Construction Journal Entry Week of 8/23/09

8/25-27/09 I went up to the property for 3 days: Tuesday through Thursday.

I arrived at 12:10 and found a little brown frog in the can covering the gate padlock. This is the first time I have found one in there this year. I was glad to see him. Bert and Ernie did not show up.

Paul and Paula had visited the cabin over the weekend, so I went up to the cabin to look around to see what they had seen when they visited. I had left the place in quite a mess.

After moving in, having lunch, and a nap, I made three trips into the woods and watered all 12 giant sequoia trees. They all seem to be doing OK. Then I went to work on the loft staircase. I cut two more kerfs on the underside of the loft beam, using my special jig, to help make the flat notch that will receive the loft stringer. I had to use the saw upside down and I didn't have much room to sit or to stroke so it was a hard job. I like to make four or five kerfs for a job like this because it is easier chiseling out the wood between the kerfs when they are closer together. But since the sawing job was so hard, I decided to do the extra work chiseling so I only made three kerfs. Then I chiseled out most of the wood between the kerfs to rough in the 15-inch-wide notch.

After looking at the beam notched in more-or-less it's final form, I began to have second thoughts about placing another horizontal beam under the stringer. It now seems to me that the loft beam is sturdy enough to support the entire top of the staircase if I use a length of angle iron underneath the stringer. I will use four bolts, two going through the notch to match the two in the front of each of the treads, and two more out on the part of the beam that is not notched from below. All four bolts will penetrate the angle iron.

In the evening, after I had gone to bed, the coyotes started up a session of loud yipping and howling. I could only guess what the commotion was about.

On Wednesday I was awakened by the loud crashes of green pine cones falling on my truck from way up high. Rocky the pine squirrel was up there harvesting pine cones, and they were dropping all around. It was a nice cool 45 degrees in the morning so since I had all the windows open all night, the trailer was nice and cool at about 50 degrees. I minimize the amount of time I have lights on in order to keep the temperature down. By shutting the windows when I go to work, the trailer keeps nice and cool. I really appreciate going into a cool trailer for lunch when it is hot outside and I am overheated.

Bert and Ernie showed up for biscuits and hugs before I started making my breakfast. After breakfast, I went to work. I started by making careful measurements prior to cutting the base of the stringer and lifting it up against the notch in the underside of the loft beam. I wanted to make sure everything was exactly right before cutting into that stringer.

I took a close look at the stringer and noticed that it is bent. I carefully measured it and considered options for how I would deal with the bend. It was bowed in 1 3/16" 3 feet from one end. One option was to have the staircase curve at the last two steps. That would curve it toward the living room, which might make it more comfortable and natural to use. The curvature is small, though, so it might not make much difference and might just look like an error in alignment.

Another option would be to choose a compromise centerline and make the treads all in line even though the stringer underneath isn't straight. Some of the notches in the treads might have to be widened. I was inclined to make this choice.

Next, I used the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the exact length of the stringer. With the notch now cut under the loft beam, I could now make the actual measurement of the space where the stringer had to go. To my surprise and dismay, I found that the stringer that had been lying there, waiting for so many years to become part of the staircase, was too short by 8 3/4 inches.

This was a major blow. I re-measured everything and re-checked my calculations, and sure enough, the stringer was too short. I spent most of the rest of the morning considering my options.

Option A was to shim the bottom of the stringer. I did the calculations and found that I would need a 5 inch shim. I could probably make a five-inch block of wood in the shape of half of an ellipse to match the cut on the stringer, but in looking at the drawings, I could see that it would interfere with the lowest tread, and it would complicate the fastening of the stringer to the floor.

Option B was to make a new stringer. This stringer had been given to me by Chris and Joan Foote a long time ago. They had given me two so I went outside and measured the second one on the chance it was longer. It was the same size. Then I thought that the log that was hanging down the cliff, from which I had harvested the log I planned to use for the second beam, might be big enough. I brought a big caliper and a ruler down to the log and measured it. It was too small in diameter to serve as a stringer. I didn't have any more logs but I looked around in the woods and found a big dead standing tree that was big enough. The tree had only been dead for a couple years, so I think the wood would still be sound. The problem was that I didn't feel safe falling any more trees so I would have to get someone to fall the tree, and then I would have to rip the log and fabricate the new stringer. That would be a lot of work.

Option C was to short the stringer at the top. The original plan was that the stringer would project above the loft beam and support one more tread above it. It would be possible to support this top tread from the loft joists instead of from the stringer. I looked at the joists and thought of different ways of fastening the tread, but I didn't like any of the options.

Option D was to steepen the pitch of the staircase. This would be a major redesign of the staircase. It would change the tread length and maybe the riser height. Since the loft beam was already cut according to the original design, I wasn't sure whether a steeper pitch design would even be possible.

After giving this much thought to all the options, and not being able to come up with others, I decided to do something else while I mulled the problem over. I decided to buck up some very old logs that were on the upper roadway and had served to make sort of a crib for planer chips. The pile of chips was smaller now so the top two logs were no longer needed for that purpose.

I had noticed carpenter ants in those logs and I had set out an ant bait trap to try to get rid of them. There seemed to be fewer carpenter ants around there since I put the trap out, so I figured that the logs were no longer infested. I got the chainsaw out and started bucking up the logs. Was I wrong!. The logs were totally infested with carpenter ants and they came pouring out as I cut the logs open.

I got a can of ant spray and tried to kill them all as I continued to buck up the logs. A lot of the ants had wings, so I suppose they are close to that time of year when they grow wings and leave the nest looking for places to start new colonies. I was glad I got them first, if indeed I had.

After all the ant activity had settled down on the ground, I discovered that there were still plenty of ants inside the rounds that I had cut. So I decided that I better move all that infested wood a lot further from the cabin. I got the wheelbarrow out and moved all the bucked up sections up to the woodpile by the privy that is covered by a tarp. I figure I'll use that wood in the dead of winter when the ants are dormant and burn them up then. In the meantime, those that survive the ant poison can live out there away from the cabin. Maybe I'm whistling in the dark, but I haven't seen any sign of carpenter ants in, or on, or near the cabin this year. I hope they are all out there in those old rotting logs.

After lunch and a nap, I did some more work on the implications of using Option D, making the pitch of the staircase steeper.

I did the calculations and found that the first tread would have to be moved back 11.21 inches. This would provide a bigger landing at the bottom, which would be nice, but it also meant that the treads would only be 9.3 inches wide. That seemed to be a little narrow to me. I ran the rule of 25 calculations and did it wrong at first. With the wrong answer, it said that I should add another step, but this made the treads only 8.7 inches wide, which was clearly unacceptable.

After correcting my math error, the rule of 25 number came out to be 24.89 for the original step count, which is a very nice number. Another plus for this option would be that I could use 1x2 balusters mounted edgewise. You need under four inches between balusters so with two balusters per tread at 3/4 inches per baluster, the maximum required for two balusters would be 2 times 4 3/4 or 9 1/2". This would fit on a 9.3" tread but not on the original 10.12" tread. On the original plan, the 1x2 balusters would have to be mounted flatwise so that the 1 1/2" dimension is used. I don't think this would look as good. Option D seemed feasible, but I really didn't like the idea.

I gave Earl a call and asked his recommendation for a good tree faller in case I wanted to pursue Option B. He recommended Robert Ferrel, 509-548-4427, but he said Robert was hard to catch. I called Robert and left a message on his answering machine.

On Thursday morning, there was more loud pine cone harvesting and Bert and Ernie showed up again. I decided to give Robert another call, and after his answering machine started talking, he picked up the phone. He said he was free to come up this morning and could be at my place by 9:00. I was delighted.

After I had my breakfast, I went into the woods and cleared a vine maple thicket away from the base of the tree I wanted Robert to fall. Then I got the ladder out and went to work changing the bulbs in the porch light fixtures. Four bulbs had gone out and I wanted them all nice and bright for the scouts who are coming up in a couple weeks. This was also a test of how much of a nuisance the bugs would be in those inside light fixtures. I needed to unfasten one of the three cables in each fixture in order to replace the bulbs, and this let the glass hang down and make it easy to dump out the insect carcasses. If it doesn't get any worse than this, I think those fixtures will work fine out there on the porch.

At about 9:30, when I finished the last fixture, Robert drove up. As soon as I pointed out the tree I wanted him to fall, he said that that was a bad choice. That tree is a white, or grand, fir and it is not suitable for structural application. He then turned and pointed to another dead tree and said that that is the one I should use. It was a Doug fir but it was down on the steep hillside and it was leaning severely over toward the road. Robert assured me that he could fall the tree uphill and land it up on the drainfield area where I could work on it. I was amazed.

I told him to go ahead and fall the Doug fir and to also fall the grand fir since it was dead anyway. I stood there and watched a real professional make simple what seemed to be an impossible job. I took pictures of the process. First, he cut this perfectly level kerf over halfway through the trunk on the downhill side. I think he drove in a wedge or two to keep the tree from falling over the wrong way at that point, but I'm really not sure.

The next thing he did was to cut out a wedge of wood right below that kerf and centered on exactly the opposite side of where the tree was supposed to fall. After he pulled the wedge of wood out of the stump, he put a 10-ton hydraulic jack in that opening and he placed a thick steel plate above the jack and snugged it up against the top of the kerf.

Then, after a couple whacks on the wedges and a couple cranks on the jack, he cut the notch in the front of the stump, leaving a hinge of about 2 inches between that notch and the first big kerf.

Finally, he asked me to watch the tree to see if it moved as he alternately whacked the wedges and cranked on the jack. Each time he did either, that huge tree moved uphill a little more until it was more than vertical. Then Robert announced that on the next crank of the jack, it was going to fall and he was going to run six feet past where I was. That's exactly what happened and that huge tree crashed down exactly where it was supposed to. It was truly awesome.

Then we both went up to the grand fir, and Robert said he could fall that one in under three minutes with only the chainsaw. No jack or wedges. And that's exactly what he did. It was amazing.

I showed Robert around the place, and he told me about his avocation of playing billiards and pool. Evidently he is a very high ranked player. I am not surprised because his eyes work as if they were finely calibrated. While we were talking, a gray jay took peanuts from my hands several times, and once even landed on Robert's head. A chipmunk also came around and took a peanut while we were talking. I paid Robert, thanked him, and he was on his way by 10:30. Option B was looking a lot better now.

After Robert left, I limbed the section of the Doug fir trunk that I planned to use for the new stringer. Then I used the spud to remove all the bark from that section and used the chainsaw to buck a 15 foot log out of it that is 14" in diameter on one end and 15 1/2" in diameter on the other end. Then I got a come-along and a couple of chains and used them plus a cant hook to skid the 15 footer uphill to the clearing where I can work on it. All I have to do now is rip it in half and pull it down to the cabin. I was very hot and sweaty when I went into the nice cool trailer for lunch, but I was also very happy about having Option B working out so well and so soon. After lunch, just out of curiosity, I took a level into the woods and checked the cuts on both stumps. Those cuts were almost perfectly level and he had made them so casually. I was impressed.

I left for home at 2:30 very happy and surprised at what had happened that morning. When I closed the gate, I noticed a fat green frog in the end of a pipe that is propped up against the gate post. I was happy to see this guy too.

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