Monthly Archives: April 2013

Walls are up.

At every point along this path I’ve gotten reminders that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not familiar with any of the actions I need to take. I’m forcing myself forward against the resistance of a supreme lack of sureness. Today I raised the walls.

If I had been working with someone with skills and experience, it probably would have looked different. I wasn’t working with any carpenters, though, so I put the walls flush with the edges of the subfloor and drove in some screws. The sill plates were positioned perfectly – it’s pretty hard to mess that part up. All you have to do is make them even with the subfloor. It’s when I looked to the top of the walls that my concerns began to mount.

“Plumb” and “square” are adjectives which you hope describe your walls. I guess I was hoping to get lucky. I checked my luck with a plumb bob, and I wasn’t ecstatic about the result. I don’t know what tolerances I should be aiming for, but this is probably not good enough.

Fuck this, fuck everyone, fuck everything. I have no clue what I’m doing. Time to read some books, tutorials, articles, threads in forums… all the advice.

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Black market brain drugs and my impact driver.

I got the impact driver yesterday. It’s a Porter Cable without the battery and charger, because I already have access to a charger and two batteries. $50 brand new – can’t beat it.

I have what people call “ADD.” Experts call everything ADD, and it’s probably the most over-medicated catch-all diagnosis around. Widespread diagnosis and an aversion to the idea of a medication that changes my brain kept me from taking anything to mitigate the ADD symptoms… until I was about 30 years old. Less than a year ago.

I have always been a creative thinker. More accurately, I have always had a tendency to daydream obsessively about a single subject – strange ideas that evolve or erode under the pressure of unmitigated focus. I have never been able to control what I am focusing on, but suffice it to say, some subject gets the business. I’ve cooked up plenty of great ideas in my head, and usually that’s where they’ve died. I could always come up with the ideas – no problem – but I could never take action or finish a project. That’s the ADD part. From the outside, it looks a lot like laziness. But it’s different. I’ve despaired about being lazy, and at times I’ve tried to will myself into action. It seems like it should be easy. It’s impossible.

I’m one of thousands or millions of people with the same ADD-related issues. My brain sees where I want to go, but the path to get there is hopelessly convoluted. I’m unable to start at step one because my brain is simultaneously worrying about every other step, and the unsureness of how to proceed leaves me paralyzed with inaction. This situation is frustrating and it can lead to a deeper anxiety when, say, you can’t buy groceries and your life falls apart.

I reached a fork in the road. It was a soggy winter night, and the air was a dense cloud of pneumonia. I was outside of my own body – looking at myself and hanging my head. My transmission had crapped out that morning. I knew I had to take my van somewhere or at least make an appointment. I had to take any action whatsoever. On top of this, I had other lingering items on a long to-do list. I had to make some calls. But I didn’t. I spent the entire day doing anything else, and it made me feel like the worst bag of garbage.

Kristin and I had not been seeing each other for long by this point. I was in a ruined mood, and she wanted to talk about it. I was sure she wouldn’t get it and I was amazed when she did. She absolutely understood. She was able to explain my own feelings back to me because she’d felt them all before. She takes medicine for the exact thing which was dragging me under.

For the first time in my life, I considered the possibility that I might not be smarter than doctors. I considered that other people take meds for ADD – and maybe all of those people aren’t idiots. I resolved to reexamine my stance on ADD and pill-taking. Maybe it wasn’t all hoopla and corporate bullshit.

Let me fast forward a bit here: it’s not all hoopla and corporate bullshit. Sometimes if there is an obvious answer, you should just take it. I went to a doctor and got a prescription for Adderall. I found it immensely helpful. I cannot underscore how much of a help it has been. The house that I am building would be going a lot slower – and most likely not exist at all – if not for my organized thoughts and my ability to make a systematic plan for learning and building. I have accomplished other feats in life, and it baffles me in hindsight how I was ever able to get anything done at all.

Now my ability to afford Adderall is in jeopardy. I quit my job, and thus do not have health insurance. Health insurance was paying for most of my medication and doctor visits, and having a paycheck helped cover the rest. Without insurance and/or a big paycheck, you can forget about it. Adderall isn’t exactly a “must have” drug. It’s not keeping me alive. But without it, I am unlikely to work on many projects. I WANT TO WORK ON PROJECTS. I want to learn new skills and I want to finish at least a few of the zany project ideas that I’ve obsessed about for so long. I want progress.

I’m nearly out of Adderall. I cut my dosage in half to stretch it out, and I’ve only been taking it when I have a good chance of getting a lot of work done. But I think I have a solution: plan B is in the mail.

A lot of people are talking about Modafinil. You should look it up. I’ve tried it once before, and it worked fantastically well. If you need to study for a test or paint your whole house, you will have no better friend. I was able to order a 3+ month supply for about $60 on the internet. Coming directly from India with no doctors or inflated charges: it’s much cheaper than Adderall.

So I’m getting brain-drugs from India and hoping for the best. As sketchy as that may sound, I am fully expecting a good result. I didn’t take Adderall today. I got a brand new impact driver and I didn’t drive one screw into one piece of wood. On medication or off, I always feel exactly like myself. But with the drugs, I sure get a lot more work done.

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Free siding day: reconfirming that it’s good to have a van.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been checking Craigslist’s “materials” (ie: “building materials”) section for months. Today: free siding. Good stuff: manufactured wood with a faux cedar grain and a pre-primed surface. Ready for paint. Somebody who worked for a builder took it home from a jobsite instead of putting it in the dumpster. Now – two years later – he has a new job, and his wife is tripping over his stacks of siding. Life rules.

I knew I had to be quick. Free stuff valued over half-a-damn goes quick. I didn’t ask for detailed measurements or further information. I politely asked how soon I could pick it up.

I was lucky contestant number one. The siding was about an hour away, and I got a detailed location to point my van at. (It’s times like this where I am incredibly happy to have stood by my van and avoided the temptation to trade for something smaller.) The siding guy was friendly and he even helped me load up. Each siding panel was 6 1/2″ wide by 16 feet long. Even with my awesome van, I had about four feet of siding stacks hanging out the back. I supported the stacks with some 2×6 lumber, and it looked respectably safe. The guy was even nice enough to kick down an old ratcheting strap clamp to hold the siding more securely. (He seemed unconvinced of the fortitude of the bungee cords I was threatening to use.)

We shook dirty hands, and I began the triumphant cruise back to home base. I estimated the value of the siding – when it was new, anyway – at just over $360. And let me be honest: this stuff has been sitting outside, so it is dirty as hell and will need to be cleaned. But siding is made to be outside, and cleaning is something that a jobless jackaxe can handle. I’m going to have a powerwashing party and make this money shine. In the meantime, I’m going to let muddy siding hang out the back of my open van and hope that I’m not pushing too many “fuck this” buttons. (The folks love me, but Sanford and Son is not their aesthetic.)


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Compromises: free insulation vs. salty broth.

Subfloor: complete.

Whenever I have a question about how to do something right – how many screws, what kind insulation is best – I search for answers on the internet and fall into a deep pit of forums. We all know what “too many cooks” will do to the broth. Internet forums manifest 1,000 cooks every time.

I’m heavily inspired and influenced by the work of Derek Diedricksen. He is a voice of reason in the world of small-structure construction. About a month ago, I got a huge bag of discarded fiberglass insulation out of a dumpster in Philadelphia. Today was the day that I had to decide what insulation is going to go into my floors. Free is good, but I’m also planning to have the house for a long time. I don’t want to sacrifice long-term comfort and efficiency to save fifty bucks in the short-term. I want to do it right, but what is the real “right?”

So what should I do? If you listen to the squawk-y experience of professional forum-posters, the only way to insulate the floor is with lots of expensive foam. You need spray foam, or lots of expensive sheets of foam. It’s unclear what will happen if you do not use a mountain of foam products, but I wouldn’t rule out death. None of these people understand how much money I DO NOT HAVE. Americans are famous spenders. We talk loud and we spit our tobaccy on the ground.

What would Deek do? Derek Diedricksen is much too busy using wine bottles to get more sunlight – he doesn’t have time to fart around with internet forums. He’s busy using the front-loading door from a washing machine as a window. To sum it up, the message – as I receive it, personally – is to build fun structures instead of becoming a clown-slave to OCD.

So, I used fiberglass insulation. It was forty-five bucks for the exact right stuff in the exact right amount. It’s in budget. The dumpstered stuff will be used in another project. I think I struck a good balance of quality and price. If I had even less money, I would have gladly just used the dumpstered stuff. Projects are easier if we don’t build mental obstacles between a hammer and an answer.



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Finishing Four Walls, and Ordering an Impact Driver.

Kristin took a list of lengths and a tape measure and started cutting studs for the second-floor knee walls. I took my two drills and started screwing together all of the members of the front and rear walls. One drill has a bit to bore pilot holes, and the other drill is a revolving door for Phillips #2 bits. The bits are lasting longer now that I’ve developed better technique, but using a drill and not a driver will still eat up loads of bits. Kristin takes the “measure twice” mantra very seriously, and her cuts are precise enough to re-calibrate calipers.

I ordered an impact driver. Over morning coffee, I researched exactly how an impact driver is superior to a drill for driving long screws. I was sold – just like I wanted to be – and Amazon will be delivering my Porter Cable impact driver on the 9th, they say. Just in time to be mostly finished with the hard part. I’m dragging my feet getting started on the knee walls, hoping that the driver will arrive in the interim.

Cuttin’ Studs.

Drillin’ in the Near-Spring Weather.


Four walls; no halls.

Long shadows = quittin’ time.


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Mistakes are Natural; Mistakes are Progress.

No matter how careful the planning, dopey mistakes are a part of life. Mistakes are part of learning. Building an 8′ wall does not mean that you use 8′ studs: you have to factor in the height of the top and sole plates. I already knew this, but that didn’t keep me from making my first wall 8’3″ tall.

I did not despair. In fact, my reaction was closer to relief when I considered that it was only one wall and not all of them. If I hadn’t laid a sheet of plywood on top, I might not have noticed my mistake. If you have a positive mindset, mistakes like this one are hardly frustrating. Look at it this way: this is the kind of ‘oopsy’ that only happens once. I’m not likely to goof up this same way tomorrow.

I took off the top plate, cut down the full length studs, and put the top plate right back where it belongs – all in record time.*

*record time for me. slowly and carefully.

Then I moved on to the opposite wall, and it all went without a hitch:

Stackin’ up a sandwich of walls.

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Walls: Strong and Square as a Whole.

It’s hard to know how precise I should be. The tape measure has 16ths of an inch, but I would need a finish planer to even enter that ballpark. I bought full 12-foot studs for the sole and top plates of my long walls. The twists and knots more than preclude precision – screwing this lumber together can feel like trying to pull around a buffalo by the scruff of the neck.

Hey – it’s not so bad. I got one side-wall completed, and after all of the fuss… it looks like a wall. I measured the rough openings for the windows, and sure enough it looks like they will fit. I probably spent a few extra hours trying to convince the screws and wood to play nicely, but in the end I still have one wall to a house that I will be living in. More importantly, I have some practice and now I know what to expect the other walls to look like: imperfect under a magnifying glass, but strong and square as a whole.

(My tool arsenal includes a parade of drills.)

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Bringing the house plans into focus.

I’m using Google Sketchup to create the plans for this house. I’ve watched hours of free tutorials on YouTube. I bought the 3-D mouse recommended in those videos, and I spent hours making basic 3-D models. The learning process was enjoyable because the results are real plans – there is a real reward for the effort. Plus, it was winter when I was learning this stuff, so I was hiding in my room and I needed something to keep me sane.

My plans are not finished. It seems a little crazy to start building the floor when you don’t know where the ceiling will go, but that’s part of the game. I’m a cowboy with a 5-pound box of screws.

My man, Karl, is not a cowboy: Karl is an experienced carpenter with a wealth of knowledge. Today, I got the opportunity to sit next to Karl on a couch and let him look at the plans I’ve made so far. I have a detailed 3-D model of the first floor of the house. Each of the rough openings for the windows and front door are present and accounted for. Each individual piece of lumber and plywood can be measured using the tape measure tool. This is a precise and easy to use program which renders intuitive plans and a way to visualize what it is that you’re making. It took plenty of effort to learn how to use Sketchup, and I would be totally lost without it.

I wanted Karl to look at my framing model to make sure the measurements were correct, and that I was using king studs and trimmers and headers correctly. I already confirmed all of this with my huge carpentry textbook from 1986, but it doesn’t hurt to have a second set of more experienced eyes on the model. It isn’t hard for me to imagine an overlooked detail.

Everything looked good. But the model was incomplete. The plan – or idea, I should say – calls for a loft for sleeping. I didn’t know where to put the joists. I had a few ideas from pictures and videos I’ve seen. I could work something out using my huge textbook. But I wanted to hear what Karl would say, since his experience would probably generate an immediate and workable option. I was surely correct about that. He pointed to where lumber should go, and I made that lumber appear on the screen and align itself properly.

The model that I left with was much more complex than I had imagined – but exciting. The joists for the loft will sit on top of the double top plate around the perimeter of the first-floor framing. A second-story knee wall will be built around the loft framing, and this will provide three feet of headroom that I never dreamed of. I had always thought of the loft area as having just enough space to sleep under the gable roof – about 3’6″ of headroom at the peak. This plan seemed much more interesting.

So the house is getting taller. It will look less like a “shed,” but it will have more space. The modified design allows for much more character, which my heart has been silently begging for. The footprint is still tiny at 8’x12′, but now there will be a full 8′ of headroom on the first floor, and I can stand up straight in the center of the loft, too. It’s tall.

Making the tiny house taller than 13’6″ is one benefit of not being constrained by the legal permit-less dimensions of a house on a trailer. I’m excited to start building the walls.

house sketch1

house sketch2

house sketch3


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