Winter is Coming

I’ve vowed to take off for the month of October since it seems every October since we bought the house we’ve had some massive time critical project to do seriously impacting our Halloween costuming abilities.  With a few days left in September, there are still projects to do before it gets cold.

First off is the bathroom window.  This wasn’t a huge priority, but it is one of the few things that would really suck unless its already open window weather.  The main problem is that the wood frame is rotting away and letting water in which has ruined the bricks under it.  To fix it I decided to take it all out down to the bricks, relay the bricks that are loose, point the joints around the ones that I can reach and then re-frame the window.

new window frame and tools

Refamed. You can see the width of empty space beside the new frame where the old counter weights would have been.

First round of bricks went well until I realized that the old mortar wasn’t going to harden.  It all had to come out and be redone.  That set me back a few days, but I powered through and got the bricks (re)done and framed it up.

Final step is spray foam, caulk and paint and we’ll have a window that with just a little repainting, should last another 50+ years.  Sadly I don’t have a long enough selfie stick for a good photo from the outside where all the magic is, but if there were before and after photos, the improvement would be noticeable. The inside went from ugly insulation to ugly spray foam, but in a few months, Siri should be able to put up a pretty amazing mosaic so I can finish the trim.

Other things while I’m working with mortar, caulk, and paint?  Maybe a vent for the kitchen, some patching up around the air conditioner lines, removing some failed parging and repainting.  After that the projects move inside for a solid November and December of finishing the last of it.


Trim.. Finally.


We bought our base boards for doing trim in the fall the same day we had the truck for getting the steel and joists used on the stairs.  They’ve sat in the shack since them until I could catch up on some things.  Finally that day has come.  Having painted boards little by little over the last few weeks, and making some little corner pieces, I was all ready to go.  My brother came over and brought his trim nailer, chop saw and air compressor.  Six hours later we finished the trim in the bedroom.


With the trim done I could finally move the bed across the room.  This was a bed we built out of IKEA shelves and leftover strips of wood we tore out of the 1st floor ceiling. Previously it was against the end unit wall and got really cold in the winter.


Also, it was opposite was the chimney which meant that I had all of 12 inches to squeeze past every night leading to many bruised knees.  Moving it across the room lets use wrap it around the chimney a few inches giving me 24″ at the end of the bed to maneuver.


Over the next few days I added trim in the kitchen, hallway and living room.  Eventually I had to return the air tools and could take a break from the madness for a few months.  It was until September that I got a chance to finish up the front of the living room.


This seems like a short, maybe insignificant post, but this is HUGE for us.  We’ve stared at the gaps between the walls and the ceilings for nearly 3 years.  It was obviously something we could live with, but it was obvious and sloppy to anyone who visited.


Goodbye ugly gaps

The Leaning Tower of Upper Fells Point

150 year old housing stock has its drawbacks.  Sometimes the roof goes and that leads to brick problems, sometimes the foundation goes first and the rest has to come down, but sometimes its just the soil it is built on slowly giving way.  One of our favorite houses to take friends to see was what we called The Leaning Tower of Upper Fells Point.  This 3 story row house had, over the years, sunken in and would have fallen onto its downhill neighbor had some brick buttresses not been built to support it.  This seems to have occured decades earlier because even the Formstone has been applied level relative to the tilt.

Sadly, whoever owns that lot has better plans than preserving this oddity.  The demolition notice has been posted since June.  One day biking home I decided to see if it was still standing only to find the demolition in progress.

leaningTowerDemo1By the following day this was all that was left.

tilthousedemoThat’s not the end though.  We had an eye on this since the demolition notice was posted for one reason.  This house was 12′ wide and would therefore have longer joists than most other houses in the neighborhood. Just the length we needed for our last shelf.  I hauled one out just after this photo was taken and after a little work we had our shelf.  A small reminder of our 2nd favorite house in Upper Fells Point.



Adventure Room (Part I)

Siri and I met through Couchsurfing (happy hours) in DC.  Hosting guests has been an important part of our lives before and since. When we bought a house, we knew we needed a guest room to host CSers as well as friends and family.   We were its first guests moving into the 3rd floor outside of Iris’s room as we finished the 2nd and 1st floors below.

With so little square footage, we needed it to be a flexible space as well.  The idea was and old style study / library.  The shelves will store our books about travelling, oddities collected while travelling, and Baltimore history books for guests to learn about our city. There will also be a huge map of the world which will fold down, revealing a full size mattress for guests.  Everything you need for your adventures.

We’ve been storing 4×8 sheets of furniture grade plywood in the shack for months.  Part of spring cleaning was to put it to use and get this room built.  It’s not cheap though.  About $50 per sheet and I didn’t want to ruin any making up my mind.  As usual, its time for Sketchup:

Bookshelves3Bookshelves4It looks like everything should be about 12″ deep in order to fit the mattress in between with a few inches to spare.  This should also save on materials as well as a 4×8′ sheet cuts in to 12″ sheets very efficiently.

Next step is to cut some wood.

It’s Spring! Lets Get Some Fresh Air


Not quite done in this photo, but this is the last of it. I’ve pointed or relaid every brick in this 10×5′ column from the roof to below and including the basement floor.

Finally I’m done bricks. I finished Sunday morning. I started repointing these bricks September 2013.  Its been nearly 600 days…. not continuous, but it has been the dusty cloud looming over us for a long time.  19.5 months.  Time for something else for a change.  Luckily spring is here, the weather is great and we can do things outside.  Last weekend I did these 2 small projects.


First up was our herb garden. Last year we started a few, but this year we want way more.


Second task was to put up the weather station Siri’s dad had gotten us for Christmas. What old man’s life is complete without a wireless weather station?

Now that we’re finished with the repointing, what are we going to do with all the leftover brick and sand?  Last year it was pretty fun to have beers with friends around our fire pit. Why not make it better?  We remembered killing a patch of grass under and around the fire that didn’t really grow back.  That led to a muddy area around the fire and muddy feet going into the house.  Also, our old fire pit had rusted through completely leaving only the outer ring.  New fire pit was a lucky but easy find from Adam: a massive old wok set in our old rusted out fire pit and surrounded by bricks.  Now how about the rest?


I’ll dig out a circle around the fire pit…


I’ll fill it with the leftover sand…


and I’ll temp in bricks in concentric rings and fill in all the gaps with sand.

But now I have all this dirt! I think I’ll make more garden space next to the shack.  I can also use it to grade in a little fall so water flows away from the shack when it rains.  Should be pretty easy for the grass to grow back in too, but I’ll throw down some seeds to help it along.


Bonfire Season Has Begun!

It was all worth it though. Its better to sit around than ever.



Since last year though, I had heard a bit of controversy has developed on the legality of fires in Baltimore.

Baltimore code (308.1.4) says Charcoal burners and other open-flame cooking devices shall not be operated on combustible balconies or within 10 feet (3048 mm) of any combustible construction or property line.”

Luckily we’ve got this big yard and, as you can see in this Sketchup drawing, we can get away with it in one little spot.  We also need to be cooking because the rules for decorative fires says 15 feet.  So while we have it in a different spot now, to keep the fire and noise further from the houses, we could move it if need be if someone raises a stink.


Only a tiny spot where having our fire is legal.

The Stairs – Part V

With the help of the wonderful Casey and Alana we had gotten the top 3 curved treads and the 5 straight treads up several weeks ago after a marathon 12 hour day of working on them.  After that we came to a stand still; we were out of joists to make more stairs.

Siri and I picked 15 feet of joists from our friend Adam. After a quick planing, I marked them out in pencil in the basement to maximize every inch. My goal was to build them while Siri was away in Seattle for a week.  I had a friend Julia come help me cut the boards. Over the next few days I glued, bolted and clamped them together, and then sanded them.  I finally got them in about a week after Siri got home.  Finally we can go all the way up and down without a ladder / stools.


Glamour shots will need to be taken to do these justice.  They look so good.

Emi inspects the stairs for violations.

Emi inspects the stairs for code violations.

To really be done we need to get some railings.  We don’t really miss them though since we never had them to begin with.  Maybe something else for a few weeks though…

The Stairs – Part IV (A New Hope)

Saying goodbye to the old stairs was hard / not hard. Like the set above them they had been repaired far too many times and way too poorly.  Look at all these bandaids. There was even a dab of caulk holding this together.

There was certainly some craftsmanship involved with these tight double winder stairs though.  Once most of the repairs were removed, you could see a bit of elegance in how they were built.  Harder to see is the wear and tear on the risers.  How many feet needed to climb this staircase in the last 150 years to wear down spots in them?


Yet, out they had to come, because, like before, there were bricks to be done. This section was where we would show guests the need for all the pointing by pulling bricks right out of the wall.



Once its cleaned up though, it looks pretty good. The steps in the bricks are no accident. They’re the size of our Ikea shelves. We’ll be adding 3 under the stairs to the 6 already have along the wall in the kitchen.



While the top stair had one turn with 3 steps / 90°, the bottom stair case has two turns: the bottom with 4 stairs / 90° and the top with 3 stairs / 66°. Naturally this makes the stairs smaller (22° vs 30°).  To correct the bottom, we spread out the bottom 4 stairs from 90° to 120° overall and reduce the top stair which was integrated into the 2nd floor making all the curving stairs 30°.  The 5 straight stairs in the center had their run increased from 8″ to 8 5/8″.  Not a huge gain, but it will do.


Only a few days in at this point and we already done with the steel. This is quite different than the last set.  Getting there.  Less than a week to go and we can open this nice bottle of champagne that we set aside for when the bricks and stairs are all done.

First flor cat

Miyk tuk te stars down so i iz a first flor cat now. Witowt stars to 2 flor tey hav lader. how doz i clim??? i dont now! so i trapd on 1 flor. and dor to owtsid iz not wurkin. so i trapd insid!! can sumbudy help?????? i want not be trapd! and yes i stil haz houz!!! not orunj cat! me own al!!!!!!!!! ecsept not like bein trapd.

The Stairs – Part III

Once the steel was up, the focus shifted to the stair treads.  For these we tracked down some giant joists that a friend was removing from an old warehouse.  These things were precious (and cost a lot too).  You can’t just buy 3×16″ old growth pine new, it needs to be salvaged from somewhere.  We estimated we’d need about 60′ so we rounded up and got 70′ to be safe.   We would need a total of 13 straight stairs (3″ x 10.5″ x 28″) as well as 11 corner stairs of varying sizes.  I clean, measured and cataloged the wood.  The wood was ripped down to <12″ to fit though the planer and then planed down (on one side) to 2 7/8″



The wood grain of the treads is hypnotizing.

Somewhere in here we decided that it would be worth the extra effort to flush mount the brackets in the wood.  We would weld on the angle so that it and any ugly welds were hidden by the board.  This took a whole lot of routing, but I made a jig to set up guides and it went pretty smoothly.  I also got a pretty good system down for churning out brackets in 8 easy steps including countersinking the hole so the screw too was flush.


One bracket was a lot of work.


A lot of brackets were a WHOLE LOT OF WORK.

The problem with 100 year old joists is that they’re never perfect.  Even once planed, most boards still had flaws and bad edges that needed to be removed.  In the end we just barely had enough that can be used as 10.5″ straight treads and a whole bunch < 10″ wide.  TO SKETCHUP!

Visualizing the 3 corner stairs was hard so I drew it up in Sketchup.

Visualizing the 3 corner stairs was hard so I drew it up in Sketchup.

Since the steel was already in place, we could get some really accurate measurements in order to draw up this in Sketchup.  Once digital, I started playing around with stair designs. One of the challenges was my requirement that both the back and the bottom needed to be rough cut and the top and the front had to be immaculate when planed and sanded AND the grain had to run parallel to the front edge of the stair.  In the end I decided to do a 3 piece design.  I would cut 1″ off the rough cut side for the back and then build the tread out of the 8″(or so) board and then glue it all back together.  To save material I arranged this in Sketchup to waste as little board length as possible.

Which helped me to figure out how to use our narrowest boards to make our widest treads most efficiently.

Drawing this helped me to figure out how to use our narrowest boards to make our widest treads most efficiently.

I put a lot of faith in my drawings.  I printed out a layout with measurements of all the edges and diagonals so I could draw this out on the boards and check my work.  Second step was to cut off the rough edge.  Next was to rip the board down to the correct width.  Then a very technical free hand (eyeballing it) cut of the diagonal to be cut straight.  This angled cut off would rotate around to be glued with several 4″ long 1/2 lag bolts thrown in for some serious clamping and pining duties.


Rotating had some cool benefits.  Since it was basically the same grain pattern, only further down the board, the resulting assembly has the grain mirrored along the nearly invisible glue line.  Upon cutting, this is what we would see:

Beautiful symmetry when I assembled the  pieces.

Beautiful symmetry when I assembled the pieces.

The last cuts were made to straighten out the back edge so I could glue back on the 1″ rough edge.  Once this was all together I sanded just like we did the floors.  On the finished boards its hard to tell they’re not once piece.

Almost there.  One to go.

Almost there. One to go.  All but the very bottom step still need sanding.

Final fitting of the boards was a challenge even with the help of Sketchup, particularly in the corner.  That particular “kite” stair had to line up on both the not perfectly 90* corner and two sides of the post and have no more than a 1/8″ gap on any edge.  For this we made a template out of an end-of-life dry erase board.

Straight stairs needed some final touches as well.  Here is a photo of the finished top stair which had to tie in the the hidden brackets, the 3″ post stubs, the C-channel and the bricks.

Some pieces seem so complicated...

Some pieces seem so complicated.  I began referring to the stairs as my wooden spaceship.

There are a whole lot of cuts in there, but in the end it makes for a very clean and simple step.

Not so complicated when it is snapped into place.

Not so complicated when it is snapped into place.

Not that complicated from below either.

Not that complicated from below

Finally this flight is coming together.  Here is a view looking up.

Looking up at the rough cut buttoms from below.

Looking up at the rough cut bottoms from below.  The glue haze only shows up in photos :-/

Corner Stairs from Below

Note that the stairs progress around the post just like in the Sketchup drawing.  Also see the steel brackets I made in order to get as much surface area as possible on the smallest part of the stairs.

Emi is not intimidated by the open treads.

Emi is not intimidated by the open treads.