Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 147, November 2017Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• Not Strictly "Woodworking"
Epoxy For Woodworking
Peculiar Grace

Not Strictly "Woodworking"

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Figure 1 - My barn "plan" where each square represents one foot and I used this just to
work up a materials list
Building a barn is not necessarily in the realm of what we commonly understand to be "woodworking," but in the strictest interpretation, I am "working with wood." The wood not being beautifully prepared maple, walnut, cherry, or ash, my favorite mediums, but wood in the confusing, misleading, and nebulous category called "hem-fir" in not-so-beautiful not-so-prepared dimensional sizes of 2 X 6, 2 X 8, 2 X 10, etc. Twist, wind, bow, and warp are the norm… "make allowances for it and get over it" is my new mantra.

There are no plans for the barn I am building. I've got one piece of paper with some doodles and notes that I used to figure out how much and what sizes of lumber to order, but that is it… this is truly a "make-it-up as you go along," "fly by the seat of your pants" exercise. But it will be okay because this is not my first barn, and hopefully not my last. I had a general size in mind, which of course I changed as site preparation ensued. I decided to make it a little larger than I had originally envisioned. I had a general idea of where I would place the openings, the direction the roof line would run, and the rise and run, or slope, of the roof, but that, too, was not finalized until a bit further along.

Figure 2 - The posts are set onto level pads, securely braced in position, and the
holes filled with concrete

For a full month, weather permitting, I dug, moved dirt, and leveled the site. Some with a backhoe, some with a frontend loader, and much of the work by hand. From the high ground point in the northeast corner of the site to the lowest point at the southwest corner, the grade changed about three feet. Good for natural drainage, bad for an aging back. The site was relatively clear, but surrounded by trees, many of whose roots had decided over a century or more to grow not only to probable, incredible depths, but also to form an almost impenetrable interlaced layer just beneath the surface of the soil. An axe, a chainsaw, and a giant pair of limb loppers are not tools you normally think of when digging, but they were indispensable.

At grade, in the northeast corner, I dug to 12-inch depth, in theory to accommodate 4 inches of compacted stone and 8 inches of concrete bringing the slab to level with the surrounding soil. The opposite corner, I filled with clay and compacted tightly to bring the level up. I also used some rubble stone, some broken concrete pavers, and some other permanent detritus to fill in the low area.

With the site as level as possible, I began digging holes for the posts that would form the frame of my pole barn. A post hole digging attachment on my tractor got me about two-thirds of the way to my target depth of 48 inches, the rest had to be done by hand. A gambler would lay odds that in at least one hole a major stone would block my digging path, and of course, it did. It was more of a boulder than a stone, and by the time I dug around it far enough to get it out, that post hole was almost three feet in diameter.

Figure 3 - Forms under construction and 6 mil poly over the compacted soil

In the bottom of each hole I poured a concrete pad, each pad meticulously leveled with every other pad using a story stick and a laser level. The intention here was to provide a level base on which each post would sit, thereby making the tops of every post level with one another. Trimming a post to level height while balancing on a ladder some 10 feet in the air is not much fun. With all the post holes sporting an absolutely level base, setting the posts was pretty straightforward. Get the post in the hole, square it to the string layout, brace it in position, and pour in the concrete. After the cement cured for a couple of days, I used a laser level to measure the tops of the posts and all were sticking up in the air an equal amount, only one was "off" and that by a mere 3/16-inch… unacceptable by any furniture-making standard, but in barn building, that small discrepancy might be considered "perfect."

Figure 4 - The only place to dump gravel was in the northwest corner, so it all had
to be spread by hand

With the posts set in place, I proceeded to build the forms for the concrete, then covered the ground with 6 mil plastic and poured in nine cubic yards of crushed limestone. The brevity of that sentence makes the task seem easy, but in reality, it was not. There was only one access point at which to dump gravel into the site, so it all had to be spread by hand. My tractor's frontend loader attachment will only carry roughly a third of a cubic yard at a time, so there were a lot of trips from my driveway in front of the house to the barn site some two hundred yards behind the house.

Figure 5 - The leaves are starting to fall... Rebar on the perimeter, wire mesh in the middle.
Take a guess what the rectangular form near the southwest corner is for...
I'll bet you never guess it!

After the gravel was in place and reasonably leveled with a homebuilt scree, I gave it, and me, a few days to "rest." Each day I wet the crushed stone lightly. A few days later I rented a large plate compactor and spent a blissful 6 hours with Bose noise-canceling headphones filling my head with doom, gloom, and diatribe from my favorite talk radio station, while I mindlessly marched back and forth, to and fro, across the gravel. By luck or grace, my mental calculations proved right, and after compacting there was exactly 7-1/2 to 8 inches of space from the top of the gravel to top of the forms. Almost ready for concrete.

Figure 6 - A little more bracing on the form boards and ready to pour!
Next came the rebar. Cutting, bending, wiring together bits of heavy metal rod was cathartic in a way. Sort of like the final sanding before starting to apply the finish on a piece of furniture. The end was in sight, the goal appeared finally attainable, and it was possible to start thinking about the "next big step." But…

…Knowing what one can do and can't do… being comfortable in our own skin… is a gift with which I am not naturally blessed. It has been a struggle all my life. For some reason, I think that I should either be able to do, or able to learn to do, anything. I have poured small concrete slabs in the past, mixed concrete for more post holes than I can remember, and have even made a set of concrete steps, but a slab of this size and thickness was a daunting prospect, so, finally succumbing to the reality that I am neither skilled enough nor experienced enough when it comes to concrete, I hired a real concrete professional and his crew to do the pour and the finishing. I am glad I did.

He stopped by one day to inspect my forms, and much to my relief, deemed them satisfactory. However, he felt that the forms needed some additional bracing, telling me, as if it were a revelatory secret, "Concrete is heavy." No kidding. He also deemed my rebar and wire mesh reinforcement adequate, so he scheduled the pour for a few days later.

Figure 7 - The concrete truck and the power buggy... time to test the slump

The concrete had to be transported to the site in a big gasoline powered concrete buggy. The crew had that, and all the other tools (all of which I would have had to buy or rent), but most importantly, they had the expertise. Amazingly, just four hours after they arrived at the site, the concrete was poured, dressed, and curing, and the crew was packing up to leave. Watching them work was fascinating and a bit humbling, as I realized that I have so much to learn. As testament to the humbling aspect, I will digress just a bit with two short examples.

Figure 8 - A lucky snap of the camera was able to catch the concrete flowing
out of the power buggy

When the truck full of concrete pulled up in front of my house, the crew had the transport buggy in place and ready to go. The owner of the company had the truck driver dump a bit of concrete in the buggy. He watched it as it flowed, then yelled at the driver to add one gallon of water. One gallon of water in a 10 cubic yard load of concrete! I watched as the driver mixed, then dumped another sample, and I could see the difference. My concrete contractor could read the "slump" of the concrete just by looking, and knew exactly what to do to amend the mix and make it perfect. Amazing!

Figure 9 - A power scree leaves a beautiful level surface

As the crew was nearing the completion of their work, I asked if they were going to put in control joints. The boss told me, "No." He said they would come back the next day and use a concrete saw to put in control joints. When I asked why, he explained that since I was building the barn for my tractor, I was also likely to do some maintenance work in the barn. If I used a creeper to get under my tractor, the small wheels on the creeper would get easily hung up on the large radius of a control joint made with a grooving tool. With a sawn control joint, the wheels of a creeper will roll right over. I would have never thought of that. If ever there was a case to be made for the experience of a professional, this was it.

Figure 10 - My little ramp looks amateurish
compared to what the pros did, but it will
hopefully be fine
As the concrete continued to cure for a few days, I built a small form for a ramp into the barn where I will drive my tractor in and out. This I did pour myself, and while not quite as pretty as the work done by the professionals, it is serviceable. With that done, I was able to begin removing the forms and filling in around the slab. I used more crushed stone, some small pea gravel, then clay from the original excavation work, then good top soil, 8 cubic yards of it.

Finally, with the slab and groundwork done, I was able to start working with wood, a more natural and comfortable exercise. Up to this point the only "woodworking" I had done was building the forms for the concrete. The first step was to get rafter braces/joists around the perimeter. These are made of doubled 2 X 10s set into notches in the tops of the posts and bolted on. The 2 X 10s are also face-nailed together, much as you might do with a header above a door frame.

Working alone with 16-foot long 2 X 10s and mounting them to posts 10 feet off the ground, is an exercise in creative avoidance of injury, to say the least, but it is possible to accomplish with clamps, 2 X 4 braces, and a good ladder. The next step is to cut and install the rafters, so this might be a good place to stop this story for now. Next month I will tell you how I used the Festool HKC 55 EB Lithium Ion powered Track Saw and FSK420 track to make quick work of cutting perfect rafters and the cordless Carvex PSBC 420 Jigsaw to cut the bird mouth in each.

Figure 11 - The finished slab there in the dappled sunlight with a smattering of leaves is
almost a work of art... okay, that's ridiculous. At least now I can finally start
working with wood!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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