Archive for the ‘Building the Cabin’ Category

I’m Never Fully At Home Without Tools

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Our species is characterized by tool use, and I just feel more human when I’ve got the right tools and a place to use them. Living in an urban apartment in Austria, and then a rental house outside of London, I was always short of some vital tool, and whenever something broke, I had to take a trip to the hardware store to buy a screw or part. I was chronically short of pieces of wood to beat on, or to use for a joint brace on some deteriorating Ikea furniture.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Soon after we were able to move into the cabin, I setup a work area in the basement with tools and fasteners for patching, prep, and putzing. The workbench was built by my Grampa Heiser for my 5th birthday, and he designed it so the table height could be raised as I got taller.  I used it through high school, and later re-milled the oak top and repainted the base, in its original machine shop green, for Kirk.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Elizabeth found a $1.50 rechargeable jig saw, the stoo,l and the retro red toolbox at garage sales. She also got a great deal on a pair of vintage Luxo L-1 lamps, one of which I clamped to the workbench.  I’ve got a favorite subset of tools to carry around in the red tray, along with a well-worn Ryobi rechargeable drill, inherited from Elizabeth’s dad.

Cabin Basement Work Area

I admit to being a screwdriver junkie.  Craftsman are always cheaper by the 2 or 3 dozen, so I splurged and bought a large set, with their reassuring red & blue slotted screw, and clear-handled Phillips.  Black & clear handled Torx turn out to be necessary for chainsaw repairs.  The only non-Craftsman are a #2 square drive that I needed to fasten the cover on the junction box for the septic leach field, and a large Yankee of unknown provenance. I’m gonna try to get along without the Reed Prince that Sears used to toss into the set (red and white handle?).  The Marples chisels, which I once spent several hours lapping (but got bored before I fully flattened the backs), have seen a surprising amount of action on picture frames, wobbly furniture, and door frames.

Stanley Wooden Bottom Smoothing Plane

Summer humidity meant that several pine-framed doors needed the edges planed down so they would shut.  A few years ago, I found a small treasure trove of planes and spoke shaves that had belonged to my Grampa Grender, including this old Stanley  wooden base smoothing plane.  In storage since my grandfather’s death in 1971, the tools are all scary sharp. Both of my grandfathers were artists with the whetstone, and even though it wears slightly every time I use it, creating two-foot long, paper thin shavings from the edges of our Amish doors is a transcendent connection to my grandfather .

Cabin Basement Work AreaCabin Basement Work Area

Grampa Heiser’s 1964 workbench had a small pegboard that arrived with a uselessly small pipe wrench, a small claw hammer with a handle that I eventually broke, a slotted screwdriver with a purple wooden grip, and a hacksaw—my first tools.  Grampa Grender took me to Uncle Bills (an early and short-lived discount store chain in northern Ohio) to buy a small and long lost wood saw with interchangeable blades.  I don’t know where all of my hand tools went, I don’t know where all the stuff pictured above came from, but a half century later, that useless little pipe wrench is still hanging on the pegboard behind Grampa Heiser’s workbench.  Grampa Grender carved a new handle for the tack hammer, and after 45 years, the cherry has darkened nicely.

The Long Wait for the Internet

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Words cannot describe how happy I am that my Internet connectivity is no longer dependent upon my prowess with the bow and arrow.

Heiser Hollow has been in the family since 1972.  Remote, but not totally isolated, for 30 years it has had a telephone, and electricity.  We knew it wasn’t the best location for Internet access, but had grown attached to it over the decades, and have some family buried nearby, so Elizabeth and I decided to go ahead with the cabin building.   We didn’t start until I demonstrated that Internet access was possible, booting up the Verizon Mifi, a small wireless Internet access device, on a cold winter day, sheltered from the snow inside our tractor shed. 

Having only 1 mobile provider here, I switched my iPhone to Verizon, and for much of July, I happily telecommuned from a cheap folding picnic table, underneath a cheap Walmart awning, perched on the dam.  I ran a 150’ extension cord.  I only had a couple bars on my iPhone, but as long as I kept it plugged into the power supply, used the ear buds, and didn’t actually touch the phone, vocal quality was fine and service was reliable.  The trouble started when the weather got cool, and I needed to move into the motorhome. Elizabeth bought a cell phone booster, a signal repeater that needs an antenna at least 10’ up in the air. Fortunately, there are no photos available of me using a toy bow & arrow and a fishing rod, but in a short amount of time, I had a length of twine over a high branch holding the antenna 30’ up, and we spent several months talking and Internetting from inside the motorhome.

While the cabin is higher than the dam, and there are far fewer trees than there used to be, Verizon’s signal is pretty weak. I hung the booster antenna out an upstairs window, boosting my iPhone to 2 feeble bars.  Mifi kinda sorta works, but is not reliable. Which brings us to part 2.

Installing Satellite Farm

In early March, a local HughesNet installer said that he could barely see his satellite, which inconveniently hovers over Texas, which is the wrong direction for a north-facing Heiser Hollow, but if we sunk a couple wooden posts in the ground, and put a 6’ board between them, he could hang his dish on it.  Elizabeth didn’t like the idea of a baseball scoreboard in front of her new cabin, so she and Sam the Builder designed a sort of pagoda thing.  With a conduit back to the house, a ground post, and some graceful angles, it cost…well, more than you’d expect.  And it took a month to arrive. By this time, HughesNet had dumped our local installer, and the HughesNet 800 number could find no record of my install record. So I dumped HughesNet and called a local WildBlue installer,  having learned that they had a new satellite (‘bird’).

WildBlue installed a dish on the side of the pagoda, and spent a couple hours fiddling with it without getting a reliable satellite connection. He finally gave up for the day, instructing me to cut down some trees between us and Texas, and promised to come back later in the week with a long pole to get some extra elevation above the top of the pagoda. 

2nd attempt to install satellite dishElizabeth wasn’t too keen on my chainsawing down 60’ trees next to the new cabin, so she called Yoder tree service. 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, a young Amishman came tooling up the driveway on a JD tractor, a matched set of Stihl’s on a pallet on the front forks.  In no time, he’d managed to fell the first tree, at which point he began a very authentic, and loud, yodel. I was treated to several more performances as he dropped several more trees and I dropped several hundred dollars.

WildBlue came back the following week with a ladder, a pole, and well, this is already turning into a long blog, so let’s avoid the trips to the hardware store, the delays, and several hours of ‘I can get a signal but just can’t lock on’, and the interesting fact that both Yoder tree fellers, father and son, celebrate a successful saw with Swiss style singing. The wild WildBlue guys decide to try attaching the dish to the chimney, on the theory that the cabin is blocking the view of the Tejano skyline. After bringing at least 4 different guys, making I don’t remember how many trips, and requesting the expensive destruction of a dozen cabin-shading oaks and maples, they give up for good.

Finishing up the dish installation on a hot July day

At this point, I call HughesNet back, and they send a different person from a different local install contractor. He says that the first HughesNet contractor wasn’t following correct procedure at all, explaining that the Amish pagoda would wave in the wind.  He dug a hole in the ground, sunk a metal post, filled it full of concrete, carefully leveled the pole, attached the dish, and had it successfully and reliably aimed at the satellite inside of a couple of hot and humid hours.

Final Installation of TV and Internet dishes.

He did use the ground stake and conduit that Sam had installed at the request of the first HughesNet guy, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to mount the dish anywhere near as high as the first HughesNet guy wanted it mounted.  Weeks earlier, DirecTV showed up and used the leftover WildBlue mounting bracket, so at least the pagoda isn’t going to waste. Elizabeth says its a nice place to sit, and small animals sometimes use it as a perch.

Satellite Modem and WAP

Five months after the start of this project, we’ve finally got a reliable Internet connection. It isn’t anything to brag about speed wise, but its fast enough to download a 2-minute warning from Chuck Norris that Obama is the anti-Christ, so at least we have access to vital political news.  Techies may be surprised to know that I’m getting latency of 800 to just over 1000ms, and I’ve had my corporate VPN running for over 12 hours without a hitch.  Internet access turned out to be a far more expensive and delayed farce than I ever could have imagined, but at this point, I think its good to go, and when you’re sitting in the middle of 55 acres, you don’t some pesky password for the WAP.


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. This is the latest blog entry in this thread.]

Construction Completed

Thursday, July 26th, 2012


Almost exactly 1 year after the start of construction, Sam the Builder has finished work on our cabin.  He’s backfilled behind the cement wall, leveling the ground in front of the main cabin door, and leaving enough space to turn around a car. While Elizabeth and I were in Japan, the insect netting went up on the porch.  The cabin has been screened, stained, caulked, chinked, and connected, and is essentially complete.

The heat and drought has ensured that Elizabeth’s new lawn hasn’t taken over the level patch in front of the cabin, although an inch and a quarter of rain last week seemed to help green things up a bit.  The shady location, deep basement, and log walls kept things cool, even during a heat wave in the mid-90s.  While the insect netting does slow down the breeze slightly, a pair of ceiling fans on the porch keeps everyone cool, and the porch is turning into a nice evening spot to listen to frogs and crickets without having to battle moths and beetles.  


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is The Long Wait for the Internet.]

Finishing The Cabin

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Chinked cabin-2

At just over 11 months since breaking ground, my parents report that the cabin is almost finished, sending us the above photo. The log walls are white pine, which will deteriorate without UV-blocking stain and some water and insect repellent.  To simulate the appearance of the few remaining original log cabins in the neighborhood, which are hardwood, Elizabeth chose Permachink Smoke Gray.  Our builder pressure washed the bare walls, carefully papered over all the doors, windows, and fixtures, and then applied a boron solution, two coats of stain, followed by a clear coat.  The chinking is purely for aesthetics—just one more gratuitous addition that will require periodic maintenance.  I was the one who cast the final vote in favor of ordering rectangular logs with chinking grooves, again wanting to emulate the appearance of the Fortune family cabin that was still standing when we bought the Hollow in 1972.


The appearance has changed a lot this spring, starting with the sudden emergence of lavish amounts of bright green grass. I admit that I thought Elizabeth overdid the grass planting just a bit, spreading countless 25# sacks of Marlin’s contractor mix, and then carefully covering it with either loose straw, or in especially erosion-prone slopes, a special excelsior mat.  Everything was still bare when I left the site in March, but by my return the second week of May, it was ready to be mowed.

In late March, Elizabeth rented a rototiller and spent several days carefully grooming the much abused patch of clay and dirt between the cabin and pond.  Picking up buckets full of rocks and building scraps, within only 2 weeks, it looked like the world’s largest chia pet.

Installing retaining wall

Although the walkout basement takes effective advantage of the sleep slope, the original plans for the cabin never dealt with some of the practical aspects of site planning, landscaping, and human factors.  We recognized that we needed at least one retaining wall along the side of the cabin, or otherwise, we’d never be able to climb into the side stoop without a ladder.  It had also become clear that we needed a wider area for turning cars around.  A cinderblock wall would have been too flimsy to support a parking area, and poured concrete would be too expensive, so we compromised on a set of four 6-foot long precast cement wall modules, brought in by Holmes Redi-Mix on a special truck with a crane. The above shot shows yet another Yoder using the crane and tongs to set the caps on the upper wall.  We put a single 6’ casting perpendicular to the chimney base.


Meanwhile, Elizabeth started raking up all the straw she’d so carefully strewn to protect her unhatched grasslings.  Then she phoned up Walmart and asked for a reel mower.  They told her all of their lawn mowers were real.  She finally found an old-fashioned non-powered reel mower at a hardware store catering to the Amish.  (The truly keen observer may notice that the above photo shows the short-lived and never functional WildBlue dish.  See the Long Wait for the Internet, a later post in this same thread.)

Thoreau is ready for 19th hole

Elizabeth’s lawn looked like a million bucks when I left the Hollow a couple weeks ago, but  I haven’t seen the exterior stain, let alone the chinking.  Keen eyes may also observe that the topmost photo shows the results of Sam the Builder’s backfilling of the new retaining wall, which I also haven’t seen, yet. Sam should be finishing up the insect screen on the porch, at which point, all of his work will be complete.


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Construction Completed.]

Every Castle Needs a Throne

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Toilet in upstairs bath

After a busy 5-truck day last week,  involving plumbing and an amazing amount of window hardware, our Amish carpentry crew pulled the plastic coverings off the windows, and we had our first night’s sleep in the cabin.  We are still waiting on some plumbing fixtures and shower doors, but at least we’ve got a working trio of toilet, sink, and shower in the downstairs bathroom. After a noisy startup, our old washer and dryer have settled into their new Ohio home and have been busy cleaning tractor mud from my one pair of work jeans. Other than a balky dishwasher, another transplant from Virginia, the kitchen is operational.

Elizabeth has done an amazing amount of cleaning, unpacking, and nesting.  Days of sweeping, vacuuming and scrubbing, including hiring a pair of women with mops for a day, and putting my mom to work on a couple shower stalls, has mostly removed the thin, and sometimes thick, veneer of construction dust, mounds of glop, and piles of wire trimming.   One week ago, it was an empty building, full of cardboard boxes and dirt. Now it feels like a home.

A new place requires a huge amount of screwing. I mounted a couple of poplar 1x3s to the utility room wall (without breaking any cement screws this time), and after trimming it to size, attached a pegboard.  Then I hung up a paper towel holder in one of the relatively few gypsum walls.  There still seems to be an infinite queue of towel racks, toilet paper rolls, mirrors, lights, and electrical plates that needs to be hung, so I’ve got lots of drilling and screwing to look forward to. At least the plates already have holes.

A couple years ago, we developed a taste for metal switch plates.  We like being well-wired, and lots of walls have 2 or even 3 outlets on them.  Even before finishing all the outlets in the basement level of the cabin, our Amish electrician had bought out all the white metal outlet plates in a 3-county area.  A quick count shows that when the a shipment of plates arrive, I’ve got over 2 dozen to screw in. The electrician already hung the ceiling fans and most of the lights, so I’m not on the hook for that (Electrician: “Do you know how many light switches there are in this house?” Elizabeth: “60?”  Electrician: “65.” Elizabeth: “Is that a lot?” Electrician: “Yup.”)

Elizabeth found a swing in Coshocton that matched the color of our porch, so she sent me down on Saturday to see if it would fit in the back of the Subaru. It came with a chain, which solved one problem,  but not with something to hang the chain from.  After I managed to squeeze the swing into the back of the wagon, I went to the lumberyard in Coshocton to see what they recommended.  They talked me into a pair of screw eyes and a pair of springs.  I wasn’t sure if comfort dictated suspension, but he seemed to think the springs would be the perfect interface between the eyes and the chain. (“Do you have something for those eyes to screw into?” “They are going into a 6×6 beam.”  “That’ll do.”)

Porch Swing Spring

Dad and I decided to start with one screw eye to see how it went.  So I climbed up on a step ladder, drilled a hole, screwed the eye in using a screwdriver as a lever. Then I climbed down the ladder and we stared at it. And then we stared at the puzzle represented by the spring unit.  As it turned out, the suspension mechanism did interface nicely with the chain, although it meant pulling the chain thru the center of the coil spring, hooking a metal loop through it, and then pulling the loop and chain back through the spring.  As far as the other end of the suspension unit went, there was no way the entire cabin was going to pull through it.  There was no way the screw eye was going to pull through it. The solution turned out to be a pair of S hooks between the eyes and the springs, but the hardware store hadn’t sold me any of those. Dad found a pair in the barn, and now we’re hanging easy.

Newly Installed Porch Swing


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Finishing the Cabin.]

Cabin Heating Up

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Elizabeth and I spent the first week of March sleeping in the Millersburg Comfort Inn, working on the cabin and getting it ready to move in.  It still needs plumbing and electrical fixtures, but things are heating up.  Just about all of the trim is finished.  The woodstove for my office was delivered and installed, and we cranked it up to make sure that it worked. We’d purchased a fridge months ago, and it was also delivered and plugged in. There’s nothing quite like that first beer from an indoor fridge in a new place. The geothermal has been plumbed up and running for at least a month, but the thermostat wasn’t install in the upstairs zone was waiting for some drywall and paint.  The installers stopped by to wire it up and they gave us a quick briefing on how to change the 2 large air filters on the heat pump.

Elizabeth and I had a long visit to Keim lumber. While she talked countertops in the remodeling center, I looked at tools I wasn’t going to buy, and then scheduled a delivery of dimensional lumber and pegboard.  Kirk helped me attach 3 poplar stringers to the cement wall of the garage and we hung a pegboard from it.  Feeling more confident with my cement screw skills (hint: set the adjustable clutch on the drill to 19, and if the screw doesn’t seat, don’t try to torque it in. Back it out, open up the hole with the hammer drill, and try the screw again), I attached 4 2×4 cleats to the wall and proceeded to build a shelf frame around it.  I used scavanged scraps of floor sheath for the shelves.  Maybe its a bit overbuilt, but if a tornado hits, I will be curled up on a shelf that is screwed into a poured concrete wall, 8 feet below ground level. I also hung up some old flourescent light fixtures.

After the last of the carpentry work was done, Elizabeth spent hours with a rented shop vac cleaning up the floors, and late morning on Friday, the truck arrived with most of our stuff.  Above shows Elizabeth in our upstairs bedroom with the furniture that belonged to her grandparents. Long story short, our 2001 move to Austria wasn’t expected to last very long, but it turned into an indefinite stay in England. When we moved back to the USA in 2009, we decided that we’d bring back some furniture, plates, cooking stuff, stuff, and stuff, so we’d have enough stuff for the original house and the new cabin.  All that stuff stayed in boxes in the basement, garage, and several rooms of our house for 2 years and 5 days. At least one piece of IKEA furniture has now been in 3 countries, 1 apartment, and 4 houses.

Speaking of contributions to the Swedish economy, back in January, Elizabeth had taken the dimensions for 4 closets to the local Container Store and worked out shelving plans.  The store provided 10 neat bundles of precut hangers, shelving, and rods, along with all the necessary hardware.  I spent Friday afternoon and a couple hours on Saturday continuing to screw.  One advantage of a log house is that you don’t have to worry too much about finding studs. The shelf I’m hanging from is screwed into the main pine beam that holds up the top floor of the cabin. Elizabeth kept careful track of which utilities were inside which interior walls, so she knew that there was a 2×4 behind the barn board panel at the top of the above closet on the left.  The main shelves and rods in our closet are attached to an outside wall, which is made out of solid wood.


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Every Castle Needs a Throne.]