Most people who build their own cordwood home seem to take a couple, three years to finish. I figured it would take us five. Well, ten years and eleven months after we broke ground, we finally moved into Nerdwood. And we’re not quite done with it yet.

By June of 2017, we had less than two months to get done whatever we could on the house, while packing up our apartment. I had run the drain plumbing to the second-floor bathroom, but we also needed to put in supply piping and electrical before we could drywall the bathroom and closets. If nothing else, we were determined to have the drywall done and painted, because who needs to deal with that mess while living in your house?

The Thing With Two Heads

Here’s the shower, all plumbed and ready to go. Including the steam unit, although the steam door is going to have to come later. Not being able to take a sauna wasn’t too bothersome in the middle of the summer.

I am really steamed with you guys.

We knew it would take us forever to drywall, and that we wouldn’t do a very good job, so we were fortunate that our friend and builder extraordinaire John Hamilton was able to spare one of his crew, Chris, to take care of it. As move-in bore down upon us, Chris got to work on the walls. Here they are with all the plumbing and electrical done, waiting for drywall:

Also note the stack of flooring waiting patiently

And here they are in the middle of the job:

Thatsa lotta mudding we didn't have to do!

So far we have left the deep window bays as-is, with unfinished rough-sawn cedar window boxes. I hit the bathroom window boxes real quick with the sander, and Clare finished them with clear polyurethane to stand up to the moisture. Clare also sanded and finished the remainder of the window trim pieces that we never got around to putting up when we finished installing the windows in 2010 (!).

Almost seems to stretch into infinity

I nailed in the trim real quick and put in the rest of the screens. Man, do we get a lot of breeze blowing through the house when all the windows are open!

While Chris did the drywall and Clare did the trim, I started putting in the maple flooring on the second floor.

Dig the hot wood-on-wood action

At first, I was using the nail gun to nail in the floorboards, but Chris suggested I ask John Hamilton to borrow his pneumatic flooring nailer. That thing uses a mallet to simultaneously push the floorboard tightly against it’s neighbor, and to trigger the nailer to shoot the nail in. Here it is in the foreground, to the left:

Nailed it!

The flooring company, Keweenaw Specialty Woods, suggested we screw the centers of the boards down, since we were using their widest boards (6 inches wide), which can be prone to cupping if you don’t screw them in. As I nailed in boards, Clare came behind me to drill a shallow hole in the center, put in a screw, then glue in a maple plug. You have to look pretty closely to see where the plugs are.

At this point, our move-in date was just over a week away. Chris had finished drywalling and painting the bathroom.

Best view of any bathroom I know of

We put in the final floorboard, and I got to work sanding and finishing the floor. We used a water-based finish that came highly recommended (Bona Mega), partly because it takes weeks for oil-based finishes to off-gas and we were moving in next week. Also, partly because it’s a very tough finish and it doesn’t yellow, so it would be a nice contrast to the yellow tinge of the other woodwork, which we used linseed oil or polyurethane on. Here’s the floor, all sanded and finished, ready for some furniture:

This picture needs more wood

A week later, at the end of July, the movers showed up, and by 5pm we had everything moved in. We made the bed, cooked a quick meal, and toasted our first night in our crazy art house. The next morning, I rolled over and took this picture from bed, our first morning in Nerdwood:

A dream come true

Still no stairs or upstairs bathroom, so we had to go outside, down the deck stairs, and back inside to use the bathroom, but it’s warm out, and we’re home.

“Home is just emotion, 
Sticking in my throat” -Lene Lovich

Do the Needful

This winter, we made a decision that it was time to set a date to move into Nerdwood. We’re getting close enough to finishing that a firm date would inspire us to push, and push hard, to finish at least the basics needed to live there. Not only are we itching to live there, but since we are renting an apartment while we work on the house, actually living there will save us a big chunk o’ change every month. We had wanted to be DONE done by the time we moved in, but let’s face it, 10+ years is long enough. We can finish after we move in.

Our apartment lease runs out at the end of July this year (2017), so we told out landlord that we are not renewing. Yikes! Now it’s for real. We’ve made a list of things that absolutely must be ready by the time we move in. Stairs, the top layer of flooring on the second floor, maybe a few appliances, like a fridge, stove and washing machine. Oh, and first order of business, a real bathroom.

This bathroom will be on the second floor, so we started by putting down plywood underlayment on top of the aspen subfloor. Eventually we will tile on top of the plywood. Once the underlayment was down, it was time to start framing the walls.

Plywood, cordwood, wall wood, floor wood

You'll not find many bathrooms with a better view

You’ll notice we did not cordwood the bathroom walls. Some people have done so without issue, but we were slightly leery of moisture plus cordwood. Also, that was a handful of walls we didn’t have to spend weeks cordwooding. After framing out the exterior walls, we put up our first real interior wall:

If you look real close, you'll notice we had to frame around a shelflet. Whoops!

When we discussed what kind of shower to put in, Clare suggested one that was easy to clean. I wanted steam. Thus, we went with a one-piece acrylic shower enclosure – easy to clean and rated for steam. Also, super heavy. Between our friend Dan (thanks, Dan!), me, and the delivery guy, not to mention a quick-n-dirty sled I fashioned out of a sheet of plywood, we managed to get the unit up to the house, through the back door, and upstairs.

If you're a shower aficionado, you don't need me to point out that's it's the Warm Rain WR-903

Because it’s a one-piece, we had to get it inside the bathroom before framing the other walls, since it is too big to fit through an interior doorway. Once it was inside the bathroom, we continued framing. Clare would measure the space, I would draw the wall, Clare would measure and cut the lumber, and I would assemble the walls. Before too long, we had the whole thing framed out:

Very pod-like!

Now, time to do more plumbing. Yay! Since all we had were stubs coming out of the slab on the first floor, we had to build the interior wall on the first floor that the plumbing stack and vent runs through. Then, extend the stack upwards, along with the vent lines, and run the drain lines from all the fixtures in the second floor bathroom. This took awhile, since I had to cut and dry-fit everything first, while I figured out how to fit it all together in a sane, code-compliant way. Eventually, the first-floor drain/vent plumbing was done:

Hm, might have goofed on that first hole...

Another vampire squid is born

Now it was time to run the second floor plumbing:

The vent jogs to the right to make room for a recessed medicine cabinet. No peeking!

…and vent line:

Begone, foul sewer gases!

Fun! But now we’re edging into June, and we have a LOT more stuff to get done! We’re moving at the end of July, no way to avoid it since we have to vacate the apartment to let the new tenants in. Will we at least have stairs and a finished bathroom, let alone a finished floor to put our bed on? Stay tuned…

Wax Trax

At the end of the last post, we were rinsing and scrubbing, scrubbing and rinsing, after acid-staining the floor. According to the instructions, we had to keep rinsing until no more residue remained. This turned out to be a LOT of scrub-rinse-repeat. Our test patch took eight cycles, and, as it turned out, the entire floor took at least that many.

Cleanup in aisle 7...

After seven or eight times we were bringing up a lot less residue, so we switched to sponge mops thinking it would be easier. Although we spent less time emptying the shop-vac, it still took a long time to mop and rinse the floor, and we had to do so at least four times. We started to wonder if any color would be left at all! Finally, we got all the residue up that we could, and it was time to seal the floor. We got the sealer from the same company as the stain – everything I could find said it’s important to use the sealer specified by the stain manufacturer. The sealer went on with a paint roller:

Signed, sealed, delivered

Notice how much lighter the floor is after scrubbing away all the residue, but before applying the sealer:

I think this sealer really brings out your variegations

Per the instructions, I waited a day or two for the first coat to dry, then applied another. The sealer was pretty easy to apply, but it smelled unbelievably horrible. It smells like one of those silver permanent graffiti markers that make you feel lightheaded, only much much more intense. Had I not been wearing a respirator, I woulda conked out after about two minutes. As it was, when I got back home both nights, I had to head straight for the shower and throw my clothes in the laundry, since the smell permeated everything. It took about a week after that for Nerdwood to be habitable again.

Sealing should only ever need to be done initially, but in order to further protect the finish from scuffs and scratches, a couple of coats of floor wax are in order. This will need to be reapplied at some interval depending on how hard we are on the floor. We’ll probably institute a strict “No skateboards or ice skates” inside the house. Oh, and no golf shoes either (Dan, I’m looking at you). Once again, we got the wax from the same manufacturer as the stain and sealer:

That oughta wax your floor but good!

This stuff I like – doesn’t smell bad, dries within half an hour so I could apply both coats in one day, and easy to apply with a microfiber dust mop.

More curling practice

Whew, what a lot of work! But we’re pretty happy with the way it looks. Even better, it matches the color of the mud here at Nerdwood.

The view from upstairs

All ready for sliding around in our stockinged feet!


Turn on Thee Acid House

After working upstairs for a while, we decided to turn our attention to the downstairs. We had planned all along to stain and seal the concrete floor, because we like the looks of a stained concrete floor, and because it allows the in-floor heat to work in the most efficient way possible, with no other floor coverings getting between the heated tubing and our toes. Another important benefit of staining and sealing is that a darker floor will absorb more heat from sunlight, maximizing our passive solar gain.

The first order of business was clearing the floor – not an easy task, as it was covered with stacks of wood, piles of boards, towers of logs, tools, more tools, shelves, slabs of wood, and wood. Years of accumulated stuff. We moved stuff upstairs, we moved stuff to the porch, the shed, and to our storage unit. Since we will be tiling the first-floor bathroom (so it doesn’t need to be stained), we put the table saw and a few other very heavy things there. I even sawed off the little nubbins of rebar sticking out of the slab from when I mis-measured ten years ago. Damn you, younger Greg! Finally we had the slab cleared and we could start cleaning it.

Come and have a pint at the Broom & Squeegee

Coulda opened the windows and had a skating rink

Scrubbing with brooms, wet-vaccing, digging out the gunk in the expansion joints, we finally had a lovely clean slab:

So THAT'S what a floor looks like!

From our research, it seemed like the longest-lasting way to stain the floor was to use an acid-based stain. I ordered stain, sealer and wax from our local masonry yard. They were confused that I wasn’t buying more bags of lime. In order to protect the walls, posts, and masonry heater from the stain, we had to tape plastic everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.

Just like Aunt Mildred's sofa

Just to be sure, we tried staining a couple of test patches which will be mostly invisible under the staircase.

Floor graffiti!

A plastic garden sprayer works great for applying the stain. We let it dry, sprayed another coat, let that one dry, neutralized and scrubbed off the residue about eight times, and enjoyed a tiny patch of stained floor. It was somewhat helpful, but still pretty hard to imagine what the finished product would look like. I turned up the in-floor heat to 58 degrees, donned my trusty VOC respirator (the acid fumes were not in any way pleasant), and commenced to spraying, taking care to NOT stain myself into a corner.

After applying a second coat the next day and letting it dry for a day as well, we took a peek at the floor. It was much darker than we expected, but we had a lot more scrubbing to do.

You look marbleous

We neutralized the acid residue by pouring a water-and-baking-soda mixture on it, scrubbing it with a broom, and sucking it up with a wet-vac. Look at all this residue:

Did someone order the floor juice?

This post is getting a little long, so I will continue the stainy saga shortly.

A Song From Under the Floorboards

The view from below

Time to put in a real second floor, one that doesn’t have bits sticking out or weak spots that startle you when you walk on them, like the temporary plywood floor did. Temporary, as in it was only there for eight and a half years (!). Since the floor will be visible from below, between the joists, it has to look good on both sides, top and bottom. We had originally thought we would use a single layer of inch-and-a-half-thick planks, but none of the millwork places around here could do that unless we bought them knives for their milling machines, at a price of many hundreds of dollars. Instead, we decided to do the floor in two layers – a bottom layer of local aspen, the exact same stuff as we put up on the ceiling, and a top layer of local maple. Each layer is three-quarters of an inch thick, giving us the same total thickness as we had originally planned.

The aspen on the ceiling came to us pre-finished, so I asked the folks we got the ceiling from, Keweenaw Specialty Woods, for more of the same. Unfortunately, they told me they no longer provide finishing services, apparently the one guy they had who did that has left! I was pretty bummed at the prospect of applying multiple coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat, before putting down the boards. Then Clare asked why we didn’t just use more linseed oil, since we were not going to be dancing on the ceiling (sorry, Mr. Ritchie). This worked out great – it’s really easy to roll the stuff on, no sanding needed, one coat does the job.

Once we had some of the boards finished, I ran a string line from one end of the house to the other, and screwed in the first “baseline” row, lining one edge of the board up with the string.

Level tear us apart, again.

You may notice in the picture above, some of the joists are weathered on top, and some look freshly cut. Since they were not perfectly level with each other (probably a combination of ‘rustic’ building techniques and sitting there for 9 years), I had to plane some down, and shim some up, to achieve some semblance of level.

Once the baseline was in, and we organized the boards by size, it was time to start slappin’ ’em in, and nailin’ ’em down with the trusty “Airstrike”:



The joists are in a spiderweb-like radial pattern, so we had to put the boards down in sections, the ends overlapping a joist, then cut a straight line down the center of that joist with a circular saw. Like this:

That old line again!

Did we miss a spot?!

Then we butted up the next section’s boards against the line we just cut, and did the same thing all over again.

Seems I've seen this seam in an unseemly scene

Soon, we had enough floor in place that we could use it to finish the rest of the boards in insect-free comfort. Note that we are only finishing the downward-facing side of the boards, which is why they are yellowish, and the top of the floor is not:

Knot much room to walk here...

After a couple of weeks, working nights and weekends, we have a delightfully flat, smooth floor upstairs. Still need another layer, but it really is starting to look finished upstairs:

Ready for clams on the half-shell, and roller skates. Roller skates.


Changing the Angles

Different angles for different times.

As the days grow shorter and the sun travels much closer to the horizon, we realize it’s time once again for that festive biannual event, the tilting of the solar panels. Although we are hard at work on the interior of the house, we still have to find time to do many routine maintenance tasks. We struggled with this the first couple of times, but now have a method which takes about thirty minutes total. All it requires is a calm, windless day.

Greg at work on his solar ranch.

We set up scaffolding below the panel, and Greg attaches a rope to the top. Then he loosens the bolt that holds the support arm in place. The panels have been in their upward-facing configuration all summer, while the sun’s position was nearly directly overhead.

Arm is down ...

Greg holds on to the rope securely from the ground, while I climb up onto the scaffold and remove the bolt. As tension on the rope is released, the panel tilts upright, and I replace the bolt to hold the support arm in its more more vertical winter position.

... and now it's up.

After tightening the bolt, it’s on the next one. Not an unpleasant task to perform on a beautiful mild October day.

Ready to catch winter rays.

Duke of Oil

Rustic Venture

Now that all the framing members are sanded, it’s time to finish them. Clare and I have been looking into natural finishes for Nerdwood, and rather than use polyurethane, we decided to use linseed oil, which is an oil derived from flaxseed. It’s a drying oil, meaning it soaks into the wood, then dries slowly to a hard finish. It also yellows and darkens somewhat over time, which is desirable in a semi-rustic house, in my opinion. The only real drawback we’ve read about is that it’s not a very tough finish, and doesn’t resist abrasion very well, which makes it unsuitable for finishing, say, a floor, or your in-home bowling alley. That’s not really a problem for the posts, beams, and joists we are using it on; we’ll be unlikely to be doing balance beam routines or walking on the ceiling.

This picture shows the difference between finished and unfinished wood; the beam on the right has been finished with linseed oil:

Before and Rafter

It’s still much lighter than before we sanded, but the grain is really accentuated. The can of linseed oil contains dire warnings about rags soaked with linseed oil spontaneously combusting, since the drying process is exothermic. I’ve taken precautions with the rags I’m using, but it doesn’t seem like they get any warmer than room temperature. I am mostly using a paint roller to apply the stuff, and a brush to get into tight areas.

Burstin' into flame like a Donkey Kong barrel

Although my rolling arm is just a blur, it still seems to take forever to finish...

You may notice that I am once again using a respirator. The linseed oil itself smells very pleasant (think Murphy’s oil soap, which is also flax-based), but it’s fairly thick and needs to be thinned with mineral spirits before applying it. I’m using “odorless” mineral spirits, which are anything but – not only do they smell, they can make you lightheaded if your ventilation isn’t sufficient. This respirator is rated for VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and I can’t smell a thing when I have it on.

After a number of days sloshing oil on wood, I’m done finishing everything. The picture at the top shows how nicely the saw marks and grain are brought out by the oil. Each joist and timber has it’s own character, just like every log in the walls is different.

The next thing to do is some carpentry necessary to install the floorboards on the second floor. Meanwhile, Clare is working hard on the garden and the harvest has been very good indeed, not to mention the blossoms cheering up the place.

A sickening amount of vitamins

Together, we shall rule the cosmos!

Demanding Sanding

Spring/early summer of 2016, and I’ve been doing some sanding. OK, a LOT of sanding. But before I get into that, here are a few things Clare’s been up to while I kick up the dust.

When I mentioned to Clare that I thought we should make all the duplex electrical outlets (okay, receptacles!) into quads, she took it in stride and commenced to wiring up a storm. Now, there’s no way we’ll ever run out of places to plug things in (ha!). Then she took care of some more lighting fixtures. Installing lights over the doors makes the outside look even more finished:

Code requires a light over every exterior door... ...fortunately, code lets you pick nice-looking fixtures!

And, since it’s spring, time to start lots and lots of seeds. Every year, I’m very concerned about the basil. Because basil is very, very important.

mmmmmmm... futurepesto

When we framed Nerdwood, the timbers sat out in the elements for many months before they were covered by a roof, and many many more months before the outside walls were done. This caused them to weather to gray and/or brown, which looks pretty good on the outside, but on the inside, we thought it would brighten things up to sand and finish the exposed framing. Of course, there is lots and lots of exposed framing.

After doing some research, I ordered a 6″ random-orbit sander made by Bosch that got very high marks for usability and durability, although some said that using it on the highest setting was like wrestling an angry badger. Or robot. This turned out to be true. I started by sanding the posts and beams on the second floor, then finishing them with linseed oil. Linseed oil is great to work with, you can use one coat, and it will last a very long time if the wood you are finishing will not be subject to much wear.

Guess we can't dance on the posts

Once those were done, we cleared everything off the second floor and removed the temporary plywood decking:

The deck was stacked - behind the house

Careful where you step...

Now it was time to fire up the ol’ Bosch. Well, the new Bosch. Good thing the weather was cool for the vast majority of the sanding, because I had a lot of gear on my head:

All Clare heard me saying was "Mrrrffllf flrrml flooof bloofin."

The posts and beams were cut with a bandsaw (portable sawmill), but the joists were cut with some kind of buzzsaw – in other words, a circular saw. Sanding really brought out the saw marks, which we really like the looks of:

It's rustic!

They’ll be a bit darker when they are finished, but the saw marks will still be accentuated. All this sanding took quite awhile, especially since I couldn’t do it for more than a few hours at a time without getting the “Vibrating Palm of Death.” But eventually, every post, beam, and joist was sanded.

One morning in the middle of all this excitement, we showed up at Nerdwood and our neighbor Diesel was there to see what all the fuss was about:

"Hey, guys! Mind if I snack while I watch?"


The Light Pours Out Of Me

Once we finished cordwooding the house, it was time to start working in earnest on the interior. Clare and I decided it would be best to start the finish work upstairs and work our way down, so that the mess would fall into the as-yet-unfinished first floor, rather than on stuff we had just finished. During the fall and early winter of 2015, our friend Matt had some time to give us a hand (fortunately for us!), and he framed out the area above the second-floor cordwood walls. He then drywalled the whole area, aside from where the second-floor bathroom will be – since we decided not to put any cordwood walls in the bathrooms, we’ll be finishing that room separately.

Clare and I took over at this point, painting the drywall, and putting up trim that I made from leftover cedar boards. Most of the second floor looks pretty well done at this point, as long as you don’t look down at the temporary plywood flooring on the second floor.

Clare's storied windows

Trim me! Trim you!

While Matt was working, and throughout the winter, I installed ceiling light fixtures on the knotty aspen ceiling, covering both the great room and the second floor.

Let's pretend those bundles of wires aren't there...

They had to brush a lot of nickels to make these fixtures

Working on Nerdwood after work during the previous winters was always a bit spooky, since it gets so dark out there so early, and the couple of portable work lights we have just light a small area, casting mysterious shadows throughout the rest of the house. The track lights and second floor ceiling lights really light the whole place up, and make it more homey to work in. Plus, they are LED bulbs, so they use a tiny amount of juice compared to the energy-hog halogen work lights.

As you can see above, I also put in a ceiling fan over the great room. In addition to having a light in it, it really moves a lot of air, helping keep the whole house an even temperature, even though all the heat is coming from just the floor and the masonry heater. We chose a fan with a DC motor, which is pricier, but is completely silent at all but the highest, “It’s a twister!” fan speeds.

On Christmas Day, the temps outside were hovering just around freezing, so water kept dripping from the roof, then coating the vegetation with ice:

Ice attack!

End of a Chapter

As it happened, 2015 was the year a number of chapters were closed. One chapter closing, that of my Dad’s life, was particularly sad. He was a big fan of Nerdwood and would have loved to have seen Clare and I move in. At least he went out with a whole lotta love all around.
There were some chapters that were much happier to close. I finally got my degree (Bachelor’s), and managed to do so before all my hair fell out. More salient to this story, however, is that we finished the last of the cordwooding, at least in Nerdwood proper.

The log and winding road
Why wouldn't we want to work on a wide wood wall?

We began in June, with 4 bays on the second floor to go. This year, we had plenty of logs and dry sand to complete the job. We took a week off to head to upstate New York, where we attended the 2015 Continental Cordwood Conference, which has been held around North America approximately every five years since the mid-90s.

It was at the 2005 CoCoCo in Wisconsin that we really got fired up about designing and building Nerdwood, and it was great fun to attend the 2015 shindig as grizzled vets rather than the dewy-eyed rookies from our previous go-around. So many great people in the Cordwood scene, we got to visit with old friends like Richard and Becky Flatau, and we got to visit Rob and Jaki Roy’s Earthwood, which for us was like visiting Graceland. Here’s a picture of Earthwood, as seen from the living roof of one of their many many cordwood outbuildings:

The cordwood home that other cordwood homes call home

Back at Nerdwood, we plowed through the panels, scatting and be-bopping, throwing in shelflets:
Three shelves to the wind

…and gewgaws:
Is it an owl? Or is it Zoidberg?!

…and bottle ends:
Time to eat some ghosts!

Our excitement built; we prepped the final wall while still working on other walls, since we would both be working a separate wall at the same time to move things along. In addition to the top-of-the-stairs panel shown above, we finished the French door panel:
Ooh, la log!

…and the panel with the giant bedroom egress window:
Oh, so close...

Finally, on a hot hot August day, Clare places the final log in Nerdwood,
One small log for wall, one giant leap for Nerdwood

and stuffs mortar around it.
Does this mean we can get our Master Mortar Stuffer certificates?

I had the honor of the last of the pointing.
Very impressive! Let's see how you do against my one-glove technique


We started laying logs here in August 2008, and seven years later, we put up the last one. A much longer process than I could have imagined. Now when we look at the walls, we remember what the weather was like that day, who helped us that week, what sci-fi podcast or outré music we were listening to when we did that panel. So many tidbits of stories mortared up with each log.

We have lots more to do before we can move in, and we still need to finish the shed (so don’t put away that mortar mixer just yet!), but we have finished a major portion of the work, and the end seems much more tangible than it ever has. We hope to move into an unfinished Nerdwood in December 2016, but in the meantime, we’ll enjoy some peppers from a great gardening season.

Booker T should have called it 'Green Peppers'