Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Forlorn Dormer

As you have already seen, the dormer I'm currently working on, the front left dormer, has required some serious work beyond the merely cosmetic. Our contractor did a sloppy job on the right side, and did absolutely nothing beyond that.

Here's the right side right after I re-installed the casing boards:

Inexcusably sloppy, really. They replaced all but the top piece of siding, which is swell, but they did a bad job of it, cracking the top piece badly, placing the inside ends right up against the shingles where they are sure to soak up water like a sponge, and cutting the outside ends haphazardly, making sealing that weight pocket a huge pain in the neck.

As a result, the new boards are all cracked and warped, with some large gaps at their bottoms which I am going to have to seal up somehow.

In their defense, however, they merely matched the previous level of work on the dormer.

Now that I've begun to work on the area above the siding, I'm learning that this particular dormer has always gotten short shrift, dating apparently all the way back to its construction. Look at this mess:

At first glance, it's a typical situation I've found over and over on the house, wood cracked and warped by age and the relentless pounding of the harsh Pasadena sun. But let's look closely at the gap between the front and side pieces:

Those nails you see in the gap did not help fix it at all. In fact, they may have caused it. They certainly perpetuated it, and cracked the wood in the bargain. Again, so far this is typical: shoddy repairs causing more problems than they fixed. What is not evident in this picture, however, is that these are cut nails, which indicates that this is a very early "repair". Cut nails became obsolete very soon after the Farm House was built, as the industry moved to the modern style of nail. That of course doesn't necessarily mean that these nails weren't driven much later—I have nails that are 25 years old myself—but these are the first cut nails I have found that are not unambiguously part of the original construction. It's hard for me to believe that this work was original, but it could be, and in any event it's probably from before the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Now let's move up and in a bit:

These are nails—cut nails—that have been driven from the side skirt right through the eave. Because the heads are underneath another piece of trim, they almost certainly were part of the original construction.

And look at this shoddy work!

See that open area next to the apron? That's without a doubt part of the original work, and it's the same on the other side. These gaps open to the inside. Shamefully sloppy.

¡Pobrecito! Poor little dormer! You've never gotten any love, have you. Well, never fear; Otis is here, and he's gonna make it all better.

The first thing I did was get out my trusty Dremel and cut off the end of those protruding nails below the surface of the eave:

There! A bit of putty, and no one will ever know there was ever a problem.

The mess at the corner will be a great deal trickier to resolve. The first thing to do was to remove the errant nails.

Here, I'm easing one of them out by grabbing it with needle-nosed vise-grip pliers and sliding it slowly back out.

There was also the problem of the lower part of the side piece, below the crack. As you can see in that picture, it has warped outwards. I tried to bend it back in and screw it back together with its upper counterpart, but the wood wouldn't have any of that.

You can see that the front piece took exception to my efforts as well. While that piece fell down and was carried off by the wind, I was able to retrieve the large chunk from the side and glue it back in place. As far as the protruding lower half, all I could do was to immobilize it, patch up the corner, then try to sand and sculpt the area so as to fool the eye into thinking it sees a nice, straight, square junction of the two pieces. Here's how I've done so far:

This kind of work is a long process of patching, sanding, and eyeballing. The side piece will have an unavoidable curve in it; the trick is to make the curve so gradual that the eye does not readily see it. I also have to come to some sort of compromise regarding the bottom edge of the junction. The pieces don't line up properly there either, but I can't curve the proud edge in because it's to the front, and from straight on any curve at all will be visible. I'll have to let it jog forthrightly at some location; the trick here is to find the most graceful location at which to do that.

At the bottom of the right side where the siding meets the roof, the shingles were riding up the siding in several places, such as this one:

This will not do, because it will trap moisture under the shingles there and rot the siding very quickly. I had to cut the shingles back neatly, so that the edit is not obvious. In this instance, the cut was simple: straight across.

In other areas, it was more complicated; I had to cut a notch that fit the shingle pattern, as in this example:

The dark area is where I cut.

This part of the work is always like this: myriad varied details to attend to. I have to admit, this is the part I like.

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"I wanna see another Stooges!!"

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Other Side of The Blade

One of the design features I most admire about the Farm House is its generous windows. The first-floor windows are the size of a doorway, and in the dormers the windows are as large as the size of the dormer will allow.

Here is how dormers are usually built, with the windows set back enough from each side to reveal some of the siding. This dormer is from the garage, which is new construction.

This is, of course, the dormer I'm working on currently. There is no siding to be seen on the front; it's all window and casing.

Here's the inside of the same dormer. As you can see, the windows are as large as they can be, so large that there is only room for half of the casing boards on each side.

This emphasis on natural light and ventilation is reflective of the Victorian concepts of beauty of utility (it's useful to have large windows when you're relying on natural light and windows are your only form of ventilation) and beauty of fitness (large windows are appropriate for a human habitation). While I'm no scholar of Victorian architecture, I have examined a great many Victorian homes in detail, and in my experience, the way the Farm House's dormers are constructed is unique. It seems to me at times as if the windows are actually wider than the dormers.

In fact, when the casing boards are taken into account, they are wider, by nearly an inch on each side. That's why the casing boards are backed on each outside edge by a trim piece that tapers back down to the siding. It protects the ends of the siding and the exposed backs of the casing boards. This is the "one more detail" I mentioned last time that I still had to attend to before getting back to the painting prep. The contractors made a new one for the right side, but they didn't for the left, and the existing one is thrashed beyond repair.

I thus had to fabricate a new one myself. This is what actually sealed the deal for me regarding the table saw. This job was possible using a circular saw, but it would be exceedingly difficult, and I was dreading the task. I knew that with a table saw the job would be considerably easier.

It was however still a bit tricky, simply because the entirety of my experience with the saw was two simple tasks. This would be a fairly wide cut, two inches, at an angle, in a one-inch-wide piece of wood.

Actually, a 7/8" wide piece. Yes, it's our old friend, the 4/4 S1S board. I told you this size of board was used everywhere in the Farm House. A 2-inch-wide  piece of this was no problem; I simply ripped it from the same stock of salvaged beadboard from which I made the new window casing caps on the south side.

The one small limitation I encountered was that I was not able to bring the piece down to a point at the back end of the bevel, because then the blade would hit the rip fence.

I thus had to maintain a small distance between the two. I didn't worry about it, because the contractors had apparently had the same problem when they made their new piece.

The contractors did some amazing things with a table saw. I figured if they couldn't put a finer point on this piece, then I sure wasn't going to. Apparently, this was something you couldn't do with a table saw.

So without any further thought on the matter, I cut the piece, and other than ending up with a few saw marks, the piece came out quite nicely.

Then, I looked at the waste piece.

Oh. Apparently you can cut to a fine point with a table saw.

My error was in using the wrong side of the blade. If I had put the fence on the other side, there would have been no worry of its getting in the way of the blade, and I would have had no problem getting a fine edge on the piece. Funny that never occurred to me beforehand.

This kind of dopey mistake betrays the fact that this work is not in my wheelhouse. The ability to think spatially, to work problems out in three dimensions, does not come naturally to me; it's a facility I've had to develop on the fly. As you can see, I have more work to do on that front.

This mistake also illustrates the underlying message of this blog: If I can do it, you can do it. I show you these mistakes because I don't want you to think I'm some sort of Norm Abrams or Bob Vila. I'm just plain Otis, a simple homeowner who needs work done and would rather save his money for better things.

Of course, once I had figured out my mistake, I had to rectify it. I ripped another two-inch strip from the old beadboard, then set up the saw with the fence on the other side.

Then, I cut the new piece.

Thus illustrating the old saw: Measure once, cut twice.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Closing Things Up

Something tells me I'm going to be needing some more Brushing Putty. Happily, my new favorite place Ganahl Lumber stocks it; most Fine Paints of Europe dealers around here don't. In any event, here's what the can looks like now so you know what to look for:

New can, same old stuff.

At the time of the last post, the new siding pieces and the rehabilitated casing boards were ready to be installed, but before I did that I needed to take care of a few things. The first order of business was to repair a crack in the right window frame.

This went unnoticed for a long time, because it was hidden behind the strip separating the top and bottom sash. I at last discovered it when I noticed this:

Happily, at this point it was a simple thing to fix. I just blew out the debris from the crack with some compressed air, applied some 5-minute epoxy, and clamped it together.

Good as new!

The other matter I needed to attend to was to rehabilitate the sill. While the dormer sills are considerably less eroded than were the sills on the south side, they are twice as long, and I didn't have the clearance needed to clamp guide strips to speed my work. Because of this, I had quite a difficult time getting the job done properly. I tried screwing guide strips directly onto the sill, but I couldn't seem to get them in the right place because I really didn't have anything concrete to line them up with. I went through several cycles of placing a strip, puttying, removing the strip, sanding down to find I hadn't done it right, puttying up the holes, and then starting all over again. I really needed to have strips of precisely the right width, because then I could easily line them up with the largely intact bottom edge. My problem was that I simply didn't have the tools to get this done; I knew I couldn't get the kind of straight, clean cut I needed using my circular saw.

By a happy coincidence, when I was at Ganahl to buy the Brushing Putty, I noticed they were advertising a small table saw, a "contractor's saw", for an insanely good price. Usually, contractor's saws in this price range are obvious pieces of junk, but when I inspected the display model carefully, I found that the basic mechanism of the saw was quite solid. The machine certainly wasn't fancy, but neither was it flimsy, and it had all the necessary features. And so, after some serious cogitation, I bought one.

It took a lot of test cuts, and I ended up having to buy a fine-cut blade, but with this and some careful adjustments to the fence and blade guard, I was able to cut myself precisely the pieces I needed.

After this, it was a simple matter to finish the sill. I still have to putty up the screw holes and a few remaining small divots, but I can take care of that business the next time I mix up some epoxy putty.

I wasn't yet ready to put the boards back up, however. First, I had to re-do the flashing along the left side of the dormer behind where the new siding pieces were to go. As you will recall, this area was a particular mess when I first started working on the dormer. Here's how the flashing installation looked after I removed the broken siding pieces and the casing boards:

Yeesh. They had routed the runoff around the sill (and behind one of the trim pieces, remember), with a huge glob of caulk to seal the deal. Before proceeding, I removed the two bottom flashing pieces and the caulk; when I had finished rehabilitating the sill, this is what I had:

By inspecting the analogous area on the other dormers, I had learned that the runoff was supposed to go straight down and under the end of the sill. Sadly, as things stood, I didn't have the materials to do this; I didn't have enough flashing, and I didn't have any extra shingle material.

As longtime readers know, when the going gets tough, the tough go ad hoc. I noticed that above the area to be patched, the flashing pieces were extensively overlapped, far more than was necessary. So I removed some staples, repositioned the next two flashing pieces so that they reached further down while still overlapping safely, and stapled everything back down again. For the small void that needed shingle fill (for cosmetic purposes only, because it was covered by the flashing already), I cut a small piece out of the back of one of the shingles from an undetectable area. Each of these shingles is several layers thick, so this did not compromise watertightness at all. I stapled this small piece in place, and voila!

To tell you the truth, this part of the job had been troubling me for weeks, so I am greatly relieved that I was able to figure it out, with the help of my old pal ad hoc.

With this I thought I was ready to attach the new siding pieces, but I discovered that one more obstacle lay in my way. When I had added 3/16" to the back of the new pieces to shim them out to the thickness of the existing siding, I hadn't noticed that I had made the top of the uppermost piece 3/16" too thick to fit behind the piece above. I thus had to cut a rabbet into the topmost new piece, 3/4" wide and 3/16" deep, before I could proceed.

My heart sank at this discovery: so near, and yet so far! I'd have to make this rabbet the old-fashioned way, with a hammer and wood chisel. With my ruined hands, that would take at least a day. Then I remembered that I had a table saw now. I could do the job with that! A half-hour later, the rabbet was done, and I attached the new siding pieces onto the dormer.

As you can see, the blade height is a bit unstable. I'm going to have to tighten that up. Happily, it doesn't matter in this case.

The rabbet is completely hidden from view, and from the ground the slight difference in profile between the old and new pieces will be unnoticeable.

With the siding installed, it was at last time to install the rehabilitated casing boards. I had to be extremely careful to line the boards up correctly, because they are warped. I measured and marked very carefully and thoroughly, and managed to put the boards back right where they belonged.

Even so, I've only put screws at the four corners of each one in case I have to adjust their placement later on. 

And with that, I'm almost finished with the unscheduled fabrication work. There is one more detail I must attend to before I get back to the painting prep, which I'll deal with next time.

* * *

"Left-two-three-dip-two-three. . ."