Construction Journal Entry Week of 1/20/19

1/20-24/19 I spent part, or all, of 5 days this week at Camp Serendipity: Sunday - Thursday.

On Sunday, Ellen and I snowshoed about four miles at the Stevens Pass Nordic Center, after which we drove to Camp Serendipity. We had no trouble parking in spite of three inches of snow, or so. We brought our gear up and moved into the cabin. Ellen cooked a delicious dinner, I kept the fire going, and we had a very pleasant evening.

On Monday morning, we slept in a little, had our breakfast, and then packed up and left for the Chiwawa Loop Sno-Park. We ended up snowshoeing about five miles after making a navigation error that added an extra mile or so. The trail consists of two loops with a single trail connecting the loops. We weren't sure we could do the entire big upper loop so we went as far as we thought we should on the big loop going clockwise and then turned around and went back.

When we got to the 'T' where the trail splits to either return to the parking lot or continue around the big loop in a counter-clockwise direction, we were confused and continued around the big loop in the other direction, but we thought we were on the smaller loop that went back to the parking lot. The trail was level most of the way or went downhill, but when it started going uphill, we thought we were probably on the wrong trail. At around the same time, we asked the only other snowshoers we saw who just happened to cross our path. They told us that we had done quite a bit of the big loop trail. We turned around, retraced our steps, and took the shortest route to the truck. The weather and the views were perfect, and it felt like we had had just about the right amount of exercise. It was a great success.

We had lunch in the Old Mill Cafe in Plain and then headed for home.

On Tuesday I drove back to Camp Serendipity alone for my normal work week. When I arrived at 1:10 it was just starting to snow. The temperature was 28. I brought my gear and tools up in one trip, hoisted the flag, built a fire in the stove, and then had my lunch and my usual nap. When I got up, I went out and split up enough firewood for the week, and then some.

On Wednesday morning the temperature was 28 and there was about 8 inches of new snow on the ground. Since I was parked up at the hairpin turn, I wondered how much trouble I would have getting the truck back out onto the road. I didn't worry much because I wouldn't be leaving for another 24 hours. But I sort of regretted not bringing either my snowshoes or my scoop shovel up to the cabin. They were still in the truck. Oh, well.

I was a little chagrined to discover that the ConvectAir heater in the dining room wasn't working. There has been a problem with that heater, and also with the smaller one in the living room, for quite a while but I had figured out how to live with it. The problem was that the display showing the target temperature would go blank above about 60. The heaters still worked, and you could keep track of the temperature setting by keeping track of how many times you clicked the increment or decrement buttons. But now the display was blank, and the heater wasn't heating.

I spent quite a while getting ready to call the manufacturer to help solve the problem. As part of my preparation I got out the owner's manual and read it, I suspect for the first time.

I learned about the 'mode' button, which cycles the heater through five different modes, one of which displays the setting in degrees F, and another of which turns the heater, and the display, off. Suspecting that the heater was simply turned off, I pressed on the 'mode' button, and sure enough, I got the temperature setting displayed and the heater started working. I felt happy and a little humbled. I could now forget about calling ConvectAir and do some productive work.

Just as you would expect, the overnight snowfall had accumulated on the roof, then slid off onto the big berm in the back, and then avalanched from there down onto the back porch, the back stairs and the back stoop. The stoop was covered all the way to the crawlspace door and about half of the steps were completely covered.

Since I was going to be working on the back-stair rail, I got a shovel out and proceeded to clear away the snow. The snow was soft and very heavy and packed nicely. I decided to take advantage of it and use it to build a retaining wall of snow just inside the top of the berm. That way when the snow slides off the roof, it will avalanche out away from the cabin and not onto the porch, stairs, or stoop. I had done that in years past and it works. I just need the right conditions to build it and I had them now.

I used a square-nose shovel, first to pack down the snow, then to cut out the outlines of roughly square blocks, and then to cut the blocks loose and place them in the wall. It's sort of like building an igloo. I used up all of the snow and made a nice wall about 7 feet high down at the stoop and not quite so high alongside the stairs and opposite the porch. When I was done, I also placed a big piece of plywood between the wall and the rail to make the wall even higher up there. That should really reduce the amount of shoveling I will have to do the rest of the winter.

By the time I finished, it was time for lunch. While I was eating, I saw that Josh had come around with his tractor and was busy plowing out the driveway and parking area. I could quit worrying about getting the truck backed out.

After a nice nap, I finally got to work on the railing project. I selected a crooked piece of vine maple to make the top turn-in for the porch stair rail. I cut the straighter end square and satisfied myself that it would match nicely when butted up against the top end of the rail. To make the butt joint, I would use a six-inch piece of 5/8" dowel which would be glued into holes bored in the ends of the rail and of the maple.

I bored the holes in each piece just by eyeball since I didn't have any precise alignment jig for boring the rail, and since the vine maple was crooked, I didn't see any way of aligning the hole any better than I could do by eyeball. But the real saving grace was the fact that the rail could be rotated to any position I wanted. That way, the inevitable error in the alignment could be made to match the similar error in alignment of the dowel coming out of the maple. So simply by inserting the dowel and driving the two members together, I could see how well the joint matched, and then by twisting the two with respect to each other, I could find the position where the two square-cut end faces were exactly parallel. Then the two could be driven together to form a nice tight seam. I did this without glue just to satisfy myself that it would work.

With the vine maple attached to the rail, I positioned it loosely on top of the two brackets in the wall and checked to see what it would take to mate the other end of the maple to a log in the wall. There were two degrees of freedom available: I could position the rail higher or lower along the rail axis and I could rotate the rail (and the vine maple) about the same axis. I couldn't position it exactly because the end of the maple was too long, but I could get a rough idea of how much to cut off to make it fit.

This process had to be a slow trial and error iteration because I could always cut a little more off, but if I cut too much off, it would ruin the piece. Knowing that, I still almost cut too much off in my first cut.

But before I could even start the process, I needed to temporarily lower the upper bracket. There is a 1/4" rectangular flange on the bracket that fastens to the underside of the rail. I want this flange to be recessed into the rail so that when you slide your hand down the rail, it will not hit the corners of the flange but instead will slide over a smooth transition between the rail and the flange and just hit the skinny connector that connects the rail to the wall.

I lowered the bracket by unscrewing it from the wall and then screwing it back in, with a much smaller drywall screw, 1/4 inch lower.

Next, I drew a rough line on the end of the vine maple with a sharpie where I thought the first cut should be made, making sure it was not too deep. But after making the cut, and trying the alignment, I realized that I had almost made it too deep. From then on, I cut wood off only with Rasputin and re-checked the fit after only a few strokes at a time.

Gradually, the wood was worked down until it fit nicely flush against the lower side of a log in the Grid A wall.

Next, I took the joint apart and went to work cutting, scraping, and sanding the bark off the vine maple to make it as smooth as possible. It was pretty lumpy, and I used a variety of tools to do the job. I used my pocket knife, Gus' razor-sharp hunting knife, a scraper, a drawknife, a small vibrating sander (which didn't work), and my DeWalt palm sander (which worked great). I ended up with a piece of smooth maple ready for stain.

With all the wood parts ready, I got out the glue bottle and glued the dowel in place, forced the rail and the maple together, and twisted the assembly to get the butt joints to mate right. I couldn't figure out an easy way to clamp the joint and hold it tight, so I just left it as it was, pressed together by hand. The strength of the joint would be from the bond between the surface of the dowel and the inside walls of the holes in the two members. Clamping wouldn't affect that, so I decided it wasn't important. I was happy to leave the rail assembly to dry inside the cabin overnight.

On Thursday morning there was no new snow. Dave called after breakfast and we had another delightful conversation. When we hung up, I went back to work on the rail. I was very happy with how the joint looked.

The diameter of the vine maple where it joined the rail was slightly smaller than the diameter of the rail by about 1/16 to 3/32 of an inch. I had known that to be the case and the plan was to taper the end of the rail to match and make a smooth transition.

I used a drawknife and a block plane to begin tapering the rail, and then switched to the DeWalt sander. The result was very gratifying. It is nice and smooth and is now ready for stain.

The next thing was to precisely locate the position of the flange of the bracket and recess it into the rail. This turned out to be a little more complicated than I had expected. The plan was to position the rail exactly with the bracket still in its temporarily lower position, mark the outline of the flange and the position of the screw holes, and then cut the recess hole in the rail. Simple.

I simply had to fix the two degrees of freedom. Well, to start with, the rail is round and not suspended at the lower end, so it takes two hands to hold the rail in position on top of the two brackets. Then, using those same two hands, rotate the rail and slide it back and forth until the end of the maple is snug against the log wall. The rail tries to wiggle out of your hands and slip around on top of that flange. And then, when you get it right where you want it, you need to get your head under the rail so you can look up and make your pencil marks.

The screw hole locations are fairly easy to mark because the rail is tangent to the flange at the screw holes. But trying to mark the outlines of the flange is a different story. I could see no way to do it anywhere near precisely.

But, I figured, the screw holes would be enough. I would simply install the screws and flange, and with the flange held in place, I could mark and then cut the recess. So, with the screw holes marked, I took the rail inside, drilled pilot holes for the screws, and then went to fasten the bracket to the rail.

Out of an abundance of caution, I had not drilled the holes deep enough. I didn't want to drill up through the surface of the rail. So, when I screwed the bracket on, the screw stopped before the bracket was snug. Then in my exuberance, I simply pulled the trigger on my little impact driver to drive the screw down deeper. Instead, I twisted the top off the screw. Great. Now I was short one screw and there was a broken screw embedded where I needed to cut a recess in the rail.

I got a hammer and chisel and started cutting the recess right around the broken screw until I exposed enough of the screw to get a grip on it with a vise-grip. That worked and I was able to extract the broken screw. By that time, it was time to have my lunch and quit for the week. I left everything as it was, tools, chips and all and left for home at 12:50. I did a lot of reflection on how lucky I am that I don't have to make a living doing this kind of work. I have a huge amount of fun and I enjoy every bit of it, including the challenges of the setbacks, but I certainly wouldn't be able to make a profit this way.

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