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!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Pottery Studio — Part 9

Last time there was a pottery kiln in a big box sitting on my driveway.  Nothing to do but get it installed and cranked up.  The box was fastened to a wooden pallet and too big to fit through the 36" front door, so the first step was to strip away all the extraneous packing material.  Then use some 2x4s to get it up on my hand truck and into the house. 

It was still too big to fit through the pottery studio door, so more cutting cardboard and foam was required.

The steel base was separate, so I put that in place and then brought in a piece of plywood and other wood to build temporary scaffolding to slide the kiln off the handtruck onto the base.  Judicious use of a prybar was required to do the magic lifting.  Took some time — it's a heavy beast!

You can't just plug these things in and press "start."  The shelves need to be coated with "kiln wash," a substance that keeps any molten glaze that drips off the pots from sticking to the shelves.  And critically, kilns need to be ventilated, either crudely by slightly propping open the lid, or better, with a special ventilation fan that draws small amounts of air in through small holes in the lid, and out through a tiny hole in the base — then outside.  The fan also pulls in some air from the room, so the air you breath is cleaner and cooler. 

The special ventilation fan looks like this installed:

The blower unit is mounted to the wall, and exhausts outside.  I used a 4" clothes dryer exhaust duct unit for the outside of the house (cutting a hole through the stucco), that has flaps that close when no air is being pushed through the vent. 

The smaller gray box is a relay that is controlled by the kiln's computer, turning the blower on and off when required.  The 3" flexible metal exhaust pipe in the photo attaches to a plenum on the bottom of the kiln.  A little air pulled down through the kiln, and more pulled from the room. 

The air circulating through the kiln evens out the heat, and takes away the contaminants from the glaze that are given off (you don't want stuff from one pot landing on its neighbor, affecting the color you worked so hard to achieve). 

The kiln ventilation unit exhausts some of the room air, but not enough to keep the room cool.  The kiln fires to temperatures in excess of 2000˚ F on the inside, and not surprisingly, the outside also gets pretty hot (even though I opted for the thicker 3" walls).  For that reason, I installed (early on in the remodel) an exhaust fan in the ceiling, leading to the attic.  I temporarily covered the top of the fan with a thick bat of insulation. 

I always knew I would need some sort of insulated hatch to close the fan opening when it was not needed (most of the time), but procrastinated until now.  In the photo above, the new wood pieces are a ledge for one side of the hatch to sit on, and a small piece of plywood on the other side for a barrel bolt to fit in.  The hatch itself would be 3/4" plywood with an inch of rigid foam fastened on top (with a another thin piece of plywood screwed through the insulation into the thick plywood).  I then decided I needed something to seal the edge of the fan to prevent air leakage, so added another piece of soft foam. 

At that point I realized I could have just attached the soft foam to the plywood and be done with it, but I wasn't going to rip it apart and start over.  Overkill, sure.  Here's the closed hatch over the fan.  (Needs another coat of paint.)

So with all of that out of the way, I was ready to run a test firing (no pots inside the kiln) per manufacturer instructions.  The firing burns the thin coating of oil off the heating coils and generally makes sure all is well, rather than risk ruining any new pots.  The firing was to the Cone 06 stage (1828˚), which is what I will use for the first (bisque) firing of new pots.  The second (glaze) firing that I use is to Cone 5 (2167˚).  Here's the kiln nearing the target temperature.

I'm now cleaning up the wheel room, getting ready to start making pots again.  Really need to make some more drawers in the pottery studio to get everything organized (still have only eight of the sixteen drawers made). 

The Drawer Factory

Okay, since my last post (on drawers), I've made seven more.  One for the bed base (now eight out of eleven done).  Two more shallow ones for the kitchen — one under the stainless steel counter, and a second one under the first one I made last time.

The other four were for the master bathroom vanity.  They are in a bay that also contains the sink drain, which limits how far back the drawers can extend (at least for the lower ones). 

Here are the carcasses installed (three dovetail made from solid cherry, and the larger one made from birch plywood). 

And here the mahogany fronts have been installed.  This particular mahogany is striped and darker than the plain mahogany I used for the edge trim, but I like the contrast. 

I'm not sure what drawers I will build next, as they are all needed — perhaps a few for each room.  I will also be starting to install bamboo flooring in the living room this week, so who knows what the next post will bring? 

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.