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.

The Stairs – Part II

Finally, the weekend is here. Time to relax.  Yeah right.  Its time to build these stairs.  We had previously done a test lift of the 12′ channel but it was far from being in place.  We needed to a good bit of cutting and fitting before we were happy with the results.  We had gotten a plasma cutter last week with the goal of saving us serious time. Rather than taking the parts down every time to cut with a dirty smelly torch, we could just pull them off the wall a few inches, put down some wet towels and cut the metal there.  For most cuts and welds Siri served as the fire safety supervisor.

Turns out I can't cut a straight line to save my life.  Guides to the rescue.

Turns out I can’t cut a straight line to save my life. Guides to the rescue.

We are aiming to change the geometry a little with the top stairs.  Previously, the stairs were very steep, but with one long tread at the top.  To fix this we tilted the stringer a little bit until finally we got an even 9″ of run to 8.5″ of rise all the way down to the turn with 1.5″ of overlap.  That and a railing should make these stairs much less terrifying.

Sparks!  Also chalk lines so we can have an idea where the stair treads will be.

At the top we are attaching the stairs to a channel bulkhead bolted to the termite hole ridden joist.  This help adds a little strength to the already reinforced joist, but mostly its just cosmetic.  I cut the bolt holes with the plasma cutter which saved a bunch of time and probably a drill bit.  The stringers attach to 3×3″ squares which will be used as pockets for newel posts.


The stair tread width should be 36″ for code, but being as we only have a 60″ wide area to fit the stairs, the hallway next to it, 3″ total stringers and a 3/4″ gap to the wall (aesthetic reasons), we’ve got to narrow them down to 28″. This is about the same as we had before. The treads will keep the stringers pretty solid, but just in case we’re welding in some 28″ angles to keep them from spreading. Also work great for bracing as we build.


Magnetic level has been super handy. Thanks Siri!

At the bottom of the stairs there is a 90 degree turn consisting of 3 stairs.  Think of this as a mini spiral staircase.  The center of this quarter of a spiral is a 3×3″ post.  This also serves to hold up the left stringer.  I wanted it in solid so I cut out all but 3/4″ from the post, through bolted it to the joist and lag bolted it from the top with a little bracket I cut from a scrap of channel.  This is when the plasma cutter really started to shine.  I have no idea how I’d have made this cut using other tools.

This post won't be going anywhere.

This post won’t be going anywhere.

For the left stringer, we could just copy the angle and placement of the right one.  This let me pre cut the piece in the basement and lighten my load.  We tacked it on up top and hinged it down until it’s angle lined up visually with the other.  Made sure it was level and tacked it in to place.  I wasn’t completely sure on the length though so I cut that in place once we figured out where the post needed to go.

Install post, level everything then weld.

This is how far we got all weekend. Doesn’t seem like much, but there was a whole lot of problem solving and learning that went into this first of two sets of stairs. I still need to cut 2 small pieces for the outside of the “spiral”. This section is a different angle than the straight section.
ComingTogetherAfter that we’re at a standstill on the stairs.  I will need to weld on angles to mount the treads to, but until I plane down the wood, I won’t know what that thickness will be.  Can’t paint them until I have the brackets welded on.


One last photo of the bottom which will support the outside of the quarter spiral (3 steps in 90 degrees).

One last photo of the bottom which will support the outside of the quarter spiral (3 steps in 90 degrees).

I iz traped

Now ter iz no mor way to cumfy bed top. bed top is in gezt room. i slep ter. now i cannot getz ter. evryon iz takin abowt stayrs. iz tey te stuff to get to upstars? i think so. if i am rite, i smart!!!!!! i smart!!!!!!!!!!!!!! so i be smartest thing in houz!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! but smartest thing shudnt be traped. but i iz traped!! tis is not fare!!!!!!!! so tell ownerz tis is not fare!!!! tell!!!!!!!!!!! becuz I HAZ HOUZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Baltimore Steel

Sadly, today was the last for an icon on the horizon. The L Blast Furnace at Sparrows Point Steel Mill was imploded. Sparrows Point was a major employer in the area and at one point the largest steel producing mills in the World. Siri and I both thought it important to take a few minutes out of our work day to go over to Patterson Park to see it off.





The Stairs – Part I


While the old stairs were already nearing the end of their life when we bought the house, a year of brick dust and mortar sealed the deal.  They had been retreaded and the risers covered in various layers of panel board.  The risers were breaking off entire stairs.  To make matters worse all the pointing dropped dirt and mortar into every gap.



They took an hour to disassemble from start to finish.

Looking up from the 1st floor you can see all the way up to the roof.

Looking up from the 1st floor you can see all the way up to the roof.

Still bricks to point.  Once the stairs were removed, I can finally get to the bricks they were covering.  In the photo above you can see the “shadow” of the bricks that still need attention.  This work will need to be done quickly so Iris can get up to her room again.

But once this is all done, the fun really begins.  800lbs of steel needs to be cut, raised and welded together.  I’ve got a good plan and the right tools.  Stay tuned for updates.

No turning back now.



Since we hung the drywall, our lighting has been… basic to say the least.  Just your regular CFL bulbs in basic white ceramic fixtures.  Upgrading them has been on our lists for years.

Finally this month we did it.  The Living room got a Tiffany style stained glass fixture to match the other stained glass down there.  We got this one on Amazon and it was a straight forward install. In addition to matching the windows, it has hearts all around it.



The kitchen got a a bespoke piece.  Siri had the idea of using an antique copper colander as a shade if I could build the rest.  Sure can!  We ordered some braided wire, a cap for the ceiling and a copper socket.  Took a little while to get the height right, but it really makes for a brighter work area on the table below.  The little holes of the colander also make cool patterns on the ceiling.  We’re still trying to think of a better bulb, preferably lower profile, maybe even a circular florescent tube.CopperColanderLamp

The lamp makes some nice patterns of light on the ceiling.

The lamp makes some nice patterns of light on the ceiling.

The bedroom was last.  We had somehow managed to not break one of the original light fixtures that was in the bedroom when we bought the house 2.5 years ago.  These were some of the first parts to come down during demolition and they’ve been moved around the state of Maryland a few times since without breaking.  The rugged thing had finally won us over.  Its simple, has 2 sockets for bulbs and has a frosted glass cover with white paint on the inside with a pattern radiating out from the center.

Bedroom Light

Bedroom Light

“Maybe its a little too bright.” ~Siri  “It shows EVERY flaw in the drywall.” ~Mike

Bricks: One Last Push

Finally I’m getting there.  I had slowly worked down from the top of the 3rd floor, down the 2nd floor.. skipped ahead and worked up from the basement last February.  I finally burned myself out in March, got back to it in September on the 1st floor, and here I am at the last wall over a year after I started.  We had the Thanksgiving 4 day weekend and we were going to use it to finish up these damn bricks.

[We Must Have a “Before” Photo of This Somewhere]

This one was always going to be the hardest.  Nearly all the salmon bricks had spalled and were crumbling.  Some bricks you could crush in your hand.  Pointing was pretty much out of the question as the bricks would crumble faster than the mortar.  After the basement, pulling them out and re-laying them seemed like the best method.  I started next to the back door.  Most of those had been broken in half so I had to replace a bunch.  Once I was sure the wall could carry the load without its assistance, I pulled the wood door frame.  Hello 6″ wider doorway.


Next I did up top.  Wanted a good frame around the bad area to add some stability when the window came out.


I could do a section between the header rows at a time.

Siri helped a lot. Laying bricks uses considerably more mortar than pointing so keeping me fed with mortar (and food) all weekend was her job.


Finally got to open our secret window... just before we tore it out.

Finally got to open our secret window… just before we tore it out.  Who puts a plate glass window at the bottom of a staircase anyway?

Goodbye Window

Goodbye Window.  Also note the paint so I wouldn’t forget to leave a pocket.

Almost there!

Almost there!  Pockets!

What’s with the pockets?  To top it off we had a special surprise we had picked up when we visited the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works outside Doylestown, PA.  H.L. Mencken had incorporated tiles from this factory in his back yard a century earlier and I wanted to incorporate some too.  We were not sure how we’d do it when we bought them, but Siri thought it over and decided that we should do a zig-zag going up the stairs with everyone in height order starting with Emi.

Our Super Special Moravian Tiles.

Our Super Special Moravian Tiles.  Still need to wash down with white vinegar (acid) to remove the white haze.

From the bottom right we have Emi’s tile with her moon, because cats love the night.  Next row up is for Iris.  Her tiles is for her zodiac sign of Cancer along with a tree because she love to climb them (and is growing like one). Next row up is Siri’s with her Sagittarius zodiac tile and a heart, because she has so much love to give.  Next row up is my Taurus zodiac sign and a goblet of beer, because I love beer.  All of this is set in mortar Siri mixed using sand we brought back from the dunes of Liwa in the UAE.

Now it’s time to clean up and dust everything.  Christmas is here and I want a clean space for the first time in months.

P.S. This is not the end.  There are still bricks hiding behind the stair stringers.  I will do these when I pull out the stairs.  They’ll need to go quickly because the stairs will be out and that’s something we don’t want stretching out too long.

Hot Tub!

The first test.  Kid approved.

The first test. Kid approved.

Siri and I have been thinking about a hot tub almost since we started thinking about getting a house together.  Hot tubs are excessive.  Hot tubs are fun.  We wanted a hot tub.  We have included it in the roof deck plans; better get one now so we know it works before we try to build a deck around it.

Knowing full well we couldn’t afford a new one we searched for Craigslist for nice used ones starting a year ago.  We even checked a few [awful] ones out.  After a year we made the decision not to wait any longer. We found one that was relatively modern and working.  We drove down to check it out and started working on the logistics to move it.  We were lucky enough to get all of the wires, breaker boxes, conduit from the tub all the way up to the fuse box.  This stuff adds up and was likely worth several hundred dollars.  We did need a few little extras, but not much.

It was a tough move.  We hired a “hot tub mover” to do this, but it was really just a tow truck driver and his sons.  Getting it from the street to the back was a tight squeeze.  Tight enough that I had to remove the iron gate on the alley.  We got a few scratches, but nothing major.

We hired our friend Tom to wire this up.  Hot tub electrics are no joke.  240V @ 50 Amps is a lot of juice…. sitting next to water.  Code is pretty clear on this:

  • GFCI protected because water + electric = bad
  • Emergency cutoff breaker within sight (not too far)
  • 5′ minimum from the breaker/disconnect box (not too close either)
  • Bonded to any metal within 5′
  • Can’t be under any power wires (so if they come down, they don’t land in the tub)
  • Can’t be within 10′ of those lines (so you can’t possibly reach one from the tub)
  • 60″ minimum from non-tempered glass windows and doors (don’t want glass in the tub)
  • Wires must be protected by conduit.
  • etc, etc.

Anyways… we got it all wired up, conduit ran.  Gave it a few days for an inspection and then finally I got to fire it up…. pumps worked for about 20 seconds, but it wasn’t full yet so I shut it off… that was the last I got out of it.  Something died. There was an error code “E1″.  Time to call tech support.


I was really trying NOT to learn how hot tubs worked; well fuck.

Their website says “Proudly Made in the U.S.A.”  yet nearly every part is made somewhere else.  Ethink, a Chinese company, makes the controller, heater and topside controls.  The 2x4s are stamped with maple leaves.  If you are using parts from other countries, be honest about it.. or at a minimum put those pieces together with some U.S.A pride.

This thing’s MSRP is as much as a car.  You’d expect car like fit and finish.  Sadly that’s not the case.  This thing was screwed and glued together in a hurry and it shows.   The pumps are screwed into a piece of plywood with the rubber bushings still attached to the base of the pump.  Too lazy to eliminate a source of vibration I guess.  Also the “sealed” electronics box would have been.. if they hadn’t just run too small of wires through the connectors without first seeing if they actually sealed.  The sides are held on by 3/8″ strips of plywood and stapled 1/16″ into the boards.  A tiny bit of movement and they just fall to pieces… and you will need to move them because there is no access panel on this thing, not even to adjust the subwoofer. Set it and forget it.

As for the technical service, they must be closely tied with their sales department because every path led to “replace part”.  They said the “E1″ error was a loose wire and apparently really hard to troubleshoot.  “You should buy a new controller to see if that works.”  I asked if they would take it back if it didn’t fix the problem they said “no returns”.  What’s the incentive there to actually support your product?  Fuck Energy Saver Spa alias Laguna Bay Spa, Home and Garden (Home Depot), Dr Wellness.

Since the price to replace the control box (had to buy the whole box, not just the circuit board) was $400, we decided to shop around.  Turns out a brand new controller with a warranty, documentation, integral heater and included top side controls was the same price.  We ended up buying a Gecko YE-5.  It’s relatively basic, but it supports all the features we have.  Of course this won’t drop in, but its not rocket science.  I had to do some PVC pipe work to lower and lengthen the heater location.  We reused a few parts, bought a few from home depot.  Pretty easy stuff. Finally got it in a full 3 hours before the first big freeze of the year.

Future plans include adding a 120V outlet so we can add a Bluetooth adapter to the stereo and new speakers (one is blown).  Plans also include reducing our operating costs by insulating all 4 sides and getting the ozonator working again.

Next time I’m just going to build one from scratch.