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!


Squaring and Repairing Old Doors

Old wooden doors can be restored to form and functionality with some effort and ingenuity.  There is a wealth of good information available in print and in the cybrary on the topic of restoring old wood to its former function and beauty, so I won’t attempt to reinvent that wheel here.  As such, I’ll link you to a few good sites on the topics of repairing split door panels, replacing rotten wood with solid wood and tightening up loose rail and stile joints.

This article focuses on Victorian-style entry doors, but the information transfers to period interior doors, and doors in general.  Just about any larger city in the country has a plethora of houses constructed in the Gilded Age before the turn of the previous century.  Many of these fine dwellings have been restored to their original opulence and beauty.  Many more, unfortunately, suffer the ravages of time:  peeling paint, rotten wood, deferred maintenance, modern “improvements,” and, well, old age.  Exterior doors suffer from exposure to the elements, and, as one of the most utilized components of the structure, experience constant use and abuse throughout the life of the house.

Here’s a pictorial guide to the terminology defining the different parts which make up many doors, especially vintage ones:

Cabinets are my stock-in-trade, but I have a special place in my heart for doors:  I’ve installed umpteen million in new construction and remodels; repaired, refinished, rehung, refurbished, rebuilt, reused, recycled, reclaimed, remodeled, restored, reinvented and replaced at least as many.  I know doors.  I know doors so well, I could have been Jim Morrison.

You should not have to accept as inevitable an old door that sticks, rattles or just plain won’t open (or close).  This is not only a serious aesthetic problem, as the door looks like crap, but a security issue as well.  Exterior doors must be functional:  they are the last line of defense against criminal intrusion after the fence, the dog(s) and the camouflaged bear pit in the yard.  Oh, wait a minute:  this is the Obama era.  The last line of defense is a good offense, i.e., a Glock, SKS or the “fashionable” AR-15 (or all three.)  At one time the best defense against burglary and home invasion was a properly installed dead-bolt lock in every exterior door.  Times have changed.

Repair of a sagging, out-of-square door literally coming apart at the seams is specialist work.  The average DIYer (unless they read this) probably won’t be able to come up with a satisfactory solution.  Cutting or planing the part of the door that rubs or sticks only enhances the visual blight (it’s still sagging) and doesn’t address the real issues.  Alternatives to repair also have their downsides, but if you’re made of money, or don’t care about retaining the original look of your house (shame on you), you can consider the following:

  • Reproductions
  • Architectural salvage
  • New (modern)
  • Custom millwork

Reproduction doors are available, but in limited sizes and styles.  In the 19th Century, door factories turned out a wide variety of door styles and finishes, many up to 10 feet in height.  Companies competed fiercely for the business of the Industrial Age homeowner.  Today’s reproductions have many of the features of original products, like solid wood construction, no veneers, specialized joints holding the parts together, and period hardware.

Although you will likely find a style that appeals to you, finding an exact duplicate of the original door is improbable.  Standard sizes are 36 inches wide by 80 inches tall.  Fewer stock choices are available in other widths and heights.  Old-school doors came from the factory complete with stain and finish:  plan to do this after delivery, as modern reproductions are shipped unfinished.  Plan to spend between $1000 and $10,000, or more, for your dream door.  At that price, you would hope the manufacturers would find a way to make the door look “old,” but it will look brand new.

Architectural salvage outlets can be found in many cities as the source of period doors and lots of other stuff that might fit your vintage home’s decor.  Of course, the selection will be limited to whatever the local “deconstructors” have acquired in your region in any given time period.  The condition will be “as found,” and, because of the stuff’s rarity and uniqueness, it won’t be bargain priced.  Again, you might be able to locate a piece that suits your needs and taste, but you’ll have to look long and hard for it probably.

New, modern doors look so out of place in truly vintage decor that you will most likely think twice about taking this route.

You may hook up with a contractor or designer who has a source for custom made millwork, and can design and specify a particular door style, wood species and finish to replicate your basket case of a door.  I’ve seen custom made furniture that attempted to pass as antique in look and style, down to the fake wear and tear of “distressed” wood.  This is usually accomplished by striking the wood with a bag of carefully selected bolts, screws and other pieces of metal in a random pattern.  However, just as the term “random pattern” is an oxymoron, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the piece is a new construction.

So you’ve decided to keep “Old Saggy” in the family for some reason if only to preserve the original character and provenance of “this old house.”  Good for you!  Now the fun begins…

If the door is still tight and square, try this:

Tighten all hinge screws by hand;  a power screwdriver might spin them and ruin the threads cut in the wood holes.  Before doing this, support the door from underneath so that it sits square to its opening; you might notice some or all hinges are loose at this point, a good sign of an easy repair.

Almost certainly, some of the screws will not tighten up.  This is also an easy fix, but you will have wait until some glue dries to proceed:  Remove the screw from the bad hole.  Whittle (you know how to whittle, don’t you?  You just put your lips together and blow) a plug the size of the hole diameter and depth, or use a dowel.  Put carpenter’s (yellow) glue in the hole and on the plug.  Insert the plug in the hole.  Wait for the glue to set.  Drill a pilot (smaller) hole for the screw and replace the screw.  Do this with any other suspicious screw hole, or renew them all just to be thorough.  With the door open and supported, tighten all the hinge screws in the door and jamb.  Did this trick fix the sag?

The hinges are tight, but the door butt joint seams are separated.  What will you do?  Butt seam separation sounds serious.  And it is.  Just hope it never happens to you or a member of your family.  The door is one thing; your family is quite another.

If the door is sticking because the rail and stile have come apart, the fix is also pretty straightforward.

If the gap between rail and stile is small, open it up carefully to permit a little light cleaning of the gap.  You also need some room inside the gap to introduce a fair amount of glue to make the repair permanent.  Yellow glue should be fine, especially for interior doors, but you’ll want to consider using an exterior–grade outdoor yellow glue, or a water-resistant glue like polyurethane for exterior doors.  Polyurethane glue reacts with moisture to harden, then becomes a moisture-resistant joint.  Use a spray bottle to moisten the interior surfaces of the gap before adding the glue.

Use air pressure from a compressed air blow gun to remove loose dirt and particles from the gap.  Tiny scrapers can be fashioned from small nails, or dental tools.  Clean the gap thoroughly, then blow it out again.  Remove any drips or chunks of dried finish that might interfere with the glue bond.  (Use polyurethane glue sparingly:  a very thin coating on all surfaces will be adequate as this glue expands to fill tiny voids of 1 millimeter or less.  If the glue squeezes out of the joint, wait until it has partially hardened to ease removal.  Or use lacquer thinner sparingly to remove wet glue.)

Use a toothpick or wood splinter to apply the glue to the interior surfaces of the gap; avoid getting the glue on the door face itself.  You can “spread” the glue by partially closing the gap with pressure or hammer blows (protect the wood), then prying the gap apart a bit to check coverage.  When, like Goldilocks’ porridge, the amount of glue is “just right,” pull the seam together with clamps and go have a beer.

For insurance you might want to add a glued dowel inserted from the door edge through the joined stile and rail, or a long wood screw, countersunk and filled.

This should be a relatively permanent fix for a door coming apart at the seams.  However, a worst-case scenario, where the door is sagging because it not only has come apart, but has also changed shape from a rectangle to a trapezoid, requires more resources and ingenuity.

Unfortunately, this is where the intermet came up short;  I don’t know if I’m the first and onliest person to make this type of vintage door repair, but when confronted with the challenge a couple of years ago, I definitely felt as if I was reinventing the wheel.  To this day, I can’t find a standard graphic or reference to this technique, so I guess I’ll have to actually draw something myself.

"Old Saggy"

“Old Saggy”

How to Repair Old Saggy

How to Repair Old Saggy

The drawing above shows the problem:  joints at the rails and stiles have loosened up and failed, causing the weight of the door to deform the door into a trapezoidal shape.  The low side will always be opposite the hinges.  This door will never function properly without the little operation depicted on the right.

Firstly, the drawing on the right is a plan view, a.k.a. a “bird’s eye” view; you are looking at the door laid flat on the floor or workbench table.  The large perimeter rectangle in the drawing represents some kind of solid surface to brace against.  When I did this repair in my shop, I braced against the foundation walls surrounding the concrete floor pad.

You can see the door can be nudged back into shape using a hydraulic jack strategically placed at the low corner.  A hydraulic jack, or “bottle jack,” rated at 6-9 tons is strong enough to push the door members back into square.

Brace the other three corners against movement so all the force can concentrate at the one point.  You can add additional braces to secure the door from unwanted movement; do not place a brace on the end of the stile opposite the jack.

Work in stages.  The door will move towards square slowly.  Some pressure will build up in the structure, so occasionally stop applying pressure and gently tap the door parts with a non-marring hammer.  This will relieve pressure and move the door some more.

The door shown in the drawing is a six-panel door without window glass.  Even if the window is intact in the deformed door, remove it prior to beginning this task.  Otherwise, the window, which is probably original to the house and fragile, will shatter.  Replacement glass made to look like 150-year-old glass is available, but spendy.

When the door is back in shape, release it from its bondage and repair it as discussed earlier.  Refinishing might be the next step in restoring your door to its former glory.

Keeping any house in good order and functional is a challenge with modern structures, let alone houses built in the time of clapboard and gingerbread.  It’s never too late to catch up on some of those 150-year-old deferred maintenance projects.  After all, what else are weekends for?

All Nailers Great and Small

Since 1950, when the first pneumatic nail gun was introduced on the market, nailers have grown in popularity among professionals and DIYers to the point where the hammer is fast becoming a museum piece.

Unlike the real custom nail gun in the photo above, real nail guns come in a variety of calibers, better known as gauges.  Let’s cover the various types of equipment using nail gauge as a guide, and along the way we’ll learn the features and applications of each one.

A digression:  Like all tools, not all nail gun brands are created equally reliable and durable.  I went through two – count ’em – two Bostitch 18 gauge brad nailers before realizing the problem I experienced was somehow tied to the flawed design of this tool.  Right out of the box, each of these new nail guns misfired, that is, when the trigger was pulled, no nail came out.  Usually this can occur in older, well-used guns due to wear on the so-called driver.  The driver is moved down onto the nail head by pressure when the trigger is pulled.  If it’s metal shape is worn from countless up-and-down trips in its guide, the driver can “miss” the nail and skip off.  This shouldn’t happen with a new tool.  On the other hand, I have had excellent service life and durability with both Porter Cable and Senco equipment.  I looked up the replacement parts list for a typical 18 gauge Bostitch brad nailer like the ones I owned, and, interestingly, part number 5 on the exploded diagram (an O-ring in the driver mechanism) wasn’t even listed in the parts list!  O-rings are easily replaceable, but they have to also be available!

(How funny!  I just searched “Stanley Bostitch BT1855K” and looked at “Customer Reviews:”

  • “‘This gun consistently won’t fire.’  (5 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘…this one was so frustrating to use.’  (4 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘I am going to return it…’  (1 reviewer made a similar statement.)”

‘Nough said.  Read my article on tools for more sage advice…)

Framing Nailers

The biggest guns used for construction and framing actually don’t have a “gauge,” per se.  Generally, they can use nails of more than one shank diameter, unlike smaller nailers that are limited to a particular gauge.  My Porter Cable framer can fire nails ranging from .113 inches to .148 inches in diameter, and 2 to 3 and 1/2 inches in length.  The nails typically come in a sleeve (stick or strip) of 25 or so individual nails held together (“‘collated”) by a plastic band.  Loading any gun is the same:  Pull back the spring-loaded feeder, drop in the strip of nails (pointy end down…) and release the feeder.

Collated nails come angled (20°-34°) or straight depending on the design of the magazine.  Wikipedia says, “Shank styles include plain, ring annular, twisted, etc. and a variety of materials and finishes are offered including plain steel, galvanized steel, sherardised steel, stainless steel, etc. depending on the pull-out resistance, corrosion resistance, etc. required for the given application.”  In case you are wondering:  sherardising is a form of galvanizing for resistance to rust.  (I was…)  Other construction nails come in coils to reduce the frequency of reloading; this is especially helpful in high volume tasks like roofing.

Another (brief) digression:  Nail guns, whether powered by air pressure, electromagnetism, flammable gas or gunpowder are a leading cause of injuries related to tool uses.  Between 2001 and 2007, nail gun injuries among workers and consumers (DIYers) doubled, according to the CDC and NIOSH.  Much of the blame can be traced to rapid fire “bounce firing” in which the gun fires when the trigger is pulled and then the nose piece contacts the work, versus a “sequential-trip” firing mechanism requiring the nose piece to contact the work first before the trigger is pulled improving control.  (Senco actually offers free replacement parts if the trigger type you have is not to your liking.)  Be informed and be forewarned:  Nail gun injuries are horrific.  Don’t be a statistic!

16 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as finish nailers, 16 gauge tools use smooth nails with a minimal head to allow the head to be countersunk below the surface of the wood. This is accomplished in two ways.  In air tools, the pressure from the air compressor should be set roughly between 70 and 120 pounds per square inch (psi); there should be no need to readjust this once set as the compressor will bring itself up to pressure when the pressure falls below its set point.  The depth of the nail head is controlled by a depth adjustment on the tool.  Again, once trial and error determines the correct adjustment, no further adjustment is required.

Finish nails come in variety of lengths ranging from 5/8 inch to 2 and 1/2 inch.  These are used to fasten interior trim molding, window sills, jambs and headers, door frames, crown molding, etc.  A wise old carpenter once told me, “Remember:  you have to fill all those holes with putty,” so less is more.  If you strive to hit the stud behind the drywall at each point, fewer nails can be used.  Techniques to accomplish this include laying out a tape on the floor and noting every 16 inches (or so) there is a stud location; and using a stud finder.  Don’t do what an extra laborer did on one job I was on:  He marked the location of each stud on the stain grade base molding with ball-point pen!  Buy ’em books and buy ’em books and all they do is eat the covers…

Finish nails are also used to fasten sub-tops and underlayment when you don’t want a nail head protruding proud of the surface.

Protruding nail heads (called “shiners”) can be set with a couple of sharp blows with a hammer on the right size nail set.  Then the fun begins:  puttying all the holes…

18 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as brad nailers, 18 gauge tools do the same jobs as finish nailers with one advantage:  the holes are smaller requiring less putty.  They are harder to see from a distance and therefore add to the clean look of the new decor.  Brad nailers come in lengths similar to finish nails, so can be used for the same tasks generally.  A wise old drywaller once told me, “You know 18 gauge nails will hold that trim just as well as those 16 gauge spikes, and the holes are smaller…”  I didn’t immediately mend my ways (because I didn’t think of it first), but eventually came to see the wisdom of his advice.

Further, smaller brad nails are ideal for fastening thin material like screen molding and 3/16 inch finished panels.

23 Gauge Nail Guns

At one time I disparaged this size gun, known as a pin nailer or “pinner,” as a toy more suited to building little wooden do-dads and thing-a-ma-jigs.  Then a wise old contractor (who was paying my contract) suggested I use one of these little gems to affix rope trim to a flat spot on the crown molding I was installing on some kitchen cabinets.  The issue was the rope trim was fragile, and larger nails caused it to split and blow out.  The tiny headless pin nails are ideal for this application.  Each is about the size of a sewing needle; available lengths are limited due to their small diameter, which can take only so much driving force before bending.  I now own this little baby of my family of nail guns; I use it for rope trim, beading, screen molding, drawer box construction (with glue), repairs, veneer, and a bunch of other tasks where a larger nail won’t do.

The best part:  The nail holes are essentially invisible, filled or unfilled.

As I said, I own at least one of every size of common nail gun known to man or woman.  There are just no substitutes for the efficiency and utility of the various sizes and features.  (Try driving a 1 inch, 2d common wire nail with a hammer; you’ll be screaming obscenities after hitting your hand on the first or second blow…)  Other types of nail guns are more specialized:

Hardwood flooring nailers take the work (and there’s a lot of it) out of installing floors.  Activated by air pressure and a sharp blow with a rubber hammer, these tools drive and set flooring nails through the tongue of the boards at the proper angle and depth.   A job that could take many days only takes a lot of days.

Powder actuated tools are used for driving hardened nails into concrete and other tough substrates for fastening wall plates and brackets to other-than-wood surfaces. A sharp blow to the loaded tool fires a cartridge to propel the fastener home.

Staplers are handy when fastening non-electrical wire, wood edging on plastic laminate counter tops and other tasks (like sheathing) where an extra-firm grip is required and the staple wire won’t show or it doesn’t matter.

Palm nailers are compact tools that “hammer” (40 hits per second) nails into wood.  The nailer straps to the hand, and is air-powered.  The advantage is their usefulness in tight spaces.

Most nail guns are pneumatic and require an air compressor to use.  Buy a good one, because they go through repeated cycling during use to keep the air pressure at the optimal level.  Compressors are usually oil filled, so maintenance is paramount for a long service life.  Drain the condensed water from the pressure tank(s) regularly to avoid internal corrosion.

What more to say, but that a wise old…

Oh, forget it.

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.