General construction; things being built

Time, Cost, Quality

In a recent discussion the old saw “Time, Cost, Quality- pick any two” came up. This is a common triangle of choices that describes the main points in any sale of services and is based on the tension between the three elements; you can only emphasize two of these at any given time. In other words, if you want it cheap and fast you give up control of quality. If you want high quality and fast speed, you give up control of price. If you are concerned with price and quality, then you have to give up control of time.

Something has always bothered me about this triangle. Two of the choices are simple; time and cost are definable qualities. Everyone knows what a dollar is and everyone knows what an hour is. Time is an easily definable facet; it will be done in 6 hours or it will be done in 6 months. It will cost $100 per hour, or it will cost $50,000; these are fixed concepts that don’t rely on an individual to supply anything more than quantity. Quality is a whole different matter.

Quality is, in my experience, where the ability of the parties to agree parts ways most often.

What is quality? How do I know it is quality? What part does quality refer to? These are tricky questions all by themselves, and made more difficult by being points that have to be both defined and agreed upon. The service provider is hampered by knowledge and the particular blindness that can come with expertise- how do you find out what the customer knows and separate that from what the customer thinks they know?

To make this even more difficult, quality is a fluid concept that changes with education and proximity.

Coming to terms on quality is probably the most difficult part of creating a construction project. There is no strict definition of quality. There are a few organizations that have attempted to qualitatively define “quality”, such as AWI. This often means that there is a set of rules about how a project can be inspected, such as “flooring will be inspected from a standing position or at a distance of 6′.” Diamonds are graded on qualities of color and clarity, both being aspects that take experience and training to know how to do; the average person isn’t likely to be able to see the difference.

In services this becomes important because it means the client’s expectations change through the process. This may seem fickle, but it is really an aspect of knowledge. The client is often the one with the least knowledge, and as that grows, things that they didn’t think were important become important.

As a service provider this can be frustrating. On the one hand you may want to educate the client from the outset- to inform them of all the details and the decisions they will need to make. That takes a lot of time, energy, and unless the client is intensely interested in the product the subject likely isn’t compelling enough for the client to understand, no matter how many words you use. On the other hand you may want to be brief at the beginning and create a good change order process so the job can be modified as the client reaches plateaus of understanding and can answer questions. This often leads to piles of change orders and a final cost that is far above the original estimate.

I don’t know if there is any one answer is to this dilemma. It is lessened by familiarity- any return customer is already trained to some extent and will have an idea of what is to come. I think one of the best methods may just be to explain this to the client. Let them know that there will be changes, that those changes will become more significant as the project progresses, and give them an idea of how much you think the project will change. That’s where your experience comes in, and the honesty may help cushion the pain of additional costs.

A quality of time

There’s a neat old saw that “they used to build houses better”.

I believe there is another way to look at it: all the bad houses have already fallen down.

One quality of time is that we forget that skills existed in the past. We have a tendency to wish that things were better in the past.

We remember best what we have known, and the most recent experiences are the most memorable. This is not to say that we know the present all that well, it just means that we carry our biases with us. This can lead to odd beliefs- the idea that the world was better “back then”, that the world today is “more dangerous” than the past, while at the same time experiencing the greatest overall safety and peace of any time in history.

When we think about the past we are often disregarding anything bad that happened then while thinking only of today’s problems. Alternatively, one may forget that all that we have today is a continuum from the past.

When we look at the built environment we often look with a pair of biases- one that we have the best technology that has ever existed and can create things with a precision previously not possible. The other is that we see these old buildings filled with incredible craftsmanship and take the belief that the comparatively plain buildings of today are because we don’t have the skills that existed then.

The problem with the former view is that we don’t give the skills necessary to build the past enough credit. We think that the lack of refined tools means there couldn’t be refined products. The good thing about this is that people are fairly easy to amaze by showing them craftsmanship from the past.

A problem with the latter view is that one may not realize that the buildings still standing today are the best built structures of yesterday. There are many buildings being built today that will easily last as long as the best built in history, especially when considering comparable materials.

The reason for this is really a combination of two things- we have better technology and can create buildings that will last longer with a lower level of skill required of the people building them.

Another is that we have vastly different skill sets today; looking at the amazing structures that were built, it is hard to compare the skill sets. We don’t have many carpenters who can use a hand saw or carve a capital quickly. On the other hand, most carpenters have several motorized saws and pneumatic nailers. They don’t need to know the geometry to lay out compound cuts because they have compound saws- all they need to know is the cut angles, and most have a computer that can calculate them.

We also forget that regular people living in houses in relative comfort is a fairly recent affair. Go back a mere two hundred years and you find that the majority of people shared their houses with their precious livestock (if they were lucky enough to own livestock). The resources they could spend on shelter were very limited and the consideration of comfort was not easily afforded. Those houses are mostly gone because they couldn’t afford to hire an experienced carpenter or mason to build them.

The churches and castles, the trader’s mansions that still stand today, those buildings were constructed using slaves and conscripted labor. The cathedrals and churches benefited from the quasi-voluntary labor of the trades building for the glory of God or Allah, of Zeus or Anubis. These were labors of love and conscripted labor, and we wouldn’t want some of those skills brought back. Who wants to see someone smoothing a Granite slab floor with blocks of stone and sand?

How about those skills?

We still use most of the skills from the past today, and we have technology that allows us to use mathematics at a higher level and more commonly than at any time in the past.

What we don’t do is longhand mathematics. We don’t need to because we have computers. We have architects who design most structures, and those that are built without an architect are inspected by engineers. Cabinet makers model their projects before building them. We do more before building than ever before, and that allows us to build at a level that a mere hundred years ago was only available to the wealthy.

But, what about the skills? We still have them. They aren’t as common throughout the trades because it isn’t required to have journeymen on every job any more. How the skilled trades were diminished in the US is another long story, but suffice to say that they haven’t been eliminated; there are still carpenters who know the sacred geometry of the French Compagnons and the German Zimmermanns, who know how to build traditional Japanese buildings, and Chinese temples. There are still shipwrights who can loft a boat.

These skills are not needed for most homes. They are expensive skills acquired over many years, and most of the people who have a strong understanding of them are working on the complicated, expensive homes or in the area of restoration or conservation. They are teaching in union and specialty trade schools, or training their employees who then go spread this information.

One trick of time is that it always seems that the past or the future is better than now. It is easy to suspect that there is something missing today, but most of the time what is missing is just outside of one’s experience.


It’s been interesting to be working with various stains and finishes lately. I prefer to have specialists do finishing, but as a woodworker, we wind up doing our fair share.


Stains are (mostly) pigments or dyes.

Pigments are, essentially, solid colors ground to a very small particle and suspended in a solvent of some sort. They will soak into wood some, but basically sit on top of the surface. With open grain woods, like Oak, pigments will fill in the open grain and can enhance the grain pattern. On closed grain woods pigment stains will often wipe off, especially if the wood is sanded too smooth. This is why pigment stains contain binders- basically glue to hold the stain onto the wood.

Pigmented stains are a lot like paint, and there are some “stains” that are designed to act like paint. Arborcoat is a solid pigmented “stain” that is painted on, but not wiped off later. The binder is designed to be strong enough to hold a full film coating onto the surface.

Dyes are soluble salts that, when dissolved, are much smaller than a pigment. With closed grain woods, like Maple, a dye will react to the different grains in the wood and can enhance differences in the grain. With open grain wood the effect can by to muddy the wood as it soaks into the open pores and dyes the rest to a similar color. Dyes can be used to add much more, and more vibrant colors than pigment stains- that flamed Maple Fender Stratocaster most likely has a dye.

In general, stains are designed to color or tone wood, possibly to bring out or highlight grain patterns. Stains are then coated with a clear finish to protect the wood, and perhaps the stain, also.

Penetrating and Film Finishes

There are basically two types of finishes that are applied to wood (and stone, for that matter); Penetrating finishes and Film finishes.

Penetrating finishes are generally oils- Tung oil, Linseed oil, Flaxseed oil. The oils used to finish wood need to be stable, won’t turn rancid (start to smell), and this generally means they dry to a hard finish.

Tung oil and Linseed oil are commonly used to finish furniture, taking many, many coats with extended drying times between each coat (even with drying agents, these oils often require 12 hours between each coat). As each coat is applied (often wet-sanded or buffed between coats) it becomes glossier and harder.

Many deck coatings, such as Cabott, are penetrating oils, often with a pigment or dye in them to create a more uniform look to the deck.

Penetrating finishes cause the wood to become more moisture resistant by filling in the outer layer of the wood, causing it to become more water resistant.

Film finishes sit on top of the surface, binding to it through chemical and mechanical means. Examples of film finishes are Paints, Lacquers, Varnishes. Film coatings protect the wood by coating it in a hard surface. The benefits to film coatings are that they are continuous over the surface and do a better job of preventing water and sunlight to damage the underlying surface.

Film coatings are good in climate controlled places and on non-wearing surfaces. IE, paint is better than a penetrating finish for most walls because it doesn’t get a lot of abrasive wear. Decks generally are not painted because they quickly start to peel from wear; as the paint is cracked or scratched, water can get underneath the film and breaks the bond. Floors, which generally get a film finish these days used to only be oiled with a penetrating finish. Today we can use film finishes, but they are expensive and require extensive preparation and careful application.

Lacquers and Varnishes

There is a historical difference between these products, but as time goes by and technology advances how we can create and suspend polymers the distinction becomes more of use than of ingredients. There are water based “Varnish” products, Epoxy “Lacquer” coatings. Even the concept of a water based Lacquer requires that the ingredients be something that hardly resembles the original. So the following is a light explanation of my reading on the subjects and is based partially on my own bias and not-deep understanding.


Varnish was originally tree resins dissolved in turpentine. As the tree resin dries it hardens into a protective film.

Today most Varnishes are Alkyd resins that use mineral spirits as a solvent and linseed oil as the carrier. The benefit to Varnish originally is that it dried slowly to a very hard, thick, coating. That has been maintained as a primary difference in how Varnish is used- high solids (solids can be thought of as how much wear the product can take).


Lacquer originally referred to a resin secreted by the Lac bug. It was used extensively through Asia. Shellac is the pure resin, cleaned, and is soluble in alcohol, which makes it very easy to use. It also can be a food-grade finish, depending on how it is processed; it is sometimes used to coat apples and some candies to give them a shiny look and to prevent them from melting. Shellac dissolves in alcohol.

An interesting thing about Shellac- it has the reputation of getting “rings” from water glasses, etc., is actually the wax absorbing the water. Wax is used to protect the Shellac from scratching or dissolving should someone spill their wine or whiskey. Shellac is very brittle, scratches easily, and dissolves in alcohol- French polish’s benefits; oil to make the wood grain pop and help keep the shellac a little more plastic and wax to protect the shellac from alcohol. Shellac naturally has some wax in it, and that can cause difficulty with some finishes, and the wax gives Shellac an orange-tinge. Fortunately, it is easy to de-wax Shellac, and de-waxed Shellac is a (nearly) universal covering. It will stick to nearly anything, and just about everything sticks to it.

Today lacquer generally refers to a polymer dissolved in volatile organic compounds. The early polymer resins were Nitrocellulose, and that is still available, but is being displaced by Alkyd and Acrylic.


Okay, now what’s an Alkyd? And what is an Acrylic?

Alkyd is a Polyester made of alcohol and organic acids. Alkyds are the most common resin in “oil based” coatings. Alkyds are flexible, take color well, and last relatively well.

Acrylic is a plastic created from an acrylic acid. Lacquers mostly use an emulsified Polymethyl Acrylate. Wikipedia explains that “Acrylic resin is a general term for any one of the plastics (resin) generated through chemical reaction by applying polymerization ninitiator and heat to a monomer.”


Now that we have an idea of the fancy films, that information translates well to paint.

Latex is a rubber derived from many plants and trees. The famous “rubber trees” were first used to make tires, but other more reliable methods of creating latex quickly supplanted that. While we can buy latex gloves that have natural latex in them (which is what some people have allergic reactions to), virtually all latex paint is made of synthetic latex or vinyl.

Acrylic latex is Latex paint (that may be vinyl) with Acrylic added to create a stronger coating that wears longer and retains color better.

Solid Acrylic paints are more color stable and have better wear than Latex or Acrylic Latex paints, but the formula.

Enamel. Enamel used to be synonymous with a tinted Varnish in that it was an oil based coating that dried to a thick, hard surface. Today it is mostly a term meaning that it dries to a very hard finish. Oil based enamels are mostly Alkyd resins, while water based are Acrylic or resins. There are also Polyurethane enamels.

Polyurethane. Polyurethane coatings are a stronger plastic than Acrylic. Most automotive paints are Urethane paints, and the chemistry gets very complicated. Polyurethane paints comes in three types- Water-based, Oil-based, and Oil-modified Water-based! Like Acrylic, Polyurethane can be added to Latex paints to increase the durability, although there are some color concerns. Oil based Polyurethanes tend to yellow.

Well, that’s enough for now. More later!


Mutiny Hall

Mutiny hall was a short lived pub.

Another tap tower view
Another tap tower view

This was a classic job where at first I was just going to build the bar top and a few small boxes for the back. The job morphed into much more than that, with additional work including:

  1. Several days of demo.
  2. Framing new walls and re-framing old ones.
  3. Building up the pony wall under the bar top (which was later drilled to a shocking extent by the superintendent- an electrician who also did a lot of the plumbing on this project).

    Tap tower detail- Pomelle Bubinga surrounded by Sapele
    Tap tower detail- Pomelle Bubinga surrounded by Sapele
  4. Consulting on plumbing, etc.
  5. Building up partition walls.
  6. Platforms for raised booth areas.
  7. Wainscotting.
  8. Trim around windows.
Tap tower showing curve
Tap tower showing curve
Tap tower, installed with tpas
Tap tower, installed with tpas
Tap tower with taps
Tap tower with taps
Tap tower, ready for install
Tap tower, ready for install






















I can’t find the pictures for the paneled wall under the bar, but I still have a few of the bar top.

Bar top, outside corner
Bar top, outside corner
Bar top outside corner
Bar top outside corner
Bar top, inside corner before drink ledge added.
Bar top, inside corner before drink ledge added.
Bar top, from service edge
Bar top, from service edge


A recent project to take advantage of a house with a boat slip in the basement. A bare aluminum shell was supplied with a bare sketch of a cabinet layout, but the rest of the design and materials was left to Molior to design and install.


We ordered cabinets from Abodian to match the cabinets in the house, and then proceeded to fill in the details.


First step was to define the ceiling. We were aiming for “fishing boat chic”.


This is after the cabinets and counters were installed. The ceiling is Okubo panels with Sapele battens. The walls are upholstered panels.


The finished look from the windows at the bow.


May the bow Windows Molior created a sill with a chart of Bristol Bay made with Maple stringing, Pomelle Bubinga veneer, and a carved salmon of Walnut.


To create a standing desk Molior built a writing table box. Sapele with Pomelle Bubinga panels and drawer front and a leather top.



IMG_1119.JPGInstalling roofing- cedar shingle.  This is a plywood roof, then felt, then a layer of battens running up the slope, then skip sheathing over that.  The felt is installed with shake felt, with insect screening at the eaves and rake. IMG_1159.JPG

A shot of the roof before the rake trim detail has been added.  The black staining is a mixture of vinegar and iron oxide that causes the tannin in the wood to darken.  The same process was used on the Pine car decking floor, then a coat of polyurethane to protect it.IMG_1162.JPG

A second shot, showing the 6×6 top plate that extends out to carry the overhang.  Copper flashing was added to protect the beam.IMG_1188

Door installed and siding finished, paint still in process.IMG_1189

A closer shot, with the deck and railing nearby.  The siding and rake details of the studio match the house and the deck.IMG_1192

This is what the floor looks like after being treated with the iron & vinegar solution and a coat of polyurethane.IMG_1193

That’s how dark the shingles can get.  We added a little roof over the wood pile to keep it dry.  Hung it off the existing fence.  Matches with the studio, which is heated by a small woodstove.

Landscapes in Sight

I’ve got a funny history with landscaping.

Growing up moving all over the place, I’ve wound up doing my share of yardwork, farming, and even legitimate landscaping. When I first moved to Portland I wound up working for a while with an organic lanscaper; at first we did everything without any machinery. Lots of hand-work. It was a good experience and I learned and re-learned quite a bit about plants and groundscaping.

This project in NE Portland was not within my target market. The clients are wonderful people I had worked with before, and the project promised a certain amount of fun woodworking and building. The existing lawn didn’t drain well and was filled with a couple different water and electrical systems. We removed that, dug down between 6 & 8 inches to allow for a good layer of new soil.

I had the excavator dig the dry wells and we lined them with ground cloth before bringing in lined perforated pipes to each well, then filled them with gravel and covered that with a double layer of ground cloth.
Next the foundation for the greenhouse and curbs for the bricks was poured.
New irrigation lines were laid, as well as new low-voltage wiring and conduit to bring power to the greenhouse.
Raised garden beds built and installed, with a groundcloth lining (photos of which were incorporated into an article on how to use routers that was published in Professional Deck Builder magazine).
Then the brick was installed and grouted.

Finally, we were ready for dirt. We removed about 60 yards of soil from the lawn. It took over 100 yards to fill the lawn and build some berms, another 20 yards to fill the garden beds, and 40 yards of gravel (10 yards for the dry-wells, 10 yards of compacted 3/4- inside the greenhouse, and another 20 yards of 1/4-10 for the paths and greenhouse floor.
A 3-way mix was used for most of the fill. The berms and other planting areas had a layer of mushroom compost tilled in before planting.

We brought in the greenhouse before planting.
Then the arbor was built and installed while the small bit of sod was installed, the berms were planted, and the garden beds filled with roses and various vegetables. Oh- there is a path next to the greenhouse that isn’t easily visible in the photos that is lined with 3/16 steel rather than brick.