Every place I've ever lived has been designed for that "average American family," with lots of bedrooms, living room, dining room, family room, etc. The problem was that I was a single person, not an average family. I needed space, but for hobbies, not people. And because I'm over 6'2", bending over to use sinks designed for children was a constant frustration. Over the years, I collected a list of things I would change if I could have my dream house. As I approached retirement, I realized time was running out for that house; it was now or never.

Dreams are not always perfect, however. I could never afford my dream house, a spacious Southern California home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But I could afford a modest ranch house, with a 20-mile drive to the beach. It was a very long way from perfect, but it had potential.

This blog documents the process of turning that small average house into something that matches my lifestyle. It will be as close to my dream house as I can make it. I'm doing all the work myself to stretch my resources. By not hiring contractors, I can afford high quality materials, and I'll know the job is always done right. The remodeling will be my primary avocation for a few years, even as I try to fit in my writing and other hobbies.

It promises to be an interesting journey, and a challenging one!

Thursday, April 5, 2018


The house has been waiting for drawers, longing for them, for years.  Always promised, yearned after, but never quite on the list of upcoming projects.  Next year.  After things settle in.  Seeming beyond reach.

Until now.

Well, there were the bedroom drawers (in the waterbed base), and those have been wonderfully normal.  But the bed requires eleven drawers, and yet we're at seven and holding.  Not so much a priority any more.

Did the pottery studio change things?  All that stuff needing a place to hide?  Hmm.  We built some drawers (four) last post.  Plywood drawers.  Complex.  No more plywood drawers since then (but still many more needed).

So what has changed?


Aren't drawers with dovetail joints more high-end than plywood drawers?  Well, sure.  But it turns out they are actually less complicated than the plywood drawers — sort of.  If you have a good dovetail jig (Porter Cable for me), you can crank out drawers fast, well, after getting it all set up.

Setting up the jig (and the two routers) isn't entirely simple, but it came with a good set of instructions, and if you watch several youtube instruction videos, it's completely doable.  And if you pay attention to the directions, two or three times.  It works.  You do a first setup, then test the joint, then make adjustments if needed.

The jig comes with a couple of different template guides for different types and sizes of dovetail joints.  I started with the basic through-joint (half-blind joints will come later).

A drawer has two sides and a front and a back.  Dovetails need to be cut on each end of those four boards, but each end only takes ten or fifteen seconds.  First I cut the "tails" — that is, the cuts made with a dovetail router bit in the sides of the drawer.  For that, you use the side of the guide with the parallel fingers.

The router slides inside each of the fingers; there is a template guide installed on the router base that follows the guide's metal fingers.  Looks like this (with a tapered dovetail bit installed):

Cuts like this:

After cutting the ends of the sides of the drawers, you flip the guide over to cut the "pins" on the ends of the drawer front and back.  Actually, you could use a different sort of joint for the back, but I'm doing dovetails all around.

Notice that the "pins" fingers give you a tapered cut — wider at the front and narrower toward the back.  You also use a straight cutting router bit (instead of a dovetail bit).  It's much more efficient if you use two routers.  Otherwise, you would have to keep changing bits and router guides (different diameters), and calibrating the depth of cut with every change.  Two routers, yes!

What you get is a very nice, strong joint.

Drawers also have bottoms.  Cut a slot in the four pieces to accept the bottom, cut the bottom to size (nominal quarter-inch plywood for these drawers), and then glue everything together.  I put some wood glue in a small container and use a small cheap flux brush to spread the glue on all the surfaces.  Goes pretty quickly.  Then clamps.

I only needed a cross clamp to square the drawer one time.  Otherwise the joints kept the drawer square without any prodding.  Here are three drawers installed in the pottery studio cabinet.

But of course they needed fronts.  I made the wider fronts from 3/4" plywood, with a 3/4" square surround.  Sanded, edges rounded, painted white.

Narrower drawer fronts were cut from solid wood.  Here are the same three drawers with fronts and wire pulls.

I used full-extension drawer slides (20" in this case), with 20" deep drawers.  I also sometimes will, for example, use a 20" slide with a 22" drawer, in which case the drawer won't open all the way.  Personal choice.  With full-extension, everything in the drawer is fully accessible.

I made another dovetail drawer for the left side of the cabinet, then made the front for it, but unfortunately was thinking of the drawer width instead of the one-inch wider opening, so now I have an extra drawer front.  (No problem.  I'll just build a workshop cabinet that fits the too-narrow drawer front. :-)

I used birch for the shallower pottery studio (1/2" thick) drawer sides, and am using maple for the kitchen drawers, and will use cherry for the bathroom drawers.  I've run out of birch, so I'm going to shift drawer production to the kitchen and bathroom.  I use half-inch birch plywood for the deeper drawers, but I've also run out of that.

The drawer fronts in the kitchen will be made out of spalted maple, which is wood that is diseased (fungal or bacterial), giving it interesting patterns.  I have a bunch from a cut-down tree; it's twenty years old so it's fully dried out and stable.  I originally cut pieces sized for making electric guitar bodies, but I will likely not make very many more.  Hopefully there will be enough spalted maple for all the smaller kitchen drawer fronts.

This photo shows one of the billets, a drawer front cut to size, and a small end-grain cut-off to show more of what the wood looks like inside. 

I just made the first normal kitchen drawer (aside from earlier side-loading ones).  This is what it looks like from the front.

There will of course be more drawers below that (and about 50 or so more drawers in the kitchen).  The next photo shows the drawer open — for knives, with a thick felt lining on the bottom.

I will report progress on future drawer construction, but will not detail the construction basics — just show final results.  There may be a gap before that, however, as a big truck left a pottery kiln in my driveway today!  Next post — making that operational.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

PotteryStudio Cabinets — Part 2

Oh.  It's been a month and a half since my last post.   Plodding along, but sorting through the photos, I've actually come a ways.

At the end of the last post, the two cabinets that make up the whole were in place, the left one attached and the right one just sitting there looking pretty:

With the back installed on the right half, and it screwed into the studs and base, I started work on the shelf connecting the two (didn't want to waste that space — good for storing pottery trimming chucks — I'll explain later).  I also started to fit some of the birch trim, but discovered my stock of birch was low, so another trip down to the wood store was needed.

With the cabinets in place, I fabricated the counter top.  It was about nine inches longer than eight feet, so I had to carefully glue (with reinforcing biscuits) an extension.  I screwed on a couple of temporary braces while carrying the long piece from the garage to the pottery studio.  Just a little awkward.

Where the plywood spanned the space between the two counters, I glued and screwed more plywood to the underside of the counter top (flipping it over to do that).

The top right-side up for a test fitting:

It was time to glue the plastic laminate top to the plywood.  It was too cold outside, so I set up two makeshift tables in the pottery studio — one for the plastic laminate and the other for the plywood.  The contact cement is applied to both surfaces and left to dry.  Then the laminate is placed on top of the plywood, but separated by wooden dowels to keep them from touching.  Once they touch, they can't be adjusted.  The dowels keep them apart while they are aligned in position.  Then the dowels are removed beginning from the center toward the ends.

A roller is used to apply high pressure to ensure a good bond without any air bubbles trapped between laminate and plywood, again, working from the center toward the ends until the laminate is fully cemented.  The laminate is cut slightly larger than the plywood; the small overlap is removed with a small router (laminate trimmer) fitted with a carbide straight cutting bit (with guide bearing).

Then the top is moved back into place and attached to the cabinets with screws (from the bottom).

At this point, I started attaching the birch trim on the edges of the plywood, using biscuits (for some pieces), glue, and finish nails.  I also worked on the birch backsplash.  I again ran out of birch, which has both light and dark coloration, and decided to substitute maple for the last bits rather than make a special trip to the wood store (hour drive each way).

Next I started on the drawers.  Not all sixteen of them, mind you, but four of the larger ones, which would be made of plywood.  Because the large drawers could be holding fifty pounds of clay, I opted to install a 3/4" plywood base.  To avoid the problems I had with the half-inch plywood sides delaminating with the drawer bottom dado, I simply glued and screwed the half-inch sides to the edge of the 3/4" base.

I use plywood for the deep drawers because finding wide solid wood that stays straight and flat is difficult.  That said, it adds complications.  The edges have to be covered with trim that also stiffens the sides, and I have to make from scratch the maple trim I use (a real pain and consumer of time).

Here's the type of joint I use for the plywood drawers (viewed from the bottom).  I'll start using dovetail joints when I get to the shallower drawers that have solid wood sides.

And of course gluing the trim on takes time (and there are a lot of drawers).

So jumping ahead to where I am now, this is the half of the pottery studio where the cabinets are.  This half also houses the sink and the kiln (to be ordered in a couple of days).  The kiln will sit on the right where the spot light is shining on the floor.

Here's a photo showing the both sides:

So I've just made the four plywood drawers and put the plain white painted fronts on three of them.

And the two on the right side of the cabinet, one with the front on and the other without.

This is the cabinet as it now stands.  You can see the birch backsplash, installed with silicone adhesive.  The side splashes are actually made of maple.

I also made a couple more of the side-loading kitchen drawers.  The first photo shows the carcasses, and the other two photos show them with the fronts attached.

As I mentioned, I will drive down to San Diego to order the kiln in a couple of days, and continue building drawers.  This time I'll be setting up my dovetail jig and hopefully cranking out drawers for both the pottery studio and the kitchen.  Also on the horizon is more bamboo flooring, this time for the living room. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pottery Studio Cabinets — Part 1

Oh, my goodness!  It's been more than a month since my last post!  I finally started the pottery studio cabinets, and in an ideal world, I would have finished them by now.  But not.

When I began to cut out the pieces for the cabinets, I noticed that my expensive sheets of plywood had warped.  Cutting them was not a problem, but cutting the dados (grooves) and interlocking tongues was.  Before making these cuts, I adjust the position and depth of the cut, using scrap pieces plywood.  But pushing the whole cabinet parts through the dado blade becomes a problem when the piece is bowed up.  You have to push down hard to keep the plywood flat against the table, all the while repositioning your hands to feed the piece through the blade.  If the plywood rises up as you shift your hands, the groove will be cut too shallow.

So some pieces needed to be run through multiple times.

The bigger problem was that warped (curved) cabinet sides do not slide into straight dados.  That meant I had to clamp a 2x4 on the edge of the plywood to straighten it, and then insert the tenon into the dado.  But then, as I discovered to my dismay, when I removed the 2x4, the plywood sprung back and tore out the side of the dado.

So then I had to glue that together.  The drawer slides also demanded straight cabinet sides.  As a solution, I had to cut twenty wood cleats (for the two cabinets) that I could glue and screw onto the warped plywood, and then glue and screw the curved plywood to the straight cleats.

That worked, but it meant that instead of assembling the whole cabinet in one step, I would have to assemble a couple of pieces at a time, and then wait a day until the glue dried to full strength before adding another piece.  Lots of clamps to keep everything straight.  And keeping the 2x4 clamped to the warped plywood until that joint was fully dry.

There was certainly plenty of other things that needed attention.  Like yard work.  Or taking the dogs to the beach :-)

Then add some more parts the next day.

The drawer slides optimally should be installed before the cabinet is assembled, but screwing straight metal slides to a warped piece of plywood is a non-starter.  But the drawer slides could be installed before the cabinet back is attached, which gives much better access to the screw for the back end of the drawer slide.

I installed the drawer slides using wood spacers, instead of trying to make measurements with a tape.  You can just hold the slide firmly against the spacer, use an awl to locate the drill bit, then screw.  I suppose you could dispense with the drilled screw hole, but I always drill.  Then use the same spacers for the other side, insuring each half of the pair of slides will be aligned.

With rain coming this week, I decided to move the incomplete cabinet carcasses into the pottery studio to allow the car to come back into the garage.  Discovered the doorway into the pottery studio was a quarter-inch too narrow for the cabinets, so off came the door.

Here are the two cabinets sitting in place.  The cab on the left has its back installed.  The cabinet on the right needs to come out for drawer slides (need to order a couple more) and back.  Then both will be shimmed, leveled, and screwed in place.

I will then need to cut out the counter-top, order and cement plastic laminate on that, and install that.  Then birch trim on the front edges.

And, as always, drawers. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

An Accidental Hiatus

Every so often I try to imagine what it would be like to have the house completely finished.  It’s hard to imagine that, because almost everywhere I turn, there are projects beyond my planning horizon.  And yet, sometimes I am startled by how much has already been accomplished. 

And then I realize that almost everybody else lives in a house that is “finished.”  Sigh.

My current unplanned break has given me a glimpse into what a “normal” life might be like.  But only a peep.

My modus operandi during the almost five years I’ve been working on my whole-house remodel/renovation has been to move from one major project to the next, not always in a logical order.  The last project completed was the kitchen countertop, which also enabled me to expand my daily routine with new menu items.  For example, since I now have a cooktop, I can make an omelet, or cook the new generation of vege-burgers (their molecular scientist developers like to call them “plant-based burgers”).  Moving toward greater normalcy, as it were — a theme this post explores. 

At the end of my last post I was dismantling the gluing frame for the countertop, so clearing out my garage for the car to move back into its rightful home.  I predicted that I would next be building cabinets for the pottery studio.  With those built, I could buy and install the electric kiln and reengage in one of my major hobbies — that of creating (or “throwing”) pots.  “Pots” includes all manner of clay creations — bowls, vases, cat dishes, etc. 

Didn’t happen. 

As I was preparing to order more plywood for the new cabinets, a wildfire broke out just to my south — the Lilac Fire.  It grew.  I spent the first day watching the continuous TV coverage.  The major highway I used to get to Home Depot was closed for several days.  That was the incident that began my hiatus from my major project routine — an accident, to be sure.  The fire started at the side of I-15, probably when somebody threw a cigarette out a car window on that hot windy day.

So I reverted to little projects, like working on building drawers, repotting plants, cooking new menu items . . .

I saw that a couple of the gourmet chefs who are selling the new vege-burgers in their many-star restaurants were putting sliced avocados on them, and, as it happens, the avocado trees I planted now have fruit on them.  But when to pick?  Research required. 

Avocados don’t ripen on the tree.  They “mature,” and then stay good for weeks or months on the tree.  But once the mature avocados are picked, they ripen within about four to eight days (and then start to go bad).

I have two trees — Fuerte and Hass.  The pear-shaped Fuerte were the first commercial variety, but they have thin skins and therefore do not ship well.  Hass avocados have thicker skins that tolerate being transported long distances, and so they are now the predominate commercial variety by far.  Hass are oval and have bumpy skins, and mature in the spring (more or less).

Many people think the Fuerte are a bit better to eat.  Fuerte mature mid-winter (this is southern California — 80˚ yesterday), so I’m starting with them.  And yes, good on a burger!  Or a salad . . .

Now that I was off-stride, and perhaps enjoying the break, thoughts of visiting the dog beach intruded, so off we went.  (More fun than scraping old paint off overhead eves.)

And while my mind was off its remodeling rails, I explored other interests.  I’ve been an electric vehicle (EV) enthusiast for more than ten years, waiting and waiting for the “perfect” EV that would last me for a long, long time.  It’s actually part of the same plan as the ideal house — pursuing harmony in my life.

I have had a reservation for a Tesla Model 3 for almost two years, and while that basic car is wonderful, it has features I would have trouble living with — for example, the glass roof (here in San Diego’s intense summer sun), which would not play nice with the dogs waiting in the car, even with windows open. 

My reservation for a dual-motor Model 3 will not mature until the end of 2018, in any case, and there are no other EVs coming soon that check all my boxes.  So I decided I could buy an inexpensive, compromise, used EV as an interim car, so I wouldn’t have to keep driving my gasser.  My gas-burner is nice enough, but not nearly as nice a driving experience as an electric car (which also charges in my garage).

More time on the internet.  I discovered that 2014 BMW i3s, coming off lease, could be had for a relative pittance.  The i3 was an early favorite of mine, and is a really nice EV — comfortable, good performance, responsive, and the first mass-market car to be made of light-weight carbon fiber (plus some aluminum and thermo plastic body panels).  It should last forever.  But it was two-wheel drive and had some quirks that put it out of contention as a “permanent” EV.  The first generation had an 81-mile EPA range (sufficient for my driving), while new EVs generally go 125 to more than 300 miles on a charge.  The current i3 goes about 120 miles on a charge, and by the end of the year, due to advances in battery tech, the next iteration of the i3 will have a range about double the first generation (with a battery the same size and weight). 

 The internet led me to a 2014 i3 I liked, at a big Toyota dealership in the southern environs of Los Angeles.  Drove the 60 miles up there, and spent a few very unpleasant hours reminding myself how wretched car dealerships can be.  Ended up without the i3, and decided I could live with my internal combustion car for awhile longer.

Electric vehicles can use the magnetic forces in their motors to slow the car as easily as they accelerate it; these dual functions are controlled by the same pedal (it’s called single-pedal speed control).  This magnetic braking can replace conventional friction braking 90% of the time.  When slowing the car, the motor behaves like a generator and charges the battery, enhancing efficiency.

Magnetic braking only works on the wheels driven by the motor.  Front-wheel-drive cars and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) cars therefore only have magnetic braking on two wheels.  For the most effective magnetic braking, the EV should have all-wheel-drive, which also gives you balanced four-wheel braking.

That’s why my optimal electric car will have motors on both axles.  It’s easy to put two motors in electric cars, because the motors are about the size of watermelons.  All Teslas either have two motors standard or as an option, and most of the upcoming premium EVs have motors on both axles.

I’ve written a number of articles on electric cars, plus this 3-page tutorial for friends and relatives on EV single-pedal speed control (one of their best features) in case you’re interested.  There's also a link on the first page of this blog.

So if the i3 and the Model 3 don’t work for me, what will?  And when?

After the Model 3, Tesla is planning a Model Y crossover built on the same platform, but they have not yet revealed what it will look like.  If it’s not too much taller than the Model 3, and has a solid roof and a hatch, that would be ideal.  Yay!  But, big if.  Expectations are that Tesla will unveil a Model Y prototype sometime during the first half of 2018, and that it will go into production in 2019 (or maybe 2020). 

Porsche is making a very impressive EV — now called the Mission E (not the final name) — that is set for production late-2019.  Camouflaged pre-production prototypes have been seen on German roads, and testing on the famous Nürburgring track.  I photoshopped away the camouflage in the picture below.  The AWD car checks all my boxes, and then some, but might be a little overkill for trips to the grocery store.  Sigh. 

After that, it has been reported that Volkswagen is planning an “AEROe” small sporty sedan with a liftback hatch for 2023 production.  Long time to wait, but battery technology continues to make good improvements in energy density, all while battery prices are dropping.  EVs are inherently much simpler than gasoline engine cars, require much less maintenance, and cost much less to operate.  Before too many years, they will also cost less to buy than combustion cars. 

But back to the house remodel.

Working on drawers at a relaxed pace.  Mostly more drawers for the waterbed base, but I also built the first kitchen drawer.  It’s one of the high side-loading drawers, and I’m happy with it (and looking forward to getting more of the 60+ kitchen drawers made).  It’s not surprising that most kitchens have doors on most of their cabinet storage spaces, because drawers are complicated to build, and while cheap drawer slides are often used, I’m paying about $17-$18 per pair for good quality full-extension drawer slides.  Soft-closing slides are significantly more. 

Photos of the kitchen drawer-shelf, closed and open:

 And the pottery studio cabinets?  Amazon initially told me the drawer slides I ordered for them would be delayed for a month, but just today said I would get them in a week, so hopefully the next post . . .