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Protected: Casita Electrical Wiring: Workshop

Saturday, March 19th, 2022: Restoration Projects.

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Protected: Bed Restoration

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022: Restoration Projects.

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Protected: Adjustable Height Desk

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022: Restoration Projects.

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Protected: Bathroom Wall Accessories

Thursday, April 21st, 2022: Restoration Projects.

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Art File

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022: Fire, Restoration Projects, Stories, Trouble.

Shed in the Hills

I’ve described before how the rising cost of living in California had driven me relentlessly from larger lodgings, where I originally had room for art and music studios, into smaller and smaller places, finally ending up in a tiny studio apartment with all my creative work and equipment far away in storage. It wasn’t until I moved to this remote small town in New Mexico that I could afford enough space to get all my work and gear together, and it still took me years to pull a lifetime of art and music out of boxes and set up studio space to continue that work after the dismal hiatus of struggling to survive in California.

Part of that process was finding a readily accessible way to store my thousands of works on paper and canvas – by me and others. For a decade and a half most of those paintings and drawings had been packed away in boxes, portfolio cases, and mailing tubes and stashed in various basements or garages. I needed a big flat file.

I was registered on an online community forum maintained by a couple of older men, 60s hippies who were fixtures in the local progressive subculture. At the end of July 2008, I posted my need for a file, and immediately got a response from one of those guys. It turned out his ex-girlfriend had left him a big flat file made by a local cabinetmaker from local pinewood. But it was stored in a shed way out in the mountains, an hour’s drive from town, and he didn’t have a vehicle that could move it.

So I bought it from him and drove him out there in my pickup truck. It took all day – we had to stop first at a rural settlement on the river to pick up a key, then we slowly drove for miles, winding back into the hills on a rough, narrow gravel road, finally reaching the shed. The file was so heavy that we had to remove all the drawers first to lift it into the truck.

But of course, once I got it home, I was faced with how to get this big wooden box into my house by myself.

First, I borrowed a dolly from a neighbor, and improvised a ramp from a sheet of plywood so I could roll the cabinet off the truck. Then I had to take my front door off the hinges and unscrew all the weatherstripping from the jamb in order to just barely scrape the file through the doorway.

Once I’d walked the awkward thing past my vestibule, put it back on the dolly, and rolled it into place, I could carefully reinstall all the drawers into their ball-bearing slides.

The cabinetmaker had put a huge amount of work into this file – precisely cutting, planing, and joining the pine planks for the sides, building the drawers from scratch, cutting perfect rabbet joints at all the corners. But for some reason he had neglected to finish it, leaving it topless, so John had given me a heavy sheet of particle board to put over it. I covered this with a Mexican blanket so it wouldn’t look so shabby in my living room.

After the Fire

Just as it was hugely liberating and inspiring to get my music, instruments, and recording gear out of storage after all those years, it was a revelation to rediscover my art. And soon I began a new series of work, filling the drawers of the file to the brim.

But my house fire in August 2020 put another stop to my creative work. I had to quickly remove those thousands of art works, re-pack them in boxes and portfolio cases, and move them back into storage.

Contractors moved all my furnishings out of the house in preparation for interior cleaning and repairs – all except for the file, which was too much of a hassle. It wasn’t until almost a year later, when the flooring subcontractor prepared to refinish my oak floors, that we absolutely had to get the flat file out of the house. So I again removed the drawers, took off the house’s front door and weatherstripping, and with a couple of young construction workers muscled the big thing out of the house and into a tight space in the already nearly full casita in back, in between my bed frame, fridge, and gas range.

In the process, one side of the cabinet was chipped. I salvaged the wedge-shaped piece of wood and quickly stashed it somewhere I thought it would be safe and retrievable, for however far away in the future it would take to fix this thing and get it back in the house.

Working Around It

The flat file and its separate drawers were now taking up space in the casita, along with most of the other furnishings of my house. I had moved back into and was camping out in the main house, but it was now the middle of winter, and I needed at least one room of that casita as a workshop, to start completing the interior of the house and make repairs to items like the flat file.

I cleared out the workshop as much as possible, but the flat file cabinet had to stay there while I put in the wiring – it was too big to fit through the casita’s other doors. So I worked around it, moving it from place to place as needed.

Repairing the Chip

Finally, at the end of March, I was ready to start fixing up the flat file. But by now I’d completely forgotten where I put that missing wood chip. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it – I would simply have to fabricate a new piece and glue it in. But how to match the original knotty pine? Knotty pine is no longer available, especially here.

Fortunately I had an old piece of scrap pine hanging around that had similar grain and color.

Refinishing the File Cabinet

The body of the file was quite worn, not to mention smoke damaged. But getting the old finish off took two days of heavy sanding, and in the process I discovered it had never been sanded to begin with – the surface was extremely rough under the finish the cabinetmaker had applied.

Like many things around here, it was paradoxical – the unfinished, imperfect product of a lot of obsessive labor.

I also found out early that sanding in the workshop raised far too much dust, and applying the finish indoors generated too many fumes. So I rolled the cabinet outside on my new dolly and applied three coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat, covering it with plastic every night and uncovering it every morning.

Making Feet & Corner Guards

The base of the cabinet was the crudest part of it – inconsistent with the rest of the thing, the base was made out of rough, construction-grade two-by-fours. I wasn’t going to have that sliding around on my newly refinished oak floors, so I had to make feet, to which I would attach protective felt. I made these out of scraps of oak from another project, plus I cut corner guards to protect the vulnerable bottom edges of the cabinet, where the chip had come off earlier.

Moving It Back Into the House

Like a fool I was determined to get the cabinet back into the house by myself, and it did not go well – after taking off door and weatherstripping again, there was still only about 1/16″ clearance between the sides of the cabinet and the door jamb, and I ended up scratching up my new finish in a few places. But those were easily repaired.

Installing the Feet & Corner Guards

Reinforcing the Cabinet

I spent weeks puzzling over how to make a top for this cabinet. It would have to span over a yard of open space without warping, and there was no room to add bracing within the existing cabinet – the top would have to be framed above the existing front, sides, and back.

Plywood wouldn’t do – it should be solid wood – equivalent, if not superior, in quality to the expertly joined sides. But I didn’t have access to a broad selection of cabinet-grade wood – our local lumber yard only stocks a limited selection of “project boards” in poplar and oak up to 12″ wide. And I didn’t have the tools or setup to match the joinery of the sides.

Meanwhile, I realized that the top would need to be removable! A fixed top would prevent access to the drawer slides inside the cabinet, and they are mechanical parts that can wear out and break and need to be replaced. I decided to make the top hinged at the back with a continuous piano hinge.

A removable top added even more complexity to a project that just seemed to keep growing. And whereas a fixed top would reinforce the whole cabinet, a removable top would place stress on a structure that didn’t seem to have enough bracing as is. The top front crosspiece was so flimsy you could bend it up and down with one hand.

So I cut a couple of oak boards as cross braces for the body of the cabinet – they would just barely fit above the top drawer, and would stabilize the cross member in front, as well as to prevent warping of the sides. They would also need to be removable to facilitate getting your whole body inside the cabinet to work on the slides!

Building a Top for the File

We didn’t have any cabinet-grade wood panels available locally to cover the entire top, but I finally figured out a way to combine two different woods without more expensive tools. In addition to the oak boards, the lumber yard had a few 24″x48″ cabinet-grade pieces of birch plywood with a nice surface grain, and I was lucky to find two pieces that were book-matched.

I used the oak as edge binding and to join the two pieces of plywood down the center. I still didn’t have long clamps, but I managed to get enough pressure using bungee cords, and a doweling jig, to get reasonably fine joinery.

Being all hardwood, the top ended up really heavy.

Installing the New Top

Once I’d decided to hinge the top, I worried for weeks about how to align the hinge. Both the cabinet and the top were really heavy pieces, and the hinge would need to be attached with the top open, in such a manner that the top would be aligned with the cabinet when closed.

And the fit was not perfect – the original cabinetmaker hadn’t cut the sides perfectly straight, and I hadn’t thought to plane them earlier. Ultimately, searching online, I found adhesive-backed felt tape to line the interface between top, sides, and front. This would help keep dust out. I ordered it the week before I left for Indiana, and it was waiting for me 6 weeks later when I got back from the hospital.

To align the hinge properly was extremely complicated and took three tries, drilling a few holes at first, mounting a few screws, setting the whole heavy thing upright, relocating some holes and screws, lowering, removing and reattaching, etc.

And finally, I discovered that my house floor is uneven, and the cabinet flexes as it’s moved around the floor, so that in some positions, the hinged top is out of alignment, whereas in other positions it’s perfectly aligned. So I gave up and accepted imperfection.

I also realized that the cheap piano hinge from our local Ace is not really sturdy enough for the weight of this top. But it took me so long to install it, I’ll leave it as is for now, letting the next owner worry about that.

Refinishing the Drawers

I kept thinking I was almost done, until I realized the drawers still needed to be sanded and refinished – all 8 of them.

First I had to remove the wooden pulls – they were originally unfinished, and I decided to spray paint them black.

Refinishing the drawers took over a week, partly because I first sealed them with Danish oil to deepen the color, and I had to wait a day and sand between each coat. I had to keep moving them from place to place after each of the 4 coats, to keep them from running and sticking together, and to keep them free of dust from another project I was starting in the shop.

Installing the Drawers

Finally the drawers were ready! I assumed the project was done – what a huge relief! The last big piece of furniture repaired and restored to my house, almost two years after the fire!

I carefully carried each drawer from the casita, up onto the back porch, through the kitchen, and into the living room. When they were all there, I started by inserting the bottom drawer into its slides. These drawers have always been a tight fit, needing several firm pushes to get all the way in. But after the second firm push, one of the drawer slides exploded and ball bearings shot out across the floor.

I wasn’t finished after all. And thank god I’d made that top removable!

So I order a new set of slides for the bottom drawer, and waited another week for it to arrive. And meanwhile, I finally found that missing chip from the side of the cabinet. It was in the bottom of one of the drawers. If only I’d found it months ago, I would’ve saved a couple days of work fabricating a new patch, and the cabinet would’ve ended up looking better. So it goes.

But how to prop up the hinged top so I could work inside the cabinet? I hadn’t included that in my design yet, and there wasn’t much room to work with inside the cabinet. After a few days of design experimentation, I came up with the solution you see below, which works great.

I knew I had to prop the “lid” of the cabinet up in some way. This could be done either with a metal rod – like on the hood of your car – or with a wooden dowel, or a wooden “strut” with a rectangular cross-section. I wanted to avoid metal, which would come with its own challenges. Initially I figured a rectangular strut would be best, because I could attach it to either the underside of the lid or the top of the cabinet with a hinge. But the hinge would have to have a flush profile when the lid is closed, and mortising to achieve that would add work.

Also, I’d need to design some kind of socket to secure the loose end of the strut. Ultimately I realized a removable dowel would be the most elegant solution with my limited resources. I could easily fit an upper socket into a corner inside the lid so it would be flush. The lower socket would simply be a hole cut into the front cross-member of the cabinet, with a metal plate on the underside forming the bottom of the socket. When not in use, the dowel strut could sit in brackets attached to the middle cross member of the cabinet – a neat solution that would keep it inside the cabinet without interfering with the top drawer. I would make these brackets by carefully bending metal mending straps that I already had in my collection of surplus hardware.

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