Thursday, September 23, 2010

Making the Most

We had a fantastic opportunity and I'm glowing with the satisfaction of making the most of it.

 If you're a follower, you'll recall that we scored several pallets of four foot long mixed grade doug fir 2x4s at a very low price. Since then we've committed ourselves to flooring and paneling the entire tiny house interior from toungue and groove we're milling from the ripped 2x4s. After sorting out the usable stock, we were left with about 800 boards we couldn't use. We placed an ad on Craigslist posting it for the same price we paid for it and we should be selling the last of it today. That should yield just enough cash to repay us for our tongue & groove router bit and a few other tools and materials we'll need to make the T & G milling process work.

One guy bought about 1 dozen boards for craft projects, another bought 300 for rafter tails, and yet another scored some clean affordable firewood. All told, several cubic yards of potential landfill were rescued and repurposed because we took the intitiative. I'm so proud of us.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Serial Obsessions

In directing this tiny house build, I've continuously obsessed on a long rotating loop of items; siding, exterior wood finish, flooring, wall paneling, interior wood finish, kitchen counter, sink, faucet, refrigerator, stove, bathroom sink, faucet, toilet, shower enclosure, bathroom walls - and that's just the portion of the list that's at the top of my mind at the moment. If I think too long I'll come up with several more things I have to research and choose. I need to gather quotes for a custom front door. I need to figure out lighting fixtures, because the ones I have aren't doing the job to my satisfaction.

When did I become so picky?

I can rate the complexity level of my days based on the number of things I choose and buy for the house. Today I bought Arborcoat Natural Transparent Stain for my troublesome exterior siding and Benwood Stays Clear for our solid doug fir T & G flooring. I wanted something to protect the wood and create a scrubbable, durable surface, yet keep the color as close as possible to the original pale pinkish tan tones of our beautiful fresh cut douglas fir. The colors are lovely, mostly neutral (not yellow at all) and more importantly pale, which will help keep the whole interior light and bright. I wanted to avoid a high gloss finish because it looks like plastic, highlights every scuff and scrape, and makes it hard to fix blemishes without a serious chore sanding, touching up, and blending the repair into the rest of the field.

You would think it would be easy to pick two items. How could that possibly be difficult? Exterior finish, interior finish. So simple.

But I want something attractive, durable, natural looking, low VOC, low gloss, and I have to see it to believe it. I asked around and the most enthusiastic recommendation I got was for Plaza Paint, so I headed off to their little shop on Central near the square in Healdsburg. The guys were very nice, and well informed on the long term benefits of their best finishes. Turns out California has enacted legislation that will ban most oil based finishes over the next two years. If I used something classic like Cabot's, whomever's in charge of maintenance for this little beauty three or more years down the line will have to completely remove the existing oil finish and replace it with one of the new generation waterborne finishes. So why not go waterborne now? Besides, it sounds so much cooler than water based.

Seriously, from everything wood experts tell me, you might as well not even bother with traditional water based finishes outdoors. They just don't do the job in the weather. Oil based finishes tend to be more toxic and are difficult and complicated to clean up, but last up to three or four years before they have to be topped off with a fresh coat. Waterborne finishes are new enough that people haven't seen much of them going through years in our climate, so the recommendations are a little hesitant. All the science tells us they should outlast even oil based finishes, and woodworkers are beginning to embrace them in all their low VOC, long lasting, low maintenance glory.

The gentlemen at Plaza showed me their Arborcoat line of  waterborne finish and I picked out a couple transparent stains to try. They would have been happy to apply anything I wanted on my wood sample if I had brought it in, but I didn't - so I bought one pint each of Transparent Stain in Natural and in Cedar Tone. I took them home and brushed them on a cedar 2x6 end we trimmed off the fascia board. The Natural  deepened and heightened the tones of wood, which brought out a certain amount of yellow tinge as well. The Cedar Tone stain definitely put a red-orange cast over the wood, and two out of three people I showed the comparison sample to preferred the Cedar Tone. The comment I heard more than once was "Cedar is supposed to be red".

Despite the yellow cast brought out by the Natural stain, I still hated the idea of tinting the siding orange. I just like the natural color of the wood too much. I was still torn between my gut and public opinion (albeit a very small sample of the "public"), so I went back to the store, took my actual siding sample with me, and had them apply the Natural and Cedar Tone Transparent Stains in the store side by side so I could finally decide.

In the end, I went with my gut and chose the Natural, and got the compatible clear protective finish to go over the top of it. The fellows at Plaza tell me I should use one coat of each. Afterwards, one coat of clear finish every (or every other) year will keep the wood protected without any additional steps for many years.

While we waited for my Arborcoat samples to dry, I picked some brains about indoor wood floor finish. I like the product they showed me so much I bought that one right away - no overnight agonizing required. At first we looked at stains, and once again I was looking for the most natural color, closest to the the shades of the newly milled wood. That eliminated almost every stain there, so naturally I picked out Natural and another light rosy brown shade called Fruitwood to sample. After I saw them on my planed doug fir, I thought the Fruitwood was pretty, but my wood was still prettier. The Natural intensified the natural colors by three or four shades. Then I asked about a protective finish, and let them know my main concern was avoiding the yellowing I associated with oil based finishes. They showed me Benwood Stays Clear Low Lustre, and I was delighted. They brushed on two coats and the wood grain was nearly the same clean pale range of cream buff tan and pink as before. They helped me figure out how much I would need and that was that.

I walked out of there - after spending $234 - with my exterior stain and clear coat, and my interior clear coat. The good stuff is not cheap, but I believe it's worth it.

One more piece of the project decided; another part I can't wait to see done, so I can find out whether my decisions yield the results I want. What do you think - Natural (bottom) or Cedar Tone (top)?

*VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. They include a wide variety of both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds which can adversely affect the environment and human health, particularly when confined indoors. VOCs in building materials are mandated to be reduced through recent green building legislation in California to less than 250 gpl - anyone have more details? Let me know, I'd love to geek out on it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Floor Me

The search has been on for solid wood flooring and paneling for the tiny house for almost three weeks. I've looked all kinds of places, but the selection is limited and prices for even the most basic - knotty pine - are quite high.

We got an offer a while ago for several pallet loads of cheap 2 x 4s. The only drawback is, they're all about four feet long. At the time we weren't yet ready to start building our tiny house and the only thing we could imagine using them for was blocking. We had no easy way to look at them and assess the grade of the lumber, and at that naive early stage we didn't appreciate the difficulty and expense of sourcing solid wood for flooring and paneling.

Fortunately, our source called us back and reminded us before it was too late to accept the offer. This time around our imaginations were on fire with ideas for using so much doug fir, especially after our friend told us it was stamped "kiln dried". Doug fir of this mixed low grade is never offered as kiln-dried, so I gather it must have been used as sticking between pieces of higher grade lumber as it was kiln dried. From what I understand, kiln drying takes the wood down to a certain low moisture level before sale, reducing further warping and cracking. A wood purist would acknowledge that kiln drying doesn't mean the boards haven't picked up atmospheric moisture that will dry out again later. After milling and installation there will still be some changes and irregularities, due to natural variations in wood grain and structure. Nonetheless, we could rip these 2x4s and  use them as plank flooring without excessive risk of buckling, cupping, or lifting. With a few extra milling steps, we could even make our own tongue and groove planks, improving the stability even more.

This time we said yes to the doug fir, and took delivery on Sunday. I was nervous. Nine pallets sounds like a lot, and we don't have an accessible consolidated area to store them, so we knew we'd have to break down the piles and move them by armloads to a couple piles strategically placed around the tiny house. Plus I hadn't even seen them. Would they be scattered with nails? Ridiculously knotty? Why would anyone give away perfectly good lumber?

It turned out to be perfectly good lumber. Mostly. It was clear right away that a certain small percentage was good for nothing but firewood. The remaining boards fell into three categories; good enough to make two ripped planks, good enough to make one ripped plank, and not good for planks at all. Overall we sorted out over 550 boards we wanted to keep and mill, and approximately 750 we'll find another home for (see our Craigslist post).

After we deconstructed the massive shrinkwrapped pallets, sorted and restacked them by hand into our keep and go piles, we got out a few power tools to see how the milling process would go. The first feasibility tests weren't so hot. Our 8" bandsaw has only a narrow scrollwork blade currently, and we suspect it doesn't have enough engine power to drive a bigger blade. We ended up hand feeding a couple boards through the table saw in two passes each. For production we would set up feather boards and keep things beautifully aligned, but we were just trying to get a quick idea of what our method would be and how fast we could produce usable tongue & groove.

I think the resulting boards were quite beautiful after we ran them through the planer twice, once on each side. Now we're trying to source the router bit set designed to produce tongue and grove on 1/2" stock. We've been to three stores already with no luck yet. Might have to order that one on the internet.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Tiny House Has Eyes

I always think of windows as the eyes of a house, and today our tiny house has newly installed peepers. It takes the housen-ess of it to a new level. Now it looks like a very tall playhouse for children, though the overall proportions have a grace that I've yet to see on any play structure.

The window shopping process wasn't easy. I knew from the start that Jay's design called for several windows to be custom made to particular tiny measurements that fit beautifully with his overall design. He put quite a bit of his overall budget into high quality, insulated low-e windows in custom sizes clad in wood and aluminum. In part that's because he values their contribution to fighting condensation and contributing to a comfortable shelter that's easy to heat and cool. They also clearly stand out as one of the most visually prominent features of the house, just like eyes in any face.

I put a high value on the aesthetic effect, too, but after I priced them I had to make some choices. In the Lusby plans he says about half the windows are custom sizes - but when I shopped the major brands, I found that they're all custom sizes that have to be special ordered. A few of them - the back bedroom and loft windows - are so small the major manufacturers won't even make them. Apparently tiny windows don't meet code requirements for escape in the event of a fire, so they would have to be ordered locally from a glass shop. I examined the clearances and spaces around the windows closely, and decided I could live with having seven uniform 2' x 3' windows on the ground floor instead of three different custom sizes that would cost $350 and up each. The new sizes no doubt ruin the elegant geometry of Jay's intended design - but I must say, the look so far is perfectly pleasing to my eye.

After I made the difficult decision to buy stock sizes for the ground floor windows, I turned my attention to the loft windows. Our highest priorities in this design are functionality, aesthetics, and durability. The loft windows needed to open for ventilation and fit physically and visually in a small space. At first the only small windows I could find either didn't open or had the wrong orientation - like a basement window that was 18" wide and 10" tall instead of the other way around. Since you can't install windows sideways without sacrificing their function, I had to just keep searching.

Eventually I found specialty windows at the Home Depot website that looked promising. I chose an octagonal insulated low-e awning window by Century, so you can open up the loft for ventilation. It looks beautiful up there, even though it's a little oversized for the space. There was another unprimed window available from Century online that was otherwise identical, but was 27" x 27" and cost $100 less - $212 instead of  $311. I drew and cut out paper models of each window and placed them on the elevation drawings to see how they fit. I really wanted to get more window for less money into that spot, but the 27" window barely fit, and it looked cramped.

In the end the octagon window for the sleeping loft was definitely a good call. It adds charm - everyone who looks at the house comments on it favorably. When it comes to spending money on aesthetics though, I only want to do it where it counts, so that brings up the issue of the storage loft. It's unrealistic to expect that anyone living in this tiny house is going to be SO unencumbered with stuff that they won't need to fill up that storage loft. Once you fill it up with stuff, there goes the light and the visual effect from the octagon window! I won't sacrifice the ventilation though, so I'm thinking at this point I'm going to buy an octagon shaped gable vent with louvers and double weather and insect screens. We'll buy or make a fitted door for it for the coldest weather. The two ends will have aesthetically pleasing symmetry in the shapes and ample functional ventilation at the peaks of the house, the hottest places in summer weather.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Evening Update :: Day Four

Here's our tiny house on day four.
We're going to have some catching up to do, but for now I'll just briefly explain where we are on day four of our first tiny house project.

On days one and two we stripped our new trailer, primed and painted the raw metal where we cut and ground off the excess parts, pulled out every other pressure treated deck board, installed and sealed the flashing, framed the floor joists, and put down the plywood subfloor. On day three we framed the exterior walls and planed all the lumber for the interior loft ceilings - I never knew a planed and sanded douglas fir 2 x 4 could be so pretty!

Today began with a shopping trip to Home Depot to pick out some handsome hardwood plywood for the loft surfaces. We decided to use something with a clean attractive surface on both sides so we can attach it to the loft decking (through the most elaborate process I've ever heard of), finish it, and leave it exposed for decorative effect.

How do you position and fasten a cosmetically crucial piece of plywood just right? First we predrill the holes use duplex nails to keep the plywood in place while we raise it just enough to reach in the gap and put carpenter's wood glue down. Then we can lower the plywood into place using the nails as guides to keep it perfectly positioned. The duplex nails come out after the glue dries and we replace them with stainless steel screws. All the interior wood will be sanded silky smooth and sealed to keep the it the same natural shade it is now. It's a clean pale fine grained birch plywood, and it looks wonderful against the pink and golden doug fir loft joists. We've sanded the joists and rounded off their edges so they look and feel great from below.

I can't wait to see the loft ceiling in place and sealed, because I think it's going to be gorgeous. Tongue and groove is wonderful, but for me, 100% T&G is a bit much. I look forward to the visual effect of a smooth pale expanse of wood ceiling in a tiny space. I think it will break up the monolithic stripe effect of the all over T&G enough to make it a visual delight on the walls.

ceiling and joists
Another design aspect I'm excited about is keeping the fresh pale colors of the interior wood intact with a sealer that won't yellow with age. I love the cool peach and tan tones of the woods, and there's a finish we can use that promises to maintain them in a natural looking state, yet with a protected surface. More details to come after further research, stay tuned.

My next major design decision is siding. I'm pretty much settled on wood, most likely T&G. We'll see after I get some samples. Another fun opportunity cropped up when the men at the Burgess Lumber yard accidentally loaded a 20' ridge board on my truck when my slip called for an 18'. They didn't notice it until they had loaded the rest of my order all around it - so they gave me the two extra feet for free. Now we have the ridge beam temporarily mounted and centered, with one foot sticking out on each end. We could put a touch of scrollwork there to get some embellishment from the extra two feet of lumber. If I want. Or just cut them clean and run the fascia all the way across. Any comments?

--- Now it's the next evening and I haven't yet posted yesterday's update... I was waiting until I had time to select pictures. Ha! No more waiting, just posting.