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Monday, March 31, 2014

HOA Approved (Because They Can't See It) Shed

I really enjoy building things. Years ago, I would approach a project with the following mindset: "What tool do I want? Therefore, what project can I do to justify purchasing that tool?" And that, my friends, is how to build a tool supply in your workshop! Now, either because I'm more mature or because I have almost every tool there is to own (I choose to believe the former, but the latter is probably more accurate), my method of doing projects is solely based on what needs to be done. Of course I also enjoy helping people, which led to the following project.

Framing in my driveway and dry-fitting the walls
My pastor and his family live in a neighborhood with an HOA (HOA, for my international friends, is a Home Owner's Association. They make and enforce rules in the neighborhood with the intent to keep the neighborhood from looking terrible, although some HOAs tend to be slightly more oppressive, dictating the minutes that trash cans can be on the curb). Their HOA will not allow backyard storage sheds to be seen from the front. So the question became this: Is it possible to build a storage shed for 6 bicycles and various scooters that is shorter than a 6 foot wall, can withstand the Arizona sun, all while staying under a $400 budget? The answer: of course you can (but not if you're looking to buy tools with the budget amount).

My helper, practicing with her hammer
I am not going to give you a step by step for this project. In fact, I'm going to let you in on a little secret of mine. I don't use plans, nor do I draw them up. I never have. Not for a single project that I have ever done. I built bunk beds from plans that were in my head. I built craft station stairs for those bunk beds from plans in my head. I built numerous storage sheds from plans in my head. I am in the process of building a entryway storage unit/bench from plans that are in my head. I have tried to draw plans and work from plans with projects, but it doesn't work. I know that many woodworkers will read this and scoff at me. That is fine. I can take it. For whatever reason, I just cannot work with paper and pencil as the middle man. I need to go straight from my brain to wood and tool. 

Perhaps I learned this from my dear friend Doc. Doc is somebody that I worked with for several years. On top of teaching together, Doc and I built all of the sets for the school plays together. Doc and I talked about the set and pieces that we needed, but as I look back, I don't ever remember the two of us having paper that we worked from. We discussed, visualized, problem-solved...and then built. Doc helped build in me a love for tools, and he taught me most of the basic building skills that I use regularly.

A set piece from Fiddler on the Roof, the first set that Doc and I did together
Doc passed away quite abruptly in 2006 from cancer. The anniversary of his death was last week, the same time I was working on the shed for my pastor. As I was framing the shed, I began thinking about the influence that Doc was particularly (but not solely) in the area of tools and craftsmanship. One of the last times I visited Doc in hospice, I gave him a cross that I made. It was made with lace wood, and it wasn't that great. While it looked like a cross, I couldn't get the miters quite lined up, so there were some gaps. I wrapped rope around the middle of the cross to cover the gaps, but I didn't fool Doc. He smiled, said that he was impressed with the work, and then turned it over and saw the gaps. I confessed that the gaps were the reason for the rope, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, "So what makes you think that I would want it?"

I have realized with every project that I tend to focus on the mistakes, the gaps, the errors, the imperfections. As the shed went up last week, my pastor asked me if I would do anything differently if I were to build another one. Of course I would. There is always room to improve and things that could be better. But I accept the imperfections. These are the things that separate the work that I do from something that comes from an IKEA factory in Sweden. (IKEA, if you're reading this...I really do want that $10,000 kitchen make-over, even though your cabinets are too perfect). No two projects that I make will ever be alike. It will be different every time. And next time it will be better.

Leveling the base and checking the walls for plumb
I'll close with the story of Dick Proenneke, a man who wanted to see if he could survive in Alaska alone for one year after he retired at age 51. He ended up living in Alaska for 30 years, documenting his experience with a journal, a still camera, and a reel-to-reel camera. Everything that he needed he built by hand. He built his cabin, including the fireplace, the hinges for the door, his table and chair. Watching the two part documentary is quite amazing. Dick said that, while teamwork is good, one of the problems (as he sees it), is that people don't work on a project from beginning to end anymore. He felt that everybody should have the opportunity to start with raw materials and create something.

The finished product, with two inches below the wall to spare
While I did not cut down the trees and mill the lumber that I used for this shed, I did create something from my own design from semi-raw materials. I know that what I did was not exactly what Dick Proenneke was talking about, but there is still a sense of accomplishment in creating, building, and finishing a project. And I imagine Doc is looking down, wondering about the bent nail here or the gap in the siding there with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. After all, the imperfections are what make it my creation.






Monday, March 24, 2014

Goodbye to an Old Friend



I had to say goodbye to an old friend yesterday. It was really sad. I have known this friend for 14 years. We met at my birthday party in 2000, and since then, we have spent almost every major holiday together. We typically got together 3 times per week. Whenever people came to the house, this friend was there, and was almost always the center of the party. I will miss this friend. I actually wept when I had to say goodbye, and as I write this now I am getting somewhat choked up. This friend was my Weber Performer grill. And no, I'm not joking about getting choked up.


I have always loved grilled food, but I had a yin-yang struggle with the flavor of charcoal and the convenience of gas. In July of 2000, my wife and my father-in-law went in together and got me a Weber Performer. Just a few months before, Weber Grills introduced the Performer grill-- a charcoal kettle grill with a propane ignition, essentially obliterating both my yin and my yang. I still remember sitting in Hillside, Illinois, knowing that my wife had cooked up something. I saw my father-in-law pull into our long driveway pulling a trailer with a tarp. Imagine my surprise when I saw this stainless steel and green enamel beauty. Now imagine my surprise when I found out that this was my ideal grill and my family had pulled together to get it for me.

Practicing my fire extinguishing with my new Performer, 2000
Then pretty much everyone I knew showed up for a BBQ Birthday Bash! I still have the fire extinguisher that a youth group student, Kim, got for me because she figured I would blow myself up with the grill. And the vinyl picnic tablecloth (or is it tablevinyl?) that Monica got me. I still have memories of sitting around in a circle in our yard, talking with friends, and regularly asking my father-in-law, Roark, what I could use this grill tool for or how I could utilize this accessory. You see, I was a grill novice, and Roark was my mentor.

Over the years, I perfected the charcoal grill. I added a rotisserie, allowing us to grill whole turkeys at Thanksgiving and lamb roasts at Easter. One time I had a gallon of flat beer that a friend gave me from an Oktoberfest part. Not knowing what to do with it, I soaked a beef roast in it for a day and rotisseried it. Wow! It was amazing. I learned that grilling in Chicago in December is possible, but it takes a lot of charcoal and a lot of time. I also learned that grilling in Phoenix in July is possible, but the charcoal is unnecessary and is really just for affect. I learned how to smoke salmon on it, adjusting the temperature until it was perfect for smoking, leaving the salmon on it for eight hours. That was a life-changing experience.
She still looks great after 14 years.

I spent so much time cleaning that grill. The newer Weber Performers have plastic tops, but mine was the original Weber Performer. I cleaned and polished the stainless steel until it reflected the green enamel top. I regularly polished the enamel top to keep it looking like new. When I saw other people with Weber grills that were rusty and had holes, my pride swelled at my Weber Performer. For a 14 year old grill, it looked almost brand new. One would never have known the hundreds of hours I spent grilling on it...the abuse I put it through, grilling in snow and blazing heat and downpours.

And then we moved last year, and our house has a built in grill. My Weber Performer sat at the side of the house, protected and tarped, alone but not forgotten. I always thought that I would use it when I had a large number of people over, but I never did. After a year, I decided that it was time to say goodbye. And so I did.

Goodbye, friend.
I got choked up as I cleaned the stainless steel one last time. When a person responded to my Craigslist post, I immediately regretted listing this grill. As I loaded the grill into the back of his truck, waves of emotions, memories of all of the family gatherings and experiences, washed over me. And as I came inside, I wept. I wept for the grill that taught me to love grilling. I wept for the grill that I used for consolatory and celebratory food. Even as I write this, I wonder if I did the right thing.

My only hope is that this grill will bring as much joy and as many memories to its new family as it did to mine. I will miss you, old friend.

Goodbye.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Updated Entryway

I really like surprises, and I like surprising people. Especially my wife. I really like when she goes out of town and I can quickly complete a home project. It has gotten to the point where it is no longer a surprise, but I like to do it anyway. One time when she was gone for a weekend I got really ambitious. I installed french doors in our family room and walled up the old doorway to create an office nook. So in three days I cut plaster, stained doors, ran electrical, dry-walled and painted--completely changing the layout of our living space. It was my opus. It was also before kids. Now I struggle to find the time to do projects when my wife is away while wrangling the wee ones, but this past week I managed a couple of projects.
Plain entryway with teal carpet removed

I decided that our entryway needed a little razzle dazzle, so I decided to do something about it. I researched concrete staining and decided that was a project I could handle around my dad duties. There is a wide variety of directions that you can go with concrete staining, and I am in no way an expert. In fact, I'm sure I was not exactly by the book for this entire project (remember the part where my wife was out of the country and I have three children 5 and younger?), but the results were still good.

My entryway was 80 square feet, which required less than one gallon of concrete stain. Concrete stain varies in price, but is typically between $25 and $50 per gallon. Depending on the depth of color desired, one gallon can cover 200 square feet, but I would not have gotten that much out of this since I used three coats. Are you ready for the best part? I didn't have to pay anything for the stain. I asked a couple of people about their experiences using concrete stain, and one friend has a neighbor who is a professional and had some stain left over. I was expecting to spend money on this project, but I didn't. Pretty sweet! So here's the process.
Walkway to driveway and front curb

Time: about 2 total hours for 80 square feet, broken up into 15-20 minute segments

Cost: $50 to $100, depending on the product used and the materials already on hand

Kid help: not at all. I didn't want my kids around these products while applying them since they contain chemicals that react with the concrete, and I certainly don't want them to react with my kids.

Prep work - some stains require an acid wash before applying. The stain that I used already had the acid wash in it, so I did not need to do this. I hosed off the walk, scraped the areas that needed to be scraped, and taped the areas where the house came into contact with the walkway. I then tested my patience as I waited for the sidewalk to dry. This was the most difficult part, as I don't like waiting. It was also very important to rope off the entryway so people weren't walking on the wet stain.

Taped up doorway with first coat of stain
Test - find a spot to test the stain. You don't want to do all the work and realize that you hate the color. I had three different colors to choose from, and I tested them on some concrete back by my workshop, a place that is meant to be a work area. This helped me see what the colors would look like once they dried and absorbed into the concrete.

Getting started - I loaded up my sprayer (the type you would use for spraying weeds) with one part stain and one part water. Again, follow the instructions for the product you use. Spray in a figure 8 or circular pattern to avoid lines in the stain. Don't stain yourself into a corner (I think that might be the title of a country western song), but start from a corner and work to a free area.

Beer frame - While allowing the stain to dry enjoy a cold beverage. Give the stain an hour or so and see if you want more depth of color. I was looking for more depth, so after the first coat dried, I applied a second and then third coat. Allow all to dry before removing tape and rope.

Patiently waiting for sidewalk to dry
Finishing - If desired, apply a sealer. I don't get a lot of rain, so at this point I do not feel the need to add a sealer. However, I may do so after I talk again to some professionals to find out their thoughts. Again, I find that it is best to go to the experts.

Here's the cool thing about staining concrete. The concrete has minerals in it, and the acid in the stain reacts differently to all concrete. So unlike painting, staining will give you a mottled look. I like the uniqueness of this and feel that it gives my entryway personality.

Now what wall can I remove the next time she has a work trip?


Completed entryway


Friday, March 14, 2014

Renaissance Dad Desserts

My wife is currently in Asia for a work trip. That means that I have all three kids, on my own. So daddy is pulling out the stops. We've been to the library. We've been to Lowe's (trust me, this is a wonderland for kids if you let them explore. Who knew that the toilet section was so much fun, even for a three year old?). We've been on bike rides and trips to the park. It has been wonderful and exhausting.

In an attempt to keep the kids from missing mommy to the point of regular melt downs, I have come up with a couple of incentives (a.k.a. treats and bribes) that have helped keep routines as regular as usual. Here are two of the easiest treats that we have come up with, both of which have kept daddy's pseudo-sanity.

Ice Cream Sandwiches

Homemade Ice Cream Sandwiches - Perfect Size for Little Ones
Yeah, there is nothing terribly special about this, except we use both homemade cookies and homemade ice cream. We used chocolate chip cookies, baked and cooled. We then add one scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cookie on top. Return to the freezer until you're ready to use them.

What are the benefits? I get to determine the amount and type of sugar in the ice cream and cookies. And have you seen store bought ice cream sandwiches? They're the size of a Volkswagen. Great size for me, but a little too big for my kids. I really don't need my three year old to consume that much sugar before bedtime. I determine the size of the cookies, and make ice cream sandwiches that are the appropriate size for my kids. And yes, I can pound down about four of them without batting an eye.

Banana Swirl

Be careful with this one. It is life changing. Take some ripe bananas, peel them, cut them up into  chunks, and freeze them. When you're ready to make the banana swirl, take the bananas out of the freezer and slightly thaw (microwave for 10 seconds, or if you're afraid that the using the microwave will cause hair to grow from the bottoms of your feet, just leave the bananas out for about 10 minutes). Put the bananas into a blender, add a splash of vanilla and a dash of cinnamon (seriously, I don't have measurements. Just put in the right amount), and blend. The consistency will be similar to soft serve. This is one of the creamiest desserts that I have ever had. You can also add a little chocolate to the banana swirl. Serve in cones or dishes. My kids will eat two bananas worth of swirl each if I let them, and the silly kids think it's dessert.

Enjoy! And if you happen to see smoke coming from the Chandler, Arizona area in the next five days, know that I probably had a project go awry while my wife was out of the country, and please call the fire department.

Here's to a safe flight home!




Thursday, March 6, 2014

5 Things Your Child Can Learn from a Project

I recently replaced my back fence. The rusting frame dropping shards in the grass was causing me to regularly think of one of my favorite book series from my childhood - The Great Brain. In one of The Great Brain books, a neighbor boy stepped on a rusty nail and ended up losing his leg. The Great Brain then taught him how to do his chores and play games with his artificial leg. And yes, this is the way my brain works on a regular basis. I am just one giant tangent after another. And no, this won't be a tutorial on how to replace a fence. This also won't be a tutorial on how to do chores with an artificial leg.

Counting nuts and bolts is fun!
Since I didn't want any of my kids losing a leg, I started to work on the fence. My three year old asked me if she could help. Of course I can't deny her anything, with her pigtails and squinty smile, so she came outside with me. Now the efficient side of me wanted to send her to some meaningless task so I could finish the gate in 20 minutes, but the educator side of me wanted to turn it into a lesson for her. The educator side won. Here are five lessons that I taught my three year old while replacing the fence (in no particular order).

1). Counting practice - Almost any handyman-type job around the house utilizes counting skills. The gate had ten slats in it, and three sets of nuts, bolts, and washers per slat. For my three year old, I had her count out ten nuts, ten bolts, and ten washers. She did that for each run. Could I have done it more quickly and efficiently? Of course. But the point was not to be quick and efficient. The point was to engage my daughter in work, give her purpose in it, and ensure that she will be self-sufficient and able to take care of me when I am old.

For an older child, I would turn this into a multiplication lesson. If there are ten slats, and three bolts per slat, how many bolts would we need? It could also be a percentage problem (10 of 30 bolts complete. What percentage is that?), a subtraction problem (we needed 10 bolts, and we have already used 3. How many are left?). Or more advanced (If it requires 80 ft/lbs. of torque to keep a bolt in place, and you can only apply 40 ft/lbs. of torque because you refuse to eat your vegetables, how long does the pipe need to be that you put on the handle of your wrench to apply the proper amount of leverage to reach the required torque?). The point is to help them see that what they learn in school can be used in real life, thus answering the age old question, "When am I ever going to use this?"

Socket wrenches - a lesson on torque
2) Torque - Of course I didn't force my three year old to memorize the word torque, but I did have her try to turn a bolt with her fingers. When she couldn't, I gave her my socket wrench and had her turn it. We talked about how machines and tools help make work easier, and how we wouldn't be able to turn the bolts if we didn't have a tool.

3) Righty tighty, lefty loosey - I had my daughter tighten the bolt, and then loosen it. We talked about how the bolt has to turn one way in order for it to tighten and another way for it to loosen. Will she retain this? No. Not after one lesson. But the next time she works with me, I won't have to explain it as many times.

As a parenthetical story, when I was in high school, my family had a cappuccino machine. I was making a cappuccino, and the steam was leaking. I attempted to tighten the lid, and turned it the wrong way, sending a blast of steam up my chest, face and arms. My dad immediately commented, "Righty tighty, lefty loosy." My seven-year-old brother then added, "I don't knowy. It went blowy." Notice the total lack of sympathy here. Anyway, please do your children a favor and help keep them from blowing up a cappuccino machine by teaching them this saying.

How many workers have a partner with tights like these!
4) Organization - Better suited for a younger child, having them work on organizing materials based on size, shape, color, etc. is a great project activity. Taking a pile of nuts and bolts and having the child separate them into different stacks helps the child develop hand/eye coordination, fine motor skills, and organization skills. Later in life, you can capitalize on these skills by having your child organize your sock drawer.

5) People are more important than things. Okay, there was no particular order to the first four, but this one is the most important by far. And it is something that I consistently try to teach my children. I don't always succeed at this. But I do want my children to know that the time I spend with them is more important than the task at hand. If it takes an extra 30 minutes to replace the fence, but I get to spend the time with my daughter, then of course the project is a success. When I engage my children in a project, my type-A, perfectionist side often shudders. I know that the paint will be sloppy, that the screws will be stripped, and that I may need to re-do half of it when they aren't looking. But their memories of these times with dad will last longer than the stupid gate anyway. And little by little my kids' skills will improve and they will actually be a help.

Their skills will improve, won't they?