Right after I left the Route 66 Photography Workshop last week I headed up to my cabin to finally attempt to build the hot water heater cover I’d been talking about since last September. I’d been putting the job off for quite awhile; juggling too many trips, unable to spare more than a weekend to get it done and knowing that it would certainly take someone as inexperienced as me longer than that to complete. But, at this point, excuses had run out and it was time to take care of business. It was going to be my first foray into building something with wood since helping my Dad convert our attic into my sister’s bedroom back when I was maybe 14. I had taken all the measurements and drawn up a plan and even completed a recon mission to Home Depot to price out all the parts, but I was still nervous about the whole thing. How would it come out? Could I even build something like this all alone? One thing was for sure, though. I wanted to find out for myself, either way.
My first stop on the way to the cabin was the Home Depot in Ridgecrest. I figured it would be a little cheaper than the hardware stores in the Kern River Valley and it was on my way since I was coming from Barstow. My heart was actually pounding in my chest as I walked in with my supplies list. Excitement was certainly a part of it, but I think it was the nervousness that really had me spooked. I’d never bought my own lumber before! I even started putting the wrong type of OSB onto my cart before realizing and looking around embarrassed as I put the pieces back. I had a fond memory of my father teaching me how to check if the 2×4’s were straight as I stood by the pile picking my way through until I found the dozen or so I needed. It took some searching and asking for help, but I managed to find everything I thought I needed and I headed to the register to settle up. As I headed out to the truck I felt just how strong the wind was blowing and realized this was not going to be a fun loading process. I nearly lost a sheet of the OSB when a wind gust picked it up and held it sideways as I struggled to maintain my grip. Thankfully I had bought ‘firm-grip’ work gloves to help me handle this stuff. Without those I’m sure I would’ve watched that 2x4x8 sheet of lumber go flying through some neighboring car’s window after it slipped out of my hands. My heart racing, I finally finished packing up everything into the back of the truck and sat in the driver’s seat shaking my head and catching my breath. Oh yeah, this was going to be a fun week!
The next morning at the cabin I unloaded everything much more easily, having learned my lessons the day before. After making my supply piles I checked all my measurements and thought through the assembly of my first ‘wall’ about 10 times before I marked the wood and set it up to make my very first cut. I had only bought this circular saw a few weeks ago and this was going to be my first go at actually using it. The first cut was uneventful, but definitely not as square as I thought it should be. I knew I was going to need something to hold down the lumber as I cut so I could get better results. I spotted some cinder blocks I had laying around and knew I’d found my answer. After that first cut I started laying down a cinder block on top of the 2×4 to hold it so I could use both hands on the saw and my cuts improved. Not perfect, but much better. The first wall actually came together pretty smoothly. I took my time squaring the corners and used my cinder block helpers to hold the wood as I screwed them together hoping to keep everything straight. When I carried the wall over and stood it up next to the hot water heater I was shocked to discover that it actually stood up straight all by itself! Maybe this carpentry stuff isn’t as hard as it seems. Well, the hubris didn’t last very long. The second wall did not go together easily and I just couldn’t get the corners to square up. Perhaps it was the fact that I had doubled up a 2×4 in order to accommodate a notch for the pipes at the bottom of the enclosure? Either way, after running out of light and quitting for the night I realized I was going to have to take it apart, make corrections and reassemble it if I wanted it to be straight.
The next morning I decided to go to the local hardware store to pick up some tools I hoped would help me make the minor corrections that were needed on the second wall. I picked up a hand saw, a wood file, a level (since I’d forgotten mine at home), and a speed square. When I got back to the cabin I took apart the wall and discovered that one of the 2×4’s was slightly longer than the others due to a poor cut and was pushing the wall out of ‘true’. I filed that sucker for what felt like an hour but was probably only 10 minutes and managed to get it down to the right length. After that, the wall went together smoothly and when I brought it over to the hot water heater and set it into position I saw that both this wall and the first were already level! Awesome! I knew it was the third wall that would connect these two together that would probably require a bit more finesse to get right. I re-checked my measurements one more time and went off to cut the 2×4’s for the third and final wall. This was when I discovered the magic of the speed square. Not only did this thing make marking the wood super easy, I was actually able to hold it on the wood and put the base of the saw up against it while I cut to keep the saw straight. When I saw how easily I was able to make perfect cuts with this thing I really kicked myself for not buying one earlier! But alas, what’s done is done and there was much more work to do.
The third wall went together really smoothly and fit perfectly between the first two I’d assembled when I brought it over to the heater to check. After setting my trusty cinder blocks to hold things in place I managed to connect the three walls without any trouble. I was so proud of how square it all was I took a picture with the metal square on one of the corners to show how it well it had come out. This thing was actually starting to look like something now and I could sense my nervousness was being replaced with excitement at what the final product would look like. At this point I cut a piece of OSB that, along with a 2×4 across the back, would serve to tie the three walls together and provide the much needed structural integrity since the cover would be open on one side and the bottom. Those pieces went on without a hitch and I ended day two on a builder’s high that kept me giddy until the next morning.
Day three started with another piece of OSB cut and ready to be attached to the outer wall. As I stood there about to screw it on I began to wonder which side was supposed to face out. The smooth side that appeared to have a finish on it, or the rough side? Having no internet to turn to I called the Mrs. at home and asked her to Google it. There were some conflicting answers but one mentioned that OSB should never be used as a finish material on an exterior wall. Uh-Oh. Time to call in the big guns. I thanked my wife profusely for the help and made the call I should’ve made in the first place. I called my Dad. Exterior Grade Plywood was his answer and upon hearing the words I knew he’d mentioned that to me the first time I talked about this project with him. Damn. Where the hell did I get OSB from!? Either way, it was time for another supply run into town. I headed back to the True Value I’d visited yesterday and asked them if they had 1/2” exterior plywood and thankfully they did. Three sheets and $100 later (damn lumber is expensive up here!) I headed back to the cabin to attempt to get this structure sheathed by the end of the day. I did manage to get the three sides covered before I lost the sunlight but I also realized how much more still needed to be done. How was I going to get it all finished in one more day and still make it home on Valentine’s Day to be with my sweetheart? Mother Nature provided an epic sunset that night, complete with UFO shaped lenticular clouds illuminated by the last rays of the sun. Grabbing the camera and walking around the property to find some good angles gave my analytical brain a chance to breathe and by the time I was done I had figured out what I needed to do. I had to wake up at first light and try to make as much progress as possible and then just leave what couldn’t be done for another visit. Building stuff is fun and all, but I wasn’t willing to miss Valentine’s Day for it.
The alarm went off @ 7 the next morning and I scarfed down my coffee and breakfast to get outside as quickly as possible. I cut the piece of plywood for the ‘roof’ and attached it. I cut pieces to cover the gap between the roof and the walls and attached those. Then I got the piece of rigid insulation I’d gotten for free from my friends Cody and Lauren (they’d had to buy a full 4×8 sheet just to seal off an air conditioner in a doorway) and started cutting it down to pieces that would fit in-between the 2×4’s in the walls. It quickly became evident that I didn’t have enough to cover all three walls and I started to think through my options. I didn’t really want to go into town and blow an hour on the trip, but at the same time, not insulating this cover well pretty much defeated the whole purpose of building it. I decided that I’d take my lunch with me and eat in the car to save time. Unfortunately, when I got to the True Value that’s closest to my cabin, they said they didn’t carry it. The nearest place that might was in Lake Isabella, about 25 minutes further down the road. Damn. I called ahead and verified that they had it and then headed over to pick it up. Having blown about an hour and twenty minutes by the time I got back I hunkered down and totally focused on getting things done. I cut up the new piece of insulation and filled up the spaces; doubling up as much as I could to improve the R-rating and to use up the entire piece. Once that was done I went back to the OSB and cut pieces to close off the inside of the structure. There are plenty of little critters up there and I didn’t want to give them anything like insulation to go after. Once I closed off the inside I propped the whole thing onto a few pieces of scrap wood and started painting. The exterior grade plywood will hold up to the elements, but if it’s painted it should last a lot longer. I managed to get both coats I wanted on there before the sun dropped beneath the mountain and I had to quit for the day.
Friday, Valentine’s Day, I woke up @ 7 again and put the handles and wheels on the structure so I could move it easily into place. The weight had increased quite a bit with all the exterior and interior cladding added and I had to use scrap OSB to make a little path to roll it on to get it into place. Without the OSB, the wheels just dug into the dirt and I couldn’t budge it. Lesson learned. Bigger wheels next time. It rolled just fine once the wood was down, though, and fell nicely into place with a big ‘thump’ against the house. I let out a shout of satisfaction after that and stepped back to admire my handiwork. There’s still a few tweaks I want to make to it, but it looks damn good in it’s place on top of the water heater and it feels pretty damn good to know that I made that thing all by myself! I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the considerable mess I’d made over the last four days and packed up to go home. Leaving the cabin usually feels a bit sad, but I had a huge smile on my face this time. I felt really satisfied to have finally finished what I had put off for so long and to see the cabin looking better than it had in months made me feel even better. Having done this also gave me the confidence to start to consider what else I could build up there. Maybe I really can build my own house, after all!