Just in Time for Holiday Entertaining…

The homeowners used blue tape to visualize their idea.

We were delighted to receive an email from an interested customer that found us on Angie’s List with a great idea to improve his holiday entertaining. I met the homeowner in South Berwick to scope out the project and gather some info in order to provide a proposal. He and his fiancee’ have a formal dining room, with access through a cased opening from the kitchen. They wanted to cut a hole in the adjacent, structurally supporting wall that separates the dining room from the living room.

Dining room “before,” as seen from the kitchen.

I was excited about the opportunity to do this project. The customers had a great vision that would fit their home perfectly, their budget was perfectly realistic, and a simple one week project would offer great improvement in how the home serves its owners. What’s not to love?

Dining room “after.”

The first thing we were going to have to do would be to build temporary support walls in order to cut the existing structural wall. The temp walls would also serve as dust protection. We gently opened small troughs in the ceiling drywall on either side of the supporting wall, to determine proper locations of temporary supporting walls. We built the temp walls and stood them to be held by a nice friction fit- no screwing through floors or ceilings. We sealed them up with plastic and we were ready to make a confined mess.

The clients were great to send us these photos of the finished product.

We marked the opening to be centered on the wall and so that the height would match the existing cased opening from the kitchen. Next was removing all the drywall, studs, and top and bottom wall plates. Now it was time to install the new engineered beam and supporting studs in order to carry the load of the floor joists above. The final construction step required installing new sheetrock pieces and taping and mudding to a smooth, paintable finish.

Finished product as seen from the fireplace looking into the dining room.

The clients were excited when we finally took down the temp walls and plastic. They could finally see and feel how half of the first floor was transformed when traffic patterns were dramatically changed in just one week.

 

 

The homeowners decided to remove the baseboard heat and handle all of the staining and painting themselves, thus keeping the budget down to approximately $2,000 for this great project…just in time for Thanksgiving and all of the season’s entertaining. Thanks for the fun project James and Melanie.

 

By John Bradshaw

 

Plywood ‘vs OSB (Waferboard)

Sometimes choosing the building materials that suit us is a difficult decision. In the case of plywood ‘vs OSB, it’s a no brainer.

The home is a system, exterior claddings, framing and insulation, and interior claddings that all interact with each other on some level. The most important variables playing into this equation are: Air movement into and out of the building envelope (factoring heavily into heat loss), vapor transmission to and from the building envelope, and strength.

Air movement- how drafty your home will be- is the same for either plywood or OSB, theoretically speaking. The most important thing to remember is to properly nail the plywood on the outside walls and roof. That means extra nails at all edges, and adjusting the depth setting on the framing gun from super deep setting for framing, down to relatively shallow for shooting ply or OSB. Otherwise, your nails will blow most of the way through it and you’ve lost strength.

Speaking of strength, there is a difference between OSB and plywood. I’m no engineer, so let me relay my personal experience. I was fresh out of high school in the early 90′s and learning about framing houses on the coasts of Beverly and Marblehead, Massachusetts. We often had to build to withstand hurricane force winds, incorporating shear walls to resist lateral wind pressure. When we built the walls laying down, we had one of two choices for bracing it against the wind (no complaints about Bob Seger stuck in my head right now). We could use plywood and lay the sheets across the studs and stagger the joints every four feet in each successive course of real plywood and the stength of the plywood would brace the wall; or, we could cut diagonal bracing into the wall studs from top plate to bottom plate before sheathing with cheap-o OSB. Hopefully this information gives some perspective as to strength.

Next is vapor transmission. This is slightly more involved. Wood can absorb moisture just fine and, when allowed to properly dry out, can repeat this cycle indefinitely. It becomes a problem when the wood doesn’t have the opportunity to dry out. Therefore, the drying process is critical.

Your home is built almost entirely out of building components that hold moisture. The amount of moisture that they hold depends on: The types of materials used, the amount of humidity created by inhabitants (about 70% of a home’s humidity is from occupants cooking, showering, watering plants, dog dishes, perspiring, etc.), the relative humidity in the atmosphere, and of course the amount of air flow in and out of the home.

To allow the home to dry out, we must allow for slow vapor transmission through the building materials. This is why we should never use a vapor barrier on the warm side of a wall system. We don’t want to block all vapor diffusion. This would cause the vapor to hit that sheet plastic “vapor barrier” and condense, with no where to go. After condensing, the next step would be mold.

 

What we need to incorporate into walls and attic floors are vapor retarders that simply slow down vapor diffusion. We must allow the building and all of it’s components to dry out. So, we don’t use sheet plastic on the inside of the walls. Fine, but what does all this have to do with plywood versus OSB? Well, I was laying down a little building science theory, necessary for understanding the importance when choosing a wall or roof sheathing.

If we want to allow the building to breathe, which is the better choice? OSB is made up of wood wafers and glue, then treated with a film of wax to buy some time for exposure to the elements during construction. OSB has a perm rating (the means of measuring how much vapor will pass through a material) that remains very low and constant. When the relative humidity rises, it continues to allow the same miniscule amount of vapor to pass through it.

Plywood, on the other hand, has a decent perm rating and is able to ride a very nice curve. It is made of real, unpulverized wood layers that are glued together in opposing grain directions with an exterior glue. Because it is real wood, when the relative humidity rises, it’s ability to allow vapor to pass through it rises in kind. It allows the home to dry nicely under normal conditions.

Next, let’s talk about mold. Mold is a fungus. Fungi need food. Wood can be food, especially when sopping wet and beginning to break down. Additionally, when wood is pulverized, a sugar like byproduct is created. This is sugar like to mold. Oh wait. OSB is made up of pulverized wood and glue. The more and more that wood is pulverized down, the more sugary wonderful it is to mold. That’s why mold will very easily grow on the paper facing of drywall in a moist bathroom. OSB is far more susceptible to mold than plywood.

Let’s round this out by talking about the all important bottom line. OSB for wall sheathing can cost less than half of what plywood is going for. Let’s say we’re building a decent sized two story addition requiring 70 sheets of 1/2″ sheathing for walls and roof. At current rates, it would cost $525 for OSB and $1,330 for plywood. Now knowing this building science, who would choose to save the $805 and go with OSB?

Let’s consider two more things: Interior subfloor application over floor framing, and the introduction of red type (roofs) and green type (walls) super waterproof OSB sheathing.

First, the easy one. I always use OSB for interior subfloor applications. For this, we are inside of the building envelope and vapor is not struggling to pass through it. It also is cheaper and flatter for floors, making it a great choice and a green choice.

Finally, let’s discuss the introduction of super waterproof OSB. This is becoming incredibly popular for builders. I will never use it. First, you’re still not allowing the home to dry out properly via vapor diffusion. Second, it doesn’t adhere to the most fundamental of all building principles: Every single building component should be overlapped by the one directly above it in elevation. This utilizes the physics of gravity to keep the home dry and has been successful for centuries.

Then how does this other system work? First, the OSB is coated with some special magic potion to keep water out. Fine, wonderful, remembering that this also means that it keeps vapor in. What about the joints between sheets? Well, this is the kicker. It means that the carpenters must use a special- and expensive- proprietary tape gun to apply the special tape to the seams. That’s where we no longer overlap materials. You see, with plywood or regular OSB sheathing, we apply a rainscreen over the sheathing, such as tar paper or Tyvek, etc.. We overlap this rainscreen, maintaining the most fundamental principle of building. Conversely, the tape that is applied to the special OSB relies entirely on adhering over the surface of the plywood, a non glossy surface.

If you hang out at the lumber yard long enough, you’ll hear other guys asking what to do when their finicky tape gun no longer works properly. They dread shelling out the big bucks for a new one. Yes, these applicators don’t always apply the tape to create a watertight seal. And what if the sheathing has a film of sawdust on it’s face? I don’t know, you tell me. If you pay attention to addition jobsites, builders that are using this new super OSB with the taped seams on a roof with a finished living space underneath are still tarping the roof until they get the shingles on  it. How much confidence do they seem to have in the product they are using on the roof? When roof plywood, on the other hand, is properly covered with ice and water shield and roof underlayment paper such as synthetic tar paper, the building will stay dry during construction every time.

Why would the lumber industry offer a product like this? Because they want to sell to the ever growing demographic of builders that don’t understand how to properly and permanently water proof a building. The lumber industry is dumbing down the products. Yes, we should all write our representatives in congress.

In conclusion, plywood made of real wood is by far the best thing for your exterior walls and roof. It only needs elementary attention to waterproofing details, and will then allow your home to breathe properly. OSB is the best choice for interior flooring substrate.

This material was largely a result of an education from Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., ASHRAE Fellow. He has been widely renowned as an international building science expert for decades. If you want to learn more about building science or cure insomnia I’m just kidding, some of the writings on the site are actually very entertaining), visit his website at http://www.buildingscience.com.

 

By John Bradshaw

 

 

 

Tackle Custom Interior Trim Carpentry in the Winter or Summer?

Our clients have been asking regularly about whether we also do interior work. This tells me it’s time to write a blog post about interior trim work to provide a small sampling of what we can do.

This is an example of woodworking with poplar we did several years ago, during the winter. It has stayed tight with no cracking or bulging. No need to keep caulking and repainting. The “white” lines you see on the crown molding joints are glare from the camera flash.

We’re passionate about all carpentry. To date, our blog posts have been entirely about exterior projects because we feel that sealing water out of the building is job #1. So, when you no longer have water vulnerability, well heck yes we should talk about your interior wish list.

If you’re thinking about moving forward on a custom trim carpentry project, displaying an exquisite vision that showcases magnificently honed carpentry skills is likely one of your goals. That makes perfect sense. And if we’re going to bring your vision to fruition, we’ll want to ensure that it looks and functions flawlessly for a long time to come.

That brings me to the part where we talk about what conditions are ideal for an enduring and beautiful product. First, let’s get the wood species out of the way. If you want a stained product, then choose the species you like. If you want a painted product, then we’ll be selecting poplar to work with, along with cabinet grade plywood and possibly other accessory products. We choose poplar because of it’s availability and affordability. More importantly, we choose poplar because of it’s stability, strength, and straight and smooth grain. Commercially available poplar is not ever suitable for exterior projects in New England though, it turns black and rots easily. But, it’s phenomenal for interior painted woodworking.

Next, wood is hygroscopic, it absorbs or desorbs moisture in effort to reach equilibrium with the relatively humidity. If your home does not have humidity controls here in New England, then we need to understand what the wood is going to do in the future, in response to the relative humidity changes of it’s environment (the home). Barring humidity controls, wood expands as relative humidity rises in the summer, and shrinks when relative humidity drops in the winter. Don’t think that you can fight the “hydraulics” of it, you can’t. You could slow the absorption or desorption by sealing all sides before installing, but this only slows the process. Alright, that’s enough of the technical mumbo jumbo for now…I’m giving myself a headache. Most importantly, proceed with your trim project when the wood’s moisture content and humidity conditions are ideal.

So, as far as ideal conditions, do we want to be building these things during the winter or the summer? Long story short, winter…conscientiously. The wood has already shrunk, in large part, and will not be continuing to shrink. Therefore, you cut, glue, nail and paint the trim during the winter; then, it’s only going to get tighter in the summer. This can be terrific, unless overdone. The wider the boards are, the more they will shrink or expand. If you have boards that are too wide and too dry, they will buckle or cause other components to buckle when they expand in the summer.

Look at this photo. I believe that this trim was installed during the moist summer months, shrank during the dry winter months and exposed a gap at the mitered joint. The gap was filled with caulking and repainted during the winter months when the wood was still contracted. Then, the wood expanded again during the summer months, squeezing the caulking back out of the joint.

How can we help this joint at this point? I don’t know, Bobby-Jo. I suppose I would probably use a better grade of adhesive caulking that stays pliable. I would apply it during the fall, maybe October when the drying has begun. Essentially, shoot for the halfway point between it’s max expansion and max contraction. Then, paint it. You could expect it to be squeezed during the wet summer, but hopefully just form a slight bulge in the paint, and then subside again in the winter, while remaining bonded. The key here is to not use a hard, unflexible product. This would pop out when squeezed during the wet summer months, every time. Hmmm. It’s October now. I think I’ll ask this customer if I may try this experiment and monitor and report back after several changes of seasons.

To wrap it all up, for the sake of your project, please choose to do your custom interior woodworking project in the winter, to ensure tight joinery all year round. For the sake of your wallet also, you’ll want to tackle this during the winter. Why? Well, you may have an opportunity to save a little bit of dough by offering a New England craftsman an interior project to keep him or herself warm during the bitter winter cold. Most elite craftsman are in a minority these days, keeping them in demand year round, but you may have just enough luck to find one looking to fill a winter time slot. Cheers to moving forward with your vision!

 

By John Bradshaw

 

A Great Trick Learned from a Master

When I was a younger apprentice and journeyman carpenter, I always tried to work for the finest craftsmen I could, even when it meant leaving money on the table. I’m fortunate to have had 3 years of learning from one of the best carpenters I’ve seen, Brian Leavitt. This simple trick is straight from him.

Repairing cedar shakes can be a little tricky and time consuming. They are woven and overlapped and it can be a real chore to dissect them in a manner so as to be able to weave new ones back in properly. I’m not going to get into all of the particulars for cedar shake repairs, just offer a tip.

Once upon a time I was working under the tutelage of Brian and weaving cedar shakes back together on a wall right at eye level on a deck that’s used for lots of entertaining. Brian said, “Do you know how to slip a new shake in under an existing one and nail it so you don’t see nails on the face of it?”

“No, I don’t.” And as a matter of fact, I thought he was messing with me (I am super gullable). How could this be? Sliding a new shake in underneath the course directly above it and no face nails? No way.

Photo #1- This is the new shake to be installed. I have access to nail the left side of the shake at this point, but can still illustrate the trick for hiding nails with the left side of this shake.

Photo #2

Yes way. As in Photo #2, you’ll start by holding the new shake about a quarter of an inch lower than the rest of the same course of shakes you are trying to continue. Next, use some small tool like the mini pry-bar I used to hold out the existing shake that sits over the face of the new one to be nailed. Then, start your stainless siding nail up at a slight angle and as far up under the existing shake as you can. Drive the nail flush with the face of the shake. Use a nail set to help if needed.

When you finish the steps illustrated in photo #2, you’ll have what looks like photo #3. From here, all you have to do is hold a block of wood to the bottom edge of the new shake and tap it up with your hammer until the shake sits in line with the rest of the course as in photo #4.

Photo #3

Photo #4

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are now ready to abandon the old method of face nailing repaired cedar shakes, at least in high visibility spots. There are a couple of other things to take note of, though. First, this repair will be 100% complete when the cedar shakes are pressure washed to all match and hide the fact that any work was ever done. Second, the understanding of how to look at a cedar shake and determine which is the face and which face to nail to the wall is a dying, yet simple art that you should know.

Photo #5- Left face should be facing out.

In photo #5 the camera is looking down the butt edge of a shake. As seen here, the cup faces to the right. That means that the two edges of the piece of wood already curl to the right side forming a “cup”. We always install shakes so that the cup faces the wall. So from this view, the face on the right will face the wall. This is in anticipation of future wood movement. When wood gets wet and dries out, it cups to the side that it dries to. That means that a cedar shake’s 2 edges will turn away from the wall and cup toward the sun. If the shake was installed so that the cup was already facing that way, then this new movement will have such an impact on the shake that it will very likely split and cause the shake above it to pull away and move and just start it’s decline. This is very easy to avoid with just a fraction of a second of extra effort to look at the shake before installing it. You may now proceed well armed for battle, thanks to Brian.

 

By John Bradshaw

 

What’s the Science Behind Vinyl Siding?

There are lots of pros and cons of vinyl siding. Weighing heavily in the pros list are: It’s very affordable, it installs quickly, it’s virtually maintenance free, it can come re-inforced with foam insulation backer, and there are plenty of colors and styles to choose from. Weighing heavily in the cons column: There is a void of science involved.

Now let’s just get the record straight, I’m no primadonna. I don’t need to build or even repair a home as if it were a baby grand. I don’t utterly refuse to work with some materials out of sheer carpentry snobbery, and I’m equally grateful to be working on a modest single story ranch as I am on an elegant Queen Anne Victorian.

There are, however, plenty of times when I need to lobby for the implementation of fundamental building principles. The cardinal rule of building has always been Water Management. It starts with the selection of a buildable site, is adhered to when determining the elevation of the building, and so on until the end of time.  With regards to this cardinal rule, vinyl siding offers virtually nothing. Does that mean that vinyl siding shouldn’t be used? I don’t feel that way at all. It just means that it’s critical to have a bulletproof “drain plane” behind the vinyl siding. What’s a proper drain plane? It is the proper overlapping of weather resistant building materials (such as tar paper or Tyvek housewrap) to continually carry water out over the face of the home. This technique used to be common knowledge in the trade. Used to be.

Without making this a doctoral dissertation, do I like vinyl siding? Sure. It’s on my first home now. It won’t be the selection for my dream home. But it will be the selection for my final home. Ahh, the circle of life….

 

By John Bradshaw