Tuesday, August 26, 2014

DIY: Rebuilding a screen porch

The porch before demolition

This summer I have a full-time, non-paid job as a carpenter’s apprentice.  We are rebuilding our screen porch, and Mike is the carpenter.  He named me “The Apprentice”, not to be confused with the Donald Trump variety. 

What Mike sees as the apprentice may vary slightly from my view of the roles and responsibilities of an apprentice.  He thinks I should shadow him so I can learn the trade.  But not being one to sit still very long, I am often back in the house doing chores with the comment “call me if you need me”.  Ok, you can already see a few dilemmas.  Mike is holding a board, and he needs a nail.  And he yells “Diane!  Diane!  Come out here!” 

So over the past 6 weeks, I’ve settled into my own apprentice groove.  Basically I am the gopher for screws, tools, staples, wood, and power drills.  I hold boards while Mike fastens them into place.  I hold boards he is “ripping” on the table saw and “cross-cutting” on the radial arm saw.  I accompany him on many trips to Lowe’s, and I help select new boards.  I offer opinions on various approaches to the building, and am sometimes Mike’s “voice of reason” (his words, not mine). 

So, keep in mind that this DIY post on re-building a porch is coming from the vantage point of the apprentice, meaning it will be in very elementary form.  Why?  That’s all I know.

The “old” screen porch

Our house was built in 1989, and there is a screen porch off the kitchen.  The bottom of the porch is brick, and the top is an American Cedar wood frame to which screens are attached.   And therein lies the problem.  American Cedar s not impervious to weather, and the wood was painted and trapped rain and moisture over the years.  The result was rotting wood, and until we were able to rebuild the porch this summer, the porch roof has been supported by two large jacks.

Mike at Pro-Build Lumber

Not wanting to make the same mistake, we decided to rebuild the porch with western red cedar which holds up well in wet conditions.  After checking a couple of local lumber yards, we decided to purchase 4x4 architectural (smoother finish than rough cut) western red cedar posts from Pro-Build (formerly Carter-Lee), a well-known lumber yard in Indy.

Rebuilding the screen porch

1.  Replace the 2 corner posts.

The corner posts are the primary structural support for the porch, and so we tackled these first.  One of our first discoveries was that these posts actually went the ground to the ceiling, and we could not see the post below the brick as it was encased in a square brick casing.  And without Superman eyes to see through the brick, you had to look into the top of this brick casing with a flash light. 

With the floor jacks in place, Mike cut out the first post.  He found rotted wood below the brick line and used a shop vacuum to get out the pieces of wood.  He then realized that the base was not level for one of the beams.  He created a new bottom using concrete and a metal screen.  He also drilled  a “weep hole” in the brick so water would have a place to drain.

Mike cutting out the old post 

Rotting wood

Looking into brick enclosure where post used to be

The roof was being held in place by the jacks, and the next challenge was to get the side beams in place between the ceiling and the brick encasement.  Bottom line is the beams would not fit into this tight angle, so Mike had to  “dado” cut the corner post into two pieces.  He then put the beams in place in the corners and joined them with wood glue and weather-resistant deck screws.  Ok, I had no idea what "dado" meant, and I found the following in the dictionary:  a rectangular groove cut to make a joint in woodworking.

Dado cut on radial arm saw
Installing bottom section of corner post

Gluing dado cut board

He “toenailed” 4.5 inch deck screws through the new beam and 2x4s and 2x12s beams that held the roof in place.  Again, dictionary at the ready; "toenail" is  driving a nail at an angle through a board. 

And every time he installed a new post, he used the jacks to raise the roof slightly so the new posts would slip into place. He would then lower the jack so the post would be load-bearing.

2     2. Replace the other 8 posts. 

      On the old porch the posts sat on top of a horizontal piece of wood which sat on the brick.   It looked good, but the horizontal wood collected water and moisture.  Our friend Craig recommended placing the posts directly on the brick and eliminate the need for the horizontal boards. Another new approach was using right angle galvanized steel brackets to support the top of these beams into the roof beams.

Mike replacing post
Front posts in place
When Mike removed the beams next to the brick wall of the house, I got the job of scraping caulking off the bricks.  I used the Fein Multi-Master with a putty remover tool for this job. Mike then put new clear caulk in place before installing the new beams.  This eliminated any gaps between the bricks and wood thus avoiding insects entering the porch.

Removing old caulking from bricks

Installing new caulking
       3. Install upper level horizontal wood between the posts.

When Mike removed several of the old posts, he found that the wood between each end was in good shape. Keeping them for reuse, he salvaged the beams in such a way that two sides retained the original rough-cut finish and paint.  These were then used as non-structural trim between each of the posts at the top that matched the ceiling and remaining trim on the porch.

Horizontal trim piece
4.   Install 2 door posts.

We decided to leave more of the brick exposed on the door posts, and Mike cut the new posts to sit on the brick and to then extend to the floor.  This was an extremely challenging task.  I'm happy to say that I was somewhat removed from this chore as our friend Kevin became the apprentice that day.  After measuring, cutting, cutting a second time and a good amount of cursing, the posts were put in place.
Door beam in place

5     5.   Install a new wooden screen door. 

First, let me say that I hated the original door since I moved into the house.  It was flimsy and had been shored up over the years with additional wooden brackets, a steel rod and a hook and eye closure.  So I was pretty excited to pick out a new unfinished wooden screen door at Lowe's.   We found a simple door and a wooden insert for the bottom of the door.  The wooden insert would prevent cats trying to escape or other animals trying to enter.  I know, I might be a bit paranoid (or overly dramatic) here...
Screen door insert

My job was to finish the wood door with stain and a waterproof finish.  First I sanded all the wood to remove splinters.  And as you might expect, within the first 5 minutes a 3 inch splinter was sticking straight out of my finger.  I pulled it out and discovered that if you are going to bleed on the wood, this is a good time to do it because you can sand it right off. 

We then selected an Olympic outdoor wood stain that included the waterproof finish. We tried to match the red cedar, and let’s just say that we are getting used to the orange-ish color of the stain which has a certain rustic look. I applied two coats over a several day period. 
Staining the insert

Mike carefully measured and installed the door with three hinges.  Next he installed a "transom" piece(goes immediately above the door) and the wood trim inside the door.  He then installed the new door handle.  Voila!  We have a wonderful new door to replace the ugly old door. 
Putting hinges in place
Carefully adding the transom
New screen door!

So, six weeks have elapsed, and the porch is structurally stable and looking good!  And yesterday we made another trip to the lumberyard to purchase more red cedar for the trim.  Yes, there is more work ahead…

But last night as we sat in the screen porch and watched a wild thunderstorm and drank martinis, I felt pretty good about our progress and my new “apprentice job”. 

Stay tuned for Chapter 2 of Rebuilding a screen porch, where we finish the trim work!


Friday, August 1, 2014

What is retirement REALLY like?

It's a question Mike and I get asked again and again.  Among most of our friends, we are the first to retire.  And sometimes it feels like they are observing us, seeing how we are REALLY doing in retirement.  In other words, are we happy?

Recently I read an interesting article by Rodney Brooks in USA TODAY on his interview with author-radio show host Wes Moss. Wes recently surveyed 1300 people in 46 states about retirement.  He was looking for the happiest retirees and their financial state.  He then wrote a book: "You can retire sooner than you think: the 5 money secrets of the happiest retirees".

In the USA TODAY article he gave his top 3 pieces of advice for happiness in retirement:

1. Pay off your mortgage.  "Happy retirees are four times more likely to have their mortgage paid off in five years or less".

2.  Level of income is important. Happy retirees have at least three sources of income in retirement.  These might include Social Security, a pension, part time work, rental income and investment income.  They have diversification in their income.

3. "Busier retirees are happier".  "Happy retirees have 3.6 core hobbies, unhappy have less than two".

He went on to say that people thinking about retirement should get hobbies so they don't arrive at retirement trying to figure out what to do next.  People who are happy in retirement wanted to stop working so they could have more time for their hobbies and interests.

In my own retirement, my best days are when I have several hobbies or activities to choose from.  I might write a blog entry, work on a new denim table clot, or move some flowers in my garden.  I might paint some cast iron chairs I bought at a garage sale.  I might want to finish that new book I just started or work on a new piece of jewelry.  And then there's biking and walking, which I should do more often.

At a party last weekend everyone seemed to be talking about when they could retire.   Seems like most were counting down the days before they were free of the work scene.  But what were they planning to do in retirement?

As I looked around at people attending the party, there were a few people who were involved with  hobbies today such as photography or woodworking.  Others had ideas of what they wanted to do in retirement, but they weren't really doing that activity today.  And some didn't have a plan for retirement; they just wanted out of the work scene.

Before I retired, I didn't really know what I would do with my time.  I thought I might work some, but I have not pursued a job.  I expected to volunteer, but I haven't started that yet.  I planned to write a book, and I've actually made some progress on that.

Jewelry making
But I also had hobbies before my retirement, and I am actively pursuing them in retirement: photography, jewelry-making, sewing, gardening, playing guitar, live music, biking, walking and cooking.  And of course, writing a blog.  And by having so many diverse interests, I don't often get bored.  In fact, most days I wished I had more time.

I agree with Wes Moss that you need to get your financial house in order for retirement.  But the area that's often overlooked in retirement planning is developing hobbies while you are working.  Retiring and having an additional 40-50 hours available in your week can be daunting if you don't know what to do with the time.

So if you are sitting at your desk at work dreaming of retirement (or if you already retired), start thinking about your current hobbies. Do you have any that you are excited about?  Don't be afraid of failure.  If something doesn't work out, drop it and try something new.


When I was younger I tried golf for several years, and it wasn't my thing.  I also tried skiing, and though I enjoyed the bunny hills of Iowa, skiing once at Winter Park in Colorado scared me to death. So I gave up skiing...At least I can say I've had the experience.

So what's retirement REALLY like?  It's a great place to be, most days anyway....  I think it's different for each person, and it changes over time.  I may be doing something totally different next year, and that's OK.