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.]


Thursday, December 15th, 2011

We were more than a bit surprised during last week’s trip to the building site to flip a switch and actually see something light up. We knew that power cables had been laid between the utility pole and the cabin’s foundation, along with water and power connections to the well, but we didn’t know that some temporary lights had been put into place.

As observed by Elizabeth over a month ago, the various subcontractors have been competing for the most desirable locations for, staking out their territory with magic markers.  The view above shows a transportation hub in the basement utility room ceiling that includes cold and hot water, 110 and 220v power and television.

The bathroom ceiling above shows duct work, drainage and cold water running to an upstairs bathroom, along with duct work for downstairs ventilation fans.

Log wall construction creates some challenges for utility routing, with most of the plumbing, wiring, and duct work for the upper floor sharing interior wall space around the bathrooms in the southwest corner.  One result of this is a tortuous path for hot air from a plenum in one corner, leading through two closets, a bedroom and a storage nook, ending up with a heating vent inside one of the gabled dormers.

Electrical outlets on exterior log walls were planned before the logs were stacked, ensuring that holes were drilled for pulling the wires.  Most of the switches are near door frames, which simplifies wire routing. As shown above, the door, ceiling and fan wiring for the porch are put into place before installation of the door trim.

 At this point, it seems that everything that is going to be inside a wall is in place, and Sam’s carpentry crew has started installing tongue in groove ceilings and walls in the areas where we decided against drywall. Most of the duct work seems to be in place, and power has been run into the cabin, so we’re hoping that heat pump will be installed soon. So are the subcontractors working inside an unheated cabin in December. We have no work on the when the geothermal company will be drilling or when the heat pump will arrive.


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

The Stack

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

The plumbers made their first visit this week, brothers who represent a surprisingly small relative increase in the number of people on site with the last name of Yoder. They went over the plans with Elizabeth for the basement bath, laundry, and utility sink, and discussed where we wanted to route the sewage stack and hot & cold running water up 2 floors in a log cabin (the secret is to use interior walls, which will be studded out of dimensional pine and either drywalled or tiled). We also discussed running water from the well, placing a freeze-proof hydrant near the well site, the placement of outside water faucets, and practical considerations in winterizing the house, if we ever decided to do that (the plan is to get a low-temperature thermostat and leave the geo-thermal heat pump turned on all winter). We also decided to use PEX instead of copper.

They dug a channel all the way from the front right of the cabin, where the foundation crew had left a sort of septic port, back to the utility room, which will have a floor drain, across to the left rear of the basement, which will have a full bath.  The plumbing for the main and top floor baths will be inside the rear wall of the basement bathroom, and will go up in about a 6 inch space behind the shower of the bathroom on the main floor.  Above shows the base of the chimney in my basement office, which will be closed off, and covered with pseudo-stone.  The pile of dirt above will be a Dutch Stone hearth supporting a wood stove.

The dirt was pretty easy digging in the front, but in the back, they had to use a small pneumatic hammer and picks to dig out all the shale.  The Yoder Bros are working in the approximate area of the laundry room above.  Before the end of the day, they’d completed everything that needed to be done before concrete could be poured.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry in this series is Great Room.]

Holes in the wall and Toilet Seats: DIY around the world part 1

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

You’d think that home repairs would be pretty much the same everywhere, but this turns out not to be the case. There are lots of differences in construction convention, and when you don’t grow up there, home repairs become very mysterious.

Take something simple like drilling holes in a wall. In America, the walls are all made of a sort of solidified cottage cheese, covered with heavy paper. You can drill a hole in a wall with a toothpick. Moving to Austria in ’01, I had this romantic and eventually frustrated notion that I’d be traveling all over the continent, buying gourmet organic hand tools the likes of which you just couldn’t get in America. The few I’ve found, like PB, a Swiss brand of screwdrivers that are made like surgical instruments, are now available in the US, so where’s the prestige value of that? (www.pbtools.us/)

We arrived in Vienna without furniture, a temporary situation that resulted in two marathon 8+ hours in IKEA (I’ve spent hours in business meetings speaking German, but still don’t know how to fluently say “My wife says that your other store has a removable cover for that couch in a darker shade of gray with a heavier texture.” What’s the word for couch? Davendingsbumm?) Suffering from chronic tendinitis (see subject Computers Will Break Your Heart), one of my first metric tool purchases was a rechargeable Bosch drill and a set of screwdriver and hex bits. If you’re going to do a lot of screwing, you gotta have the right tool.

The drill worked well until Elizabeth wanted me to put a hanging on the wall. Our apartment was in a lovely and newly renovated building that, unlike some of its neighbors in the neunzehnten Bezirk, had lived through the war quite nicely. Teutonic speakers like to build things to last, and apparently this one was especially Teutonic. My first attempt to drill a hole with the cheapie twist drill from the DIY store barely put a dent in the wall. So I tried a smaller bit and I pushed harder, which snapped it off. So I got wise, and bought a masonry bit. The walls still could have been made out of diamond, for all the good I could do using my suddenly feeble ni-cad powered hand tool.

After a couple weeks of complaints that I wasn’t fulfilling my husbandly role of drilling holes in walls, I found a used 1-HP Binford hammer drill. 220Volts!! Man, I HAMMERED those walls. First the white dust came out, then the red dust came out, and then your drill bit bottomed out. ZOOM! I quickly ran out of holes to drill, and only used that drill in Austria one more time. I did try it on an IKEA project, but the screw went in one side of the shelf and right back out the other. Swedish pine just doesn’t need as heavy a touch as Austrian cement.

I pretty much kept my hand off the electricals in that apartment, in contrast to my later experiences in England. In order to touch anything electrical in Austria, you need to be a Diplom Ingeneur. Unless you’re from Yugoslavia and paid in cash–then you’re allowed to do anything. We’d never get anything done without a constant string of moonlighting guest workers. In Austria, your apartment doesn’t come with light fixtures–you have to wire them in yourself. From a wife’s point of view, this is a marvelous opportunity to go shopping. From a husband’s point of view, this is a royal pain in the ass. I guess I should consider myself lucky that we didn’t have to install the entire kitchen, which is not uncommon.

We were the first ones to move into the apartment, so there were some repairs and projects already in process under the sponsorship of Frau Magister Doktor Zimm, our landlord. More than once I came home to find Elizabeth and some Yugoslavian guy, neither of whom spoke much German, pointing at the electrical or plumbing diagrams in a Duden Bildwörterbuch (picture dictionary), each with a half-finished bottle of Stiegl beer.

Not only were the ceilings higher than my ladder, but I admit that the electronics of the place were mystifying. The wires weren’t the colors and configuration I was used to in America, all the fixtures where lights were supposed to attach were different than American fittings. Being 220V, you would be twice as dead if you grabbed a bare wire and jumped into the bathtub. Of course, you can’t do that most of Europe, because they even put the light switches outside the bath, just to make it that much harder to electrocute yourself.

In another of the gross contrasts with our upcoming English experience, the electrical panel was of 21st century design. A gleaming, blinking example of Teutonic technical glory, it apparently ran itself, because I never had to touch the thing, which was good, because it had no instructions.

The floor heater in the kitchen had no instructions, either. An extremely minimalist, it only had one button on it, although the temperature could be controlled to a precise degree on a rotating schedule based on a clock and calendar. Elizabeth cracked the code before Frau Magister Doktor did, subsequently waking up every morning to toasty feet. The lack of instructions were probably an advantage in this case.

Unfortunately, the economy didn’t really cooperate, and I called a premature end to our Austrian experiment in Sept 2001, when I found a new job in London. This turned out to be a huge opportunity to learn all sorts of new things about DIY.