Monday, July 14, 2014

0 From Dirt to Deck - How to Build a Ground-Level Deck

Ever since we moved in, there has been a spot outside the house that has been absolutely useless and bothersome. Heading out the back door, past the newly installed pantry shelves, you step down about 8 inches onto a dirt patch full of weeds. It's lower than the land around it, as if begging for a deck or patio, but we just haven't had the time or money to focus on such a project. It was so boring, I never thought to take a photo of that section of the house. But with the project list dwindling, and the budget opening up a little, we decided it was time to finally take that plunge.

I recently helped Becky's dad, Paul, and her brother-in-law rehab a deck on her sister's house, so I understood the basic idea of how the posts and joists worked, but still needed some assistance in building from scratch, so Paul agreed to help.

I started with a whole lot of planning.

Two of the sides would be on exterior walls of the house, adjacent to the laundry room and the band garage on one side, and the living room on the other. Novice as I was, I made a couple mistakes in these drawings.

One, I assumed that we would need posts along all sides, when in fact you only need them in the opposite direction of the joists. Two, I also assumed that the double 2x6's we'd be using on the front and back (where you see "DOUBLE") would be attached to the side of the posts, but we used a bracket to place them on top. Three, I planned for 5 posts per side, and we really just needed four. Four, we were able to get 16' deck boards, so the 12' spacing you see above is not accurate. So, these drawings helped me visualize, but they are by no means to be used as plans.

Here's the real rundown:

Materials List:
(4) 4x4x8 Treated Posts
(25) 2x6x16 Treated Joists
(48) 16' Standard Deck Boards
(8) Joist Brackets (the ones that slide on top of the 4x4 and hold (2) 2x6 beams)
(19) Joist Brackets (U-shaped that nail to the side of the cross beams and hold the joists)
Post Hole Digger
Bracket Nails
(2) 5lb boxes of Outdoor 2-1/2" Decking Screws

About $1,000 for a 15'x24' Deck


Using a post hole digger, we dug four holes along the house for our 4x4 posts, spacing them 8' apart on center.

Each hole, we were able to get about 3' down, where we actually hit the gravel base of the foundation, and the buried wooden plate. Having that made it really easy to get them straight. We then took our 8' posts and cut them in half using a 10" compound miter saw and dropped them in the holes.

Once we had them all in and up against the buried foundation plate of the house, we poured a half a bag of dry Quikcrete into each hole. You don't need to mix the Quikcrete - the ground water will set them for you. Next, I dug out around the front and side of each post, just a few inches, to get a pencil and reciprocating saw to ground level.

Then we built the first double 2x6 beam. Because the deck is so wide (24 feet), we had to create the double beam using (3) 2x6x16 joists. We cut one of them into two 8' pieces (16 + 8 = 24), and then assembled it so that the seam was staggered when screwing them together, creating a 4x6 that was 24 feet long.

We set the beam on the ground up against the posts, made sure it was level, and marked each post with a pencil. We then took a reciprocating saw and chopped each post in place. That's the quickest way to do the ones closest to the house. If you mark them, then take them out to cut them, you'll most certainly have to make little adjustments with dropping dirt back in or taking it back out, or pounding with a sledge to get them down a little. Neither method is perfect, since using the reciprocating saw is touchy if you don't get your cut exactly level. We had to shim a couple of the brackets for that reason.

We put on the brackets on the posts, and dropped the header in place, making sure the end of the header was about 1" off the wall of the house.

For the posts on the other side, we used the 3-4-5 rule. We used the in-place header and laid a 2x6 on its side on the ground perpendicular to that. We measured 3 inches on one 2x6, made a mark, 4 inches on the other, made a mark, and then measured diagonally across to each mark. Using the Pythagorean Theorem, the measurement across should be 5 inches, and that would make the corner exactly 90°. We marked that with the post hole digger, did the same thing on the other end, and then used those posts to make sure the two in the center were lined up.

You want the deck to slope away from the house, so we cut these 1" lower than the posts next to the house. Again, we used a 2x6 lined up on either side, used a level to make sure it was sloping away, then made our marks. We then used those marks to make the marks on the two posts in the center.

We pulled these out of the hole and cut them on the miter saw, and then made adjustments by adding or removing dirt to get them all level, and then adding the Quikcrete. It was easier to do that since there was no wall to brace the post against as the reciprocating saw moved through the post. Neither option is perfect, but it worked well enough in both instances.

With the other posts in place, we built another header and nailed it in place with the brackets.

Now that we had all the posts and both headers in place and solid, it was time to hang the joists. Because the exterior wall is actually about 15.5 feet, I rounded down to make the dimensions actually 15 feet, which required cutting all the 16 foot joists down to fit between the posts.

We measured between the headers, and luckily it was the same all the way down. We then set up the 2x6 joists on some cinder blocks and got out the circular saw. My saw will only go through one at a time, so we couldn't stack them, but instead, we put two side-by-side, so that as I made it through the current cut, I'd be marking the next board with the saw. That made it so we didn't have to measure each one. We did stop every third or fourth just to make sure we weren't getting to long or short, and made adjustments accordingly.

Now, the worst part about deck building is installing joist hangers. Seriously, it's no fun. Especially with an on-ground deck. We decided because we have such a huge span that the joists are running, with no posts in the middle, that we'd do a 16" spacing instead of the typical 24" spacing, just to be sure it was solid when all screwed together, with no bounciness that you sometimes feel in older decks. We marked both headers with 16" spacing and started nailing in our first joist hanger.

Because the ground was not exactly level, we did have to dig small trenches on most of the joists to get them to seat properly. It was a long, exhausting job, but when it was done, it was a huge relief, and it meant the end was in sight. NOTE: In hindsight, we should have done double joists 8' from each end, so that when I screwed the deck boards down, I didn't have to get so close to the end of each board. They tend to split and crack, and over time that seam might break and I'll have loose boards. I would recommend you do double joists wherever you're planning your deck board seams.

When we moved the joists from the lumberyard to the house, we did it in an 8' trailer with a gate that stuck them on a diagonal into the air, creating a very nasty bounce and potential fishtailing as we drove. It was terrifying, and I couldn't imagine moving all the deck boards in the same manner. So we did a little creative thinking, and realized that my Paul's boat trailer is 17' long, so I sent him fishing as I went off to pick up all the decking.

We took an interior 2x6 board Paul had laying around, cut it into a couple pieces, and strapped them to the front and back of the trailer about 14' apart to use as a base.

The guys that helped me load it were a little surprised, but I'm sure it's not the first time they'd seen something so ridiculous. It worked perfectly, and I got the boards home without worry or incident.

It's worth noting that a 16' deck board is actually a couple inches longer, so if you have to cut the boards to meet a joist, cutting them in half won't work. Because the deck is 24' wide, we had to cut 1/3 of the boards into 8' sections. But when you start at a wall, and have an overhang like we do, you can always allow the boards to go long on the end and then cut with a circular saw once they're all in place.  So we measured one board to 8' and used the same cut-into-the-next-board as we did with the 2x6's.  With each cut, we kept them separate, so there was a "short pile" of boards that were exactly 8' and "long pile" that was the remainder of each, usually about 98" inches or so.  With half of the remaining 16' boards, we had to trim that last little bit off the end so it would meet the joist, so we quickly did that as well.

We then laid out all but a couple rows on the deck surface so we could just pull the next row in while we were screwing it all down, and so the trimmed and long pieces were all in place and we didn't have to worry about pulling from the wrong pile. We also started on the outside, so that if we had to cut boards lengthwise in the end, that short board would be up against the house and not on the outside.

When laying the boards out, we made sure that the curve of rings was always pointed down, so that water did not collect but rather roll down. I'm not sure how big a difference it makes, but it should prolong the life of the wood.

The first row is a trimmed 16' board and a 98" board (the remainder of cutting 8' off a board), and the next is an actual 8' board and an untrimmed 16' board, and then repeat that pattern. This way, the seam alternates sides, and you don't just end up with a line all the way up the deck.

We also wanted to make sure we had spacing in between each board, so that water could drain through, so we used thick framing nails, tapping them temporarily on every other joist and then pulling the next row of boards into place.

The whole project took nearly 1,800 screws - that's the problem with spacing the joists a little closer. At 2 screws per joist, each row took 38 screws, and with 47 rows and no fancy auto-loading screwgun, this stage is no joke.

With standard decking, you'll get some boards that are warped like the one you see below. The way to fix this is to line up the center of the board and screw that down on at least the center joist, if not also the joist left or right of center, and then you should be able to use your foot to kick and bend the ends into place. On some that were more extreme, we had to use a crowbar - I'd stand on a loose board and have Paul crank on the warped board to get it to get as close to the nail as possible.

Just as you would "measure twice, cut once", you should also always check your math, and when in doubt buy more than you need. Otherwise, you'll be on a roll, and end up two rows short and have to drive back to the lumber yard, like I did.

To save myself from having to haul 16' boards again, I bought (3) 8' boards and (2) 12' boards to finish it off. That way, the seam would remain split (using the 12' boards first), and I could just strap them to the top of the car instead of getting the trailer involved.

Once I got the last row in place, I snapped a chalk line along the uneven side and ran my circular saw all the way down. Luckily, I'd trimmed the last two rows before screwing them down, so I didn't have to worry about getting all the way to the wall, but a reciprocating saw would have finished it off no problem.

FINALLY, it was done. After four long days, a ton of screws and a handful of beers, we got it done, and it's fabulous. Now instead of stepping down into a dirt patch, we can walk right out the back door onto a nice clean deck. Unfortunately it means I have to now powerwash that wall. Sheesh.

Monday, June 16, 2014

0 With Child Mobility Comes Adult Responsibility

Our dude is 10 months old, and now crawling and standing himself up.

So that means that all that worrying about what we were going to do with the "hole", as we affectionately call it, came crashing in, and all our ideas had to become reality. And fast.

Yes, the railing is cool, but no, it's not even close to code. If you walk out of the room for a moment, a kid could easily crawl to this railing and under. Something had to be done.

Now, I didn't take any photos of the frames themselves, because the process was sort of a disaster.  These are not meant to be permanent installations, so I was using just cheap 1x2 furring strips, but they're prone to cracking, so it was a longer process than I hoped.

Basically, I took all my measurements, and luckily the balcony is pretty square, so I had to build 4 identical frames, and two frames that were just a half inch different from each other. I cut the furring strips so that the ends would be butted, not met an angle, then screwed each corner one by one. I have a 90 degree clamp that has been a lifesaver, so I clamped that on, drilled a pilot hole to prevent the wood from cracking (only really worked 80% of the time anyway), put in a wood screw, and then stapled both sides to give it more rigidity.  This process ended up taking longer, and required more patience, but it saved a ton of money.  I also didn't need to be too concerned with the strength of the wood, since it would be secured to the railing, and there's a lip there that provides enough strength.

Becky bought a few yards of canvas on discount from the local fabric store - again, not looking for something designer, just something strong that doesn't look like absolute hell. She and her mom worked with the frames, as warped and finicky as they were, and wrapped and stretched and stapled, and with a couple days, we had 6 perfectly good panels. Again, bad blogger, no in-progress photos of that.

From upstairs:

From downstairs:

I broke out the Little Giant, air compressor and brad nailer, and nailed them into place from the inside. That way there are no staples or nails where the kids can reach them, just a flat canvas panel.

I'm sure in a few years I'll have a post up here about the net we installed. So stay tuned for that!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

0 Stone Paver Fire Pit

It's finally summer in Michigan, and that means lots of late night outdoor hangs with great friends around a fire.  I spent some time at my friend Nat's house a couple weekends ago - he and his girl just bought a house near us, a cobbled together one story that used to be just one room.  They bought it for the land, with the idea that the house will work for now, but eventually they will build the house they want. But I digress. Nat's friend Matt (stay with me here, I know they rhyme) ALSO just recently bought a house, in Eastown (GR), and he was taking up a patio made of old thin brick pavers and wanted to get rid of them. So Nat took a couple trips, grabbed 50 or so, and created a sunken fire pit in their backyard.

I marveled at its simplicity. He dug a hole, made a ring of 11 pavers, stacked 11 more on top of that, offset to create a pattern, and 5 layers later he had a great looking fire pit. I was jealous. I'd wanted to move our fire PILE forever, and this was a great motivator to make that happen.

When we moved in, bonfires had already happened in the middle of the backyard, on what I can assume is the drainfield of the septic system, and on a hill. It's that dark spot of dirt slightly to the right of the shed, but more in the foreground. People would sit around it and nearly topple over because of the slope. It was a pain to mow around. It wasn't a pit, so the pile of debris just kept growing. It needed to change.

So when Matt said he had more pavers to get rid of, I jumped at the chance. I brought the trailer over, loaded up about 120 pavers (we could use the rest for a patio off the back door) and lugged them home.

Now, I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel, here. My plan was to simply copy from memory exactly what Nat did. This is an exact copy. I'm a plagiarist. But if you ask Nat, he doesn't care.

Last Friday I took a half day cause Ollie had a fever, and I was certain Becky would need a little break. I got home, he'd had Tylenol and was fairly content, so I set out to dig a hole.

I had laid out the pavers a couple of days before, so that the grass would die making it easier to mark the hole. I then pierced the ground with the shovel all the way around the circle, being careful to cut straight down and not on an angle as the shovel would have you do. I then started digging. I took up the sod first and then started digging all the dirt out. We have very sandy soil, and luckily this area was not quite as rocky as I was expecting.  It only took about 45 minutes to get the hole dug and shaped.

As you can see from the photo, the ground isn't exactly level at this precise spot, so visually getting the pavers level was not an option. I used a stack of 5 pavers to get the measurement for how far down to dig, and then dug that far down on the highest ground level.  I wanted the pavers to pretty much meet the ground level, with just a slight lip.

I then took a short 2x4 and leveled and pounded the dirt down with each paver, and used a 12" level to make sure it was level both side to side and toward the center. A note here - side to side leveling is the most important. I took a "good enough" approach, and I was unfortunately off just slightly on each one in the same direction so that when my circle met up, the two final pavers were not level with each other.  I was able to fudge it a little to make it work, but just know that those "good enoughs" add up quickly.

I used my last wheelbarrow of dirt to fill back in around the outside. Once it was in, I realized that the land on one side was still a little too sloped down toward the pit, so I decided to add one more layer to raise it up and prevent the pavers from being buried.

I then pulled the dried out Christmas tree and old railings from the old pile and christened the pit, if you will.

I was very happy with the result. The best part was that I didn't feel nervous walking away from the fire (once the tree was actually down in the pit) like we had before, when the fire was above ground and on a slope. All in all, it only took me 3 hours to dig the hole and place the pavers. Not too bad.

I took the time to move all the rest of the burnables from different piles around the yard into a consolidated area. A tree we'd cut up the previous year and a ton of random materials from different projects. There's also still a pile of brush that we can burn from cutting up some out of control plants at our friends Adam & Jess' house. Along with all this, Nat is going to bring his chainsaw over to cut up the rest of the fallen pines we have. See, he's not mad about me stealing his idea.

Monday, May 19, 2014

0 DIY Table Saw Stand on Casters

This is one of those projects that has been brewing in my brain for months. I knew it would take hours to build it, and with time so limited these days, I was having a hard time justifying the build with all the other things I knew I had to do. BUT, I also knew it would make all of those projects so much easier.

At some point, I used an old coffee table mounted to an old laundry room cabinet as a stand for the miter saw, but it was so narrow that it was hard to keep stable, so I've wanted to create a bigger version that would work for both the miter and table saw.

After looking online for some plans, I found a couple of ideas, but most were way too elaborate (drawers, lighting, steel top with extra fence, etc.), so I decided to just take the same concept from the 2x4 Garage Shelves and build a simple but sturdy stand.

First, I needed some casters. I went to, an online auction site which is a dangerous place when you don't have a clear idea of what you're looking for - you could end up with a pallet of random items and an '84 Buick that doesn't run, but when you know what you're looking for, it can be perfect. I found a set of 4 heavy duty cast iron casters, all with ball bearing swivel, and bid $20, hoping to get them for less than $50. The auction closed with me as the high bidder at $20, which is ridiculous, cause they're usually around $20/wheel.

Next, I needed all my materials. I had a bunch of 1/2" and 3/4" plywood left over from other projects, so that was covered, and all I needed was nine 8' 2x4's and a box of self-drilling wood screws. In the end, I could have used eleven 2x4's, but I probably also could have planned my cuts better and gotten less scrap, but since I was kinda winging it anyway, there was no way to figure that all out.

Here was the concept- a three-section system, where there are two columns on the outside, and a shelf in the middle section that the table saw sits on. The two columns would be on the same level as the table portion of the table saw.

I started by building the column surrounds. These would, just like the 2x4 shelving, create the shape of the column for the upright 2x4s to attach to. I made them 24"x24" square, so the overall length of the piece would be under 6'. Each surround is made with two 24" and two 21" 2x4s, 4 screws on each side. If you don't have 90 degree clamps as seen in the photo, I highly recommend it. Makes getting things square a MUCH easier process.

After building 4 surrounds (2 per column), I built the base. To get the measurement, I summed up the two column widths with the width of the table saw and came up with 70.5". Same concept as the surrounds, I used two 70.5" boards and two 21" boards and screwed them all together. I then added some small 2x4 scrap pieces for the casters to attach to, and added my first column vertical support. Again, to come up with that measurement, I just determined how tall I wanted the overall piece (about 34"), and measured from the bottom of support structure, minus the casters, to where the table would rest.

At this point, my father-in-law came over to help, so I didn't take as many photos of progress, since we were on a roll and kept forgetting to pause.  But here's what happened - we added the rest of the four corner posts, and then added two cross section pieces at 24" in from the ends to attach the middle vertical supports in. Then we added a 1/2" plywood base to the bottom:

It was an afterthought to actually cut them out as holes instead of just chopping the corners out, so here's how we did it. We temporarily attached a column surround to the top of each column, so that the 2x4s would be in the correct place - otherwise, they have a bit of a twist or bend to them, and could be slightly off. Then we laid the 1/2" plywood on top, traced the locations, drilled holes in each corner of each cut out, and jigawed them out. Then we took off the surrounds, slid the 1/2" plywood down, and it fit nearly perfectly.

Next, we had to measure the location of the middle surrounds, so that the table saw would be at the right height and seamless with the top. We took our calculations, screwed them into place, and tested it out.

Here's where I realized I'd made a mistake. Between concept and execution, I'd changed the depth from 19" (19"? That's too narrow - I need it to be more stable - 24"!) to 24", forgetting that the fence runners needed to get on either side of the top. So, our workaround, shown above, was to make the tops only 19" instead of the full depth. This also means that I'll have to raise the 19" part a couple inches to match the table height, but for now it works fine.  It also provided some space to just brush sawdust and scrap into a specific section, and potentially into some kind of bag or receptacle instead of onto the floor.  A happy accident for sure.

Next we added the casters.

Then the table saw to test the fence clearance. It worked great. As you can see, the tops need to be raised to meet the actual saw top, but for now it's fine. After getting it together, I realized I wanted to take the front supports off the middle surrounds so I could store the shop vac, and maybe a can.

The final product - The idea is that the table saw could be lowered to the bottom to allow for the column to be used as a miter saw table, but I have yet to design that portion of it. I did fit the shop vac in that spot, added a power strip and extension cord with a storage hook, and will develop a receptacle for the scrap on the left at some point. BUT, for now, it's better than it just being on a stationary round table in the garage.

Monday, April 21, 2014

0 Pantry Shelves - Don't Get Lazy

One of the biggest issues in doing renovations on a house is trying to justify completing projects in places that are not in the public space - those places that we hold invaluable to our day-to-day, but are never seen by visitors. One of those is the workshop - as I get more tools, leftover materials, paint cans, etc, the more it all just piles up till I can reorganize - again.  Another one of those is our back hallway.

That second "before" photo is pretty blurry, but you get the idea.  These are from when we first moved in, before I tore the tile out for Becky to lay in the kitchen where the old peninsula was. Before we tore those awful shelves and closet doors out. Before we painted. Before a giant rental power adhesive scraper just about took off my toe.

Since then, it's been a dumping ground for recyclables, baby stuff we don't need yet, old beer mugs, all sorts of random crap.  It's been on my list to get some shelves back up so we can actually use the storage space and not just have things laying on the ground, so last week I went and bought all the materials to get it done:

2 sheets of 2'x4' 2/4" plywood, cut into six 16" boards
3" and 2" all purpose, self drilling wood screws
A pack of anchors & screws
(6) 8' length of 1"x2" cleats.
A roll of self-adhesive wood veneer stripping

The back section was simple in the planning - there's three walls, so I just put a back cleat up, starting at 42" off the ground (that was the height of the bullet cans we have, so I figured that's a good height to fit things under the bottom shelf), and spacing the shelves equally from that point to the ceiling (which was about 13").

Rather than buy extra cleats and have scrap, I used the leftover 24" sections from the closet's back cleats, and decided that 12" out from the wall would be good enough for the sides of the shelves to hold them up. BUT what that meant was that I could only screw into the corner stud, and had to put anchors in the ends of the boards. The above photo shows the three step process. First, I screwed the piece in using a 3" wood screw into the corner stud, making sure I had the piece level (bottom piece).  Then I drilled a pilot hole through the wood and into the wall. I then took the wood screw out and set the piece to the side while I added an anchor (middle piece).  Then all I had to do was reattach the piece with the wood screw and add my anchor screw.

I somehow don't have photos of it, but just a little bit on prepping the shelves - I sanded the plywood down with a 220 grit sandpaper, added the self-adhesive wood veneer to the one edge that would face out, and then added two coats of polyurethane. I used the spray poly for the first time, since they're just back hallway shelves, and I have to say I'm impressed. I think that if it were used for a more public piece of furniture, I would have done 3-4 coats, but it went on super easy and dried evenly. Pretty great stuff.

Moving on. The closet took a little more planning and a lot more time, and some wise advice from a friend. Originally, I went the lazy route. Rather than cut around the two waste pipes and one water pipe in the closet (one of which is on an angle, therefore making it more difficult to measure), I was going to just place the shelves 5" out from the wall and brace them in the middle once I got the flooring in. In my mind this would be easier. But, with some prodding from our old pal Jeremy (who cut the countertops and has been my go-to for carpenter advice), I was convinced that it would actually be harder, more expensive and less effective than if I just cut around the pipes and had the back cleat to hold the shelf up.

Now, that all being said, half of this mistake was necessary. In order to mark the boards and get an accurate cut, I would have had to put these in place anyway. The only problem was that I now had to move the cleats back to the wall where they would reside, and ended up with more drill holes in the cleats that is necessary.

I marked the pipes on the three shelves and brought them out to the garage for cutting.

For the straight pipe and the water line, I used a 3" and 2" hole saw, respectively, to create the round front, rather than trying to create that curve with the jigsaw (though, I did break the jigsaw blade anyway).

I then used the jigsaw to cut up to the curves. It took some trial and error to get the width totally right, since I wanted a decently tight fit around the pipe. You can always cut more out, but can never add back in.

The waste pipes were off the wall enough to sneak the cleats behind them, so I only had to cut short ones to go on the other side of the water line. I also had to then move the side cleats back to the wall, since they were 15" long, and would have hung out over the end of the shelf, which would look stupid.  I used the same anchor process as the other shelves.

As you can see, I didn't get as tight on the water line, since that actually gets hot, even with the insulation I didn't want to push it.

Much sturdier. Still get a little bit of sag simply from how long they are, but if it gets bad, I'll go with the original plan and still add some support in the middle, maybe just in the form of some gas pipe.  To finish off all the shelves, I added 2" wood screws to the sides and back, drilling down through the shelf into the cleat, to hold them in place.

On the other side of the closet, the walls flare out, so even though it was a simpler install, and they fit tight at the back wall, I was left with a good 1/4" - 1/2" at the front of each shelf. I'll probably add some trim to the front of each shelf to hide that, even though I spent the time putting the veneer on.

While I was at it, and had the poly and veneer, I took the kitchen peninsula shelves out and finally finished those. I cut them so long ago, but never did anything to finish them. Now they look better and will wear much longer.

While I was on a roll, the last thing I did was swap the crappy aluminum storm door that was on the band garage - it was falling apart and we don't even have screens for it, so it's just glass - just an unnecessary barrier, really.  I instead took an old wood screen door that was originally between the back hallway and the garage (again - unnecessary barrier), switched the hinges to the right side, and added that - it fit perfectly.

I'll just have to fill in all the old holes and paint it with some exterior paint to protect it from rot, but it looks much more classic and less trashy than the other door. I also never noticed that doorbell till this very moment. Huh. I wonder if it is attached to anything...

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