Preserving the Harvest: 2018 Edition

This was the first year for our new vegetable garden.  The results were a bit uneven–tomatoes and leeks did great, beans and beets did not.  The weather may be partly to blame as the spring was unseasonably cool and quite wet.  Between what I was able to grow myself and what I was able to purchase from Clark Farms and Brooksby Farms we managed to put up more food this fall than we have in previous years.

About one half of the produce grown in the United States is thrown away; food is cheap and people only want to buy produce that is pretty.  This wastefulness is a boon to those who don’t mind a little bit of effort.  While my garden managed to produce perhaps 30 pounds of tomatoes, that would hardly be enough to get us through the winter.  Busy families such as ours need a healthy supply of tomato sauce on hand for quick dinners.  Yes, I know that one can buy tomato sauce pretty cheap, but I like tomato sauce to actually taste like tomatoes so I prefer to can my own fresh.  To augment what we grew ourselves, I bought an addition 50-60 pounds of “seconds” from Clark Farms and Brooksby Farms at just under a buck a pound.  I volunteer every Saturday morning at the Marblehead Farmer’s Market; at the end of market, Bill Clark from Clark Farms was happy to sell me (at a steep discount) all of the damaged or split tomatoes that nobody else wanted.  Sauce tomatoes don’t need to be pretty! Similarly, Brooksby sells off their tomato seconds (in 20 pound boxes) at the end of the season.  Not only do they offload their not quite so pretty tomatoes, they also sell peach seconds in the summer and apple seconds in the fall.  I skipped the peaches this year as I still have some left from last season, but did cash in on the tomatoes and apples.

This fall we put up:

15 half pints of corn relish (recipe below).

16 quarts tomato sauce.

10 pints dilly beans

10 pints pickled beets

6 pints pizza sauce

7 quarts apple sauce



The only thing left to make is my sauerkraut; I’ll wait until the weather is a bit cooler lest the fermentation go nuclear in my basement.

Now for a little taste of home:

Pennsylvania Dutch Corn Relish

Kernels from 12 ears of corn

2 medium red onions, diced

6 red bell peppers, diced (I had 4 large and 2 small ones)

3 green bell peppers, diced

4-5 ribs celery, diced


1.5 cups sugar

6 c. vinegar (white or cider or a combination)

1 Tbsp ground mustard

1 Tbsp brown mustard seed

1 ½ tsp yellow mustard seed


Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer for ½ hour or so.  Adjust sugar and mustard to taste.  Pack into clean pint or ½ pint jars and process in a water bath for 1/2 hour.  This batch made 16  one half pint jars plus a pint.

If you don’t have mustard seed you can substitute with more mustard powder.  Some versions of this recipe will also include a small head of cabbage, shredded.  I like it with cabbage (shred it finely like you would for kraut) but Hilary is not a fan so I left it out this time.  Most recipes also use almost twice as much sugar, but I think it makes it too sweet but, of course, make it to your taste.  I’ve wanted to try adding jalapeno peppers to it but haven’t done that yet.  After tasting this batch I think I will increase the mustard powder next year.

Corn relish is great by itself or on hotdogs and hamburgers

And as they say in Berks County, PA, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”



We recently bumped up to a queen sized mattress, and a bigger mattress means that we needed a new headboard.  My wife found one she really liked at Cottage Home Furniture in Kittery, Maine.  According to their site, the headboard is made of poplar and pine and retails for $835.00 not including shipping.  I looked at it and estimated that it is perhaps $75-$100 worth of materials, so down to the workshop I went.

I came up with a scale drawing of the headboard based on the image on the website.  I made only one  change which was that the mechanical fasteners (or so they appear to be on the site) that attach the posts to the rails  were replaced with mortise and tenon joints. The drawing I did also include a stretcher across the bottom which I quickly realized was unnecessary so I didn’t include it in the actual construction.


I grabbed some poplar from my friends at Gilbert & Cole and got to work.  Nothing too complicated in the design or construction.  The dados into the top and bottom rail and  side posts that accept the bead board were cut with using a stacked dado cutter in my table saw.

IMG_0657 (1)

The tenons were also cut with the dado head cutter, while the mortises were hogged out with a brace and bit and chisels.  The chamfers on the posts were milled with a router. We finished it with a stain blocker primer and three coats of milk paint.

Pasquale approves

Not a terribly difficult project but rewarding all the same.  I got to make something that my wife really wanted and that makes me happy.  Hilary and our daughter both helped on the project, which I also enjoyed.  Also, I spent less than $100 for all of the materials–that’s a net savings of $750+.

The final bonus is that the old nightstands don’t match the new headboard so it looks like I have new project for this winter.  Happy wife, happy life.

Fixing the Flip: Part II

The saga continues…

After the shingles and roofing felt were stripped from the wall I could finally see what I was really dealing with and make a plan.

Hilary helped strip the old shingles and roofing felt.  “Look at me, I’m a construction worker!” she kept saying.  The Tyvek along the bottom of the wall appears to have been installed by the flipper and her lackey and covers over some ugly stuff. When I pulled it and the sheathing underneath away I found concrete, termites,  and rotten wood.

I did substantial research on modern materials and techniques to make sure everything met code and was rebuilt with the best available materials. Unlike the contractor who first “repaired” the rotten sill, I actually cared that the house not collapse within a few years.  After some wailing and gnashing of teeth and rocking back and forth in a fetal position I calmed down and came up with a plan for repairing the house.  Here is what we did:

Removal and replacement of the mudsill.

This was accomplished by using a pair of 6 ton bottle jacks to lift the rear wall.  There is a massive header (a solid 4 x 10 timber) that runs the length of the back of the house.  I cut away the exterior sheathing to gain access to the header.  By jacking up on the header I was able to take the pressure off the sill and remove and replace it in 8 foot sections.

Bottle jacks did the trick.  I was able to lift the rear wall just enough to remove and replace the sill with minimal impact on the plaster inside. Under the back door was by far the worst.  The sill was almost completely gone as were the jack studs, cripple studs and saddle underneath the door.

The original mudsill was a solid 4 x 6.  I replaced the damaged/rotten sill with pressure treated 4 x 6. This was a nerve wracking process.  Had the jacks slipped out after the old sill was removed there would have been nothing holding up the back wall. Once the old sill and concrete were removed I worked as quickly as I could to get the new timbers into place.  It was a snug fit (which is good) and getting the new sill into its final position required the assistance of a 10 pound sledge hammer and a fare amount of cursing (apologies to my neighbors).  Other than a section of wall around the back door, the wall studs were generally in good shape; where there was damage I sistered in new lumber or simply replaced the framing all together.

The new mudsill which was tied into the joists with structural wood screws.  After the mudsill went into place I rebuilt the framing under and around the door sill and frame. In this area of the back wall not only had the mudsill been attacked by critters, there was also rot caused by water infiltration into the wall  from an improperly pitched and leaky gutter.

When I finally got everything uncovered I found that the original construction techniques were, shall we say, “irregular.”  In every house I have ever worked on the mudsill sat atop the foundation wall; on top of the sill are the floor joists, rim joist and the rest of the framing.  On my house, the floor joists sit directly on the foundation and the mud sill sits partially inside a notch cut into the end of the joists.  The exterior wall sits on top of the sill but not the floor joists.


Wall Diagram

In the end, this unique arrangement actually made it easier to remove and replace the sill as I only needed to lift the wall rather than the joists and, by extension, the entire first and second floors. Thankfully, the insect and water damage was limited to the sill and did not make its way through the sill and into the joists.  To be safe, I treated the joists and studs with an ant and termite killer before the new sill went into place. Originally the sill was attached to the joists with large nails, somewhere between a 20d and 40d.  I tied the new sill  into the floor joists using 10 inch TimberLok screws.


While the sheathing was cut away I was able to reinsulate the wall with fiberglass batts and sprayed foam insulation around the windows to cut the substantial drafts we experience. In some spots I found the old insulation crumpled into the bottom of the wall cavity.  In other spots, there was no insulation at all which explains why my heating oil bills are what they are.  Hopefully my efforts will make our house a little more suited for the upcoming New England winter.


The only light behind the house had been a flood light next to the rear door which I have always hated. With the walls open I was able to easily pull wire for new exterior “barn” lights. I also took the opportunity to recess the exterior outlet into the wall and replace the existing hose bibb with a frost free anti-siphon faucet.

Button it up

I replaced sections of the sheathing and sealed up the house with Tyvek. I am attentive to the fact that I still have only a few inches of clearance between the grade and the bottom of the sheathing.  It may be overkill, but I replaced the bottom two feet of sheathing with marine grade, pressure treated plywood.  The rest of the sheathing was patched with 3/4 inch CDX. The windows, doors, and sill were sealed with self-adhesive butyl flashing.

The topic of roofing felt vs. modern house wrap under cedar shingles is hotly contested in online forums.  A lot of the discussion is long on anecdotes but short on research and systematic observation.  There is also a good bit of nostalgia or traditionalism: “we’ve always used roofing felt and it has worked all these years.” I get it, and I sometimes fall victim to a similar line of thinking–this explains my collection of vintage radios, fountain pens, and typewriters.  However, just because something has stood the test of time doesn’t negate the possibility of something better.  I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

I decided to take a look at what the manufacturers had to say.  DuPont, the makers of Tyvek, argue that their product is appropriate under cedar shakes and that it does not react with the tannin in the wood (as many folks online insist).  DuPont also promotes  drain wrap as a good choice. The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association says that roofing felt, Tyvek, or Tyvek drain wrap are appropriate. The Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau, a trade organization that represents cedar shingle manufacturers still recommends #15 or #30 roofing felt.  Several sources also recommend the installation of furring strips prior the siding installation. What to do?

Some of the fact sheets produced by the Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau also mention the use of a rainscreen for “added protection” from moisture.  I was intrigued by this material, and after a further research and deliberation I opted to use Tyvek instead of roofing felt and also apply a rain screen between the home wrap and shingles.  I chose the Tyvek for two reasons.  The first was that I knew the exterior would be exposed for several weeks until I managed to get the shingles up and I needed the weather protection.  Secondly, my house is drafty and so I wanted to use Tyvek due to its ability to control air infiltration.  After the Tyvek I installed the rainscreen (I used the Slicker Classic Rain Screen made by Benjamin Obdyke)  a corrugated material that facilitates the movement of any moisture that may penetrate the shingles.

The new wall system: Tyvek home wrap, butyl flashing around the windows and door, PVC trim, rainscreen (the yellow material) and cedar shakes.

If driven rain does make it past the cedar there is now a ¼ inch air gap between the shingles and the Tyvek that will allow the water to drain out the bottom of the wall.  The rainscreen adds perhaps $1 per square foot to the job.  It was easy to install, and the folks at Benjamin Obdyke maintain a site with a lot of helpful videos and information. When I drive around Marblehead I notice a lot of homes where cedar is being installed directly on top of the house wrap.  I wonder how long it will take for moisture problems to arise.

Step it up

In order to bring the grade below the sill I had removed a few yards of soil.  The drop from the back door to the ground went from roughly 6 inches to 12 inches, so I needed to build steps. I also had to pour a new slab outside the back door as a foundation for the steps. The steps are attached to a 2 x 6 PT ledger board that is tied into the sheathing and sill with structural wood screws. The stair stringers are attached with galvanized stringer brackets.  The treads are 6/4 PT that were pre-milled with a bullnose and non slip surface.

We dropped the grade substantially and needed to build steps from the back door.  Before I built the steps I poured a new landing to match the grade and to bring everything below the level of the mudsill. I also replaced the door sill.

A quick trim

I trimmed the windows and door with PVC. Since the rainscreen adds an additional ¼ inch thickness to the wall system, I used 5/4 PVC (manufactured by Azek) in order to maintain the proper reveal between the trim and the shingles–the old wooden trim was 3/4 inch pine.  Option two would have been to “pack out” behind the trim with ¼ inch plywood or some other material.  I love woodworking and all things made out of wood but I will make an exception when it comes to PVC trim.  It is easy to work with, though does require some care in handling as it dents like a softwood.  Whenever possible, do your cutting and milling outside with a dust collection system and/or drop cloth because the stuff makes a mess.  Absolutely wear a dust mask or respirator!

I’ve seen PVC installed using finish nails, but I opted to use the Cortex hidden fasteners for PVC trim—they countersink nicely and come with plastic plugs that eliminate the need to use caulk or filler.  I replaced all of the exterior trim –window and door casings, rake boards, and frieze board—with PVC.  Originally, the cedar shakes were simply butted up against the frieze board at the top of the back wall.  When I replaced the pine frieze board with PVC, I milled a ¾ inch rabbet into the bottom edge to accept the top course of shingles. This gave a cleaner finish and hopefully helps further minimize any water infiltration.

Get to the point

The next step was to repoint the foundation wall. The foundation is stone and is not perfectly flat where it meets the sill.  Therefore, there were occasional gaps between the sill and the stone. Using a pointing trowel I packed mortar into the gaps and sealed up the foundation.

Mind in the gutter

The old gutter was not sloped properly. During bad rain storms water would over spill the gutter and infiltrate into the wall causing the fascia and sheathing to rot in places.  The new gutter is sloped to the end of the house and discharges into a rain barrel.  The overflow from the rain barrel discharges into a rain garden.

A case of shingles

Well, four and a half cases, actually. I reshingled with 18” red cedar shakes. I had originally intended to hand nail all of the shingles as none of my local rental houses had siding nailers available.  My wife reminded me that I had shoulder surgery a few years back and that my shoulder tends to get fatigued and insisted (yes, insisted!) that I buy a siding nailer.  It was the best $300 I’ve spent in some time.  Installing 300 square feet of shingles with a 22 ounce hammer would have left me with a sore shoulder and taken me substantially longer.  The coil nailer made quick work of the job, though I still used a hammer anywhere I needed to face nail.

Given that the siding is cedar and we live a mere ¾ of a mile from the ocean I used stainless steel fasteners all around.  I opted to use a woven corner instead of a vertical trim board in keeping with what was original to the house.  I also think it looks better and though it takes a little more effort it isn’t too hard to accomplish with a utility knife and block plane.  By the way, everyone should keep a block plane in his or her toolbelt—they are incredibly handy. Once the corner was set I use a ledger board to maintain a straight line across the wall.  This was a pretty straight forward process; the only bit that really slowed me down was scribing and cutting the shingles that abutted the chimneys.

The other thing I had to figure our was the manner in which I wanted to mount the barn lights, faucet, and exterior outlet. The lights are mounted to 4 inch round pan poxes set into 6 x 6 x 5/4 inch cedar blocks topped with an aluminum drip cap. The hose bib and exterior outlet are similarly mounted in 3 x 6 blocks.



We painted the trim white to match the rest of the house. I’ve noticed that many times people opt not to paint the PVC. I chose to paint it for the simple reason that I had a few spots that required filler and sanding.  While PVC is great for its rot resistance it is very susceptible to marring and smudging.  A coat of white exterior paint cleaned it up nicely.

Final bits and pieces

I finished the project by installing the new lights and storm door.  The storm door that was on the house when we bought it was unattractive which it made up for by also being cheap and flimsy.  Unfortunately, the back door is an odd size (a common occurrence in this part of New England) so I had to order a custom storm door.  I chose an Andersen 10 series, which I ordered through Gilbert & Cole.  The existing doorframe was a bit wonky, so when I installed the new casing I was careful to make sure it was plumb and square since that is what the storm door attaches to; that means that the casing was not perfectly aligned with the door frame.

Pasquale is a huge fan of the Andersen series 10 full view storm door.

Once the new storm door was installed, any gaps or misalignment were hidden and the new storm door fit into a nice square opening.  This is a really well made door and was worth the extra expense.

The two lights I installed looked great but did not provide all the illumination we wanted so I added a third light to the left of the back door on the chimney using ½ inch EMT, rainproof fittings, and a 4″ aluminum rainproof box.

20 some years ago a former coworker and master electrician John Lichtfuss taught me how to properly bend conduit–glad I paid attention to his lessons.

The wires were routed underground (using a direct bury type Romex) and through the foundation wall.




Special thanks go to…

A bunch of people.

I typically attack a project confident in my ability to see it through.  Such was not the case here.  I really wasn’t sure I could pull this off and feared at every turn that it would overwhelm me.  Thankfully it didn’t, and that is because of the help I received at  critical points.

Pete Lukens not only taught me to be spirited, he also lent a hand when I really needed it.  Despite having a double knee replacement in the past year (and having turned 76) my dad came down and helped me install the frieze board (12 foot sections of 8 inch wide 5/4 PVC are a bit unwieldy) and gutter and bought us a gift–two cases of red cedar shingles. He also helped me wrestle a wonky door frame back into place.  I hope I can still climb a ladder and swing a hammer in 30 years.  It has been a long time since we have had a chance to work together; when he arrived it was hot and humid and the work was dirty and I enjoyed every moment of it.  Thanks, dad.

Lowes and Home Depot can never take the place of my local builder supply and lumberyard.  Not only are the products at Gilbert & Cole a much higher quality, the advice I get from them (not to mention the delivery) are indispensable.  It has been more than a few years since I have worked in the trades and there are a lot of new materials on the market that I have never used.  The folks at Gilbert & Cole really came through when I had questions. They also helped me make sure I had all the measurements just right when I ordered the custom storm door–when I finally installed the door it fit like a glove.

Mike Spring also gave me substantial advice and friendly encouragement and brought me the best breakfast sandwich I have ever had.

A huge thanks to my wife Hilary for buying me a siding nailer.  It may not sound romantic but to me it was.

My daughter Elsie is and was endlessly encouraging.  I saved a 12 or 14 inch section of the rotten, termite eaten sill and preserved it in urethane.  It currently sits on a shelf in my office.


Elsie told me that I needed to get a small plaque made for it that says “World’s Greatest Handyman Dad Award.” Thanks, kid.


Fixing the Flip Part I

We bought our home four years ago from a flipper.  There are many reasons to view the flipping craze with a jaundiced eye including the role it plays in driving up housing prices.  I’m concerned with what it is doing to the physical structure and aesthetics of homes. Flippers, as a breed, are responsible to further Home Depotization of the American home: the destruction of what is regional and unique in favor of homogenization via cheap fixtures from big box retailers.  The replacement of the substantive with the cheap and disposable.

The other problem is that in the flipping game profit often trumps preservation. Flippers are interested in turning over a home and maximizing profits.  This means that a coat of paint will often be used instead of a more substantive repair.  Such was the case with our house, but I knew that when we bought it.  However, I did not know the extent of some of the issues and the pains that the seller took to hide the problems.

The mudsill under the back door, or at least what was left of it

When we bought the house, an asphalt walkway enclosed three sides of the house and butted up to the siding.  It was in bad shape and not terribly appealing so we removed it.

When we bought the house four years ago it was surrounded by asphalt and the grade was substantially higher.  It was not very appealing structurally or aesthetically.

What we discovered was that the grade had built up over the past 80 years and eventually came into contact with the bottom of the exterior wall.  I knew this spelled trouble; soil contact with wood is a perfect avenue for moisture and insects.  Sure enough, the mudsill under the back wall of the house was rotted away, something that neither I nor my inspector caught during the inspection.  The reason is that the seller took steps to hide the problem by encasing the rotten sill in concrete and boxing it in in the basement with salvaged wood.  It was only after I hauled away the asphalt, lowered the grade and removed the exterior shakes that I discovered the extent of the problem and the half-assed attempt to patch it.  How bad was it?  Well, I had to remove several feet of sill before I had a piece intact enough that I could measure the original dimensions.

After removing the asphalt and lowering the grade, it became clear that there were problems.  The flipper we bought the house from covered the rotten sill with a couple hundred pounds of concrete visible here at the base of the wall.

It was clear that the seller and her contractor approached this flip with either a lack of care or a lack of knowledge. Perhaps it was both.  I’m guessing that she was working on tight margins as well.  My frustration was not so much that she was deceptive (though I’m certainly not happy about that), but rather in the realization that for all the effort put into hiding the problem it could have simply been fixed right the first time.  To pull off the “repair,” the seller and her contractor had to remove the bottom courses of shingles and sheathing, build a temporary form, and mix and pour several bags of concrete.  They then had to replace the sheathing and shingles.  With just a little more effort, it could have been done properly, though that assumes they knew how to do it properly.  The repair they did actually made it more difficult to fix properly as I spent substantial time and energy removing all the concrete!

It took a lot of time and energy–alternating between a rotary hammer and a 10 pound sledge –to remove the concrete from around the rotted sill and wall cavity

Years ago when I worked in the trades there were a couple sayings I used to hear that caused my blood to boil: “You can’t see it from my house,” or “good enough for government work.”  These we spoken by people who just wanted to be done so they could move on to the next job.  Mind you, some of these folks were building multi million dollar spec houses!  Thankfully, I also worked with people who were careful and thorough and took pride in the work they did and took the time to teach me how to do things properly. Clearly, the flipper and her contractor only cared about moving on to the next project.

I often bemoan modern construction, especially the McMansion phenomenon wherein cheap materials and unskilled labor are combined to create large yet poorly built houses.  I hate that kitchen and bathroom fixtures as well as lighting has become a disposable feature to be changed out when the next interior trend is launched on HGTV.  Those general complaints aside, there are places where modern building technology has allowed us to really build better, more energy efficient homes.  Modern wall systems are a great example in terms of being able to control air and moisture infiltration.  As such, I decided that this exterior repair should really be an upgrade to last at least another 80 years!  So while I have the walls open, I would repair the sill, add some new lighting, recess the exterior outlet, re-insulate the wall, and seal it all up properly .

My summer project started off as simply replacing the cedar shakes on the back of the house but quickly became a major structural repair.  When I realized the scale of the issues, I admit to initially feeling overwhelmed and losing quite a bit of sleep wondering if I have the ability to fix what the flipper and her contractor “repaired.”  I didn’t wallow too long; thankfully I was raised to be a spirited man. I would fix our house and I would fix it right; this little cottage that we  love so much deserved a kinder treatment than it had received from the flipper and her contractor.

Part II will cover the choices I made in incorporating modern building materials into our 1938 cottage.