Archives for the month of: October, 2011

“Why are you moving that crappy wood?”

This was a logical question asked by a friend when we packed up our old house. Among the boxes and furniture to be moved was a pile of ancient, filthy 2 x 4s, complete with nails and tacks dangerously protruding from the surface. Picking up a piece without gloves was a sure path towards a nasty splinter or case of tetanus. When you ask friends to help you move, things like this probably shouldn’t be in the job description.

About a year before we moved out of our last house we did a major remodel in our bedroom. Major as in we pulled down plaster to the studs, moved two walls, added a bathroom and built two new closets. In a turn-of-the-century house, this was no small task.

When I knocked the plaster off the walls though I found treasure. The framing lumber, as my friend noticed, looked crappy. But after closer inspection I realized it wasn’t. Rather, it was old growth, quarter-sawn (mostly) Douglas fir.

This might not mean anything to you, but once planed and finished that junky looking wood is absolutely beautiful, and almost impossible to find. Dense, heavy and tight-grained, this is the kind of lumber many an old-growth forest was cut down to produce. One of the studs is easily triple the weight of what you’d find at the lumber yard today. And back in the day—as in 1912—it’s what houses were framed from.

Two moves and roughly two years after I salvaged the crappy wood I found a use for it. This weekend I built an office desk.

To go off on another semi-related tangent, the office in our house isn’t a stand-alone room. Rather, it’s an area creatively sandwiched between our living room and laundry closets. We wanted to keep square footage down, and Matt Melcher encouraged us to think about how we needed the office to function.

Did we need a door? No.

How much space did we need beyond a large work surface and lots of storage? Not much. It’s not like we’re meeting clients at home, and even if we were I don’t think I’d traipse one through the entire house to get to a 10 x 10 office, or whatever.

When I think of all of the offices I’ve worked in one of my favorites was quite literally an IT closet. It was this tight little afterthought of a room that had a giant window, tiny desk and filing cabinet. Period. I loved it though. No room for clutter, lots of privacy and a great view.

Anyway, back to the desk. In thinking of its design there were a list of things that struck us.

  • First,  to show off the wood. Old fir has a beautiful, almost orange hue to it, but with occasional creamy streaks of sapwood.
  • Second, we dig design that shows off structure. For example, check out the Rietveld “Red and Blue” and “Berlin” chairs from the 1920s. One of these days I’ll get around to building one. It would make a great patio chair. Or maybe we’ll just make one out of Legos.
  • Nothing too heavy-feeling. A massive, permanent-feeling piece wouldn’t work well in what’s a generally tight space. The rub with a lighter design though is strength and stability. Sometimes things that look light are as stable as a noodle.
  • Finally, nothing too finicky to construct. The reality is I’m getting a bit fried on the cabinet-making front.

I jointed, cut and milled some of the old wood down into 2 x 2s, looking for sections mostly free of knots. Watching the pock-marked, dirty wood run through the planer was a crazy sight as the cutters  peeled off the brown crud. A lot of the wood had nail and tack holes, but we kind of like this. K says it’s part of the story and a nod to a house that gave us fantastic memories.

The desktop is a leftover piece of fir plywood edge-banded with 1/4″ solid wood.

The top sits on four of the 2 x 2s, which rest on a longer 2 x 2 anchored to the wall. The supports sandwich vertical legs. It’s simple and strong, but quite elegant in person.

I thought about a couple of different ways to join everything together, eventually landing on exposed screws and washers. Originally I wanted to use dowels, in a darker wood like walnut. While not terribly difficult this is a bit fussier, plus I kind of like the exposed screws. They show how everything works and tells the story of  the structure of the desk. It’s a solution that works for me visually, and it’s pretty easy to assemble, especially using what’s called a finishing washer, which hugs the screw head. Still, I was a bit stressed drilling the holes for fear of royally messing up all the prep work.

We’re really pleased with how this came together. While not quite as easy as an Ikea project, which one could  argue it looks like, it wasn’t terrible. It was a weekend project, but milling and finishing this wood was time consuming. There’s a reason why furniture built from reclaimed wood is expensive. It can be tricky to work with, requires pulling nails, etc. Fir also splinters easily, so it took time to cut. I went as far as running masking tape around areas that were especially important ahead of cutting. And I banked some good tweezer time each evening.

More pictures to come. Our camera’s charger has been missing since the move, but there’s a $40 fix for that. Until then …

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We had a good weekend. On the project front, I finished installing the living room shelves and the guts of our office storage. This is kind of a big deal, as it 1) makes the living room feel quite complete (because it is!) and 2) got rid of a stack of boxes that littered the two rooms. Good stuff all around.

The living room shelves in particular are quite beautiful. Vertical grain fir boxes, custom-sized for each opening, moulding that needed to be scribed to fit perfectly with the imperfections of the drywall, and of course K’s handiwork applying polyurethane.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention our daughter L in this list. Seems she noticed too. So yesterday, after watching K rock her leg of the Spokane Marathon (that’d be 6.7 miles in 54 minutes–nice!) L got quite excited to help. Her idea was to drill all of the holes for the shelf supports. Now she’s quite coordinated for a 6-year-old. But drilling perfectly straight holes in very expensive wood? Probably not the best task. She was willing to settle for installing the steel shelf support pins into the holes I drilled  though.

It turned out that some of these were tough to push in. So, being the veteran construction observer she is, Lyra suggested using a hammer. I thought this made sense. So she ran to the garage and came back with a giant framing hammer. I guess she couldn’t find the sledge hammer.

The main problem with using a framing hammer isn’t its size, but the texture of its face. It’s waffled. When framing and whacking giant nails into equally giant pieces of lumber you’ll never see, the waffle is great because it keeps the hammer from skating off of the nail, and landing instead on say your thumb. But it also wreaks havoc when it comes in contact with wood, destroying the surface and leaving behind a nice waffle-shaped embossing.

Alas, she was so proud of herself for finding the hammer in our catastrophe of a garage that I actually let her use it, with careful oversight. Trust but verify. This philosophy worked well for Nixon, so how about us? All is well that ends well. L did a great job, carefully tap, tap, tapping away.

Better pictures will follow some other time. And if there are any mind-reading blog visitors, if you could let me know which box we packed our camera charger in I’d appreciate it.

What could possibly go wrong?

Choking up on the handle for better control. That's my girl!

The semi-finished product.

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Yowsa. It’s been busy around here lately. I’ve been flying (literally and figuratively) at work, L is of course back to school, gymnastics and lots of playing, and K is cranking on a bunch of fronts too. We’ve been keeping our feet to the pedals at home in an attempt to finish some big projects. So consider this an interim project report. It’ll be light on the details, but I’ll at least post a few pictures.

And speaking of pictures our trusty camera has been a bit funky lately. For some reason the images aren’t quite up to snuff and are all a bit fuzzy. Chances are the lens is coated in sawdust, like so many of our things, but put it on the list of stuff to figure out.

Patio-building. 

OK, I’ve referenced this one a bunch lately, but Jesse is just about through with his part of this project. He and Scott poured a small retaining wall on Friday which will add a really nice detail to the big courtyard. We’ll now have two levels, about 7 inches apart, separated by a step/garden bed. Awesome.

Scott at work. This is taken from our bedroom. The retaining wall will be a nice step to a lower part of the court, and breaks up the pattern a bit.

Cabinetmaking.

I’ve been cranking away on a stack of storage-related items. The shelves in the kitchen storage posts are built, finished and installed. Big exhale on this one, and we love how much this helps make the room feel finished. I still have a free-standing unit to build that replaces the wire racks we have in place temporarily, but am short a big piece of butcher block. Bummer. Soon enough though…

More shelves to the right of the refrigerator. These hold cups and glasses and most importantly, coffee making equipment.

Panel installing.

In the living room we’ve had two big voids to stare at that are filled with crap, I mean boxes of precious possessions. These are designed to have a 3/4″ thick solid panel of vertical grain fir, that I thought would look best with a 1/8″ reveal between the wood and drywall. The first one went in yesterday with one more to come. On the backside of these panels is deep storage that hold books, art supplies and electronic gadgetry, accessed from our office niche. In the soffit above the panel we’ll eventually install a similar fir panel, this one just a 1/4″ thick.

Another fir panel will eventually sit in the recess above.

Art making.

K plans to write a more detailed post at some point, but she deserves a major hat tip for her various art projects. This weekend I hung her most recent, which she’s typically humble about. I’m not though. It’s amazing. K trolled through our scrap wood pile, finding discarded pieces of fir, cedar, plywood and beech. She then arranged and painted them before installing them to a panel, which now hangs in our dining room. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but especially at night it creates a stunning effect.

Check out the shadows. In person this is quite a piece.