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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer. These things are my passion, but they are not my job. In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research. I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems. It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule. I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate. How I got here deserves some explanation
A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University. That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate. With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.
Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart. Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing. Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family. No thank you. I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none. I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply. I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.
I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects). Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.
“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”
Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense. I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her. However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused. Does that make me a bad academic? Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term. Does it make me a happy person? Absolutely it does.
“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”
I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting. But I get his point. Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1. It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there. I don’t know if that makes me a flake.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.” For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago. I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary. O.K., what do I give up to get those things? Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter? Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money? The answer is usually no.
This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism. I am doing no such thing. In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent. I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible. So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now. So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall. This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling. Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board. My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture. Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).
There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living. I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.
We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.
Advantages and challenges
In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy. Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to the cardboard rolls from toilet paper. Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal. Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game. That equals a significant waste stream reduction.
There are however two big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation. Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure. Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:
1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station. It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).
2. I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself. I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).
3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite. Well, there is no getting around this one. Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags. Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap. I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.
4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one. New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon. If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic. The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can). If you are buying trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).
5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together. It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots. Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.
6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies. In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time. No more. Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans. Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.
7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again. That means less going to the landfill. For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable. This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out. I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out. The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.
8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo. Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.
The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short. In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce. I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts. I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up. Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.
This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop. Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.