The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 1

Borrowing from the effusive Sally Field, “You like me!  You like me!” I am just cresting 3,000 views in one year (I assume this is good) and, turns out, the subject of doors is the most popular view to date!  Following your lead, this post covers basic installation techniques for interior doors.

Door installation is as much an art as a skill.  Rarely is the rough framing into which the door is placed square, plumb or level.  In remodeling, this can be due to settling and movement of the house over time; on the other hand, in all the time I worked as a trim carpenter in new construction, I never saw a framer (the guy who builds the walls) use a level or a plumb bob to ensure the walls and door openings were not leaning, twisted or shaped like a trapezoid.

In new construction you begin by assessing the rough opening.  The rough opening is the hole in the wall built by the framer where the door will be located.

Measure the inside width of the opening from stud to stud, top, bottom and middle.  This dimension should ideally be about one half-inch to one inch larger than the width of the door in its frame (jamb.)  You will need this extra space to place shims in order to square up the door so it will operate perfectly.  Measure the outside width of the door frame (jamb) from the outside of the hinge jamb to the outside the latch jamb to check the door width.  These vertical jambs are also called “legs.”  You should have a 1/4″ – 1/2″ gap all the way around if everything is sized correctly.

Measure the height of the rough opening; this number should be a bit taller than the overall door height (Remember:  “door” refers to the door slab hanging on its hinges inside the jamb or frame.   This is referred to as a “pre-hung door.”  We’ll discuss hanging a replacement slab in an existing jamb later…)  The top piece on the door jamb is called the “header.”

Go get your levels.  For door installation close is close enough, so if the bubbles are intact and there are black lines on either side of the bubbles, your level will work fine; we’re not building a boat here, as they say.  An assortment of 2-foot, 4-foot and 6-foot levels will come in much handier than one of those 6-inch levels which fits neatly in your tool box but is about as much help in hanging doors as a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

Levels should be accurate; the best way to ensure accuracy is to spend a little more for a good set.  Keep in mind the maxim about tools:  You get what you pay for.

Set the pre-hung door unit aside and just work with the rough opening for the moment.  Place the 6-foot level vertically on the hinge side of the rough opening; get rid of any protrusions like nail heads, staples and dried drywall mud so the level sits flush with the stud.  Note whether the surface is plumb (straight up-and-down.)  If it’s plumb…Frank Lloyd Wright built the house.  Use cedar shims to space the hinge jamb away from the rough opening the distance you measured earlier.

The shims are wedge-shaped; put them together to make flat surfaces to go against the stud and the jamb.  Nail the shims to the stud at the same heights as the hinges on the door.  They will stick out on both sides; you will cut them off later.

If the stud is not plumb, arrange the thicknesses of the shims to make a plumb surface (the shims) to attach the door jamb to.  This is where the wedge shape comes in handy.  Use your level to find plumb after installing, say, the top set of shims, then fit the correct thickness of shims between the stud and the level at the other end.  That makes the middle set easy to fit.  Now you have a plumb surface to fastened the hinge jamb to.

Now you are ready to put the pre-hung unit in its hole.  Man-(or woman-)handle the door into the rough opening.  This is easiest done with the door closed and secured by a plastic or wood “bolt” through the lock set hole into the jamb hole.  Some pre-hung doors come with a screw or nail through the jamb header or leg into the door edge; make sure you find and remove these first to save time and aggravation.

Align the outer edges of the hinge jamb to the wall surface on each side.  Drive one nail through the stop (the small board the door closes against) at the top hinge location, through the shims, pinning the door frame to the stud.  Now you can operate the door to see how to adjust it during installation for perfect operation.  I usually add one more nail towards the bottom, not through the shims, to add stability and ability to make adjustments in the door geometry.

Align the latch jamb with the wall surfaces; “capture” or hold it in place with shims top, middle (behind the latch bolt hole) and bottom friction-fitted between the jamb and the stud.  You will adjust these (see below) for proper gap, a.k.a. the reveal, around the door so it’s even, not too large, and not too snug.  Kind of like Goldilocks’ porridge, but different.

Close the door.  What?  You didn’t take out the temporary bolt yet?  Okay.  I’ll wait…

Close the door.  Gently.  Does it “clunk” pleasantly when it hits the stops, hitting the stops all the way around?  Yes?  Nail it all off and go take a smoke break if you live in Colorado.  Or Amsterdam.

Does it hit the stop at one place but not uniformly around the perimeter?  To fix that, nudge the jamb legs in and out, top and bottom until the door hits the stops all the way around.  This will put the jamb either sticking out past the wall surface, or a little behind the wall surface.  You will deal with this when you trim out the finished door with casing.  Welcome to my world.

Now you can think about seriously nailing the two legs through the shims.  Before you put all 6 X 3 = 18 (yes, 18) nails in the jamb, start with one through the jamb at each set of shims.  Remember the gap?  If it’s uneven when you close the door and exam it all the way around, pry the jamb away from the shims to adjust it until it’s a consistent 1/16″ to 3/32″.  Too large will A.  look ugly; B.  transmit more sound and drafts; and C.  look ugly.  Too small will cause the door to rub and bind.  Adjust shims accordingly for a perfect fit.

You may notice the reveal at the top is a pie-wedge, i.e., uneven.  Adjust the shims behind the bottom hinge, adding thickness or taking it away to even up this gap.  This technique rotates the door slab to change that gap.  You might need to tweak the middle hinge shims to compensate for the bottom movement.  The bolt holes in the slab and the latch jamb should now be aligned.

Almost done.

Finish the installation by installing the remaining nails:  Three at each shim location, one each side of the stop and one through the stop.  If the header (remember the header?) is bowed up or down, shim and nail where it works to get rid of the bow.  Use the 2-foot level to check.

One more potential issue you may face in installing an interior door is a sloped floor over the width of the rough opening.  Use one of the shorter levels to test this before you begin.  Lift up the low end of the level, center the bubble and estimate the amount the floor is out of level across the opening.  This will be the distance between the bottom of the level and the floor on the low side with the level level.  Using a saw, neatly cut off this amount of wood from the bottom of the jamb leg on the high side.  This will compensate for the slope.  I do not recommend cutting the bottom of the door to match the slope of the floor; this is difficult to do neatly, and only draws attention to the slanted floor.  No one looks at the bottom of the door anyway…

Okay, enough for now.  Later we’ll get into a few more tricks and tips that will make you the Dior of Doors.

Oh come on!  Fashion IS Art!


Reclaiming Vintage Wood – An Epic Tale

Explaining how he created the lengthy and intricate story that became The Lord of the Rings epic, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “The tale grew in the telling.”  Sometimes remodeling projects are like that.  Typical reasons to add time and cost to a project include uncovering rot in the walls, opening a floor and discovering a hidden portal to the fourth dimension, and finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow with which to fund a bigger project.  Well, at least the first one is typical.

But, sometimes, things just work out that way for the better, like, serendipitously…

Such is the case with a recent (2013) remodel of the kitchen in the home of Terri A. and Les S., located in the forested foothills of Mt. Baker, Washington, home to bald eagles, spawning salmon, white-tailed deer and Lucy, the sweetest guard dog on the planet.

Terri had for many years wanted to upgrade her kitchen, which was functional but lacking a certain something – like cabinet doors and drawer spaces.  The room had all of three – count ’em – three drawers with faces among seven built-in base cabinets and one wall cabinet.  Roll out baskets were installed in several of the boxes, which added the storage capacity of drawers without the finished look of drawer faces.  The design was basic and adequate, but far from efficient and elegant.

You know a picture is worth a thousand words, so take a look at the Pre-Remodeling Layout:

Left Side Cabinets

Open Cabinets Left of the Sink

To the left of the sink a perpendicular run of three cabinets included a corner cabinet; it was a chore to access stuff in the “blind” end which had no shelf.

Baskets on drawer slides helped improve some access, but the interiors of the cabinets were wider than the fixed-width baskets, resulting in wasted space.

Additionally, the built-in boxes shared a common side wall between any two, and the illusion of a thicker wall was created by using a wider stile (the vertical trim piece, or “face frame”) at the front of each wall, wasting more interior cabinet room in an already small space.

The sink cabinet was about 22 inches wide which accommodated a relatively small drop-in style sink.

Sink Area

Sink Area with Peak-A-Boo Door

The door below the sink was an afterthought as was the wall cabinet over the range on the opposite side of the room.  Hence, they didn’t match anything.  As you can see, most of the aesthetic design went into the interior of the cabinets where knotty fir plywood was used for the cabinet side walls.  Terri loves the look of the original wood which is also in the walls and throughout the house.  So, duplicating the hue and character of the old wood was an important design feature in her vision of the new look for her kitchen space.

Three Unhappy Drawer Faces Right of the Sink

Three Lonely Drawer Faces Right of the Sink

“Knotty fir” is  a descriptive name rather than a species; in fact, according to The Real Wood Bible, coast Douglas fir, which this wood almost certainly is, is not even a true fir (Abies genus)!  Another name for the tree is Oregon pine, and its grows ubiquitously on the west coast of the United States and Canada from British Columbia to California.

We can roughly date this original installation to perhaps the late 1940s, when plywood became a consumer product after its widespread use for the war effort during WWII, to the early 1970s.  Knotty fir, although beautiful, was considered a cheaper grade of wood:  the more desirable Doug-fir grade had few, if any, tight knots and was used for furniture and paneling.  Today, knotty fir is rarely found; my local lumber yard stopped carrying ACX fir plywood 15 years ago.  Regardless, this grade has one good (“A”) side and the other side is not-so-good (“C”.)  Further, the “A” side has the knots cut out and patched with oval-shaped pieces of veneer, so the best use was to paint it, not look at it.

What is available today is expensive CVG (clear vertical grain) fir plywood, which is useful for staining or clear coating for appearance but has no knots to add character.  When it comes to dimensional knotty fir lumber (which is solid wood), generally all that can be found are “shorts” useful for small projects.  These solid boards are usually a few inches wide and maybe five feet long.  To create doors of any width, several of these narrow boards need to be edge-joined to create a wider panel.  This is not always attractive because the doors end up looking like fence boards side-by-side.  Also, book matching, joining pieces of the same board to create a mirror image grain pattern, doesn’t work very well as a visual feature because the book-matched boards aren’t wide enough.

So, how to realize Terri’s dream of a “new” kitchen carrying over the same rustic beauty of the original design was the first challenge.  Terri wanted to initially add new cabinet doors and drawer fronts and retrofit four of the boxes with real drawers; she also decided to replace the temporary cabinet over the range, add a narrow cabinet with a counter top next to the range, add a tall pantry with multiple roll-out shelves, and a few other upgrades to give the kitchen greater functionality and a finished look.

Even for this limited amount of fabrication, choosing to use CVG fir plywood exclusively would have been costly at $160 per 4′ X 8′ panel, and would have been out-of-character with the surrounding walls and trim – which have those wonderful knots!  And we’ve discussed the issues with using fir shorts.  CVG fir dimensional lumber is also expensive and a bit monotonous from a visual perspective – the wood is beautiful but the grain pattern is straight as a string.

After doing all this research and thinking about how to make this kitchen look like it came with the house, I asked my local lumber guys if they had any ideas how or where to obtain a quantity of old-school knotty fir lumber.  I really didn’t want to find an old building, bid on the demolition, demolish it, extract the usable timbers and beams, resaw them into lumber, etc.  There must be someone somewhere who makes this their business who can save me 90 percent of the work of reclaiming this type of wood.  As it turns out, there is, and it’s a local business who specializes in just this area.

Jeffrey E. operates from his home shop.  He regularly participates in auctions and bids for de-constructed building lumber specializing in fir.  His business focuses on reclaiming fir lumber for use in new and remodeled houses, cabinets and furniture.  A pleasant surprise was that he makes a living at this which reflects a good demand for this material, and an ethos among his customers to reuse and recycle perfectly good wood products for new projects.  Jeffrey has a technique for planing the old raw wood he uses which retains a portion of the patina from the years-long aging process the wood has undergone.  The result is an attractive patterning on the finished product which adds a unique feature to the decor.

The boards I purchased were all about 12 feet long by at least 6 inches wide; they had been surface-planed to 5/4 (five-quarter), which is about 1 and  1/16″ thick.  The edges of each board were original to the beam each had been sliced from, so they were not perfectly straight for running through a table saw.  To solve this problem, I fixed a straightedge (a long, perfectly straight board) to each one to act as a guide for the table saw fence.  This technique results in one straight edge cut on each board, which can then be used to rip a straight edge on the opposite side, or rip narrower boards for use.

After painstakingly ripping a straight edge, I fed each thick board through my surface planer for multiple passes.  This finally reduced the thickness of each board to a standard 3/4 inches plus a fraction for sanding.

The planer removes a fraction of an inch with each pass.  Once you get one side nicely flat and smooth, turn  the board over and remove wood from the other side,  When both sides are looking good, stop and examine the board for features you want to display, like knots, nail holes, particularly striking grain patterns, and colors.  Choose a side to be the “outside” of doors, drawer fronts, panels, etc., and concentrate on removing the remaining thickness from the other side.  This will preserve the look you selected.

To minimize potential problems, planer blades, router bits, saw blades, chisels and all cutting implements should be maintained razor-sharp.  Quoting from Nick Gibbs in The Real Wood Bible, “In the workshop…Douglas fir is a satisfying lumber to work, with spectacular grain patterns emerging on plain-sawn surfaces, but it has its drawbacks.  Cutters have to be sharp and there is a risk of splintering.”  Splintering is a problem that can lead to other problems, like getting a splinter (or 12) in your hand.  Splinters hurt like the Dickens because the fingers and hands are the site of the highest concentration of nerve endings in the human body.  Besides, Doug fir splinters are usually tiny, sharp and deeply imbedded.  Now, besides having to repair the splintered wood, you have to endure the misery of painful splinters reminding you of their presence every time you bump them.  So, keep your tools sharp and bone up on minor surgery.

Now I sorted through the milled lumber for the best looking faces to use for doors and drawer fronts.  All the top drawers are traditionally the same height (about 5 and 3/4 inches), so I picked a 6″ wide board with few flaws near the edges and long enough to make six top drawer faces of varying widths.  The consistency of grain pattern and color carries around the kitchen in an eye-pleasing effect.

I chose pieces by width to make wide and narrow doors as called for in the design.  Because the boards were 12 feet long, I had the advantage of the ability to book-match each door panel, making for a much more attractive look compared to random boards edge-joined together.  I also paid attention to the location and “quality” of knots and nail holes; these added the precise rustic character of the original installation we were looking to achieve.

Now I must digress to tell you about the serendipitous part (apart from finding a trove of beautiful vintage wood for the project almost literally in my backyard…)

Terri (remember Terri?) wanted to have a centerpiece in her upgraded kitchen.  She found and purchased a stylish and contemporary cast iron and porcelain “farm” sink, the kind with an apron the doubles as the front of the cabinet, like this:

When we measured for a drop-in installation in the existing cabinet, we realized this sink needed to be installed as a “tile-in” whereby the tile counter top is brought up to touch the perimeter of the sink, which is set flush with the counter top.  This is one of several ways to install different sink designs; another might be made to install under the counter top, known as an “undermount” sink.

Terri and Les didn’t bat an eye, as they had considered replacing the dated tile counter top, also.  Now the project “grew in the telling,” as the existing sink cabinet wasn’t wide enough.  They quickly decided to expand the project to a full remodel replacing not only the old counter top and the offending sink cabinet , but the original cabinets on either side and along the other wall.  What started with minor changes now became a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The new cabinets have the following features:

  • Apron sink cabinet with two doors for access to storage
  • Two banks of three drawers each in two cabinets
  • Two roll-out shelves behind a single door that hinges out-of-the-way
  • A pull-out recycling center with two 20-gallon containers and a drawer
  • A large corner cabinet with a shelf and 170° hinged door
  • Two drawers above the two roll-out shelves
  • A 12-inch wide cabinet with drawer and adjustable partitions
  • A 9-inch cabinet with one fixed and one adjustable shelf
  • A large wall cabinet with a shelf above the range
  • A tall pantry with two doors and five roll-out shelves

The new cabinets were constructed using birch plywood for walls, bottoms, drawer boxes and structural parts.  The light color of the birch makes the cabinet interiors bright and easier to see into than the previous darker wood.  Euro-style construction maximizes interior space and allows for hidden hinges which were unique to each location; some hinges open 110°; others open past the plane of the side wall to allow full-width roll-out shelves to move without obstruction.  The cabinets have knotty fir rails and stiles which the doors and drawers close against to complete the rustic appearance.

We also added a 10-foot long shelf near the ceiling along the wall above the pantry and refrigerator for extra storage and knickknacks.  Further, the breaker panel, tastefully located in the kitchen wall, is now hidden behind a knotty fir door hinged for easy access.

Again, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Terri's New Kitchen

Terri’s New Kitchen

Above the Range

Above the Range

Beside the Range

Beside the Range

Tall Pantry

Tall Pantry

Tall Pantry Revealed

Tall Pantry Revealed

Les did a fine job installing the sink, which is a technical job requiring accurate and precise measuring and cutting.  ( I wonder if he read my article on the subject…)  He is also the tile guy for the new counter top.  The counter top will have wood edge to accent the large square glazed tiles.  Add a new faucet, rustic shelf brackets and distressed porcelain knobs on the cabinets and the kitchen space is totally reinvented while retaining the ambiance and “look” of the house.  The patina of the existing aged wood in the walls and shelving was almost perfectly matched by using an oil-based polyurethane which uniquely darkens to a rich golden color when it cures.

All in all, the project was a resounding success.  A vintage kitchen received a modern make-over, thanks to the availability of the perfect vintage wood product, a vintage carpenter, and the roll-with-the-punches attitude of two of the nicest people I have had the pleasure to work with.


Cheap Tools: Getting What You Pay For

Years ago when I was young, poor and not-so-savvy (now I’m no longer young…), tools had a peculiar mystique.  I realized to do a job right, whether working with wood, repairing a car engine or fixing a leaking toilet required the “right tool for the right job.”  Problem was, I couldn’t afford to outfit with the thousands of tools necessary for the hundreds of handyman tasks out there.  So I acquired a few basic tools adding to my tool box from time to time, and improvising what I needed but didn’t have.  I got by, but life got a lot easier as I built up my collection with better and more specialized equipment.

My Dad was no handyman.  I inherited (or learned) my skill set from my grandfathers who were both Jacks-of-most-trades, tinkerers and – poor.  My Grandpas each made the most of what they had through their ingenuity and resourcefulness.  Harry back in the fifties bought up old wooden wall telephones, gutted what few innards they had, and installed new-fangled AM radios hidden inside.  Suburbanites snatched them up to decorate their new homes with a retro look and cutting edge sound  technology (!)  Lesley repaired everything and anything around his house – and beyond.  He was a dam engineer, for goodness sake!  And a good dam engineer!  There wasn’t a dam thing he couldn’t fix to keep the dam thing working right.  Grandma had a cartoon cut from a magazine framed on her kitchen wall:  Against a backdrop of various antiquated stuff in the yard (a Model – T, a ringer washer, a velocipede…) an Old Woman holding a broken toaster says to her Old Man, ” I KNOW you can fix it; I WANT A NEW ONE!”

Dad did know quality, though.  Back when Sears’ tools were pretty much the gold standard, he gave me a Craftsman socket set for my birthday.  Although I’ve added metric sockets and other accessories over the years, I still rely on those sockets and that innovative push-button wrench whenever I’m forced to do car repair.  The chrome is still intact, the reversible wrench still works and the sockets still grip the bolt head.  And that’s been forty years.

Unfortunately, not all tools (including Sears’ brand) are built to last these days.  Fortunately, there are some tell-tale warning signs of cheap, cheap tools (think:  baby chickens…)

Ten tell-tale warning signs the tool you are considering buying (or just bought) is a Baby Chicken Brand:

  1. The name of the store selling it rhymes with Arbor Eight.
  2. When you pull the motor trigger you suddenly understand the meaning of  “cacophony.”
  3. Other brands of the same tool sell for three times the price.
  4. Measuring twice doesn’t help.
  5. Little flecks of toxic chromium get jabbed under your fingernails.
  6. The battery runs down twice  a day.
  7. You decide to build a trapezoidal box because you can’t cut a right angle.
  8. A hare-lipped beaver could gnaw through wood faster.
  9. Three words:  Made in China.
  10. You see sparks and smell burning during normal operation.

I could go on, but you get the idea:  Most tools are made “overseas” these days which equates with backward quality control and lower quality.  My guess is  Chinese manufacturers in their rush to fulfill the West’s growing compulsion to transfer our treasure have focused on production quotas over quality control.  You don’t have to look far to see the standards in imported tools resemble those of the United States in the 1930s when our industries were just getting the hang of making stuff well.  Of course, not all imported tools are crappy, but enough fit the description to be wary when spending your hard-earned yuan on new tools.

Do your homework first.  Rather than race to the box store, or, worse, Arbor Eight, google information about the particular tool you need and can’t live without.  Believe it or not, some brands of drill motors have plastic gears, believe it or not.  Plastic gears can’t be as durable as most metals used for drive and reduction gears.  How repairable is the brand of tool?  Senco pneumatic tools can be rebuilt forever:  kits are readily available. Try to find a replacement O-ring kit for a Central Pneumatic air nailer.  I did.  It’s “no longer available” for this  currently-advertised tool.

Generally, some brands are reliably reliable and durable.  The following list is based on subjective use experience, trial and error and a cursory search of intermet chat posts:

The Good

Senco, DeWalt, Hitachi, Bosch, Porter Cable, Makita, Fein, Delta, Milwaukee, Grizzly, Shop Smith

The Bad

Craftsman, Bostitch, Ryobi, Ridgid, Skil, Black and Decker

The Ugly

Central Pneumatic, Chicago Electric

While I do suffer from xenophobia, I don’t want to get pegged as an anti-Sino-ite:  obviously, some of the “Good” are made in China, because, thanks to “free trade” and stupid government policies over 30 years, most brands have moved “offshore,” to put a politically correct point on it.  (Kind of like a pinhead has a point…)

Do your due diligence when shopping for tools.  Not only do you want to get a good deal on price, but you want a tool that will last a lifetime  (or two.)  Ask friends and family; talk to professionals about good (and bad) products they’ve used.  When you have learned what you need to know to decide on a particular tool, shop for the best price; sometimes, especially in a down economy, quality tools in good condition can be had at a discount from pawn shops and other second-hand sources.  Of course, you probably won’t get a warranty, but some manufacturers go the extra mile to keep you coming back.  I once bought a DeWalt chop saw (used) and used it until it broke.  I contacted DeWalt about repairing it, admitting not only did I not have an original receipt, but I wasn’t the original owner.  A local tool store shipped it to a distant city for repair; DeWalt repaired it with OEM parts, then, at my request, shipped it to a third party (my son), all at no cost to me!   As the Frankenstein monster would say, “DeWalt good!”  Bosch also replaced an out-of-warranty pad sander at no cost.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with the following anonymous quote gleaned from one of those intermet chat rooms:

“I don’t buy any tool based on brand name.  The vast majority of names have some good tools and some not-so-good tools…Grizzly, Craftsman, Delta, Jet, GI, Shop Fox, Steel City, PC, Ridgid, Makita, DW, etc.  I prefer to evaluate the important tools on their own merit and go from there.”

May all your tools be self-lubricating and trouble free forever and ever and ever…  Amen.