My Kingdom for a King-Post

It turns out the folks who built the replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, the one you can go visit on a pilgrimage if you are so inclined, didn’t do such a perfect job. I mean, I can hardly criticize the overall finished product, it’s been there for a lot longer than the 2 years, 2 months and 2 days that Thoreau lived in his, but still. It’s not accurate! Consider this photo of the inside of the replica:

And now consider this quote, from a friend of Thoreau’s who visited him at Walden:

“”The entrance to the cellar was ‘thro a trap door in the center of the room. The king-post was an entire tree, extending from the bottom of the cellar to the ridge-pole, upon which we descended, as sailors do into the hold of a vessel.” Joseph Hosmer, from an account of his visit to Thoreau’s cabin. (Borst).”

— Sourced here.
Do you see a king-post in the picture? An “entire tree, extending from the bottom of the cellar to the ridge-pole”? A central support beam? No.

Well, I wanted as much authenticity as possible, so of course I wanted to put in a king-post — but then I decided against, since the king-post would sort of impede the whole ‘library’ part of the project, and get in the way of the books. It was a quandary.

Dad to the rescue! I called him and told him about the king-post problem, and he had a great solution: he suggested I attach a section of replica king-post to the ceiling, but just a short bit that wouldn’t get in the way of books. Then he suggested I carve a slight depression in the floor where the king-post would be, and mark it somehow, perhaps by burning it. Brilliant!

So I did exactly that. I cut a piece of the pine tree in my back yard (pine tree! Just like Thoreau’s king-post would [most likely] have been — though a different kind of pine). Then I cut a small indentation in the ceiling, exactly matching the outline of the post, and glued it in (so it looks like it comes out of the ceiling rather than just looking stuck-on). I hollowed out a slightly larger (since trees are bigger at the bottom) round indentation in the middle of the floor, and burned it with my woodburning tool.

Here’s the floor marking:

And here’s the ceiling with the king-post:
[image to follow, right now it’s under a paint can while the glue dries — see picture below of paint can, the king-post is under it, I swear]

A visit to Home Depot

Home Depot is a pretty fun store, really. I mean, they have so many things, and so many handy things, and lots of very helpful people who sometimes know what they’re doing and sometimes don’t. I spent four hours there yesterday (in two visits), and it was great. I bought:

  • 1 sheet of plywood
  • 2 cedar stake-things
  • 1 hand sander
  • 1 hand sander refill
  • 1 bottle of super-awesome wood glue
  • 2 long narrow poplar strips
  • 1 short slightly wider poplar strip
  • 1 can of exterior sealant
  • 1 can of interior paint
The plywood… I kinda messed up on the plywood, so here’s hoping it will all be fine. I wanted exterior plywood, because that’s what my research said to use, but then the plywood at Home Depot wasn’t very well labeled, and the helpful man in the hardwood section said that all plywood could be used outside as long as you seal it, and that I didn’t need the ugly green pressure-treated plywood and I shouldn’t use that anyway if people were going to be touching the end result.
So I bought a sheet of pretty plywood, 1/2″ thick, sanded on both sides, 5-ply laid crossways as usual, and it looks like white pine so there’s that. But then I read up on the brand (Sandeply by Endesa) later and learned that it’s interior-grade plywood, which means the glue that holds the plys together isn’t rated for outdoor conditions. Also it’s not white pine or anything similar, but a mix of tropical hardwoods. It’s made in Ecuador. Their website talks a lot about how great they are and how much they care about the environment and sustainable forestry, but it’s their website so who knows. So yeah, the wood isn’t ideal. But it’s very pretty, and I got it all cut up (except for the roof bits, because Home Depot apparently can’t cut angles), and I took it home and sanded it all up nicely and got it ready for sealing.
I also deeply confused the guy in the paint section. First I brought him a can of exterior sealant and asked a ton of questions about it (that started with “it says ‘transparent’ but it comes in ‘natural’ ‘cherry’ and ‘oak’ — so is it transparent, or not?”). Then I started asking about the ‘Venetian Plaster’ line of the Martha Stewart line, and when I learned that didn’t come in white, I wanted to know what color authentic limestone plaster was, and what I should buy that would have both that color and that effect… he wanted to know if I needed interior paint or exterior paint, and I responded with something like “well, it will be inside, but inside a little structure that will be outside, but it should be weatherproof, but it won’t be heated, and it might get hot sometimes, and also it can’t be shiny because it has to look like plaster but also there will be books, so it can’t rub off easily…” He didn’t really know what to do with me.
Then I was told later that Home Depot didn’t have the screws I needed (exterior grade wood screws but very short), but that there is a screw-specific store in Ballard that I should visit. So this weekend I’m going to an entire store that sells nothing but screws and fasteners. It sounds pretty rad.
Side note: sanding wood makes a lot of sawdust. This might seem obvious, and I knew that sawdust would happen, but I thought that if I laid down a nice big drop-cloth it would be fine, and since I was doing it late at night I didn’t want to be out in the garage, I wanted to be in my living room, working on my project while watching some nice Science Channel educational programming and leaning on my couch. So that’s what I did, and the drop-cloth worked great and all, but then afterward I realized that there is now a fine layer of very fine sawdust all over EVERYTHING in my house. Like, really, everything. Everywhere. So, you know, consider yourself warned, the next time you think that sanding down some plywood in your living room is a good idea, because it’s not.
Also I learned later that some wood, like mahogany, is actually poisonous so you don’t want to breathe in that sawdust. And I think the glue that holds plywood together is also probably almost certainly cancer-causing or something, and probably shouldn’t be inhaled or spread liberally over your entire living space in the form of a fine powder. But, you know, whatever.
End result: beautiful plywood, ready for phase two: sealing!

(note the super-pro pencil on the floor)

So… how exactly does one build a mini Walden?

We had decided to build the Walden Little Free Library. Easier said than done…

There are so many details to consider!

I wanted to use a mix of new and reclaimed wood (as Thoreau did: he used a mix of trees he cut himself and boards/nails from a railroad worker’s shanty that he bought and tore down). I also, however, wanted it to be very specific: to scale, and ideally authentic down to the type of wood (Thoreau used a mix of white pine and possibly cedar). Reclaimed wood is hard to find in exact sizes, it turns out, and I lack both tools and skills to turn a pile of randomly-sized bits and boards into exact components of a very specific little house. Reclaimed wood also has a tendency to be warped and such, which makes it that much harder to fit all the pieces together and have it not leak. Plywood, on the other hand, is nice and flat and consistently thick, and comes from Home Depot where there are many helpful gentlemen who are happy to cut it up into very specific bits for you. This is handy when all you have to work with is a hand saw, a ruler, and a [very professional] pencil.

Speaking of leaking… I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, but I also wanted it to be watertight and weatherproof. I doubted my ability to make a tiny [dollhouse] window that was watertight and weatherproof, so the window (and the door, and the fireplace…) would have to be decorative. Also, speaking of the fireplace… real bricks were out of the question, so how to make a brick fireplace and chimney? So many questions…

On the other hand, this is when it started to get really fun. I began sourcing various decorative materials online. I found miniature dollhouse shingles made from white pine for the walls, and cedar for the roof! Perfect! My dad came down for the day and we did a lot of sketching and math to figure out exactly what we needed. How would we make the side of the house that would open to provide access to the books? What would we use for tar paper on the roof? Actual tar paper? Something else? How would we affix the shingles to the house and to the roof (it’s pretty impossible to nail down a 1″x1″x1/16″ shingle)? What would the house rest on? Would we also build the woodshed, which was essential for Thoreau, even though it was detached from the cabin? Etc.

I collected quotes from Thoreau on the subject of his house-building (he was a great writer, but Walden is hardly a builder’s guide — he can be excruciatingly specific about one thing, like the cost of bricks, and then maddeningly general about something else, like where exactly the trap door into the root cellar was located or how he shingled the roof). We decided to look at Thoreau’s collected journals, which will hopefully have a lot more detail.

I decided to build the chimney and fireplace out of wood, and paint it to look like brick. Later I found super-awesome 1.5″ square by about 3′ long cedar stake things, with a 45 degree angle cut at the end, so I bought two and plan to cut down the ends with the angle cuts for the fireplace and affix them to a longer piece from the square end in the middle as the chimney. I’ll screw/glue them together, then I’ll use my dremel tool to etch the bricks into the wood, then I’ll use brick-colored paint mixed with a fine pumice gel medium for texture and paint the whole thing, then I’ll use my woodburning tool to burn out the top center of the chimney for effect, then I’ll use a pick to scrape the paint out of the etched brick spaces (re-dremeling if needed), then I’ll seal the whole thing with a waterproofing sealant and screw it down to the base platform behind the house. Things like this get me super excited these days. This chimney is going to be AMAZING!

And just wait until you see what I have in store for the window…

Begin at the Beginning

Alright, first post, breaking ground! Starting at the beginning, and jumping right in….

So my dad sent me this article in the Seattle Times a couple weeks ago…
I read it and of course loved the idea and then, of course, had to build my own. I haven’t really built anything out of wood since I was about seven years old, though, and that was a bookshelf that I built with my dad. And by “built with my dad” I mean handed him tools and screws and things, and helped decide how big it should be, and then when it was finished stuck unicorn stickers all over it. Like I said, I was seven. It was a pretty great bookshelf, though, so I figured it would be a great father-daughter project for us to build a library together — and if my dad helped, it might actually turn out plumb and weatherproof. Win!
So. The Idea Was Born.
We browsed the Little Free Library homepage for a few days, looking at examples and plans, and I got out a pencil (I haven’t really used a pencil since college, I much prefer pens, but pens aren’t The Thing when you’re Doing Construction, so I decided to go pro and use a pencil) and started sketching things. It was great.
Then I was walking home one day and I had an epiphany (I have lots of epiphanies while walking). I didn’t want to just build a generic box of books and call it a library. No. That’s not how I roll, you know me. It had to have meaning. Layers and layers of meaning. It had to have a grounding philosophy, and a purpose, and a goal, and a reason, and Meaning with a capital M. This took some consideration…
On that walk, it came to me. Flashback time:
When I was little (again, probably about seven or younger), I used to ride around in a pickup truck with my dad, all around the enormous apple orchard he managed. I would help him with projects (you know, handing him tools and so forth), we would have adventures and picnics under apple trees and watch deer and great horned owls and explore cow pastures and climb over rocks and watch osprey catch fish in the river. It was a great way to grow up. I could go on for pages, but I digress…
In my dad’s pickup truck, there was a workbox. He had made it himself — it was a big plywood box with a hinged lid that fit between the two front seats, and it had all his work stuff in it: notebooks, and pencils (see? Pencils! Super pro!), and labels from spray cans, and a little reference book that had Everything about Everything (it was awesome, now I have one too), and a calculator, and a ruler I think, and graph paper, and a multi-tool, and some other tools and wrenches and things, and lots of other things I can’t really remember. It was really cool, and he had all sorts of Useful Things in the workbox. Also it doubled as my booster seat in the pickup truck, because I was little and I couldn’t see out the window when I sat on the seat.
One of the things in the workbox, along with all the tools and practical things, was a little green book. It was a tiny copy of Walden; Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. I was too little to read it, but I loved it anyway, and I took it as an obvious fact that it was every bit as essential to his job as Orchard Manager, Dad, and Generally Amazing Person Who Could Build and Fix Anything as a screwdriver, calculator or wrench.
Yeah, my dad is a pretty awesome guy.
So Walden has been part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. I didn’t read it until I was much older, but when I did, it became part of my canon and one of my desert island books, too.
So it was obvious, really, that the first house I was building (library, whatever, a library is a house for books and that’s every bit as much a house as a people-house), and the first BUILDING I was really truly building, and the first woodworking project for my dad and I since I was a little girl… well, of course I was going to build my own Walden. There was really, as I told my dad when I called him later that evening, no other possible option.