How to Size a Breakfast Nook Table

There exists a long list of bedeviling problems outside the short attention span of our mainstream cultural gatekeepers who busy themselves with such frivolities as “how do we get to mars?” and “what’s Justin Bieber tweeting about?” Readers of this blog have more important concerns such as how to keep tomatoes alive or how to justify some ridiculously complex project such as liming your own corn for homemade masa or distilling your own essential oils whilst your household comrades complain about the tardiness of dinner.

Our long list of unsolvable problems at the Root Simple compound includes such things as bad posture, contaminated soils, middle age paunch and, of course, squirrels. But I can proudly say that we can cross one small dilemma off the list of east of Eden indignities: I can reveal the secret to how to size your breakfast nook table.

If you have an enclosed breakfast nook like we do, you should make your table three quarters the size of the bench. You should also put some sliders on the bottom of the table so that you can push the table back and forth to make it easier to get in and out of. This conclusion comes from 20 years of horrific breakfast nook sizing mistakes. Our first table was the same length of the bench. It was difficult to get in and out of and caused considerable complaints. Version 2.0 of the table was considerably shorter. So short, in fact, as to be useless.

A lightbulb went off in my head when I discovered this table in the 1925 Pacific Ready-Cut home catalog. Not only did it seem just the right proportion but it also had a interesting, if gimmicky, hinge to make it easy to slide side to side.

Having set up a new wood shop I set out to make a new table top and used a base that I found in an alley. Rather than that strange hinged mechanism I just used plastic sliders on the bottom of the table to make it easy to move the table back and forth. I chose hard maple and included breadboard ends for a traditional look. Flattening the table top was an excuse to learn how to use hand planes, the bicycle of tools in that they are simple, elegant and capable of saving the world (also like bicycles in that people seem to have weird hangups about them). Between the planing and the joinery, it was so much work that I wished that I had opened my wallet a bit more and chosen a more interesting wood at the lumberyard.

Now with the ease of moving into the breakfast nook I can sit, look out the window and contemplate a thousand more projects and the ever present riddle of the squirrel.

Lessons from the 2018 Theodore Payne Garden Tour

The gardening equivalent of Beyoncé’s triumphant 2018 Coachella performance took place on the very same weekend. Theodore Payne’s annual garden tour reunited pollinator friendly plantings, low water use and great design in a sort of horticultural equivalent of the return of Destiny’s Child. Lush and traditional garden design even made a Jay-Z like cameo appearance at the stunning stunning Wilson/Leach garden in Altadena (seen above). Native plants gardens in Southern California don’t have to look like a desert!

An ad in the back of the tour brochure neatly summed up the vibe:

In: Architecture-Enhancing Designs Out: Boring Expanses of Lawn
In: Vibrant Climate-Compatible Blooms Out: Stuffy Rows of Annuals
In: Lush, Leafy Native Foliage Out: Heat-Amplifying Gravelscape
In: Materials that Go with the Flow Out: Stiff, Straight Patios/Drives
In: Taking Design Appeal to the Curb Out: Conformist Parkways
In: Enjoying your garden

The big takeaway for me from the garden tour this year was that sometimes you’ve got to call in a garden design professional unless you have a knack for design (and I don’t). Our ticket contest winner (who gave us the most beautiful basket of home grown fruits and preserves ever–thank you Donna!) came to the same conclusion.

We’ve hired a designer, which is why our backyard looks like a strip mine:

A crew took out an ugly concrete patio last week and has been digging down to lower the level of the new patio they will install. The old patio was above the level of the sill plate and was causing the back part of the house to rot. I’ll post more in-progress photos over the next few months. We’re also working on the inside of the house. When all is done we hope to have some events here and open up the house for idling and entertaining.

If you can’t afford a crew to do the work you can, at the very least, hire a designer to do a consultation and offer some suggestions. I really wish we had done this 20 years ago when we bought this place!

News From Around the Root Simple Compound

This week a crew will descend on our backyard to begin phase one of a backyard landscaping reboot. First they will break out the word’s ugliest concrete patio and remove the infamous grape arbor, a.k.a. rat canopy. Then they will dig down to adjust the grading at the back of the house so that water flows away not towards the house.

I struggle for words to fully describe the ugliness of this concrete patio. It’s a cracked abomination made of red tinted concrete with a layer of flaking gray paint. It’s the first thing you see when you exit the back door and it’s driven me nuts for years. Our contractor likes to reuse concrete but but I doubt this stuff is savable. He plans to replace it with a new patio made of broken concrete. Then he’ll replace the arbor with a more carefully constructed one minus the grapes.

Meanwhile, in the workshop, I’ve had a kind of awakening to the use of hand planes. They’ve been in use for thousands of years and don’t send you push notifications or collect your most private thoughts or “likes.” In addition to using those hand planes to finish a new kitchen table, I’ve been experimenting with the oddball practice of fuming oak. Full report when the projects are finished.

And, yes, we’re really late with the next episode of the podcast. I’m on it.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Open Floor Plan

In a stunning bit of hypocrisy, we’re busy making the floor plan of our house a bit more open in spite of our rants and raves about the practice. Allow me to explain.

Many years ago, when I installed our living room floor, I pulled up a baseboard and discovered that the wall between the living room and bedroom was of recent vintage. What we now use as a bedroom was originally a sitting room or dining room. And the two closets that share a wall between the two bedrooms used to be one big closet with a window. The window is visible from the outside but plugged up on the inside.

I’m pretty sure that the house we live in was a kit offered by the Pacific Ready Cut company. Style #48 in the 1925 Pacific Ready-Cut catalog closely resembles our floor plan with the dining room and living room flipped and the closet in a different orientation.

We have a kind of rule about home remodeling at our house: if it’s missing we replace it, if it’s broken we repair it. I like that our house is one of the few bungalows in our neighborhood that managed to escape the horrors of post-WWII remodeling trends. Restoring the original dining room and putting the closet back to the way it used to be will be the final major work we plan to do on this house.

Why bother with a meticulous early-20th century re-do when current design trends dictate that everything shalt look like Dwell Magazine? At the risk of sounding like Prince Charles, I’m just not a fan of post-1940s vernacular architecture. I like a house that looks like 1920 both on the outside and the inside. This puts me in cranky territory.

The professional gatekeepers of the architectural and design worlds would hold that you can’t go back to some golden era of the past. And yet, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that something is wrong with the way things are. The problem reminds me of what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “ratchet effect,” the idea that once you learn something (such as modernism and post-modernism) you can’t un-learn it. I don’t have an answer to this conundrum and I could also go on to site Jurgen Habermas haunting speech “An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age,” but that would delay all the work I’ve got to do over the coming month.

Clearly it’s time to put the philosophy books down and do some “deconstruction” with my new Harbor Freight reciprocating saw.

Stickley’s #603 Taboret

There are many things I should be doing other than meticulously constructing my own copy of Gustav Stickley’s #603 Tabouret.  I could be writing a new book or magazine article, replying to emails, paying bills, lining up contractors for overdue home repair projects or filing the stack of papers growing around my computer.

Tabouret in progress awaiting sanding, glue-up and finish.

Instead, I’m taking a tip I learned from some of the creative people I’ve worked for and known in the past. Their work habits, if you call them “work” or “habits” seemed to consist of letting all the “important stuff” go to hell while pursuing some arcane, overly complex and silly project. While the Stickley’s #603 Tabouret is not really complex, it has occupied way too much of my time in the past two weeks and I haven’t even gotten to all the possible confusing finishing options.

By way of excuse let me suggest that with screen time averaging 10 hours a day for the average American, perhaps 2018 is the year we all might consider taking up a few arcane, overly complex and silly projects. It could be sewing, gardening or any other activity that takes us away from our phones and slows us down.

Now I’ve got to get away from this screen and start cracking on that finish . . .