Over the last year Charlie, Martin and I have put up a fine workshop where the horse stable once stood.  Apart from sheetrock taping and interior trim, the only remaining task is the exterior siding.  Building inspector Anpalahan Kandasamy told me that the final approval requires permanent siding, so I couldn’t leave the fading gray fabric on the outside for another winter.

The problem was that while I like the trim appearance of vinyl from a distance, up close I hate it.  The double joints on long runs ruin a pretty good effect.  So I decided to design and build my own horizontal siding.

The tool drawer contained a good set of tongue-and-groove knives for the shaper and a convex cutter designed for raised panels.   I went to work on samples.  To fit the tooling I would have to plane each board down to just below an inch, then cut the cove on top of the tongue so that the tongue and groove would fit together normally, but with a recess on the top edge of the board to give the traditional appearance.  I hoped to be able to blind-nail the interlocked boards to the stud wall.

If this worked the project would give the old Poitras shaper and its power feeder a good workout.

Two years ago when I remarked at how well his fiberglass building dried a stack of wide ash boards he sold me, band-mill owner George Sheffield suggested that I should have my own solar kiln.

Over the winter I had ordered a couple of thousand feet of pine for spring delivery.  I decided to follow George’s advice and try kiln drying this stuff in the “plastic palace” to speed the project up.  Twenty-five hundred board feet of pine made for impressive piles in the low shed.

Even with large openings in the ends, a greenhouse-type building gets very hot in summer.  Lumber apparently likes this as a drying environment.  So do wasps.  When it came time to take out a trailer-load I discovered that the wasps had colonized the electrical boxes and the rolled-tarp door.  They didn’t leave gracefully, either.  They like the dry heat.

The first batch of 12” boards I cut up to make siding had been piled outside over the winter, and did not take kindly to ripping on a table saw.  The ends had dried a lot and the middle stayed green, so there were huge tensions in most boards.  Some actually exploded from the stress during cutting.  The 6” siding-candidates came out so crooked I re-piled them in the palace for a couple of months of further drying.

The stuff I cut up this week had gone into the palace in early May, and seemed very nice to work after three months in the “kiln”.  The terrific tensions of the outdoor boards just weren’t there.

At the planing stage a new problem cropped up.  Normally I run lumber through a trailer-load at a time, let the shavings land on the floor and then shovel them into an old spreader for mechanized unloading elsewhere.

But this dry pine planed off in light, fluffy shavings which plugged the machine.  I was forced to hook up the heavy vacuum system I had earlier installed for the sander.  That worked nicely until I had finished the third board.  Then the planer plugged again, this time because the chip barrel was full.  This would take some learning.

I gradually figured out the timing on the barrel and discovered the planer in fact works better with the chip collector installed.

The first batch of siding came out at 5” in width, and I was able to cover the front and half of one side of the 24 X 24 shop.  The next batch is almost finished, and I can’t decide whether to try to hit the 5” mark again, or leave these at 5 ½” and reduce waste.  This stock was a little wider than the previous lot.

In any case, the 1” cove siding nails onto ¼” strapping quite nicely with galvanized siding nails.  Anpalahan insisted upon the strapping to provide an air space so that the siding can adjust to humidity changes and water infiltration.  Turns out these little straps enabled me to locate the studs in advance, preventing chaos later.

Making cove siding is nice, mindless work.  If you don’t count labour, tools, and the paint yet to come, it’s cheap, too.


That’s all before the scaffold goes up.


Putting up the trusses

September 6, 2010

Instead of a tale of foible and error, I offer this week one of sore muscles and fatigue. Putting up trusses is strenuous work for an old guy who thinks twice about a trip up the stairs, let alone an excursion across wobbling trusses at the top of a roof. But Martin and Charlie were available, and it was the best chance we would have to get the trusses installed and keep the project moving.

The last time I hauled trusses along a top plate was in the summer of 1974, and I was flat-out terrified. We were building the house on the hill now owned by Joe and Elaine Laxton, and all I can remember is that the huge trusses were on a tractor-trailer bed at one end of the house, and I had to pull one end of these thirty-foot monsters along this narrow, wobbly top plate, the full length of the house while staring down sixteen feet to rocks and concrete below. I hadn’t figured out how to backfill at the rear of the house, so things were a bit ragged down there. Falling was not an option.

The worst of it was that my dad was fearless around heights. My nephew Jonathan picked up the same gene, but it skipped a generation with me. But it wouldn’t be manly to show fear. The house wouldn’t get built, either. Better to risk a fall. So off I went, dragging this truss across the tops of the interior partitions of the house, my dad on the other side, cheerfully picking his way along. Then came the the living room/dining room with no central partition, and the top of the truss dropped into the gap. Yikes! Turned out it was easier to carry in this position, so on we went, tiptoeing down our parallel tightropes.

I was very pleased to complete that day’s work with all my limbs and some of my dignity intact.

But that was then. Today’s trusses seem a bit lighter in construction. And there are no partitions inside a garage, so we were able to bring them in through the opening for the wide door, push one end up onto the far wall, then combine our efforts to gain the other wall. Then it got tricky. The guy on the bottom, usually Charlie, hooked a 2X4 into the top of the truss and pushed while Martin and I reached down and grabbed.

It looked risky but it worked. Nobody had to walk the top plate. Martin was even able to lounge on a rolling scaffold unit. Equipment has improved since the seventies.

Unfortunately the nail gun didn’t seem all that good at driving spikes through the plates holding the ends of trusses together. The hammers came out. Charlie started a strong, steady routine with the spikes, but Martin’s taps showed great effort, reasonable accuracy, but little skill or effect. Charlie explained what his grandpa had taught him, and Martin immediately improved his swing.

My job was to crawl around in the middle with the nail gun, installing braces as needed to keep the whole thing from falling down. Hurricane Earl had sent a few tentacles northwest, and we found it wasn’t hard to tip the trusses up — just let the wind get under them — but bracing needed to be quick and sure.

Gradually we ran out of space inside the garage for the nine-foot-high trusses. This meant hauling them up over the end of the building, but that went pretty well until the final truss, #13. Have I mentioned how the number thirteen seems to have it in for me? I could hardly wait to see what was in store.

Just to play it safe I lifted the heavy end-truss onto the top plate with the tractor. No disaster, despite Charlie’s worry and Martin’s objection to the slowness of the machine. Everyone’s back was still intact. We slid it into place and tacked the ends. And then the air strike hit. A sudden downpour of water and hail pummeled us as we struggled to brace the truss, but one shot from the nail gun connected with a 2X4 in the right place and we dashed for cover. They were up.

The following day Charlie and I faced the sobering challenge of the package of “ladders” which had come with the trusses. The end units are smaller than the others by the thickness of these ladders which fit over the ends and nail to the side of the next truss in. The 16″ of the ladder which hangs over then becomes the overhang for the roof.

I had no idea how to put these things up. Charlie suggested a scaffold, so we set up three lifts at the west end of the building. Some of my climbing planks are a bit old, so I grabbed a 10 inch oak plank off a pile of new lumber in the yard. My goodness, a chunk of green oak is heavy to place up 15′ on a scaffold. On the other hand, once it’s there it doesn’t move.

By the fourth section of ladder we had the system figured out and the only question remained, “How will we get the scaffold down now that we have built the eaves of the garage over it?”


Turns out each of these is a tall order. My usual crew members have departed for B.C., one on vacation and the other to a conference, but the trusses for the garage arrived a week early. With thoughts of the pristine trusses turning to pretzels in the August sun, I made a quick call to former student Dale Edwards at Rideau Lumber and soon had materials for the walls to hold the trusses up.

Years ago when I worked in the shop at Rothwell-Perrin someone else did the layout on the panels we banged together all day. The houses seemed to assemble at a fairly quick pace. It’s another matter entirely when there’s just one old guy, a pile of new, straight 2X4’s starting to curl in the heat, and the Ranger to serve as cart and workbench.

The first task on the first panel was to fit the treated-pine 2X4 which sits on the concrete pad. The anchor bolts looked a little snaggle-toothed when I approached them with a drill. How would I get all of those angles correctly copied into the bottom of the wood?

I placed the green scantling on top of the row of bolts and gave each a firm tap with a hammer to mark the spot. Then I guessed. I drilled the holes out and the 2X4 fitted over the bolts neatly, so it was on to the layout stage.

I pressed the Massey-Ferguson into service to lift the panels with the loader. I’d left off the last foot of sheeting to create space for a chain. This worked.

But then it got tricky. Do you know how many ways there are to foul up the arrangement of two 2X4’s lying beside each other on a bench? On that third panel I think I discovered all of them. Two attempts at a very simple wall were abandoned to confusion on the first day. The following morning I laid it out again, this time with a black magic marker. I’d reached the point of no return.

The tractor lifted the panel onto the anchor bolts, two in this case. They went on fine, but one end of the panel now hung over the yard and the other was dangerously close to the centre of the garage. What?

It’s all about knowing which way is up. I had figured out how to nail up the panel without having to turn it over or reverse it, but in the process I lost track of which surface of the bottom plate had to be UP to fit over the bolts. It cost a few frenetic minutes with a hammer drill and what had been a pretty good woodworking bit to set this error right. Bet’s confidence in my abilities as a carpenter did not increase that morning.

What’s worse, I wasn’t sure the same thing wouldn’t happen on the next wall.

Then comes the second half of the woodworking prescription: the ability to read. An email from a truss manufacturer which promises delivery before September 3rd may mean the truck will arrive without warning on August 25, so it would be wise to have the space ready well in advance. I had to make the guy wait while I leveled 18 yards of gravel to make a semi-flat surface for his load.

But that’s not the only kind of reading required of a framing carpenter. My dad always put great faith in his square, but I’ve never trusted the thing. Unless you’re an expert it’s too easy to build a cumulative error into layout with one.

I remember in the mid-seventies when a group of us put up the trusses on colleague Robin Fraser’s garage. Paul Smith went down one wall with a square and I shinnied down the other. Nobody thought to check if we ended up with the same number of spaces at the end. Brimming with testosterone, the gang of young teachers on a Saturday morning had the things up and braced before anyone could look. Robin told us later that Paul and I did, in fact, end up with the same number of trusses by the end of the garage, but he had to cut every sheet of plywood they installed on that roof because of the errors accumulated over 30 feet with coarse marking crayons.

The same thing happened when I tried to transfer the marks around to the other side of 2X4’s after laying them out upside down. Factory-machined dimensional lumber has rounded edges and every line requires guesswork to transfer from one surface to the next. Things just didn’t line up right on the panels. Window frames were a little crooked. I compensated by making the openings a little larger and soldiered on. There’s always foam, and for really big gaps I can cut shims with my band saw.

What I had thought would be an easy woodworking job has turned into a real challenge because I keep losing track of which way is up. But this is the easy part. Wait until those trusses go up.

Pouring a garage floor

August 20, 2010

You Tube offers a variety of film clips on just about any subject, but when I looked for instructions on how to finish concrete, the supply of information suddenly dried up. After yesterday’s pour of a garage slab at the farm I now understood the reason. With four compulsive photographers on the job, not one thought to pick up a camera. There was just too much grit, too much to do, and too little time to spare for non-essentials.

None of us had poured a floor before. Derek offered to help before heading off to MIT for post-doctoral work. That physics background helped: he turned out to be a smart and willing concrete worker. I suspect Martin, the biologist, had never set foot on a construction site before, but he learned quickly and showed amazing strength and stamina. A veteran of projects with Dad, Charlie brought an eye for detail and a dose of caution to the mix, determined to head off his father’s sometimes-reckless excesses.

The family book on me is that I’m good at measuring and cutting but hopeless with anything sticky. Charlie’s never quite gotten over the time I varnished the transom of the boat with a mop. Concrete was an unknown, the transition from liquid to solid fraught with mystery and conflicting opinion, but all sources agreed that timing is critical.

Building inspector Alahan Kabdasamy insisted that I couldn’t pour a floor by myself, nor with one helper: I would need a full crew. So Charlie rounded up Derek and Martin and the plan came together. It’s one thing to plug away by yourself on a project. It’s quite another to schedule an inspection, a volunteer crew with little time-flexibility, and a truckload of highly-perishable concrete on a day with good weather for a pour.

It worked. The truck pulled in two minutes early, and Charlie and Martin were on time. Derek followed them in the lane. The sky was clear.

The driver quickly sized us up and took charge. He knew what to do. I had straightened a sixteen-foot 2X4 that morning on my jointer. That would be our screed. A small beam laminated up out of 4″ pine boards divided the floor in half and set the grade. We would be able to support the screed on the outside forms and the pine beam to level the concrete, then hopefully remove it at the end of the pour and fill in the gap.

The rebar at the perimeter of the slab sat neatly wired to the little plastic “chairs” I had located in Kingston the day before. For the mesh which covered the bulk of the floor the supports were just a hindrance, though. Pulling the mesh up with a hay hook or garden rake worked much better. I hadn’t anticipated quite how chaotic screeding ten cubic yards of concrete – that’s 40,000 pounds – can be. Alahan was right: we definitely needed all four guys on the crew for this part.

To push across the floor with a bull float, you hold the handle low to plane the large trowel fastened rigidly to a 12′ pole over the rough surface; for the return trip you pull from above your head to plane the other edge of the trowel on the way back. Yikes! Much taller Martin took over and quickly became proficient with the thing. He even had enough energy in reserve to shake the float to work the moisture to the surface as the LaFarge guy recommended.

I placed the anchor bolts and Charlie shaped the edges of the slab. Derek went around the bolts with a hand trowel.

Much debate ensued about when was the right time to start the power trowel: the concrete at the southwest corner was almost two hours wetter than the stuff at the northeast, so when and where do you begin?

Charlie looked horrified as I stepped up onto the slab. Oops. Sank too much. Hasty repairs. Twenty minutes later, though, I only sank about a quarter-inch, and that’s when the Internet advice suggested we start to trowel.

None of us had run one of these things. There are no useful sets of instructions available, either. We put the coarse paddles on it, started it up, and the lads lowered it onto the pad.

A power trowel has to be the most right-brained tool I have ever operated. I couldn’t tell you now how to control it. The more I troweled the less I had to rely on strength, but I don’t know what I did differently. The coarse paddles took a serious toll on the anchor bolts, though. Derek and Martin stayed busy with repairs.

But the machine reduced the sticky concrete to a workable substance I could measure and cut, so I soon had the grade where I wanted it. Internet advice said to continue to trowel until you don’t care any more. That point came quite quickly because we were bushed. The slab was smooth and slightly grainy. Any smoother could be a safety hazard. Into the trailer and back to Elgin the strange inverted helicopter went.

Fortunately by 3:30 a thunderstorm took over and gave me a break from spraying the slab. After supper I rolled on a coat of preservative and the day’s work was done. Whew!