Get Rail

The Vermont Fire and Building Safety Code requires that all stairs have a fully graspable rail – that is, one you can wrap your hand around all the way, if your hand is big enough. Laura needed to upgrade her basement stair rail in order to meet the Code and sell her house.

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From the Code.

I measured and determined Laura needed a 12-foot rail. A 12-foot-long piece of wood is not an easy thing to maneuver, but eventually I brought a circular rail to her house (at one point driving with my rear hatch open and taping an orange cone to the end) and navigated it into her stairwell. I brought three brackets as well, aiming for roughly a four-foot spacing to prevent excessive deflection.

Laura’s existing rail was basically a 2×4 spaced out from the wall. All I needed to do was attach the new rail to the old one. I installed the upper bracket first, screwing it upright into the 2×6, and then the lower bracket. Next I held the rail in place and marked where it would meet the upper bracket. Taking the rail down, I measured the width of the flat bottom (1 inch wide), centered my marks, and pre-drilled holes. I put the rail back in place and screwed it to the bracket connector. Now that the upper bracket held the rail in place, it was easy to connect the lower bracket, and finally position and connect the middle bracket.

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Centering bracket attachment points on the underside of the rail.

The whole affair took maybe 20 minutes, and I could have done it even faster with a second drill. I must have swapped the 7/64” drill bit with the Phillips head a dozen times. An easy and functional fix to comply with the law.

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All done.

BLM Bookcase

Black Lives Matter Vermont has a storefront in Winooski, where it plans to sell locally made crafts, clothing, and fair trade food products with proceeds funding the organization. I am helping them transform their space through custom carpentry. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to practice my skills while also helping a cause I care about.

Ebony welcomed me into the store and laid out her vision: shopping in the front half of the space, room for relaxation in the rear half. I played with some numbers to translate that vision into several bookcases that would be easy to build and use ¾” plywood as efficiently as possible, minimizing wasted material. Once we had our plan, it was off to the lumber yard to buy the materials I needed.

For a tiny additional charge, Home Depot employees will rip wood products into smaller pieces. I took advantage partly because they make a much straighter cut than I could with my circular saw, and partly because it was the only way to fit the materials in my car. On a nicer day I might have strapped full sheets of plywood to my roof rack, but it was snowing.

To construct the first bookcase, I followed instructions from a This Old House weekend project series. The instructions build the walls two pieces of plywood thick, with the inner piece broken at regular intervals for the shelves. This detail eliminated the need for the tricky dado cuts that some bookcases use for shelving, but it increased the total amount of material I needed. Since the bookcase wouldn’t sit against a wall, I also needed to improvise a back, as the instructions didn’t include one. I used plywood the same thickness as the walls, which turned out to be a dumb choice, adding unnecessary cost and weight. I would have been fine with a piece only ¼” thick. Take that as a learning opportunity.

Once I returned to the store, it took about four hours to cut walls and shelves, assemble the bookcase with wood screws, and attach trim to the front with finish nails to hide the cut edges of plywood. I used ¾” thick poplar trim for the shelves and 1-1/2” thick oak trim for the perimeter, learning that material bills rack up fast when you pay by the linear foot. I made the bookcase the same height as a kitchen cabinet, so Ebony can add a countertop workspace later if she wants.

I’ll be back next week to do some more work. The store holds its Grand Opening on Saturday, February 11, and I’m proud to help make the space functional and beautiful.

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Everything except the shelves and trim. I think Ebony plans to stain it to protect the material while keeping the woodgrain visible.

Nothing But the Roof

A Yestermorrow semester program built an apartment property for Jas. In a win-win arrangement, Yestermorrow students gained real-life skills in design and carpentry, while Jas got free labor. Unfortunately, the class ended this week and the students left the house incomplete. Jas hopes to at least get a cover on the roof before winter sets in.

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The 400-square-foot apartment one week before end of semester.

So I found a free afternoon to get started. As soon as the Yestermorrow class finished installing roof rafters, I joined Allen to begin sheathing the north side. The tasks were familiar: start in a bottom corner, use tongue-and-groove Advantech with the tongue pointed downhill, install sheets so they break in the middle of a rafter. We snapped a chalk line across the rafters to align the top edge of the first 48-inch-wide sheet, wanting a bottom overhang of 1.5 inches. Then we cut the first sheet of Advantech with a circular saw to trim the length for a ¾-inch outside overhang. Once the first one is in place, the rest follow smoothly.

Several characteristics of this project were unique. The rafters are 16 inches on center, which leaves too narrow a space to pass a 96-inch-long sheet out without endangering someone’s safety. Therefore we raised the Advantech from below, with Allen and I sliding each sheet up a pair of ladders before ascending ourselves. The other concern was the location of the rafters in space – alignment is always a concern when you inherit a project from somebody else. The sheathing must stay in one plane so the finished roof doesn’t look wavy, and it should bear on every rafter for structural reasons. I used a long skinny half-inch-thick piece of Advantech to shim out one rafter that sat a half-inch low, sliding and squeezing it between the lumber and the sheathing.

Jas and Allen soon completed the north side of the roof with Advantech, and then I helped sheath the south side using salvaged T-1-11 siding from the shed removal. It’s a race against the clock to get the sheathing installed and covered with Ice & Water Shield before the weather gets too cold and snowy to work safely. (People do it, but I’m no fan of outdoor construction in the winter.)

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Jas installs a safety harness system to finish the south side with T-1-11 sheathing.