Sunday, October 16, 2011

Porch Progress

The Cheney Cottage's restored porch, sans roof and stair railings

We had a long weekend of work on the Cheney Cottage, and we got a lot done. Mostly, we worked outside on the porch.

When we took apart the Cheney Cottage back on College Avenue, we tried to save most of the pieces. We were particularly careful with the old porch, saving both posts (even though one had been damaged over the years), the railings, the roof rafters. They all rattled around inside the first floor while the house was moved to Albany and back, and we have moved them back and forth as we worked inside the house.

This weekend, we finally got them out and figured out what we had. It was all there, except for one of the railings, and all usable, except for one of the roof rafters.

Before we got to work, we got some Sculpwood System Three, an epoxy used for rebuilding missing and damaged decorative wood trim. The stuff is incredibly easy to use, and we mixed it and used it to begin patching the missing pieces on the damaged post. We have to get more to finish it, but we can already see that it will work well and make the post look undamaged.

Then we installed the tongue and groove decking on the floor of the porch. Our neighbors Tom and Monique had a flooring nailer, so we hooked it up to our compressor, and quickly installed the floor.

We then installed the post on the east side, making sure it was plumb. We attached the post to the house with the top piece, then repeated the process for the west post. We then figured out which of the decorative trim pieces went on each side, and started nailing them in place. The large beam across the front went up, and was nailed into the posts and the decorative supports.

We then figured out the railings, and how to install them. Originally, the railing went on what is now the east side, then across the front, as the stairs went down the side, in front of the living room. On 62nd Street, we changed the stairs so they come straight down from the front door. Even with this change, we could reuse the railings, so we installed them on both sides (John Stevens showed up at a particularly opportune moment to assist).
The Cheney Cottage, with the original deteriorated porch, in 2010

The Cheney Cottage today, with the original porch railings back in place
We then started installing the roof rafters. One of them was completely rotted and broken, so we made a new one, ripping down a 2x6 to make it the same size as the original.

The result is that the porch is done except for the roof and a couple more trim pieces. We still haven't put up the old stair railing, but we'll have to make a new one for the west side, since there was only one before.

We also spent some time cleaning the downstairs of the house, organizing the lumber, sweeping and cleaning up. Despite the fact that the floors are in bad shape, the walls are cracked, and the woodwork is in various stages of being stripped, the house looks good. It's feeling like it will be a home.

The next two weeks, there won't be much happening. My mother is coming for a visit on Wednesday and will be here through the weekend, and then the following weekend we are going to a wedding, and then having the BAHA House Tour. Our next work weekend probably won't be until the weekend of November 6th and 7th.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Stairs At Last

The stairs are pretty much done. Except for the riser for the bottom step, the stairs are in, and we're happy with how they turned out.

First, we finished cutting all the stringers and put them in place. We made sure they were all level, so the steps will sit evenly across all 7 stringers. (We realized that, since the steps are 6 feet wide, we needed 7 stringers, not 8).

Because the plan was to build closed tread stairs (meaning that there is an end wall on each side, instead of leaving the ends of the stairs open), we had to build two side walls to cover the ends of the stairs. These are stud walls that have siding applied on the inside, up against where the stairs will go, and then a cap put on top. We built the east one first, then the west one. We left the cap off the west one, so we could fit the stairs and risers in.

In building the side walls, we realized we needed to figure out exactly where we were cutting off the posts, so we did that as well. The posts are now caped, waiting for the porch columns to be installed (next weekend).

Then we bought a sheet of 1/2" plywood, and cut it down to make the risers. The risers were nailed in place, and then we turned to the treads. The treads we bought were 11" wide, so we cut them down to 10 1/2", and then cut them to length, to fit snugly between the two walls. The wood is incredibly pricey - the 5 treads alone were almost $500 - but we figure the stairs should last 50 years or more, so it's a good investment.
New front steps for the Cheney Cottage

The wood on the treads is really beautiful, clear fir, so we decided we wanted to stain them, instead of painting them. We bought penetrating oil in a rosewood color, and applied the first coat, wiping off the excess after 20 minutes. By this time, it was after 5 o'clock today, so we decided to wait and apply more coats during the week.

Meanwhile, Jimmy (a guy in the neighborhood who does handyman work around 62nd Street) and Jamal (the nephew of our next door neighbor Dave) had both come by and asked to do some work. They spent time cleaning up the back yard.: Jimmy used a weed whacker and cut down all the tall onion grass and weeds, and they both cleaned up the yard. Dave's son Darien also came and helped out, so between the three of them they got a lot done. It is now possible to walk around the yard again.

Next weekend, we'll put down the tongue and groove floor on the porch, and build the porch roof. Having a porch makes a huge difference - not just that we can more easily get into the house, but it completes the look of the house. We can't wait to get the porch finished, so the house really does have a good street presence.

Cheney House Tour
For blog readers who want to come see the progress on 62nd Street but who don't want to get roped into working, we're having a Cheney Cottage tour on Sunday, October 30th from 2 to 4. This is an event sponsored by BAHA (Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association) and there is no charge for the event, though you do have to be a BAHA member. More information about BAHA can be found at

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How We Did It

Several people have asked how we knew the size of the porch, and how we calculated the stairs. It's half history and half science.

For the porch, it was pretty easy: we have the original porch posts, along with the porch railings an top pieces. So determining the size of the porch was simple: we laid out everything in the dining room, and then measured to see how long and how wide the porch should be. Andus had made detailed measurements of the house for the plans, so the original porch size was replicated on the house for its new location on 62nd Street - so the plans were another source of information. When it's done, the porch should look like it always did, with one exception: on College Avenue, the opening for the stairs was to the right, as the stairs went down in front of the bay window. On 62nd, the porch stairs will go right up to the front of the porch.

Determining the stairs takes more work. Eric and his crew put in a concrete first step as part of the foundation for the porch. Once we built the porch, we measured the distance from the porch floor to the foundation (height) and then the distance from the edge of the porch to the leading edge of the concrete step.

Then the fun begins: I had to determine how long each step could be (the "run") and how high each step could be (the "rise"). Usually, when you measure, you end up with numbers that are very difficult to divide: 62 3/8" long and 47 9/16 high. But this time, I lucked out: the height (from the concrete step to the top of the finish floor on the porch) is exactly 42 inches, and the run is exactly 54 inches. So the rise of each step (assuming 6 risers) would be 7 inches, and the run would be 9 inches. (six treads).

Each step needs a nosing, the overhang that sticks out over the next step down, which is generally 1 to 1 1/2" So I determined that the tread (the run plus the length of the overhang) for each step would be 10 1/2.

To check the math, there are three formulas to examine, to ensure the stairs are the proper dimension. Taking the rise (R) and the tread (T), the stairs must satisfy at least one of the following:

T + R = 17" to 18"
2T + R = 24" to 25"
T x R = 70" to 75"

Our stairs meet all three requirements: T+R is 17 1/2", 2T + R is 24.5", and T x R equals 72.5". It doesn't get much better than that.

So now that I was comfortable that I had the right dimensions, it was time to cut the stringers. Tom first helped by "crowning" each of the 2x12s - each board has a curve, and so we wanted to make sure that slight curve was pointed up (to make the steps as strong as possible).

Each step makes a right angle on the stringer - the angle between each riser and the step below it. So I took the framing square, and set one side at 7" (the rise) and one side at 9" (the run). I set the 7 and the 9 at the edge of the 2x12, and then I traced the right angle between the two, which made the first full step. Next, I slid the framing square down to make a new right angle just below the first one (the 7" riser being lined up right where the 9" run ends). This is repeated four times, one for each full right angle on the stairs (the top step is just the tread, as the riser is the side of the porch, and the bottom step is just the riser, the tread being the concrete).

Each treat is 1" thick, so I subtracted one inch from the bottom step, so all the finished steps would end up being exactly the same height. I also put the top step 6 1/4" down from the porch, since the tongue and groove porch flooring is 3/4" thick (so the total distance to the top of the flooring is the same as each step - 7 inches).

Once the stringers were drawn on the 2x12s, we measured to make sure the distance from the right angle (where the riser meets the tread) and the back of the stringer was more than 5" (another code requirement, to ensure the stairs are strong enough). Our stringers met this easily, so we were ready to start cutting them out.

Then using the circular saw (which is a tool I definitely can no longer use, particularly for making stringers), Tom cut along the lines I had drawn. A circular saw cannot reach the corners of each step (not without cutting into the stringer) so after he cut them most of the way, I used a draw saw to make the remainder of the cuts.

The last step was making the cut out at the bottom of the stringer for the sole plate - this prevents the stringer from sliding forward.

We put the first stringer in place, and tested to make sure it fits. It was a perfect match, so we took it off and used it as a template to trace all the other stringers. We made three more of them, and installed them on the porch.

This weekend, we'll make the remaining three stringers, and install them as a full width set of stairs. And then we'll start rebuilding the porch roof.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Almost a Porch, Almost A Set of Stairs

We spent the weekend working out front of the Cheney Cottage. It was beautiful weather, perfect for outdoor work, and we focused on rebuilding the front porch and steps.

The first thing we did was calculate how much lumber we needed: how many 2x8s for the porch floor joists, 2x12s for the stringers to support the stairs, 2x4s to frame under the porch. We decided not to buy the porch decking or the treads for the stairs yet, as they will probably get seriously damaged during the rest of the construction. We also bought a 6x6 post, as the porch roof is supported by carved 6x6 posts. Even though the porch was spec'ed to have a 4x4 post, we went with the larger size to be historically accurate.

We started by putting down the pressure treated sole plate on top of the concrete foundation. Then we put the header against the house, and built the headers for either side of the porch. We decided to run the joists parallel to the front of the house, so the decking would run perpendicular (and be more likely to shed water). We used Simpson ties on the headers, which are significantly easier to install before handing the headers.

Then we cut the 6x6 and put up the headers, making sure the posts were plumb and the headers were on a slight angle (to make sure water drains off the porch). The we put headers across the top of the stairs, to tie the two posts together, and keep the porch plumb.

Next, we turned our attention to the stairs. The code calls for a stringer every 12 inches, so we need to make 7 stringers. For once, calculating the rise and run of the stairs was not difficult - it worked out that the rise is exactly 7 inches and the run is 10 1/2 inches.

Using a framing square, we made the first stringer, and fitted it in place. It fit perfectly, so we used it to make three more stringers (as we were running out of time). Then, again using Simpson ties, we hung three of the stringers, notching them to fit on the sole plate, and nailed them in place. Finally, we put a piece of plywood down on the porch, and put 2/8 scraps on the stringers to make temporary steps.

So now, when we go work at the Cheney Cottage, we don't have to climb the ladder - we can walk up the stairs to the porch, and walk up to the door. This is definitely progress!
The usable, albeit unfinished, porch and stairs

Tomorrow, the roofers come to start installing the roof shingles over the building paper. And the house will have a good roof, one that should last 30 years or more.

Next up: working on the kitchen. Now that we have stairs, we can bring the kitchen cabinets and the appliances in. First, we have to rough in the plumbing (all the wiring is in) and then we can install the cabinets, make counters, and install the appliances.

And of course, we're still scrapping paint and stripping the beams in the living room, and still have scrapping to do in the dining room. Lisa has showed up unannounced several times to help us scrape, which has been great. It's a good job for anyone who likes to pick at things, as all the little paint chips have to be painstakingly scraped off.

The built in china cabinet has been particularly stubborn, and the heat gun barely made a dent in the orange paint. So we removed the cabinet doors to bring them back to Parker Street, to work on stripping them during the week.

And then plaster patching, the bathrooms, and the heating system. And then we'll finish the landscaping.