Carriage House – episode 2

In May I went back up to Kentucky for a couple of weeks to continue renovating the Carriage House so that we can live in it while we renovate the Big Brick House. My ever-loving wife, “Doreen” (not her real name), ditched me on that trip claiming she had to go to work because she had a job. (Some people take their jobs too seriously, in my humble opinion. I find that a job cuts into my day too much. But maybe that is just me.)

My plan was to have some fun and build some walls according to the new floor layout we had worked out. Well, that was the plan.

The back steps of the Carriage House go up to a deck where you can go into what used to be the kitchen. The door jambs (the boards on each side of the door) had dark blotches near the bottom of the door that stood out because the door and the jambs are painted white. Although I was tempted to just repaint the jambs and the door, I decided the grown-up thing to do was to take a closer look and see what was going on.

Water was obviously the culprit because the black stuff was right in the bottom corners of the door. It was probably due to a poor job of caulking and some fresh caulk followed by repainting would do the trick.

It is always best to clean out any loose caulk or other gunk in the crack before applying new caulk. So I took a pry bar and poked around where the jambs meet the threshold. I didn’t feel much resistance. The pry bar was poking more into air than wood. By the time I had cleaned out all of the rotten wood I had a hole big enough to store a large carrot (though I wouldn’t advise actually doing that). The other side of the door was the same.

A little bit of digging reveals major rotting and missing wood. Ew!
More rot. No caulk anywhere to be seen. Even the flashing was sliced through.

Furthermore, it wasn’t a case of a poor caulking job–there was no caulk at all! The door frame was just sitting there with a couple of nails holding it up and absolutely nothing to keep out the rain. When I pulled out the door frame to reinstall it, I also pulled up the plywood subfloor in front of the door and discovered that the rot extended down into the floor joists. So now we aren’t talking about just a couple of door jambs that need to be repaired, we are talking about the whole floor rotting out.

Even the plate under the door is rotted out.

Needless to say, if I had just painted over those dark spots and called it good we would have had a big expensive problem down the road after a few more years of rain did even more damage. Doreen would not have been amused and my main “job” is to keep her amused.

After digging out all of the wet, rotten wood, I cut some replacement pieces for the joists out of PT (pressure-treated) lumber and fastened them in place along with some pieces to wedge into the carrot-sized holes in the jambs. Then I caulked (what a concept!) around the door frame and the joint where the jambs meet the threshold and then nailed the door frame into the wall and caulked some more.

New bottom plate to replace old one.

After sliding in the aluminum threshold under the door and flashing and caulking it (of course), I cut and installed a new piece of plywood for the subfloor.

3/4″ plywood for the subfloor makes it level with the original boards.

With the door frame all spiffed up, I could get back to building some missing walls and my full-time job of keeping Doreen amused.

Carriage House – episode 1

The Carriage House behind the Big Brick House in Paducah, Kentucky, is two stories with a total of 1700 square feet. It originally had room for four carriages–each with a large door in front and a small service door in back for the groom. Two of the four large doors have been bricked in.

The Carriage House

My ever-loving wife, “Flora” (not her real name), has for many years wanted an older house that we could completely remodel exactly the way “we” wanted it. A blank slate, as it were.

When we bought the aforementioned property, both houses were stripped down to the studs. The slate was as blank as it gets. Flora was thrilled.

The lower level of the Carriage House will become my permanent workshop and base for renovating the Big Brick House. The second level will become a one-bedroom apartment where we can stay until the Big Brick House is livable.

The top priority is to renovate the second floor of the Carriage House into an apartment. We started by ripping out the old flooring in the kitchen, which had multiple layers that were either glued or stapled or nailed.

Top layer of kitchen flooring has been pulled up. Three more layers to go.
Flora attacking the flooring with a hammer and pry bar.

We found that no one method or tool was able to pull up the flooring. We used combinations of a short pry bar, a medium size pry bar, a large crowbar, a regular hammer, and a 5 lb. hammer. When we got down to the nailed oak flooring, I used the circular saw to cut it into 24″ wide chunks so that we would be prying up a manageable section at a time. The saw was set to the depth of the oak flooring, which was 3/4″. The embedded staples that had held the previous layer of vinyl stuck up and made it hard to hold the saw straight and level. I considered hammering the staples flat before sawing but decided to just plow through.

Flora standing up straight on a well-deserved break.

A previous owner had partially installed a tub surround in what would become part of the new kitchen, so it had to be removed …

Old tub surround had to be moved out of the new kitchen.

… and carried down these steps. This staircase will be removed and the floor extended to form the walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

Stairs to lower level that will be removed and covered over. Notice on the top step the lovely vinyl tiles that were removed from the kitchen floor.

With the tub gone I could take down the walls for the old, tiny bathroom. Contrary to what you see on TV, you do not start by swinging a sledge hammer and breaking things. The first step is to remove any wiring or metal pieces in the walls. Then hammer in the points of any nails that are sticking all the way through the studs. It is a lot easier to pull nails out of a stud while the stud is still attached to the rest of the wall. Pulling some of the nails out also makes it easier to knock the stud itself out from the wall. When the stud is free you can take out the remaining nails and stack the studs out of the way.

Studs from the old walls stacked up and ready to be used to make new walls.

I pulled the studs one at a time from the old bathroom walls but left the studs at the ends to hold up the top plate.

Kitchen floor stripped down and most of old bathroom walls removed.

Although you can’t see it in the photos, the top plate was about 18′ long and since I was working alone, I used some old wiring to tie up one end of it while I worked across its length knocking it loose from the ceiling joists.

One end of the top plate tied up so that the whole thing wouldn’t come crashing down when it came loose.

Scaffolding on wheels is really helpful in situations like this.

The next task was to support the sections of brick where an overzealous worker in days of yore had removed way too many bricks to make room for the plumbing stack. I think many of the adjacent bricks were held up with nothing more than friction. I stood a couple of studs on a sturdy spot and propped up the unsupported section of brick.

Somebody removed too many bricks.

I did the same for the other side of the “slot” under the window in the picture above.

The next project was to replace the wall between the kitchen and the dining room with a 14′ beam. The helpful engineer at the lumber yard calculated that I needed either a pair of LVLs or three 2″ x 12″ boards nailed together. Since the LVLs cost twice as much as the 2″ x 12″ boards (and I was working alone) I went with the boards.

Before you install a beam to support a load (the ceiling joists in this case) you have to have a temporary wall to support it. I was fortunate because the wall was already there and I wanted to put the beam just a few inches away from the old wall.

I installed a jack stud on each end where the beam would ultimately rest and moved the scaffolding next to the wall. I rested one end of the first board on the top of the scaffolding.

First 2″ x 12″ leaning on scaffolding.

Then I climbed up on the scaffolding and pulled the board into position so that the ends were resting on their respective jack studs. A strap held up one end while I wrestled the other end into its place. Since the right hand jack stud was on an outside wall there was no room to slide the board to the right to provide clearance for inserting the left end. But there was plenty of space to insert the left end of the board first and push it on through to make room to swing the right end into place and slide it over its jack.

After the first board was positioned left to right there was still the issue of ensuring that it didn’t have any bow in it, which would make the beam curve a little. I put my new laser level on the floor and aligned the endpoints of the laser line with the ends of the board such that the laser line should ideally run along the edge of the board the whole way. It didn’t, of course, but a clamp pulled the board straight and I put a couple of nails through the ceiling joists into the board to hold it.

A clamp pulls the board straight so that the laser beam runs exactly along the edge.

You could use a string or a chalk line but a laser is way cooler.

The second 2″ x 12″ board was lifted into place similarly and nailed to the first in a zigzag pattern spaced about 12″ apart. Same for the third board.

14′ beam in place supporting the ceiling joists. The temporary wall behind it is no longer needed.

After the beam was all nailed together, I doubled the jack on each end so that they were 3″ thick and plenty strong to support a heavy beam.

Since we are keeping the oak flooring in the dining room and the board ends are “ragged,” i.e. not lined up, I used the bottom plate of the wall as a guide for my circular saw to cut a nice straight line in the flooring where it will butt up against the new kitchen flooring.

Then I took down the old wall separating the kitchen and dining room by removing as many nails as I could that were used to toenail the studs to the bottom plate. Old nails tend to come out easier than modern nails because they have a slick coating on them rather than the cement coating used in modern construction, which melts as the nail is driven it and then bonds to the wood. If you can get the claw of the crowbar under the heads of the old shiny nails they will pop right out.

A few taps of the hammer at the bottom of the studs knocked them free from the bottom plate but still nailed to the top plate.

Old stud wall between kitchen and dining room. Notice the bottoms of the studs have been knocked free from the bottom plate.

When the studs are hanging from the top plate like that, they can be rocked back and forth until they slip off the nails and come free. This means you can stay on the floor for the entire operation. After pulling up the bottom plate I brought the scaffolding back around so I could knock the top plate free from the ceiling joists. As you might expect there were lots of nails in the top plate to pull out.

The beam really opens the place up.

Open concept kitchen and dining.
The old wall between the kitchen and bathroom is gone. The new wall will start between the windows where all of that brick is missing.

Next time I go to Paducah I’ll take down a few more little walls and start building the new walls right where we (and by “we,” I mean Flora) want them.

Sail shades for a sunny playground

For some reason the kids weren’t interested in using the very nice slide in the new playground at the church. Some top-notch detective work revealed that their main complaint was getting their gluteus maximi seared on the way down the slide by the stainless steel that had been baking in the sun all day.

The director, “Sally” (not her real name) asked me for advice on how to solve the problem. My suggestion that they wear thicker pants was not well received. Instead Sally wondered if I could install some sail shades over the playground equipment to ward off the blazing sun.

Sail shades come in a variety of sizes and two main shapes. The triangular ones look like actual sails from a sailboat. I chose the rectangular ones because they cover a lot more area for a given size. For example, a triangular sail shade 12′ on a side will shade only about half of the area that a rectangular sail shade 12′ on a side will cover. This playground required three 13′ x 20′ rectangular shades.

Each corner of the shade needs to be pulled at a 45 degree angle to keep it flat and tight. With three shades that is a total of 12 lines pulling in various directions and this quickly became a complex 3-D geometry problem. My initial thought was to use a program like SketchUp but in addition to the steep learning curve there is the issue of visualizing an intricate 3-D pattern of sails and rope on a 2-D screen and I just didn’t feel I was up to the task.

So I built a model.

Playground sail shades mock up

I cut out “sails” from some heavy cloth and used string for the ropes. The model made it easy to try different sail orientations and attachment points.

Playground equipment model

The playground has a large building wall on one side that provides several places to attach some of the ropes. There is also a utility pole directly across from the building at the edge of the playground, which provides some more. But the model showed that these weren’t going to be enough to keep the sails flat and tight. So I added a new pole to the model in the form of a broom handle and adjusted its position until the sails attached to it had the right shape. (It turns out that adding the pole to the model is not enough. You have to actually install the new pole in the real world.)

Map of sails, lines, and hardware

The model made it easy to try different positions and heights until the playground was shaded and the lines were straight. Then I measured everything on the model and converted it to feet in the real world. A color-coded “map” of the sails and lines became the blueprint for the actual installation.

Since this is near the coast it is important to be able to easily get the sails down in the event of a hurricane and then to put them back up in the correct order and position. A set of colored zip ties makes it almost idiot-proof. At the end of every rope there is a zip tie that matches the zip tie on the wall or pole where it is attached. For example, one sail has a rope with a green zip tie on its metal ring that is attached to a hook in the building wall that also has a green zip tie.

Notice the turnbuckles attaching to the utility pole

The lines connect to the eye hooks on the utility poles with turnbuckles, which allow me to adjust the tension of the sails. I’ve found that the sails tend to stretch a little over time and it is necessary to retie some of the lines so they are a little shorter and then tighten them up with the turnbuckles.

Shaded playground


Here is a video comparing the model to reality.


Sally was so pleased with the playground and the cool slide that she has gone into business. Sally sells sail shades by the seashore.

Parts (about $300 total):

Ollieroo Shade Sail UV Block Fabric Patio Outdoor Canopy Sun Shelter


5/16″ Double Braid Polyester Rope Blue/white (about 200′)


Yasorn M8 Open Cup Hook Screw Stainless Steel Expansion Heavy Duty Bolts (screws into building wall)


National Hardware N197-244 V2151 Lag Screw Eye in Stainless Steel (screws into utility pole)


Uxcell a16022600ux0043 M5 x 60mm 201 Stainless Steel Webbing Strapping Welded O Rings (connects rope to hook screw in building wall)

uxcell M8 Stainless Steel 304 Hook & Eye Turnbuckle (connects rope to lag screw eye in pole)

Table saw workbench using stuff I keep

Ever since my age was in the single digits, I’ve enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. I always end up with extra pieces (who doesn’t?) but rather than throw them away, I keep them. My ever-loving wife, “Patience” (not her real name), has made peace with my stock piling habits, although I’m pretty sure she rolls her eyes when she thinks I am not watching. The key is to find uses for those oddball parts–double credit if I’m making or fixing something for Patience.

Craftsman contractor saw nameplate

My Craftsman table saw excels at widely distributing sawdust. It is a contractor-style saw, which means it is a motor mounted on four legs and wide open to the world. I tried installing a bottom cobbled together from pieces of thin aluminum with a shop vac connected to a roof boot (PVC pipes go up through them) re-purposed as a dust port in the center. That helped contain the dust but most of it just piled up on the inside rather than being sucked out. What I needed was a cabinet table saw. Or at least a table saw in a cabinet. Continue reading Table saw workbench using stuff I keep

Paving the way

When we go house hunting my ever-loving wife, “Daisy” (not her real name) and I draw up a list of requirements for the new house. We divide these requirements into two categories: 1) Desired and 2) Non-negotiables. The list of non-negotiables for our last house was short and realistic:

  1. Not next to an apartment building
  2. Not near a train
  3. Garage and driveway.

I found the perfect house. Unfortunately it was right next to an apartment building, the train ran behind the backyard, and it didn’t have a garage or driveway. By some miracle I convinced (a very skeptical) Daisy we should buy it.

My ever-loving wife also wanted a screen porch but had to settle for an open deck. It finally occurred to me that we could turn the deck into a screen porch that would double as a carport and turn the brick sidewalk along the house into a driveway.

Daisy’s screen porch

The driveway needed to be “historically compatible” and permeable so that the rainwater would soak into the ground rather than run off and flood our neighborhood. I chose 3 ½” thick, colored pavers from Lowcountry Paver set about ½” apart. Laying the pavers is the easy part. The hard part is giving them a strong foundation, which means digging down through the clay using shovels and pick axes like the inmates at the beginning of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Continue reading Paving the way

I smell a rat (in my car!)


My father-in-law was having outpatient surgery in North Carolina so I drove my ever-loving wife, “Robin” (not her real name), up there the day before so we could take him to the hospital. The weather forecast said there would be a big snowstorm the day of the procedure. Sometimes the meteorologists are right and sometimes they are way off. This time they nailed it. About 12″ of snow fell overnight and into the next day.

A few days after we returned to South Carolina and warmer weather we noticed an unusual sour odor in the car. Each day it got a little worse. I did some research and concluded the cause must be mold in the A/C vents as a result of the heavy snow getting in there and then melting. Mold likes cool, moist places to grow. The car probably has a design flaw with a low spot in the ductwork trapping the water and encouraging the mold to grow.

Numerous articles and You Tube videos said the solution is to spray Lysol, lots of Lysol, into the “cabin air intake” while running the A/C on high and the fan turned up all the way. My first question was, “What’s a cabin air intake?” Continue reading I smell a rat (in my car!)

Sagging ceiling beam (me up, Scotty)


Check out the antenna! He must be rich!

A few decades ago the car phone was invented and the car phone antenna held by a magnet to the hood quickly became a status symbol. Not everyone could afford these expensive new phones–but many people wanted to give the impression they could. Some smart entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation and invented the Car Phoney, which was a dummy antenna with a wire that lead nowhere. For a few bucks you could slap an antenna on the hood and draw envious glances from the Joneses.

A decade or so before that it was all the rage to have exposed ceiling beams in the living room. The beams were typically dark-colored against a white ceiling. Real ceiling beams rested on top of the outer walls and held up the rafters of the second floor when there weren’t dividing walls to support the weight.

Fake ceiling beams

Again, many people wanted the look–even though the house didn’t need the support. So builders built these long beam-shaped boxes and attached them to the ceiling so that it looked like you had big rugged beams. The key phrase here is “attached them to the ceiling,” which means they were suspended from the ceiling rather than holding it up.

My parents’ living room ceiling had a pair of these pseudo-beams. They (the beams, not my parents) were clad in that rough sawn wood that was popular back in the 70s.

Picture what is going on. You’ve got two heavy beams, whose ends are not supported, hanging from a bunch of heavy rafters. Take a wild guess what is going to happen.

It did.

Old heavy things sag. That is just the way it is. For confirmation we need look no farther than my ever-loving wife, “Maggie” (not her real name), of 40-ish years. By that I mean of course that the bed and couch and stuffed chairs we got when we were first married have all started sagging over time. Age and gravity conspire to bring everything down–like the ceiling beams in my parents’ old house.

Fortunately only one end of the beams separated from the ceiling joists they were nailed to. There was a 2″ gap between the ends of the beams and the ceiling.

Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.
Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.

I put a landscape timber between a hydraulic jack and a wood plate at the end of the beam and started pumping. The ceiling creaked and groaned as it went up but it didn’t crack. After propping that beam up with another landscape timber I jacked up the other beam.

My first attempt to fix the problem was to go in the attic above the ceiling and mount some large angle brackets to the end joist (or so I thought) and some framing around the fireplace. When I released the jack, the beams sank right back down. Apparently the joist I needed to support was the next one over and there was nothing to attach the angle bracket to on that one. Strike one.

For the second try I bought some sturdy-looking metal bookshelf brackets. After jacking up the beams again I drilled some holes into the brick of the fireplace and screwed the brackets into the brick. This time when I released the jacks, the beams … wait for it … sank down again. The very attractive rough sawn boards cladding the pseudo beam weren’t attached to anything solid and the shelf brackets pushed up the middle of the board when the weight of the ceiling pushed the pseudo beam down. Strike two.

I clearly needed a support as wide as the pseudo beam (unlike the narrow shelf bracket) so that it could distribute the weight evenly. The local Big Box store had some pre-cut pieces of oak called “plinth blocks.” They are used to join two large pieces of molding without miter joints.

Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling
Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling

For my third (and as it turned out final) attempt I bought a couple of plinth blocks I could screw to the brick wall that would hold up the beams.  Since I didn’t want the screws to show, I also bought a pair of rosettes to cover them. Before drilling, I positioned the rosette on the block and marked three holes it would cover up. I used flat-head screws and countersunk the holes so that the rosette would fit tight to the block.

Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette
Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette

To hide the fastener that would hold the rosette to the plinth block I drilled a hole for a small finish nail from the back of the block and halfway into the rosette. This would allow the rosette to hang on the (invisible) nail after the block was screwed to the wall.

After jacking up the beams yet again, I marked the holes for each plinth block on the brick and used a masonry bit to drill holes in the brick for the plastic screw anchors.

Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws
Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws

With the nail pushed through the back of the block so that the point stuck out about 1/2″ I screwed the block to the wall.

Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.
Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.

Mounting the rosette was simply a matter of aligning the nail hole on its back with the point sticking out of the block. I considered using some double-sided tape to hold the rosette to the block or to keep it centered but it wasn’t needed in this case.

I might or might not admit to holding my breath as I released the jack to lower the beam onto the block to see if it would hold. But it did. And I exhaled.

Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam
Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam

Some dark stain on the new wood made it all blend together with the other wood in the room. The blocks are both functional and aesthetic. The Joneses are going to have a hard time keeping up. But it won’t be nearly as hard as the time I accidentally called my ever-loving wife “Saggie.” Trust me, you need more than a hydraulic jack to get up from the floor after a slip like that.



Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)


My ever-loving wife, “Skippy” (not her real name), likes to move. Move, as in from one house to another and one state to another. She got this endearing quirk by growing up in a family that moved frequently. She claims it had nothing to do with running from the law or staying ahead of bill collectors and I believe her. Really.

So we move a lot. It’s in her blood.

One advantage of moving into new houses every few years is the appliances are always new. The A/C is new. The stove is new. The dishwasher is new. Everything works like new because it is new. I conveniently forget that things wear out–especially if you don’t perform regular (ugh) maintenance. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the easiest policy. (I know a guy whose motto is, “If it ain’t broke, keep fixing it until it is,” but I wouldn’t recommend that approach.)

We lived in one new house a couple of years too long. I learned the hard (expensive) way that you really are supposed to have the A/C serviced twice a year. The compressor burned out and we had to buy a whole new air conditioner. If we had just moved a year earlier ….

In our current house (of about 7 years) the dishes didn’t seem as clean as they could be. Right up front I want to say that it wasn’t Skippy’s fault. She did in fact put the dishes in the dishwasher (yes, with soap) and turn it on. But they came out a little hazy-looking.

Bosch dishwasher drain filter
Bosch dishwasher drain filter

So I pulled out the lower dish rack and cleaned out a few bits of food in the bottom of the dishwasher where the dirty water goes down the drain. Some dishwashers have a little plastic screen over the drain for trapping the gunk that you just pop out and rinse off in the sink. But this was a Bosch and it had a screw-in cylinder screen, which I had never seen before.

Drain filter removed
Drain filter removed

I took it out and looked at it closely and saw that a lot of the screen was plugged with a filmy layer. Continue reading Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)

Watching Mr. Ed


Being a computer guy I try to keep up with modern gadgets but I had no experience with surveillance cameras–excluding appearing in any video footage submitted as evidence in any court case for an alleged crime. We had been having trouble with the toilet paper being switched around from unrolling off the front to unrolling off the back. Apparently someone was breaking in at night and switching it around. This was a perfect opportunity to try out a new surveillance camera by mounting it near the bathroom ceiling focused on the toilet paper and catch the culprit in the act. When I shared my brainstorm with my ever-loving wife, “Prissy” (not her real name), she was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped.

Fortunately, but sadly, another opportunity arose.

Our neighbors, Nick and Gilda, have a little horse farm and when Gilda found an oily substance in the water bucket and around a horse’s mouth and some horses in the adjacent farm died under suspicious circumstances they decided it would be a good idea to install a surveillance camera to keep an eye on the stalls and watch for any miscreants. I jumped at the opportunity.

IMG_20150117_120616988Since the horse farm was a few miles away from their house, they needed a camera they could view remotely over the web. I chose the Foscam FI9821W v2.1 for its reasonable price and combination of features. That has proven to be a nightmare. Continue reading Watching Mr. Ed

Ramp for Rover


I am constantly amazed to discover new subcultures on planet Earth that I had no idea existed. Such was the case when someone asked me if I could build a dog ramp for a woman who had had a stroke. I had never heard of a dog ramp. Was it like an exit ramp on the highway but for dogs to get off a walking trail after a long hike? Boat ramps let you back a trailer down into the water so that you can slide the boat into the lake. Maybe a dog ramp makes it easier for Fido to go for a swim without having to take a flying leap off the dock.

Google enlightened me that a dog ramp lets “athletically challenged” dogs get up onto a bed. Why that would be a desirable thing is not clear to me. I thought the idea was to keep animals off the furniture but I’m not a pet owner so what do I know. Anyway my job was not to ask questions but to build the ramp.

Your basic dog ramp
Your basic dog ramp

A doggie ramp has two main parts: the platform, which should be about even with the top of the bed mattress, and the ramp up to the platform. In this case, the mattress was 27” off the floor. The ramp itself needed to have a gradual slope so that the aforementioned athletically challenged dog could climb it. I thought it would be very entertaining to wax the ramp and put the dog on it like a Slip ‘N Slide but my ever-loving wife, “Gertrude” (not her real name), put her hands on her hips and said, “Zat is not funny.” Although I might have detected a little snicker, I decided to play it safe and make it a non-slip surface with some leftover carpet. Continue reading Ramp for Rover

Upgrade Your House and Have Fun Doing It