Sunday, April 24, 2011

Junk With A Capital J

It's been a war of attrition with the Farm House work this week. The mood was a bit somber here, as it usually is during semana santa, and the weather matched the mood perfectly. Still, the City must see steady progress, and so I just kept plugging.

I've got the basic lines established very well on this part of the belt course reconstruction, but I've finally given up on this batch of epoxy; it's so hard to work with that it's a waste of time to put a finer point on things with it. I've ordered a fresh batch direct from Abatron, and this task will have to wait until it comes.

My recent complaints notwithstanding, one really can work wonders with the combination of LiquidWood and WoodEpox. I honestly couldn't do a proper job without them. Still, it is essential to understand that they merely fill the voids in the wood with plastic. This arrests further deterioration, but it does not reverse deterioration that has already occurred. Past a certain point, wood becomes too deteriorated to be saved by any means.

So it was, I discovered, with the cap pieces on the west window casing. Once I had removed them and placed them on my workbench, here is what I saw:

Actually, they don't look that bad here, because it is hard to see that both of them are warped upwards on the right side, and parts of each are warped forwards or backwards (towards or away from the camera). Here's a closer look at one of them:

This is the bottom end of the right cap piece, which has split into three parts. The top part is more or less straight, having stayed with the house as the other two parts moved south. Since the wood is absolutely devoid of lignin, it is utterly rigid and quite brittle; there is no way I can bring the bottom two parts back in line with the top one. The most I could do if I managed to avoid breaking the piece would be to bend the straight piece to meet the bent ones.

And therein lies the problem with restoring these pieces. I would have to consolidate what you see here with LiquidWood, fill in the voids with WoodEpox, then cut off the errant wood on the bottom to restore a straight line. And this is but one of many similar problems in these two pieces. Once I had finished applying the epoxies, I would be left with a solid but grotesquely misshapen piece that would have to be machined back into shape. Not only do I not have the machines to get this done, no amount of machining could ever make these pieces look good again without literally entombing the wood completely in epoxy putty. I'm all for re-using the original building material whenever possible, but this would be an absurd length to go to maintain that standard.

I was thus faced with the necessity of fabricating new cap pieces, even though as I mentioned previously that this job would require a table saw, which I don't have. Nor do I have a contractor's saw (a tabletop version of a table saw). Still, it had to be done, and I  had to do it, with the only tool I had that could possibly do the job: A circular saw.

Now, some people would find this a simple job. Our foreman and finish carpenter from the construction phase were both quite talented artists with a circular saw; they could rip boards with long straight cuts freehand. They could do this job in no time, and in fact, I wonder why they didn't. I, on the other hand, can only do a good job with a circular saw after thorough planning and setup, and a lot of sanding afterwards.

So I went to the north side and looked at the cap pieces on that side, which are in great shape because the sun seldom hits them. I realized that despite the compound angles at each end, the stock from which they were made is a simple rhomboid in cross-section: two sets of parallel sides. After some deep cogitation, gurgitation and libation, I concluded that I could fabricate these pieces if I could find stock of the exact thickness I needed. Then, I would only need to do two parallel angled cuts to make the trim stock, and I figured that with proper preparation and some prayer I could manage that.

What I needed was some 5/4 stock, which is about an inch thick. Home Depot doesn't carry it, and if you ask them, they will undoubtedly tell you there is no such thing. But I have a resource they don't know about: my own private collection of Junk with a capital J.

* * *

I never met Lydia's father in person, but I nevertheless feel I know him well, for his memory lives on quite vividly through his daughter. He was a world-class scavenger; no mere junk collector or hoarder, he had an uncanny ability to find perfectly good things that were being discarded, and the exquisite judgment to know what was worth keeping. That was in fact his great genius: he knew precisely what had value in life, and was utterly unconcerned with anything else. He stored his collection of finds in his garage, and he called it "Junk with a capital J."

Many times when puttering around the ancestral manse, I would need a tool or a fastener or some sort of potrzebie, and every time, without fail, I would find just what I needed in the garage. As I looked, I would also find lots of neato items, every one of them useful, or interesting, or both. It was like a museum, only far more relevant and useful. I have yet to explore its full extent, so it will continue to provide the joy of discovery for a long time.

I have my own modest collection of Junk with a capital J. My collection comes mostly from my own personal salvage, items that others would typically discard, but I kept, just in case I might need them again sometime. I've had to become a severe editor of this collection as it has grown; I now give to others things that are still quite useful but I just don't need anymore, and I recycle items that can easily be obtained again. Now, I mostly only keep spare parts and building materials. I derive a sublime satisfaction when I actually put some of my Junk to a new use; now that's recycling, baby.

I kept every sound piece of wood that came off the Farm House during the construction phase, because it is good old-growth clear heart redwood, One should never simply throw such wood away, for it is an irreplaceable resource nowadays, and one that tends to become harder and more durable with age if kept away from heat and out of the sun. I sorted it all out, wrapped matching pieces together in bundles, then hung it up in the Farm House garage rafters along with all the new lumber the contractor left when he abandoned the job. Jerk.

Once I knew I needed 5/4 thickness wood from which to rip my stock, I knew I was in business, because all the casings and baseboards were of that thickness. As it turned out, however, I ended up finding something better: beadboard of the same thickness that came from a closet built into one of the upstairs rooms. We removed that closet to install another of a different size in the same area. It was better than the casing wood because it was wider and had a less-contoured profile.

The keys to achieving as straight a cut as possible with a circular saw are to keep the wood from moving and keep the saw positioned properly. So I pulled out two pieces: one to cut, and one to butt the cut piece up against and to provide an edge along which the saw guide could run. To keep the wood from moving as I cut, I screwed it into the surface of my work table. It's far simpler than trying to set up clamps so that they don't get in the way of the saw. I positioned the pieces so that the cut piece hung out over the edge of the table enough so that the saw blade would clear the table. The tongue-and-groove profile of the beadboard helped keep the pieces properly aligned with each other.

Once everything was as ready as I could make it, I made the required cuts. I can verify that wood gets harder with age; it was all I could do to make straight cuts without the wood's catching on fire. I have a strong saw and a sharp blade, yet it took all my strength to push it through while keeping it straight; I'd have to stop every foot or so to let the blade cool off a bit before continuing. As it was, I had to wear my face mask, because the whole garage filled with smoke! I had to open up all the doors and let it air out for an hour before I could go back in there afterward and see whether I had made usable trim stock.

I had! Remarkably, despite all the smoke very little of the wood was scorched, and the cuts, while rough, are straight enough to serve. I cut slightly wide so that when I sand the irregularities out, the dimensions will be correct.

Even though I have a respectable number of successful carpentry efforts under my belt, I am always surprised when I complete one successfully; when it comes to wood, I am far more comfortable with restoration than I am creation. But on a job like this, one must wear many hats.


  1. You deserve a feather in your cap for working under these conditions.

  2. Hey, it's a dream job! Labor-management relations couldn't be better, and the fringe benefits are awesome.

  3. Crummy weather, crummy wood, but the peanuts are dry roasted! Squirrel

  4. Squirrel, don't you mean roasted in the shell peanuts?

  5. In the shell or out, it's all good to me:-) Squirrel


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