put up, it was time to turn my attention to the gate. I decided to try to make this from 5/4x4 red cedar, just like the fence rails. I made up a square frame, and put in half laps using a router table, bandsaw, and chisel.

 These were glued together with epoxy.

After the epoxy was set, I trimmed and planed a bit to clean things up, then cut and fit the cross brace.

The cross brace is secured on each end with three #10 stainless screws set in counterbores in the outer frame. The counterbores on the top and sides of the frame are plugged for looks and to help keep water out.

Earlier this year when I thought this was going to be a quicky project, Child 1 and I bought some gate hardware at home depot. The hinges are nice and sturdy, but are galvanized.

The latch is stainless, but not very heavy duty. Note the plugged screw holes on the top rail in the picture below.

Hopefully this gate location is "temporary" until we execute our dream landscaping on the yard. When it comes to house projects, temporary for me means between one and twenty years. This hardware will probably be fine for many years in any case.

The gate swings easily and feels sturdy enough. I thought about putting a tensioned cable brace on the other diagonal, but I decided it is probably not necessary. I'll have to see what happens when kids are hanging on it and swinging. The gate is much more user friendly than the old section of wood garden trellis we were hanging on lag screws to act as a gate prior to completion of this project.

I'm quite pleased how this section of fence turned out. Yes, it took some time to build. But now I get to look at it and feel good about it every time I am in the back yard

 or drive up the driveway

Note the chicken fence at left, where I still am working on the handrails and balusters for the tiny back porch!

It would cost some thousands of dollars worth of wood to do the entire 75 meters of fence. But we have quotes from two commercial fence companies for this project which cost up to 10x what I estimate the wood would cost in clear red cedar. I still want to have someone else put in the posts, but I think it will be fun and rewarding for us to put up the fence sections.

August 13, 2013

A Knit Skirt for Becky

One factor which complicates achieving the goal of producing all our new clothes at home is the tendency to let your imagination run with the prospect of custom made clothing. The tendency is to think about the clothes you wish you were wearing, rather than the clothes you actually will wear. I enjoy the feeling of freedom to design whatever I want, but this can sometimes stand in the way of practicality if you just need some clothes to wear.

An example: last year Becky suggested I could make her a 1910's tea gown as part of our not-buying-clothes experiment. I spent a lot of time working on it, and used many meters of nice fabric, but in the end the way the bodice is formed just was not a good fit for her. I think with enough fiddling around we could get it to work, but we were both discouraged enough to put it in the drawer and not work on it. I'll probably cut it up and use the skirts for making kid clothes.

In the meantime, she has two knit skirts she wears very frequently, which are now quite worn through in many places. It looks semi-ok if she now puts both on at the same time, but if it were not for this commercial clothes abstinence project she would have replaced them long ago. She was really getting desperate, so I dug out a length of black knit fabric I purchased years ago, probably at Sew-Low in Cambridge. Without bothering to make a pattern, I cut out a front and back skirt and a waistband, mainly guided by the piece of material I had available and looking to one of the worn out skirts for the general idea.

I sewed them up on the W&W D-9 treadle, stretching the fabric significantly while seaming with a long stitch length in my default Tire silk #30 thread. This is a stretchy knit, so fitting is not really required if the thing is even close to the right size. The side seams are french, the hem is double folded and stitched through. The waistband is a double layer, formed by folding over a larger piece. The waistband lower edges were turned and pressed, then the skirt was attached to the inside of the waist, then the outer part of the band was topstitched onto the skirt.

The whole project took me about 2 hrs, with Child 1 helping. Within minutes of putting it on, the thread had broken in one of the side seams, so I restitched it while stretching even more. Of course you would normally use a zig-zag for joining knits, but my W&W can't do that so I tried the stretch/sew technique.

Becky is happy with the result and now has a reasonable skirt to wear. She has been wearing it for about 1.5 weeks without more thread breaks. If more breaks happen on the side seam, I would resew, but with a ribbon of seam binding to take the stress if the seam is stretched. In other words, it would no longer be stretchy, but I don't think the side seams need that ability. The waistband seam is the one that needs to stretch, so if that breaks I would just resew it by hand with a backstitch. I'm thinking about trying out a zig-zag attachment for one of our Singer 99 hand cranks, for use with knits.

Anyhow, the message, I think, is that sometimes you are far better off just sewing the clothes you will actually wear rather than spending a lot of time on clothes for the fantasy person you want to be.

August 6, 2013

2nd Floor Bathroom - Completed

This project has been underway on and off for over 5 years. I finally finished the last few items and it is now 100% done!

All our bathrooms are 1.8x2.4m (6x8'), so it's tough to pack in a full tub, toilet, sink, and storage. All three bathrooms in the house are in a vertical stack, one on each floor, with exactly the same layout. The third floor bathroom is the first major project we did in the house after we moved in to it 12 years ago. The first floor bathroom was done over a few years while we were renovating and living in apartment 1. The second floor bathroom has been getting done in fits and starts on the same building permit as the kitchen renovation for apartment #2, and has taken me a lot longer than the other two did despite hiring out a bigger percentage of the work.

The 2nd floor bathroom is unusual because it was originally just a nook at the top of the stair landing and was only later converted to a bathroom. I think I remember the guy we bought the house from saying when he was a kid there was a piano in the nook. By the time we moved in, it was fitted with wall to wall carpet, a mildewy plastic stall shower, and a rotting particle board console sink. Yeah, permanent carpet in a bathroom? Yuck.

When we eventually ripped out the carpet, there were some newspaper pages underneath from the 1940's. Makes you realize just how long that carpet had been soaking in delicious goodness from various sources!

The door was put into the opening of the nook, but this unfortunately made it so that it was too close to the wall with the toilet and hence had to open out into the hallway. During the renovation, we moved the door opening toward the other wall and installed a new prehung door opening into the bathroom. The light switch was relocated to be in the room instead of in the hall. Putting it in the hall seems to be very popular in the Northeast, but it drives me crazy for some reason. Probably just what you are used to.

I don't have too many before pictures, other than the one above. But here are some pictures of the third floor bathroom pre-renovation, to give you a sense for condition of my house when we moved in.

On this project, I hired people to do the demolition, framing, plumbing, electrical, and plaster. This obviously saved a huge amount of time, though it still took me forever to finish it. I was very concerned about lead paint dust during the renovation; at the time of the demo we had Violet living in the house and she was about 1.5 years old. So I did my best to seal off the work area with plastic and lots of gaffer's tape, including building a plastic tunnel to the back stairs where the debris was taken out. There was a HEPA ventilator to create negative pressure in the work area.

We went away for the weekend when the demo mostly happened and made sure to vacuum with a HEPA vac when we came back, even though we were living in the other apartment at the time.

The subfloor was left in on this level, and after the demo new framing went up on the wet wall.

and the rough plumbing and electrical was installed

We did Icynene foam for the insulation, which is great for an old house since it seals up all the drafty cracks and holes in the exterior walls.

The first floor apartment has hot water radiators, so we put radiant in the bathroom floor when we renovated it. Radiant floor with marble tiles is a wonderful thing in the winter, in contrast to the freezing cold floor experience we had gotten used to from the 3rd floor unheated marble bathroom floor. So even though apartment 2 has hot air for heat, this bathroom got electric floor warming from the start. I put down a layer of plywood on top of the subfloor, then a Kerdi membrane. The warming system was put down and a few bags of self leveling compound were poured over it.

Then the marble was installed and grouted. I love small hex cararra tiles. Another nice thing about matte finish marble is that you can rejuvenate the surface with a palm sander, then reseal it.

While the ceiling was off, I did a tack up type installation of electric underfloor heating to warm the third level bathroom floor.

Long ago, a few friends from E Ink and I pooled our money and bought a heavy duty tile saw, which I heartily recommend if you have any significant amount of tile to do. This MK saw cost around $600, which was not a big deal when split 4 ways. I've used this saw to tile three bathrooms and two kitchens to date. This saw has a large sliding table, big water reservoir/catch tray, and a continuous duty induction motor. It is powerful, reliable, smooth, and quieter than the screaming universal motors in cheaper saws. On the downside, its heavy to handle by yourself, and tends to make a bit of a mess around it. The switch started to cause problems at one point, but one of the tool shareholders fixed it without much trouble. Here it is, set up in the hallway when Becky took everyone to visit her parents so I could try to make some progress on the bathroom. I think this was right before Child 1 was born, when I was racing the clock to get a functional toilet and sink on the second floor.

The shower walls in here got a layer of Kerdi membrane (over top of cement board). I found the Kerdi to be quite a bit harder to install than the paint on rubber I used in the other two bathrooms.

These bathrooms are fitted and finished nearly identically. Tub, sink, and toilet are all the same models from Kohler. Wall tile is 75x150mm white subway tile from Daltile, with a built up baseboard section using an inverted chair rail, and topped with chair rail and an accent strip.

The floors are in honed hexagonal mosaic size matted carrara marble, manufactured by Walker Zanger and bought through Tile Showcase in Watertown.

All tile was put in using freshly mixed thinset.

The other awesome tool to have if you are doing wall tile is a laser level and a sliding pole mount for it. This makes it easy to line each course up to a level line and space the joints properly.

In all these bathrooms, the tub is 1.5m long and positioned against the exterior wall, leaving a ~250mm space between the foot of the tub and the wall. The easy thing to do would be to just box this in, but storage space is at a premium so instead I've built custom drawers to fit in here. The window in this second floor bath has a lower sill for some reason than the other ones, so I couldn't make the cabinet as tall. Given its shorter stature, I only put in two drawers, each of which can accomodate two layers of toilet paper rolls stacked on top of each other for a total of 24 rolls storage capacity.

The carcass is made of 19mm prefinished plywood with maple rails mounted inside for the drawers to glide on. Drawers themselves are dovetailed maple, which I did on a router table with a fancy fence and some post cleanup with the chisel. In the first floor bathroom I ordered custom made dovetailed drawers, which saved some time. The lead time was long though, and I had to slot through the dovetails to make the drawer slide dadoes, which is troubling to me. Making them myself, I can of course lay out the dovetails so that one is missing where the drawer slide slot lands.

Here is Millie getting used to a block plane on a piece of scrap wood, drawers in progress to the left.

Drawer fronts and faceframe are made from old heart pine flooring taken out of my house, stained to a dark finish. This stuff is a lot of work to reclaim since it is typically full of nails and covered with old flooring adhesive, it is highly prone to splitting, and it gums up blades like nothing. But it does look nice and I think it's cool to give it new life in its original home.

A special touch I've put in to all three bathrooms is using a salvaged carrara marble mantlepiece to cover the top of the tub foot drawer box and the windowsill. This is way cheaper than using a new fabricated piece of marble, and you can get more interesting edge shaping, plus it adds some character. This piece came from Olde Bostonian architectural salvage; I think it may have been something like $250. Of course you have to work it to the right shapes! Fortunately marble is exceedingly easy to work, as long as you are not going for polished perfection. I chopped it up with my dirty circ saw fitted with a stone cutting abrasive blade, then sanded it with progressively finer grits of sandpaper.

I like to wear a respirator when dry working marble with power tools, to better avoid silicosis.

One challenge I had on this piece was that I wanted to cut the windowsill with 'horns' on it, to try to improve the way I did the tile around the window vs. the other two bathrooms I've done in the house. But the piece was not quite long enough if I wanted to get the contoured edge all around. So I cut, shaped, and fitted a piece from the side of the mantle and bonded it to the main sill with clear epoxy.

I think that should last a good long time, but I suppose we'll find out. The join is pretty much undetectable unless you really look for it.

Medicine cabinets are made from 19mm solid maple boxes with prefinished 6mm plywood backs. Here is my embarrassingly cluttered shop in the basement with the cabinets in process.

Face frames and doors are made from the reclaimed, stained, heart pine flooring. These cabinets had to be fairly shallow since there are air ducts behind them for the third floor HVAC. Face frames are joined and attached to the boxes using pocket screws.

 Hinges and catches are from Rejuvenation.

This is not our primary bathroom right now, so I'm using the medecine cabinet mainly to hold my straight shaving gear, and our stock of homemade chapstick. The glass shelves and mirror were custom cut at a local glass shop.

I left the back of the floating panel in the tall cabinet unstained.

I needed grates to cover the HVAC air duct, and the exhaust fan intake. I didn't have any spares from the house, so I got a couple antique cast iron ones from ebay of about the right size and had them sandblasted at a place in Everett. They were then primed and painted and installed into custom made frames. For the air duct, I fabricated a frame from a home depot marble threshold which I cut up and rabbeted on the tile saw. These were sized to the grate and installed with the wall tile. Later on I had to add some blocking in there to catch the screws through the grate. Turned out nicely.

The fan intake is right above the shower. For this one, I made the frame from some 12mm poplar window stop molding I had in the basement. There is a rabbet on this one too, so the grate can sit flush with the frame. The frame was primed on all sides, caulked at the seam to the ceiling, and painted.

As I mentioned above, the door was scooted over and replaced with a new door. The old one was a junky hollow core luan door, so I was eager to replace it. One issue was that due to the multiple wall building incidents over the life of the space, the prehung frame was thicker than the wall on one side, and thinner than the wall on the other side. This required some tricky cutting of tapered jamb extensions and a lot of hand planing to sort out. There were also some trying situations to face on the floor in the door area but I won't bore you with the details.

The door itself is a solid 5 panel interior door made by Simpson, finished with vertical grain fir veneer. These doors are not quite as thick as the originals in my house, but they look and feel very similar. The molding on the bathroom side is cherry, and it and the door are both finished in shellac, gel stain, then two coats of satin water based acrylic. The hallway side of the door is finished similarly but with no stain, surrounded by painted poplar molding in the same pattern. The molding is from Anderson McQuaid in Cambridge.

I got the door with no hardware installed, and mortised in an antique lockset from another area in the house using my Mall Tool Co. mortiser. The inside cover with thumbturn is from Rejuvenation.

One issue with the door hardware is that my antique locks are supposed to take a key from either side, rather than a square shaft from a thumbturn. Even if I had or could make the fitting key, the key would get lost (especially with three little kids and their friends running around!). And with no key you can see through the keyhole. So what I did was mill a hole through the outer housing of the lockset to permit the thumbturn shaft to come through. Then I fabricated a piece of aluminum to sit on the square shaft and engage the bolt. I also had to modify the detent plate shown over the aluminum piece in the right hand picture below. It works, though its not the smoothest thing ever. Could probably use a little more fine tuning with the file, and if I was smarter I would have made it in brass. Ah well, maybe I'll do a better job next time.

Light fixtures and towel bars mostly from Rejuvenation. Here is Millie practicing stropping a play kitchen knife on my strops hanging from the glass towel bars.

It is so satisfying when you are done, really done, with a project. There are a number of things that didn't turn out perfect in this bathroom, that I might do differently if I could do it again, and even some things that will probably need some attention in a few years. But overall I am pretty happy with how it turned out.