Tiny Tuesday: Upward Mobility Through Carpentry

When I gave up my old desk job to build a house back in 2014, I sensed the power of carpentry. No education or experience is required; only manual dexterity, basic mental math skills, and a strong work ethic. The benefits are immediate (physical strength, camaraderie, the satisfaction of bringing an edifice into existence) and long-lasting (the mastery of a skilled labor). What job could be more perfect for delinquents seeking to reform?

One correctional school teacher in Santa Clara County, California, made that same observation and created a program for students to build a tiny house. Ralph Wigginton directed an ever-changing group of high schoolers on the project for 90 minutes a day. The short time window, along with discipline and frequent mistakes, predictably limited progress. Nevertheless, the students loved the sense of accomplishment and skill-building.

You can imagine their resentment when the county school board threatened to pull the project out of concern that it was taking too long to complete, and the students didn’t have the necessary skills. Wigginton pushed back, sharing students’ responses like this one: “Most of us have never accomplished anything… taking the tiny house away from us would really upset us.” In response the board accused Wigginton of violating students’ privacy, and now he could lose his job.

Bureaucracy: 1, Upward Mobility: 0.

Read the full story in this Mercury News article.

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.

Tiny Tuesday: The Nomad

My dear friend MK lives in a house she built on a 24-foot-by-8-foot trailer. The Nomad (as she named it) is parked in her hosts’ sloping backyard in the Finger Lakes region of New York; legally, it’s an accessory dwelling. It’s not a house on wheels at the moment, because she jacked and leveled the house and removed the wheels.

MK previously served as an intern at Yestermorrow Design-Build School, and the courses she took there gave her the expertise to design the house herself. She drew plans with Sketchup. She cut material costs and overall weight using advance framing: rafters align with studs and floor joists to eliminate plates, and strategic placement of windows and doors allows for light header beams. She hired local talent to build a custom trailer (with floor joists in the right places), and she leveraged a building class to contribute labor.

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MK’s Sketchup plans for the Nomad.

I love the house’s wedge shape, using a shed roof with a shallow 1.5-on-12 pitch to create headroom without complicated roof lines. As you enter through double doors near the low end, an eat-in kitchen stretches out to your left, with open cabinets, a 3-burner stove, and a huge chest freezer (which MK intends to convert to a fridge). To your right is the bathroom and the mechanical area, including an array of batteries for a future PV installation. The far end contains a steep stairway to a landing that serves as a dressing room, then turns to a loft, which is entirely filled by a queen-size mattress. The stairs and the loft floor frame a living room with built-in shelving and a loveseat tucked into the far wall.

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Eat-in kitchen, stairs/dressing area, and living room with loft above.

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Handsome finishes on the living room’s built-in shelving.

Right now the house is pretty much off the grid. There is no running water or electricity, although the hookups are all there. (MK uses a composting toilet and showers at the gym.) Insulation is tight with no thermal bridges, and MK expects her marine wood-burning stove and her heat recovery ventilator will be more than sufficient to keep the place comfortable as she prepares to spend her first winter there. In the meantime, the Nomad helps her save money for her dream of one day running a farm and rustic B&B.

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MK says it was a challenge to level the house on a wooded, sloping site.