Construction Journal Entry Week of 6/21/15

6/23-25/15 I went up to Camp Serendipity for 3 days: Tuesday through Thursday.

On the way I visited with Priscilla, Uncle Charles, and then Marilyn who served me another great lunch. I arrived at Camp Serendipity at 1:30. The temperature was above 80 so it was plenty warm when I wheeled all my gear plus four 60 lb. sacks of mortar mix and an heirloom bookcase up to the cabin in a wheelbarrow. Then I turned on the valve to water Brian, the giant sequoia.

After stacking the sacks of mortar, moving my gear in, and setting the bookcase up in the loft, I took Cindy into the woods and trimmed as many branches as I could reach to provide more sunlight for Brian. There are huge trees shading Brian but I think I opened up some significant pathways for the light to reach the struggling little tree.

All the sequoias that I checked were thriving but most of them seemed constrained by the yellow nylon protective sleeves they were in. I decided to cut the sleeves open and let the trees spread out as they seemed to want to do. I haven't seen any evidence that they are being nibbled by deer so I think they will be OK without the sleeves. I'll keep watch on them though.

When I came back out of the woods, I got the wheelbarrow and collected a bunch of thin flat rocks. I needed to raise the tread on the second stone step by an inch and a half so I needed to find the right rocks, which I did.

On Wednesday morning I got up at 5 AM in order to avoid the heat. It is very pleasant working in the cool of the morning before the sun makes it too hot. In my absent-mindedness, I had forgotten to bring with me the as-built measurements of the stone steps. I had brought them home intending to do some calculations with the numbers and so now I had to re-measure the as-built steps and do the calculations again. It didn't take too long, though, because I have figured out a pretty efficient way to make the measurements.

For the relative elevations of the treads, i.e. the riser heights, I grip one end of Leonard's long mason's level with my right hand. Then I place a yardstick between my right thumb and the level so that the two are perpendicular to one another. Then I rotate my hand so that the yardstick is vertical and the other end of the level is resting on the first log step, which is my reference plane. The yardstick is sticking down a couple inches further than the expected distance so when the end of the yardstick is resting on the lower tread, the level is out of level with the end I am holding too high.

Then I lean over so that I can see the bubble on the level and slowly lower my end of the level with the yardstick slipping under my thumb. As soon as the bubble is centered, I tighten my grip on the yardstick, rotate it 90 so that I can read it, and read the height measurement directly off the yardstick. It is very quick and easy to do.

For the horizontal measurements, I use the level in a vertical position up against the nose of the reference tread and then measure the distance from the back of the level out to the nose of the tread I am measuring. That is also quick and easy.

After I had reconstructed the measurements and calculations, I began preparing the site for my masonry. Right away, I discovered that a wild rose bush was growing out between the rocks right where I needed to place stones. I decided to dig them out from as deep as I could so that they wouldn't grow back and crack my work.

The roots had followed cracks in deeply buried rocks so it was quite a challenge to pull them out and get most of the roots. I spent a lot of time digging out the dirt that I could and gently pulling on the rosebush stems trying not to break them. I ended up using a vise-grip and a needle nose pliers to grip the stems as tightly and as deeply as I could. I also squirted a "high-pressure" (10 psi) stream of water from the hose into the cracks that I was working in.

I was surprised at how many roots I was able to pull out this way. Toward the end, I was pulling out clean masses of small root hairs so I am pretty sure I got enough so that the bushes won't grow back. Also, by squirting the water, I cleaned the rocks so that when I stuff mortar into the cracks, it should adhere well and not allow the roots to find new cracks and come back.

When the site was cleaned and ready for rocks, I began selecting and fitting rocks to raise the second step. That required cutting or trimming some of the rocks to make a nice fit.

When all the rocks were ready, I mixed a double batch of mortar and laid up the rocks. I used the same yardstick/level method of making sure that the step ended up at the right height. It came out nice.

After cleaning the mixing box and the tools, I turned on Brian's valve and then went into the woods to check the trees again. Brian was getting water and the trees all seemed to be happier with their sleeves removed. I am amazed at how fast Dave is growing. It is two or three times as bushy as any of the other trees and the new growth is much longer than that of any of the others. It must be in a sweet spot of ground.

When I got back it was starting to get hot so I had an early lunch and took a nap. When I got up, I set the big beach umbrella up over the work site and went to work preparing to build the fourth step between Grid G and G.5. I chose a beautiful huge flat rock for the tread surface. I couldn't lift the rock but I could lift one end of it with difficulty.

I maneuvered the big rock over to the giant mistletoe stump just across from the stair site. With a lot of effort, I got the rock up on top of the stump. The edge of the rock I wanted for the nose of the tread was concave and it needed to be convex to fit nicely into the staircase. That meant that it had to be cut along a line about a foot long. And that line needed to make a fairly acute angle with the back edge of the rock. I wasn't sure I could cut it without breaking off that point.

I used a big (3 lb.) hammer and a wide (3 inch) rock chisel to score the line I wanted to cut on both sides of the big rock. That meant I had to turn the rock over a couple times, but since it was at a nice working height, I could keep my back straight all the time and it wasn't all that hard to do.

I was a little apprehensive when I decided that my scoring had done its job and it was time to break the piece off. I placed a 1x2 under the scored line and then hit the overhanging edge of the rock pretty hard with the hammer. The first blow did nothing, but the second, and harder, blow broke the edge of the rock exactly along my scored line. Except for a few ragged spots, which I cut away with a rock hammer, the cut was perfect and looked beautiful when it was done. My apprehension evaporated.

The narrow point did not break so I got the maximum exposure for the front of the nose from the rock. I was very happy. I used the wheelbarrow to get the rock back down off the stump and I wheeled it over to the stair site. I laid it on top of the third step to see how it was going to fit as the fourth step and I was very happy with how it looked. Now I needed to select the rocks that would be placed under it to get it up to the proper elevation.

According to my measurements, the surface of the fourth tread needed to be 14.5 inches below the reference tread. I measured the distance to the rock where it was and it was something like 16.5 inches. That meant that I needed to raise it by two inches. Allowing for two mortar joints that meant that I needed filler rocks about an inch thick or so.

I don't remember exactly what I went through, but in the process of selecting and trying rocks I got my pluses and minuses mixed up again and selected filler rocks of the wrong thickness until I realized my mistake. In short, I wasted a considerable amount of time fiddling around with different rock choices before I made my final choice.

Before I tried any of the candidate filler rocks, I lined them up on the first and second step and used the hose to clean them off. When they were ready, and the right ones were chosen, I mixed a double batch of mortar and began laying up that part of the fourth step. The big tread rock was standing on its right hand end over against some rocks to the right of the site.

I had enough mortar to place all the supporting rocks so when they were in place I cleaned up my tools and quit for the day. It was getting unbearably hot out there and I was very sore and tired.

On Thursday morning I got up at 5 again and went out to work while it was still cool. I mixed another double batch of mortar and prepared a bed of mortar across all of the supporting rocks ready to receive the big tread rock. I made the mortar a little soupier than usual because it needed to be squeezed out from under a fairly big surface so I wanted it to be able to flow in case I needed to lower the surface.

When the mortar bed was ready, I stood the big rock up straight and then walked the bottom end over so that it was right up against the first supporting rock. Then I lowered the rock down over the mortar bed and laid it down. It felt like it made contact evenly over the entire bed which was gratifying. It was a few inches too far to the right so I wiggled and slid it into the correct position. As it moved, it settled nicely into the mortar bed.

Next I measured the height of the tread hoping that it was not going to be too low. If it were, then I don't know how I would raise it without starting over. If it were too high, then the plan was to stand on it and squish it down until it was just right.

But neither turned out to be the case. Instead the measurements showed that it was perfect the way it was. And, in my work, perfect is close enough. So all I had to do to finish the job was to use a small pointing trowel to trim up the outside of the mortar joint. I was really happy with how it turned out.

After cleaning and putting away the tools, I cleaned up the staircase and took a picture of the result. I was very happy with the work even though by professional standards I am not very fast.

The way I look at it is that before I started my building project that tread rock, along with many others, had lain in the same place for millions of years. Since I started my project, I have moved that rock maybe half a dozen times, but today, I moved it into a position where it is going to stay for at least another 100 years, and maybe even longer. Even if the cabin burns down someday, that stone staircase will survive until someone deliberately tears it out. It could happen, but it is likely that the stone won't move for a very long time. The fact that I was slow to get it there won't matter at all in the big picture.

I left for home at 11:45 feeling very good.

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