Category Archives: home

How this all got out of hand

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It all started so innocently. After 80 years and several
rehabs, it was time for our glassed-in porch, with its wood-on-wood sliding
windows and door that wouldn’t fully open, to be replaced. There was simply no
fixing it back up anymore. We had a brief fling with the idea of making it a
proper addition, a bit bigger and hiding a half-bathroom. The estimates (the
ones we could get, that is . . . good times or bad, contractors don’t seem to
want my money) came in at about a third of the value of the house . . . way too
much to put into a place in our neighborhood. So back to square 1.5, which was
replace the walls, windows and door on the porch, ourselves.

So here’s how it starts to get out of hand. This is my one
chance to insulate the porch, something I should certainly do to justify the
fancy new windows, and make it a good 3-1/2 season room. And that meant
crawling underneath, insulating the joists and sealing it up. And if I do that,
I have to insulate the ceiling, which means pulling down the old
tongue-and-groove ceiling that we love, and realizing that it really needs to
be refinished, so that’s 76 pieces of t&g that needs sanding and staining. Oh,
it’s also my one chance to spread some electricity around the porch, and get
light from something other than a centered fan, so let’s run some wiring,
outlets all over, two new sconces, a ceiling light, a new fan. And power for a
closet that we haven’t designed yet. And if we want to get the most use out of
it, wouldn’t a little space-heater make more sense than trying to get ductwork
out there? And when I get to the flooring, just putting it down over the old
stuff won’t work, so let’s cut a new subfloor layer.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of siding. The house
has 50-year-old asbestos siding, which lasts forever, insulates beautifully, is
easy to paint and nearly impossible to get rid of. But it’s getting brittle, it’s
hard to repair, it hurts the value of the house, and I’ll have to put something
else on the new porch, so let’s just get new siding at last. Well, if we’re
going to do that, that’s the time to replace the kitchen windows, which take up
too much wall space and ruin the layout.

Oh, and I’ll need to repair a couple of pieces of garage
wall before it’s sided. And replace a window that was never really a window
(just a tacked-on aluminum storm window). And repair the rotting roof deck at
the eaves.

Oh, and after the workers yank off all the old siding, I’ll
notice exposed wire on the electric service to the house, and decide that now
is also the time when I need to finally replace the old cloth-wrapped wire on
the electric service, get a new meter box, and get a new desperately needed
circuit breaker box. For that, for the siding removal, and for the new siding, I’ve turned to contractors. Otherwise, the pain is all mine.

Sometime soon it’ll all be done. Well, not the inside of the
porch, that’ll be another few months, but all the noticeable stuff from
outside. It’ll all look sensational, like a real house. And I will be, as I am
now, absolutely and utterly exhausted.

A poor carpenter also praises his tools

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Let me add to the list of new tools that are making my home improvement project so much easier the simple expedient of a new lightweight, high-powered Milwaukee circular saw. After just a couple of days of working with this modern marvel, I want to get into a time machine, go back 20 years and beat myself for the next 20 years for holding onto and using my father’s and grandfather’s 1960s vintage circular saws. WHAT WAS I THINKING? This baby cuts through OSB like butter. Butter! If you could cut butter and leave a clean, straight edge without that initial drift that I had just accepted as part of the process. Power, weight, accuracy, ease of adjustment: let’s be clear, I have wasted days, perhaps weeks of my life struggling with those old saws when I could have had something better all this time. As Tom & Ray always said, it’s the stingy man who spends the most.

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The curse of home repair

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I’m never sure whether to thank or curse my father for whatever he taught me about carpentry. My mother’s father and grandfather were carpenters, my father was a carpenter for a period of time, and all through my life, if something needed doing on the house, we did it ourselves. So I’m cursed with just enough knowledge to believe I can do almost anything myself (except I know I’m bad with concrete), just enough skill to get by (though in my sixth decade, I’m almost good at it), and a hatred of paying contractors outrageous rates to do something I can do myself. So when estimates for replacing our 72-year-old porch came in somewhere in the stratosphere, my wife asked, “Well, can you do this?” Uh, yeah. Sorta.

The challenge with house carpentry is that if you don’t do it all the time, you don’t really know how to do it. You just know how to figure it out. Figuring it out takes a lot longer. And because it’s my house, and my yard, I’m way more careful about the demolition part, especially the millions of nails and shards of glass that come from demolishing a glassed-in porch. I’d like to walk in the yard again someday, so I have to try to be careful about where the pointy stuff lands. (Can’t get that from a contractor).

A few minor technological revolutions have made this vastly easier than any other project I’ve undertaken. First, let me sing the praises of the laser-guided chop saw. Somehow I’ve gotten by for more than 20 years of home ownership without a chop saw, and no, I don’t know why, but man am I glad I have one now. There is a little red laser light that tells me precisely where the blade will cut. It is unbelievable. If I make a mistake, it is only in measuring, no longer in figuring out where the kerf will be. No need to get out the square and draw a cut line — just find the right measure, mark it, line it up with the laser, and chop away. Not to mention that I get the perfect square cuts that always seem to elude me on the table saw.

Second, I finally invested in a new tape measure with engineer’s marks. This means it’s in English measures, but provides decimal fractions of feet. Instead of having to figure out English fractions (and divide them, which is always the challenge), I measure something out as 4.1 feet. Still in feet, with the easy math of metric. Flaming brilliant. (Though I will ask, why have all tape measures gotten so thick? The smallish-handed among us can hardly maneuver the things.)

Third, I invested in a new Milwaukee drill/driver, with the hope that when its batteries can no longer take a charge I’ll be able to get replacements . . . which has not been true for the past two Craftsman drills I’ve had. And not only does this magnificent device show me how much charge is in the battery, it shines a brilliant LED light right on the space I’m drilling. Suddenly, I can see what I’m doing as soon as I put up the drill, instead of having it block the light. So obvious, so brilliant.

Last but not least, the very process of ordering the major parts, doors and windows, has become considerably simpler because you can download all the dimensions and specifications from the internet, figure out your spacing and what will fit there, and start to draw up your plans before you even set foot in the home improvement store. When you order windows every decade or two, it’s a bit of a daunting task, but being able to read through all the specifications and installation instructions makes it much easier.

So if you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m lashed to my laser-guided chop saw.

Centrally located

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Albany Troy map (Photo credit: carljohnson)

This started out as a long, dreary post about why I live where I live, but I thought I’d cut the dreary. The “Non-Urban” part of My Non-Urban Life is that I’m in an early suburb, set just across the river and up a hill from the filth and noise of the city, advertised as a place for healthful living just minutes away by trolley. We’re on little village lots, close to our neighbors (in good and bad ways), on streets that should have had sidewalks but don’t. I live a block from a lovely little lake that has been the center of neighborhood activity since a neighborhood was installed on historic old farmland more than 85 years ago. The schools are good, the politics petty, and diversity almost non-existent. So sometimes I wish I lived in a place where I could tuck down the street for a morning coffee or an evening decaf or grab some groceries without getting in a car (although honestly, there are limited places in the city where that’s true). Since the number one thing I hate about my current location, perhaps the only thing, is one of my current neighbors, going back into a city setting and getting even closer (physically) to my neighbors seems unappealing.

But there are some other parts of the urban fabric I miss. Sidewalks, for instance. Stoops. Looking at the details on the brownstones. Somehow taking a walk through our neighborhood and looking at one sloppy vinyl siding job after another isn’t the same as tripping down Second Street in Troy and looking at the ornate doors and window casings. I miss wondering what goes on in the secluded back patios, what little gems of gardens are hidden there. And I miss being able to walk to work, as I could and did for several years in Syracuse and Albany. While it’s hard to figure out where jobs are going to take you, I’ve worked a substantial number of my years in downtown Albany, and my wife now works in downtown Troy, and it would be nice for one or the other to be able to roll out the door and down the street for a brisk 20-minute walk, rather than having to contend with traffic and bus schedules and the problems of crossing the bridge by bike.

So as we’ve just refinanced and are looking at finally making this into the house we wanted it to be, it’s also tempting to just re-assess and see if there isn’t a better location. I find downtown Troy absolutely charming and have enjoyed the residents I’ve met, but wonder if it could fit my lifestyle. Right now it doesn’t seem that way — I don’t see city houses with off-street parking, room for bikes and boats, and a decent separation from neighbors at a price I can pay. Or where I do, they’re essentially in neighborhoods just like mine, not adding a lot of walkability or diversity; they’re just suburban houses in a city.

So I think we’re staying put in our little slice of non-urbia.

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Floored.

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Home ImprovementBusy. Not all good. Winter’s finally here, or at least the cold and blowy parts of it, and I’ve been off the bike, which is fine because I always need a break from it. Been on the skates a bit though,which has been fantastic for my old broken knee. Turns out to be just what I needed to finally, after a year, get it back to feeling normal. I can even kneel again, which I proved over the weekend by installing a new floor in the hallway. Usually when I finally get around to a project that I’ve put off for 20 years, I find out exactly the reason I’ve put it off — they prove to be nightmares. This one wasn’t like that, it proved to be a dream, especially with my new laser-guided chop saw. That thing’s a frickin’ dream, and for the first time ever I got the trim exactly perfect, everywhere.

All I said was,

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DSC_0756 sm.jpg“It’s a shame we can’t reuse those practically brand new countertops you’re going to throw out, Mom.” Next thing I know, my kitchen is a worksite. There is painting, and drilling, and plumbing, and sanding, and countertop finishing, and every tool I own is in the kitchen, and we’re working around it trying to make meals. And, of course, get our regular work done. I should know better than to give my mother an idea about renovating things, especially when she’s not offering to actually do the work.

By the way, “measure twice, cut once”? How about “measure twice, then before you cut go back and check the original dimensions that you’re working from and be sure they were right in the first place”? Because I don’t want to believe that a certain replacement drawer is cursed, but it doesn’t seem possible I could build it to the wrong size twice, so gypsy curse becomes the most believable explanation.

This is what happens in July

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Because some people in this house are too consumed with the Tour de France each night to be bothered with common housework, there is precisely one clean cereal bowl in the house this morning. It is handpainted and marked as “Mom’s Bowl,” but I am using it despite this possessive proclamation. There are, however, two clean spoons (and, if absolutely necessary, titanium sporks).