The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Category: DIY Built Page 2 of 11

Oh My Desk

Howdy everyone! Did not expect to come back so quickly but Slav put in a couple days of effort and made some considerable progress in my retreat room. Here is the result:

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Yup! It is my new desk! A corner desk on motorized legs!!! It is 76″ long and 25″ wide, with the left corner piece doubling the width to 50″. There is lots of space after placing a laptop, as you can see from the first picture.

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This desk is made with a butcher block we bought from Lowe’s. We had the motorized legs and controller in hand.

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Here is the desk sitting at its lowest position. It is the perfect height for me when sitting in a dining chair:

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The picture below shows the desk in its highest position. As a standing desk it can accommodate someone who is 6’2″. I am 5’5″ and usually lower the top for a couple inches.

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The desk top

was made from a 8′ x 2′ Baltic Birch butcher block with just one cut and no waste. I chose a butcher block as table top for its warm and bulky look. And this one is in 25″ width, which is the perfect depth since I only use laptop at home. A friendly reminder: if you use big monitors and additional keyboard, you might want to go for a wider table top to give you the depth needed. Just keep in mind that they will be much heavier and might require additional support.

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We started by cutting a 20″ section off the block. This was the only cut during this construction and it was surely nerve-wrecking! Even I was the one who designed the desk, knew the dimension well, I still measured and measured and remeasured to make sure that we would not make a mistake.

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Due to the heavy weight we decided to use a circular saw instead of a table saw. Slav clamped down a track as a guide and kept the good side of the butcherblock facing down. Circular saw often tear the top edge of whatever you cut, so having the good side downward usually yields better result. You can see the difference from the two edges in the picture above – the left side is the main portion of the block with its good side (the future top) facing down, and its top edge is not as perfect as the short piece to the right, which I flipped over after it being cut off.

The next step is to joining the short piece to the big piece to create the short end of the L-shape. We used biscuit to keep the two surfaces aligned, and lots of glue to ensure a tight joint.

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The circular saw track is the only clamp long enough for holding the two pieces together as the glue dried overnight. I wish we had more clamps! But it worked…phew, thanks to the DIY god. I chose to glue the short piece on its side to keep the wood grain all in one direction, and we kept the good side of the block downward during the whole build so there would be no need flipping this heavy piece when attaching the legs.

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Additional support to the L-corner

After creating the L-shape with the cut piece, the short arm is now twice the width of the original block, about 50″. Since this short arm won’t have any leg underneath and very heavy (the butcher block is 1.75″ thick), we decided to add two 1″ x 1/2″ steel C-channels to support the entire short arm from below.

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Slav routed two 5/8″ void underneath the short arm so we could sink the C-channels into the block. The C-channels are 36″ long, which gives a good 18″ support on each side of the glued joint.

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The C-channel came with no screw holes. With a metal bit Slav created some mounting holes on the C-channels:

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He also put in plenty of glue before setting the channels for good measure:

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The C-channels were screwed into their final place.

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The magic of shellac

The wood glue between the counter tops required overnight drying time but the glue used here dried in a few hours. Since butcher block has to be sealed within 48 hours after being exposed to the air, I jumped onto the sealing step as soon as the glue was dry to touch.

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To seal the block I chose my new favorite – shellac! I’ve only learn about shellac recently from Daniel Kanter over the Manhattan Nest, and only used it once on our master bathroom door. But I liked its ability of bringing out the best wood tone with a dash of sheen. In the picture above was the bare butcher block. And below was after the first coat of shellac:

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Here was after three coats of shellac:

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Then we flipped the block to repeat the sealing steps on the top. Since the edge of the block is a tiny bit rounded, I applied some wood filler at the glue joint before sealing it:

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I ended up doing four coats of shellac on the top of the block, light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper in between. Then it comes the exciting time of mounting the legs!

Motorized table legs, repurposed

Back to our North Carolina days we lived near the University of North Carolina campus. The campus has a surplus store selling retired office furniture and classroom electronics. One day Slav spotted a bunch of drawing tables there, all of which were equipped with motorized legs. They were dirt cheap – I think each desk was $50 a pop? So Slav snatched them up and took all the legs home. We were able to make three office desks for both of us (including one at my work), and gave out a couple pairs to friends. These motorized legs are German production and very, very sturdy. I trust them to hold much more weight than the ones currently sold in IKEA and online stores.

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To set them properly Slav routed two 1/2″ voids to accommodate the motors. Then the legs were attached!

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Taadaa!

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Polished and in use

After moving the desk into its final position (it is super heavy), I sanded the table top one last time with 400 grit sandpaper, then polished it generously with Howard Feed-n-Wax. Although unnecessary, this final sanding and waxing step really created a super smooth shine and added a slightly warmer tone to the desk. Plus the bee wax smells great! It is always nice to conclude a DIY project smelling like lemon and honey. 🙂

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Here is the desk, in its final glory:

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Although a big surface (76″ x 25″~50″ and 16 sqft usable space) this desk is just the right scale for the room. The long arm barely reaches the floor register and leaves a good 8 inches under the east window. The 50″ short arm overlaps with 2/5 of the north picture window and leaves enough room at the foot of the future Murphy bed.

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I added some googly eyes on the controller to cover the worn surface and add a bit fun. This desk is all about fun!

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I could not start using it fast enough. The very next morning after the legs were mounted, I have already moved in some plants and set my computer on it!

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What do you think of the desk? Do you like it or is there something you think we could do to improve it?

Resource and Reuse

One thing I did not expect before renovating our ranch, is how much material this rebuild consumes. A 100-ft section fence needed hundreds of pickets and dozens of posts; thousands pounds of concrete were poured into the soil. The roof on our small house took thousands of shingles, each consists of multiple layers of different natural and synthetic materials. Layer of plywood went under our feet, and the amount of 2″ x 4″s we hauled back from Home Depot can only be counted by trailer-load. Before owning this house, I never thought about how much material goes into building a house, nor how much more it takes to renovate one every a few decades, or more frequently, every times it changes ownership.

It prompts me to think in a larger scale, how much we as human, affect the world during our expansion and development. How much we took from the Earth, how forcefully we invaded the Nature, and how many wild life we have terminated, although not deliberately, for our comfort and convenience.

More I think about it, more I regret some decisions I made during the renovation, such as putting in a big concrete patio. Of course, most decisions we made for the house are good for the environment and wild life, such as planting hundreds of trees and perennial shrubs, as well as making our house more energy efficient. But we can do better. Moving forward, I would like to be more conscious on the environmental impact of our renovation decisions. A good place to start, is to reuse and repurpose materials from our own demolition.

I have noticed the amount of solid waste generated during demolition, pretty much as soon as we moved into our houseConstruction and demolition (C&D) waste represents a big part of the solid waste generated in US, and 90% of the C&D waste is generated during demolition. Since we demo by hand, we have an opportunity to save some material by carefully taking things apart. These materials and parts, otherwise going into landfill, is now returning back into the circulation. And reusing our own material will form a even small cycle compared to the process shown below, going from step 7 straight to step 4:

Most of the material we have saved are lumber and occasionally hardware/screws. During our last big renovation project, namely the basement reno, we were left with lots of framing lumber. We took the nails off them, and stored them over the garage roof trusses.

This Spring, I started using them for indoor and outdoor projects whenever we need 2″ x 4″s. I know, 2″ x 4″s are dirt-cheap (probably cheaper than dirt at this point…have you paid for good dirt lately?) and readily available in big box stores. However, the goal of reusing these lumber is mostly saving them from landfill and conserving the energy and virgin resources used to produce new materials, rather than saving on the project costs.

The addition advantage of using older lumber – in our case, dated back to the 1950s – is how well they match our original framing. The picture below shows a piece of modern 2″ x 4″ on the left, and a piece of old 1950 2″ x 4″ to the right. The difference between them are so apparent!

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Compared to modern 2″ x 4″s, the 50s 2″ x 4″s are 1/8″ wider and thicker and with straight edges. They are also a lot denser and harder than their modern counterparts.

Because of dimension difference, these 50s’ 2″ x 4″s are excellent for creating new framing that has to marry the old framing. Using these lumber with exactly same dimension helps everything line up more evenly. We also notice that there are very little bow on the old lumber.

Old 2″x4″ on the top, modern 2″ x 4″ at the bottom:

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Because of the different density, the old lumber offers the same expansion/contraction coefficient and should be more compatible to the existing framing. I expect less issues down the road joining similar material together.

Over a weekend, Slav and I frame the closets in the retreat room. The old lumber we used came out of our basement, with a few from the very closets during the demo last week.

Before demo:

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After demo:

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In preparation for the Murphy bed installation, we need to add more framing on the lower part of the closet so the Murphy bed has something to attach to.

Before putting in new framing, Slav patched the missing floor boards with leftover from the office project:

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Then we started with the closet to the right. Here is the before:

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With new framing:

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As you could see, another layer of 2″x4″s were added onto the existing framing. We did a short wall at the bottom and created a new stud. At the top and side, we attached pieces of 2″x4″s for future side panel to attach.

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We did the same to the left side of the Murphy bed closet. Since this part of the framing was pretty weak, we added more horizontal bracing to reinforce the structure.

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As you may notice, we also took down more drywall in the left closet. This closet will be lined with plywood, and it does not make much sense to have the drywall sandwiches between plywood and the framing.

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Since the left side will be used as a closet, we just beefed it up by adding 2″ x 4″s along the edges.

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After patching the flooring and framing, Slav repaired the drywall around the closets:

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And repaired the bedroom doorway with drywall:

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Since we plan to move the bedroom door to the hallway opening, this doorway would just become a walk-through. So Slav patched it with leftover drywall and finished the corners.

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We are in process of sanding and painting the newly patched walls, then it will be time for the Murphy bed build! It is nice to cross off four items off the list!

1. Patch missing floor boards;
2. Repair and finish drywall edges against the closet wall;
3. Reinforce the closet framing;
4. Murphy bed construction and installation;
5. Wire the electrical outlet to face the bed;
6. Construct guest closet, and shelving unit in between;
7. Construct and install closet doors;
8. Trim out the closet wall;
9. Caulk and paint the closet wall wherever necessary;
10. Construct a standing desk with motorized legs and a wood top;
11. Construct a window seating next to the desk;
12. Adding necessary storage behind Murphy Bed area for bedding and pillows;
13. Repair and finish the original bedroom doorway.

New Climbers + Recent Cedar Build

You may remember the climbing roses I planted. This Spring, I decided to add  a few more climbers around the house. Some for scent, some for beauty, and some for function. Although these are perennial vines and will take years to grow, I want to show you their baby form today. Hopefully when we check back a few years later, we can see some good progress!

“Scentsation” Honey Suckle

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Planted on the front of the house is a honey suckle called “Scentsation”, a very showy vine with extremely fragrant yellow flowers. It has a longer blooming time compared to other honey suckles, from mid-spring to late summer. I planted it near Slav’s office window, hoping to add a nice touch of scent to the room he spends most of his awake time in.

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Although tiny, this particular honey suckle is expected to grow to 9’~10′ tall and 5’~6′ wide, covering the big trellis behind it. It is deciduous which means losing all the leaves in the Fall. By placing it on the west wall, at maturity, it should shade this corner of the house from strong afternoon sun during summer months, while allowing sunlight in to warm up the house during winter.

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To keep the honey suckle close to the wall I built this cedar planter. To protect the foundation we graded around the house and put down a layer of gravel over 6-mil plastic around the foundation. I scraped away the gravel, set the planter directly on top of the 6-mil plastic, then added more 6-mil plastic to prevent soil and water sipping out of the planter.

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After filling the planter with soil I planted the honey suckle and transplanted some sedum here.

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As a rule of thumb, container plants or plants situated in raised beds need to be more winter hardy than the zone it is planted in. This honey suckle is rated as zone 4-9, which means it should winter over just fine in our zone 5B/6A.

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We secured a big trellis onto the house for the honey suckle to climb on. If it likes the spot, it should climb to the top of the trellis in a few years! An additional advantage of this plant is the bright red berries in the Fall, which are favored by birds and other wild life.

Climbing hydrangea

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Although popular in Europe, climbing hydrangea is not well-known in US. It is also a deciduous vine, famous for its ability of growing in full shade. These plants are true climbers, using the holdfasts (suckers) on their branches to scale walls and other structures. In Europe, you will find this plant covering north-facing walls of old stone buildings up to several stories tall with their large, “lace-cap” flower flowers in early summer. In theory, a climbing hydrangea can reach 50 feet tall at maturity. In our cold climate, it often tops at 20 feet.

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I planted this flower on the northeast corner of the house, right next to the AC unit and outside of the master bedroom window. I want to it to be a screen plant, not only adding privacy to our bedroom, but also beautifying the north side of the house where small windows are swallowed by a sea of brick. As you can see, this spot gets 3~4 hours of morning sun, then shade for the afternoon. Although not an ideal location for most of the flowering plants, climbing hydrangea will be one of the few climbers to perform in such situation.

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Shortly after planting it I added some support from two sides – one being a metal trellis, which we got from Lowe’s as a 3-pack and used all around the garden. The other one being a short cedar fence between the bedroom window and the AC unit.

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I built this cedar fence all by myself! To be honest, among all the big and small projects I did this Spring with the cedar boards (the patio planter, the honey suckle planter, and the outdoor kitchen), this build is my favorite. From setting post, planning board layout, to attaching boards, it covered all the steps for a fence build, yet remained manageable for me to complete over one afternoon.

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I started by setting a leftover post, which is just tall enough for shadowing the AC unit! Love it when I am able to use up leftover materials without any waste.

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To keep the post straight I used a pole level and several clamps. They were so helpful when working solo! I made sure that the post aligned with the side of the window and stood straight before backfilling.

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After securing the post, I marked the length of the boards and cut them all at once.

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Attaching all the boards went pretty quick. A scrape 2″ x 4″ was set next to the house for the other end of the boards to attach on.

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This is the final product. Besides supporting the climbing hydrangea, this fence also hides one of the eyesore from the bedroom window – the AC unit.

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The view from the bedroom window without the fence:

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With the fence:

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Climbing hydrangea is known to be slow during the first few years, but after it puts down a good root, it should take off and cover all the unsightly pipe and outlets on the north side of the house in a few years.

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Passion Flower

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Passion flower is another rarely seen flowering vine in Colorado. Being tropical looking passion flower seems to be too delicate for our winter. But it is actually a zone 5 plant! I put mine on the east side of the house, protected from harsh wind and bitter cold.

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After planting I added some string and a leftover wire panel to help it to climb.

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Since planted, it has grown a few inches! This is what it looked like a few weeks ago:

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And this is today!

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Cucumber and Pole Beans in the Veggie Garden

I also planted some climbing veggies! I’ve been growing cucumber for years, and always let them spread freely on the ground. This year, I tried to grow them vertically. I set a trellis on the end of a veggie bed:

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And planted two seedlings at the base of this trellis. The have been flowering for a weeks now and I hope to see cucumbers really soon!

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I also grew two climbing beans: Red noodle, and Limka.

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It is fun to set up the support for my bean babies. Slav lined some T-posts along both sides of a path and I tied some trellis netting to these posts for beans to climb on:

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I also tied the top ends of the netting together over the path, allowing the beans to create a tunnel.

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Look at the beans go! It has been a month since they came up and they are growing an inch per day with the recent heat.

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This is the first year I set up a bean tunnel. In addition to support the beans, I also want it to shade the veggie bed behind. The garlic here will be harvested soon, and I want to plant greens and radishes here hoping the tunnel can provide enough relief from the hot afternoon sun.

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Climbing roses

At last, I want to show you how our climbing roses are doing! I planted four “awakening” climbing roses along the back fence in 2018. They are all doing very well.

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I started training these roses this Spring. After a good trim, I guided the longest branches of each rose towards the back fence using plastic stakes:

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It might look dramatic but are actually good for the growth of these roses. Bending the branches horizontally eliminates apical dominance and should encourage side shoots and more flowering along the branches.

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I also did the same training to the “iceberg” climbing rose planted in the front yard:

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This rose was planted only last Fall, but has already flowered for us. I got all my climbing roses from High country roses and they all came with their own root and are very healthy. I know it won’t be long before this climbing rose to put on a splendid show on the front fence.

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Training climbing roses is a scary thing – you should see how much I trimmed off these poor roses…But in the end it is for their own good. I am looking forward to the growth of all the climbers. Given time, they shall become the stars of my garden and for decades to come. Let us check back next season together!

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