How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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How to Build a Dutch Door.

I’ve worked near a number of toddler ranches.  They’re full of bright toys, padded flooring or map carpets and usually at least one molded plastic, rounded off for safety, mini jungle gym.  It’s the kind of place you’d feel most at home in socks.  These spaces are usually in a room with a baby gate, a family room with a big baby gate or some times an area across a couple rooms outlined in metal panels one step fancier than a dog kennel. All for the ever lasting toddler.  Then, there’s the dutch door.  The easiest of all toddler ranch containers. Dutch doors are seen less often on toddler ranches, but I think way easier to live with.   By the way, did I mention dogs, cats and other pets are toddlers too?
 
I built a dutch door for a toddler rabbit one time.  The rabbit was welcome in the house, mostly because it kept coming through the dog door to the back yard.  The rabbit had a fine hut in the back yard with straw, snacks and a cat friend.  The rabbit preferred the second floor carpeting over the hut.  Since the rabbit wasn’t such a good house guest when visiting the second floor the homeowner opted for a baby gate at the kitchen door.  Baby gates are great for people in the baby raising years, but for the rest of us they are mostly a trip hazard.  What the customer really wanted was a dutch door.  Some dutch doors are a bottom half and a top half.  These doors freak out parents, and for good reason.  The two doors can become a pinch point where they meet.  But this called for a bottom half door only.  The customer would be able to view over the door and see the front door from the kitchen, and, view over the door from the entry way and see the back door to the kitchen. Perfect. 
 
The house was built in the thirties, the kitchen had two doorways into the house. One had the original service door swinging both ways and a passage door to the entry hall. The stop and hinge mortises were still in the passage opening but the door was gone.  This is where the door search began.  I started gearing my head up to go to the local re-purposing warehouse when the customer mentioned a door in the basement.  We found the door. It was a counter top for an old steel base cabinet in the basement.  It had paint rings all over the top and what appeared to be a battery acid spill.  The other side of course was great.  We hauled the door upstairs and confirmed it to be the original door for the opening.  In our industry we refer to that as good luck.  It gets better. We also found the mortise lock set, the knobs and escutcheons, and even the hinges.  Bam! It doesn’t get any better.  
 
There’s a lot of ways to create a dutch door, here’s how I got this one done for this house.  I set up a work site to handle lead paint sanding and cutting. Got the door up on the padded saw horses and went to town. First thing, scrape and vacuum away the weird acid burn to avoid too much of that stuff.  Pull all the nails and screws, especially from the bottom where a sweep was.  Then start cutting and re-fitting.  My job was to move the top rail (the top horizontal piece )  down to just above the door knob.  This brought the door down to a nice height without crowding the doorknob.
 
 
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I cut away the top eighteen inches of the door and carefully started to break the joints.  The door was well made with two dowel pins per joint.  I don’t hammer and batter. I like to take things apart carefully. I worked the panel out of the middle and carefully disconnected the stiles from the top rail.  I used a table saw to cut the top rail profile flush to re-glue it to the middle rail above the door knob.  Then I carefully cut and removed the remaining panel on the lower half of the door.  The next step was to mark and cut the center rail to accommodate the re-installation of the top rail onto the middle rail.  Once everything is scraped and sanded of extra glue and paint start to slide the pieces together to form a tall center rail.  The dry fit should be snug but the pieces should not have to be driven hard to re-assemble. Once the dry fit is good, put glue on both surfaces and move the pieces together.  Add a couple of clamps. I like to let these kinds of things dry for a couple hours before I start messing around too much more.  I go to lunch, do a couple more things on the customer list and then come back to the door.
 
 
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 I sanded the door with eighty grit on a random orbit sander with a shop vac attached for dust collection.  I sand out the new joints first to flush them out.  This is where it gets fun.  Sanding an old door brings everything into focus. The quality of the modification, the condition of the lumber and of course the dozen or so marks and dings from eighty years of use.  There’s a mark where the door opened onto another door in the hall, marks at the bottom where a variety of door stops had been used over the years.  Dog scratches, coat hanger marks and what appeared to be a few wrist rocket marble pocks.  Come to find out people living in the house seventy five years ago had the same things going on as we do now days.  Sanding brings the eye to all of these. I like to sand once to get to know the door. Fill all the big offending marks with wood filler, let it dry or set up and sand again.  At this point I’ll fill a few more imperfections.  I do this as many times as each particular customer expects. Some customers want the door to appear nearly new, some like a few dings left behind for character.  This door was the latter.  After about three fill and sands I finished it off with a one-twenty grit sanding for good measure.  Once this is all done I started to re-fit the original hardware. This was easy and I only had to cut one mortise for the top hinge on the door edge and the frame edge.  I bought brass screws to keep things authentic and installed the door. Bam. First swing.  Door latched and felt pretty good. I made one adjustment to the top hinge to make the door to stop line just right, then installed the rest of the screws to finish things off.  I cut a top stool out of five quarter lumber.  Five quarter is about one and an eighth thick. This looks just a little more substantial than three quarter inch wood.  Glue and finish nail the stool on and the door is good to go.  
 
 
 
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The door came out great. The customer elected to prime and paint it herself, so my job was done.  The door is way more comfortable to use than a baby gate, and, is more formal.  This is just another simple way to make a space in a house a little special without too much work or expense.  This is also a great job for homeowners to do on their own.  It requires very few tools, is a modest challenge and doesn’t take a lot of space.  It’s also the kind of job that requires some carefully sanding and fitting which is therapeutic. I have to admit,  I was glad to drag that door out of the basement and see it doing it’s thing again. 


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Fractions are antiquities.

My dad got me interested in tools as a kid.  He was pretty handy with machines and tools, and was focused enough to do pretty good work.  He spent time in Europe in the late fifties with the Army ASA, he was smart.  He told short, cleaned-up stories about German cars and German beer.  He had pictures of the nights he spent in Munich.  Some times cars in the photos were upside down being pulled from sidewalks or ditches.  He was a little wild too.  When I was in sixth grade I came home with homework that included studies in the metric system. Dad lit up.  With-in an hour or so I had the metric measurement system figured out.  I also got a solid lecture on political nonsense in our country that refused to adopt the measurement system spreading across the globe.  He explained the frustration mechanics lived with having to buy a second set of tools for European and Japanese cars.  He shook his head and blinked his eyes sympathizing with science and industry trying to build alliances across confusing lines of measurement.  I got more than I asked for that day.  It stuck.
I’m going with metric. It’s way easier than fractions, miles, yards, pints, sixteenths and all that. I’m sticking with one through ten and the efficiency of moving a simple decimal point.  I set my smart phone, navigation devises and everything else I can to the metric system.  This is great when driving or taking a road trip.  I love that I can set my wife’s kitchen scale to metric.  I picked five hundred and twenty-three grams of berries one day last summer.  I use the metric side of the blender.  I know my body weight in kilograms.  When I listen to radio shows about science and industry I know what the scientist is talking about before the host asks them to re-explain in miles and pounds-I wish they’d stop that.  It’s all pretty great. It’s easy to understand and is all over the world.  Almost.  
 
 
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Fractions are still out there, in the schools, in lumber yards and on grade cards.  My kids were failing fractions in grade school.  The teacher brought this to our attention in a conference.  I told her I couldn’t understand why she was still teaching fractions anyway.  I was ready to focus on something else.  Recently fractions have taken a turn for the worst.  In the biggest box stores in America fractions are at the forefront of ridiculousness.  Try to buy some plywood this week.  You’ll be looking for quarter inch, three-eighths, half, five-eighths or three-quarter.  Good luck.  You’ll be looking at signs that say things like thirty-eight-sixty-fourth, or twenty-three-twenty fourths or even seventeen-thirty seconds.  You’ll be standing in the isle trying to figure out what you’re reading. Ask an associate for help.  Unless they work in that isle they won’t have a clue what the fractions are saying.  Here’s more, five feet away will be a half dozen immigrant workers trying to buy materials. In their developing countries they have grown up with little fresh water, poor infrastructure and may not know how to read very well.  English may be the biggest learning curve they have standing in that store.  But they know the metric system. They’re looking at signs printed in the freest country in the world that won’t give up the ancient measurement system of it’s mother country.  You see science and industry are out there manufacturing plywood and lumber.  Since plywood is now manufactured to metric standards you might be looking for something thirteen millimeters thick, or eight millimeters thick.  But once it get’s into the hands of retail America it is displayed with the exact measurement of it’s thickness-but in fractions.  Retail America does not trust us to use metrics.  
Prove them wrong. Act like a scientist. Pretend you believe other countries are great places to do business.  Dream of having a conversation with a college kid riding a bike in Sweden. Plan a trip on the Eurail. Next time in you’re vacationing Mexico ask how far away something is, then, resist the urge to ask them to repeat that in miles.  Get on the metric bandwagon. Set everything you can to the metric system. Like your bathroom scales. Your friends won’t have any idea how much you weigh, even if you tell them-but the nurse at the doctor’s office will.  Set your navigation devises to kilometers instead of miles. You’ll be amazed at how fast you’ll get used to it.  It will drive your teenage kids nuts, until the foreign exchange students sets them straight.  Figure it out in the kitchen.  You’ll be impressed  by the simplicity.  It will be like planning a trip out of country. Sort of a new language, but easy.  You’re not using the queen’s english, give up the yard stick.
Lumber’s going to be tricky. Houses are still being built on sixteen inch centers and ninety-six inch ceiling heights. In the future we’ll know those lengths in meters and centimeters. Houses will start being built the same. Until then I’ll carry a tape into the box store with me. I’ve got some plywood thicknesses to figure out. 

 


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Window wells are weird. And no one cares.

It’s true. No one thinks about window wells.  Why should they, these things are buried below ground level, full of damp stuff and don’t seem to have any appeal or function. Think again.  In most homes they are the basement’s only source of light and outside air other than the passage and garage doors. When basement windows and their wells are kept operational and in good condition the basement and house both benefit.
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I point out window well work to customers all the time, it’s easy, no else wants the work.  Nearly every new house I encounter is ready for window well maintenance or repairs.  If the wells are clean and dry I tell the customer how great they look.  A lot of customers make their decision to hire me or not at this very point, a service person willing to work on window wells is willing to work on about anything.  Window well work is hard, plus it’s weird.  They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and are primarily taller than wider, this is the hard work part.  The weird stuff can be un-predictable.
To begin wierd with, to work on wells you immediately head below grade.  A lot of window wells look ok to step into, but take your time.  Some wells are shallow enough to clean out on your knees, after that it takes one leg in the well and a lot of stretching, bending and careful lifting.  Several years ago I rebuilt window wells just over six feet deep. These wells required climbing down a step ladder into the well, getting off the ladder with-out stepping and falling backward through the basement window and finally lifting the step ladder over my head out of the well so I could keep working. Reverse and repeat that process every time I went to get another tool…all along, the floor space of a well is usually smaller than a linen closet.  Window wells for the most part are a small outcrop of brick, cinder block, poured concrete, galvanized steel or molded plastic outside the foundation wall where a basement window exists.  The primary purpose of window wells is to let light and air get to the basement window.  Their secondary purpose is to handle the water falling into them.  No matter what size or shape the well, there are a few simple things to maintain, starting with the landscape.  The ground should be at least two inches below the top of the well wall and sloping away from the house.  Big shrubs and trees get planted a few feet away from the well.  The walls of the well should be intact and maintained.  Mortar and block walls should be maintained just like any other visible tuck point around the house.   By the time I get a window well to where I like it, the well becomes a pleasing view.  Get the walls in great shape, make sure the contact area to the foundation is free from gaps or water could run through there in heavy rains.  While your doing the walls start to service the well floor.  This is where it get’s more weird.  I always wear a respirator when I work on wells. They are full of dust, captured moistness and living things.  They have some dead things sometimes-because toads, rabbits, ground squirrels, birds and all kinds of other things fall down there.  There are mushrooms, spider webs and layers of leaves, paint chips, broken glass and bones.  Finally, a layer of rock.  This is the goal, get to the rock. Clean all the neat things I just mentioned out. Inspect the rock, if it’s not full of mud and dirt let it be. Spray it with a hose, if the water disappears pretty quick the rock is probably fine.  The top of the rock layer should be at least one inch below the bottom of the window sill.  The object is that when rain is driven into the window well and strikes the window,  it runs down the window and sash, hops onto the sill and runs off the sill falling into the rock pit draining away with the other rain water falling into the well.  That’s it.

That’s all the well is for, other that letting light and air reach the window.  Inspect the window frame and sash.  If soil is allowed to touch the window frame, bugs will move in.  All kinds, but the biggest offenders will be termites. Pound for pound termites do more damage than almost any other thing you let in the house. These discovered problems become expensive repairs.  Wood window frames in window wells are a very popular place for termites to move into the house.  The soil will also eat steel and wood.  If the window and frame are damaged by soil and bugs, have it replace or learn how yourself, but don’t blow it off.  If the window system is in great shape, cool, give it a fresh coat of paint, caulk and glass cleaner.  I’ve had a couple customers fill wells with potted plants and decorations after I was done cleaning them up.  Once a window well is in good order and working correctly a lot of the maintenance happens from inside the basement with a shop vac.  All along the house is protected from excess moisture, rot and invasion.
Your friends will come over, they’ll love your new kitchen or patio.  Maybe you’ll take them outside and show them the daring new colors you painted the house.  But when you show them beautifully maintained, clean, bright and dry window wells you will truly be the envy of the party.  Sounds weird, but it’s why I love window wells.
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Ladders, greenhouses and surprises in high places .

This time of the year a few people are looking up and seeing lush, thriving, vegetation growing – in their rain gutters.  These gutters have probably been full of leaves and twigs for a while.  Enough compost has collected for some stray seeds to fall into it, get rained on, sprout and grow.  Nature is amazing. I’ve taken plants out of gutters that have no obvious parents anywhere in sight.  It’s past time for these gutters to be cleaned.  In fact at this point, the gutters and facia board should be carefully inspected when they are cleaned.  This much soil is full of life and activity.
I was cleaning one of these gutters several years ago.  It was a typical overgrown gutter, on an un-noticed side of the house, lot’s of low overhanging limbs.  The house was greatly cared for and had nice back yard features.  A pretty little octagon, glass panel greenhouse stands right in the center. It even had gas heat.  I’d like to drink a martini in that green house some dark winter evening with about three feet of snow on the ground and a full moon.  Greenhouses are magic like that.  I could see the green house from the top of my ladder, it wasn’t a winter evening, it was more like ninety degrees in August with full sun and an ozone alert  going on.  I was digging the gutter out, checking the facias and just generally trying to stay cool.  Live plants almost two feet tall, sticks and lush grass were a foot up onto the roof.  I had a handy gutter scoop tool and gloves.  Getting a rhythm I starting to relax and cruise through the task.  Pulling a stick half buried in the bottom of a valley on the roof, I felt the stick pull back.
This is the closest I’ve ever come to falling off a ladder.  The stick was gloss black and about three feet long, it curled carefully and came toward my hand to see what had grabbed its tail.  Snake. I let go and pulled my hand back so quickly I think I took two steps backward in mid air.  The ladder lurched hard and I felt my center of balance swerve around.  I gripped the top of the ladder and caught my balance.  My heart raced.  I love snakes but the surprise combined with the tipping on the ladder was pretty crazy.  Kind of like tripping on a crack in the sidewalk I felt compelled to keep going like nothing happened. I laughed at myself and the few seconds I had just experienced.  I watched the snake slide under the bottom of the tin valley and go into the attic.  I don’t think snakes normally hang out in gutters – unless the gutters are full of water, soil, grass, bugs, mice and saplings.
This was one of those times I relive in my head when people talk about cleaning gutters or hiring the neighbor kid to do it.  Falling off ladders can’t be planned for.  It just happens, and in ways we can’t imagine.  If you’re going to buy a ladder, get a good one. Antique ladders with wooden rungs found in estate sales are cool looking, but I wouldn’t climb one.  Get a new one.  Step ladders start at about two feet and go taller than you might imagine. Most step ladders found around houses are between five and eight feet high. I like the fiberglass ones. They are a little heavier than aluminum and just feel solid.  Aluminum ladders are nice for their light weight.  Ladders come in weight bearing categories.  Most people aren’t going to carry more than about seventy pounds of gear and materials up a ladder, add that to your body weight and buy accordingly.  Multi fold ladders are pretty handy.  They like flat environments and require a little shimming on slopes.  Do some homework on multi folds, buy a known brand and read some reviews.  Extension ladders come in weight categories too. Again, the fiberglass ladders feel solid and they are not electrically conductive.  If your house has overhead wires this is a good safety feature.  All kinds of accessories can be purchase for step ladders. The first two I recommend for every step ladder is a ladder extension and self leveling legs.  A ladder extension goes across the top like arms sticking out about eighteen inches on both sides.  The extension clips to the ladder between the rungs.  These things work great and make the ladder very stable.  Extensions also reach over gutters really nicely keeping the ladder off the gutter itself.  Self leveling legs are un-matchable when setting a ladder up on an uneven surface or stairs.  Just pick the ladder up to a standing position, pick up and set down the ladder in place and the ladder is good to go. To me these are way safer and reliable than bricks, stones, gadgets and blocks placed on uneven surfaces.  A solid fiberglass ladder with an extension at the top and levelers at the bottom is going to be very solid to work from.  Take your time and watch for sales at paint stores and local hardware stores.  Read some reviews and do your online research. Ladders are not inexpensive but if cared for will last for decades.
Finally consider your personal comfort zone. If you get anxious and freaked out about climbing a ladder you may want to consider staying on the ground. Hire a pro with liability insurance.  The neighbor college kid may be willing, but ladder work is somewhat dangerous and brings some risks.  Trust your guts.
I had three ladders on my truck for years. A six foot step ladder, a sixteen foot multi fold and a twenty-eight foot fiberglass extension ladder.  I got rid of the twenty-eight footer after ten years of climbing it.  I let someone else have those jobs now.
 I’ll never forget that snake in that gutter that day.  I’m pretty sure the snake moved back down to the gardens once the gutter was empty and dry. Maybe I’ll bump into her over a martini in that greenhouse someday.
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