Author Archive

Gotchas (or not) of Metal Roofing

Monday, June 28th, 2010

I've spent the last few days in deep-bunker research mode for a new roof for our home.

Why I'm going with a metal roof:

  • Tired of trying to figure out where my asphalt shingle roof is leaking.
  • Better reflectivity of sunlight = cooler house in summer.
  • Lasts longer.
  • Better wind resistance

Right now I'm truly torn between a standing seam (concealed fasteners) roof and an exposed fastener metal roof. The cost of standing seam is about 2.5x higher, so I will go with exposed fasteners if I can manage to resolve the following issues:

Allowing for Temperature-Induced Movement

The metal panels will run from ridge to eave so that the water crosses no joints on it's way off. Using the formula provided here, I figure the expansion/contraction amount for my longest pieces will be possibly as much as a quarter inch. (Remember, on the hottest summer day, the metal will be hot!)

Just stop and think about that. My roof panels will be 1/4″ longer on the hottest day vs. the coldest night. That's a lot of movement!

So how do we deal with that? Is it really a problem?

Well, it isn't a deal breaker (according to link above) until a galvalume (steel core) panel gets up to about 40 feet in length. Short of that, you still have to plan for the movement but it's a winnable war.

So, let's think about this: The Sheet wants to grow so, on a hot day, the end screws start getting pressure pushing them sideways. The unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, as it were.

Assuming that the screw is firmly anchored into a strong material (like solid wood or plywood) that lies just beneath the metal sheet, the screw will not move. Screws are very, very stubborn. So in this case, the thing that gives is the metal sheet material that is pushing against the screw shaft. And so the roofing begins to get “wallowed out” around the screw shaft. So the critical factor here is: Can the flexible washer on the screw continue to hold a waterproof seal in the face of a widening hole and possibly sharp/irregular burrs around its edge?

But wait! We assumed that “the screw is firmly anchored into a strong material (like solid wood or plywood) that lies just beneath the metal sheet”. It turns out that this isn't how my two recommended local bidders want to do things. Let me explain.

As stated, my house currently has shingles. Both bidders want to cover the existing shingles with 30 pound tar paper and put the metal sheets down over that. So now you can see that there will be a .25-.375″ gap between my plywood decking and the metal panels. This creates a situation where, in my opinion, the screw will be flexing and probably bending and possibly, ultimately, breaking. Additional problems are that the washer is pushed to a non-flat angle and, worst of all, the downward pressure required to compress the flexible bushing will have the effect of creating little depressions wherever there are screws. Hmmm… low spots that encourage water to flow toward our screws…

So, to get the screw connection clean and strong, we need to either remove the shingles or run horizontal purlins (1x4s or 2x4s). These both allow the metal to be laid right on wood (perhaps with only the felt paper in between). I'm leaning toward the purlins, and here's why:

Being a “wood guy”, I could easily make the bottom 3-4 purlins be slightly mobile. First, I run an oversized (maybe 1/4″) hole all the way through the purlin for the shaft of the big purlin screw. Then I create a 1/2-3/4″ diameter hole for the pan head to sit down in. When the purlin screws are run, they aren't fastened tightly. This allows about the same amount of movement that the steel panels will produce. But the purlin screw will easily resist any upward lift. Doing these holes all at the same time wouldn't require too much time, and it seems to be an elagant solution to the problem.

Two problems I see with this:

First, in order for the purlins to move with the weather, it seems like I'll need to remove the shingles beneath them. So I end up with a big heap of work.

Second, this jacks the roof up by nearly an inch and a half. Wouldn't that mess up my gutter system? The water will be shooting off that roof a lot higher than before. Move gutters up?

Washers that Last

In my research, I keep running into the allegation that the standard neoprene flexible bushing in the screws will dry out and crack up after 10-15 years in the weather. One of my bidders offered an upgrade to a Zac screw. In researching, I find that this screw features more of a cupped washer reinforcement (complete weather protection of the sealant material?) and that the bushing in it is made of EPDM, which appears to be more weather-resistant. Am I getting this right?

Status of the Remodel Economy, November 2009

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Here's the view from my corner of the world: East TN, Western NC, and North GA.

Things are slow, but the quality tradesmen who had diverse sources of work are still active. Remodel contractors and kitchen showrooms seem to be mostly holding on and likely to be able to do so for some time to come.

The picture seems gloomier for businessmen who had made large investments into the remodel economy. Two cases in point:

  • The largest high-end custom cabinet shop in my area is way, way down. I personally know that “critical” core people have been laid off, which sounds like desperation. I also know that there is debt from key equipment purchases over the past few years, so there's a possibility of them going under.
  • Granite (etc.) countertop guys are in a tough spot because of the investment required to do this at a high quality level (less attractive alternatives include having it cut in China and waiting 13 weeks to get it). I spoke with a major player who has operations reaching 150 miles in all directions and he painted this picture for me:
    • He invested 2.5 million USD in a CNC (probably including a laser templater?) cutting system sometime in 2007.
    • To fund his debt, he must run minimum of approx 900 sq ft of stone per week, this has forced him to expand his territory, sometimes leading to jobs where transport costs overwhelm profits.
    • He says that every month “a few stone guys go down and a few more pop up”
    • A major competitor of his is now facing prison time for trying to hide/sell assets in the midst of bankruptcy

Summary: For those who made major investments on the assumption that things would continue at the pace of 2005 and before, the only way to stay afloat is to expand. But this can only happen if the field of competitors thins, and that doesn't seem to be happening yet. Unless the economy turns quickly, it seems that a lot more players will have to close shop. But will they be the bigger ones or the smaller ones?

Carbide Sawblade Investigation

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

(Updated 21Aug09: see bottom of article.)

I had a matched set of 10″ circular ATB+R Amana blades which seemed to wear out on me very rapidly compared to the Freud blades which preceeded them. Then, a few weeks later, I had an Amana ripping blade pick up six chipped teeth while passing through (what seemed to be just) a knot in 1″ thick oak.

This made me wonder if the Amana blades had a cheaper carbide in the teeth, so I called up one of the technical guys who will be doing my next set of sharpening after the local guys (A1 Sharpening in Dalton, Ga) TOTALLY botched the last job I sent them.

So here's what I learned:


Fine Woodwork, for a Spaceship

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Chattanooga Spaceship house

I guess it was inevitable.

As I slowly work my way around Chattanooga, leaving my woodwork in the homes of people who favor the unique, maybe it was inevitable that the Spaceship House would eventually be scheduled as a destination.

Just backing in with my truck gave me a new perspective on this house I've passed so many times … it's huge! And the inside is far bigger than you would imagine: I'm guessing around 2000 square feet, distributed between three levels.

As usual, I set up shop on the pull-out bed of my utility camper, which meant I was doing my cutting beneath the belly of the spaceship as the usual interested passers-by did their passing.

Signal Mountain Tennessee Spaceship house

“Can we take a tour?”


“Is it for sale?”


“Is it haunted by aliens?”


Anyway, in the course of one workday, I did meet a neighbor who shed more light on the history of the house:

It was built by Arthur King, a contractor, out of “spare parts” from his other jobs in the early 70s. Mr King went on to build an A-frame on Stringer's Ridge and “something cool” in Cleveland. He only had a sixth grade education. He died in 2007.

The house sold in the late 70s for 20-something thousand dollars, and most recently went for a mere 120k!

Finally, here's a story about the house from “Mr. P”, my source:

One of the owners of the house, who shall remain un-named, was “bad to drink” (had an alcohol problem). One night when he had imbibed too much, the man's wife decided that she would rather not spend the night with him. She left, telling him she was going to spend the night with her mother.

So, she lowered the stairs, stepped down to the ground, and then raised the stairs back up. She had taken the keys to both their vehicles. She then proceeded to park his truck beneath the stairs, so that they couldn't be lowered. None of this would have been visible from within the house because of the shape.

Spaceship stairs

There is only one way in/out of the Spaceship House, of course.

Finally, she backed out with her car and waved goodbye to him as she drove away.

Needless to say, he was still there when she returned in the morning.

Here's a few shots of my work as I left it. At some point I'll take (or link to) some shots of the finished kitchen. Feel free to bother me about this if you're reading this in 2010 or later.



Thou Shalt Pour the Driveway First

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Okay, okay, I know I'm writing about new construction again. Sorry.

And I'm sure I've just offended .018% of my readers by refering to concrete as something which is “poured” rather than “placed”.

In any case, on with the article…

False Economy Case #917 – Installing hardwood floors before the driveway has been poured.

The Rationale – “We want to wait as long as possible to pour the driveway so that it will stay nice and clean looking. All that driveway maneuvering will leave your slab with some embarrasing 'tire hickeys', and some construction workers have vehicles that leak oil.”

The Voice of Experience – In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, you'll get a rainfall (or painters who clean their brushes out on the proposed driveway area, leaving a large swamp) which makes the soil/gravel mixture start to stick to the feet of the tradesmen. 3-5% of them will notice this and spend 30 seconds wiping their shoes. The rest will stomp through the house with their stylish “gravel soles” and you know the rest. Protecting the floor under these conditions becomes a very stressful undertaking with a low success rate.

Would you rather have a pristine driveway or pristine floors?

Can Anyone Top these Drawer Organizer Concepts?

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Kitchen remodels, and cabinetry in particular, have been a big focus of this site and of my work. So it probably won't come as a surprise to my readers that I've developed some new concepts/products for kitchen cabinets. Actually, it's all about the drawers.

Here's the story:

I built custom cabinetry for the kitchen remodel of some friends here in Chattanooga. They live in St Elmo, which is a quaint old part of town where the houses have small old kitchens. There would be no tearing out walls for this project, so they had very little space to work with and wanted to make the most of it.

…Just like the rest of us.

One difference is that they weren't going to skimp on this, at least not for the one top drawer they were going to be able to fit in their postage-stamp sized kitchen. So the wife did her homework and came up with (what she thought was) the best drawer organizer ever: a double-decker (also known as two-tier) by Kraftmaid.kraftmaid two-tier

When I saw her pictures of this organizer, I was quite stunned. It wasn't that the design is brilliant (though it is clever), but rather it was that I couldn't believe I hadn't run into this thing in all of my time/research in the remodel/kitchen world. I don't know how long it has been around, but I'm guessing it can't have been around long. This, too, is surprising because it's really a straightforward idea: by removing part of the drawer's back wall, we have room to insert a second “drawer-within-a-drawer” which pushes all the way back. (not to be confused with the cheap plastic gizmos that have a half-sized upper layer that rolls back and forth on a full-sized lower layer)

my custom two tier installedAs long as you're not trying to store stuff that's thicker/higher than about 2″, it's like getting two drawers in the space of one.

I was intrigued, of course, so I made a deal with them to buy the biggest size they made. Well, like all factory-produced cabinet parts, it only comes in three inch increments. It turned out that the “space-saving insert” was actually four inches too narrow to fill the available space in their one eligible base cabinet.custom double decker large open

So I kept the Kraftmaid double-decker and built them a custom replica that filled the space. They were happy with it, at first. But, thankfully, they're the really honest types and — when asked — shot the design full of holes.

Here are their complaints and my remedies:

  • First and most critical: not available in custom sizing. I already told you how I fixed that: building it to the width and height needed.
  • Top drawer is “slippy” in that, when you open the main drawer, the acceleration causes the inner drawer to slip back. The net effect is that, when you get the main drawer open, the upper/inner drawer is already several inches (or more) back. We fixed this problem by some modifications to the Kraftmaid slides, but since then I've been providing my customers with a toggle-type slide that prevents slippage altogether.
  • The final complaint was that the layout of their “organizer grid” was out of touch with the way real people use their silverware drawer. They pointed out the 50-80% of the time they open that drawer, they just want to grab a spoon, fork, or knife for a coffee, snack, or simple meal. The designers put the critical, common-use area near the back, though. This is another problem that would be solved by allowing the customer to customize the layout to their needs.
  • As the “how do you really like it” conversation was winding down, the husband made the comment: “It would be so nice if these sections could be adjustable. There's so much wasted space.” I said, “Hmmm, I'll have to think about that.” Sounds pretty logical to me. After all, the goal of this expensive thing is to make optimal use of space!

two tier small closedSo, sure enough, I was out in the shop soon afterwards, looking for ways to answer their criticisms and make the world's best drawer organizer even better.

Here's my first attempt at a solution. I built it for my lovely bride of 12 years. (Yes, her drawer of choice was much narrower.) It solves all the problems presented above, most notably the adjustability problem. As you can see, I have movable, thin slices of wood that fit into slotted walls.two tier drawer small open

There are some other neat features on this drawer that I don't have time to discuss here, but the one that caught everyone's eye was the adjustable slats that divide the storage pockets down to a precision of 3/8 inches. Pretty good adjustability! See right for a close-up shot of these cool slots.closeup of slots

The biggest problem with this drawer is that it's expensive. I wouldn't make one for less than $300, and if I shipped it, the recipient would need a handyman to install it properly.

My next realization was that my moveable divider system could solve lots of problems for people without the expense of a full double decker. Thus was born the custom drawer organizer/insert which I am now selling locally and online. Follow the link and you'll see that I've prepared some templates, but most people prefer to send me a sketch and dimensions by email or fax. I've been shipping these and getting good feedback for several months.custom drawer insert

Then I got the next great idea from another honest customer: “Why can't you just add a deck to one of my useless deep drawers? I never use more than the bottom five inches.”

Hmmm. Yeah, why didn't I think of that?

You can see the finished product in the picture at right. I borrowed the deep drawer from this client for a few days and gave it back with a second deck built into it. Pretty great.add-a-deck with organizer inserts in a deep drawer

And, since this installation is much simpler (although it does require cutting out part of the drawer back, which means using a circular saw), I think this custom product would ship cross-country fairly well. I'll be adding it to the choices soon.

A New Vision of the Phone-Based Office

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

Up until today my conception of the “office of the (near) future” is that it would be based on the laptop. So, for example, you would walk in with your laptop, strap it into a cradle, sit back in a reclining chair, and go to work using the laptop screen for visuals and using peripherals for keyboard, mouse, etc.

In such an office, you would still need the traditional structures for managing paper: it's not going away any time soon. But rather than needing large structures for housing the monitor and the tower, all of the supporting structures (except the chair) could be folded away into a small space. Imagine an office that could fit into a cavity in your wall. (I discuss my early prototype of this in my “built-in cabinets” series.)

So, that brings us to today. Have a look at this video:

The fact that these technologies are already so close to being ready for the mainstream market leads me to the following conclusions:

First, though I had been expecting most cell phones to soon include projectors that could act like a monitor when projected on a suitable surface, what I didn't anticipate is that such a “screen” would also function as a touch/sketch screen. Now it's clear that it will. Your phone will soon function as both the “wiimote” and the projector in this video, allowing you to have an office anyplace you can find or create a clean surface upon which to project. A cradle/tripod for holding the phone in the right orientation would be needed.

Second, this means that the high-tech office is going to quickly adopt this technology and laptops will become obsolete. What can a laptop give us now that a phone can't? We already need a separate keyboard for protracted writing sessions.

Third, this means that the structures of the high-tech office just got simpler. The main structure needed now is a lightweight white screen that includes a phone cradle off to one side. And a chair and paper-management area, as always.

Ponder the Possibilities of Solar Panel Windows

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

In the news today: MIT researchers may have finally found an effective way to combine a solar panel and a window. This could be huge.

The technology works like this: Dyes are strategically cast into glass so as to refract certain parts of the spectrum along/within the glass rather than allowing it to pass through. All this redirected light then shines out the edges of the panel in a high concentration. By simply placing narrow solar panels around the edges of the glass, the amount of expensive solar paneling is minimized without sacrificing the amount of solar radiation “caught”.


And then, of course, there's the additional benefit that this is a window. Not a normal window, but a tinted one. So it is a little unconventional, but let's consider some of the possibilities of this:

  • What if we built a greenhouse entirely out of these windows (walls and ceiling) and allowed the dyes to use just the blue/yellow part of the spectrum to send to the solar panels? Remember, yellow and blue makes green, and that's the part that plants don't use. The green that we see when we look at a leaf is essentially the “waste” part of the light. So you'd have a solar array that doubles as a greenhouse. The windows would appear red to us.
  • Next idea: for a human space, what about just the opposite. After all, we like the greenish light that filters down through a forest canopy to our level. Again, “free” solar power on top of this pleasant effect.
  • Here's a crazy one: what about custom-tinted skylights to complement the colors of a room? If you've spent much time inside of churches with stained glass windows, you know that these colored windows can have a huge effect on the feeling of colors that receive the light … almost like a way of engineering emotions. This could be a whole new discipline within the field of decorating/design.

For Designers: Does Advertising Work?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Somehow I've managed to remain extremely busy so far this year, but — as far as I can tell — I'm an exception to the general rule.

Today I had an interesting conversation with a kitchen designer and cabinet showroom owner whom I know to be a very competent fellow. Somehow the talk led to me asking him if he ever advertised.

He said that he had spent $5,000 on advertising over the last six months, and the result was … nada. Not one quality lead.

We went on to agree that 99% of quality leads come from word-of-mouth referrals. You just have to get in the game, do quality work, and let time work for you.

Get it (all) in Writing

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

My work takes me into many homes each year, and I rub shoulders with lots of General Contractors, tradesmen, and homeowners. This past week, a homeowner succinctly stated one of the most common remodel complaints. It went like this:

“I invested countless hours of my time in discussing various issues and problems at the beginning of the project. We made decisions about what was going to happen at various stages. I assumed they (designers, contractor, foreman) were keeping notes. But as the project rolled out, again and again I would have to stop things and remind them of the original plan. It became incumbent upon me to catch all these things or they weren't going to get caught.”

GCs and their on-site representatives are notoriously bad at keeping good records. Kitchen designers are usually a lot better. In this particular situation, the kitchen designer was no longer employed by the cabinet provider, left nearly no notes, and could not be reached by the homeowner. So yes, it was a mess. But sometimes it feels as if most jobs are a mess. There's always some excuse or special situation.

Here's the bottom line for the homeowner: Get it in writing.

Let me propose a little test that should help to ensure you against some of the ineptitude which lays in wait for you. Keep your own quick list of the things discussed between you and the GC/designer during the pre-bid stage. Then, before you surrender a down payment, ask to see their list of those details. If anything is missing, consider it a bad omen. You're just asking for misery if you accept a bid from someone who isn't keeping good records. You deserve better. Keep looking.