Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Woodworking for The Inept, Part One

The next task at hand is the fashioning of a new piece to replace the wood missing from the apron under the right cap piece:

I have dreaded this task, because I've had no clear idea of how to get it done. Most of my experience has been in rehabilitating and refinishing old wood; my only real experience with new wood has involved straight cuts. I've never before had to fashion a complex shape out of raw board wood so that it fit properly within an existing structure, so with this task I was on completely new ground. 

I put it off as long as possible in the hope that inspiration would strike, but here it was staring me in the face, and I still didn't know how to get it done. I did make a cardboard pattern from the right apron of the west casing a few months back, but purely on speculation, not as part of any sort of plan. That is, I hoped, rather than thought, it would help.

As it turned out, it did help. As I've mentioned, these aprons were made by hand, and each one is different from the others. They do nevertheless follow the same general pattern, so I was able to find a section of the pattern that did line up more or less perfectly; as it turned out, it was the opposite end of the pattern flipped over that did the trick.

So, okay! Great! I knew that all I had to do was reproduce that loop in a new piece of wood and I'd be well on my way to getting this done. So I rummaged through my extensive collection of scrap wood and came up with a nice piece of hardwood plywood, the kind with no gaps in any of the plies. That would work well.

Nice as it was, there were a few problems with this piece relative to the task at hand: first, it was interior plywood, not really weatherproof; second, it was about an eighth of an inch too thick. 

But this isn't This Old House, and I'm not Norm Abrams. We're more ad hoc, more steampunk, more cheap and in a hurry. In other words: when the going gets rough, we wing it. I've found that there are few problems that can't be solved with epoxy, sandpaper, or a combination of both. 

So I plunged in. The first step was clear enough, making the hole in the middle. For that I could use a drill. I couldn't find the 1 1/4" bit I needed, but I did have the 1 1/8", and plenty of sandpaper. So I drilled the hole, then lined up the relevant part of the cardboard pattern around it and drew the outer curve.

And with that, I was out of ideas. It was evident that the only thing I knew I had right was that hole, and even that was certain to need some adjustment. If I cut the piece now, I'd be cutting it blind; and even if it did manage to come out usably, with my weak eyes I'd have a tough time lining it up and making the cut marks in the right place so it would fit in properly. If there were only some way I could transfer the precise contours of the existing broken piece to my new piece. If only I knew what I was doing.

I imagine the solution has already occurred to you, so to make a long story short, after a long period of just standing at the top of the ladder staring at the void, it finally dawned on me that if I transferred the profile to stout paper instead of cardboard, then I could transfer the  dimensions of the void to the new piece. Come, Watson! The chase is afoot!

I copied the part of the pattern I was working with onto heavy kraft paper, cut it out, held it in place over the existing piece on the casing, and carefully creased the paper to indicate where to make the cuts.

Then, using a pattern tracing wheel borrowed from Lydia's sewing tools (in woodworking it's called a pounce wheel), I transferred the creases in the pattern to the new piece. The teeth of the pattern wheel made small indentations in the wood right through the paper, indicating where to make the cuts.

With the outline of the piece now clearly marked on the wood, it was a simple matter to cut it out. I used a coping saw for the long curved cut, and for the short straight cuts I used a back saw, a fine-toothed handsaw with a stiffening reinforcement along its top edge (typically used with a miter box). It wasn't the best saw for the job—that would have been a much smaller back saw called a gents' saw—but I don't have one of those, so I gave it the old ad hoc whammy. It was a bit awkward, but it did the job.

I was thrilled to see that unlike my last turn at the coping saw, this time I did a decent job that did not call for corrective puttying. So now at last I had something to work with. Did it fit? By then it was dark out, so I had to wait to find out.

* * *

"Thirteen pounds, nine and a half ounces of wild feline awesomeness."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Writing Stories

As you will recall, Dear Reader, last time I began the rehabilitation of the right cap piece on the east casing by soaking it in liquid epoxy. I haven't used this term before in these pages, but restoration professionals call this "consolidating" wood, so I guess I'll call it that too. Today I'll show you the rest of the rehabilitation, the filling of the voids with epoxy putty and sanding of the piece to the desired shape.

This patching was not a simple matter of restoring its original dimensions. These pieces have shrunk considerably over the course of 126 years baking in the Pasadena sun, and if I were to restore the original dimensions of the piece, it would stick out quite glaringly compared to the other cap piece when I re-installed it, and then I'd have to take the other one off and give it the same treatment. I didn't have the time for that, so I had to be very careful when patching to ensure that the piece fits back in place more or less the way it did before, with a solid and neat appearance that matches the existing contours of the casing. 

I was eager to use my new technique of using external guides to make patching easier on this task, but the usual parallel-jawed clamps wouldn't work along the angled short sides. Fortunately, not much clamping force is needed, so I simply taped the pieces into place as tightly as I could.

This worked well enough, and of course when I worked along the top and bottom edges I was able to clamp in a conventional manner. With this method and curing each application quickly in the dryer, this task went relatively quickly. I say relatively, but even at that I had to go through several cycles of patching, curing and sanding in order to re-establish flat planes and crisp angles between them. I'll spare you the gory details and just show you the finished product.

Ta-daa! I was very fortunate in that simply filling in the voids and restoring the dimensions using the remaining wood of the piece as a guide, I found that the piece fits back in perfectly, with no further adjustments. Just for fun (as Lydia likes to say), let me show you a before-and-after of the thrashed upper end of the piece:

Now you can see what I mean about not wanting to restore the original dimensions. Originally, this piece had a rhomboidal cross-section; i.e., the top and bottom were parallel to each other, and so were the front and back. 126 years of the brutal Pasadena sun had beaten back the piece along the top front edge and cupped the bottom. Now, when I am done with this side of the house, it is true that this casing will not match precisely with the other one which will have brand new cap pieces, and for this reason it is possible that I will revisit this casing later to correct this. For the time being, however, each casing will appear as an organic whole, and a sharp eye that catches the difference between the two casings will have discovered another story the Farm House will tell about its life, a story that I am helping to write right now.

* * *

"Live long and prosper."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cooking with Otis

Okay, not really. The pictures make it look like I'm marinating a stick of wood in beer and roasting it, but don't worry: things haven't come to that pass here at the Farm House. No, I was just working on the right cap piece from the east window casing.

As I mentioned last time, it's in nearly as bad a condition as were the cap pieces on the west casing; that is, it's nearly unrestorable: so sun-damaged and eroded that huge valleys and canyons have opened up, and so light and brittle that there can be no moisture nor lignin left. Unlike the other pieces, however, it hasn't become irretrievably warped and twisted, so we can save it with the old LiquidWood/WoodEpox one-two punch. Today I'll show you how punch number one went.

As you will recall, my usual method of applying LiquidWood is to brush it on the piece until no more is absorbed, drilling small holes as needed to aid penetration. This piece is so shot through with voids, however, both obvious and hidden, that I decided to try something more radical: submerging the entire piece in LiquidWood to maximize penetration and absorption. Another motivation was to provide sufficient mass of epoxy to ensure proper curing; you will recall the difficulty I had with getting the apron pieces to cure.

I made a trough of heavy-duty foil lined with plastic wrap, the kind that is translucent and slightly sticky on one side. The plastic was there to prevent leaks, and the foil was there to provide sufficient rigidity to conform closely to the profile of the piece.

Then, I poured in enough epoxy, after letting it sit in a container wherein its volume was taller than it was wide for 15 minutes to induce the curing reaction, to contact the complete extent of the piece (six ounces of mix):

I folded the trough walls over the top of the piece and sealed it up as tightly as I could. A half-hour later, I opened the trough and saw this:

The epoxy had been almost entirely absorbed into the piece and had begun to thicken, so I took the piece out of the trough and set it up on blocks to let it finish curing; I didn't want the excess epoxy to harden on the outside of the piece and distort its shape. 

Just to make this process clear, here's a detail to show just how thoroughly the epoxy was absorbed:

The wood was so devoid of moisture, and so porous from sun damage, that it absorbed the epoxy quite literally like a sponge, without benefit of drilled holes. Moreover, virtually none of it drained back out. 

The next morning, the epoxy was still just the slightest bit sticky, despite the extended induction period, large mass, and low-70s ambient temperature. So I put the piece in the dryer on low for an hour.

Now the piece was dry, sound, and as heavy as a fresh piece of wood. It was now zombie wood, really just a piece of fiber-filled plastic. But we're not done with it yet.

As you can see, there are still large voids that need to be filled with punch number two, WoodEpox. I've got a whole mess o' puttyin' comin' up.

* * *

"Nice blog, but too many cats."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Epoxy Revelations

As you can see, I've finished spraying the body top coat. From the time I finished preparing the surface, it took all told about twenty minutes of spraying and untold hours of masking, filling the sprayer, cleaning the sprayer, cleaning what I used to fill and clean the sprayer, and unmasking. A real labor- and time-saving device, that sprayer.

I sprayed the primer coat over the weekend, and when I came out Monday morning to spray the top coat, I saw the primer coat studded with insects.

Here are but a few of the many hapless victims of chance. This kind of thing is why you can't put too fine a point on an exterior painting job. I made sure I sprayed some insecticide around the area before I sprayed the top coat.

While removing the masking, I discovered something that I should have noticed long ago: a large wedge-shaped gap between the wall and the eaves at the far right. It is revealed in this picture by the line where the green paint ends; the gap is between that line and the wall below.

Lovely. I'll have to plug this, probably with some foam rod and caulk.

No matter how carefully I mask, there's always at least one place I overlook. Drat!

Now I return to the east window casing, which is in almost as bad a condition as the west casing.

Actually, in some regards it is in worse shape. It has sustained more physical damage, probably from the same errant pine boughs that did the damage to the belt course and shingles above. You can see by the dark areas along the sides and the sill where I've already epoxied some of the damage; now that I have a new supply of LiquidWood, I can continue to do so.

Speaking of epoxy, I believe I've finally figured out why I've had problems with its degrading in storage before I can use it: I've always left it outside in the garage. This batch of LiquidWood has new labels that bear in red the warning: "Store above 60 degrees F." Now they tell me. So the problems I've always had with the Abatron epoxies going stale are apparently the result of exposure to cold weather. By the way, I checked, and the warning was not on the old labels, but it is on the new WoodEpox labels, printed too small for me to notice readily. The moral of the story is, as always, read the product labels, and if they change, read them again. Another moral, perhaps more pertinent, is store your epoxies in the house.

I'm not going to perform as thorough a restoration on the east casing as I am on the west one, because I don't have the time; I'm just going to do enough to make it weather-tight and presentable, and do the rest next time around. One task I can't avoid, because it is so obvious, is the replacement of the missing scallop in the cap trim.

I've gone over every method of repair I can think of, and I've concluded that the simplest fix is to splice in the missing part cut from a piece of wood of the same thickness. I will execute it with the same coping-saw kung-fu I wielded so effectively in trimming the casing piece for the new window. Working in my favor is the fact that the original pieces were also coped by hand, and none too smoothly, either. Any small irregularities in my work should blend right in; for large irregularities, there's always putty.

The left cap piece is in fine shape, and only needs some remedial puttying. The right one (shown above) is in much worse shape, nearly as bad as the pieces of the west cap, but since it has stayed within its original dimensions I can restore it. I'll have to remove it, however, because it is studded with ill-placed nails that keep it from being in proper alignment, and even with all those nails it is still loose.

* * *

I invented awesome.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Overnight Thread

My favorite Web haunt, Ace of Spades HQ, posts an Overnight Open Thread (commonly referred to there as the ONT) every night. It's a post full of random items, and it's very popular, typically accumulating over 600 comments on all but the slowest nights. In the hope of having that sort of lightning strike here, I'm going to try one too. 

South addition body ready to paint. I've sanded, vacuumed and masked, and tomorrow I will spray one more primer coat before applying the finish coat. I had originally intended just to spot-prime the patches, but upon close inspection I saw that the primer had to be sanded down all over. This was the first area I ever painted with the sprayer, and I did it way too thickly; while it miraculously didn't sag, it did settle into an "orange-peel" surface that needed to be smoothed out. The area could actually use one more pass with the putty, but time's a-wasting, and nobody but I will ever notice the tiny divots that remain.

If you've never used a paint sprayer, note how the area to be sprayed must be carefully and thoroughly masked off. The time and effort required to do this substantially offset the advantages of spraying over brushing, I have found. As I have mentioned, I hate to mask, but I am at least getting much more efficient at it with practice, and in any event the addition is much easier to mask because it is far less ornate.

It's a good thing I took this picture, because upon looking at it on the computer I saw instantly that I still need to mask the area to the left of the area to be sprayed, on the main structure between its eastern extent and the east window. A professional painter would instead hold up a shield of some sort to block the overspray, but I need my other arm free to maintain my balance.

Newest Farm House crop coming along nicely. The Farm House has proven to be well-suited to the raising of fruit crops. We unfortunately lost the mandarin and quince during the construction, but we still have the pomegranate, persimmon and fig, and we have added to that our own key lime and a Ponderosa lemon, a true family heirloom started from a cutting off my grandfather's tree. 

We also brought with us from Culver City a small blackberry bush, an Ollalieberry. It's a variant of the Marionberry that has adapted to the Southern California climate. It sat more or less dormant for five years, so last fall I did what I could to re-invigorate it.

Miraculously, my ministrations worked fabulously, and this season it's been making up for lost time. I say "miraculously" because my understanding is that blackberries only bear on year-old growth, but this bush has been producing on this year's growth.

This season it has produced considerably more than the previous seven seasons put together. This fall I will move it to a bigger pot, and once we finish the landscaping I'll plant it in the ground against the fence, where it can ramble along at will.

My poor neglected car. Some time ago, I finally got the car I'd been wanting for a long time, a BMW 635CSi. Not that this is precisely my Dream Car, nor even my favorite BMW; it is in fact the car that sits right at the intersection of my dream and practicality curves. But then, that's BMW at its best. Depending upon how you you approach it, the car is either a driving enthusiast's car that just happens to be practical, or a practical car that just happens to be a heck of a lot of fun to drive.

None of this, however, explains why we bought the 6. We bought it because it filled a specific need better than any other car. We had long been driving Lydia's mom around in our jumbo minivan, but as she got older it became more and more difficult for her to climb up into the seat through the relatively small door opening. We needed a car that was low with a long door, substantial enough for her to feel safe in it, and low enough in price for us to afford. The 6 filled all those needs nicely. How fortunate I was for a dream to become a need!

So we bought Sharky (we seldom name our cars, but this name just naturally fit), got him in good working order, and he filled our needs quite well, just as we had anticipated. It worked for Mom, and it worked for me. I babied him, going through the immense effort of clearing a space in the garage for him out of the weather, keeping him clean, and as time allowed, restoring everything to proper working order. 

Then came the painting, and Sharky's world began to collapse. First, he lost his space in the garage to all the paint, the sprayer, and the general disorder that arose from all the work I was doing in there. Then, I began driving him less and less, because most of my trips were to Home Depot for items that I needed the van to bring home. And any work on him was strictly out of the question; I couldn't spare the time. Now, I only drive him when I move him around the lot to keep his juices flowing and his battery charged. I've gotten him a cover, but I can't put it on until I wash him, and who has that kind of time?

Poor Sharky is a sad representative of all the hobbies and side interests that I've had to abandon in service of the painting project. Someday, I'll make it up to him.

Tonight's ONT brought to you by kittehs with attitude:

I. Am. Awesome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Casing The Joint

I've just been hacking away at things the past few weeks. With the patching of the west window casing done, I've started working on the east casing, which is in better shape, but that's not saying much. It needs so much LiquidWood that I actually ran out, so I moved on to the addition while I waited for Abatron to send a new supply.

As much as I love restoring old things, I must admit that after what I've been doing these past several months, it's been rather a kick to be working on some new, sound materials for once, materials that don't need a lot of reconstructive surgery.

Not that it's all simple patching and sanding. I mentioned a while back that the contractors left certain jobs undone. One of them was the installing of the casing piece under the sill. To be completely honest, this was one detail I failed to notice for a few years. I did notice a chronic problem with spiders in the first-floor bathroom, and I couldn't figure out how they were getting in through a brand-new window, but it took an embarrassingly long time for me even to consider that maybe I should check the outside of the window to ensure it was all sealed up properly. As it turned out, it wasn't; there was a half-inch opening below the sill that was partially obscured behind its downward slope.

Note that this is a definite code violation, one that is immediately evident to one trained in such matters, and yet our hyper-officious City inspector failed to take note of it. Yes, he and the foreman got along very well.

I made the missing piece and primed it front and back, but before I nailed in in place there were a few more steps to complete. First, I had to make some cuts in the piece to accommodate two steel straps that run down the sill piece to support it.

This was essential in order to close the gap completely and permanently, but it was something of a tall order for me, because it necessitated some rather fine work with a coping saw; with my weak eyes and ruined hands, it proved to be quite a challenge. Happily, I had some assistance.

I got this done passably well, but not without having to patch up one significant error. Once that coping saw gets going in one direction, it can be pretty stubborn. But in my artless way, I made it all come out all right.

With this done, I moved on to the task of filling the space under the sill, to insulate it properly and to prevent insects from getting in—in other words, to bring it up to code. For this, I used some spray-in foam sealer. I knew from observing the contractor that this is the proper procedure, but I didn't understand quite how much that stuff expands after you spray it.

Shades of Ricky and the arroz con pollo! This was not a problem in itself; I expected that I would have to trim the foam somewhat. In practice, however, I discovered that it was not so easy to do this neatly and without damaging the wood around it. Then, I remembered a tool I had bought a long time ago just because I figured it would come in handy some day: a Japanese saw, a kugihiki, a thin, flexible saw with no set to the teeth that cuts on the pull stroke. It is designed for precisely this sort of task, cutting flush against wood without marring it.

A kugihiki.

If you wave it from side to side vigorously, it sounds a lot like George Jetson's jet car. Once I had this saw in hand, the trimming was done within a minute. Truly, the right tool can greatly speed one's work, if he remembers he has it (and also where he put it).

With that done, it was a simple matter to nail the missing casing piece in place.

If it looks a bit odd to you, it's likely because the sill piece extends too far to the sides. Trimming them to the proper length was yet another of the tasks that the contractor did not complete, but I'm not going to take the time to do it now, because I'm the only one who knows for sure that something is wrong, and it has no effect on the health of the house.

And so, I have completed another task on the road to Total Exterior Restoration.

* * *

"Just keep moving, Buster. Nothing to see here. Oh, and your right rear tire's low."