Bathroom renovation

As I have stated many times, we purchased out house 7 years ago from a house flipper and the quality of the work she and her contractor did was, to put it mildly, subpar. Case in point is the 2nd floor bathroom.

It looked nice-ish when be bought the house. Clean, usable, new tile and no obvious problems. But a few years of use and things fell apart. I mean that quite literally–things really did fall apart. The first sign of trouble was cracks appearing in the grout joints, followed by tiles beginning to “push out” from the wall.

That ain’t good…

The window trim in the dormer was kinda gross as well

While I had hoped to put the project off a bit, the timeline got bumped up when the tiles began to separate from the wall completely. I actually heard one fall off and land in the tub. So, demo had to begin….

Demolition revealed what I had expected. The flipper stuck ceramic tile to the plaster walls using mastic that was not suitable in wet environments. Plaster is also not a suitable substrate for a shower stall. It is clear that this tub was only ever meant to be a tub and not a shower as well. The wall beneath the tile was saturated down to the framing.

Beneath the paint and mastic was a mushy mass of old plaster and rusty corner bead.

To properly turn this into a shower/tub combo I knew I had to rebuild from the studs up with a suitable backer. Ditto for the floor which needed new tile. I took it back to bare subfloor (thankfully the cast iron closet flange was in pristine condition).

The floor was sloped so I covered the sub-floor with birch ply, Red guard waterproofing, wire mesh lathe, and then poured leveling compound. After tiling the floor I measured final heights and cut out the old plaster and replace it with a vapor barrier and 1/2 inch backer board.

Floor leveled and new backer board installed

Old medicine cabinets used to have a razor disposal slot in the back of them. When opening up the walls in an older bathroom be careful!

A common sight in older homes– a pile of used razor blades in the wall cavity below the medicine cabinet.

Because of all of the outside corners in the shower (owing to the gambrel roof) we opted for marble tile so that the color went all the way through on the exposed edge cuts. The secret to a good tile job is prep and patience. Agonize over the minute details and make your walls and floors are as flat, straight, level and plumb as possible–not always easy to do in an older home! That and a good tile saw will yield good results. Also, if you are using marble be sure and choose a thinset mortar that will not “show through” or darken the tile.

I took my time and I’m glad I did. Pasquale tried to help by removing the horseshoe spacers. Unfortunately he did so immediately after I set the tile.

I’m not a terribly experience tiler but I read a ton and asked a lot of questions at the tile store and triple checked I was using the right materials. The results exceeded my expectations. All told this project took me a month and a half of nights and weekends but moving slowly and carefully was key.

While I had it removed I also replaced all the seals and valves in the toilet.
The window was trimmed with rot proof and mildew resistant PVC and caulked and painted. I ditched the blinds in favor of privacy film.
Bath hardware by Crosswater

Very pleased indeed. The last thing I did was to install a vent fan (there was none before) in the ceiling which is vented out the roof ( I hate heights and installing the external vent in the roof was saved for last because I dreaded it). This will help with moisture problems in the winter when it is too cold to pen the bathroom window.

The two gang box to the left of the vanity was added during rough in to accommodate the outlet and the switch for the new vent fan and light combo.
The peace lily LOVES being in the shower. I restored the original 1938 bath tub using polishing compound and a buffer

Garden Shed

Since buying our house almost five years ago we have been in desperate need of storage for our garden tools.  I have been meaning to build a garden shed for awhile but other projects have taken priority.  But, with the COVID lockdown and the end of spring semester classes I have had a little more time on my hands, so I finally decided to have at it.

Now while I have had the time, I still don’t have a ton of space for shed construction.  This is largely due to the amount of exposed ledge behind our house.  So, I needed a shed of modest dimensions.  Unfortunately, most of the plans available online for small sheds lacked aesthetic appeal.  The look of the shed is important as it is sited on our property line and in clear view of my neighbor’s living room window.  My neighbor was cool with me building it, and so I wanted to be sure I was respectful of the fact that he was going to have to look at it, a lot.  A lean-to type shed clad in T-111 wasn’t going to cut it.  So, I had little recourse but to design the shed myself.  Not exactly a great architectural challenge given that it is only 3 1/2 feet by 6.  Nevertheless, taking the time to do a scale drawing–whether it is a piece of furniture or a garden shed–helps to make sure you have proportions correct.  It also helps when it comes time to estimate and order materials.

A simple scale drawing with three views (front, side, and top) makes all the difference during the process of design, materials estimating, and construction. In this case, 1 inch = 1 foot.

I started by spreading, leveling and compacting a base of gravel. The gravel will also help facilitate drainage, especially important as this shed sits atop pressure treated 4 x 6 timbers.  The floor is laid out in pressure treated 2 x 6 secured with corner brackets and joist hangers.  The floor decking is 3/4″ pressure treated plywood (and holy hell is that stuff heavy in 4 x 8 sheets).  The rest of the shed is framed in standard KD 2 x 4 and sheathed in 3/4 inch CDX plywood.

I got my lumber, roofing, flashing, and trim delivered from my friends at Gilbert and Cole

I will never order lumber from Home Depot–half of it winds up being unusable.  The stuff I get from Gilbert and Cole is always straight and flat.

The framing was pretty straight forward.  The wall are 5″ tall and the roof is gabled with a 5/12 pitch. I slightly increased the pitch over my original plan to give me a few more inches of height inside to accommodate longer handled tools.

KNKS5130 (1)
Framing underway.  One small change from my original plan was that I increased the roof pitch slightly to a 5/12.

Once framing and sheathing were done I moved on to finish the exterior.  Again, the aesthetics mattered, so I opted for cedar shakes to match our house.  The trim boards are all PVC and will never rot and don’t require paint (assuming you are OK with white trim).

Shingling under way

I tacked a layer of 30# roofing felt to the exterior before starting the shingles.  The PVC trim board along the bottom and the top of the door are capped with a Z flashing.  The back of the shed also has an 8 x 8 gable vent installed.

I used asphalt shingles on the roof and PVC for the soffits. I built doors out of 2x 4 covered in tongue and groove PVC bead board.

The finished product

I used some leftover off-cuts of plywood and 2 x 4 to make some shelves inside.  The shed filled up fast, but does hold all of my garden tools including my reel mower and wheelbarrow. There is enough room to store the window boxes and garden lighting over the winter.  She should last many, many years given the quality (and rot resistance) of the materials I used. Yes, this was a very expensive shed given its size–I’m into this project for $1500.  The main drivers of price was the PVC trim and the cedar shakes; the latter is up in price due to tariffs. It was worth it though to have a shed that looks like this and that will likely last 25 years or probably even more and require only occasional jacking and leveling.

Finally put this project to bed…Shaker inspired nightstands.

A few years ago we repainted our bedroom.  This prompted my wife to want a new headboard for our bed.  The old headboard was dark cherry and just didn’t fit with the room anymore, so I made a new one. Once that was done she observed that now the nightstands didn’t really work (also dark cherry), so I set to work on a new pair.  As it happened, I had just inherited a healthy stock of maple from my father and was looking for a suitable project.  Given the overall aesthetic of our home, I thought that a shaker/19th century vernacular style would be a good place to start with the design.  I’ve learned the hard way to always draw plans before the first cut to give one a a sense of size and proportion.

Shaker inspired, but also pretty reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th century vernacular style I was accustomed to seeing as a kid in rural Pennsylvania.

I started dimensioning the stock and gluing up the sides last winter–then spring hit and the carcasses sat in my shop while I went to work prepping the garden.

Lovely (and very hard) maple

Glue up

I thought that being on sabbatical last Spring would afford me all the time in the world to get these done–such was not the case!  As summer gave way to fall my wife became a little more impatient and openly speculated that perhaps it was time to start looking at furniture stores for a pair of nightstands.  OK, I got the message.  After Christmas I finally got back to it.

With the carcasses largely complete to this point it was a matter of assembling the face frames and building the drawers and inset panel doors.

While I am certainly not opposed to the use of power tools (never giving up my table saw or router!) I still enjoy prepping stock with hand tools–I can joint a board with this Stanley #8 pretty quickly. This piece of stock was resawn to make the book matched panels for the cabinet doors.

Drawer assembly–my dovetails are improving

Hand cut dovetail.  I cut them slightly proud then trim the ends of the pins and tails with a block plane before final sanding.

Final fitting of drawers, doors, and hardware

After drawer construction was complete (all hand cut dovetails) and the doors glued up I assembled both nightstands for a final fitting.  Originally I had intended to use Shaker style hardware–wooden knobs and latches.  My wife requested modern hardware in something like a brushed nickel finish.  Our compromise was antique salvage hardware from the 1920s or so: glass pulls for the drawers and steel Hoosier cabinet latches.  I like the look.  After fitting I removed all of the hardware, gave everything a final sanding to #220, and applied three coats of Tried & True Danish Oil burnishing with #0000 steel wool between coats.

I love this stuff

I’m pretty happy with how this project turned out.


Plenty of room for bed time reading

While I was at it I thought a “new” clock was a good idea as well.  I have and old Telechron given to me by a colleague that I love, but the alarm was always pretty temperamental.  So, I found another Telechron (circa 1940s) in need of a little TLC–it needed a new cord, some lubrication, and the case looked like it had been dropped down the stairs.

Cleaned, lubricated, new cord and the finish restored this vintage Telechron goes well with the maple nightstand.

Done and done.  Next project (after resharpening all of my chisels and plane irons that got beat up on the hard maple) is a reproduction of an 18th century sea chest.

The things we leave behind

I received a text message several weeks ago from a friend and former student: a friend of his was tasked with cleaning out her grandfather’s house in Watertown, Massachusetts which included a basement workshop.  Her grandfather had died at the end of 2019 at the age of 94. Unsure what to do with everything, she and the family decided to try to sell off his tool.  I said I’d be interested in taking a look; at the very least I could provide some guidance on what was of interest to collectors and what wasn’t.  Perhaps I’d even find a few things for myself.  What I didn’t expect was to be as affected as I was by digging through the now quiet workshop of Charles Paone, a man I never met.  His friends and family called him Charlie.

Mr. Paone’s workshop was located in the basement of the modest cape style home (circa 1940s or 50s) adjacent to a  basement den paneled in tongue and grooved knotty pine that instantly betrayed (in a very familiar and for me pleasing way) the age of the the home.  The shop itself was filled with stray off cuts of lumber and shelves full of stains and varnishes.  All around were empty Chase and Sandborn and Folgers coffee cans and Prince Albert tobacco tins now filled with an assortment of nuts and bolts and wood screws.  I immediately thought of my grandfather’s garage and the baby food jars filled with hardware. I spotted a few tools that were of interest to me but I mostly was interested in learning about the man who spent his Saturday afternoons and evenings after work building and fixing things at a workbench still strewn with the tools and clamps he used on his last project.  I talked to his granddaughter a little about tools, but mostly I asked about him.

What I learned is that Mr. Paone was born in Watertown in 1925.  He was a veteran of WWII where he served in the south pacific with the US Army–it is likely he lied about his age to enlist early, a not so uncommon practice!  Following the war he built his home in Watertown where he raised his family and worked for Waltham Millwork Corporation.  What I found fascinating was the number of home built power tools–belt sanders, bench grinders, and router tables.  I picture him sitting with a set of plans from a 1950s Popular Mechanics and adapting an old washing machine motor to run a stationary belt sander.  I found a couple of piles of old electric motors patiently awaiting their reuse.

Most of the old power tools are of greater interest to a collector than they were to a collector and user like me.  There was one major exception, which was a Craftsman model 103.23620 bench-top drill press.  As best as I can figure, it was produced sometime between about 1947 and 1951.  I plugged it in and it fired right up and ran smoothly. I loaded the drill press and an assortment of hand tools into my car and spend a bit of time chatting with Mr. Paone’s granddaughter.  It was clear that they were close. Before I left I spotted a picture of Mr. Paone and his wife June on their wedding day and quickly snapped a pic.

Paone (2)
Charlie and June sometime in the 1940s

I got the drill press home and gave it a through cleaning and lubrication.

Back on my home workbench


Craftsman: The tools that launched a thousand home workshops

After some consideration, I made the decision to replace the motor.  Originally I had planned on just replacing the cord, but further inspection revealed deteriorating insulation inside the motor; it also emitted a very strong odor of ozone.  I don’t think it was original to the drill as the manual claims it had a 1/3 hp motor from the factory, while the one mounted to the drill when I brought it home was 1/4 horse.  I upgrade to a sealed 1/3 hp motor from Grizzly Industrial.

The old General Electric 1/4 hp motor

The new motor mounted easily and is lighter and more powerful.

She now runs like a top and I couldn’t be happier–I’ve wanted a drill press for awhile.  What I got was even better: a drill press and a story.

I picked up a few other odds and ends as well.

Stanley #99 side rabbet plane

Stanley #71 router plane

Fitchburg Tool Co. combination square. I don’t know the date, but what little info there is on this company indicates it went out of business in the 1950s.

I was certainly very happy about finding these tools, but being there in Charlie’s shop also made me feel a sense of sadness and loss.  Mr. Paone marks the passing of a generation of men and women who fought their way through the deprivations of the Great Depression and then fought their way through the horrors of the Second World War in Europe, the south pacific, and on the home front.  After that, to have the chance to own a modest home on a modest street and to have a small space to work with your hands and a place to raise your family must have felt like a profound luxury.  As we get further away from the hardships and triumphs of Charlie’s generation we forget that there is not just happiness but also nobility in a modest life lived simply and well.  Men like Charlie made great sacrifices and asked for little in return but a little shop in the corner of the basement where all of the destruction he had witnessed could be negated but the small but powerful act of creating.  His shop was my grandfather’s shop.  His shop is my father’s shop.

As I left, I promised Mr. Paone’s granddaughter that I would not sell the items I had bought, but rather, I would honor him by using them to build things for my family and loved ones.  I am proud to have such an opportunity.  Thank you, Charlie, for everything you have done–I only wish we had had the chance to meet.




About a week after I visited Watertown and returned with some treasures from Charlie’s shop I received a large envelope in the mail.  Inside were the original owner’s manual for the drill press as well as the funeral card pictured above.  There was also a very kind letter from Charlie’s granddaughter thanking me for taking such an interest in her grandfather, “his craft, and his life.”  The honor was mine.  I will put the funeral card up in my shop as a reminder of Charlie, a man I’ve never met but have enjoyed getting to know.

A Classic Takes to the Field

I can’t deny that modern firearms are technically great–modern metallurgy, coatings, ammunition and ballistics, optics, and synthetic stock materials make for weapons that are accurate and reliable under even extreme climate conditions.  So yes, they don’t make them like they used to, and perhaps that is sometimes a good thing.  Sometimes, however, you just can’t compete with a classic, and despite the technical virtues of modern firearms, I love, for lack of a better word, the feel of a classic rifle or shotgun.  To that end, I give you the Remington Model 31, which is in my view the finest pump action shotgun ever made.


First produced in 1931 to compete with the then market dominating Winchester Model 12, the M31 marks the pinnacle (in my humble opinion) of the development of the pump action.  The operation is just incredibly smooth, earning it the nickname the “ball-bearing action.”


No, it doesn’t have ball bearings but it certainty feels as if it does.  There is not a piece out of place or a rattle to be heard as the tolerances are tight, even on my M31 which is now 70 years old.  There is a really nice article on the M31 in Guns Magazine that summarizes it nicely:

“Finally, there’s the issue of smoothness. These guns do not have ball bearings but I think the description of “ball bearing action” fits perfectly. I’ve never found anything comparing to the smoothness of the M31. It has a lighter stroke than Winchester’s M12 or the Remington’s M870, which replaced it. The stroke on the M31 is the shortest of the three at 3-1/2″ inches compared to 3-3/4″ for the M12 and 3-7/8″ for the M870.”

The action is fast and I can rack and fire a follow up shot with my M31 probably just a bit slower than I can manage with my semi-auto Remington Model 11-87.  Unlike a semi-auto, I never worry about stove-piping a shell especially with the light loads I favor for quail and chukkar.  This gun is not an over/under showpiece to be trotted out at an Orvis resort; this gun was made to be carried by folks who took to the field in earnest.  Perhaps not the cheapest gun in its day, but Remington managed to sell quite a few even in the dark days of the Great Depression.


My M31 was made in about 1946 or 47 and is the “skeet model” with a solid ribbed 26″ barrel and adjustable polychoke. In the field, the gun is quick to shoulder and swing into action.  It is comfortable to carry for a long day of upland hunting (just shy of 8 pounds)–it feels light and nimble but solid.

My beloved 1946-1947 Remington Model 31 with 26″ solid ribbed polychoke barrel

The condition of mine hits the sweet spot for me: it retains a fairly high percentage of the original blueing and has just a few scratches in the stock but no cracks or structural problems.  The bore retains a mirror finish and the action is nice and tight.  In other words, it is in really good condition but not so nice as to be a collector gun I wouldn’t want to take into the field.  I don’t want to own a gun if I have to feel bad about using it!

A few caveats for perspective owners.  One, these shotguns will only accept 2 3/4 inch shells.  If I want to use a 3 inch shell when duck hunting, I take my M11-87.  Two, used replacement barrels are getting harder to find and they are not cheap.  And lastly, this is not the easiest gun to fully disassemble.  While I can tear down a Remington M870 (which was introduced to replace the M31) in minutes or even seconds, the M31 is more demanding.  There are more parts and those parts or fitted to tight tolerances.  So, this shotgun requires a little more care and practice.  In the end, it was those tight tolerances and beautifully inter-meshing parts that spelled the end of the M31 which finally ceased production in about 1950.  Final fitting and assembly required a skilled gunsmith, whereas the simpler action on the M870 did not.  That made the M870 cheaper and easier to produce. The M870 is also a great gun that has certainly stood the test of time, but the M31 is in a different class altogether.

I’m always looking around for vintage sporting rifles and shotguns, but it will take something pretty special to overtake the M31 as my go to field gun.

My M31, a pair of pheasants, and a Brittany Spaniel called Stella


Bread ‘n Butter Pickles

A simple but wholly excellent recipe I got from a close friend of my wife’s family.  Apart from our shared admiration of Scotch we apparently have a similar love of bread ‘n butter pickles. I’m not sure of the original source for the recipe, but thank you to Lani for passing it along to me, and thank you to Richard and Pat with Middle Earth Farms in Amesbury, MA for the fresh ingredients!

Lani’s Bread ‘n Butter Pickles

4 quarts sliced pickling cucumbers (I used a mandolin for the slicing)

6 medium onions (I used Vidalias)

3+ sliced red peppers (I added a lot of extra peppers)

3 cloves garlic

1/3 cup pickling salt

4 cups sugar

3 cups cider vinegar

1 1/2 tsp turmeric

1 1/2 tsp celery seed

2 tbsp mustard seed

  1. Combine cucumbers, onion, peppers, and garlic. Add salt IMG_1828
  2. Cover mixture with cracked ice and mix thoroughly. Allow to stand for three hours then drain and rinse well
  3. Combine remaining ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a rapid simmer
  4. Pack sanitized pint jars with cucumber mixture and ladle in vinegar solution, leaving a 1/2 inch of head space. Adjust lids and bands
  5. Process in water bath canner for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool and check for seal.




Lazy Days of Summer

Not really lazy per se, just recreational.  The garden is humming along and the plants are doing their thing.  There will be a flurry of activity when it comes time to harvest, but for not it is just a bit of weeding and watering.  I don’t spend much time building in the shop during the summer, so all in all, I’ve been relaxing with other activities.  Sitting and reading on the beach has taken a healthy piece of my time (O.K., that is kind of lazy), but mostly I’ve been working on rehabbing my right Achilles tendon, which I had surgically repaired about three and a half months ago.  Today I started back to trail running, and for my return to the trails I chose one of my favorite place: Appleton Farms. Beautiful rolling terrain mixing pasture, meadow, wetland, and wood.  Oh, and Jersey cows.

Appleton is one of my favorite places, probably because the rolling pastures remind me a bit of home, or at least what home used to look like.  I started at the visitor center and ran past Briar Hill where part of the herd of Jerseys had taken shelter from the heat beneath a tree.  The hill itself was covered in a blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace, considered an invasive, nonnative weed by some, but a regular fixture of the New England countryside nevertheless.

Jersey Cows sheltered under a tree on Briar Hill

Daucus carota or Queen Anne’s Lace

I ran along the dirt farm road between the Great Pasture and The Plains before turning to the west and heading up slope along the Great Pasture toward a low stone fence the marks the boundary between open ground and the wooded Grass Rides. Along the way I was treated to a field of goldenrod (Solidago) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosa) in full bloom.

Goldenrod and Joe Pye Weed in bloom in The Great Pasture

Appleton Farms and Grass Rides

I turned south and followed the stone fence up slope until I crested Pigeon Hill, the highest point of the property that offers a stunning view of the farm and beyond.  It is also the site of one of the four stone monuments placed in memory of members of the Appleton Family.  The granite pillars are the decorative pinnacles from the top of the former Gore Hall at Harvard University which was demolished in 1912 to make way for the new library.  The four pillars were gifted to the Appleton family.  The pillar at the top of Pigeon Hill was placed in memory of Francis R. Appleton, Jr. (1885-1974).

The Great Pasture from the top of Pidgeon Hill

Monument dedicated to Francis Appleton, Jr. atop Pigeon Hill

Heading down from Pigeon Hill I entered back into the wooded trails that comprise the Grass Rides.  Passing through low wetlands the trail emerges into a clearing called Round Point where I came upon another pinnacle from Gore Hall.  This was the first to be erected in memory of an Appleton Family member, in this case, Charles L. Appleton who died of pneumonia just a few years after returning from active service in the first world war.

Entering Round Point in the Appleton Grass Rides

After circling back through the Grass Rides I retraced my steps past Pidgeon Hill, along the stone fence, through the Great Pasture and back along Briar Hill.  Perhaps not a Lazy Day, but certainly one of joy and discovery.  I’ll be back soon to find the other two pinnacles.

Refrigerator Pickles

In my day job I’m a university professor, which means I spend a good bit of my time trying to identify plagiarism in student papers.  It is an unpleasant task, but it goes with the territory.  If I want my head to explode, I could undertake the same investigation when looking up recipes on the internet; they all seem to be just copies of each other with only slight modifications.  So I’ll give you a disclaimer: I got this recipe mostly from the internet with a few minor modification, but I cannot for the life of me detect the original source since it is replicated on at least a dozen different sites (though I suspect it may have started with Bobby Flay).  Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.  By now, the concept of refrigerator pickles has been around long enough for the copyright to lapse, or in the parlance of the pharmaceutical industry, they are now free for generic manufacturing.

I’ve made a lot of cucumber salad off the two vines I grew this summer, so it was time to make some pickles instead.


So, without further adieu, here is a tried and true recipe to use with your summer crop of cukes freely stolen from the interwebs and lightly modified to suit my taste.

Quick and Easy Refrigerator Pickles

3/4 c. white vinegar & 3/4 c. cider vinegar or some combination thereof

1/4 c. white sugar

4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. mustard seed

1 tsp. coriander seed

1 tsp. dill seed

3/4 tsp. pepper flakes (or to taste, or omit altogether, hell, they’re your pickles)

2 c. water

2 lbs pickling cucumbers (or whatever variety you happened to have grown)

3/4 c. chopped dill

4 cloves garlic, chopped or thinly sliced


  1. In a saucepan combine the vinegar, water, and dried herbs.  Bring to a low simmer until the salt and sugar completely dissolve.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Cut the cucumbers as you will; slices, spears, or what have you. In a large bowl, toss the cucumbers with the dill and garlic. Place in a jar.
  3. Add the cooled vinegar solution, cover, and place in the refrigerator.  Let them sit for a day or so (if you can wait).  Can be enjoyed for about a week.


I didn’t grow pickling cukes but the regular old Burpee cukes I did grow worked just fine.  They were large so I cut them into spears and packed them into a 1/2 gallon canning jar.  I also had close to 3 pounds (2.9 to be exact), well over the 2 pounds the recipes call for but the recipes made more than enough pickling solution to cover them.  They are easy and they are delicious.

I have a friend who is a Serve Safe expert who claims that you can increase the refrigerator life of these pickles by omitting the garlic, which he claims is often the source of things like botulism.  As pickles rarely last long in this household I wasn’t too concerned.


Roasted Garlic Sriracha BBQ Sauce

I have made about a million different iterations of BBQ sauce in my life but have never really settled on a master recipe.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that I have some friends from the south who argue at length about the relative virtues of regional BBQ variations and what, in fact, constituents a proper sauce.

Well, rather than try to mimic (or appropriate in the parlance of our time) a southern BBQ sauce, I decide to simply focus on the flavors I like and work out a master recipe that I can continue to tweak over time.  After all, I’m not a southern boy, but rather a son of Pennsylvania  now living in New England so why be fettered by BBQ provincialism?

I’d hardly call this done by any means, but initial batches are very promising.  I started with a generic BBQ sauce base that seems pretty common across the internets and built from there adding in maple syrup as a nod to my New England home, roasted garlic, and Sriracha.


1/2 large sweet onion

1 head of garlic, roasted

2 cups ketchup

1/3 cup + 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

4 tbsp brown sugar

3 tbsp maple syrup

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp ground mustard

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 1/2 tbsp Sriracha or to taste

  1. Roast garlic in the oven and allow to cool for easy handling
  2. Roughly chop the onion and saute until it develops a golden color
  3. Add the onion to a food processor.  Remove the roasted garlic from its husk and add to the food processor.  Pulse until fine but do not turn it to mush!
  4. In a saucepan combine the onion and roasted garlic with the other ingredients and simmer until thickened (about 20 minutes or so) and adjust seasoning to taste.
  5. You can store in a container in the fridge for a week or two, or freeze it.  Given the acid content, this recipe could also be canned in a water bath canner.

That’s it!  I rarely make a recipe the same way twice but this is a good master recipe from which to tinker.  My best friend of 35 years and his family will be arriving this Sunday and I will be smoking a large brisket on the Big Green Egg.  This sauce will go nicely on a brisket sandwich.

Father’s Day Repost: Here Is the Most Important Thing Pete Lukens Taught My Brother and Me

My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s.  In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all.  Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family.  Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate.  No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case.  I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate.  Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate.  It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson

I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.


Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.

Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:

  • I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
  • If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
  • I can build things for my home that are completely unique
  • Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
  • I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
  • I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
  • I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
  • Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion

If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful.  It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.

The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.

To be clear,  I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious.  Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things.  Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable.  In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”

 “It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).

I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command.  I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.

“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”

Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism.  Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing.  Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch.  After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers.  Hire a plumber.  Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter.  Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs.  I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns.  I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me.  It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden.  The reason why needs some explanation.

What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design.  There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.  In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice.  External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc.  However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice.  Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash.  There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson.  More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.

To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express.  For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom.  I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!

Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men.  The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production.  What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness.  I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.

“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”

That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness.  We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men.  I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.

An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.