The entranceway to our house was crumbling and unsafe. The deck had been built over a decade before, using unsealed non-decking lumber over a small concrete porch. With zero maintenance and miles of footsteps, it been left to break down under nature’s force. We’d patched the stairs a few times, but we also knew that any of the surface boards could give way. Rot and water damage was a real concern. Large cracks and crevices were causing bends in formerly straight boards. There was too much give. Bounce where there shouldn’t be. We might accidently hurt someone. We needed to act.
After a few months’ conversation, weeks of planning, and 2 days of hard work, we rebuilt the entry deck leading into the house. The foundation was strong, but the entire frame and surface needed to be replaced. It was one of our first major projects together as an engaged couple and we learned a lot about how to work together and how to approach a team project. With the finished deck in sight (we’ll need to seal and stain in a few weeks), we consider the project a huge success.
While reflecting on the job afterward, we realized we had each learned things that would make future projects easier to approach and things we wanted to share with our readers. We are Sunshine and the Scientist, after all, and we have scientific and growth minded ways of looking at everything, especially in reflection. Please note, neither of us is a licensed carpenter and we only know as much as we’ve read, seen, or experienced. Consult an expert with actual construction concerns.
Here are the biggest takeaways…
About Construction for Novices
- Mind all dimensions of wood when choosing lumber for purchase. Standard sizing varies based on wood type and year of manufacture. Length, width, and depth are all important considerations.
- It is an unprecedently expensive time to buy lumber. The global pandemic caused lumber manufacturing to cease, alongside many other industries. The housing market, is currently booming – new construction is peaking with such low loan interest rates and many homes are being refurbished in a sellers’ market. Home renovations are peaking as well. It would seem with available time, homeowners spending time at home have decided to make all the upgrades they’ve been dreaming of. All this is to say, lumber is in demand. It is available at a premium, but it is and has been flying off the shelf. The idea of a “perfect” board is likely unlikely, so if you’re buying lumber for decking, you may need to make some concessions regarding perfect finishings.
- Write out everything you’ll need to complete the project to cut down on shopping time and minimize forgetful moments. We found ourselves in the home store many times during this project, likely two times too many times. We had the drill – but did we have the drill bit? Did the drill bit match the screws we were planning to use? Would this bit handle all of the screws we needed, or should we have back up? Would we want an extra post for support? What kind of braces would the posts require? Did the framing need to be replaced, or just the surface boards? How many paintbrushes for the stain? How many containers of stain? These are all questions we could have asked ahead of time and answered with relative ease.
- Use the right tool for the job. Do the research ahead of time and invest in a good set of tools – or rent them from the store – or borrow them. Watch online videos, buy a methods book, or talk to an expert for advice. Don’t be like me and insist that a reciprocating saw can do the job of a table saw, only to mutilate a piece of wood and your ego in the process. Spend what’s needed on the right materials too – the right blades, the right fasteners, the right drill bits, and the right kind of wood. Having extra nails and drill bits might seem silly, but it feels sillier to have to return to the store for a $10 item in the middle of the work process.
- Know the dimension of your vehicle when you’re planning to transport wood, and bring a red flag for safety and moving blankets for the car’s interior. Most places that sell lumber will also have twine available, but always ask for help in securing wood in or on the vehicle if there is any question of safety.
- Budget 50% more time than anticipated if you’re novice, and split the project into manageable pieces so as not to leave something critical unfinished. Life gets in the way, even if you’re working at the top speed. Something will get measured incorrectly. A board will be slightly warped. A screw will refuse to yield. The weather will play you. Lunch is a consideration. Shopping time at the store might take a lot longer than you expect. Unless you’ve built a few decks, plan to be building for longer than you plan to be building.
- Measure twice, cut once. This is just great advice from my dad that always comes in handy. Mark the wood up with a pencil- which side is up, which end goes left, where the warp is. Use a T-Square, a level, and measuring tape. Write anticipated dimensions on a piece of paper and then confirm those dimensions as the project comes together, because 1/4 inch can throw off the entire project. The table saw blade itself is thick, so determine what side of the line you’re cutting on ahead of time. The home improvement stores will also cut the wood for you if you ask them to -but it can take some time. If you need special angle cuts, however, I’d definitely recommend enlisting professional help.
- A pencil and paper beats a phone for blueprints and measurements. It may be old school, but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s much safer to have paper and pencil on the work table than a phone that needs to be kept away from tools, sawdust, and errant falling pieces of construction material, and that requires a hand to stay unlocked. That piece of paper can be modified quickly or dropped accidently without too much worry. It also won’t start buzzing or beeping when you’re using dangerous power tools, draw your attention in the wrong direction at an unsafe moment, or be a hassle if it gets left on the roof of the car.
- The finished project is more than just a task complete. There was such unexpected joy and hope in seeing the finished work, the feeling of having upgraded something, and the confidence of having completed something. Every day, we use this new deck to enter our home and feel so bolstered that we can do anything. We’re proud to see it. Even the neighbors are talking! In the weeks since we’ve completed it, we’ve also begun to fix the landscaping, done handiwork around the house, and made plans for other projects to complete together and on our own. Doing one thing naturally leads to wanting to do another if you keep the right frame of mind.
- A strong background is physics and mathematics is more than helpful. I’m not strong in physics or algebra, so I deferred all my planning dismay to the Scientist, who can calculate weight dispersal accommodation or create formulas for memorizing quantities like second nature. Consult an expert or use recommendations if you’re uncomfortable reinventing the wheel or if you aren’t partnered up with a science-minded person.
- Once you start demolishing, the rest is easy. Like with every project, getting started can be the hardest part. If there’s considerable demo to do (like in our case), once you get moving on it, you’re much more motivated to keep going.
- Assign roles ahead of time. Who will hold the board and who will operate the saw? Who is more comfortable cleaning up, organizing tools and materials, while the other does more solo parts of the task? Don’t wait to decide on each board who will be hammering each nail.
- Clean up as you go. There will be points when only one person can really be working at at a time on any task, so be the person whose proactive, sweeping up, stacking and tying things neatly. I even got some weeding in while the Scientist was measuring braces.
- If you can’t, scrap it. We initially hoped to also put in a pergola so that we could have a shaded entrance. (The south-facing deck is exposed to the sun for most of the day.) On the day of the build, before the last supply run, we spent 40 minutes attempting to engineer the plans to save as much as we could on lumber and still end up with a great finished piece. In the end, my vision of a cheaply built pergola did not meet the Scientist’s standards for safety, so we agreed to scrap it. Much better to have a pergola built well a month from now than to rush and have one we don’t really love now.
About Working Together
- Every couple should embark on one major household project or plan an event before committing to marriage. We strongly feel this. We’ve all had couple friends that got married before realizing they couldn’t work together. Strong lines of division or criticism were drawn. Ultimatums were given. Soon, the couples were spending most of their time in separate rooms of the house, scoffing about the other’s ineptitudes. The way the partnership aids or hinders a project is indicative of what your joint future might hold. Your project could be construction-related, craft-related, redecorating, party or even vacation planning. Build a thing. Create a thing. Bond over the successes and failures. Revel in the blossoming partnership. Adjust your mentality when things don’t work out as smoothly as you dream, go back and try again.
- Communicate your communication needs on a smaller scale. The project gave us a window into how we communicate. I tend to be verbose and will chatter indecisively about options and possibilities, without committing to any one idea in particular. The Scientist is more quiet and direct, taking in all of the information before making a definitive choice. Initially, this led to strife – I’d recommend 10 things, and the Scientist would mull over all of these ideas, while I tapped my toe waiting impatiently for him to choose or weigh in. The Scientist would then feel pressured, stressed, and overwhelmed about choosing between many potentially viable options. Once we realized this, we adapted. I would list my ideas in a more concise and orderly way and ask him to consider the options. He would ask for reasonable time to consider these ideas and then weigh in. I would also limit my ponderings to the task at hand, rather than try talking about a task six steps away. These are strategies we’ve already been incorporating into our daily lives, like when deciding on dinner or what movie to watch.
- Choose a leader to spearhead every project. We had every intention of working together as equals with no one in charge. Neither wanted to feel condescending or steamrolled. We consider ourselves partners in every sense. Even with the utmost respect, at the outset, we found difficulties with this. We had trouble getting started, with neither wanting to initiate the other into action if the time wasn’t JUST right. When we disagreed on the type of lumber, on the best way to demo, on the type of screws we should use, on how much refurbishment was actually needed, we felt deadlocked with no one to make the final call. We could do this, we could do that, so we did nothing. Then we discussed this issue. We realized we have very different skillsets and abilities. The Scientist has completed more construction-type projects than I have and, despite my ego and comfort with power tools, I took the assistant position. Once we determined that the Scientist would lead the project, we both felt better about lending ideas, making decisions, and moving the project forward. He declared the start date and time. He would ask my opinion and I would reason through my ideas, waffling occasionally, and he would use my opinions to make his final decision, direct our roles, and voice his expectations. He became the ultimate construction tie-breaker, and will likely remain so for the rest of our days. (In contrast, I lead and tie-break when we cook together. I am the chef and he is the sous-chef, as I have much more kitchen experience, with the exception of baked goods. I never feel badly asking him to help me prepare something or in adjusting his ideas for spicing, and I communicate my reasons openly and peacefully, knowing I have the reins.)
And Other Little Things
- Use an old bread bag for gathering up old nails and small scraps so they don’t rip through the garbage or your shoes.
- Know when you’ve had your last tetanus booster.
- Use gloves, masks, and goggles, even if you don’t think you need them.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Reapply sunscreen.
- A 40-year-old hammer is not the best way to remove 10-year-old nails. The nails win every time.
- Be advised, sweeping out an area full of cat dander and loose fur may inadvertently send an eviction notice.
- Take a chocolate (soy or otherwise) milk break while you’re working – sweet and light sustenance I highly recommend.
- Whoever isn’t leading the project can also be in charge of documenting the project with pictures. When there wasn’t much for me to do, I enjoyed getting action shots of the Scientist at work.
- A small upgrade to the exterior goes a long way – every time you leave the house and return, you’re met with something to be proud of all over again.