Sunday, June 28, 2009

The first joint

Today I fitted the first pieces together! With a little bit of paring with the chisel and a few authoritative blows with the mallet, the tong and fork joints slipped together beautifully! After so many months working on individual parts, this was a really satisfying moment. There are only three pieces of the sill together and already I am starting to place the wood stove and furniture into the meager footprint of my house, aranging them and planning out the internal design. I now have a good idea of the amount of space that I have to work with. Surprisingly, It seems bigger than I imagined it.
In all the excitement however, I managed to cut the last piece of the sill one foot too short. Measure twice, cut once. I called Larry- he will have a new timber cut for me by Friday. Not bad. Now I need to figure out something creative to do with the extra timber.

A funny thing happens at the end of a productive bout of work. I see it again and again working on projects with my dad, at school or at work. After a long day of work, everyone involved will sit back and gaze contently at the day's progress. For myself, there are often some thoughts of what needs to be done or what I could have done better, but these are dominated by the feeling of contentment and the vision of the finished project. After this momentous point, I have an even greater drive to finish. One more week of long hours at work and then I should have more time for my house.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Busy week at work

This week at work we have been erecting one of the houses we cut this winter. Working on site like this generally means long hours and exhausting work in the hot sun. Unfortunately I havn't had much energy left when I get home to work on my project. I did start cutting the first sticks though! The sills are now well on their way to being finished.

On the first day of cutting I learned that it takes an average of 58 strides to navigate from my work area to the fuse box in the basement. In the frenzy of putting together the stick list for the sawer, I mistakenly ordered 8"x8" stock instead of 6"x8" for the sills. 
I was just going to use the 8x8, but I changed my mind and decided that I would re-saw them myself. I want to reduce the weight and height of the house as much as possible, even if it is only two inches of wood. 
I borrowed one of the 13" circular saws from work to make the cut- "the good one" I was told. Like most of the tools in the shop, it looks like it took a tumble off a roof at some point in its long hard life. On this particular saw, one corner of the base is folded almost entirely back on itself and the blade leaves a lot to be desired.
The 13" saw can only cut to a depth of about 5", so in order to rip two inches off the 8x8s I had to make a cut from each side of the timber.
If the timber is square and the saw is true, the cuts meet in the middle. This is not an easy cut for saw to make and the condition of the blade and the fact that the pine is still green only compounded the difficulty. After about thirty seconds of labored cutting, the breaker tripped in the basement. I reset it and tried again.  After the fifth run to the basement, the switch on the saw actually fused itself shut and the saw wouldn't stop when I let go of the trigger. About half an hour with a philips screw driver an some emery cloth fixed this problem and I continued cutting. By the time I had finished the seventh run to the basement, I gave up on the saw and finished the last few inches with my freshly sharpened six-point hand saw. What a difference! After cleaning and squaring the cut with the planer, you couldn't even tell that I had made a mistake. Besides, now I have two nice 2x8s to use somewhere.

After all of this, I was ready to start marking and cutting the timber. I find laying out the joinery to be very relaxing and it was a welcome change from the rip cut. 
The process is simple: look at the drawing of the timber, draw each view on the respective face of the timber. Double check the measurements and the layout. Have someone else check them. Check them again yourself. Repeat ad nauseam before making any cuts. 

In this picture, I have already finished the layout and made the two long rip cuts which will form the fork end of a tong and fork joint at the corner of the sill.
 I have also cut the square mortice that will receive the post tenon. The tenon goes through both pieces of the sill, locking them together.

At work I have been using a power morticing machine to rough out mortices, but for this project I am using the old hand powered device in the picture. I was amazed that it took almost no effort to use and would cut a mortice in about the same amount of time as the electric machine. It is also much more pleasant to use since it is quiet and doesn't make fine dust.

After finishing the rough cuts, most of the joinery is finished with a chisel. A good chisel can pare a rough-cut face like this one right down to the line making it flat and smooth.

All four ends of the longer sills are now cut and finished. The next step is to lay out and cut the dovetail pockets for the floor joists.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A look back to the beginning

I was looking through one of my notebooks today when I stumbled across a sketch dated 10/4/07. It looks like my overall idea hasn't changed drastically, but my priorities have shifted. The porch was nixed and apparently I decided that a bigger kitchen was more important than having a bathroom. Cooking has definitely become more of a passion since then. Depending on its final location, an out-house could be built; but at this point I picture this house being close to a communal space where a bathroom could be used.
People have been moving into small cabins in the middle of the woods forever, however living in a rustic off-grid cabin in the city seems to be a novel idea (or at least new this decade). I like the idea of it being in the back yard of one of the many collective houses that seem to be springing up in cities everywhere. I would have the best of both worlds: the stimulation and excitement of living with people, and the privacy of my own house.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Selection Day

On Tuesday I finished planing the fifteen 6"x8" timbers which will become the posts, rafters and tie beams(more on planing later). I spread them all out so that I could select timbers for each location in the house. First, each stick is checked for a crown, which is marked with an X and a sweep, noted with an arrow. Rafters almost always want to be placed with the crown up so that the weight of the timber and roof will work to straighten it. Other members can be pushed and pulled into relative straightens by the rest of the structure.  
     Next, the ten footers were pulled aside for the posts. Luckily they are all relatively straight so I only had to place them based on appearance. The two pieces that have the best three sides were chosen for the center posts since they will have the most visibility. The corner posts obviously only show two sides, so I placed them such that uglier sides would be hidden against the walls. With the posts selected and labeled, I moved onto the remaining nine timbers. I need three nice straight tie beams- again I picked a really clean one for the center. The other two would have two hidden sides giving me another chance to hide ugly knots. The remaining six timbers will become rafters. I picked the straightest four for the gables so that I would not cause a bow
 in the wall and  I hid some more unsightly marks on what will be the roof and walls. It is amazing what you can get away with!
     Now that I have scribbled notes all over the timbers that I spent so much time meticulously planing, I am ready to move onto the next step; layout and cutting! This is going to start looking like something very soon.

I'm not the only one...

The Workshop

     My shop is actually just a corner of my living room partitioned off by the pile of timbers. It is a very comfortable place to work, especially with the big doors open. There is enough room on the main floor of the firehouse to test fit all of the bents- in fact I will probably end up assembling most of the house, excluding the roof, right here. I could even do the siding and some of the interior work here, and then skid the whole thing out on a trailer when I find a spot to put it.
     While the timbers were drying this winter, I built myself a set of oak saw-horses. I use similar ones at the shop where I work and didn't think that it would be a big deal to make a set- two days work at most. The owner of the company gave me a good straight 5"x7" stick for the tops and a few of the most gnarly, twisted, sorry looking timbers I have ever seen for the legs and braces. This really didn't matter since none of these pieces needed to be any longer than about two feet. 
After a few hours with the planer they looked a whole lot better. The design is basically the same as the ones I use at work. I will post the drawings- feel free to copy them.
     About half way though cutting the saw-horses, I realized that this set needed nearly half the number of pieces contained in the entire cabin. To make it worse, the oak was incredibly hard to cut after curing for so many years. It is actually much more work to cut the joinery on small pieces like this than it is on a 16 footer because they don't have enough weight to hold themselves down. Everything needs to be clamped. So much for a quick job. I finally finished them after a couple of months of sporadic work. The result was worth it though. It is really nice to have a sturdy surface to work on.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ice Storms and Brandy

    I finished the design this past winter and ordered the timbers from a sawyer named Larry out in Rutland. I showed up one cold blustery Saturday morning with a list of what I wanted and only a vague idea of how to go about ordering it. Larry happily walked me through the process and agreed to cut the 1132 board feet of white pine that I needed for an incredibly low price. I ordered all of the timbers 1/8" oversize so that I could plane them square after they dried, but I didn't even think to consider this when I calculated the total footage from which he based his price. Larry pointed out this mistake, but didn't charge me for the extra volume of wood(not that it was a substantial amount, but it was a nice gesture). 
     I returned on an even colder and more blustery Saturday morning one month and two hard New England ice storms later to pick up the wood. Larry seemed extra jolly and immediately thrust out his hands in greeting. In one he held a slightly slushy Miller High Life(the best high life I have ever had, by the way), and in the other a bottle of cherry brandy. "To take the edge off the cold." he said. If I didn't know it from our first meeting, there was no doubt now that Larry was my guy. The timbers were beautiful- square, clean and exactly to dimension. 
It took two overloaded runs in the pickup to get the timbers back to my house. With two 15' 8"x8"s hanging off the back 
of the 6'6" bed, I wasn't concerned about the rear wheels getting traction in the snow, but I was wondering if the front wheels would stay on the ground on the way up to my house. Just in case the extreme pitch of the truck wasn't enough to warn drivers to keep their distance, Larry Gave me a red flag to tack on the end of the longest timber.
     Surprisingly, both loads made the journey home and into my living room/workshop without incident. I stacked and stickered the timbers, which were still green, so that they would get proper air circulation and dry evenly over the coming months.


Here is a rough SketchUp model of the frame. SketchUp is an amazing program available for free from Google. It is great for rendering an idea, but after using so many full-function CAD programs, I get frustrated with what it can almost but not quite do. You cant beat the price though. I am still doing all of the detailed joinery drawings and calculations by hand. As much as I love doing this with CAD software, sometimes it is faster by hand.