Lamp of Sacrifice III

I kept working on the project for Germaine on into the fall. The next steps were…steps.

I like making stairs very much and have spent considerable time studying geometrical staircase (helical, elliptical, and so forth) and hand rail layout, the hand railing being the more difficult of the two arts associated to staircase building. I look forward very much to the opportunity of making a fine solid wood staircase one day, and even if the event never presents itself at the client end, I will build one in my own house one day.

The stairs Germaine needed were relatively simple, just 3 or 4 treads each, one to go from the ground to the deck and the other to go from the deck to the edge of the therapy pool, and to serve as a mount for the pool ladder. I built the stairs to the pool first.

Like all my work, these stairs were made using pure solid wood joinery, and were in Yellow Cedar. By the way, I don’t use the phrase “Alaskan Yellow Cedar” – – after all, the botanical name for the tree is chamaecyparis nootkatensis, or “Nootka Sound False Cypress”, a reference to the place on Vancouver Island where it was first ‘discovered’ and named by a western botanist. The tree is much more abundant in B.C. along the coast than in Alaska, and we simply call it ‘Yellow Cedar’ in B.C., so I’m sticking with that. I like the US, but its cultural hegemony, already pronounced in Canada, need not extend over every living thing – names are important and carry meaning and history, and I don’t want that obscured.

The pool steps I did in the manner of having projecting treads, using housed bridle joints to connect treads to stringers. The stringers in turn being fixed to Red Cedar (Western Red Cedar, thuja plicata) support posts with sliding half-lap dovetails.

Here’s a look at the stringers after the housings had been cut out. You will note the dovetails cut into the top end of the stringers, which is the means by which the upper treads will attach:

Here’s a view of the joint cut on the end of the Red Cedar support post, all cut out by hand:

This shows pretty clearly how the treads and stringers slide together:

In the picture above, if you look it the inside of the rear stringer, you can see the dovetail mortise for the post.

Here I’m finishing the cutting of the male dovetails on the end of one of the support posts:

Then the posts were driven into place, and the stair assembly is nearly complete:

The posts have a tenon on top that engages with a mortise on the underside of the top tread and locks the tread into position.

Then I laid out the mortises in the deck, getting pretty grubby at this point unfortunately:

Then I cut the mortises:

All done:

Then it was time to offer the stair assembly up to the deck mortises:

A few adjustments to the dovetail fit:

And then, few taps later, the stairs were installed:

The metal handrail to the pool was installed shortly afterwards (not pictured).

The stairs from the ground to the deck I did also in pure joinery, this time using a different construction, one of housed and through-mortised treads.

I have fewer photos of these steps in construction. Here I’m starting to put a tread into a stringer:

Once all the treads are fitted to one stringer, the other stringer is offered up, simultaneously engaging with all tread tenons:

I may as well show the mortises on the door posts again:

Then the completed staircase was pushed and coaxed into place, tenons on the end of the stringers engaging in the mortises shown in the previous picture and being locked at the rear with sliding wedges.

This is how the staircase looked after placement:

The next step was to drive locking wedges into the ends of the through tenons to complete the connections between treads and stringers (not pictured).

Then the building inspector came by and, delighted as he was with the whole deck and fence, told me that a handrail was required on the steps off the deck. I obliged of course, though it was a rather difficult endeavor to join it in after the stairs were already in place:

I wish I had a detail shot of that handrail, but no. Obviously, I now present a bit more of a complete view of the deck in the above picture too, so you can get an idea of how the overall appearance turned out. Germaine was thrilled with the result, and I felt like it came out well.

Lastly, it was time to make the door for the deck, which I made, out on the sawhorses once again, out of solid Yellow Cedar, frame and panel style:

And here I’m making a few adjustments after the door has been hung:

The door’s rails were through-tenoned into the stiles, a construction I would not likely do again for technical reasons. This door was not of the best Yellow Cedar, nor of properly dry Cedar, and thought it looked fine after installation, developed movement problems in service and eventually had to be replaced a couple of years later. The new door had edge-grain red cedar stiles rails and panels, done in the diminished stile manner (not pictured).

Here’s the view of the finished project, just before last site clean up:

Some of the fence boards, being of poor quality Yellow Cedar, moved and shrank a lot in upcoming years and needed attention. The door, as I mentioned, also moved too much in service and had to be replaced. I regret using inferior material and won’t do that again.

The pool, supplied by an outside company as mentioned in the previous post, was one headache after another unfortunately. The client had electrical problems with the pump and heating system for a long time, then persistent algae problems, and on-going leakage problems. Because the wood for the pool tub was a lower grade Red Cedar, the pool had to have a thick vinyl liner to make it watertight, which leaked pretty much from day one. After a few years, the hassles with the pool got to be so great, and expensive, that she gave up on using the pool altogether. It sits empty now as far as I know. It’s too bad.

And what of my estimate, where I recognized that the client could only afford “12 day’s labour” and I hoped to get it done “in about a month”? Well, the project took me 112 days altogether – I believe it worked out to a pay rate of under $2.00/hour. This was, needless to say, quite a severe learning experience for me, and one that helped me sharpen my estimating skills quite a bit. Were I to do another project of this scale and complexity, the price would be considerably higher – probably by a factor of 10 or so.

I don’t regret any of that though, in fact I usually think of it with considerable humor and laugh at my poor estimating skills on that job – also, I take solace in knowing that I had done quality work, without shortcuts, in that process. Further, I definitely exceeded the client’s expectations, and, an even bigger success, was able to develop an excellent personal relationship with Germaine that lasts to this day. We still keep in regular touch on the phone. The relationship with the client is very important to me, as they are the ones providing me with the opportunity to do the work I love. I am forever grateful in that regard, and if my estimation skills were well off the mark then, then the answer for me has was to work at improving the estimating and client-qualifying side of the business, never to cheapen my work in any way. That way, I can stand by anything I have made with confidence and without shame or excuse for any shortcoming.

As I mentioned in the first post of this thread, the term ‘Lamp of Sacrifice comes to us from John Ruskin. I’d like to close out this thread then with another quote from that chapter of his work “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”:

We are none of us so good architects as to be able to work habitually beneath our strength; and yet there is not a building that I know of, lately raised, wherein it is not sufficiently evident that neither architect nor builder has done his best. It is the especial characteristic of modern work. All old work nearly has been hard work. It may be the hard work of children, of barbarians, of rustics; but it is always their utmost. Ours has as constantly the look of money’s worth, of a stopping short wherever and whenever we can, of a lazy compliance with low conditions; never of a fair putting forth of our strength. Let us have done with this kind of work at once: cast off every temptation to it: do not let us degrade ourselves voluntarily, and then mutter and mourn over our shortcomings; let us confess our poverty or our parsimony, but not belie our human intellect. It is not a question of how much we are to do, but of how it is to be done; it is not a question of doing more, but of doing better.

Thinking of the fact that Ruskin wrote this in 1849 originally, and how so long ago he found standards to be sliding — this coming before the great decline in the building arts that associates to industrialization and scientific management, really gives a deep sense of perspective for the artisan and designer today. Ruskin’s words resonate more truly today than they did then, as I see it, and his advice to do better, to do our utmost as artisans, still holds as well.

4 thoughts on “Lamp of Sacrifice III

  1. Back in the 1970’s there wasn’t a lot of information available on the use of handtools in woodworking. However the work of one British author and woodworker, Charles H. Hayward, became a source I relied on. The mention of John Ruskin in some of these blog entries has reminded me of a comment Hayward made in an article in “Woodworking Crafts” magazine in 1984. So I though you might like to hear it Chris, especially in relation to your hourly rate on this job.“….Those who remember Ruskin will recall that he insisted that artists and craftsmen should be dedicated to the Spartan life, with a simple diet of bread and perhaps an occasional onion (though I doubt whether he practised it himself). ……”No doubt Ruskin (at least according to Hayward’s opinion of him) would be pleasedat your efforts Chris. ………

  2. There are so many people that would have just walked away from the job after they saw they were going to lose more than a reasonable amount of money. That shows a lot about your character and integrity Chris. The people who built the tub might have made more money, but they delivered an inferior product that eventually failed. It is good to be able stand behind your work, and to leave a job knowing it was the best you could do, with the materials at hand. I am sure someone actually pays some college somewhere for the same opportunity that you made some money, a friend, a reference and word of mouth advertising out of. -Joe

  3. Well Marv, I replied to you a few days back but somehow that seems to have gotten lost. Anyhow, I had a laugh at your comment. Gotta watch Ruskin a little more closely – I’m about halfway through ‘Lamps’ at this point. I guess Ruskin might appreciate my ‘descent into poverty’ more than i did…

  4. Joe, such nice words to read – I appreciate that you understood my posts very well about the deck project, which was a failure in a few respects but a success in many others. I learned a lot, though I’m presenting this tale as a cautionary one. I was thinking for a while there though about getting into the wood tub making business :^)~Chris

Anything to add?