A wide view of the cation, showing a fuller view of the back of the house.

The catio!

I have cats. Two cats, in fact, which is objectively the correct number of cats – they keep each other entertained, but there aren’t enough of them to start conspiring against you in any major way. Also they can both sit on me at the same time. Anyway, cats! A while back, I built the cat tree, which is still getting daily use.

A recent photo of Pixel and Chaucer on the cat tree.

They love the cat tree, partially because it lets them look out the window to the backyard, where they can see all the birds and chipmunks and squirrels and other wildlife they would like to eat. So I started thinking that perhaps they would like to experience the outdoors a little more directly – but I’m not going to let them run free to actually eat all those various animals, or to get run over by a car. So I started investigating catios. Basically, outdoor cages for cats, that connect to the house somehow so they can go in or out as they please. Some people enclose their entire patio to make it cat-friendly, others do a simple window ledge so that the cat can get some fresh air. I decided I wanted to do the window-ledge version, and besides, I had a lot of scrap wood that needed to be used in a project.

With the goal of using up scrap wood came my dimensions – I had five tongue-and-groove boards left over from the porch ceiling project, so that gave me the depth (a bit more than 14″), and I needed a bit more width to span the window I was working with, so I added on a one-by six to each end, making my full span of floor exactly 70″, which, when combined with a roof overhang of 1″, brought the final length to exactly six feet.

The frame construction was basically a lot of lengths of 2x2s, held together with deck screws, with a 1×3 frame for the roof. I built the sides individually so that I didn’t have to try to carry the whole frame up from my basement workshop, so the floor was one piece, then the front, then the sides and then the roof. In this photo they’re just dry-fitted together to make sure they all fit:

A wooden catio frame on a concrete floor..

The weird wavy boards at the bottom of the photo are part of the roof construction, the one thing I did actually go buy separately. Rather than letting the rain in, I added a polycarbonate roof – which was definitely the biggest hassle of the construction process, as it required a lot of predrilling for the screws.

I didn’t take a lot of photos of construction, but here you can see the wall brackets I screwed into my brick house to hold the whole thing up:

A window, mid-construction, with the floor of the catio supported by two white wooden brackets.
The catio, now with the floor and sides attached. You can faintly see the wire fencing that keeps the cat in.

I built the structure in parts, so in that shot, the floor is attached, and in this next one, I’ve added the sides. You can also see the wire fencing that I used to keep the cat inside – it’s 2″x4″ metal fence, which used to be attached to make the chain link fence in my backyard higher. My neighbor has since built a taller, wooden fence that made the wire fencing obsolete, so I repurposed a chunk of it for this. Lots of fun cutting with a Dremel, and then painting with Rustoleum paint – it actually came out much better than it had any right to.

Anyway, so they I put on the front and the top, and then the roof. To give the cats access, I added a cat door to my window, much like a window air conditioner – the window just closes on the panel that holds the cat door, and the cats go in and out without too much air exchange.

The completed catio, with the cat flap visible in the window.

Pixel LOVES it. He spends time out there every morning and afternoon, and particularly likes near dawn – I think there’s more animal activity then, and I’m always asleep and therefore very boring at that time. Chaucer is much more cautious, and has ventured out a couple of times, but is much more content to stay indoors and watch the birds from a safe vantage point behind the glass.

A view from inside the house out through the catio, with Pixel looking very intent in the foreground.

So it’s a very successful catio – gives the cats an outdoor option, used up some scrap wood, and doesn’t look too terrible from the outside, either!

Austria, 2015-2016

My trip started with a flight from San Antonio to Houston on a tiny plane, and then a flight from Houston to Munich, on which we were served dinner, expected to sleep, and then five hours later were awoken for breakfast. Sleeping on planes is not a skill I have, so by the time we landed in Munich, I was pretty tired, and it was 10 am. I met up with Maria, a juggler I knew from Wisconsin Pass-out this summer, in the Munich airport train station- we took the metro to the west station in Munich, got our train to Salzburg, changed trains and got to Linz. We had two hours until the next bus to Konigsweisen, so we got hot chocolate and checked email, to discover Frank and Juli were going to be going through Linz in about half an hour with space for two people in their car. Maria called them, and they stopped to get us – much better than the bus!

Konigsweisen is a tiny town – 3000 people. The Austrian countryside is beautiful, with lots of tiny groups of houses and such. Karlingerhaus seems to usually host school groups or camp-type things – they’re a little confused by us, but seem to think we’re polite enough. I found a bed in a room with seven beds, but only five were occupied – though one of those snored. Ah well, I had earplugs for a reason.

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Lighting the porch

It seems like whenever I start a project like this, I have very few opinions about certain elements, and then I end up with very strong opinions. Some parts, I know from the beginning how I want them to turn out, while other parts only get my focus when there’s no other choice. The lighting for the front porch was definitely one of the latter types. There was an existing flush-mount fixture on the front porch which I had only noticed when I had to take it down and put up the Moravian star at Christmastime. I’d sort of assumed I would just put it back up once I got the ceiling done, but the more I looked at it, the less I liked it. I had some idea that I might find another fixture that matched the outdoor post lamp at the top of my stairs, but after searching through hundreds of options online, I still hadn’t found anything I liked. So then I started thinking about other styles entirely.

I’ve always loved the lights at Christmastime – the little white decorative string lights that so many people put on their houses are gorgeous, to me – they’re fun and casual and festive, and they’re great. What if I could do something like that, but have them year-round? I quickly realized that the tiny string lights are mostly not meant for permanent use, but there is an alternative – the kind of string lights restaurants use around their patios or other outdoor spaces. Bigger bulbs, but keeping the casual, fun vibe. So I found a heavy-duty set of string lights, 48 ft long, and got LED Edison-bulb style lamps for it. At first I was thinking I’d just run them around the perimeter of the porch, but then realized that they’d have to start in the middle since that’s where the fixture attaches, so I should create a criss-cross pattern instead. So with 15 small cup hooks, I put up a symmetrical crossing pattern of lights that illuminates my porch perfectly, and even leaves me with an end to attach the Moravian star to when Christmas comes around.

Painting the porch ceiling

Now that the new boards were all in, it was time to scrape the old boards of all their loose paint and then paint the entire ceiling. Scraping shipping paint off of tongue-and-groove over my head turned out to be a process I had very little patience for, so after a very cursory process involving several hours on consecutive evenings, I decided to embrace the bumpiness of old paint as adding character, and went ahead and primed the whole surface. Painting ceilings isn’t that terrible, as long as you have an extension handle for your roller, and a comfortable brush for getting into all of the grooves. My ceiling took three coats – one of primer, and two of exterior paint. I’d originally planned to paint it a light blue, but the paint I was going to use (leftover from the front door) had gone bad, and I realized I wasn’t particularly interested in drawing attention to my porch ceiling, so simple white actually made more sense.

The Dump

This is the first project I’ve had that’s made enough trash to need a trip to the dump. My kitchen demolition was bigger, of course, but my contractor dealt with all the debris from that, to my great relief. For the porch, I’d just made a pile of junk – the four old posts, all the vinyl from the ceiling and surround, and all the railings, plus the pieces of ceiling I took out. It was a pretty impressive pile, and it couldn’t stay on my porch forever. My city gives you two free dump trips as a resident, so I applied for the pass and planned to head out early on Saturday to get rid of the junk.

I borrowed my mom’s car (again – thanks mom!), and loaded it up. Loading it took almost an hour – some of the pieces were pretty heavy, and it took some careful stacking to get it all in. Drove (carefully) out to the landfill, which is about 20 minutes from my house, got to go through the “cars and SUVs” line, bypassing the much longer “trucks and trailers” line, then with a little assistance from the guys directing traffic, backed the car up to a metal ledge leading to very large dumpster. It only took about 10 minutes to unload the car, with a few moments of glee as I shoved a 50-pound chunk of railing over the edge to land with a resounding thump. Once the car was empty, I returned it to my parents’ house and headed home to enjoy my newly clear porch – or rather, to install the rest of my porch ceiling, now without the massive tripping hazard I’d previously been working around.

Repairing a rotten tongue and groove ceiling

This part is the story of how I did this repair badly and then went back and did it right. My initial plan was to just cut off the boards that were rotted and replace them with new boards.

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The flaw in this plan is that tongue and groove is typically installed so that no two boards end at the same place, so having a section of boards all the same length was really conspicuous.

The other flaw in this plan is that modern tongue and groove is not the same width nor thickness as the tongue and groove that was installed on my porch in 1953 when they built the house. So not only did the boards look odd because they all ended at one spot, they also had some awkward gaps to try to make up the difference in width.

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Repairing and repainting porch posts and railings

This project should take: a bit of wood filler, a good outdoor primer and outdoor paint, a small brush for all the corners, and maybe a roller if there are enough flat surfaces to warrant it. For me, this project has taken: a large amount of brute force, a crowbar, a post jack, borrowing a bigger car, use of my dad’s table saw, my router… okay, let me back up. On one of the first lovely weekends this spring, I decided to tackle repairing and repainting my front porch posts and railing. One of the posts had seemed a little loose last fall when I was grinding the floor around it, so along with my paint supplies, I gathered some bits of wood to shim it up and got started. An important detail – my porch posts are wrapped in aluminum sheathing, and the ceiling and upper surfaces of the porch are covered in vinyl siding. So my first attempt was just to shove a shim under the edge of the wobbly post. This didn’t work very well – it was hard to get the shim under the aluminum edge, but once it was under, it seemed to do nothing at all. So I went to get the crowbar and pry the aluminum off of the post so I could see what was happening. And when I did that, I found a crumbly mess.

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Yes, the post was rotted. Not holding up any weight whatsoever. Not something I can fix with a shim. Time to learn how to replace a porch post, it seems! I also went ahead and peeled the covering off the other posts, and discovered that three out of the four were rotting. So now the project had become replacing all four porch posts. Once I started peeling aluminum off, though, I kept going, taking down the entire porch ceiling as well. And there I discovered that the ceiling underneath was tongue and groove – with some peeling paint, but a pretty nice ceiling… except for the part near the door, where there had obviously been a roof leak, and the ceiling had rotted. Awesome. So forget the quick repainting job, it’s now time to rebuild the porch! This includes replacing all the porch posts, railings, part of the ceiling, and I still need to paint the floor eventually too. Continue reading

Removing porch floor paint

Way back in August 2013 I wrote “Ignore the peeling paint on the porch floor, that’s a project for another day…” at the end of a post about repainting my front door. That was indeed a project for another day… about a year later. So, fall 2014, I started scraping the paint off of my front porch floor. The porch itself is concrete, but had been painted (I think) red originally, and then gray after that. Both those layers of paint were peeling, though, because once a little concrete is exposed, water can get behind the paint, and then the whole thing peels.

I started by taking a paint scraper to it, and discovered very quickly that while I could get some large chunks of paint up, other bits were stuck very firmly and weren’t going anywhere.

Time for power tools! I tried my palm sander first, with some very rough sandpaper. That was… not effective, pretty much at all. Continue reading

Basement door reversal

I have another invisible house success to check off my list – I finally reversed the basement door! I’ve lived in this house for four years, and the basement door swings the wrong direction – it swings out, over the stairs, so if you’re coming inside from the basement/garage, you have to stand on the third step down, open the door towards yourself, and then continue up the stairs. This is entirely against all building codes, not to mention common sense. I know why they did it – if it swings into the kitchen, it interacts with both the back door and the doorway into my studio. But I never use the back door, and I don’t mind it blocking the studio doorway for a moment.

So over the weekend I spent 4 hours to switch the door: taking the door down, re-chiseling the hinge spaces on the door and the doorframe, hanging the door and sanding down a couple spots so it would actually close, re-setting the strike plate, and finally reattaching all the trim for the doorstop. This involved a router for the hinge recesses, plus a chisel to make sharp corners, a sander to shave down the edge of the door, a drill for all the new holes, and a vacuum cleaner to deal with all the sawdust I created. Power tools are the best. Also, wrestling a door into place alone is not an experience I would recommend to anyone (particularly if said door leads to a flight of stairs), but I succeeded in re-hanging it anyway. And now I have a door that opens in the correct direction!

Fixing details, building a coat rack.

When I redid the kitchen, there were a couple of things I just didn’t think about – I hadn’t really considered whether having a phone jack where there had always been a phone jack made any sense, since I don’t use a landline. I also ended up removing two wall outlets, because I built a banquette seat over them. But that phone jack has just stayed on the wall, empty and useless, for two years now. So I figured, maybe it’s time to remove that. And while I was going to be patching wall, maybe I should fix the outlet in the living room, and take out the phone jack that’s attached to a baseboard in there, and maybe even move the coat hook rail that’s placed in such a way that it covers up a lightswitch, leading guests to have no idea how to turn off the living room light. Don’t you love project creep? My one little phone jack removal suddenly became four different little projects. But that was fine – at least I’d only have to get the wall paint out once.

So I took out the phone jacks, and replaced the outlet, and took down the coat hook rail, and patched all the holes. And then I went to put the coat hook rail up in a new spot, and realized that the 4-hook rail I had looked kind of puny in the new place. I figured a bigger one in the same style probably existed, so I’d just go buy that. What I had was dark wood with dark bronze hooks, which I liked well enough. But after visiting three different stores, all I could find in the store were white with white hooks, dark wood with chrome hooks, or white with bronze or chrome hooks. (If you had asked me before yesterday if I cared about the finish colors on my coat rack, I would have laughed at you. Now I suddenly have very strong opinions.) BUT! Home Depot had individual hooks, including nice dark bronze ones. And I have a lot of scrap wood and a lovely clean workbench. So I bought five hooks and brought them home, and spent a couple hours cutting a piece of wood to the right size, sanding the old varnish off it, routing the edges, and staining it. Of course, then the stain needed to dry, so I had to wait a day to seal it with polyurethane.

In the meantime, I painted all the spackled spots where I’d fixed holes in the walls, which look great. The next day, I was going to poly my coat hook rail… but it turned out my poly container didn’t get closed fully the last time I used it, so it was a solid instead of a liquid. Oops. That provoked another trip to the home improvement store – luckily, I also decided to test out one of the hooks to see how it would look on the rail, and discovered that I had to buy shorter screws as well, since the ones that came with the hooks were too long – they’d go all the way through the rail, not just into it. Unhelpful! One trip to Lowe’s later, I had liquid poly and screws of the correct length. So after sealing the rail and installing the hooks, I could hang the coat rack on the wall, and hang all my coats back up. This whole project was the kind of thing that no one else will ever notice, but makes me happier with my house in general.