Notes from Abroad

Oh hello! We take a break from our normally-scheduled Walden Cabin updates to bring you this: Notes from Abroad. It seems a fitting venue, since Thoreau really enjoyed travel writing. Also I didn’t want to start a separate blog, since I’ve clearly done such a good job keeping up with this one. Those who have known my long-term blogging history (I’m looking at you, Michael) know that sporadic updates and brief periods of wild enthusiasm followed by months or years of silence is the norm. Why break with such an established tradition?
A couple notes on Notes from Abroad: I’m writing it on my iPhone, during my down time, or in fits and spurts as I think of or see interesting things over the course of the day, and then uploading it at night when I have that magical combination of free time and free WiFi. So there will be typos, and each post may ramble a bit and be fairly disconnected, because I’ll be writing it here and there, and the iPhone doesn’t really lend itself to high-level proofing and editing. Apologies in advance for all that.
I’m on a plane to Frankfurt now. I’ll have an hour in the airport to catch another flight to Oslo, so there’s a decent chance I’ll miss it, but if all goes well I’ll be in Oslo in just about nine hours. Woo! I’ve watched the pilot episode of a mediocre tv show (I don’t know what it’s called, but there were some chatty superficial 20-something girls in NYC and it wasn’t Girls), and about 3/4 of the new Beautiful Creatures (wasn’t there an older movie with the same title?). I don’t have a whole lot of patience for movies anyway, but I was excited to see Jeremy Irons and then (spoiler alert!) all of a sudden there were witches and special effects and a Wise Older Black Lady who was sort of a post-civil-rights maid and who knew Ye Olde Voodoo because obviously, she was the only mature person of color in a movie set in the South so what else was she going to do? Anyway, I gave up on it. Then I read part of a book and tried to store up some text messages in WhatsApp to send later when I have WiFi, but it can’t do that (sadness!). Soooo then I decided to blog, because somehow we’re only three hours in to a ten hour flight, and a certain kind gentleman (that’s right, I called you a gentleman) gifted me a spare battery for my iPhone so UNLIMITED USAGE AWAITS! Oh, and I ate some airplane chicken so if I die of food poisoning we’ll all know why.
Ok, time to go read more! My seatmate is amazing; she seems nice but she hasn’t tried to engage me in conversation yet so she’s pretty much ideal.
This child seems to wonder if it might be possible to scream all the way from Seattle to Frankfurt… so far the answer appears to be yes. The flight screen says we’ve just reached Greenland and the child’s lungs are still holding out. Impressive…
Update: I’m staring out at the endless expanse of the North Sea. It’s quite lovely from the air, and soon I’ll get to see it in person, with Kj! Related: the stated purpose of my trip is to visit Kj in Scotland, and the last two (of six) letters of my flight confirmation code are KJ. Perfection 🙂
Anyway, I flew right through the nighttime on the map, though because of our northerly arc, the sun only set for a few minutes.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about airplanes on this flight. How they drive pretty well on such spindly-looking wheels. How this one is weirdly mini-polka-dotted on the inside, which makes it hard to look at it for too long and makes the curves of the inside of the cabin walls more apparent. How over the years I MUST have ridden in some new-ish aircraft, that MUST have been built after they banned smoking on all planes, and yet I’ve never seen an airplane without little ashtrays built in everywhere. You’d think they’d have phased those out by now…
Ooh, now I’m on the plane to Oslo, which we reached via packed bus from the terminal. I’m saddened to report that the same child of prodigious lung-strength (or possibly one that sounds just like it, at comparable volume, which might be worse) has followed me onto this flight. CREEPY SCREAMING STALKER CHILD!

 

Shingles and windows!

My shingles and the windows for the inside and outside of the back wall arrived in the mail today! It’s an amazing little box of joy and it smells SO GOOD because the shingles are cedar and there are (literally) 2,000 of them.

So I’m sure the shingling process will be over in a snap, right? Right? Right.

And I’d like to offer a shout-out to Jeri at Miniature Designs in Lawrenceville, Georgia for shipping the shingles and windows quickly and in perfect condition just as advertised on their website (which is chock-full of exciting miniature things, if you’re into that). Not only were they perfect, but they were packaged very nicely and came with a handwritten note (from Jeri, who has quite lovely handwriting). Thanks!

Flooring and… ceiling-ing?

Dear Wikipedia,

I must say that your ‘ceiling‘ article is extremely disappointing to those of us who rely upon you for knowledge and instruction in all things, including miniature cabin construction. Please make it better.

Yours sincerely,

Shasti

I had been working on the best method for putting a random-plank wood floor in the library, and had resigned myself to this option — pre-made sheets of wood veneer flooring, designed for dollhouses, easy to install (but also a little fancier and less hand-made than I had hoped).

I didn’t want to make an actual wood floor, because my mom did that once with a dollhouse when I was little and it didn’t go well — the strips were really difficult to line up, and then they didn’t stay glued down securely. I didn’t want the books catching on the floor (I have to keep reminding myself that the end purpose of the structure is to hold books). I also didn’t want to just leave the floor as-is, because Thoreau didn’t have access to plywood so that’s hardly authentic.

Then I found an offhand comment on a discussion board about dollhouses, that suggested just drawing the planks on the unfinished wood and then staining over it. BEST. IDEA. EVER.

So I spent part of the evening with a ruler and pencil (the pen was too dark and fake-looking, but the pencil is just right) marking out the planks on both floor and ceiling and the trapdoor in the floor. Now I have to decide where the floor joists would be, so that I can mark the ends of the floorboards and mark the nail holes. I also have to decide where the ceiling joists (are they still called joists in the ceiling?) will go, make them, and glue them on. Haven’t decided if those will be ‘boards’ made of lath or ‘boards’ made of ‘trees’ a.k.a. branches from my pine tree. Thoreau used both, of course, but didn’t feel the need to specify exactly which he used for what. Some are easy, like of course the floor and the door were shanty boards and the rafters were tree boards, but others are more… shall we say… open to interpretation? That’s ok, though, because I enjoy interpreting things.

Wanted: a small piece of roofing felt

Anyone know where I might find a very small (like, 3′ x 3′) piece of roofing felt/tar paper? I can’t justify buying a roll, which is like 100′ long or something, when I only need 3′. I’m thinking of calling some roofing companies to see if they might have scraps that they just throw away, or walking around my neighborhood and looking for roofing projects-in-progress…

In other news, the library now (as of today) has a ceiling and a floor! That means all the large pieces are now attached to one another! Very exciting!

Here it is on its side, weighted with a cinderblock while the wood glue dries:

The black box on the bottom is the fireplace, shown here with the symbolic king-post marker that’s in the middle of the floor:

And the little round thing on the left in the first picture above is the symbolic top of the king-post, shown here next to the ceiling trapdoor into the garret:

So it’s coming along. Now I have to figure out the door (the functional one that you’ll use to access the books) and make one, then make the platform that it will all attach to, and the woodshed, and finish/attach the chimney, and make a stand to put it on, and shingle it, and paint the inside, and complete the various decorative bits…. Yeah, it’ll take a little while longer…

Creating a fireplace

The fireplace has been more of a project than I expected — in a good way, because I’ve enjoyed it. I originally thought I’d just sort of burn a marking on the wall where the fireplace was, but then I thought it should be recessed into the wall a bit to at least attempt a little realism, and then it would need something to frame it or it would just be a mark on the wall…

First I marked out the size and location of the fireplace, based on the exterior chimney size and location. Then I used my dremel tool to carve away the top ply of the plywood, and I did it roughly to get some nice texture. Then I used my woodburner to burn the wood inside the fireplace, which took MUCH longer than I expected — the plywood doesn’t char as quickly as pine or cedar, and the texture made it challenging to burn it evenly. Here it is about half-finished:

Then the burnt wood wasn’t dark enough or black enough (it was dark brown, but didn’t really look like the inside of a fireplace). So then I decided to use actual charcoal to blacken the inside, which worked nicely on the burnt wood, since the charcoal itself didn’t darken the unburned wood enough — it just looked like a black sheen on the top. Over the burned wood, though, it gave a nice realistic effect:

Then of course I had to seal it, or the charcoal would just rub right off, so I used a fixative, which worked great and left a matte finish. Then there was a small imperfection in the wood that had to be fixed. The top ply was slightly flawed at the edge in one small area, so when I carved it away from the fireplace, which was a half-inch from the bottom edge, that ply separated from the bottom edge too in a small spot:

I had some weatherproof putty, so I used that to fill the gap. It’s not very pretty, but that part will be covered by the floor anyway.

Now the fireplace is finished, and I just have to install the framing for it. I don’t know what, if anything, Thoreau had — I think he just used stone and brick, but I’m taking a little artistic license and I think I’ll use the same wood that I’m using for the decorative door, on the opposite wall, to frame the fireplace and make a mantle.

Then I’ll install The Artifact (courtesy of Michael, soon to be detailed in another post) above the fireplace. Perfect!

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?

Sincerely,

Shasti

 

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!

Firewood

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.