Reinforcing and lifting the cabin

The cabin was built in the 1960’s with undersized beams and joists.  Overtime, this of course causes problems.  If I was more diligent with my blog I would have provided a much better story – we’ll just sum it at this:  The cabin was sagging and one of the piers had sunk several inches.  T.L. Davenport Builders (my heroes) lifted the cabin and reinforced structure.  The result is an unleveled sliding door inside and much more sturdy cabin!


NEW DECK!! NEW DECK!! We have a new deck!!

Is was exciting to finally see the stone fireplace!

Is was exciting to finally see the stone fireplace!

Sorry for all the yelling but we’re pretty darn excited.  With the help of T.L. Davenport Builders, the cabin is sporting a brand spanking I can’t believe how pretty, safe, and sturdy deck!

Those who were willing to brave the cabin the past 12 months knew the deck rules – no more than three people at one time and don’t stand on the bright orange x’s.

A few things we learned during the process:

  • It’s cold in April when you’re laying on the ground
  • It’s awfully nice to sit in a chair and watch someone else do the work
  • T.L. Davenport Builders are AWESOME
  • Removing the deck roof completely changed the view from inside the cabin
  • Get a permit
  • Friends come more often and stay longer when your deck is nice

Still to come:

  • Finishing the railing
  • Installing the portage zip line to the stream

Water tank upgrade

New tank!The cabin water makes its way to a 55 gallon blue storage tank via gravity from a spring-fed cistern at an average rate of 100 gallons/hour.  The lopsided tank was insulated with a large piece of carpeting and covered by some fancy blue styrofoam.

With easier access under the structure during deck demolition, we took the opportunity to get tanked.

A quick trip to Tractor Supply for a 135 gallon leg tank I’d had my eye on for the past six months and I was ready to roll.

After some excavation, I set up a sturdy foundation for the tank to rest on.  There is nearly one foot of gravel under each of the timber steps.

Everyone got dirty, even Toby then yellow lab!

The new tank has a rather ugly overflow pipe that will thankfully be hidden by the new deck.  We are looking forward to building a water feature for the overflow to play on.

Existing water tank

Existing water tank

Gettin' dirty

Gettin’ dirty


Tank foundation

Tank foundation


I’ve got friends in home places…

Renovating a weekend house — especially a cabin you bought for less than the price of a car — is very different than home improvements in your own house. We’re finding that good enough, close enough, and well, it wasn’t quite what we wanted but I can live with it are really just fine. We are reusing, recycling, and taking a lot of secondhand items out of friends’ garages.

About a month into the renovation, a friend’s boyfriend introduced me to a new idea. You see, he’s a manager at our local Home Depot, and he tipped me off that home improvement stores have tons of marked-down inventory that customers never see on floor… and that you can buy it for substantial discounts if you know to ask.

Sebastian explained that appliances and fixtures, like clothes, are updated every year. When that happens, the old ones go “out of style” and end up as clearance. But stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s have very limited space for clearance so they usually just put out two or three items at a time. They keep all that other stuff way up on the shelves or in the back of the store. If you ask nicely, and if you’re flexible about your expectations, they can usually help you find something that meets your price point – and can even have items sent from other stores. The same is true of display items, which can be marked down 50% or more!

The secret is this: go at a quiet time (such as between 10 and 4 on a weekday), ask nicely, and be flexible. During this process, we’ve gotten to know a lot of the folks at our local home improvement stores and they really are happy to help as long as it’s not noon on a Saturday.

For our bathroom, we had very specific size requirements but could be flexible on the style. Because of that, we took a slightly damaged, $299 floor model sink for $49. A quick touch up with a furniture marker covered the few tiny nicks, and you’d never even know. It’s covered in tools here, but I think it looks pretty snappy!


Sliding Barn Door

Sliding barn door

This first night after I stumbled across the cabin I laid in bed going through a mental checklist of what improvements and repairs I thought would need to be done…. but of course I did some dreaming too: I wanted a barn door. A rustic cabin with few updates would showcase a sliding barn door really well.

I wanted to be reminded of the large, massive barn doors that slide back and forth on the front of the big barn at home on the farm. I romanticize my memories of opening and closing them during summer hay making season, always looking forward to escaping the warm sun and walking into the barn ahead of the hay wagon the tractor was pushing in.*

Surprisingly, hardware shopping was the hardest part. Although popular in Europe, it’s very difficult to find modern sliding door hardware in the US. I did find a few useful sites such as Barn Door Hardware and Cordia, but the prices were not what I expected and the selection was limited. Neither Home Depot or Lowe’s could help; Paul at Home Depot (my go to “window and door guy”) said they are not yet available in US stores. I also searched through farm supply stores but could only find typical track hardware. I finally decided on purchasing my Cordia hardware from Cool Barn Doors, an eBay seller.

After so much effort in fixing and securing the hardware, I had decided I wanted to build my own door rather than modify a used barn door or vintage door from a second hand shop. The door is simply wooden pine planks. Paint comes next.

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*To be honest, the most exciting part was pushing the empty hay wagon back through the doors and creating enough momentum to force the wagon down the ramp and out into the barn yard on its own – sometimes you even got to ride it!

making it “campable”

All along, our goal was to have this place “campable” by memorial day weekend. We decided to sell our loved Fleetwood Element pop-up camper to fund part of the renovations, so we wanted to make sure the cabin was at least as usable as the camper by summertime.

For us, this meant not sleeping on the ground, and when our air mattress met demise thanks to a nail, we knew a bed was in order. With the addition of a mattress and a pendant light to the bedroom area, we’re all set for summer!


Things I’ve learned about George

It’s funny, the things you learn about the person who lived in a house before you. In our case, the cabin is just a getaway, but the previous owner, George, lived there year-round for 25 years (according to the realtor).

During this renovation process, I feel like I’ve gotten to know old George a little bit thru the things he left behind and what he’d built. I’m not sure I’d like the guy — in fact, I am fairy confident that we have very little in common — but I do admire his ingenuity and flat out moxie.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about our neighbor in time.

1) Dude loved to hammer. If George built it, sturdiness was the number one priority. We’ve ripped out bookshelves held together with 4″ nails designed for decks, and wood paneling attached with dozens of nails per piece when two would have done just fine. He was either single-handedly propping up the nail manufacturing industry or one day he stumbled upon the nail sale of a lifetime. I guess if you live alone in the woods, you need something to keep you busy.

2) I’d like him with me if I was stranded in the desert. Originally built as a campground community, few of the older style cabins nearby have running water… it was camping, after all. But George figured out how to run water from the natural spring across the road into a cistern under our deck so we have a continuous freshwater supply. He trained a small waterfall to flow into a cement bowl, into which he embedded a water line that runs under the road. A mini well pump under the kitchen sink and a small hot water heater completed the system. Let’s not talk about plumbing codes, but it’s a genius use of existing resources that would make MacGuyver jealous.

3) He wasn’t ready to leave. One of the things that most struck me when we first saw the cabin was that it was frozen in time: clothes in the closet, toothbrush in the medicine cabinet, and half a cup of coffee on the kitchen counter. It’s rare to get a snapshot into a stranger’s life with such intimate detail. From this, we guessed that George fell suddenly ill and never was able to return to his home in the woods. The realtor shared that he had moved instead to Georgia to be with relatives. I hate to think that a survivalist like George was taken down by something so routine as a heart attack or stroke, but I suppose even the mighty must fall. Godspeed, Georgie boy.

kitchen update!

After eight weekends of work, we have finally (nearly) finished the kitchen! With all the demolition finally completed, it’s so rewarding to be making visible progress each day. On Saturday, Jen sanded the final coat of plaster and we put on a coat of primer and two good coats of paint. The metal shelving from Ikea went up — with the normal amount of Ikea-related bitching — and we finally had a kitchen! The fridge is resting on three one-inch boards to be level, but who’s going to notice when cold beer is at hand?

Here’s a photo and a short list of materials we used. The next kitchen project (far, far down the road) will be adding cabinet faces and eventually purchasing a small range.


Moving beyond demolition: Painting and cleaning the walls

I can finally “see” the cabin – now that the demolition phase has ended and the new walls are up we are looking forward to getting some cleaning done and paiting the walls.

Don’t be horrified – most people do not paint log walls… but our log walls are really, really, REALLY dirty.  Beyond the serious investment of significant time, sand blasting, scraping and sanding, not much would help them.  We’re painting.  Deal with it.

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We can finally do dishes!

So who's cooking tonight?

A requirement of the cabin initial renovation work was a working kitchen and a way to wash the dishes.  After considering the required elements to wash dishes, I found the list was somewhat short:

  • Hot water
  • Counter to hold the sink
  • Sink to hold the faucet and water
  • Window to look at Muddy Creek while washing dishes
  • Someone to look out the window while washing the dishes

Short list but quite a bit to tackle.

Hot Water

Getting water to the cabin proved a little more difficult that we thought on purchase day.  Although the gravity fed spring cistern and tank were full, the original owner’s pump wasn’t in working condition.  After some impromtu plumbing lessons that included learning how to use PEX pipe and compression fittings,  installing the water pump, draining the tanks under the cabin and hot water tank, and installing a whole house water filter for sediment, the water was FINALLY flowing to the cabin.

Yes, there was a happy dance involved.  No, there is no video.  The first showers were soooo worth it.

Original Kitchen

The original owner's kitchen was a simple L-shaped counter that was open with the water pump and hot water tank underneath. Oh yeah, there was a lot of scary stuff on top of it too.

Kitchen remodel

It was easiest to strip the entire cabin down to the bare bones and build up.

Whole house water filter

Once the new water pump was installed and I figured out how to use PEX pipe, my first major plumbing accomplishment was to install a whole house water filter in the cabin - I've hung this picture prominently in the bedroom I'm so proud of it.


I really, really, really wanted to build my own kitchen cabinets.  I had researched plans and how-to for weeks.  I have serious crush on Alaskan homemaker Ana White and her community of home how-to builders, plans and terrific projects.  Her momplex project with clear and concise kitchen base cabinets empowered me to build my own.

Except we would have had to completely change the plumbing in the cabin to have cabinets.  The original owner installed the water pump and hot water tank directly under the kitchen counter.

In the absence of some serious plumbing skills, money, and pure ambition, the plumbing was all staying put.  The plans changed to building a counter around the existing plumbing and installing cabinet faces later (god bless the annual tax return).

In true Colvin-builder fashion, a sturdy, level 80″ L-shaped base for the counter was built out of 2″x4″ supports.  Most of the redrawing involved designing a support for an apron sink from Ikea plans (see below for sink information and note the implied “Can you believe those are the only instructions that come with Ikea stuff?!” grumble everyone is all too familiar with).  With the counter supports in place, Janeé and Biz commented that in case of rapture they were holding on to the counter.  There were some other jokes about dirty things…

Hey – get your mind out of the gutter – this all in plans of washing dirty dishes….

The countertop is Ikea’s Varde countertop – a birch butcher block top that comes in two different lengths that may be cut to size.  The advantage of this was that we could cut our own countertop to size at a relatively low cast rather than ordering custom countertops.  The butcher block birch is typically oiled like most wooden cutting boards.  We elected to put several coats of polyurethane on the counter instead for a nice sheen that is easily cleaned after each use.  If you elect to use polyurethane, it’s worth the time and effort to lightly sand between a minimum of three coats.  The results are a smooth surface that will cause even the most uninterested to rub their had affectionately across the counter and grunt something along the lines of approval.

Installing Counter

Janeé applies the adhesive for the butcher block counter

Sink & Faucet

From the start we wanted a white apron sink with an industrial faucet.  The best value we found was Ikea’s Domsjo sink bowl which comes in three shapes and sizes.  We considered several faucet models and after many weeks of “which one do you want?” decided on our this is the last time we’re going to Ikea ever stainless steel Hjuvik kitchen faucet with hand spray.

Biz doing plumbing

Biz demonstrates that the faucet works

We have water! We have water!


Our countertop is not at average height for most people – it’s at average height for people topping out at six feet tall – and we love it.  Measuring at 42″ high, it rests just above the window sill from which the new dishwasher will be able to gaze lovingly down to our favorite trout stream.

New Sink

Every achievement is cause for celebration - thanks to Jim and John for providing the celebration

Dishwasher Wanted

We cook – really well.  Want to wash our dishes?  We’ll feed you.

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