Saturday, December 4, 2010

Second flight

Nette and I spent most of the weekend working on the second flight of stairs.  It was a pretty steep learning curve for us.  Up until now the stairs have been similar to pieces of furniture, which is in our comfort zone.  So much so that the bottom flight is actually a chest of drawers and the landing is a cupboard. 

But which ever way we looked at it, the second flight could only be described as one thing - stairs.   So we delved into the world of stringers (the outside beams that hold up the stairs) and brackets (the middle beam under the stairs).   The result…we’re well on the way to completing our first, fully fledged flight of stairs.  The stringers we made up from left over floor LVLs.  The bracket is MGP (machine graded pine) made along the lines of a “peter post” and inspired by the stair section in my 4 volume edition of  “The Australian Carpenter and Joiner”.

Bet you can't guess what the most useful tool was this weekend.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Staring at stairs

There were two of us on site this weekend, me and my 82 year old Dad.  You can see the progress we made on the stairs, especially the landing wall, which is now panelled.  We did some of the fiddly bits where the main post, winders and treads meet too, which required some quite tricky compound mitres. 

Cutting the mitres was made a lot easier by Dad, who filled his Saturday sharpening my handsaws.  He spent a lot of time on one in particular which the brickie had used to cut some Timbercrete bricks.  Dad was less than impressed - that was no way to treat a Disston handsaw!

Dad and I probably had more coffee breaks than the award allows for - but the weekend wasn’t just about work.   Life’s all about choices isn’t it?  I think the work/coffee break balance we struck this weekend was a good choice.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

First flight is in

The first flight of stairs is installed, complete with 11 drawers.  I've made a mental note that next time (next time?) that making such a unit in three sections would be better than two.  It nearly killed us moving it from the workshop onto the trailer and then into the house. 

Total time to build this flight of stairs....drum roll....59 hours including making the 12 "secret" drawers.  (They're not really a secret now I've told you!).  I should charge by the hour.

Next steps (excuse the pun): build the second flight; make the very first step, clad the landing wall and make a door for entry into the Harry Potter suite.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An unlikely marriage

When I was in Scotland at the Chippendale International School of Furniture in 1996 the principal, Anselm, introduced me to the Black and Decker powerfile.  This tool can best be described as an unlikely marriage between a belt sander and an angle grinder.  It’s been on my list of “tools to buy” ever since I’ve returned and last Saturday my patience was rewarded when Nette gave me one for my birthday.
I have high hopes for the powerfile when it comes to fitting the drawers, tidying up some of the ratty edges on the beams and generally “making things fit”.  I’ll report back in a few weeks on how it’s performing. 

Meanwhile in the workshop I've finished the first flight of stairs, including using the powerfile to fine tune the fit of the drawers.  All going well I'll be installing the stair unit this weekend.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


We chose to build our house with a product called Timbercrete.  Their website is amazingly useful and, based on our experience, true to its word.  I really can’t praise the product or the company enough. 

For example, when I was drafting up the house plans (which I did in Microsoft Word - but that’s another post perhaps)  I emailed a copy to Timbercrete for their input.  They came back with some ideas which greatly simplified the brick laying and reduced waste.  Based on my plans they also estimated how many bricks we’d need, including bricks with power points already installed, bricks for lintels, bricks with horizontal and vertical service channels and even half bricks.  The wastage was incredibly small and their estimate very accurate. 

As for how it looks….love it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sanders aren't just for sanding

After a great week with my new DeWalt quarter sheet sander I got to thinking about why I liked it so much. I've written a bit more about it on Pemberley-Estate's sister blog, The Worship Woodworker.  You can check it out here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Four clear winners

The two story open plan design of our house meant that we had a span of 9 metres to cover.  Not astronomical, but a bit of a challenge all the same.  The company that sold us the LVLs (Laminated Veneer Lumber – which is basically really hefty “plywood” with a funky name) came up with an engineered solution using 395mm x 55mm LVLs at 450mm centres. 
We had planned to leave these deep beams exposed, contributing to the pioneering, hand made texture of the house.  What we hadn’t banked on however, was that every beam would come with the date and manufacturer printed on it in wide black lettering.
We could have opted to paint the beams, but we felt that would look at odds with the warm oiled timber finishes on the Tassie oak windows, cedar doors and tallow wood stairs.  So, that left just one option – sanding.
Between us, Nette and I have spent around 60 hours sanding the blessed ink off the beams.  It’s been impossible to remove 100% of it, but it now looks aged and a lot less obtrusive.
A plus side of all this sanding is that it has enabled me to draw four conclusions:
The Dust-Bee-Gone works.
My highly scientific “blow my nose on the clean hanky test” has confirmed in my mind that the DBG filters out 95% more dust than the el cheapo dust masks. It’s that simple.  Here's some more info about them.

Electric sanders are consumables.
I kill at least one electric sander a year, usually just after the warrantee runs out (how do they know?). The upside is that I have worn out a lot of sanders over the last two decades and feel somewhat of an expert on the subject. I have tried cheap ones and expensive ones. My first observation has been that price is not a reflection of longevity.  To replace my last dead sander ($60-Ryobi, good sander, but only lasted 13 months) I lashed out and bought a DeWalt for $130. After 14 hours of solid sanding this weekend – I love it.
Compared to any other sander I’ve used: it captures more dust, runs markedly cooler, is significantly lighter (granted, it is the smaller quarter sheet size) and has the longest cord. If it lasts more than 12 months it will be a bonus.

The best sand paper is white aluminium oxide.
It keeps sanding for longer than anything else I’ve used. The best brand I’ve encountered is Carborundum. The worst performer I have experienced is the yellow painters’ sandpaper. As far as sandpaper goes, the yellow stuff makes a good non-slip drink coaster.

And the forth ….
God is good…but I already knew that.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lipstick on a wombat

In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t particularly like machined finishes, faultless layouts or sharp manufactured edges. Rather, I gravitate to furniture that makes little attempt to hide its man made heritage, or, better yet, holds them up as a rite of passage.

But it’s the handmade aspect that was in itself a bit of a challenge when it came to the stairs (see this earlier posts for the background). 20 drawers with four dovetailed corners each represents a fairly big time commitment. For me, the battle was how to be efficient and effective without compromising the very handmade quality that I was after.

Enter two design choices and two “secret” weapons.

Design choice #1 - industrial sized dovetails
These are about a half inch at their widest point, thinning down to a quarter of an inch. This is consistent with the story that I want the stairs to tell. Namely, that the staircase started life in a dockside warehouse some 150 years ago and was rescued just before the building was demolished. From a practical aspect, the big dovetails also allowed me to correct some of the cupping and warping of the 100+ year old floor boards I’m using.

Design choice #2 - through dovetails
This too is consistent with Australian factories and warehouses built in the 1800’s, well before tech screws, liquid nails and routers. Back then, dovetails were used anywhere a joint needed to be practical, robust and mechanically effective.

Secret weapon #1 - a template
Before launching head on I spent a while making a template for laying out the pins and sockets. Templates work well anytime you want to repeat the same layout, which in my case was 80 times.

Secret weapon #2 - the bandsaw
The second weapon, was the bandsaw. The tails were easy as the cuts are all perpendicular to the table. But the sockets required an angled cut. I considered making a jig, or moving the table, but after experimenting I got very acceptable results using a spring clamp attached to one edge of the timber. The spring clamp allowed me to quickly position the board at the correct angle and to make any minor adjustments to compensate for the tails - something a jig would not have permitted with such ease. After cutting, I cleaned out the sockets with a sharp chisel.

These four decisions meant that each draw carcase was completed in 10-15 minutes. Granted a dovetail jig would be quicker as may an accomplished cabinet maker with hand tools. But the approach I’ve used has resulted in exactly the look I was after within an acceptable time frame with tools and techniques I am proficient with. Besides, for me, to attempt fine woodworking on antique floor boards is like putting lipstick on a wombat - it doesn’t disguise the wombat, it just annoys it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I went to the Working With Wood  show with Nette last weekend and had a fantastic time. We even picked up the dust mask with arguably the world’s coolest name, the “Dust-Bee-Gone”.

We’d previously read some positive write ups for the “DBG”, including one in the Australian Woodworker and another in Jim Tolpin’s book, “Woodworking Wit & Wisdom” (great book btw).

Mind you, at around $60 they’re not cheap, but with an expected life of several years we reckon they have the potential to be a good buy.

My experience with the el-cheapo disposables has been that when I blow my nose at the end of the day I still end up with a ton of junk on my nicely ironed hanky. Which makes me wonder just how much dust is making it all the way to my lungs.

I’ll let you know how the “Dust-Bee-Gone” performs over the coming months, in particular how it fairs in the highly scientific “muck on the nicely ironed hanky” test.

If you’d like to buy a DBG contact Steve Diver.
PS: Steve didn't pay for the plug, he just seemed a nice bloke when we met him at the show.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stairs with flair

Lately, when I haven’t been able to work on site, I’ve been building the first flight of stairs in my garage. You may notice that it bears an uncanny resemblance to a chest of drawers.

The carcase is 30mm medium density fibreboard (MDF), glued and screwed, with the stairs and treads clad with 100 year old tallow wood floor boards. The 12 drawers are solid tallow wood with through dovetails at each corner. I opted for through rather than the more traditional half blind dovetails on the drawer fronts because I quite like the somewhat industrial look it gives.

But why drawers?”, I hear you ask.  Well, you can never have enough storage and it just seemed a good use of space.

At this stage the ancient lino glue and paint splatters are still apparent. I’ll attack the finish when all the cabinet work is done so I can get a consistent feel across the whole piece. As for drawer knobs - I’m not sure yet. If you have any ideas leave a suggestion.

By the way, if you’re wondering how I’m going to move it - I’ve constructed the cabinet in two pieces. The top section of six drawers lifts off the bottom two rows, or at least I didn’t mean to put any glue there.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Winders & Reminders

I learnt a few things this weekend.

The winders
Firstly, that there is a lot of fiddling involved in making winders. For the “stair unaware”, winders are steps that make a staircase turn a corner. My staircase has two flights, the first is six steps, followed by 3 winders, a landing, then a second flight of six steps. The overall effect is to lift the climber a couple of metres and to reorient them 180 degrees.

Secondly, using recycled timber takes longer than using new material. Okay, I already knew that one, but the work on the staircase confirmed it – yet again. Not that I mind. The 100 year old tallow wood flooring that came out of a house in Goulburn is beautiful. Though, it does take some effort to work around the odd lengths and inevitable structural defects that occur when old boards are lifted. But, what I like about the old flooring is how each board tells a story with its paint splatters, grime, dents, cracks and splits. I love it.

Thirdly, if you leave a “Warmray” unattended outside with its door open it can set fire to your caravan. Perhaps, point three needs a little background. My Dad gave me his old “Warmray”, which for the less informed, is a cast iron slow combustion fire. I’ve been using it as an outside barbie, usually a few yards from the caravan door.

Well, yesterday I kicked off the “Warmray” at half five and went back into the house to finish up for the day. I got a bit engrossed with the idea of being able to see the floor for the first time in 12 months and lost track of time. It was probably 45 minutes later that I ventured back to the van – which was now surrounded in flames! The “Warmray” had set fire to the surrounding grass, which in turn had ignited the pallet that served as the van’s front veranda. I should point out that the “Warmray" is innocent of any wrong doing as I had left its door open so it would draw better.

I reckon another three and a half minutes and the van (circa 1970 with green laminex benches), the old shed (circa 1960 with recycled corrugated iron) that it’s parked in and my tractor (a 1948 grey fergie) in the next bay would have all been toast – burnt toast at that.

But, because of what I believe was a prompting of the Holy Spirit, I ventured out in the nick of time and was level headed enough to bucket water onto the blaze with the only casualty being the veranda pallet and some 50 gallons of water.

Praise God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The decisive trip

16 April 2005 was the decisive trip - we walked around the 60 acres, prayed about it and put in an offer.  A few months and a lot of paperwork later it was ours.  From here it was two years of drafting plans, seeking council approval and arranging to start.

Pemberley from the air

And so it starts

Ahh, the first post. The quintessential paragraph that sets the tone for all subsequent posts. The post that, for some, will be their first encounter with this blog. No pressure here, but it must be brilliant, articulate and witty. Arresting the attention of the reader from the first syllable and drawing them into a world to which they will want to return.

Alternatively, it just needs to be short with no typos - I think I can live with that…..

For some, “Pemberley” is a fictitious place dreamt up by Jane Austen. For my family however, it is a real place near the south coast of NSW. Formerly part of a dairy the 2 kilometre driveway leads to a house that, whilst not quite as ostentatious as Mr Darcy’s, will one day also be a family home. That is if I ever finish building it. Purchased in April 2005 with only an old corrugated shed to shelter in we started building in April 2007.

This blog is all about the build, the materials we’ve used, the challenges we’ve met and what we’ve learnt along the way.