Woodworking for the Gender Impaired

Outhouse workbench

Outhouse Workbench

As we pause for a brief word from our sponsors (or lack thereof) on the kitchen project, I’ll segue (ok the proper word here is digress, but I’ll be brief.  Then it’s back to the kitchen to face the heat.  Or electricity.  Or something.) into the other projects that occupy my time when I’m not obsessing about the bookstore – including building what I now lovingly call the Outhouse Workbench (more on that later).
Our story begins thirty years ago.  I’m 9 years old and have salvaged every scrap of wood and discarded tool from which my dad walked away on his side of the basement.  There were easy pickin’s such as the 2×8 slabs of timber left over from some project or another, and when a saw broke, it was mine.  “Mine” is a very fluid thing when you’re nine.  Undoubtedly “my” tool pile was Dad’s “not thrown away yet” pile and Mom’s “for the love of god do you have to keep everything/I’m going to throw that away when you’re not looking” pile.  I had to stake my claim, so I asked Dad if I could have a tool box, thinking if I put the tools in something that was mine the tools would become less “mine” and more MINE.

Dad said he could “probably think of something,” which I knew to mean he would make one for me at work.  Work was Merz Sheet Metal, where Dad fabricated and installed heating and air conditioning and then came home and washed his hands with Lava soap.  He could build the Sistine Chapel if it were made of sheet metal.  This is the same man who, when he was laid off and bored (and in retrospect horribly depressed), built a two story furnished carpeted, painted and wallpapered Barbie house for my sister and me completely out of a cardboard box, scraps, and old washrags pinned around foam.  It. Was. Awesome.  Plus, Dad always did what he said he was going to do.  I had complete faith.

A couple of days later he walked in the back door with a stack of pieces of sheet metal cut out and bent, for what I couldn’t tell.  He grinned and handed the stack to me.  “Here it is!”

Yep. There it was.  And here we are.  I was too embarrassed to ask him how it went together because obviously People Who Have Tools know how to put things together, and my excitement curdled into despair.  This habit of mine – to mumble, nod my head and smile like I know what I’m doing, then privately jam my nose into a book to learn what I missed – began there in the kitchen with Dad asking the back of my retreating head if I wanted him to show me.  It persists today.

I recognize it in the way my brother and sister-in-law nod and smile in noisy crowds when their hearing-aids become useless, or when the person they’re talking to turns away and mumbles.  When you miss half the joke, the other half isn’t nearly as funny, and I clearly had missed the first part of Dad’s joke.  I didn’t have to be a boy to get it, but I knew my watery eyes and wobbly, “Sure, I’ll figure it out” cemented in his brain (and mine) that a.) I wouldn’t figure it out and b.) even if I had been born a boy, the two of us would have had a hard time bonding over sand paper and wood screws.

The next time I saw the pile of metal, it had been magically assembled into my very own tool box – empty of course, but only for the briefest of moments.  I took it downstairs and filled it with bent nails that could be straightened, saws that weren’t too rusty and a hammer that wasn’t quite broken.  It was a gold mine.

My first project was a bookshelf for Jo Anna, a person who not only didn’t read, but spent most of her time outside.  I was undeterred.  I sawed the 2x8s with the handsaw (yes, it took for flipping ever) and thwacked it together with my straightened nails.  I haven’t seen that bookshelf in many years, but I’m sure it’s being admired in a museum of fine furniture somewhere.

So, back to the Outhouse Workbench.

Kris woke me up one morning, handed me a cup of coffee and proceeded to lace her tennis shoes, talking in one long, continuous sentence about the unbelievable bounty of treasures in our alley that morning.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Kleindienst-Steele household, this is not an uncommon method of awakening.  When the landlords across the alley evict the latest tenant, there’s typically an avalanche of household stuff dumped unceremoniously beside the dumpster.  “Beadboard!” and “Bathroom!” and “Too heavy!” were repeated patterns in this morning’s report.

Indeed, there was a mountain of beadboard affixed to various 2x4s leaning against one another.  It wasn’t until we had most of it in the garage that I noticed the smell.  Upon closer inspection, there was not only a toilet paper holder mounted to the wall, but evidence of the explosion of some sort of bodily function.  Our find was in fact the disassembled parts of a very unfortunate bathroom stall.

It has sat in our garage for some time now, but I had to move it this weekend because I broke the tool fairy’s router.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve  been working like a fiend to get the most out of the tools bestowed upon me by the tool fairy before they turn into pumpkins and he needs them back, so I’ve made the following:

Two – count them two – deck planter boxes from an old fence.

pencil box thing for Kathleen

Sculpture type thing with a melted bottle and Kathleen’s wrought iron thing. The base is from the old fence.

even more planter boxes

even more planter boxes

Kris went out of town, leaving me with time on my hands and nary a project in site.  She called our friend Kathleen and asked her to Jaysit (which really means just give me something to do so I don’t tear down the bathroom wall and install a whirlpool).  Kathleen obliged and told me she wanted a hutch for her desk.  I gleefully bought wood, router bits and stain and took a three day weekend in which to build my masterpiece.

Mid-dado cut (the groove where you put the shelf), the router shuddered and stopped.  I did the most obvious thing and shook it, hoping it would start working again.  Nope.

Lori, the most awesome neighbor in the world, saw me sitting in the driveway with my head in my hands and rushed over to ask me what was wrong, which made me decide that she’s several notches above the most awesome neighbor in the world.

I begged the tool fairy’s forgiveness, and in true tool fairy fashion, he forgave me via voice mail, email, and message conveyed in person through his wife, Pam.  I, of course needed all these forms of forgiveness because even though the router was 25 years old, the old dear died on my watch.

I had to have a router to finish the bookshelves and my new project (hopefully) of building a cabinet for some drawers Kathleen bought, which were salvaged out of the old St. Louis City Library building.  I stalked Craig’s List for a week until I found a man willing to part with his router, router table and a box full of brand new bits for a reasonable price.

Isn’t she pretty?

By now, you know me and have no doubt guessed that I talked louder and dropped the g’s on my gerunds to sound less soft handed and bookish on the phone, then drove all the way to Belleville, IL rehearsing how I would introduce myself and making a list of relevant topics to discuss while pretending to examine the tool before buying it.

In the end, the bookshelves weren’t up to snuff, but the tool breakage and purchase and prospect of more woodworking projects lead me to this past weekend, wherein I cleaned out my garage, which had started to look like a four year old organized it.

Amongst all the detritus was the disassembled bathroom stall, toilet paper holder still attached.  I threw away the feces stained portion and broke apart the rest, then reassembled it into a work bench.

I have waited my entire life for this small room in heaven.

When we finally get back to the kitchen project, my workshop will rock!

It is thirty years after Dad brought home the disassembled tool box and a bajillion household projects later.  I like to think he would be jealous of my garage, and sometimes when I’m alone out there I share it with him in spirit.

I still wouldn’t know how to put together the tool box, and I totally straightened out the old nails on the bathroom stall to make the workbench.


How Jarek Got His Groove Back

After last week’s severance of my confidence from my person by my plumbing,  I couldn’t bring myself to look at another kitchen related project.  Instead I cleansed my palate of Hell Corner and did this instead:

Bench Before

Before taking out my aggression via sandpaper.

Bench After

After reattaching some boards, painting, and stenciling.

I feel much better now.  So much better, in fact, that I decided to dip my toes back into The Project.

I’ve been sneaking out to the garage to play with my tools all week.  I do love them all, but I reserve a special place in my geeky, diy heart for my table saw.  She is strong.  She is capable.  She can do anything.  I’m sure of it.

This unfettered admiration is almost matched by my infatuation with the band saw that was one of the tools that Terrie the other Tool Fairy provided the other week for the promise of a couple hundred dollars and my lawn mower.

What?  Have you seen my yard?  It measures approximately 6 1/2 x 4 inches.  I have been mowing it with a weed whacker for a year and a half.

Anyway, I’ve been bonding with my first love (the table saw) by figuring out how to build out our pantry.  And who figured out how to make cabinet joinery for the slide-out drawer cabinet thing without so much as ONE shop class in high-school?

That’s right -ME.  But before I get too self congratulatory, let’s just review the training I’ve had in all things home improvement.



Exactly.  While other boys (who, incidentally, were born into actual [ahem] boy bodies) were busy building soap box derby cars and plaques in shop class I was planning my wedding in a high school class called “Marriage and Family” [a mandatory class exercise I managed to squeak a C out of after planning a K-Mart Wedding with Kentucky Fried Chicken catering – which, incidentally, isn’t too different from what my actual wedding was like later on, except we went to McDonald’s after hitting the Justice of the Peace].  Also on my class schedule was Home Economics, and Foods.

I’m convinced that the Unit 40 school district contributed to the melt down I had years later while shopping at the Boy Scout store for my step-son, Ben.

I would have been a kick-ass boy scout.  Instead, I was in the friggin’ Brownies making up cheers and dances in South Side Elementary School’s lunch room.

Anyway, imagine my GLEE when I actually succeeded in putting up a level built-in cabinet wall, complete with hidden screws I drilled with my pocket hole jig, then actually installed drawer slides for the slide out drawer cabinet thing (at midnight last night)!

Behold the Beauty!

Ok, so it’s not beautiful YET, but once I patch and paint the walls and install the drawers it’s going to be great.

But THIS –  this is the thing that swept away the anxiety of Hell Corner in a thunderstorm of AWESOME.

With my trusty table saw, I mastered (sort of) the technique of building the drawers this morning before realizing that Bruno ate a light bulb.  That put an end to my fun.  That and the fact that I have to actually work today.

See the perfect grooves?  The beautiful cuts?!  The straight lines?!!!

Recognize that wood, Terrie? That’s the stuff you were going to BURN! Blasphemy!

Anyway, I think we can all agree that I.  AM. AWESOME.

Today anyway.  There is that phone call I have to return to my therapist, but that can wait until tomorrow.

Today I rock.

Earth Wind and Fire: Hell Corner

Yes, I’m behind on my posting (9 long days to be exact) – mostly because I’ve been busy organizing and producing this:

Go ahead.  Take a good long look.  Enjoy.  Because it only goes downhill from here.

It looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Look at the innocent sink sitting there in its nonthreatening cabinet.

This past weekend, after being bolstered by our previous success (routing/routering not included) Kris and I decided to tackle what I’ve affectionately dubbed HELL CORNER corner corner corner corner…..

For those of you keeping score, we sold our old dishwasher on Craig’s List and bought the model sitting in this picture wrapped in what looks like a prop from an episode of Dexter.  Why isn’t it installed, you ask?  Because I may or may not have broken several wires when uninstalling the last one, and then realized that the garbage disposal now leaks.


In which the plumber who installed our sink fell into rapturous evil laughter when he thought of the poor soul who would have to replace the cabinet.

Anyway, this weekend we decided to deal with it.  First up – disconnecting the drain and other plumbing.  Yeah, so you can’t just saw through all these little elbows and such.  You have to have a piece of pipe so you can patch it later.  (Don’t I sound competent?)

After mulling it over for a while and thinking fondly of the DIY channel’s sledge hammer heavy demo jobs, Kris and I decided the best way to handle this was to cut the cabinet away from the plumbing and have a look.

I mean once you have all the carpentry out of the way, you’re home free, right?  Right?

So after a few satisfying swings with a hammer and Kris’ obsession with Kim the Tool Fairy’s shop vac, we were left with this:

See the copper pipe?  More on that later.

I had been lucky enough to find a damaged sink base for cheap.  I fixed the cracked back panel and shored up the top with a board, some screws and wood glue.  The rest of it is awesome.  But how does one encourage such a delicate piece of furniture to mate with such a well endowed plumbing system?

Still looking competent.

One cuts several holes to accommodate the protrusions and a “secret” panel for the back.  It’s all very Victorian.

As for the copper pipes, there wasn’t enough room below the dishwasher valve to cut and patch the pipe, so I brilliantly (yeah, right) decided that I could cut the pipe in the basement and pull it up through the floor, set the cabinet down, put the pipe back and, gulp, solder it into place.

Don’t get too close to the well endowed plumbing, Kris!

Whilst I whittled away at our new cabinet.  Kris brandished the shop vac wand again and set to work on tiling the unfinished part of the floor.

I had some time to kill between destroying (I mean modifying) our new cabinet, so I made the first of 4 trips to the hardware store.

My mission?  To buy a soldering kit, some new conduit to rewire hell corner and some copper joiners for the now severed pipe.   While I was there, I bought a gasket for the garbage disposal.  I had a bad feeling about the garbage disposal. [insert ominous music here]

I returned to find Kris preparing a luncheon of turkey, bacon, field green wraps cut and secured with toothpicks, served with potato chips and a very civilized glass of limeade.  Kris’ compulsion to prepare gourmet meals grows in inverse proportion to the actual functionality of the kitchen.

After our fine dining experience, we set to work again.  We installed our new cabinet around the obscene and vaguely pornographic pipe structure, and I wired the conduit to the dishwasher and pushed it into its new home.

Look at Hell Corner. Isn’t she pretty?

Now all that was left to do was hook up the plumbing and electricity.  Right.

So we put the old counter top and sink back on the cabinet, dropped our copper pipe through my expertly cut holes, and I went to the basement to wire in the dishwasher.

Metal is not my friend.

I’ll spare you the adult language I used while cutting, re-cutting, wiring, rewiring, twisting, capping and stretching metal sheathed household wiring.  Suffice it to say it didn’t put me in a good spiritual place for plumbing.

I needed to find my center.

I needed to find my confidence.

I needed a beer.

But the day was still young, so I resolved to wait for the beer until I cracked it open in celebration at having conquered HELL CORNER corner corner corner.

The problem with soldering is that I don’t know how to do it.  Kris agreed to stand beside me and pray while I lit a torch and approached our basement pipes.  We read the directions twice and I assured her I had seen it done on Youtube.  It was only after dry fitting the joiners that Kris pointed out that the copper pipe I was about to light on fire was directly above our gas line.

So after my next trip to the hardware store, I glued the pipes using some wicked copper adhesive bonding glue stuff that will kill you if you think about it too hard.

Then we turned the water on.  It (of course) leaked, but not at my patching job – the leak was upstairs in Hell Corner.  Also, when we turned on the faucet nothing came out.

I’ll spare you even more adult language and a very tense conversation with Kris, after which we (meaning Kris) decided to sleep on it and come back to it in the morning.

So Sunday morning I arose bright and early, pulled on my big boy pants and headed downstairs.

I’ll skip forward at this point in the story because it really doesn’t matter what came when.  All you need to know is that somewhere between rewiring the dishwasher (again) and me sitting on a water soaked Christmas tree in our basement pondering my worth as a plumber – nay, my worth  as a human being!- my patching job failed.

I knew this right away because just before smacking my head on the bottom of the sink I heard a shower running.  In the basement.  Where there is no shower.

I ran downstairs, turned off the water, soaked up the pond with the dog towels and my shirt and listened while Kris coached me to get some zen about the whole thing.  I only heard intermittent phrases, such as “call a plumber” and “I can’t cook without electricity” so I can’t reproduce the conversation in its entirety.

We (Kris) decided we would call a plumber and she would stay home from work on Tuesday to deal with it.

As it stands now, we have a sink.  It works.  Our garbage disposal is apparently 568 years old and is no longer in production, so the gasket I purchased Saturday will not work. We’ll have to either permanently install a bucket under that part of the sink and never use our new dishwasher, or wait until we get paid next month and buy a new one because we are so very much at the end of our budget this month.

We did buy the paint for the walls and cabinets on Monday before the ReadMOB.  Now, if I can only get temporary custody of a paint sprayer….

Oh, Ok Fine.

Hear that giant sucking sound?  Listen harder.  There it is.  The sound of my bank account being sucked dry.  “Oh, Jay,” you’ll say  “You should have known better than to start such a giant, impossible task in the middle of a recession.  I mean, come on, you are an independent bookseller. How much money did you think you’d have?!  Well??  Answer me!” [Side note: I always imagine my friends and family are judging me more harshly than they probably are.]

“Hey, wait!” I’ll say.  “Don’t be such a jerk.  I’m handy.  I can do most of it.  Plus, how was I supposed to know that our trees would have to be trimmed RIGHT NOW to appease our neighbors? (Not Lori, the most Awesome Neighbor Ever.  The other ones.  With the dog.  And the roaches.  And mice.)  And, ok fine, yes.  I did know that expense was coming.  But what about this?!:

Ok, fine.  Yes.  I realized gas was creeping up to $4 per gallon, but that’s not supposed to apply to me.


Anyway, since my last dispatch, we got a second (more expensive) opinion on the electricity, and conflicting advice about the plumbing.  One plumber said we’d have to build a new wall and drill through my closet floor and through our roof to vent the sink.

Hear the crickets chirping?

The other plumber was more reasonable, but it was still going to cost more than our budget, which is zero.   SO, Lori’s awesome idea to move the sink is on the chopping block.  Instead we’ll focus on not burning the house down and installing cabinets.

And it is sooo time to work on cabinets.

The good news is that I got to spend part of the weekend with my family in Effingham, and pick up a band saw, a floor sander, a bunch of wood she was going to BURN (!) and other miscellaneous items of great use from my sister Terrie (the other tool fairy), so the tank of gas was worth it.

For now, though.  We’ll be waiting for the mighty bookstore to give us our monthly bread.

More later.

Ladieees aannnd gentlemen…

For our next trick (our first being last year’s painting of our entire house), Kris and I will attempt a gut rehab of our kitchen.

The goal?  To transform our kitchen into a workable area that doubles as Kris’ happy place.

The Plan: We figure we’ll do most of the work ourselves (until we flood or burn down the house), reuse many of our old cabinets, buy a few more and build some other stuff.

The Timeline: Finish before Thanksgiving

Those of you not familiar with our beloved kitchen, we sent in a video begging HGTV to help us.   Unfortunately for us (perhaps fortunately for HGTV viewers) they did not deem us worthy, so I will now subject you to our attempts at finishing the job.

First The Pictures:

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Day 1 (3/25/2012 – Kris’ Birthday)

Kris thinks we’re going to do this gradually.  Obviously she has underestimated my obsessive compulsive streak.

On our first weekend, we cleaned out the garage and arranged my fancy schmancy new workshop with tools I borrowed from Kim The Tool Fairy.   I took out all of our floor cabinets, tore down the painted aluminum tile on the walls and ripped up the butt ugly, dog stained and scratched linoleum.  Kris cleaned, organized and cursed the basement, then cleaned, cursed and organized our dining room, which is now our kitchen/dining room.

I tried to take the mountain of adhesive off the plaster walls with a chisel attachment to the reciprocating saw like the guy at the True Value on Hampton said to do.  He showed me both a manual chisel and asked me if I had a “Saws All.”  I refused to admit I didn’t know what the hell that was, and when I saw a picture, I realized I had already borrowed one from Kim the Tool Fairy.  I know it as a reciprocating saw.  Silly me.

[Side Note: I have learned over the past nine years as a dude that guys don’t admit when they don’t know something.  Therefore, I told a white lie – sorry mom – and said I had a friend who had one even though I had already borrowed it and had it sitting in my fancy dancy workshop.  Ten years ago, I would have just said, “Oohhh that thing, yeah I have one of those.”]

The wall would have none of that nonsense, though, and even though I assured Kris I could knock down the plaster and drywall over it, she assured me that we would be covering it up with bead board or wainscoting.

Our floor is an odyssey of its own.  Kris wants to take up the floor and refinish the hard wood floor that is hopefully underneath.  Under the linoleum, we found more linoleum.  This layer was glued to the sub floor with zeal, so I tore up part of the sub floor to find – you guessed it, another floor.  This layer was asbestos tile affixed with even more zeal to the floor beneath it with what looks like a tar pit.

Plan B – We’ll leave the sub floor and tile over it.  Sunday I went to one of the inner most circles of hell (gigantic box hardware store) and bought cheap tiles and new sub floor to patch up my hole.

Total cost of the floor: $190.00

Day 3

Kris is still under the impression that we are going to do this gradually.  We went to work as usual and I might have looked at Craig’s list for cabinets while waiting for QuickBooks to load, saw an ad for free cabinets, and rushed out only to find that someone beat me to it.

[Side note: I got to the place and two guys who looked like they worked there and probably knew more about cabinets than me were loitering around the cabinets they had left.  They looked Republican and semi-intimidating, so I didn’t ask if they had anymore.  I just got into my truck (which has National Rifle Association bumper stickers on it for irony) and left.  Another lesson I’ve learned over the past nine years is not to open my mouth around guys like that unless I’m barking something like, “How’s it going?” in my deepest voice while frowning menacingly because otherwise I betray myself as the flaming queer transman I am.]

Day 4

Our events coordinator, Danielle’s, dad sells and installs cabinets for a living.  Bonus!  Kris and I drove to his store and drooled over his selection.  We left with a full pricing list and a catalog that will keep Kris busy into her 70’s.  Then we went home so I could knock down the weeds in our abandoned front yard.

More later as we continue down this uncertain road.