Customizing Your House

Among the things I would like to incorporate into the woodworking milieu here at Popular Woodworking Magazine are woodworking projects that one could do on their home other than furniture or built-in cabinetry. I was struck by how important that has been to me when I started packing up my home in Providence, R.I., for a move back to Cincinnati. My wife and I had purchased the house in 1999, just a couple months after my daughter was born. It was a two-family house that we converted to a one-family house. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the best idea, as we got spoiled with having so much space.

When we first moved in, we took over the first floor apartment, and I proceeded to completely remodel the second floor three-bedroom apartment. This included everything from tearing down non load-bearing walls in the kitchen to expose the brick chimney, fixing any cracks in the ceilings and walls, to painting, to refinishing the oak floors.

After I tore down the walls in the kitchen, I had a blank canvas, so I custom-built some shelving units next to the chimney, over the refrigerator and in the pantry. At the time, I only owned a portable Delta table saw that my father-in-law had given me, a router, a jigsaw and a drill. I didn’t even own a cordless drill, something I now use constantly. I remember asking my wife to help me with some of the awkward rips of the plywood, as they were 8′ lengths, and the saw didn’t have a stand. The blade was about a foot off the ground in the middle of our driveway.

The worst part of that build was the finishing. The largest shelving unit was 8′ tall, 12″ deep and 12″ wide, with eight shelves. I stained it first then topped it with a couple of coats of polyurethane. Sanding that first layer of poly was a job. I would do things differently now, but after 12 years, it still looks good, and the realtors raved over the cabinets when we started thinking about selling our house.

Aside from cabinets, I also built some large brackets for a small portico at the back of our house. When we purchased the house, there was nothing supporting the roof. It was sagging a bit, but it had been holding there for 80 some odd years. It didn’t help that it now had four layers of shingles nailed to it. So I bought some 4″x4″ douglas fir in 10′ sections. By this time, I had the use of a band saw, so it was short work to cut some nice curves and notches into the material and construct some really heavy-duty brackets. After putting them together, I took a die grinder with a round bit to it and added a some decoration to the cross members. It was a small detail, but it stood out when you approached the door and it let everyone know that it was a handmade piece.

The thing is, I could have built that piece with a jigsaw with a large blade or a coping saw. The joints were not difficult – just straight cuts and 45° miters. The stock was purchased from the local home-improvement store already milled and true, so all I had to do was concentrate on the joints and dimensions. With a little effort, I added a piece to my house that will last as long as the house does and will always have people touching it and wondering where it came from.

The largest labor of love on the house was when I tore the roof off and installed full-length dormers down the sides, and a dormer in the back to mirror the one that graced the front of the house. I had worked as a carpenter for years when I was in school, so the job didn’t intimidate me. A friend of mine had some free time between jobs. With two 30′ LVL’s running the length of the house, it was definitely not a one-man job.

The worst part of the job, of course, was stripping the four layers of asphalt shingles. It was messy and dangerous, being three floors up. If you are considering doing a similar job yourself, I highly recommend using a safety harnesses and ropes to tether yourself. I owned them because they were required on OSHA jobs, but I was being a cowboy. I was lucky to get a hand on some tarp after sliding down a good 15′ on the dust from the old shingles. Otherwise, because of the speed I was traveling down that roof, the gutter would not have stopped me and I would have landed on a fence. That would not have been good.

My friend was an expert framer, so the two of us had no trouble building the walls and raising the rafters for the roof. I reclaimed the old rafters, and used them for my wall studs. They knew how to make houses back in the day. The 2×6 rafters were a full 2″ thick. That extra half-inch of douglas fir makes an incredible difference in the strength of the board. I learned all about the strength of the boards because it was required for my permit. I had to prove that sistering the floor joists would provide enough strength for the floor. While my walls didn’t need to have that kind of girth, I was glad to save on buying the extra lumber, and the extra thick walls enabled me to add the thicker 2×6 insulation.

With the roof framed, sheathed, and shingled, the fun part began as a woodworker. On the exterior walls, I decided to use a natural stain on white cedar shingles. For the most part, I used the standard practice for shingling walls. But when I had a larger span of wall between the windows, I incorporated a wave pattern into the design, as a tribute to the Ocean State. This took a lot of extra work in that I was sitting out on a plank supported by a wall jack while using the jigsaw, but it was worth the effort.

While I was in school, I scored four beams that were 8″ in diameter and at least 8′ tall. I had to remove some nails and plane them down a bit, but they cleaned up well with a couple of coats of tung oil. When I started the project I immediately thought of those beams. I quickly made a pair of bases for the columns, but the top would be more visible, so I needed to do something more special. Nothing in the order of of Corinthian column, mind you, but a plain column as a transition into the beam didn’t look right.

So I cut up a couple of 3″ x 12″-diameter cylinders, and went to town on the router table. As you can see from the images, I used a very large router bit to cut the design into the stock, and a die grinder with a round carbide bit to give me the wave design. I can’t say I recommend the method I used to get this design as it was a bit precarious on the router table. I really had to hold onto the stock lest it take off at 10,000 rpms.

18 thoughts on “Customizing Your House

  1. George West

    Ajax, good post, and I for one look for many more. Tired of this purist attitude that if a guy ever swung a hammer he can`t possibly do the “fine” woodworking I do. Chris has more hammers than most people have socks, and I`m sure has done work like this on his own home. If Chris wrote this same piece you guys would be fawning over it. Gimme a break…………….

  2. Ajax Alexandre Post author

    As you have read, there are a lot of opinions on this topic. Rest assured, the magazine will not be changing its focus. That being said, my bosses want me to blog about woodworking as part of my job as the Online Community Editor, and I have found this kind of woodworking enormously fulfilling. Of course, the only bad part is when you go to sell your house – you feel like you are leaving a part of yourself behind.

    1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

      Yes, but the good thing is, I now know who to pester if (OK – when) I run into problems in my kitchen rehab 😉

    2. GrantWebb

      I welcome you to the site, and I welcome any additional content that you provide. That is why I read your magazine and come to the site.

    3. dreamcatcher

      “…you feel like you are leaving a part of yourself behind…”

      That is what I LOVE about it – that’s why I love being a house carpenter: I love to make my mark!! Sure I could craft the finest objects in my shop, only to display them in my own house – or – I can go out into the world and make my impression in the homes of others. The piece you leave behind isn’t subtractive, it’s procreative.

      Hence, my mindset towards carpentry and woodworking is that I only care about the crafting not the object. While I sure enjoy being paid to work my craft, after I am finished and all paid up I could care less if you smash it into bits right there. If you let me know that’s your intention I will try to remember to take a photo first. Alas, there are many photos I never took but should’ve. Oh well at least I still have the experience…

      DC

  3. alicoh

    Let me put it this way, start doing home improvement articles and I will drop my subscription.

    1. dreamcatcher

      Let me put it this way, start doing home improvement articles that focus on high quality architectural woodworking, carving, and custom wood details and I will finally subscribe to your magazine.

      DC

  4. Kevin Fitzsimons

    I’m also leery about the magazine going into home projects. I’m a longtime home improvement DIYer and woodworker. I can get home project information from Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking. Popular Woodworking has the nice balance of hand tool work and projects made mostly by hand. I quit getting FW because of it’s subscription price and I’m very happy with PW the way it is. I’m not against change, but some things are “just right” the way they are. Keep up the great magazine. One more thing – the writing is the best. It’s nice to have humor and a light writing style in some of the articles. Schwarz was well trained at OSU!

  5. DonP

    Mr. Alexander

    I find your comments profoundly disturbing. Why some one would join one of the top wood working magazines and then suggest that it begin to take a new direction is puzzling at best.

    This is not our customary argument between the luddites and the imperial Norm-troopers. This is much more basic than that. I do recognize Ben’s point abut the blending of home and furniture. If Mr. Lang did an article about changing my split foyer into a Greene and Greene staircase I would probably like to read it – just not in Popular Woodworking.

    There are a few good magazines that focus on quality home improvements. There is only one – at this point – that deals with quality woodworking. Please leave it alone – it isn’t broke.

    1. Ben Pratt

      Don,
      You alluded to other good magazines for home improvements. Could you recommend one? I’d be happy to maintain two subscriptions, one for project woodworking, and one for house woodworking. I checked out Fine Homebuilding mentioned in another comment, but that deals with all aspects of construction. Do you know of a magazine that concentrates on wood finish work and built-ins?

      1. DonP

        Hi Ben

        Thay have done this type of article in Fine Homebuilding but they also have a diverse readership.

        Sounds like you and the Dreamcatcher would like a Popular Woodworking version of the House Be Mine. Shows good taste.

        Below is a list of Magazine you may want to check out.
        I would also recommend checking for arts and crafts magazines and publications catering to architects. Also the sort of things you seem interested in may be more readily found in books. Perhaps someone who subscribes to one could be of more help on a specific recommendation.

        This Old House Magazine
        Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine
        Better Homes and Gardens Magazine
        Home Improvement Magazine
        Dwell Magazine
        Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine
        Family Handyman Magazine

        As to learning technique – in the end the skills used to build a free standing book case are those needed for a built-in. Not much different – well except who gets blamed for things being out of square.

        1. dreamcatcher

          I have read multiple issues of almost every magazine you listed there and can honestly say that NONE have devotion to the context of quality architectural woodworking. The closest I have seen in any of the publications are the all too thin “Master Carpenter” and the “Finishing Touches” sections in Fine Homebuilding.

          But in the list you just gave, I have never seen any topics tackled concerning the craft of architectural woodwork. Nor do any of them compare to the writing in Popular Woodworking. Some of them are just plain rags in my opinion.

          DC….not “the dreamcatcher” but rather Dreamcatcher as in Dreamcatcher Design+Build: full service architectural design, remodeling, and custom home construction. Yes, there are still real craftsmen in homebuilding.

  6. Steve

    Good stuff Ajax! I love the porch brackets – those are the details that give a house character. I’d love to see more house woodworking.

    Thanks!

  7. JimM

    I’m sorry but I buy Popular Woodworking for information on hand tool use and for good woodworking project. I think home remodeling and that sort of thing belongs in This Old House and Fine Homebuilding Magazines. Keep the focus of Popular woodwring on what your subscriber buy your magazing and not anorther woodworking magazing.

    1. GrantWebb

      I don’t know about that. I can see a place for it here. He’s not talking about hanging a door frame this way or that way. Norm did a show on fireplace mantels and the episode of The American Woodshop the other day was about making fluted columns and molding for a interior door. I think of woodworking as more than just furniture and tools. Its projects like the ones described above that gives me the go ahead from the wife to go buy new tools when I tell her that I have to have this or that to get the job done.

    2. Jonathan Szczepanski

      I think there is a place for interior details in Popular Woodworking. The title of the magazine isn’t Popular Furniture. But I think JimM makes a good point, that the subject matter of customizing your home could be a slippery slope into carpentry, so be careful.

      Jonathan
      =========================================

    3. Ben Pratt

      I’m a subscriber, and my entire purpose of learning woodworking is in order to build for the home. For me, stand-alone furniture projects are only a part of the whole picture…built-in buffets, bookcases, room divider columns, corbels, wainscots, box-beams…these are equally, if not more, important. Bob Lang’s ‘Shop Drawings for Craftsman Interiors’ is an excellent resource, but it’s great to see continuing and expanding coverage on this project type.
      There will always be plenty of hand tool info in this magazine; the editor is a hand tool aficionado! But I for one welcome the addition of house built-in projects. Thanks Ajax!

      1. dreamcatcher

        I am in total agreement with Grant, Jonathan, and Ben here. I love woodworking! I am a professional carpenter – mostly remodeler now but used to be full time cabinetmaker. I am a carpenter on the jobsite and in my own woodshop. Woodwork is my profession and my hobby.

        That in mind, my favorite woodwork is those built into houses – It is the highest form of woodworking to me!

        I reason that if you make a chair but grow to dislike it, you just get/make a new chair. If you make your mark on the posts and beams of your house, you gotta live with it or find a new house. Whereas a chair is a chair anywhere in the world, details such as custom column capitols, carved beams, mantles, doors, and trim are permanently attached to the architecture they help to define. That attachment is a true commitment by the craftsman and hence why I respect it so much.

        DC

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