Thoreau: not really into blueprints

Dear Henry David Thoreau,

You, sir, are a wonderful writer. At your best you are inspirational, though you tend sometimes to be a bit opinionated and in person you were probably kind of a bastard. If you were alive today, we would not be friends. But I admire you, I really do, and you have had a lot of influence on me.

At a certain period in my early, angsty teen years, I used to read this over and over while sobbing:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Yes, it’s ‘the famous part’ (or at least the first sentence is, I can never understand why most people cut the quote after the first sentence, the rest is so wonderful) but I felt the need to type it out anyway, because you saw into my soul and described everything that terrifies and also motivates me.

But, my dear sir, you were not very helpful to those who wished to follow in your footsteps. Yes, you described the birds you saw and heard during your years at Walden so exactly that biologists still use your writings to research the history of birds in New England. Yes, you sketched a lot of plants, and described them so fully that botanists today still use your notes. But as far as building houses goes, you are greatly lacking in detail. You don’t even mention your own king-post! How did you get into your garret, and what did you keep there besides your tent? Why did you put your woodshed so far away from your front door? That seems inconvenient in the winter.

And how on earth did you know how to build a house yourself? Was carpentry common-knowledge then? Did you sort of make it up as you went along? Were your walls perfectly square? Did you have books on housebuilding? Blueprints? Drawings?

The fact that you did it, without (as far as I can tell) any prior experience, gives me hope for my own project…

I went to your journals to look for more information on your house-building, thinking that perhaps you left the finer details out of Walden so as not to bore your readers or distract from your purpose in writing it. Your journals were massive, and contained tons of detail and sketches and observations on nature, so I thought surely you would have documented the process of building a house. I mean, it’s a pretty big project.

You moved in to your house at Walden in 1845. The two GIGANTIC books I have that contain your FOURTEEN VOLUMES of journals from 1837-1861 should cover the correct period. But all you say specifically about the subject (that isn’t reprinted in Walden) is this, on Christmas Eve 1841:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?

And then this, on July 5, 1845:

Walden. —Yesterday I came here to live. My house makes me think of some mountain houses I have seen, which seemed to have a fresher auroral atmosphere about them, as I fancy of the halls of Olympus.

Not so much with the blueprints. In fact, your journals skip from April 1842 to July 1845. What the hell? Were you too busy house-building to write? Were the missing journals lost? What happened?




It’s tough to be square

I’m gaining a new respect for carpenters and people who build things for a living. Do you know how difficult it is to make something square? It seems pretty easy, right? Just put two pieces of wood together at a right angle, add some screws and maybe some glue, and ta-da! You have a corner. BUT is it a square corner? When you add the other 4 sides of the cube, will it actually be a cube, or some sort of lopsided shape that is NOT a cube?

I have a tri square (my dad’s) and a… not-tri square (my neighbor’s), and a ‘light-duty corner clamp’ (from the hardware store, it’s really cool but it broke the first time I tried to use it so I will be taking it back). The squares are great for learning if your corner IS square or not, but if (or rather, when) it’s not, they don’t magically fix it for you.

ANYWAY it’s fine, my little Walden is coming along nicely, and it’s VERY CLOSE to square. Yes, there is a small (eighth-inch?) gap in one spot, but it’s under the overhang of the roof and also I bought some amazing silicone outdoor caulking that I applied today, which I think is going to solve all my problems. And I’m going to use my sander to sort of tidy up the edges that don’t quite line up perfectly, so it will sit squarely on a table, and then we should be all good. I hope.

So today I attached the back wall, did some caulking, and also did some more staining of the various bits of wood to seal it against the weather and make it pretty. Next I get to put the ceiling and the floor in! The ceiling is going to be the hardest part, but the floor should be easy. It’s coming along! Right now it has a roof and three sides. Yay!


And also a chimney!

In an earlier post, I mentioned the mysterious cedar stake things that I found at Home Depot and decided to repurpose for my chimney. Here they are in original form, though you can only see about 1/3 of the length:

And here they are cut up and assembled into a chimney shape:

Last weekend I went to the art supply store after dropping Josh off at work in the morning. I got to the art store right before they opened, so I did the awkward hanging-around-outside-trying-to-look-casual-and-not-putting-any-pressure-on-anyone thing until they opened. Then I went in and had the great privilege of being the only customer with about ten staff members hanging around, which was great because I asked them for some advice on materials and they were helpful. It was a fun conversation:

Me: “Excuse me, could you point me to your pumice gel mediums? And also a paint that will look like old brick? I’m making a chimney out of cedar.”
Then later: “What should I use to seal this or coat it when I’m done? It will be outside.”
Him: “Oh, it should be fine…. like, outside for how long?”
Me: “…indefinitely?”
Him: “Oh… then you should probably seal it. You might try Home Depot for an exterior sealant…”

That was fine, I was on my way back to Home Depot anyway, because you remember those two-long-skinny-and-one-shorter-wider poplar boards I got? Well, they split the second I tried to screw into them, even though I had pre-drilled, so they didn’t work. I decided to just cut down some of my extra plywood to the right size at Home Depot, where they have been very nice about sawing things for me (I also had to re-cut the roof there last week, as I had miscalculated the size I needed after changing some other measurements, long story). After another trip to Home Depot, I had the right boards, some exterior caulk for the seams of the house, and a few other odds and ends. Success!

Then I started experimenting with carving the bricks, using a piece of leftover scrap for the tests. The best system has been using a chisel and screwdriver to make the indentations:

Now I’m working on the best method for applying and adjusting the brick coating.

I’m making a door!

In ye olden days of yore, when someone (like, for example, Thoreau) wanted to make a simple wooden door out of boards, they put on a top board and a bottom board, and ran a longer board from one corner to another in a Z sort of configuration. Then they took some longer boards and set them up vertically and nailed them to the top, bottom, and crosspiece. I learned this from my dad. He knows things like this. It’s great that he does, because I sure didn’t…

I was looking at dollhouse doors online, like these:
And it was frustrating because they all looked pretty fancy, and nicely carved and so forth, but Thoreau’s door was a Door made of Used Boards from the railroad worker’s shanty, not a Fancy Carved Door from a  carpenter’s shop. When my dad explained the deal with doors, I decided to make one myself. I got lath from the RE Store (see earlier post), sawed it up into appropriately-sized pieces, and laid it out like this:
Now I’m going to put the outside part of the door — just the vertical pieces — on the outside of the house, and the inside part of the door — the Z part — on the inside of the house, with a painted door behind it. That will give it the right depth, and make it look like you’re seeing the inside and outside depending on which side you’re looking from.
Now I just have to make a little handle and figure out some sort of painted-on or mini hinges. Exciting!


You know how sometimes you’re in the middle of building a house, and you have to stop and chop up some firewood? No? Well, it’s a thing that happens.

Thoreau understood:
“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house,  I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was ploughing, they warmed me twice,—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.” — Walden, Housewarming

And Charles Bronson understood:
From The Magnificent Seven
And now I, too, understand.
Yes, that is a miniature wood pile, all neatly split, and that is a chisel in the process of splitting a ‘log’ and a hammer for use with the chisel.

It’s normal, I swear.

A Quarter.

Today I went on some errands, one of which involved a trip to the RE Store in Ballard for some reclaimed wood bits to use in making the door and fireplace frame. I found some lovely bits of lath that looked nice and aged (perfect because he used boards from the railroad worker’s shanty to make the door, so they would have been weathered and well-worn). They were all bundled together, though, because they matched, and there was much more than I needed, and more than would fit in the car (some bits were really long).

So I found a nice guy who worked there and asked him if I had to buy a whole bundle of lath if the bits were tied together, or if I could just take what I needed, and he said I could take what I needed and leave the rest. So I went and got a few smaller strips and went back to the front to pay.

He came to the counter to help me, glanced at the strips I had, and said “A quarter…”. I figured perhaps he meant that I had taken a quarter of the bundle, and got out my wallet and debit card while I waited for him to ring me up.

There was a long pause.

I smiled encouragingly, as if to say “Yes, I’ve taken a quarter of the bundle” thinking perhaps he had meant his statement as more of a question, but not sure enough to try and answer out loud.

The pause continued a little longer, then he said, more emphatically this time: “A quarter.”
Then I got it, and replied “Oh! You mean, like, an ACTUAL QUARTER. Sorry!” and proceeded to grab my change purse and carefully hand him one quarter, which he dropped into a cup on the counter.

And that’s how I learned that six feet of used lath at the RE Store costs 25 cents.

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.