Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Screening Compost and Soil

A screen for soil, compost, and other materials is a very useful piece of gardening equipment.  It sifts out pine cones, roots, and other big pieces of junk, and breaks up clods so you're left with nice fine-grained soil that mixes easily with amendments.  It's good for recovering the potting mix from container plantings, leaving all the root balls behind and leaving nice clean media.  It's also good for mixing things.  I'll put a couple shovels of soil, a shovel of compost, and a shovel of pumice together with a little fertilizer and shake the screen to get a nice batch of planting soil.  I typically use mine over a wheelbarrow, shoveling stuff in and then shaking it and moving it around by hand.

Mine is made from 1/2" hardware cloth, fixed onto a frame of 1x3's.  I put some pivoting legs on one end so I can work it single-handed, and it's held up for about ten years now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Skylight Installation

I'm a big fan of natural light.  We installed a simple skylight in the laundry room a couple of years ago, and it was fairly straightforward, so I'm going to put one in our upstairs bedroom.  This one will be openable, which will provide ventilation and light, and of course a place to stick a periscope up and pretend my house is a submarine.

The roof rafters are 24" so a common 2' x 4' skylight will fit right in with no change to the structural framing.  I bought a Velux VCM 2246 (manual opening, curb mount, 22" x 46" nominal size) and a ECL flashing kit at Lowe's.  They stock them locally, they're made in the USA, and we had a good experience installing the first one.  I marked out some locations with tape so we could visualize them from inside, and then nailed in a header and footer to form a frame.

This is what happens when I'm left alone with a recip saw

These skylights are sized based on expected framing spacings and thickness.  Ideally, your rafters are 24" on center and 1-1/2" thick, so that there is 22-1/2" between then, and of course everything is square, level, and plumb...  Few of those parameters are ever true, so you have to watch the important ones.  In the end, all the skylight cares about is that it's sitting on top of a framed curb that is square and has outside dimensions of 25-1/2" x 49-1/2".  That's easy, since you'll be building the curb yourself, and it sits on top of your roof sheathing so it's independent of the house framing, but you have to make sure that it will align reasonably with the rafters or it will get ugly when you go to trim the inside.

Now, the part you really care about is whether or not it leaks.  If the roof is very flat, or very steep, things are tricky, but my roof is 12:7.5 (32˚) which is in the normal range.  We just followed the instructions on the Velux flashing kit and have had no problems.  They supply everything you need but nails, shingles to patch your roof, and a bit of tar paper underlayment.

I use a long (~12") 1/8" drill bit to locate through structures.  I used it to poke through at each corner from the inside, and then I stuck a bamboo skewer through each hole to easily find it from up above.  I drove a screw into each corner hole up on the roof deck, used those to snap chalk lines, and started cutting with a circular saw.  I have an old beater I use for stuff like this.  It's a low-powered saw, so I can hold the guard back and use it freehand with little risk of it grabbing and coming at me.  I set it shallow and use it to score through the roofing material, then remove that and make another deeper cut through the wood strandboard sheathing.  This house also has a layer of 1x8 skip sheathing under the osb, so I cut those with a sawzall from inside. You could do the whole thing with a sawzall, but I think this way is cleaner and a circular saw has a much easier time with the asphalt roofing.
Scoring the roofing with a circular saw

Then I went around with the circular saw again, and set really shallow, just barely cut through the roofing 4-1/2" out from the hole on the sides and bottom, and 8-1/2" at the top.  These dimensions are in accordance with Velux's directions.  I used a knife to slice whatever the saw didn't get and stripped it all down to the wood.  Then I attached the curb, which was just four pieces of  2x4 lumber screwed together at the corners.  I figured toenailing it to the deck wasn't going to cut it for an operable skylight that will have some dynamic wind loading, so I used 6" Timberlok screws, countersinking each one into the top of the curb and driving it all the way into the rafters.  I predrilled pilot holes with my long 1/8" bit to reduce the chance of splitting the framing, and drove them home with my little Milwaukie impact driver to clamp everything together very solidly.
Long Timberlok screws fasten down the curb
I also removed all the shingles around the edge, going around carefully with a flat pry bar and popping all the necessary nails underneath the shingles that weren't being removed.  If you're going to do any roofing work at all, go get yourself one of these flat prybars immediately.  It does a lot more than just pull nails.  I like the long Vaughan Superbar (B215L) because it's well made of quality steel, in the USA.  I've destroyed a lot of stuff with mine.
Ready for flashing
I don't have any photos of the flashing installation and roofing patching, because, well, it got dark.  I didn't finish until about 10:30pm, with the aid of a headlamp and a little clamp-on light.  Not recommended.  Installing the flashing kit and weaving it into the roof shingles is definitely the hardest part of this job, although it's not too difficult.  Installing the skylight itself is a piece of cake.  You just drop it on the curb and put ten screws in around the edges.
Finished view from the inside

Monday, March 5, 2012

Electrical Kit

This isn't a very exciting post.  It's more for me than for you I guess.  I spent quite a bit of time this weekend installing all the wiring in the bedroom.  I like electrical work.  I have a tool belt dedicated to it, with all the specialty tools laid out the way I like them, although the nail puller pokes me in the ribs.

Here's what's in it:

Machinists hammer - this is just a nice small size, good for putting in staples.  The ball-peen end isn't useful, but no sharp claws means fewer chances to take a chunk out of a cable or yourself in a tight spot.  I inherited this Craftsman from my granddad.

Nail puller - this little puller is good for staples, for demolition or mistake, although I often use the diagonal cutters or a pair of end nippers for pulling tasks.

Box knife - this is what I use for slitting NM cable and a few other similar tasks.  I don't like the cable rippers the contractor types use.

6" Diagonal Cutters - good for cutting the small 10/12/14 gauge residential cable, clipping sheathing off stripped cable, and pulling staples.  The trick is to grip the staple with the very tips, right against the framing, with the cutter flat on the wood surface.  The handles angle out, and you just press down, levering off the cutter and lifting the staple a little bit.  Then either pull it with a claw tool or just repeat a few times until it's out.  It's a high leverage, high precision way of removing a staple without nicking the wire.

Needle-nose Pliers - A largish pair.  Good for punching out knockouts in metal or plastic boxes.  Just hold both handles and use the closed tip like a punch to get started, then grab and twist with the pliers until you win.  Also used for forming the loops on the end of wires to attach to screw terminals.  You do use the screws, right?  Only a lazy jackass would use the push-in spring terminals on the back of receptacles and switches.  Screw-clamping backwire is ok, but I don't see that on most devices.

Mechanical Strippers - These are the greatest.  They are a total luxury, because you can strip wire with the little cutters with the holes in them, but these make it so quick and easy.  Mine are made by Ideal, and I think there are some almost as good ones from Klein.  There are some knockoffs, but they stink.  These have nice sharp steel blades, and quickly and cleanly strip off the insulation with no nicks.  They're great for all kinds of wiring tasks.

Non-contact Voltage Detector - these are really handy for sniffing along wires and finding where there is AC voltage present.  Great for trouble-shooting, and it's good to get in the habit of checking everything you're working on before something blows up on you.  What?  You've never turned off the wrong breaker accidentally?  But you can't 100% trust them.  Always get a signal from a known-hot wire so you know it works before relying on it.

Neon Light - these old-school indicator lights are handy sometimes.  A non-contact tester can only tell you where there is ac voltage, not whether a neutral or ground is really connected.  The light completes an actual circuit and so tests both sides of the equation.

Screwdrivers - one of each #2 Phillips and 1/4" straight.  There are lots of straight slotted screws left in the electrical trade.

Penlight - I keep a little Streamlight Stylus in my bag.  Super handy, and small so you can look inside boxes, conduit fittings, or small holes you drill in the wall to fish wire through.  I also wear a LED headlamp a lot.  It ensures you've always got a little light on whatever you're looking at, and it comes in especially handy when you're in the basement working in the breaker panel with the main off.

Friday, March 2, 2012

House History

I've found lots of artifacts and other evidence about the history of our house as I've opened various walls and poked around in dark corners.  According to the city's records, our house was built in 1911, but I don't think the upstairs was fully finished for a few years after that.  The original owners had a young daughter who was kind enough to write her full name and the date on the tar paper behind the siding.
Thanks, Ruth
Her dad's name is also scrawled in another spot, and from that information, we were able to match the names with census sheets from 1920.  I've also found lots of old newspapers from a range of dates, and a tube of "dental creme" aka toothpaste, and some painter's time sheets, but the names relate it all to the personal history of the folks that lived here.

I'm sure people from the east coast are not particularly impressed by stuff that's only 100 years old, but there isn't much around here from before 1900.