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This, Our Old House

I get the feeling the first lesson in blogging is “pick a theme and stick to it!” I say get the feeling because I apparently missed that lesson. It’s a lesson I missed on lots of things. I had trouble when asked that about my wedding (why does a wedding have to have a theme? A wedding is its own thing. The theme is wedding?), I had trouble picking an education theme (I think the technical term is “major”), I’m not even good at picking a theme for dinner (Margaritas pair just as well with Pad Thai as they do with enchiladas, maybe even better).

I don’t think I’m alone in needing to mix things up. Humans are just too complex for that kind of homogeny. That was part of why I didn’t do well with my baking blog. Sometimes I wanted to write about other things, and we’ve all seen the memes about “Cut the twelve page story on your trip the apple orchard and give me the recipe already!”

So no recipes here. Just me shouting into the void.

This isn’t going to become a DIY or home improvement blog, then, by any means, but we replaced our front steps this weekend, and I figured that was worth documenting. I didn’t have the energy to do that over the last few days while the project was ongoing. Live tweeting construction jobs is just too hard with those big leather work gloves.

We started the project this weekend by replacing a couple of boards on our front porch that were rotting. The front porch and back deck were both apparently built with untreated lumber which has made it prone to rot, and we replaced the back deck a few years ago with composite decking made with recycled plastic after my foot went through a particularly squishy board. The front porch is covered, though, so it’s in a little better shape, and we’ve been saving up to replace it with composite decking as well, but a couple of the boards catch drips from droopy gutters right over the steps and have become something of a tripping hazard. We went to the Blue Store to get a couple of boards to keep us from becoming involved in a slip and fall lawsuit in the meantime. And while we were there (and still have my parents’ pickup truck), we got lumber for the stairs too.

The stairs themselves were mostly just ugly. The paint was all chipped and the bottom board was loose, but they weren’t squishy or bouncy or any of those adjectives that are good for toys, bedding, and desserts but bad for construction. The handrails, though, were “gotcha” handrails. That is to say, at first glance, they looked helpful, but they were actually rotted at the bottom and of no help at all. They were probably less help than if there were no handrails at all.

I mentioned last week how a lot of our house is piecemeal as a result of several waves of renovation in varying degrees of capability since its original construction around a hundred years ago. It’s so much truer than I even realized. We pried up the first rotting porch board…

…to find more porch. In case the picture isn’t clear, our porch was built directly on top of an existing porch. It didn’t replace the old porch. It’s just nailed into it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s the same method as the wall in the kitchen where we were so excited to find drywall instead of plaster, only to discover it was drywall on top of plaster.

The extra porch isn’t really a disaster, but it’s frustrating because it means extra variables to consider when we put in the composite. Will we have to lower the rails? How will the boards line up with the siding and the front door threshold? Were the people who did this before us sadistic, stupid, or just lazy? How do you get the This Old House people to come help you? Was it really for the best that we evolved legs and crawled out of the ocean all those eons ago?

Since we had the lumber and the day was still young, we decided to jump in head first and get to work on the stairs as well. There may have also been some motivation to release our frustrations in the form of demolition. We do this occasionally. We mull over a project for months, letting the ideas quietly steep and then suddenly we dive in, starting projects that really can’t be left half finished. It’s good impetus to get things accomplished, and if it can be left half finished, it will probably stay that way for far longer than I care to admit (The time to beat is three years and three months).

Removing the old stairs was remarkably easy (thanks, rusty nails and rotten wood!), and we discovered that three of the four treads were in good enough condition to keep and reuse, especially since these stairs would be temporary (i.e. only have to last until we do composite decking in the next couple of years). Honestly, just having the stairs out made the house look a lot better. The less socially inclined part of me strongly argued to just leave it this way.

We also started wondering, about 20 minutes after we had hauled the last of the debris to the trash can, if this was the kind of project you’re supposed to get a building permit for. But by then it was 5:30 on a Saturday evening, so we decided that we should just barrel ahead the next day and have it basically done before anyone official could see or do anything.

It rained on us most of Sunday, so we were a bit of a muddy mess. We rigged up a tarp to keep most of the rain off while we worked, but it was a little late and a little low, so we got some funny looks from passersby as we crawled around in the mud, our hair all tangled and staticky from rubbing against the tarp. I didn’t take pictures of that, so you’ll have to use your imagination. If your imagination fails you, it was not unlike this:

We had to remove and rehang our new stringers a couple of times, but we finally got it, and our stairs are sturdy and level. I think the final count was five trips to the Blue Store. The bottom step is a little higher than the rest, but it’s manageable. We also learned a valuable lesson about picking boards off the stack.

We only had to purchase one new tread board, and I had carefully recorded all the actual measurements. We found the section of board at the Blue Store that looked right. It was labeled 2x12x10, and kindly included the actual measurements as well of 1.5″x11.5″x10′ 0.5″. Kalen borrowed a tape measure from a few aisles over, and we verified that was indeed what the top, front board on the stack measured. We looked closely at that particular board (a habit we formed after buying hundreds of pickets to repair our fence) and found that it was slightly warped. It wasn’t terrible, but if we were doing this, we wanted to do it right. We looked at the board behind it, which looked straighter and chose it instead.

Did you see where we made our mistake? No? We, like fools, did not verify that the second board was the same as the first. When we were tired, filthy, exhausted, and so close to being done, we found that the tread board we had brought home, the second to last board to be installed, was not the correct board. It was a 2x10x10.

Someone working at the Blue Store had unloaded a stack of the wrong boards into the bay we needed but had later put the correct boards in front of them. I can’t blame them. Both boards obviously looked the same to us as well.

Kalen went back to the Blue Store and exchanged the board, bringing home the slightly warped one we had passed over on Saturday morning. I swear that board had a smug “How do you like me now?” grin on it. I don’t know how, but it did.

Anyway, we still haven’t put the new rails on, and it needs painted, but the new boards have to dry out anyway. It’s better though. Not perfect, but better. I’m far less worried about the mail carrier falling and busting his butt, at least.

And if anyone from This Old House wants to get in touch about helping fix almost everything else we have going on, you can leave a comment below or fill out the “Contact Me” form on the About page. 😉

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