HardiePlank siding is a great investment

We bought a plywood house in Portland. It sounds worse than it is. In this temperate climate, houses covered with a single skin of painted plywood are not all that unusual. But what made sense in the 1970s doesn’t make sense in today’s energy-conscious environment, and we bought the house knowing we would be house-wrapping it and covering it in good siding before long. Our windows were all ’70s vintage too–aluminum sliders, with poor sliding action and terrible insulating quality–so replacing those was part of the plan.

I like to do things just once, and I hate maintenance, so we chose excellent Marvin fiberglass windows and HardiPlank siding, both rated to last many decades with almost no care.

What is cool about upgrading a single-skin plywood house like mine is that you can treat the house like new construction with standard plywood sheathing. Pop out the old windows, nail new ones onto the plywood, and then cover everything with house-wrap material and your siding of choice.

I wrote about the window replacement in an earlier blog, so now here is everything you need to know about HardiPlank siding. When it comes to siding, you have three basic choices, a wood product like cedar, which looks beautiful but needs regular painting or sealing to last; vinyl, which looks OK, lasts OK, costs the least, and needs only the occasional power-wash; and cement fiberboard, which lasts forever potentially and can be made to look like any type of shingle or clapboard. I’ve had vinyl before and didn’t like it. It feels cheap and cracks easily and melts when the grill comes too close (dumb move by me).

James Hardie is the leader in the fiber-cement field, so I went with them. Their siding used to have a so-so reputation for rot-resistance in rainy regions like mine, but now they formulate it differently for different climates, so those problems seem to be behind them. Builders also realize that HardiPlank needs an air gap behind it, so they either attach thin wood strips underneath, or this cool new house wrap called HydroGap, which creates its own air gap.

Here’s an important tip: If your siding installer hasn’t done a lot of HardiPlank before, get a new installer. There is a learning curve to this stuff, from the air gaps below to the expansion gaps between and the nails on top.

The HardiePlank website is amazing, by the way, letting you choose your house style, then cover it with whatever siding and trim styles you want, in endless combinations of colors. That’s how we designed our look.

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The other thing we did was choose HardiePlank that was already painted. Most people choose the primed product and have it installed and then painted, but the factory paint job is baked on and rated for 25 years (vs. 8-10 for hand-painted) so I went with that. It cost a few thousand bucks more, about the price of one extra paint job, so it will pay off in the long run.

The trim is real cedar, which we painted. Even though the siding was already that nice pewter grey we wanted, there was lots of stuff to paint grey, like the gutters and eaves! I hired a friend for that high-ladder work–no thanks!

The following pictures tell the rest of the story.

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Here’s the original house with T1-11 plywood siding and old aluminum windows.
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And here’s how the house looks now. We love it! It is quieter inside, better-looking outside, and our AC bill is already lower!
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Notice the shingle-style panels we put up in the peak areas for some subtle flair.

Now here’s how the siding went on, with some important tips along the way.

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Picking up from the window installation, the house wrap goes on, along with flashing over any trim and adhesive tape around the windows. Everything is overlapped so it will shed water, in case some gets below the siding.
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HydroGap housewrap has raised beads on it so the siding can not touch the house, ensuring an air gap behind the siding, and proper drainage of any moisture.
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HardiePlank siding gets a small piece of flashing at every joint.
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It is attached with a special air nailer.
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Nails are driven fully home with a hammer. Seems tedious but it goes quick.
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Every joint needs a small gap so the planks can expand and contract freely.
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The overlap on our clapboard-style siding is 7 in.
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Our siding was pre-painted by the factory, so it requires some extra care, like thin plastic sheets between each piece.
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The fiber-cement product is cut with a special blade, always good side down. A circular saw’s blade spins upward, so the bottom of the board gets the cleanest cut.
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The whole house looks so clean and buttoned up. Pay no attention to the deck and balcony–I’ll be fixing those up in future blogs!
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I even had the guys install a wood trim board for our hot-tub hooks! I also took the opportunity to install new lighting. That’s critical in any remodel. The trim is all cedar wood by the way, which we painted separately.

The Willie Wonka world of Judson Beaumont

I don’t know a person who doesn’t love Judson Beaumont’s furniture when they see it. From tables and cabinets that melt and explode, to doghouses shaped like campers, the ideas are original, playful, joyful and and seemingly endless.

Long before I met him at a trade show, I was a huge fan. We were there to judge a student furniture show and hit it off instantly. Jud is compact and effervescent, like his furniture, and we had a blast appreciating young people’s work, and then bar-hopping and cracking wise that same night.

We never met again until last week, when I had the chance to drive up to his workshop in Vancouver, B.C., on assignment for Popular Woodworking magazine. I was looking forward to getting inside the Chocolate Factory.

Jud found his old industrial building almost 30 years ago, when he was a young art-school graduate with some furniture success already under his belt. He took a corner spot on the second floor, unboarded the windows, and went to work.  Over the years other artisans followed his lead, and today the place is chockful of over 200 of them, cross-pollinating each others’ work and lives, trading skills and ideas. Jud recruited his current casting/molding expert from the floor below.

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One thing I love about the building is how the owners and occupants have welcomed talented graffiti artists to decorate the exterior. Art is art.

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Inside his two giant workrooms, I found a small army of young assistants, busy bringing Jud’s creations to life. No Oompa-Loompas, because they come and go over the years, but talented and committed to Jud’s vision.

Like most of my favorite furniture makers, Jud designs first, free from constraints, and then figures out how to build it. It’s not better then being schooled in traditional furniture making methods, just different.

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So how he builds is not precious. Nail guns, plywood, and glue mostly, with the finished surfaces being where he spends his effort. He just does whatever makes sense, as long as the finished project is sturdy and impeccable looking in the end.

That means he can work quickly, focus on designing and finding clients, and rely on (somewhat) lesser skilled workers to do the heavy lifting.

I also found out that the seemly effortless designs are exactly the opposite. This is critical information for would-be designers, so listen up: It takes a hundred weird sketches and wacky experiments with the tablesaw and glue to come up with just a few workable ideas, and Jud has spent 30 years of Saturdays alone in his shop, just playing. Playing with a purpose.

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The sketching is critical he said, and you’ll get better at it the more you do. But you need to see ideas in real 3-D too, so miniature and full-size models are just as important. Dozens of false starts and funky attempts line the walls and windowsills of his shop. Some miniatures are so cool that they end up being sold.

If you do all that, and do it for decades, experimenting and building endlessly, you might get to travel the world like Jud, having children in Hong Kong dress up like your furniture and dance for you.

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For more about this real-life Willie Wonka, check future issues of Popular Woodworking magazine. The magazine tends to stick to traditional forms and methods, so I can’t wait to see what readers think. I can’t imagine them not appreciating Judson Beaumont.

Nick Offerman: The best friend any woodworker could have

Sitting in my adopted hometown, Portland, OR, on New Year’s Eve, I’m reflecting back on the path that led me here, and where that path might lead. One amazing friend comes to mind: Nick Offerman, who played that mustachioed, wood-loving libertarian, Ron Swanson, on NBC’s best comedy of the decade: Parks & Rec. I’m lucky to call him my real-life buddy.

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He’s on my mind for two reasons. For one, I just read his foreword to my upcoming book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” (Taunton Press, fall 2017), which he sent right on deadline for my review. It’s awesome, of course, and just another in a long series of kindnesses from Nick. If you know him at all, from TV or YouTube or Reddit, you know he is a prince of a man.

The other reason I’m thinking of Nick is that I just happened across a video shop tour I did with him at his LA woodshop about six or seven years ago. I was shocked to see that it has almost 1 million views. That’s all about Nick. My side of the screen is a charisma-free zone.

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Nick’s shop is symbolic of his whole life. It is the home of six or seven young woodworkers who get an amazing shop to work in, and an income making some of the awesome Offerman Woodshop products, as well as space and time to build their own careers and commissions. In return they kick back a little to overhead, and Nick just tries to break even. You can read about the people, projects, and whole vibe in Nick’s wonderful new book, “Good, Clean Fun,” which I had the honor to help edit.

Anytime I can pay Nick back somehow, I leap at the chance. Fact-checking his latest book was a welcome opportunity.

I first met Nick when he was a guest on the Martha Stewart Show, and I was a talking head in the audience.

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Nick is a super-fan of Fine Woodworking magazine, and said he was star-struck about meeting me at the Martha Stewart Show. That was crazy talk, and I told him so.

We became fast friends, and he soon appeared on the cover of Fine Woodworking magazine, which I was the editor of. No puff piece, mind you, but a hardcore how-to article about a killer router jig he uses to surface big slabs.

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Soon Nick was the subject of a how-to article in FWW. He appreciated the fact that he had to earn his way in with killer content, just like everyone else. 

Later, I visited his shop to do that video tour, and even later, he convinced the producers of Parks & Rec to write me and some other real woodworking people into an actual episode of the show. You can see my short but powerful second of camera time here. Strangely, LA never came calling again.

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Nick invited me and the best woodworker he knows, Chris Becksvoort, to be on the show. Lucky for us, the show has an oddball vibe. The cast was as friendly as they are talented, including the gold-tressed Ms. Poehler.

And now Nick is writing the foreword to my book. You should all have friends like this guy. Until you meet him in person, you can soak up his spirit in his many great books, all at this same link on Amazon, or go see one of his stand-up comedy/storytelling performances at a theater near you. When you meet him, thank him for making woodworking cool again.

Hanging in Nick’s shop is the first cedar-strip canoe he built. It’s name is Lucky Boy. I think one of the keys to life is to find ways to feel fortunate. That’s my resolution for 2017.

Easy wood floor for any workshop

After a few hours on a concrete floor, your feet, ankles, and legs start to suffer. And if you know your dogs will be barking in your workshop, you’ll spend less time there building things.

There is a quick, easy answer. If you want to warm up a concrete slab, put a spring in your step, and get the whole job done in an afternoon, DriCore panels are for you.

What I love most is how thin a DriCore floor is–under 1 in.–meaning you won’t steal valuable headroom under low ceilings. Yet it has all the benefits of the real thing: great insulation value, a moisture barrier, excellent strength and durability under a heavy machine or workbench, and the forgiving bounce of wood. It will be friendlier to your feet and friendlier to your tools, and just warm up the place.

To beautify and protect the floor you can stain or paint it. At minimum, you should roll out a couple coats of polyurethane. As for availability, you can pick up the panels or have them delivered from almost any Home Depot.

The secret to the system is the anatomy of the panel. They are 2-ft.-by-2-ft., so they are easy to carry around yet they cover a floor quickly. On their edges are tongues and grooves that fit together snugly but require no glue to keep them joined for life. And on the bottom is a bumpy plastic layer that acts both as a moisture barrier and an air gap, adding to the insulating value (R-17).

I’ve known about DriCore since my days at Fine Woodworking, but I spent a recent day at a friend’s shop, helping him install his floor, and we learned a few tips and tricks. Scroll down for the basics. There is also a how-to video here with lots more info.

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The tongues and grooves fit together snugly and need no glue.
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The top is durable chipboard and the bottom is a bumpy layer of tough plastic that helps the panels lay flat, and creates both an air gap and a moisture barrier.
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Start by laying out some panels to see how they will work. You need to stagger the seams as you go from row to row, without having any pieces that are 3 in. wide or less, so it takes a bit of planning. Often you’ll need to cut the first piece in the row to get the rest to work.
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You put 1/4-in. spacers against the wall when installing the floor. You’ll remove them later, to give the floor a chance to expand and contract with the seasons.
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We quickly learned to install the panels with their tongues facing the wall, because it is easier to bang on the groove side. Always protect the edge with a 2×4 as shown.
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When you reach the wall, you’ll need to make a cut. A tablesaw works great, but a circ saw or jigsaw also work fine. Be really careful when deciding which edge to cut off. We paid the price for rushing a few times!
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The process goes quickly, slowing down only when you get to the end of a row and have to do some measuring and cutting, and then some prying against the wall to get the last piece to join its mate!
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A jigsaw is especially helpful for notches and curves when working around obstacles.
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In an afternoon you have a flawless floor in a big room. Roll out a few coats of polyurethane to protect and beautify the wood, wait a couple more days, and roll in your equipment! You can also stain or paint the surface.

 

 

 

Build lots of stuff with just a few tools

One of the things I love best about building things by hand is the problem-solving. If you know a few tricks, you can use a surprisingly small tool kit to build a staggering amount of stuff. When writing my book, Build Stuff with Wood (coming soon), which is aimed at true beginners, I challenged myself to work with just a few portable power tools. Each one will come in handy for all sorts of DIY and home-improvement for years to come. And all four of them will fit in the back of your Mini Cooper when you move to Brooklyn or Banff (best town name ever).

I made some amazing discoveries along the way. Like the incredibly smooth-cutting blades you can get for a small jigsaw, which will produce cuts that rival those of the biggest bandsaw. Then there is the simple cutting guide you can make for any circular saw. It’s normally a rough construction tool, but the guide turns it into a star, for super-straight cuts on plywood and big boards that look like they were done on a tablesaw.

The other must have is a cordless drill, but not just any cordless drill. You want an impact driver, a new type of drill that rattles loudly when the going gets tough, melting big screws into hard woods almost effortlessly. It can drill just as well.

I went over my $100 budget on the last must-have tool. It’s a miter saw. If you want to build things inside or outside your house or apartment, you’ll want one of these cutoff masters. I’ve used mine when building decks, laying flooring, and making woodwork projects of all kinds. A good one is $300 or so, but it is so worth it. It will make perfect 90-degree cuts (or any other angle) on the ends of boards in just a few seconds, with zero fuss or setup. Just walk up, drop the board in place, pull the trigger and pull the saw downward smoothly.

And the miter saw is portable, meaning it can easily go where it is needed, for projects away from your dedicated workspace. I just used mine to build an entire fence. Look for that blog soon!

To be honest, I’d also add a router, one just like this from DeWalt, which is small enough for easy control but tough enough for any task. Use it to put nice roundovers and bevels on your edges, and too many more cool moves to list here.

That’s everything, and you don’t have to buy it all at once. Buy tools as you need them, and buy the mid-grade at least. You’ll be much happier in the end. I’m showing them below in the order I would buy them, starting with the jigsaw and cordless drill.

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Get a good jigsaw and you can make almost any cut you can imagine. Eventually you’ll get tools that do more reliable straight cuts, but the jigsaw can remain your curve specialist. The key to success is buying a decent one, and replacing the stock blades with longer ones designed for smooth cuts in wood.
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Here’s me cutting out the back of a bottle opener project for my book.
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Smoothing the cuts takes just minutes with sandpaper and a block.
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This is my favorite tool all time, a 20V impact driver. You don’t need a model this nice and powerful, but definitely get an impact driver over a normal cordless drill. For driving screws, it is simply amazing.
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Here’s the driver assembling the frame of a cornhole game, also in the book!
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The only downside to the impact driver is that it only accepts hex-shank bits like these, but you can get an auxiliary chuck for it that takes round-shanked drills.
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As soon as you can afford it, get a miter saw. I recommend the 12-in., non-sliding type like this for best value.
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You just walk up to the saw, line up a your mark with the blade, pull the trigger and make a perfect cut. Be sure to wear your ear and eye protection, always! (my lenses are polycarbonate, so they suffice)
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Eventually you’ll want to make long cuts in plywood and also have a very portable saw for construction projects. You can’t beat the circular saw for that.
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Make cutting guide, like I show in an earlier blog, and it will help you make perfectly straight cuts every time. Another trick is the rigid foam insulation I put under the plywood, for perfect support (and protecting the table beneath!).

 

Sandpaper jig cuts perfect pieces

Applying a beautiful finish to wood is all about how well you prepare the surface before the oil or varnish goes on, and careful sanding is the key (hand-planing can be amazing too, but that has a steeper learning curve).

The key to successful sanding is backing the paper up with a flat block. That means you’ll be tearing a lot of sandpaper sheets down to block-size. This simple cutting jig is the fastest way to do that.

All you need is a couple pieces of wood and a hacksaw blade. New ones cost only a couple bucks each. Or you can repurpose an old one that has gone dull. Sharpness doesn’t really matter here.

The next question is how big your sanding block is. I use the world’s most badass block, the little-known “Preppin’ Weapon,” which uses a 1/4 sheet of sandpaper that you make by ripping a big sheet across its width. One big sheet makes four perfect strips, but only if you use this handy DIY cutter.

To make the jig, you use one piece of plywood (or whatever) as the base and a narrower piece as the fence. Then you just screw down the hacksaw blade, with the edge facing outward, the right distance away from the fence. There are little holes in the ends of the blade to make it easy to screw down.

Then whenever you need a new piece of paper, you slip it under the blade, bump it against the fence and tear. Perfect, every time.

You’ll hear a lot of makers and woodworkers fuss about the cool “jig” they just built. Now you can join the club.

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The jig couldn’t be simpler. You screw down an old hacksaw blade, with the cutting edge facing outward. Then you screw down a fence according to how wide you need your paper to be. For alternative sandpaper sizes, you can just draw lines on the jig.
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The blade is easy to screw down, right through its attachment holes. Just put a washer under each end to make it easier to slip the sandpaper underneath.
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Then you just stick in a sheet…
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…hold down the blade and tear…
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…and you can make a pile of perfect pieces.
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I set up my jig so it makes perfect pieces for my sanding block, the “Preppin’ Weapon” (seriously). This block grabs one end of the paper with a quick flick of a lever…
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…and then cinches the other end tight just as quickly.
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This long, ergonomic block fits my hand perfectly and is the best sanding tool on the planet.

 

Simple polyurethane finish is tough and pretty

A lot of folks build nice wood projects only to struggle when applying a finish. The trouble is that the instructions on the back of the can are pretty sketchy. Here’s what they don’t tell you, and don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Follow these steps and you’ll leave the wood glowing and the surface buttery to the touch.

First a bit of context. Basically there are two types of finishes: thin oil finishes that make the wood pretty but don’t build up much protection, and film finishes like polyurethane and shellac that also beautify the wood but also build up a protective layer. Choose a film finish for any project that will see some wear and tear, like the coffee table in this blog.

Polyurethane is the easiest film finish to use. First of all, choose the quick-drying, oil-based kind. The only reason to use water-based poly is if you want the wood to end up whiter looking (water-based dries very clear, but isn’t as durable; oil-based is tougher but has a slight yellowing effect, which is nice on most woods.) Secondly, choose the satin type. It won’t end up shiny and sticky looking like gloss poly does.

After that, the main keys to success with any finish are all about sanding–before you apply it, and between coats. Get that right, and watch for drips along the way, and you’ll be amazed at how good your new project looks. Here’s the path to happiness.

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A good finish is all about wood preparation. Sand up through the grits, from about 120 or 150, depending on how rough or bumpy the wood is, to 220 grit. Use a sanding block under the paper or a random-orbit sander like this one. It doesn’t matter which. Just be systematic and thorough.
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A piece of flexible rubber mat makes a good backer for sanding these curved edges.
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Satin polyurethane has a flattening material in it that makes it less glossy, but this stuff will settle to the bottom of the can. Stir well before starting, and occasionally as you go.
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Disposable foam brushes work well for polyurethane. Elevate a panel like this and don’t try to do the bottom until the top and edges are done and dry. Dip the brush, unload it in a central area, and then spread the finish out with smooth strokes.
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To avoid drips, make sure there isn’t too much finish in the brush when you get to the edge, and fly off the edge lightly.
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Edges are next. To avoid drips below, you probably don’t even have to dip the foam brush again before doing these edges. If you do, dip it lightly.
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Just to be sure there aren’t any drips hanging below, I wipe the underside of the edges with a clean paper towel. Now let the panel or project dry before flipping it and doing the surface or surfaces you couldn’t get to. Same process for those, even if that means finishing the edges twice.
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Sand between coats! This is a critical step that a lot of people pass by. The first coat will raise some wood whiskers and be pretty rough, so hit it lightly with 220-grit paper and a sanding block just until it feels smooth. Then wipe, blow, or vacuum away the dust. That’s critical too.
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Next coat is just like the first coat.
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You’ve got just one more coat to go for most projects. Before this one, fold up the 220-grit sandpaper and hold it in your hands as you make a light pass over the project. This way you’ll be sure to get into little valleys that a sanding block might miss. Then get rid of the dust, apply that last coat, and enjoy!