Hidey Holes and Hooch Hounds

A few years ago I had the great privilege of teaching bread classes in the Greystone mansion for the Institute of Domestic Technology. The mansion, located in Beverly Hills, was the most expensive home built in the 1920s. It was a gift from oil bazillionaire Edward Doheny to his son Ned Doheny. To put it mildly, things life did not go well for the family. The Doheny family almost brought down president Harding through their involvement in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal and Ned’s life ended in a mysterious murder/suicide in the house.

The grounds of the Doheny mansion are open to the public and well worth visiting. The interior is, mostly, off limits but a friendly guard gave me a tour after a bread class. The feature of the mansion that most struck me was the elaborate prohibition era hidden liquor accommodations. Ned was a notorious alcoholic and fitted out almost every room with small cabinets tucked into the walls. He even had his own bowling alley in the basement adjacent to a speakeasy cleverly hidden behind a roll up wall. Both were restored for the film There Will Be Blood.

Prohibition sparked a lot of creativity in the 1920s even among those with fewer resources than Ned Doheny. I sometimes wonder if the trend for built in ironing boards and breakfast nook benches in 1920s era homes had a dual purpose? I also wonder if we’ll see another hidden cabinet trend if marijuana prohibition returns.

In case that happens, here’s just a few clever hacks from the 1920s:

“I’m just carrying a load of bricks officer.”

Too bad everyone listens to mp3s these days.

Then there’s the flask, small and . . .

party sized.

Should you wish to make your own secret hiding places there’s a book by Charles Robinson The Construction of Secret Hiding Places that you can download for free. There’s also an Instructable showing how to turn a spray paint can into a hidden safe.

Alas, none of these ideas will foil the “hooch hound:”

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The World’s Most Beautiful Font?

The Futility Closet podcast had an interesting episode a few weeks back that told the story of the creation of what many consider to be the most beautiful font ever designed: Doves type. In 1913 the type’s creator, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, threw the typeface into the Thames rather than let it fall into the hands of his unscrupulous business partner.

Designer Robert Green spent years attempting to recreate the font. Unsatisfied with the results, he went to the bridge that Cobden-Sanderson had stood on while pitching tons of typeface. Over one hundred years later in the shallow, muddy waters at the base of the bridge, Green found enough Doves typeface to perfect his digital recreation. You can now purchase Doves font through Green’s website.

Something should also be said for Cobden-Sanderson’s bookbinding skills.

William Morris made some equally impressive printing achievements with his Kelmscott Press, a last ditch effort to hold back the tides of industrialized mediocrity. I found a list of Kelmscott Press facsimiles that you can view online including John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic : A Chapter of The stones of Venice.

Call me fuddy-duddy, but I think the Cobden-Sanderson/Morris Arts and Crafts posse have a few things left to tell us about the importance of beauty in our lives.

How to Fix a Termite Damaged Hardwood Floor

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We knew we had a severe termite problem when they made their way through the middle of our living room floor. To address the problem we had the house tented and filled with a recitation of my lesser ideas. Believe me, those termites quickly left and ran down Sunset Boulevard! When it came to fixing the floor the pest control person suggested wood putty. Ugh.

Thankfully, when I installed our floor fifteen years ago I saved some scraps for such a contingency. So here’s how to fix a hole in a wood floor without resorting to wood putty:

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1. First, carefully remove the damaged piece. You could do this with a circular saw but I used a chisel and mallet to avoid the risk of damaging the adjoining, undamaged flooring. Living in the hipster capital of the West Coast I, naturally, used a bespoke mallet I made myself. Be careful to avoid banging your chisel into a nail (this is why I used a cheap chisel rather than, say, a bespoke hand hammered one). I chiseled down the center of the damaged piece of wood and then carefully explored the edge of the wood where you’ll find nails. Once I removed most of the wood I used a small crowbar to remove the rest.

2. Next, use your chisel remove the tongue on the adjoining strip of flooring. This will make it easier to put in the replacement piece. You’ll be left with a hole in the floor that looks like this:

IMG_34243. Now place your new strip of wood next to where the damaged piece used to be. Carefully mark where you need to cut the piece. For the sake of accuracy, I’m fond of a striking knife rather than a pencil. You could also use a razor blade. You’ve probably heard the adage, “measure twice, cut once.” But this repair is a perfect example of why it’s actually best not to measure things with a ruler but instead to hold the piece to be cut up to what it needs to fit into. And for this repair, since we need a precise fit, I cut the new piece a little bit long and filed it down.

IMG_34324. You also need to remove the tongue on the replacement piece. I did this with a chisel.

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5. Once you have a good fit you can nail the new piece down with finishing nails. You will need to use a small amount of putty to hide the nails.

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If I had a larger section of floor to repair I’d rent a floor nailer which places the nails at an angle through the tongue and groove. This tools hides the nail holes and keeps the flooring snug.

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If I were installing a new floor I would highly recommend renting a pneumatic flooring nailer. Our small living room and hallway required 1,000 nails and my arm hurt for a week after using a manual nailer.

And, at the risk of ascending the saddle of my very high horse, let me use this moment to express my disdain for laminate flooring. The interwebs are full of propaganda about how laminate flooring is, “better than it used to be.” The facts are still the same: laminate flooring doesn’t look like real wood and it can’t be sanded. It’s yet another disposable item to clog our landfills along with its laminate brethren, i.e. crap from Ikea. Go ahead and eat the meatballs but please pass on the laminates.

The Return of the Ceiling Bed?

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The irony of using an iPad to access 19th and early 20th century literature is not lost on me, but I’m really enjoying reading original source material from the Arts and Crafts and bungalow movement. Deep in the pages of Bungalow Magazine I found an ad for the Murphy bed’s forgotten competitor, the Sorlien ceiling bed.

US1065740-1The Sorlien company’s contraption hides the bed in the ceiling rafters. As you can see in Sorlien’s 1913 patent, you lower the bed via a crank in the wall. Weights, also hidden in the wall, counterbalance the bed. Folding legs on the bottom of the bed deploy like landing gear on a UFO so that you’re not swinging from a chain all night (although that sounds kinda fun).

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Wait, they did that in the 1970s. But I digress.

Sorlien’s invention never caught on and the company diversified into tent trailers. But it appears that the tiny house folks have revived the ceiling bed idea.

Sears Modern Home blog has more information on the Sorlien bed.

I Made a Mallet

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Kelly and I have done a lot of crazy how-to projects, mostly just for the sake of doing crazy how-to projects but, occasionally, in the service of this blog or our books. Lately, I’ve been thinking of paring down our disparate activities to only the most useful. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the skill I need most would be carpentry/woodworking.

We live in a small, nearly 100 year old house that needs constant work and I’m the incompetent building supervisor. Any tradesperson who knows what they are doing will not take small jobs at our house so I often have to do things myself. Why it didn’t occur to me sooner is a mystery, but I’ve realized my carpentry powerlessness and the need to seek out a higher power that can only be found in the form of a shop class.

So I build a mallet in the course of an entertaining three week class at Community Woodshop. Even their safety orientation was full of useful information and hands-on learning. The mallet class was a great way to pick up skills involving measurement, sharpening, the use of hand tools and elementary joinery (mortise and tenon). Because it was just a mallet I didn’t feel attached to the outcome. In fact, the more mistakes I made in the presence of the instructor, the more I think I learned. I’m kind of glad I broke tenon just so I could learn how it could be fixed and the mistake hidden. I also learned that much of woodwork is paradoxically about metal work: the use and maintenance of metal tools.

I’ve done a lot of carpentry over the years such as building sheds, chicken coops, laying floors, repairing joists and hanging molding. I’ve done this all with hand held power tools. But I have very limited experience with chisels and planes as well as shop machines such as table saws and bandsaws. And I’ve never paid enough attention to the details.

Kelly is thrilled with my attempt to, ever so slightly, raise the quality of work around the casa. What I learned about sharpening and hand plane use already paid off in an unexpected application: fixing a broken window.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area there are three places to take woodworking classes that I know of: Allied Woodshop, Community Woodshop and Ceritos Community College. I hear that the folks at Allied Woodshop are soon to open a business selling wood from locally felled urban trees. There are a lot of exotic trees in LA, so it will be interesting to see what people do with results of LA’s poor tree maintenance.