How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

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Have fun with Christmas lights.

How’s your exterior Christmas lights coming along?  Millions of Americans have already put their’s up.  Maybe they have a small display around the front windows and door.  Some people hire companies who come out and do all the climbing, bulb checking and then come back and take them down after the holiday.  Some people put their lights up inside the windows so they don’t even have to go outside (this is how we did it as kids).  No matter the choice of display it’s a good idea to keep some things in mind.  
Old fashion incandescent bulb lights are still pretty popular. If you want a big bulb this is how most people go.  They install uniformly because of their shape and size.  They can be seen from a mile away and will basically act as gutter de-icing wires if mounted on the gutter.  They also break easy.  That’s why I don’t use them. Customers try to give these things to me by the mile, no thanks. I’m a breaker.  Ask my wife.  Glasses, cups, plates, windows-if it’s glass I break it.  The one year I tried to install incandescent lights that were given to me, I broke so many just trying to un-tangle them I gave up and threw them away.  My neighbor uses these big pretty bulbs and has made his own jig to place them at perfect angle and distance from each other.  His house is way bigger, he makes more money and roasts his own coffee.  You’d think he’d lay off showing me up all the time. Alas, soon some evening I’ll come home and see his perfect light display.  My wife says it’s ok, I think she’s just being nice.
LED light strings are the way to go. They come in all sorts of colors and designs just like the incandescent, minus the break ability and bulk.  They are not so bright, this could be unacceptable to the neighborhood show offs.  I like the multi color pattern installed straight across the gutters and gable peaks with the icicle style white light strung below.  Outside of climbing the roof in cold weather, cursing hangers that break below 50 degrees and having to take them down after Christmas, these are quite pleasing.  The use way less electricity and are just more user friendly.  
If you hang your own lights be careful.  Climbing ladders is not all that bad, even in snow.  Falling is not so great.  Clear the driveway or walks and put some sand or ice melt down where the ladder will stand.  Use a ladder brace at the top, cold icy gutters will toss a ladder right off.  Try to do this job before snow gets on the roof or you’ll be frustrated trying to mess around with lights in snow.  Do this job when someone is home and have them come out and “check your progress” every half hour or so.  Tell them you need hot chocolate or coffee, just don’t set yourself up for freezing half to death if you do take a spill.  Use proper hangers.  Don’t use any staples or nails in the roofing.  You’ll be asking for trouble in a lot of ways if you do.  When you do get done hanging the lights make sure you’re plugging them into a GFI outlet.  The exterior of your house will be wet, don’t risk a shock for you or critters roaming around at night.  
When you take them down next year put them away carefully.  The ridiculous thing about a big knot of light strings is, they guy putting the string away makes the knot.  Then the following year it’s like, “how did these things become such a mess?”.  Wrap them around a piece of plywood cut in an hour glass shape, if you’re really cooky put them back on the original packing they came in.  What ever your method do this when you take them down, you’ll be glad.  
Have fun with your lights.  I like to see things like peace signs, music symbols, menorahs and zodiac symbols on the side of the house.  A little of center, keeps the neighbors guessing and reminds us all that it really is the season.  Happy Holidays. 

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Feet and basements, they like to be dry.




It’s getting rainy and cool.  Basements can take on a little moisture this time of year.  The rain comes pretty often and soon will be in the form of slow melting snow.  Cooler weather and less sunlight means a lot of this water will soak into the ground.  This is good for the water table where we pump a lot of our water from.  It’s also challenging to basements and foundation walls.  Poured basement walls free from cracks do a pretty good job of holding water back.  It usually moves to a drain outside the footing and runs away from the house. Even antique houses have clay pipe drains around the foundations. A few of them are inside the basement footing.  A lot of homes have drains that lead to a sump pump where the water is collected and pumped up and out the basement into a pipe that lets the water run out onto the lawn or a rocky area.  Even with all this going on moisture can build up in the basement.  Foundation walls, especially cinder block walls, become saturated and sweaty.  Stone wall foundations are fairly porous and without good drainage in the landscape water will seep through.  The basement gets muggy.  
This would almost be ok, except there’s usually a lot of stuff in the basement.  Personal items. Storage.  These things soak up moisture.  I’ve heard too many times about photos, documents, books and old vinyl album covers being damaged after long storage in the basement.  Clothing and cardboard soak up moisture too.
Here’s a few things you can do this fall to significantly reduce this issue.  Start outdoors.  See to it the landscape drains away from the foundation walls all the way around the house- at least 3-5 feet.  Gutters should not flood over and downspouts should be extended 3 feet our more out to the yard.  Driveway and stairwell drains should not allow water to collect at the base of the doors.  Once in the basement move all your storage to the center of the basement leaving a 3 foot space along all the walls.  I know, this sounds crazy, it’s opposite of what most people do.  We love to push all out stuff up against the wall and have a big open space in the middle.  That’s fine, except all that stuff against the wall is closest to the moisture, and, reduces air movement.  Organize your shelving in the middle of the basement, like a library.  If your basement walls are stone or cinderblock they will be easier to observe and maintain when an “aisle” is located along all the walls.  When maintenance is needed, you won’t be spending all weekend trying to move your storage away from the wall.  Windows will be easier to access too.
 Invest in a good dehumidifier and put it as close to the floor drain as possible.  Install it with a hose attached to the outlet so you don’t have to empty the water collector.  You’ll never get enough water out of the air even if you empty the collector every day.  Put the drain hose on.  Set the humidifier so it comes on automatically.  If it is the kind that shows a percentage of humidity set it at about 45%, if it comes with a 0-10 setting, put it at about number 8.  Then at the most opposite side of the basement, set an oscillating fan on the floor.  Turn it on and let it run.  The fan will keep the air moving constantly.  Since the walls are now clear the air will move along the walls and push the moisture toward the dehumidifier.  This setup will significantly reduce moisture in the basement.  Your belongings will be fresher and last longer.  The  basement will smell better and be more pleasant to spend time in too. 

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Snowblowers are fun!

Fall is pretty in the midwest.  The leaves start to turn and sunlight moves through the trees differently.  Coming home from work, I find lots of leaves on the patio and blowing around the driveway. The shorter days seem to trigger an archetypal rush to get ready for the cold season.  I’m not sure how our ancient ancestors felt about preparing for winter, but a lot of us are thinking snow. Up north folks pretty much know they’re going to get a lot of snow. It’s going to stick around and accumulate. In the south they freak out with snow. Those people basically either stay home during an storm or go out and crash their cars in the stuff.  Here where I live we’ve gotten used to waking up to just about anything between now and April.  Ice is a no brainer. With a ten thousand pound work truck I stay home. No way am I going to risk sliding that thing off the road or into another vehicle.  Snow on the other hand is a blast.  I’d like eight inches of fresh snow every Friday night from the day after Halloween to April Fools Day.  I wish for this because I love the look of snow, and, I want the convenience of not loosing work time to it.
For the last four or five years we’ve gotten more snow than in the past.  Big, heavy loads that pull down trees and clog the roads.  About four years ago I was shoveling snow with two broken ribs and my sons helping.  Between the ribs and the kids jacking around I decided to buy a snow blower.  Funny what compels a purchase.   These twelve to fourteen inch snows on our hundred and twenty-five foot driveway were more than I cared to shovel.  Buying a snowblower was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.
Snowblowers come in all shapes and sizes.  Like haircuts and beer, you get what you pay for.  The lightest of the blowers are electric, not much bigger than an upright vacuum.  They work great up to about four inches of fluffy, cold snow.  If you’ve got a sidewalk or teeny tiny driveway and plenty of energy this may be fine. Beyond that you could consider a bigger machine.    The next level and most popular are gas powered “paddle” snow blowers, also known as single stage. They may use straight gas or two cycle oil/gas mix.  They have two rubber paddles horizontally across the front that basically scrape the driveway surface as they spin and throw the snow up and through the chute. The chute can be turned to the left and right to deliver the snow exactly where you want it. They are normally not self propelled and have to be pushed like a lawn mower.  They work pretty good.  They will handle up to about eight inches of snow, depending on how wet the snow is.  In our region snow might be pretty dry and fluffy at first, but we get a little warm in the mid-day and the snow starts to get real heavy at the bottom near the driveway surface.  A paddle type snowblower starts to work pretty hard at this point. These machines are fairly light and can be rolled into the back of a station wagon or SUV to take to mom’s house for her driveway.  They are available with 110 volt electric starters which are really handy when the machine is cold.  Like their size the price on these machines is mid-range.  Here in our area these machines are the most popular and are seen all over the place after a big snow.  Then there’s the two stage machines.  These machines have an auger in the front that breaks the snow up and delivers it to a second impeller that throws the snow out the chute.  Be careful with this machine. Reaching in to clear a clogged chute could deliver a thumb or finger into the yard, still in your glove.  This is the type I own.  These machines are heavier, self propelled and will crawl through just about anything.  They will handle really deep snow, and, when operated in low gear will grind through the big pile of snow and ice left at the end of the driveway by the snow plows.  These machines are fairly heavy, take up considerable space in the shed and need a pick-up or trailer to be transported.  Again, like their size, the price is the most.
A lot of snowblowers come with options making the job easier and more comfortable.  Electric and battery operated starters make getting a cold machine running a mere push of a button. Once warmed up they start easily with the pull cord if needed.  They are available with headlights which seems silly until you try to clear the driveway early before going to work or after work when it is dark again.   Some even have heated hand grips.  Larger two stage machines can be fitted with a sort of plastic see through cab.
I clear the driveway before I go to work.  Once a car is driven on snow it’s harder to manage and may stick too hard for the machine to scrape it clean.  At six am the headlight comes in handy.  Another advantage of a snowblower is it throws the snow clear of the area.  This is advantageous over a lawn tractor with a plow which at it’s best moves the snow to the edge of the driveway.
If you are going to buy a snowblower this year, do it this weekend!  The first heavy snow will clear the retail outlets of all machines available in a matter of hours.  Do some research on line.  Choose the machine you think suits you best.  Buy your machine from a locally owned equipment dealer who can service the machine.  Cheap machines from big box stores can be hard to buy parts for and sometimes impossible to service.  This will be a considerable investment and you will likely own the machine for years to come.
When the first big snow hits our area, you’ll be amazed at the ease snow is moved by a good snowblower.  I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite things to do in the winter.  You’ll still need a shovel to touch up the tight areas and stairs, but the time and back-ache you save with a snowblower will be great reward for your investment.  Have fun, be safe and pray for snow, Friday night will be here soon.

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The Holidays Season is here, get something done!

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I throw such a big party on Labor Day for my family I’m just glad to have a holiday with no guests. Maybe it’s because the weather has cooled off and it’s dark earlier. This always settles me down and makes me a little quieter. Starting with Labor Day I basically consider it holiday season until February. I’m your basic American protestant kind of guy. I know there’s all kinds of other religious, national and secular kinds of holidays, but I deal mostly with the big three; Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. If your holidays are different, cool, you get the idea.

Getting work done in a customer’s house during the holiday season can be tricky. So far as customers go, they are all over the map. Some customers wouldn’t dream of having a worker in the house from August to January. They have mountains of decorations or mountains of obligations. Then there’s the customers who just don’t worry. They travel during the holidays, they don’t entertain, they don’t recognize “the big three” or they are just adventuresome. For those of us serving the home owners, booking work through the holidays is important. We’ve got our bills to pay, families to feed and the need for feeling secure in our jobs. But we also don’t like to barge in. This is the tricky part. Our job as service workers is to get work done with the holidays in mind. Not only do homeowners want to be with their families for the holidays, so do we. Plus, despite some stories you’ve heard good service companies want your holidays to go smooth without your house being torn to smithereens while you’re trying to entertain family and friends.

If you think you’re going to get the dining room remodeled before Thanksgiving, you should have it booked by now. Christmas? Same thing. Most service companies are trying to fill those weeks without disrupting the homeowner. If you’re the kind of family traveling out of town or not really celebrating these holidays, you could be a real favorite to a service company trying to stay busy through the holiday season. I’m always a little dismayed at service guys saying it’s slow in the winter or they can’t get work. It’s a little slow, but mostly because of the interruptions. To me it’s a sales challenge. I’ve got some customers who seem to hire my during the holidays on purpose. Booking the time between Christmas and New Years is pretty challenging.

Come to find out some customers like having service done then. Maybe their families are out of town and they like the distraction. Maybe they’re not the kind of people who celebrate Christmas and love to keep things secular. Maybe they just love their service guy or gal and want them to keep the cash flowing through the winter. They’re out there and they book the work.



Imagine that silly job you’ve been putting off. You might be thinking of waiting until two thousand fourteen to do the work because the holidays are coming up. Think again. Call your favorite service person. Trust me, nothing makes the holiday season more relaxing, affordable and thankful than a calendar full of friendly customers with work to do.

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Herringbone pavers don’t stretch.

Herringbone is a great pattern on a jacket.  It’s different and sort of mathematical because of it’s clear angels and weave.  It’s a great pattern in brick patios too. It just weighs a lot more.  A herringbone brick patio might slide a little, it could sink or rise in a couple places depending on trees and water shed.  And this can all take place differently from season to season.  If the patio was set in sand and not a slab things get a little organic.  
About eight years ago a customer asked me to help him with a ground drain near his house.  It was backing up and causing some water problems inside the basement wall.   The drain was in and odd spot right up against the foundation and also caught a downspout.  The house was only about twenty years old and built town home style to look antique. It’s neighbors are late eighteen hundreds victorian houses.  Every thing is tall and narrow and landscaped with paver bricks.  
We tried to clean the drain drop and ran a water pressure hose thirty feet into the four inch landscape tubing underground.  This didn’t really help and after a couple of other tries by other companies my customer decided I would dig a new line across his herringbone front patio, which just happened to go completely across the front of the house.  Not the little one near the garage or the side patio where no one looks, but the entry patio.  I suggested he enlist the service company that his home’s association dues paid to do these exact jobs.  He said no.  I reminded him of the option to get some bids.  He ruled that out.  He expected me to do the job.  I tossed out the disclaimers I knew about the challenges of paver bricks set in sand herringbone style.  I tossed out a couple more just to make it stick. I reminded him that even with lots of tamping and careful reinstallation the work may show and need some re-work after a few seasons.   He said he was sure it would be fine.  With the formalities out of the way we shook on it and put it on our calendars.  
The patio had some slope.  I pulled a string line and started removing a course of pavers wide enough to drive a trenching tool through.  I marked the cut pieces and laid them carefully to remember where they went.  Using a gas powered, self propelled trenching machine I made a first initial cut as deep as possible, between thirty and thirty six inches.  I spent the rest of the day with a four inch trenching shovel sloping the trench across the front of the house to the side of the house where the drain would daylight.  The trench ended up about forty-two inches deep at it’s deepest point, it was about a fifty five foot run. A nice slope on the edge of the house allowed the drain to daylight pretty easily.  (By the way, daylighting is basically the act of installing a drain underground with enough down hill slope to cary water to daylight where it spills out into a gravel or grass swale.)  This is the good spot.  The point of a job where the digging and scraping and clawing end and the job starts to get put back together.  The trench is in and sloped nicely.  It’s ready for the drain to go in.  
I started putting the drain pipe in early in the morning. I used rigid landscape drain with a bed of gravel under it and on top.  I ran a level the whole time to insure good slope.  I tied the old flex drain into the new one since we could not determine it’s functionality.  Lot’s of nice rock on top the drain to give it good drainage.  Every thing’s going nice.  Since this was about seven years before I ever even heard of a smart phone I lived by the seat of your pants weather watch.  It started to rain. I had open soil stacked out on both edges of a trench.  It was getting soaked.  The seat of my pants got soaked.  In an act of insanity to keep things moving I started to shovel the dirt, now mud, into the trench and pack it. This seemed like it was going to work, until I realized my customer was watching me under and umbrella from about fifteen feet away.  “Jonas, you’re soaked” he said.  I agreed and explained I wasn’t about to let this mud wash out onto the patio.  I mustered up the confidence to express my beliefs that packing the mud in wet during a downpour would reduce voids and settling.  I hid my panic with determination.  He told me to get warmed up when I could and went back in. 
The next day I returned to put the brick back into the gap in the patio.  According to the seat of my pants it was sunny and probably going to stay that way all day.  I found the trench to be soaked and washed in beautifully by the rain all night.  The soil I shoveled in was filled and smooth.  What luck.  I started adding sand to the gap and working the brick back in herringbone style.  The customer was gone at work that day, which was good.  Re-installing herringbone brick into a gap is weird.  It’s one of those, “please don’t interrupt me” jobs.  Not trying to be rude but this requires attention and rhythm.  The rhythm was good.  The brick, including the cut ones, hopped right back into place.  The soil was soft so tamping the sand and brick in level went really nicely.  I swept the project with sand and left an invoice with a note that said “no traffic on the repair for two weeks”.  I don’t know why I thought that would help but I wanted the whole thing to have a chance to settle in flat and solid before a cocktail party broke out. 
Years later that patio repair is basically invisible. Flat and perfectly blended.  Coming into this fall season reminded me of those cool rainy days when I made that repair. It reminds me of the sudden storm, the rain and leaves.  That customer and I laughed at that job a year or so later standing on the patio.  Maybe he’s in upper state New York, watching fall blow in there this year, laughing about it again.   


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Fall time. Gutter time.

It’s pretty obvious a lot of homeowners are going with one piece gutter and cover systems around here.  You’ve seen these, the gutter is rolled out with a top on it that slides up under the first course of shingles.  The metal cover lets debris blow over the edge of the roof, but the water clings, rolls over, and falls into the gutter.  Cool.  This seems to be a good tool here in the icy, leafy, rainy mid-west.  Like insulated window glass and tankless water heaters, what starts out a little more expensive and daring will probably prove to be standard equipment soon.  A lot of homeowners are really just waiting for a reason to spend the money to replace their existing gutters and downspouts.  When they do, most are going with the self cleaning type.  
Then there’s the rest of us. Our gutters just won’t die.  A lot of gutters get replaced with a new roof.  Maybe a tree or limb falls on the house.  Some gutters are pulled down by snow and ice loads.  Not these gutters.   These are the gutters that don’t justify being replaced, and demand attention a few times a year.  Spring and fall seasons both create lots of blooms, seed pods, pine cones, nuts, needles, twigs and leaves.  If the tree is close to, or over the house the gutters will be affected. Valleys on a roof are almost as challenging as gutters. They fill with debris too.  Gutters need to be cleaned out a couple times a year if trees are over the house.  The time and frequency depend on the type of tree, it’s seasonal changes and the placement of the gutters, valleys and downspouts under the tree.  Every house is different but spring and fall are the biggies.  This is part of the getting to know your house process.  Observe your gutters during a rain storm.  If water’s flooding over the gutter midway between downspouts, it’s not emptying fast enough and is clogged.   Don’t ignore this.  Look out second floor windows to lower roof sections.  Climb a ladder with a good brace and look for yourself.  You’ll find your gutters have a pattern of filling and clogging and needing attention.  Gutters are like the places out on the front porch where the wind carries leaves and deposits them in a regular pattern.  Except up high.  Cleaning gutters can be as easy as a phone call away. Hire a pro.  Someone qualified to add a few screws and hangers.  Someone who will straighten up the long runs of gutter that have been pulled hard by winter snow and ice.  Hire someone with liability insurance.  
You can do this yourself too.  Make sure you use a brace at the top of your ladder.  Add some self adjusters to the bottom of the ladder if your property has slopes.  Get a paint bucket hanger and a five gallon bucket.  Scoops made just for gutters are available at most hardware stores and home centers. Gloves will protect your hands from sheet metal edges and screws.  Keep the ladder off the gutter by using a brace at the top.  The first time you clean your gutters you’ll climb the whole thing just getting to know the house.  After a couple more runs you’ll learn the pattern of debris and know just where to climb the next time.  All along, tighten loose hangers and add hangers where needed.  Snow and ice can really be hard on gutters during the winter.  Make sure the down spouts are clear and are extended about three feet out from the foundation.  If you have ice dams and snow build up, install some de-icing wires.  These are available from most good hardware stores. They have a formula printed on the box based on measurements taken from the house.  De-icing wires are great. I wish more people used them.  They prevent ice dams and weighted gutters in winter.  A good electrician will install these too. Some one story house’s gutters can be blown clean with attachments for your lawn and leaf blowers.  How easy is that?! 
 Then there’s the season.  Fall right now.  Cleaning gutters is sort of nice.  Climbing the house in somewhat cool weather.  The leaves are thinning out and changing colors.  The sun is in a different place in the sky than the last six months.  Summer’s beaming heat is smelling like cool, crisp change.   Autumn is good.  Climbing a ladder in autumn, looking over the roof, seeing the sun move toward westerly skies.  It’s relaxing.  Standing at the top of the ladder looking down a run of gutter waiting to be cleaned and adjusted.  It’s comfort work.  
Do this a couple times a year. Keep your gutters clean.  Clogged gutters eat facia boards, flood foundation walls, sag and fall and are unsightly.  Take good care of your gutters.  When you’re tired of climbing a ladder yourself.  Hire it if you like.  When the first chance arrives to add self cleaning gutters, do it,  it will be worth it.  Leave the ladder in the shed.  Forget the bucket and scoop.  Get outside and see the autumn sun move across the sky.  Winter is here soon. 

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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.
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.
 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.  
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.  
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.
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.