Category Archives: Exterior

The rain will drain mainly in the chain

Gutters: a man’s job. I lived many years in this house as a single woman, and never once did I get on a ladder and clean the gutters. I had to marry—twice—to obtain that service. Thank heavens Eric is proficient at all things house maintenance-related. What would I do without him? I would have vegetation growing out of my gutters, that’s what.

Every time it rains around here (which, in a normal year in the Pacific Northwest, is often), we watch the gutters outside the French doors and the kitchen window overflow and the water splash down dramatically at the end of the gutter run onto the plants below. The plants don’t care for this much, and neither do we.

A couple of summers ago, we bought two nice wine barrels. Eric rigged one up as a water catchment system under the kitchen gutter. It still needs a proper spigot so I can use it for drip irrigation. For now, it just drains through a hose to the sidewalk. It looks cool and saves the rhododendron from drowning.

Wine barrel serves as rain catchment system

Rain barrel outside the kitchen window

We decided to put the other barrel next to the side porch where there’s nice little gap in the bushes just under the gutter. I wanted to remove the downspout and install a decorative copper rain chain instead. Better yet, install two rain chains—the other one over the other rain barrel by the kitchen. Rain chains come in an enormous variety of styles. We chose this Monarch Hibiki design from

Hibiki copper rain chain

Hibiki copper rain chain

A fairly simple project, right? Just remove the downspout and replace it with a rain chain. Nope … putting it in the downspout hole would hang it too close to the porch. Eric had to remove the old gutter, cut and assemble the new gutter, install it, and hang the rain chain. WHY does it always have to get more complicated? Because it’s an old house.

Eric removed the old gutter. Dirty, as expected.

Old, dirty gutter laying in the grass

Gutter down!

Now we could see the sorry state of the rotten rafter tails, which wasn’t a surprise, but it was easier to ignore when they weren’t visible. Many years ago, someone sistered in some 2x4s so the gutters had something solid to hang from. (They were painted the same color as the house, so I know they’ve been there since before 1994, when the house was last painted.) The sisters looked a little drunk as they staggered unevenly from rafter to rafter.

An old, rotten rafter tail and its sister.

A rotten rafter tail and its little sister.

Eric replaced them with a new generation of sisters who display proper posture.

New sistered rsfter tails for attaching a gutter

All the while he grumbled that he felt like the star of HGTV’s Holmes Makes It Right. Why is it, I asked him, that whenever a man repairs or replaces another man’s construction work, it’s always accompanied by disparaging remarks about the previous guy’s skills? Have you ever noticed that? I’m just happy the work is getting done … and grateful that Eric knows what he’s doing.

Next, Holmes—I mean Eric—covered the rafter tails with a pre-painted white fascia board for protection and to give the gutter nails more solid surface to bite into. Exposed rafter tails are a prominent design element of Craftsman homes, but when they’re covered with gutters, no one can see them.

White facsia board for gutter support.

A fascia behind the gutter

Using the old gutter as a guide, Eric cut and assembled the new gutter parts and sealed the seams. If you’re wondering, I did help: I climbed the rickety wooden step ladder and held the gutter in position while Eric attached it. (I was actually busy finishing our new headboard. More on that in due time.)

I noticed that box-store gutters are smaller than their professional counterparts. I hope it’ll carry a November storm’s-worth of rain runoff. At any rate, the new gutter looks clean and tidy, and it’s not about to fall off.

Man using three ladders to install gutter over porch

Parade of ladders

Time for the pièce de résistance—the rain chain! Installation was quick and easy. Simply drop the hook into the gutter’s opening, attach the top collector cup, and then the chain. Et voilà!

Installing the top cup of a rain chain on a gutter

Makes the old paint look worse

Eric “rolled out the barrel” from the backyard, cut a circle out of the top, and stapled screen fabric over the hole. He cross-wired the rain chain over the opening to keep it from swinging in the wind.

Man cutting hole in top of wine barrel

A wine barrel turns into a rain barrel

Wine barrel as a rain barrel with rain chain

The rain barrel in place

Isn’t the rain chain beautiful, shining in the sun? (Click to enlarge.)

And it works, too! It’s mesmerizing to watch, like a fountain.

Rain running down a copper rain chain into a barrel

Our first rain test

Now I’m paranoid about copper thieves. I asked Duke to set off his alarm and call 9-1-1 if he sees anyone messing with the chain. “I’ve got your back, mom,” he assured me. “I’m on duty 24/7. Nothing gets past me! How about a cookie?”

Boxer dog lying on couch with pillow

Duke on duty

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Crazy cat lady lives here

Our front porch is jealous. With our new side porch garnering so much attention, the poor front porch is feeling neglected, and no wonder. It’s a mess.

Eric partially rebuilt this porch in 2011, and for a brief moment it was our shining star … until it got upstaged by the next project. With all of our projects, you’d think our entire house would be shiny by now. You’d be wrong. We tend to focus so intently on one pet project that we let other things slide. Or we miss a maintenance window of opportunity, and down the slippery slope we go. It’s so easy to lose our balance.

Front view of porch with plantings and rockery

Overgrown plants and a bare bulb

Sadly, the front porch has become the latest sorry sight. It certainly does not say, “Welcome to our home.” It says—go ahead, I’ve heard it before— “A crazy cat lady lives here.” I can’t deny it, but I’ll point out that Eric’s also a crazy cat guy. Crazy or not, our porch needs improvement.

Two cats sit on a dirty front porch

Checkers and Curveball deplore the porch conditions, including the hanging gutter.

Normally, every spring I clean the winter detritus off of the porch, but I skipped that task this year, and conditions just went to hell in a handbasket. The porch is covered, so it only gets wet in bad storms, but the southwest wind blows dirt and debris in. The white porch swing and wicker chair collect sooty black dust, an urban byproduct of nearby freeways, railroads, and airports. Yuck.

Fine sooty dust on the porch swing.

This stuff gets on everything.

Plus, the porch holds three cat shelters, food, and water for our homeless feline friends. We have about half a dozen regular visitors. The kitties are not tidy and they expect full housekeeping service. These cat supplies are nonnegotiable. They will stay, but the chalets hadn’t been cleaned out since last winter, and they were filthy.

Instead of an attractive Craftsman light fixture (I have the original fixture somewhere in the basement), we have an old receptacle with a built-in outlet, into which we plug an extension cord to heat the kitty chalets in the winter and to power landscape tools in the summer, since there’s no outdoor outlet in the front of the house. Somehow, we need to find a better solution.

Bare light bulb on porch ceiling

Classy, right?

The obvious place to start is to give the porch a thorough cleaning. Then I thought … after pressure washing it, why not paint the floor red to match the side porch? While I’m at it, why not paint the ceiling haint blue, as I’ve wanted to do for years? You don’t see a lot of haint blue in the Pacific Northwest. I think it’s time to change that.

You don’t know about haint blue? Southern Living Magazine says:

Blue porch ceilings are prevalent all throughout the South. Pale blue is not only visually expansive, but it’s also a ghost buster of sorts. The Gullah culture of the Lowcountry believes that spirits, known as “haints,” can’t cross water. Using light blue paint to symbolize water, the Gullah people applied the shade to porch ceilings and doors preventing evil spirits from entering.

Along with warding off bad spirits, the blue ceiling supposedly repels bugs and spiders, but that’s probably attributed to old paint being made with indigo and lime, not the color. Not wanting haints, bugs, or spiders, it sounds like a good idea to me, plus I love a nice robin’s egg blue and I think it would look great over my porch swing. Although, how could we improve on what we have!

On what I figured was one of our last summery weekends, we hauled everything off the porch and onto the front lawn. I opened up the kitty chalets and removed the heating pads, threw all the cat bedding in the wash, and swept out the chalets.

Two A-frame cat shelters

Eric built these cute cat shelters

Eric hooked up the pressure washer and gave the porch a good bath, top to bottom. We realized that pressure washing would not be enough to prep the porch for stain and paint. We (Eric) will have to rent a sander for the floor, and the ceiling will have to be scraped. Ugh. My neck hurts already.

Man pressure washing a front porch

Eric playing with water

Paint-chipped porch floor boards

It’s called patina

Then it was my turn. I proceeded to blast away at the chair and swing cushions. I spent considerable time blasting the rug, as well, but by the time I was ready to flip it over, I decided that the water I was consuming might cost as much as a new rug, and gave up. I put the cushions on the back deck to drain and dry in the sun.

Outdoor rug haning from sawhorses

Rug gets a bath

Overnight, it poured rain. I dragged the dripping cushions back to the front porch to dry. The sun came out.

When everything was finally dry (enough), we put the porch back in order. Over the summer we had unplugged the heated cat beds, but now that nights are getting cooler, we plugged them back in. These inflatable Lectro-Soft heated pads are minimally heated until pressure is applied by a cat, then they heat to a safe, comfy level. They are rated for outdoor use, and cats LOVE them. The hole in the back wall, covered in felt, is an escape hatch.

Wooden A-frame cat shelter with heated pad

The fronts drop down to allow cleaning

We decided the rug would do for another winter, and found that the rainstorm had done a good job of rinsing it.

Staining and painting will have to wait for another day. I hope to get it done this fall, as surely there will be some sunny days ahead. Good weather usually holds through mid-October, but all bets are off this crazy year. So, the porch is cleaner, but not yet pretty. How far will I get before bad weather stops me?

Black cat lies on a clean porch floor

Lacy approves

I also trimmed back some of the plants and added a glowing amber mum. The color helps a little, don’t you agree? And Eric put the gutter back up just in time to beat the rainstorm.

How many cats can you find in this photo? (Click to enlarge.)

Front of house with orange mum in planter

A little tidier

The next morning when Eric went out to fill the cats’ bowls, our friends Dash, Dot, and Curveball each emerged from a chalet, toasty warm. I think they were waiting for us to open their B&B for the season!

Tabby cat snoozes in A-frame cat shelter

Sweet Dot Morse likes her clean chalet


Tabby cat sleeping in a kitty bed on a wicker chair

Brother Dash Morse takes a catnap

Side porch epilogue

Recently, when Eric made one of his regular weekend stops at the Ace Hardware near our house, one of the staff complimented him on the finished side porch, which she often drives past on her way to work. A man standing nearby overheard and asked Eric if he was the guy who had built the porch on the house in the next block. Eric said he was. Then the man introduced himself as the city building inspector. Dum-de-dum-dum. We had built the porch without a construction permit, although we knew we required one. We like to live on the edge like that. It’s hard to hide a construction project when you live on a corner. We had initially thought about building it in components that we could assemble by dark of night to avoid detection by authorities. (“What, that porch? Oh, it’s always been here! We just changed the siding.”) But, as the project dragged on for two summers, I fully expected to see a Stop Work Order slapped on our wall one day. That didn’t happen, so we assumed we’d just flown under the city’s radar.

Mr. Inspector proceeded to tell Eric that he’d been watching his progress all along, actually walking up to the porch, and did Eric know that he’d built the porch about three times beyond code? Yes, Eric did, and he explained that we will never have a porch collapse disaster that will appear on the evening news. Eric and Mr. Inspector had a nice chat about how the low railing could be raised to code height (although that would totally spoil the design), and how the porch really isn’t exactly attached to the house, and how it was really just a matter of rebuilding what was originally there … and they came to the conclusion that the porch is fine and dandy as is, unpermitted.

The moral of this story is, I suppose, that the city is watching, and if you try to hide a two-year construction job that faces the street, you’d better be building it right. Awesome job, dear.

Four cats in front yard with labels

Did you find all four cats?

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

My favorite room

When I last wrote about the side porch, it was close-but-not-quite finished. (If you missed them, read previous posts about demolition prep, demolition, framing, and porch decking.)

A large, uncovered porch with a white wood railing but without siding

The porch in June

Eric still had to trim out the square corner posts and apply the shingle siding. That sounds like it should go pretty quickly—it would only take about seven minutes on a home improvement show. In real life, it takes two months of weekends and 86 trips to building supply stores.

The caps on the posts did go quickly. We assumed our gender-specific roles: Eric cut the wood and screwed it in place, then filled the holes with stinky two-part epoxy filler that dries hard as rock.

Click on any photo to enlarge it.

Then I took over with the sander and paint, with the help of my assistant, Tara, who specializes in testing painted surfaces for dryness. Here are her results:

Shingling took a lot longer, and was occasionally interrupted by a trip to the store for more shingles (it took almost twice what Eric had originally bought). Tacking up the alternating 3-inch and 6-inch courses on the straight sections of wall went quickly, but when it came to the square corners, that was another story.

Eric had to do a lot of painstaking cutting and fitting, overlapping the corner shingles in alternating directions (one right, the next left), and fitting the shingles around the railings.

Detail of corner shingles overlapping on alternate courses

Corner shingles overlap in opposite courses

I really should say “painsgiving.” Eric essentially was doing squats as he fitted and applied the shingles, which caused a lot of muscle soreness, accompanied by moaning and groaning. But his thighs and the corner posts look great.

Inspired by some neon-bright plant arrangements I saw at our local Ace Hardware, I got excited about refilling the urns that I’ve always kept on the side porch. I managed to snag enough bright annuals to fill them before the fall mums and ornamental kale took over Lowe’s garden department. There’s an urn on each post, although the west one is obscured by the weeping birch tree. I’m hoping the flowers spill over the sides before the season is over.

Urn planted with pink petunias, lotus vine, marigolds, and small blue and white flowers

An urn tops each corner post

I had to have this plant! I’d never seen a spilanthes (acmella oleracea) before. It’s a Brazilian medicinal herb whose floral buttons are known as “buzz buttons,” “Szechuan buttons,” or “electric buttons.” According to Wikipedia, they produce a tingling, numbing, or effervescent sensation in the mouth, accompanied by excessive salivation. I think I’ll pass, thank you.

Green plant with blooms of yellow buttons with red centers

I drooled over this cute plant.

At another garden store, I found Senorita Kitty and a matching pot. Couldn’t resist.

Colorful Mexican pottery cat and pot with cactus

A Mexican pottery kitty seems appropriate for our porch

Then I went a little wild with throw pillows for the bistro set, and a couple of small turquoise and green planters that go with a red one I already had. I succumbed to some trendy colors that complemented Senorita Kitty, but these are colors that I’ve always liked, anyway. Now our side porch has a summery, south-of-the-border vibe.

A brass lantern and three small colorful planters holding succulents

Colorful pots hold succulents

I still need to decide what kind of foundation plantings I want in front of the porch. Something low and evergreen as a base, punctuated with some taller color. But, I will wait until fall to plant anything. It’s so hot and dry this summer, new plants wouldn’t stand the stress.

At last, we could check off this project as DONE!! It was time for our celebration dinner. Duke supervised the table setting.

Dinner for two on the new porch

Dinner al fresco

Boxer looks over tabale set for dinner for two on the porch

Gonna eat that?

Unfortunately, yellowjackets drove us inside not long after we sat down … but that didn’t diminish our celebratory mood. I wander out onto our reborn porch daily just to admire it. Eric did an incredible job, as usual, and I just did a little polishing … as usual.

It’s hard to look at the “before” photos. We took it from this eyesore …

To this beautiful relaxation spot…

It really is my favorite room!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it



Our hottest-day-of-the-year tradition

We’ve had a curiously Southwest-like spring and summer here in the Northwest, with a bone-dry June (June is usually soggy) that’s continuing into July. We had almost as many days over 85 degrees in June as we normally have all summer. Over the 4th of July weekend, we had our ninth day over 90 degrees, with several more to go. Many of us have lost our sense of humor about the situation. I’m finding it a little scary to think about how we and our landscaping will survive our normal drought period, late July through August.

dry plants, rose campion, Japanese blood grass, sedum autmn joy, blue fescue

However, this is the perfect opportunity for Eric and me (well, okay, Eric, since I am a hot-weather wimp) to continue a summer tradition of doing a major outdoor construction project during the hottest weather of the summer. Sound like fun??

Let’s see … there was the fence … and the deck … and the front porch … and the brick front walk … all constructed in 90- to 100-degree heat. Not by me!!

This year, we’re finishing the side porch, which, if you recall, we began too late last summer and had to put on hiatus for the winter.

Here’s where we began this spring, with Eric renting a pad sander and scrubbing a winter’s worth of oxidation off his custom-milled decking.

sanding porch decking

With an eye toward what we think will be a trim color when we repaint the exterior, we used opaque alkyd-based waterproofing stain in barn red on the porch floor. (I’ve always liked a red floor for a porch. The front porch is currently gray, but it’ll change when we get around to repainting.) Two coats should give it a good weather seal … we hope. [Note: The best way to avoid having your backside appear in a blog post is to make sure you’re behind the camera. Sorry, dear.]

alkyd porch stain

porch floor, barn red

Next, Eric framed in the big square corner posts that echo the design of the front porch. These posts don’t provide structural support for anything but the railings. The porch deck is supported by framing underneath.

corner post framing

Everything on the side porch matches the design of the front porch, except that this porch isn’t covered. It’s exposed to the weather, which is our main concern. The top rails are treated 4x6s. Eric patiently applied wood filler and sanded them to disguise the surface cuts.

treated 4x6 rails

Yes, I have helped a little on this project … painting, as usual. At this point, the opaque white-stained railings were merely laying on the framing. Duke wanted to know how far the schedule had slipped.

4x6 treated railings

Eric inserted additional framing to secure the hefty railings and to accept the plywood sheathing, which will be covered with cedar shingles.

corner post framing

Even though only the horizontal portions of the railings were up, it gave the porch a sense of enclosure and a preview of what it will feel like when finished. We felt like we were making progress. One evening while we were sitting in our living room with the French doors open, a couple of people walked by. We heard one of them say, “He’s been working on that for a year!” Well, hmph! That seemed to motivate us.

horizontal porch railings

I was excited as Eric began making the slats for the railing, because they are what give the porch its personality. The slats are 1×8, with a 1-7/8-inch decorative hole. These holes are probably the only round design elements on this decidedly square bungalow.

By this time, the temperature was really heating up, with 90-plus-degree days. The blue canopy was a smart purchase a few years ago. Standing in the shade makes the heat more bearable. Eric tolerates the heat far better than I do. I must admit, I spent large portions of the brutally hot days inside with the AC, pretending to be busy, while in reality I was watching golf on TV with a cool drink in my hand … as Eric toiled outdoors. Every now and then I called him in for a cooling break.

hot weather, canopy, table saw

But eventually it was my turn under the canopy, heat be damned. I painted three coats of white stain on the slats. The job went quickly because the heat dried each coat in minutes. That meant I could dodge back indoors before sweating too much.

porch railing slats, decorative holes

The slats are held in place between two rows of quarter-round, top and bottom. Small spacers fill the gaps between the slats so that winter rain (assuming we’ll get rain again someday) won’t collect in the trough and rot the railing. I still need to slap some white on the spacers.

porch railing slats installed

Now that the railings are complete, the porch feels like a porch, and is functional. We love looking out the French doors and seeing this awesome additional room just outside! It’s more than twice the size of the one it replaced. Plenty of room for our bistro set and a couple of other chairs. Duke and the cats love it.

porch viewed from inside, French doors, Lacy


porch, bistro set, Lacy

Over the next several days, Eric will build the top caps for the corner posts and shingle the walls to match the front porch. I’ll do some touch-up painting and planting. And of course, the construction debris needs to be cleaned away. Ditto the pile of saws, drills, and extension cords just inside the French doors. Only then will we be done. We’ve decided to eat a celebration dinner out here when that happens—not a moment before! We’re so close now! Imagine that—we’re about to actually finish a project!

porch without shingles

As I finish this post from my porch perch, Duke, Lacy, Tara, Checkers, and Peggy Sue have all joined me at various times. I think this porch is a success!

porch, computer, Tara Softpaws


The never-ending list, 2015 version

With a new year comes the opportunity to get organized and be productive. (Is anything preventing us from doing this at any time of year? No … but it’s traditional to think about it now.) So what does her 102nd year hold for our bungalow? And how far will we get in the next 12 months? It didn’t take me long to come up with this list.

1.  Finish the kitchen! We don’t have far to go, but it will have to wait until summer and dry weather. I want to strip the three kitchen doors (back, attic, and basement), and that’s an outdoor job. Eric has also talked about taking the windows apart and cleaning the balance mechanisms, which means the kitchen would be wide open. Again, a task for warm weather. Painting the doors and window trim is on me, but messing with the balances is Eric’s domain. I don’t want to be to blame for ruining our windows! How confident am I that this project will be completed? 100%!

single-hung window rope

2.  Finish the side porch. All we need is a pile more lumber and a good stretch of that elusive dry weather. It’ll come.  The actual construction is Eric’s task, but I’ll be pitching in with sanding and painting. I can’t wait to see this porch completed because it’s going to be AWESOME!! Right now the porch is looking rather forlorn, wet, and forgotten. The cats are the only ones who use it. Confidence rating: 100%.

unfinished side porch

3.  Redesign the triangle garden. I’ve been dissatisfied with this garden for a couple of years, but I didn’t have the energy last spring to redo it. It’s way overgrown and looks its worst at this dismal time of year. I’m eager to get out there and at least clean it out, but every weekend day seems to cold or too wet, or we’re busy watching Seahawks football. I waste the best weather stuck in an office with no windows. Next month, winter turns the corner (as far as I’m concerned) with the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, which is sure to get my sap flowing again. Confidence rating: 100%. IF my back holds out.

overgrown triangle-shaped garden

4.  Rebuild the backyard fence. Eric reminded me to add this project. The six-foot fence along the alley and south lot line is only standing up from habit. Doesn’t it have great patina? I want to salvage the fence boards. The ones that aren’t rotten. When I pressed Eric about his confidence factor, he said, “I don’t have a choice.” Twice. Of course, Duke will help him. Confidence rating: 100%.

fence with backlit Nishiki willow

5.  Finish the attic. You didn’t even know we were working on the attic, did you? Little by little, Eric’s been working on this project, but he hasn’t done anything up there since last spring, when outdoor chores took over. Our goal is to turn the attic into an art studio/lounge/storage area. There’s a ton of work to be done up there, and I doubt we’ll finish it this year. But, I hope we make some good progress. I’ll take you up there in a future post. Not now … you’re not wearing the proper shoes. (You’re dying to see what’s up there, aren’t you?) Confidence rating: 25%.

attic stairs

6.  Repaint the living room, dining room, foyer, and interior hall. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll get around to this, but it’s been on my mind and should be done soon. I painted the present color, Valspar Oak Grove with cream trim, in 2003. I’ve always liked it, but now I’d like to go with something lighter. I’ve been seeing a lot of pretty light grays with ivory trim, but that won’t go with my dining room wallpaper, which I love and sweated bullets to hang 15 years ago. I’ll be damned if I take it down! I dunno … I suppose I could find another Craftsman-y pattern and do it again. Or I could paint another lighter tan color that would complement the paper. We’ll see where this goes. Confidence rating: 10%.

oak brown living room wall color

7.  Paint the exterior. OMG, this will be the big one! Eric and I are debating just how much of this mammoth task we want to take on versus hire out. I don’t want to say we’re getting too old to do it ourselves, but it’s so time consuming. An old house like this, with all its trim and windows, will take a ton of prep work, and the gables are a long ways up. If we could take the summer off, maybe we could get it done … nah, probably not! Maybe we are too old for this stuff. Our house’s dirty little secret (one of them … well, not so little nor secret) is that when my ex and I painted it in 1994, we, um … never got around to painting the trim on the south side, or the high barge board on the rear gable. I spend, like, zero time on the south side of the house, so it wasn’t until our recent plumbing misadventure that I reacquainted myself with just how wretchedly BAD things look from our neighbor’s point of view.  It’s long past time to make that right. We have a new paint scheme in mind, but we have yet to test it on the house. Waiting for drier weather … again. Confidence rating: 50%. If we don’t finish (e.g., leave the south side unpainted?), I’m pretty sure we’ll at least make a start on prep work. We have to.

gable with peeling paint

8.  Finally, there’s the project that lurks behind this door. Can you guess what I’m about to tackle next? Confidence rating: 100%.

wood door to ?

Yes, there’s a lot on our plate for 2015. I know better than to think we’ll get all of this done (although, wouldn’t that be nice!). A lot of it depends on decent weather, for which we Northwesterners wait impatiently all winter and spring. We like to say that summer begins on the fifth of July, and sometimes that’s not an exaggeration. I hope we have some sun breaks long before then!

Meanwhile, the project behind the door is waiting for me right now.


Raising a stink

Sunday, January 11

As Eric and I idled away our Sunday morning drinking espressos and watching the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys, a knock came on the door. Bang bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on our heads! “I think you have a sewage leak,” said Mel, our neighbor. We threw on our coats and went to investigate.

Holy crap!! A cesspool was forming around poor Mel’s back stoop, which is only about 15 intimate feet from our bathroom. It smelled awful. I have to say, though, that when Eric graded the side of our house to drain away from our foundation, he did a magnificent job. (Ours is the house on the left—the one that cries out to be painted.)

pool of sewage between houses

sewage around back stoop

Of course, it had to be a Sunday. Eric called one of those 24/7 rooter services that don’t charge extra for weekends. Then we went to Costco to shop in denial until the plumbers were scheduled to arrive.

By running the water, we could plainly see where it was burbling to the surface, straight out from our bathroom’s waste line, in the hedge that runs down the lot line. The rooterman (I made up that word … I like it) set to work draining the swamp, so to speak, and digging a pit around the spot where the waste line turned to run toward the street. A little action really turned up the volume on the smell.

repair pit full of water

The failure of the line did not surprise me. I knew that the old concrete (yes, concrete in places, clay in others) drain tiles were in bad shape, but I didn’t know that the tiles I could see in an eroded hole in the ground were sewer. I thought it was an old French drain.  Well … poop. Okay, enough with the jokes.

The estimate to fix the broken line, install a cleanout, jet the line, and scope it came in at a cool $3K … in line with the info Eric dug up online while Rooterman dug up the problem.  No one expects plumbing to be cheap, right? But … when Rooterman jetted the line, water geysered up out of another hole 40 feet downstream. So now we had two breaks a long ways apart, and a lot of bad ancient drain tile in between. Fixing the second break would more than double the price. Okay, we’re up to $6,600, and I was starting to freak. I knew that the entire line was suspect and could blow at any time. To do the job right, it should all be replaced. But replacing it all would bring the bill to nearly $11,000.00. I cried.

Rooterman worked far into the night to prepare the fixit pit for the second break. Meanwhile, Eric and I paid a late-night visit to our favorite grocery store with the clean restrooms. As we entered the store, Eric picked a penny off the ground. It had come to that.

I did not sleep much. I got up twice to look at the estimates and once more to haul my snuggly cat, Checkers, to bed for comfort. (I’m sure Eric would have comforted me had he not been sound asleep.) And then I made a decision. We’d have the two breaks repaired and wait until spring (or whenever the remaining line fails) to get a bid from our regular plumber. I finally fell asleep, imagining that I could smell the sewage through the wall … but Duke may have farted.

Monday, January 12

Come morning, Eric agreed that we’d take the “cheap”-but-risky route. After staring at 11 grand, $6600 was looking downright doable (funny how that works). We both worked from home that day, keeping an eye on progress and making trips to the grocery store every few hours. I reminded myself that the staff who worked the night shift weren’t the same folks who were working the next day … no one would recognize us. We had not showered since Saturday, and if this routine went on much longer, we would start to look—and smell—homeless.

In between bathroom runs, we reflected that although we were spending a lot of money, it felt kinda nice to sit back and let professionals do the work. This was not a DIY project. I was glad that the rootermen had fine, dry, sunny weather to work in … not the January norm in this part of the country.

worker digs second pit

broken clay sewer tile

sewer pipe on our lawn

Toward evening, Rooterman had the job sewn up. We could use our plumbing again! (Our water had never been turned off, and we could grab water for coffee and drinking, and small uses like brushing our teeth, but no showers, laundry, dishwashing, or flushing.) The excavations had to remain open until the city inspector signed the permit. We showered and flushed to our hearts’ content. There’s nothing like indoor plumbing. It’s just the greatest invention!!

new cleanouts in repair pit

Tuesday, January 13

I worked at home again and waited for the day’s action to begin. The inspector arrived before 9:00 and pronounced us good to go. I was beginning to feel like we were getting over the hump, and the sticker shock was wearing off … or resignation was setting in. Two new rootermen showed up and spent the entire day capping the new cleanouts, filling the excavations, and tamping soil. They even removed a layer of contaminated soil from Mel’s side of the hedge and hauled in clean topsoil. (We’ll buy some sod and make it look better than it did pre-spill.) By day’s end, you wouldn’t have been able to tell anything had gone wrong. Good work, guys!

finished and graded cleanouts

new topsoil next door

clean sidewalk next door

Wednesday, January 14

Our original rooterman stopped by to make sure all was well and to accept final payment. By then I was inured to the price and just wanted to put the whole episode behind me. It’s only money, right?

So that concludes our smelly adventure. If you haven’t done it lately, now would be a good time to go hug your toilet and flush a (small) flower into your sewer line as a gesture of appreciation.

finished repair




Rain falling on cedar

Seems like ages ago when Eric took Labor Day week off to build the side porch. With the false optimism that accompanies every new project, he expected that he could demolish the old porch and build the new one, right up through framing, decking, railings, and corner posts … leaving the siding for a couple of late-summer weekends.

Well … you know how that goes. Demolition, spider control, and site prep took that entire first week. By the end of September, the frame was up. Then we had the wettest October on record and progress stalled. We even left the country to avoid doing any porch work. Just when the weather showed signs of cooperating, Eric was sent to St. Louis to work for a week. Let’s see … that puts us about seven weeks behind schedule. Not as bad as Seattle’s Alaskan Way tunnel project, but, as I look out onto our soggy November streetscape, more discouraging because it’s our house.

rainy windowpane

Rainy windowpane (Eric’s photo)

We became even more discouraged when we set out to buy porch flooring material. A couple of years ago we discovered Azek porch boards at the home show.  These 3-inch composite tongue-and-groove boards look identical to our original front porch floor.

gray Azek porch board

We couldn’t wait to use them at our house, and finally, the time had come. That is, until we priced them. Each 16-foot board cost $67.36. We needed 60 boards … so that would be over $4000.00 just for the porch floor (not including fasteners). We couldn’t see spending that much. Is this house worth $4K in porch flooring? My heart said “yes,” but my head said, “No way!!” It simply didn’t pencil out.

Plan B: Trex porch boards, which were slightly, but not much, cheaper. These companies are pretty damned proud of their porch boards.

Plan C: Use what would have been used in 1913—cedar decking. I like the idea of using period-correct materials (I also liked the idea of the Azek boards because they were so convincing and they would never rot). However, if they’re properly treated with an oil-base stain, cedar boards should last for decades … long after we move out and into an old-folks’ home. We searched for classic 3-inch tongue-and-groove cedar porch boards … but we came up empty-handed.

Okay … Plan D: Buy ubiquitous 5/4 cedar decking, at $9.98 per 16-foot board, or $600.00 total. This decking has radius corners, a look we definitely didn’t want, but Eric was game for trimming these boards down and milling his own tongue-and-groove porch boards! As luck would have it, his table saw motor burned out. Hey, that’s not a bad thing! That’s a tool-buying opportunity (TBO)! The new saw was only $230. (Remember how much we’re saving by not using Azek.) Let the milling begin!

Eric at table saw

Another optimistic estimate—milling should take about 8 hours. Each board needed seven cuts to achieve the tongue-and-groove profile.

seven cuts for T&G

tongue and groove board

Eric spent at least 16 hours patiently milling the boards (and making mounds of sawdust) over the course of two weekends. He reminded me again how much money we were saving over the Azek. The boards then patiently waited in the rain for his return from St. Louis.

stack of tongue and groove boards

Now, to attach those boards and make an actual porch out of them! Eric needed a dry day and a rental angle flooring stapler. We had a hard time finding either. His brief window of dry weather was running out, and the rental staplers at Home Depot didn’t shoot long enough staples for his boards. This was not a tragedy—this was another TBO! He came home with his own angle flooring stapler … so he was able to wait out the bad weather. Add $170 to the flooring total, bringing it to $1000, which is a whole lot better than $4000.

angle flooring stapler

Once Eric began stapling the boards, the operation went pretty fast. He even let me use the stapler for a bit. It was fun—like playing whack-a-mole. However, even whack-a-mole gets old when you have to bang in five staples on each of 120 boards. In one weekend, “suddenly” we had a porch floor, and it looks great! Duke approves, too.

Duke on porch

porch in rain

front view of porch in rain

The next step is sanding … and building the railings. But November is storm season in the Pacific Northwest. Will we get a break in the weather? Will we have a finished porch by summer? Will another TBO come Eric’s way? Stay tuned …





We last left the side porch … well, not existing. Demolition: complete. Site: clean and level. Building materials: staged. House: begging for a new porch to rise from the  ground.

That required more digging—six holes, one for each support post. After the demo, Eric probably felt like he’d had enough digging, but, soon the holes appeared. Well, it felt “soon” to me … I was inside, surely doing something … important. My bad back sure gets me out of a lot of work.

Porch building materials ready to go

Into both center holes Eric dropped one of the slabs he dug up (the corner holes already had thicker slabs in them, left over from the original porch). Onto each slab he placed a section of tubing to hold the cement. As if he had other things to think about, he failed to take pictures of this step.

Next, Eric set the 6×6 corner posts in the tubes. I may have helped straighten a post or two at this point. Then he braced the posts with 2x4s to hold the them vertical while he mixed and poured the cement into each hole. What?? Still no photos? Where was the freakin’ photographer? It’s so hard to get good help these days!

By the time the photographer showed up, this is what he found: corner and center posts installed, cement footings poured and cured, perimeter framing attached, and the surrounding dirt all smoothed out! This photo captures several days and evenings of work.

posts and perimeter framing in place

But wait—where’d all the extra slabs go? Just a few days previous, Eric had wondered what he would do with that planter full of dirt (I suggested top dressing our entire lawn). But as he filled the post holes and sloped the ground away from the foundation, he realized he was running short of dirt! That’s where the slabs went—back underground. I wonder … did they enjoy their time topside, or do they like it better down in the dark?

I meant to get a photo of the slabs in their new graves, but I got distracted in the house. For some reason, Eric didn’t want to dig them back up again for a photo op, but he was kind enough to brush back the dirt to expose a corner. Yup, they’re down there.

exposed corner of concrete slab

Then it was  time to tidy things up a bit. Weed block fabric went down, followed by 7/8 minus drain rock. I just want to give myself credit for helping with this part. It was the least I could do.

weed block fabric under porch

drain rock spread under porch

All pretty now. The spiders who move in under this porch will have a much nicer living space.

Unfortunately, with the first day of autumn came the rain, and progress stopped for several days. The good news is that the overflowing gutters dumped water to the side of the porch … and the water drained away from the foundation.

Eventually the joists appeared in their hangers (as if by magic). It’s starting to look like it might be a porch when it grows up!

joists in their hangers

Peggy Sue was our first porch sitter, even though the boards were only loose scraps. She thought it was an awesome vantage point.

Tabby kitty on the porch

This porch is hella stout. Next summer we’ll be able to host a party for all our friends, load them onto the porch for a commemorative photo, and the porch will not fall in. We will not appear on the eleven o’clock news.

Just wait till we finish it for you, Peggy Sue. You’ll love it.


Six-pack slabs

You know how to estimate the duration of a project, right? Take your best guess and triple it! (Some would say quadruple it.) All too quickly, Eric came to the end of his week off, during which he thought he’d get most of the new side porch constructed. Are you surprised to learn that it’s NOT happening quite that way? Eric told me a tale of when he dropped by his parents’ house years ago and found his dad laboriously hauling concrete blocks in the yard, lamenting that he just couldn’t carry as much as he used to. Eric is now the same age his dad was then, and he’s singing the same lament. The demolition that he thought would take one day took all of Labor Day weekend. Prepping the site (regrading, tamping the soil, washing the siding) and running around town rounding up lumber took another couple of days. And, we took one day off to drive up to Whidbey Island. You can’t just work every day and not have any fun!

porch with moldy siding

So much for the disclaimer … what did we actually accomplish that week? It gives me the creeps to think about it! With the shrubs out of the way, it was demo time. Eric thought the porch was so rickety that he could knock it down with a swift kick … but it wasn’t as simple as that. It was rotten, all right … he couldn’t just grab it and yank. Chunks kept coming off in his hands. Not much structural integrity left!

rotten support post

Did I help? Well … I was sort of the safety inspector, reminding Eric to put the spider-deflecting rubber bands around his pant legs and wear his safety glasses. I handed him the can of Raid.

Once the siding was off, we could peek inside. OMG, the spiders!!

huge spider web

We could see hobo spider funnel webs in the cracked concrete planter and on the ground, and plenty of large spiders just hangin’ out. Eric said not all of them were hobos, but I didn’t get close enough to confirm that. I have researched hobo spiders on the internet, but I will spare you from seeing a real close-up here. You can look them up yourself if you’re itchin’ to know!

Notice the funnel-shaped web in the crack. Keep body parts away from funnel webs!

hobo spider and web

We declared war. I warned Eric that his karma was sure to take a hit for killing a bunch of spiders, but he felt revenge was justified after suffering through the hobo bite the previous week. We discovered something better—and safer—than Raid. Next time you really want to kill bugs but not your kids or pets, try Hot Shot. It’s made of lemon grass oil and it kills pests dead (wait—isn’t that the Raid slogan?), while leaving your garden smelling lemony-fresh. How can you beat that?

Enough with the spiders—how do you feel about ants? We found lots of ant tunnels chewed through the wood, along with whatever comes out the other end of the ant. Can you see the queen ant? She’s the big mama in the upper left (about 3/4 of an inch long in real life), with the white spot at her head. What is that white spot? Food? An egg sack?

queen ant

And what Pacific Northwest outdoor project would be complete without slugs and sow bugs?

slugs and sow bugs

Have you had enough? I sure have! Cats, though … a few bugs and spiders don’t faze them. Dash and Ditto Morse came by to inspect what remained of the porch they sometimes hid under.

Tabby cat Dash Morse

cats Dash and Ditto under the porch

With a few more whacks of the mattock and a little help from the chain saw, the old porch gradually disappeared.

porch with corner posts gone

Eric with sledge hammer

 no more porch

After another thorough spraying with Hot Shot (we had a very lemony yard by then), Eric began smashing the concrete planter. It came willingly enough, but he had to carry about 1500 pounds of busted up concrete blocks to the curb. Then he had to lift them into the trailer, and out of the trailer at the recycler’s.

concrete blocks stacked by curb

Normally I’d help with this … but there might have been spiders on those bricks. Seriously.

The dirt had been in that planter for so many years it could stand on its own.

planter dirt still in place

As he dug out the last few bricks, Eric discovered a row of concrete slabs beneath where the bricks had been. He painstakingly dug them up, too. Six of them will be reused as footings for the new porch. We don’t know why they were in the ground. They appear to be sections of an old, narrow sidewalk that may have been put in after the original porch was removed. Or an old sidewalk might have been broken up to serve as footings for the porch … we’ll never know. The slabs ain’t talkin’.

six concrete slabs

Peggy Sue appreciated the custom cat box that Eric created just for her.

Tabby cat in a hole

Materials for new construction began showing up. I can’t wait to see the new porch take shape. I hope to be more helpful now that the creepy-crawlies are gone. I don’t want to wear Eric out … there’s too much that needs doin’ around this old house!

construction materials on the lawn 19132013new





Gaining our footing on a new project

Behold our sorry side porch.

side porch from inside

rotten corner post

When I bought this house in 1984, there was nothing outside the living room French doors but an ugly concrete block planter and a long step down. The original porch was long gone. And it stayed gone until the mid-90s. The previous owner stopped by one day with her grown grandson and she showed me an old photo that revealed a bit of the old side porch. It was uncovered (and vulnerable to the elements), but it matched the front porch with its square posts and decorative low railing. My ex rebuilt a reasonable facsimile with what little we had to go on.

Almost 20 years later, it’s rotten and unsafe. I wonder how many times it’s been rebuilt over the years. The current porch fits over the planter, but we’re going to take it all out. That will eliminate the “raccoon run” that exists now, under the porch and through the planter.

concrete block planter

Raccoons are cute and all, but they compete for the food we put out for the homeless cats.  And they drive Duke wild. I wish raccoons would stick to eating nuts and berries, and quit stealing pic-a-nic baskets.

raccoon on porch

When Eric mentioned that he wanted to rebuild the porch to our neighbor Tom, who has lived down the street for nearly 80 years, Tom asked if we were going to make it bigger like the original one. Bigger? Tom remembered the original porch stretching from the cantilever of the dining room to the corner of the house, and extending further out, as well. Wow!

Eric found this circa-1930s photo of our ivy-covered house in the county records. If you look closely, you can see the cedar shingle siding, and just make out part of the side porch railing under the “A” of Auburn.

b&w photo of house in 1930s

First step: clear the area for demolition! Eric chopped out the euonymus hedge that fronted the porch, which made the view even worse.

hedge removal

Then I took the loppers and began whacking down the mammoth rhododendron that nearly engulfed the west side of the porch—a dusty and potentially spidery job. I transplanted that rhody from my parents’ house 30 years ago when I moved here, but it was time for it to go. It was overgrown, seldom bloomed, and … it was in the way. The hedge and part of the rhody filled our utility trailer.  The extra pile of branches and another just like it are the second load.

utility trailer full of branches

That left the stump. Eric made short work of the rhody limbs with a chainsaw, and then attacked the stump with a mattock. And a post-hole digger. And the chainsaw. He even resorted to blasting dirt from under the roots with a hose.

flooded stump excavation

All that excavating didn’t disturb the stump, but did unearth the original concrete footings. The porch had, indeed, come out to the corner of the house. When the water receded, we could see the footings on either side of the stump.

stumo excavation and original footings

But the stump wouldn’t budge. Its roots had grown under the footings. Eric split it with a wedge and sledge hammer (very manly), and eventually he was able to break it up and remove it. Success!

eric taking a break

Little Dot Morse stopped by to see what we were up to. Isn’t she a beauty?

tabby kitty Dot Morse

Eric poked around with a piece of rebar until he located the front edges of the corner footing. I couldn’t rest until I did the same at the other end. Sure enough, the original porch did span from the dining room to the corner of the house! I found a narrow footing running between the two corners, which I remembered from when the porch was rebuilt. The rebar stuck in the ground under the rhody marks the east corner footing.

rebar marks the east corner footing

A chat with the city planning department confirmed that we must maintain a 10-ft setback from the sidewalk, so that means we’ll be able to extend the new porch out about a foot beyond where it is now. We’ll go from an 8′ x 6′ porch to 14′ x 7′ — doubling our square footage. Awesome!!

All the action will happen over Labor Day weekend and the following week, which Eric is taking off work. Care to make a bet on whether we can finish in nine days? Now that the bushes are out of the way, we can wail on demolition.

But … by Sunday night, an angry rash developed on Eric’s leg. By Wednesday, he didn’t need convincing to see his doctor, who quickly surmised it’s a hobo spider bite. She loaded Eric up with antibiotics to fight any secondary infection, and outlined the rash in felt pen so we could tell if it was getting bigger or smaller. After five days, it still looks like this, but it is slowly starting to fade. I think. Maybe a little.

spider bite on Eric's leg

You can bet that I will be in the next county when he starts dismantling the porch and planter. I can’t stop envisioning a herd of hopping-mad hobo spiders crawling up our pantlegs and overrunning our house! (Quick—duct tape around the doors and windows!!) I feel sorry for Eric, I really do. He is not particularly fond of spiders, either, but he’s a guy, and he has to cowboy up while I mince around with a can of Raid. He will have rubber bands around the ankles of his jeans. I’ll be the one in the full hazmat suit. In the next county.

So here we go, and here goes the old porch! Labor Day, indeed!