Monday, December 18, 2017

columns and Christmas lights

The turned porch posts went in at the end of October.  They are tremendously beautiful.  Each one is 10 feet tall, and turned from an 8x8 post.  Anything smaller would have been under-scaled, and I'm pleased we got this part right. 

The posts themselves were custom turnings purchased from Mr. Spindle in North Dakota.  We worked with them to perfect the pattern based on the historic photos of the house.  My only complaint is that posts of this scale are only availible as laminated cedar.  BUT, most companies don't even stock 8x8 posts, and those that do only have them in laminated woods, mostly pine, and all for considerably more than we paid.  Customer service was beyond exceptional (the owner or general manager picked up every time I called), and I'm just so damn pleased it all worked out. 

Initially we had only planned to buy the two posts that would flank the porch window salvaged from the porch we tore down.  That window is 10x7, and we didn't want disassemble and remount it when we got around to doing the final columns (our initial plan had been to use 6x6 posts temporarily).  I had talked at length with several different companies, and it was just happenstance that I talked to Bob (the owner) last.  I'm a sucker for anyone who wants to see photos of my house and know its history, and at that point I knew the price he offered to turn the posts for wouldn't be beat.  We paid $5000 for the posts (yes, it hurts to write that number down).  To put that number in perspective, other companies had quoted us $1200 for a custom 6x6 in finger jointed pine, we paid $500 a post for ten 8x8 cedar posts. 

The only mistake made is on my shoulders.  In the historic photos you'll see the routed detail at the top and bottom of the posts. 

I'm willing to bet the scale and router bits used to create it are identical to the box posts on the juliet balcony off the second floor bath. 

clearly I need new posts, any volunteers?

This complex detail would have to had been done by hand on the already turned posts, and understandably, no one really wanted to risk ruining the posts.  Our builder would have done it had I pushed, but I was overwhelmed enough at that point (and lacking the funds to buy more posts if they were ruined in the process) that I settled for a much simpler set up. 

It's one of an infinite number of things that will bother me that no one else will notice.  It's clear though that the shallow routing has much less impact than the original.... 

The posts are mounted to a square piece of AZEK on the bottom, so they don't wick moisture from the porch floor. The bottom of each post is wrapped in a beveled ceder trim to match the original.  Regrettably I didn't have an opportunity to get the posts painted before it got too cold, but the ends and all contact points have been coated with an excellent oil primer.  I also got primer on where the turning ends at the bottom of the posts.  That tapered bit was quite porous, and I hated the thought of snow just sitting there all winter with no protection from the moisture. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

figuring out the border

 Shockingly, it was the border around the porch floor that created the most enduring drama of the build, THE BORDER!  Now the idea of a border around the deck is straightforward enough.  It would dress up the edges, protect the end grain of the boards, and sit under the columns so that new flooring could be added without impacting anything structural.  Perhaps most importantly it would dress up the huge expanse of boring deck boards, and bring them just a little bit of class.  We considered doing it in 5/4 treated pine, ipe or cumuru (tropical hardwoods), and AZEK.

A huge area, especially when measured in tiny toddler feet.

The pine was a no go for obvious reasons, we wanted to avoid having to replace it (preferably forever), not to mention it's prone to cupping and splitting.  The ipe and cumuru are beautiful, but they are notorious for not holding paint well (i.e. if they started to fail we wouldn't be able to paint them to extend their life), and they're prone to splitting in dry weather.  Additionally, the widths and lengths we'd need to cut to build up the curve of the gazebo would add considerably to the price, and have left us with many seams.  This left AZEK.  I'm as wary as anyone about putting plastic on an old house, but there are times when it's a life saver.  In the case of this porch it will make up the border, and parts of the fascia and skirting on the gazebo.  Now, one of the greatest things about AZEK is that it bends, and AZEK makes a special heating blanket just for this purpose.  Could I find one to rent or borrow anywhere on the planet?  No, and I called EVERYWHERE...  Luckily I had the brains to call corporate, and they put me in touch with the western PA rep.  He had a blanket.  He came out to bend the boards for us.  FOR FREE.

The deck boards were left long and cut down with a track saw on the straight sides, and a router on the gazebo.  The AZEK trim was bent around the curve so that it matched the radius perfectly.  While this was happening the temporary porch supports were cut and supported as each piece was installed.  No one's quite sure how the section facing the stairs will fair with frequent foot traffic, so we made sure that section can be removed and replaced if it becomes an issue in the future. 
The stick and nail trick was used several times to perfect the curve, including marking for the final decking cuts

Specifications for the lumber and deck stain we're planning to use recommend waiting a year before finishing, so I guess we're done with the deck until summer.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

decking the porch

No, I don't mean in Christmas decorations, rather, we're going back in time to early October.  Blogging, it's magic....

First though, a stop in August, just after my last post, to pay homage to the most perfectly Cromulent of cats.  Crom passed here at home.  He was around 17.  We were devastated.  I lost all interest in working in the yard without him by my side.  Months later I'm still checking the price on his food at Costco and getting up to let him in when it starts to rain.  He and Jack are both buried under the porch - Jack can guard the doors while Crom can watch the world pass by and greet each and every passerby. 

Fast forward to October, and once again Toren's birthday (two!) is spurring a flurry of work.  Unlike last year, the weather was looking to be glorious, and we decided we'd be celebrating on the porch.  The porch that had no floors.  We knew from the get go that we wouldn't be able to afford proper tongue and groove decking. 5/4 deck boards were really the only option, and even these would be quite expensive given how expansive our porch is.  We made sure that we installed the boards in such a way that they could be removed and replaced with better materials when they started to fail. A variety of lengths of premium lumber were ordered based on a scaled drawing we made to minimize joints and waste.  We even paid to have them delivered.  The wood that was delivered was garbage.  While some of the boards were standard boards that got mixed in (a serious issue in it's own right considering they charged us for premium grade), only half of the pieces were usable.  The store manager agreed to pay for a trailer and a hefty discount, so we brought back the junk boards, picked out new ones and came home.  Thus our first day was completely shot. 

Day two started with a yard full of decking, still soaked from the lumberyard (KDAT is a total joke).  We picked through to find the driest boards, back priming them with some high quality deck stain that I found on the oops shelf for a song.  We marked the edge lines of the border to make sure the deck boards hit or overlapped it (to be trimmed later) and squared the first row to the house.  Initially we started using the Marksman Edge tool to install the boards, which advertised no gaps and hidden fasteners.  It was garbage, which necessitated another trip out to the store to pick up the Marksman Pro, which gives 3/16 spacing and hidden fasteners.  This tool worked beautifully and I recommend it, although our decking looks much more deckish with the gaps, which I was trying to avoid.  

The first several rows went in, and we noticed something strange...  Gaps and curves started appearing.  We were distraught.  Careful measuring revealed the boards not only varied in thickness and width by a 1/4 inch from one another, they also could vary end to end by a similar amount. 

To say we were pissed is the understatement of the century.  Our anger must have carried through over the phone.  They refunded our entire $1200 purchase price, and told us to keep the boards.  On the one hand, yes, this was a bit of a windfall.  On the other hand, a project that should have taken a couple of days took weeks with a disappointing final result (although we're the only ones who'll notice the flaws).  We ended up measuring each board to insure the same width boards were used throughout the row.  Boards that tapered were used to fix the arcs that had formed.

Some other notes about the installation... 
-  The bottoms and all cut edges are back primed.
-  The boards meet in a herringbone pattern that extends from the corner of the house through the gazebo.

-  The edges were left long to be cut back when the border was installed.  The curve on the porch was done using a narrow board loosely nailed in the center of the gazebo to mark the circumference. 
-  We routed all cut edges to match the factory rounded edges. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

curves in all the right places

The most difficult part of the actual construction, building the two curved beams, ended up going quite smoothly.

We looked at lots of options for how to go about creating them, including cutting them out of solid stock, ordering prefab beams, or curving the trim over an angled structure.  None of the prefab companies seemed to guarantee the materials they were using, so given that and the lead times we didn't pursue that any further.

The easiest option turned out being building laminated beams on site.  They're constructed from thin marine plywood cut into strips, screwed, clamped, and laminated together with marine epoxy.  The dimensions were all determined by our engineer.  If you attempt to do this yourself, do not underestimate how many clamps you'll need!

The curve was made by attaching the strips directly to the angled floor joists.  Quite to our surprise, the header beam was built first, using the floor joists to shape it.  Once it had cured they attached it to 2x6's (on edge) to maintain the shape and help lift it, as well as a ratchet strap on the open edge.

 Once it was finished it was moved to the side, and the curved joist was built in it's place.

Lots of work and planning, but straightforward enough.  Now, if only curved handrail were as easy!

Friday, July 28, 2017

porch posts

Our original plan had been to use 6x6 posts to support the porch for the time being (due to budget, naturally).  We were going to chamfer the edges to dress them up a bit, and leave them until we had a chance to mug Toren's tooth fairy for additional funds.

We'll be reinstalling the enormous porch window (the only element saved from the porch we demolished), so we were interested in installing the permanent columns to either side of it.  We wanted to get this done at this stage because pulling out and replacing the temporary columns would be complicated and expensive.

So, quotes were obtained, and as expected, they were disgusting.  One place quoted me 1200 per column for finger-jointed pine.  Another followed up their initial e-mail with another e-mail two days later after I hadn't yet replied with a "was it something I said" e-mail.  Weird.  Even weirder was an incredibly friendly e-mail, with a reasonable quote attached!  The quote was reasonable enough that we're sucking it up and buying all the columns from them, custom 10 foot 8x8s in western red cedar for $550 apiece.  Once they're on site I'll be more specific about the quality, for now I'm cautiously optimistic.

I'm posting the enhanced images here, along with their drawings, just in case your eyes pick up on details we've missed.  You'll notice the incised carvings don't appear on the drawing, that's only because they're unsure if they'll be able to do them.  If they can't our builders will...

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Those with keen eyes (ahem Ross), will surely have noticed that the porch we happen to be building is not quite the one the house was born with.

But in fact, the beautiful porch photo I'm so fond of posting isn't the porch the house was born with either.

Thornfield, approximately 1915

This grand ol' dame has had some serious work done over the years.

Thornfield, approximately 1886

Then she let herself go entirely...

2010, as purchased (fence was added by us)

Thornfield used to be comprised of a rather large estate, with the house facing down the hill, towards what soon became the Westinghouse Switch and Signal (where Tesla worked in 1888, Nikola Tesla has seen my house!!!).  When Kelly sold the house in 1911, he also subdivided the estate into smaller parcels, both above and below the main house.  These lots continued to be built up with small capes and foursquares until the 30's.  Looking at the historic photo with the white trim, the original porch entrance was under the gable roof on the porch, directly in front of the entry doors, with a hidden stair on the other end of the porch.  The second owners undertook a massive campaign to colonial revivalize the house, and added the gorgeous curved stairs to the gazebo, and closed in the original stairs with a paneled balustrade (and possibly extended the porch deck past the roof).

In this modern age however, neither stair will work.  The first iteration would force people to walk around the entire front of the house, into a very narrow side yard to enter the house.  The second stair actually curves away from the main walking path directly into the path of my favorite oak tree and down a very steep hill.

Hill, Tree, and a long wet walk from the sidewalk and driveway

My solution is to duplicate the original gable on what is now the main facade of the house, closer to the sidewalk and driveway, and adding a bit of detail to what was originally the side of the house.  The entry doors are being rebuilt in their original location. The stairs will be simple and cheap at this stage, at some distant point we'll duplicate the curvaceous stone stairs from the teens.

I don't often say this about substantial changes I'm making to the house, but I feel fairly confident this is the right path.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

have I got updates for you!

I've had a few too many people complement the deck I'm building...

I'm almost to the point of laminating the historic house pictures in all their glory and mounting them in the front yard just so people stop COMPLEMENTING MY FUCKING DECK!!!!

On the other hand, the porch is coming along nicely...

I haven't been writing because the whole process has been completely overwhelming.  Decisions that should be easy are all counterbalanced by our inability to afford building things as they should be.  The starry-eyed fairy me should just be able to wave her wand and have the various woodland creatures (not to mention a toddler who may as well be a wild animal) wield the tools and get to work.  I just can't fathom why people aren't lining up to build it for me.


I'll do my best to start to detail the building process later this week, but for now I need some design help.  The porch roof was originally cedar shakes, these will not be reinstated.  In an ideal world I'd use the synthetic slates, which would match the main roof, but allow us to walk on them when necessary for gutter cleaning and Christmas lights.  Those however, are way out of budget.  This leaves us with asphalt.  When we bought the house we were told that very little of the original slate would be salvageable due to it's age and how much of it was coated with tar.

We got an excellent price on new blue slates, and used these on the angles not seen from the front of the house - since we thought most of the slate would be this blue slate, we used matching blue-green asphalt on the back of the house and the schoolhouse.  Well, much to everyone's surprise, our slates turned out to be Buckingham, and were in much better condition than anyone believed possible.  So, I have a patchwork roof of blue and black. This was a screw-up of epic proportions that I can't forgive myself for, and it makes choosing shingles very difficult.  The roofs remaining are the porch and front and back of the kitchen wing.  We have enough original Buckingham for the front of the kitchen wing, so the decision is whether to match the porch roof to the blue or the black.  I'm leaning towards this shingle to match the Buckingham.  It has a nice mix of dark gray and black, with a bit of red that matches staining from years of industrial pollution.

So, am I on the right track?