I knew there was only one layer of bricks, so how hard could it be?

Four layers of crossed 1″ boards provided some resistance to the 4″ masonry core bit, as it doesn’t cut wood. It quickly became clear that the part I hadn’t anticipated, the cutting of wood within the wall, would be the real task here.

A 5″ el Cheapo hole cutter made it through the first two layers of wood, a 7/8 ash baseboard and an inch of hemlock, with only a few trips to the shop for blacksmith work. My $25. Princess Auto 1/2″ drill worked reasonably well for the wood butchering. But then came a cavity and the hole cutter couldn’t reach the boards on the other side, so I resorted to a brand new foot-long 7/16″ auger bit mounted in the drill. It cut through the hemlock with alacrity, and Bet had handed me a penlite flash so I could see.

I peppered the boards with holes, hoping something would give before the rented drill bit was due back in the morning. A brand new 5/8″ chisel even took a lick at the stubborn wood, driven by a claw-hammer, no less. Such was my desperation.

I should specify that conditions were very cramped in the corner of the laundry room behind the washer and dryer. Things improved considerably when Bet brought a fan to cool things off.

Eventually the wood turned to splinters which I picked out with my fingers. The rented 4″ core cutter on a 12″ extension, coupled with my friend’s heavy duty hammer drill, went to work on the brick. I kept checking for a light at the end of the tunnel, and eventually a tiny one appeared in the centre of the hole, so I hauled the massive drill/bit/extension combination out onto the roof and plugged into the fancy 110 outlet currently in service up there in case I need to plug in any Christmas lights or de-icing equipment.

I was quietly pleased to note that the hole was in the correct place, so I completed the cut from outside and did not fall off the roof, then slid the assembled dryer vent back in from the outside. Four small screws, a couple of cans of foam (wide gap filler) and the new dryer vent should be in operation.

Auntie, Auntie, I Over

March 2, 2015

The time had come for the annual game of “Auntie, Auntie, I Over” but the acoustics are such around our house that players routinely shout themselves hoarse, so this time we resolved to put our cell phones to good use.

The game reached a successful conclusion on its fourth round of play after Bet gave me a nosebleed in the second, but not in the way one might expect.

This traditional sport was generally staged over the ridge-cap of a one-room country school with the whole cohort involved in a great game of catch and tag. Only three participants were available at our house today, and we put the dog inside for fear of tangled lines, but it turned out it was Bet who put her foot on the rope she was attempting to throw.

You see the child’s game has evolved into a mixed-skills team effort to position a heating strip over the edge of the roof on our house in order to burn a trough down through a huge accumulation of ice before a thaw turned it into a dam capable of flooding interior walls.

The brick house generously dumps almost half of its snow onto the end of the stone house, itself with a complex roofline, so by this time of year there’s quite a bit of ice up there.

My dad’s approach was to risk life and limb on a ladder with an axe, the occasion of many repairs to that section of roof over the years. Dad wasn’t as steady with the axe as he pretended to be. Over a generation I watched this annual procedure and decided to do the thing from the ground.

I originally started this game by tying to the line of my fishing rod a substantial iron nut from one of the tin cans full of them in the garage. Then I lobbed a tall cast over the house, taking care to miss the chimney, upright sewer pipe, and three dormers on the south side. At the time there were no trees to obstruct the cast. Someone would tie a sturdy mason’s cord to the fishing line for strength, and I would reel it in while spotters screamed instructions back and forth. For some reason you can’t hear over or around our house. The mason’s cord would pull back over the ridgecap a ¼” nylon rope with the 10’ heating strip firmly taped to it.

These hardware-store strips have thermostats to keep exposed pipes from freezing, but I have found they’re pretty good at melting their way through ice dams, as well. I securely tape a long extension cord to the heating strip temporarily anchored to the railing on the verandah on the back side of the house by the 1/4″ yellow rope. Once the tape and attached power cord are moved to the optimum position and final adjustments to the anchor rope are complete, it’s good for another spring thaw, shutting itself off as the temperature rises. Horrific icicles forming on the extension cord haven’t seemed to hinder the system’s operation.

This cockamamie arrangement has gone well for quite a few years. For the last two mild winters it hasn’t been needed. In the interim the rear stairs off the deck have become unusable from age, and what used to be a tiny maple tree has had a growth spurt, both events complicating the procedure somewhat.

For the last ten years we must have been on an incredible run of beginner’s luck, because today everything went wrong.

The vanquisher of countless bass over many years (and last summer’s sockeye salmon), my trusty Shimano Calcutta 250 reel wouldn’t retrieve when I dug it out of the boat’s rod locker. I needed its sturdy 30 lb test line for this exercise, but decided to try its lighter locker-mate, a Calcutta 150 with 20 lb test.

My first cast was crisp and accurate. Unfortunately I had overshot with the hook/bolt/artificial worm combination and the trinket ended up dangling 4’ off the ground at the foot of a 30’ maple tree which has grown up beside the deck over the years.

I had bought a reel of mason’s cord at Princess Auto on impulse some months before. In a half-hour or so I had located it on my bench and pressed it into service. I envisaged Bet allowing the neat spool with its swivel handle to backlash when I pulled the cord through the foliage of the tree from the other side of the house, so I asked her to walk down the hill on a snowmobile trail until about sixty feet of line had unraveled.

This, of course, was so interesting to the dog that she flat-out refused to come into the house with me and had to be dragged in by leash. Taffy is definitely Bet’s dog.

So I doubled it around to the front of the house and started to crank the reel. But the nut/fish-hook/artificial worm caught on a fork in the maple tree and the line broke. So much for 20 lb. test for this job.

Back to the house while I repaired the heavier reel, then another Auntie, Auntie, over the roof, and the game began anew. This time the new weight landed on the deck, so we needed the mason’s cord up there, ten feet above where it was on a snowmobile track about thirty feet from the house. I asked Bet to throw it up to me and I’d catch it.

First try she threw short. I should specify that Bet makes a throw like this first by removing her mitts, then her trapper hat, adjusts her hair out of her eyes, then gingerly approaches the edge of the snowmobile track until she falls into the knee-deep snow, then fixes her face in a rage of concentration, pivots her entire being, and launches a sidearm throw.

The anticipation gets pretty funny. On the second throw when she discovered that she had been standing on a loop of the line, I nearly burst, but I couldn’t show any mirth because I needed her to get the line to the deck.

Next throw was perfect but I had gloves on and missed the weight, and then allowed the line to slide off my dumb fingers while I gazed at the errant spool. On went the hat and mitts. In came the line. Bet prepared again.

When her hat came off this time I could see the steam rising. She threw. I missed again.

I couldn’t hold back any longer. Sagging helplessly over the rickety railing, I burst out laughing. Joyful at the release of tension, my nose began to spurt blood as well.

This time Bet forgot all about hat and mitts. She gathered up the string and the spool and threw the thing over the railing with a heave of perfect ferocity, turned and stamped up the trail to the front of the house. I tied the string to the heavier line and Bet began to wind. After a few minutes she stuck her head out the back door to see if she should wind it any more. Nothing had moved. The reel was misbehaving again, refusing to engage the spool.

A few repairs and it got back to work. I reeled and Bet directed the line up, over the roof, and down to my waiting yellow ¼” rope. I tied on and traded places with Bet, warning her not to let the heating strip make it out of reach up the side of the house.

Things were going very well until the rope/cord joint broke right at the edge of the dormer, ten feet from my grasp. Crappy cheap cord. Why didn’t I buy brand name cord instead of junk?

Back to the drawing board. Repeated everything. This time we pulled the cord from the front of the house to the back to avoid the dormer trap. It worked fine except the cord hung up on a piece of ice on the north side. I’d had enough bad luck today, so I tied off the cord, stomped through the house, grabbed the rope from the side and gave it a judicious tug. The ice protrusion broke with a sound rather like a front tooth snapping off, leaving the rig free to continue its journey up the roof.

We actually used the cell phones to pull the heating cable the last couple of feet into position.

“Are you there?”

“Yes.

“Can you hear me? WHOA!

“You’d better come and look at this.”

The cable was in place. I taped the extension cord to it, plugged it in, and concluded our game of “Auntie Auntie I Over.”

Next year I hope to have a roof over a new deck. That should make the game even more satisfyingly complex.

UPDATE, 16 March, 2015

The tape did its job perfectly, consuming 10.6 KWH* in the process of de-icing our roof for another year.

*I found this cool little meter online.

Derek Dunfield grew up in Portland. He and our son became acquainted when Charlie (an English major) was offered a room on the astrophysicists floor in Morris Hall residence at Queen’s.

After Derek completed his Phd. he announced to Charlie that he was going to take some time to make maple syrup at the farm, and so he did. He represented the physics team. Martin Mallet led the biology team. Martin and Derek had radically different approaches to the theory and practice of boiling sap: Derek insisted that it didn’t matter if the pan stopped boiling when cold sap was added. Martin fancied the art of adding sap so gradually that the boil continued uninterrupted.

And so on it went up to and including theories on the formation of sugar sand. They never did solve that one, though Derek sent me an article published in the 1950’s which suggested that copper and zinc operate as catalysts to inhibit sand formation. From that I inferred that the recent rash of sugar sand in maple syrup likely stems from current regulations requiring the use of stainless steel boilers.

Both teams made fine maple syrup.

That summer Derek also came along to help pour the floor of the workshop we built on the property in 2010. He proved a game, if lightly-skilled, practitioner of the masonry arts. We appreciated his input, though.

This evening Charlie sent along a link to the TEDx Queen’s lecture. It was good to see and hear Derek again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQNxeytGx0k

While trivial workshop stuff is a sitting duck for the blogger, large projects can be so all-encompassing that there’s no room for journal reports.  I guess that’s the way it was with the windows in the brick house.  It has taken a pulled hamstring and a day of boredom in bed to let the ideas coalesce into a report.

The most conspicuous evidence that the project has progressed beyond the first stage is the little pile of bits for my impact driver which has sat untouched on the kitchen counter for a couple of days.  For a week they made the trip from one pocket to another, everything coming to a halt if one of them was lost.

The green Robertson fitted the screws which held the seventeen aluminum storms in place.  The red Robertson drove the 2” screws out of the big plastic jar which followed me around, first to secure the new windows in place and then to fasten them permanently.  The 1/8” drill with 3/8” countersink got me through one layer of vinyl at the bottom of each window so that the screw wouldn’t interfere with the window mechanism.  Phillips and flat bits were largely passengers in my pocket, though they were pressed into service occasionally to remove old screws in window trim which were too firmly attached for the chisel and mallet.

When it came right down to it, the window installation was pretty simple.  Remove the storm window.  Pry off the interior trim.  Lift out the bottom window.  Chisel out the ½” separator between the two halves of the window.  Remove the top half.  Measure for the base adapter and the side fillers.  Machine them in the shop.  Caulk everything.  Set the 11 degree base piece in.  Tack in the 7/8” by ½” pine fillers over the caulk beads with 2” galvanized finishing nails.  Drop the window into the space.  Screw it in with six screws, taking great care not to over-tighten.  Foam a bit.  Let dry.  Check operation of windows.  Foam some more if it’s o.k.  Clean up.

I should emphasize that this flurry of activity wouldn’t have gone smoothly without a few preconditions:

1.   confidence that the new replacements from Marlboro Windows in Ottawa would fit;

2.   easy access to a well-equipped woodworking shop;

3.   abundant scaffolding and ladders of various sizes.

Brian Doherty of Rideau Lumber in Smiths Falls came to the house and in an hour produced his list of dimensions.  He told me he allowed ¾” for side clearance (measured from the vertical surfaces after the chiseling was complete) and ½” top-to-bottom clearance (measured from the window sill to the highest point in the window frame the tape could reach).  This is accurate to the best of my recollection.  On the estimate, however, he ordered windows 1″ shorter and 1″ narrower than the rough openings listed on the invoice.  A few windows were out of square, but Brian’s generous space allowance was just right.  What I would infer from this (now that all of the windows have fitted perfectly) is that window measurement is an art, and it might be a good idea to have an expert do the measurements.

There was space for foam, but not too much.  I did, however, decide to add ½” fillers to the exterior stops after the caulking bead on the first window shrank and let go on one portion of the joint.  This was a ground floor joint and easily serviceable, but  for nine of the windows I would be up petty high, and I didn’t want to make any return trips for leak repair in the middle of the winter.

On the first window I also put in too much foam.  Even the low-expansion stuff will jam the window if squirted in liberally.  This is where the burnt-fingers technique with its constant feedback loop works well:  as the window grew tight, I tightened up the screws and added a few more to push back on the foam.  That worked.  Having learned my lesson, I extended the foaming over three sessions from then on.

And so the windows went in without much drama.  The double hung white vinyl Marlboro product was what the owner had promised when I visited the factory in Ottawa before making the order.  They were dimensionally accurate, solid windows with good hardware.  As Brian Doherty had told me, “Installers love them.”

The other variable was my woodworking shop within easy walking distance of the project.  The 8” General jointer with its 3 hp motor proved very important:  the adapter plate was an 11 degree taper where I cut a piece of 2” pine down to a wedge 7/8” thick on the narrow side.  The jointer cheerfully chewed through a lot of pine to make the wedges.  Because I have made beveled panels freehand on the jointer for many projects over the years, I could make these beveled pieces easily.

The 10” Rockwell Unisaw did the ripping without fuss.  I quickly realized that the filler strips shouldn’t be one-offs.  Too much time would be involved, so I ripped up a few 7/8” clear pine boards and then planed the strips to the proper thickness, thereby providing a jointed surface and predictable dimensions for a bunch of material.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that the window installation would be only part of the project.  The first window sill which came apart in my hands changed all of that.  I suddenly needed 4” material for a new sill, so out came the clamps.  I felt very glad I’d bought 300 bd. ft. of dry pine and planed it to 2” and 1” before the project started.  Lumber yard 1 ½” plank would have required a lot more work to get ready to make a sill.  With a 9” X 48” x 4” blank glued up, I reconstructed the sill from the pieces removed and dropped 25’ to the ground (the ground slopes away steeply from the south side of the building).

But the sill’s just a 4” thick piece cut on an 11 degree angle on both edges, sized to fit the space.  Ripping 4” material on a 10” saw is a pain, so I just chewed the 4X9 into place with the jointer.  I took off about an inch.

I put a couple of coats of white exterior stain on the sill, then tried setting it into place.  Never did take it out again.  It was fine.  I foamed and caulked, then put a wider adapter plate over the top to cover the joint between the sill and the interior sheeting.  The other plates were 3 3/8″ wide.  This one was 5″.  Then I dropped in the window.  The repair cost me a day or so, but the work wasn’t difficult.

Gradually I was coming to realize that the real work of the project would be at the painting stage.  In the late fifties or early sixties the aluminum storms had gone in over a wide bead of caulk which had hardened in most cases, but on the north side of the house remained gooey enough to confound sanders and scrapers.  Fortunately the sun on the south-side windows had baked the caulk to where it would chip off.

The only new tool for the project was a Mastercraft 12v cordless sander/scraper I found on a half-price sale at Canadian Tire for $70.  With a thin stainless steel blade it dislodged the caulk on the upper windows, but produced a rough, unpredictable surface.  So I recharged and went at the window casings with 80 grit sanding pads and the same machine.  This worked.  The very light tool proved well worth the purchase price as it fitted into my back pocket for the long climb to the second floor.  Battery life with the suspiciously small lithium power pack was considerably better than I expected.  On the lower windows I wheeled out the Dremel 120v equivalent and gloried in its abundant torque and noise, but the lightweight portable detail sander has done a fine job so far.

Next:

Dealing with bees, scaffold, caulking and dust.

Forty years ago today…

August 19, 2012

On August 19, 1972, Bet and I stood under the towering maples in front of the main house at the farm while Bet’s dad and her brother Don, both clergymen, read the wedding ceremony. I was pretty scared. I remember muttering, “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.”

My best man, Dave Prebble, responded: “Be quiet.”

My dad had the tree on my side removed about twenty years ago because it overhung the house, but Bet’s maple is still tall and strong. She scolded me for wasting water when I soaked its roots a couple of times this summer, but I insisted it’s easier to replace a well than it is a mature maple tree, especially when it’s the one we were married under. Both tree and well seem to be fine after the near drought.

This morning and throughout the day we kept coming back to how hard it is to believe that forty years have slipped away since that small afternoon ceremony under the maples. We had no inclination to repeat the weekend honeymoon trip to Picton (as students we both had summer jobs), though a larger expedition may be afoot before too long.

So this evening we bundled the dog into the car (no longer a red 1963 VW Beetle, alas) and drove to Westport for ice cream. Yes, they serve until 8:00 on the corner opposite the Cove Hotel. We parked amid a flock of classic sports cars, but my attention was stolen by a cherry red Miata in front of us. When the owners arrived it turns out that they gave up their MGA for it seventeen years ago, and have babied it ever since. I suggested that there might be lots of nice Miatas available for purchase. He agreed, and added that they are “dirt cheap.”

A few cautionary comments occurred on the trip home. I think Bet’s afraid of another three months of compulsive computer searches like the interval before I broke down and bought a new fishing boat with her blessing. It wasn’t that she wanted a boat. I think she just wanted the scowling over Kijiji files on the laptop and the wild goose chases to end.

Just before dark we gathered at the back door to watch Emily-the-Resident-Wolf eat pears in the orchard. Bet had noticed her sitting in the field behind the workshops when she walked the dog. Then the wolf disappeared, only to turn up under her favourite pear tree, hurriedly filling up on the ripe fruit. She waits until Bet and Cagney are inside the house before she moves in for desert.

So after forty years Bet and I are still together, but we’re not doing very well at keeping the wolf away from the door.

Attached to the stone cottage we’ve renovated over the last eight years is a large Victorian brick model built in 1896. It’s time for some extensive work on the windows in this dwelling, as some of the single-pane windows are quite decrepit, though the frames are still in generally good condition. The aluminum storms barely keep the birds out, let alone drafts, and of course the windows haven’t been washed since the storms went on sometime in the sixties.

One particularly bad casement window overlooks the driveway. The space was originally an entrance door and it was closed in rather poorly and exposed to rain water from the eave of the stone house for many years.

Its size, 32” by 47” and its relative isolation from the other windows on the house, not to mention its patio location, made it a good candidate to be the prototype.

I began my search on Kijiji. A 31 X 46 turned up in Peterborough. The photo in the ad showed an upright, two-pane window still in its packing. Looked fine. Emails flew back and forth, more concerning the logistics of the pickup than the nature of the window. The owner did mention that the window’s installation was scrubbed for a patio door in the space, instead.

I should have thought about that a bit more. It’s easy for a photo to end up rotated 90 degrees during the Kijiji upload. I also should have asked which way was “up” on the window. But I didn’t, flushed with the excitement of the chase and the $75 price for a new window.

The address in Peterborough turned out to be a furniture-rental store. The guy works for the chain. Jason, a pleasant young fellow minding the store, took my money and helped load the prize. Nice window.

I drove the 2 ¼ hours back to Forfar, eager to pop the thing in.

The caffeine dose which keeps one awake on Hwy 7 for five hours carries several more hours of hyperactivity, so I put it to use, tearing off the aluminum storm and the rotted exterior trim of the existing window. In went the new one. Not a bad fit. Out again. I unlatched the window to try raising the bottom pane. The top one dropped down. Ulp.

The trouble with a replacement window is that there is no sill to tell you which way is “down.” Careful examination of the frame showed only two little slots on the right side. They look like drains. I’ll bet they’re supposed to be down. That wasn’t going to happen at this stage, so I decided to glue the top into place and use the bottom half as a single-hung window.

But these panes pop out for cleaning and it’s a pretty good window. Any way to make it work without butchering the thing? I cut two 5/8” square rods out of walnut, just under 21” in length, and set them into the slots below the upper window, jamming the thing at the top of its travel.

Then I went ahead with the installation. Nowadays it seems one foams a window into place rather than nailing anything. There didn’t seem to be a sensible location for screws, so that’s what I did: I put a frame of 7/8″ X 5 1/2″ pine window casing on the outside, pressed the window up against it, secured it to the casing with 4” screws through pvc pipe fasteners on the inside as temporary clamps in case the foam pulled a nasty trick while curing, and sprayed away. That part seems to have gone o.k.

Then I replaced the huge quarter-round trim which ringed the window at the top and sides. I had earlier replaced the sill with a 4” composite which will more closely match the size of the other sills on both houses.

So there it sits, my new double slider, mounted on end, looking for all the world like a hot dog stand window mounted onto the end of a majestic country house. Maybe paint on the trim and the living room drapes will help, but I’m having second thoughts about replacement vinyl windows.

As I have said many times before: “Anyone can do carpentry. All you have to be able to do is read and tell which way is up.” Sometimes that’s a daunting task, though.

Maybe I should build wooden ones with thermal panes and add full screens in place of storm windows.

This afternoon Martin and I completed the cove siding project on Charlie’s garage while he replaced a muffler inside. Things were humming on a fine spring afternoon.

My 1200 bd ft. of pine ran out six feet short of the eaves on the final side of the 20X30 building. I was forced to make another batch of siding, pressing treasured 12″ pine boards into service, as well as some marginal stock, the best of which had planed 1/16″ thin for the first run of siding.

Of course there was a lot of waste while installing the first batch because I cut the boards to fit the strapping I had installed vertically.

Then out of laziness I began to nail butt blocks behind joints instead of forcing them to come together on the strapping nailed vertically to the walls for the purpose.

The scrap pile stopped its inexorable growth. Cut-offs ended up on the side of the garage as butt blocks. Without the loss of about a foot per board to fitting, the cove siding stock lasted longer, as well. Without the need for precise measurements, the installation proceeded at a good pace. On the second lot of siding I ended up with quite a surplus.

So my final word on the installation of cove siding: square the boards and nail them to butt blocks, rather than studs. It saves material and time.