Posts under ‘Notes on Approaches’

Polywhat? Interior Wood Finishes

January 16th, 2010 by KTU | 4 Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches
wipe-on polyurethane finish on cherry

Cherry Shaker Table Finished with 4 coats satin Minwax Wipe-On Polyurethane

These are my opinions on interior wood finishes. They are based in part on science, logic, and my own experimentation. They also rely somewhat on the testing and writing of others, although since I am a myth buster and skeptic, I believe very little of the conventional wisdom.

Finishing wood for interior applications serves the functions of (1) protecting the wood (mostly from liquids) and (2) enhancing the appearance of the wood. First, I’d like to dispel some myths.

Myth 1: Urethane and acrylic finishes give a “plastic” look to wood.

The plastic look people are referring to when they assert this claim is the result of high reflectivity or “gloss.” It is just as accurate to say that wood that is finished with a high-gloss surface has a “wet look” or has a “glass look” (indeed, these adjectives are sometimes used to market wood finishes). Surfaces are glossy when they reflect a lot of the light that hits them. Sure, wood can be imparted with a glossy finish with urethane or acrylic coatings. But, oil finishes, lacquers, shellacs, waxes, and other finishes can also be glossy. Furthermore, most finishes are available in low-gloss versions, usually called “satin.” So, the “plastic look” and the type of finish that is used on the wood are really two separate issues. As a technical aside, virtually all wood finishes are polymers (molecules comprised of long chains of carbon and hydrogen molecules), which is a technical term that includes all “plastics.” In fact, wood itself is a polymer (cellulose).


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Ponoko Laser Cutting Service

January 18th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Fabrication Resources

Ponoko is a web-based business offering laser cutting from almost any file format. This service can be used to make fussy parts with complex curves. For example, I needed to prototype a three dimensional component and made the basic structure with interlocking pieces of plywood. Here is a sheet of the pieces as they came from Ponoko. To minimize costs you try to nest as many parts as you can on a sheet of material. I fit nine sets on this piece. Ponoko offers lots of materials. I drew these parts in Adobe Illustrator, but almost any drawing tool can be used, even Powerpoint, I think.

Nine sets of parts nested onto one sheet of plywood as delivered from Ponoko.


Basic Baubilt Bread

January 20th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Baubilt Bread

Many people have tried the outstanding no-knead bread recipe adapted from the Sullivan Street Bakery, published in the New York Times (at least twice) by Mark Bittman, and the subject of a lot of follow-up traffic on the internet.

I tried each version of the recipe as it became simpler. Bittman now claims 5 minutes of labor to make a loaf. I think I’ve got it down to half that. The crux move for me was discovering a teflon-coated ceramic baking dish that can serve as the single receptacle for the entire process, including mixing, rising, and baking. The dish I have is shown here along with the finished loaf. It’s available from Amazon for $39.99. (No, I’m not a shill for the manufacturer. Yes, I do get 80 cents if you buy one from Amazon.)

Teflon-coated ceramic baking dish and loaf


Using Rough-Sawn Lumber

January 25th, 2010 by KTU | 5 Comments | Filed in 3. Basic Structure, Notes on Approaches

Dimensional lumber used in framing (i.e., 2×4, 2×6, etc.) is usually sold after planing and kiln drying. That’s why a 2×4 is actually 1.5″ x 3.5″. The stick of lumber from which that 2×4 was made was originally sawn to dimensions of 2″ x 4″. The length of these “rough sawn” boards is the nominal length plus at least 2 inches. So an 8′ 2×4 in rough-sawn form is 2″ x 4″ x 98+”.

Ends of rough-sawn 2x8s. See how both the height and the length varies slightly. I mostly ignored these differences, doing a little sorting to eliminate any real big jumps.


Baubilt Pizza

February 8th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Baubilt Bread, Karl's cooking hacks

Once you’ve mastered Baubilt Bread…or really any of the various Bittman recipe variants, pizza is a snap.

I modify the bread dough slightly, using an 80 percent hydration dough (e.g., 80 grams water for every 100 grams flour). I usually mix 700 g flour and 560 g water, which gives me two nice big pizzas. Otherwise, I prepare the dough exactly as for bread.

Even at 80 percent, this dough is still much wetter than most pizza dough, so you can’t really roll it or toss it to form a flat shell. Rather, I press it with my fingers and hands to stretch it to fit a rectangular non-stick baking sheet. I use olive oil on the tray and I spread some olive oil on the top of the dough to prevent sticking to my hands, too. Since I like lots of olive oil on the pizza anyway, this is win-win.

Once the dough is spread (and good luck getting it to really stretch perfectly into the corners of the pan…you’re going to unavoidably end up with some rebound) I bake for 10-15 minutes at 450F. Then, I remove it from the oven, and apply tomatoes and toppings.

Update: I thought about how to avoid that pesky rebound of the dough in the pan. I tried putting mugs in each corner and baking this way for the first few minutes. Worked pretty well, but this may be a bit obsessive.

Update 2: Another method that is pretty effective is to apply some olive oil to a sheet of Saran wrap and then lay the wrap over the dough before pressing/stretching. This avoids the sticky hands problem and works quite well. You can apply and re-apply the wrap to different sections of the dough until you’re happy with the stretch.

You can put mugs in the corners to keep the dough from springing back. Leave them there for the first few minutes of baking. Careful to remember that they will be HOT.

For sauce, I simmer canned crushed tomatoes (Pomi, Furmano’s, Muir Glen, Tutto Rosso…any brand you like) with basil and garlic to remove some of the water (thus preventing soggy pizza). Of course, you can put whatever you want on a pizza. I like broccoli, onions, oil-cured olives, and fresh mozzarella.

Update: my method has now evolved to THREE baking steps…first, bake the dough until it is nearly done (10-15 minutes), then spread lots of tomato sauce and bake for another 5-10 minutes (this dehydrates the sauce somewhat, increasing its intensity and further minimizing the risk of soggy crust), and finally add toppings/cheese and bake until everything is nice and melted.

The dough should be chewy, crusty, and full of air pockets. Yum squared.

Photo Sketching a House Design

February 11th, 2010 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in 1. Planning and Design, Notes on Approaches

In order to give one of the design review committees a better sense of what the house would look like on the site, I made a quick sketch in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Here it is. (As with most photos on Baubilt, click to see a larger version.)

Photo illustration of my house made with Photoshop and Illustrator.


Misumi Made-To-Order Metal Parts

February 15th, 2010 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in Fabrication Resources

Occasionally my expertise as an engineer carries over into the Baubilt world. Here is one such case. If you need to make fussy little shafts or brackets for some DIY project like a light fixture or a toilet paper holder, consider using the Misumi service. Misumi is a Japanese company that has a huge collection of semi-custom parts (hundreds of categories really) that are made to order using your uniquely specified parameters. For example, let’s say you need a stainless-steel rod 8mm in diameter and 96mm long for some perfect door pull you are designing. You can order that part from Misumi and it will be made to order on a computer-controlled machine tool (in Japan) and shipped directly to you…for remarkably short money.

Here are some parts I had made for use with the Ponoko parts described elsewhere. I think I had 10 sets made, and have already used 7 of the sets by now. My recollection is that these parts were $5-15 each, which is a screaming deal for a custom machined part. The trick of course is that these aren’t really custom; they are semi-custom parts that are made to order with your pre-specified dimensions.

Semi-custom parts from Misumi

Here is a Misumi page showing a “shaft support”…could be a towel rod support, no?


February 15th, 2010 by KTU | 3 Comments | Filed in Fabrication Resources

I described the Ponoko laser cutting service and the Misumi semi-custom parts service. As nice as those are, sometimes you just need to make something out of a chunk of aluminum with a good old fashioned machine tool. Of course you can try to remember how to do that yourself, or find a really handy friend who can do it for you. Most of the time, I use

Here are some parts I made using the eMachineshop service.

Aluminum parts made via



February 15th, 2010 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in Fabrication Resources

Everyone in the engineering world knows McMaster-Carr, but few people in the DIY world do. McMaster is a privately held company based in Illinois that may be the world’s largest engineering superstore. They have hundreds of thousands of items and in twenty plus years of using them I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a stock out. Remarkable.

They have everything. What do I mean by “everything”? Well, you can buy stainless steel spring wire, storage bins, a work bench, a belt sander, fasteners, and (literally) a kitchen sink.

You wouldn’t want to use McMaster for something you can get at Home Depot, even though they have almost everything Home Depot does, but they fit the bill when you need something a little bit out of the ordinary or you want to use an industrial/commercial product in your personal project.

Here are some nice items I’ve used them for in my projects:

  • Copper sheet.
  • John Boos “butcherblock” countertops (under “Maple tops”) at $16/sq-ft
  • Richlite lab bench material (the predecessor to the oh-so-trendy Paperstone…called “phenolic tops” at McMaster) at $26/sq-ft
  • Heavy-duty urethane casters to support a huge rolling shelving unit.
  • Acme threaded rod for shelf supports.
  • Any manner of weird drill bit or fastener.
  • “Speedrail” tubing fittings for railings, etc.

They take credit cards. They ship the same day by UPS.

My workbenches shown here (on the left) have McMaster tops (both butcher block and Richlite).

Finished office and shop on lower level.

Energy Efficient House Design

February 16th, 2010 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in 1. Planning and Design, Notes on Approaches

In this post I explain the analysis I did to understand energy efficiency design issues in my new house.

There are two basic contributors to the energy efficiency of a new house:

1. basic form, and
2. energy efficiency features.

By basic form, I mean what shape does the house have, how many stories is it, and how much window area is there. Those factors matter quite a lot. The most thermally efficient shape (ignoring solar factors) has very little surface area relative to its volume, basically a cube (if you assume the surfaces will be flat not curved). In the analysis I did, I assumed for a base case, a 3200 sq-ft 2-story house, with 8′ ceilings, on a 40′ x 40′ footprint. That’s a pretty boxy shape, but quite efficient thermally.

Windows are wonderful, except that they have just terrible thermal performance, even the really fancy ones. So, you basically have to decide how much glass you want and trade that off against how much energy you are willing to lose. About 12.5% of the wall area on an average new home in the U.S. is windows. I assumed that value in my base case.

Creating Nice Concrete Floors

February 16th, 2010 by KTU | 28 Comments | Filed in 6. Interior Materials and Finishes, Notes on Approaches

Nice basic concrete floor in a house in Sun Valley, Idaho

These are my notes on creating nice residential concrete floors. In my primary residence, I put in about 1500 sq-ft of concrete floors in the lower level. I used a 6-inch slab on crushed stone with 1/2 inch PEX tubing for hydronic heating. I’m pretty happy with these floors, although not wild about the results I got in finishing/sealing them. I am in the process of building a second home in which all three levels will have concrete floors. In principle concrete is (a) very inexpensive, (b) a wonderful means of installing hydronic heating, and (c) attractive. But, I’ve found that there is all kinds of confusing information about how to achieve these aims. Here is what I’ve learned based on experience, research, talking to concrete contractors, and my own experiments.


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Google Sketchup

February 20th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Montana Sleeping Pavilion, Notes on Approaches

One of my readers suggested that I try Google Sketchup as a way of doing illustrations. I had used Sketchup when it first became available as a free tool via Google a few years ago. I was intrigued, but never really invested enough time to decide how useful the tool was. I decided it was time to try again.

So, yesterday morning, I downloaded version 7.1 and began fresh. I am starting a new project, not yet really documented, to create a “sleeping deck” at my wife’s family’s place in northwest Montana. We have a three-bedroom cabin there, but mostly people like to sleep outside on the deck. The weather is usually perfect in July and August, and remarkably (for someone from New Hampshire) there are essentially no biting insects. The problem is that we are running out of deck space and the few times it rains, there is a mad scramble into the cabin. I’ve been working with the family to design a pavilion, which would include a large deck and a sheltered area. I decided to use Sketchup to model the concept I have been developing.

So, I started at 6am and by 5pm I had some pretty nice images to share with the family. This included learning the tool and building the model. First, here’s the result…

The Montana Sleeping Pavilion created in Sketchup.


Walls are only about 60% insulated.

February 20th, 2010 by KTU | 4 Comments | Filed in 4. Components and Systems, Notes on Approaches

Many of us have a mental model of insulation as the nice fluffy stuff sandwiched between the inner and outer layers of our walls. The (thermally) ugly reality is that most walls contain lots of doors and windows, and that the wall area that is not doors and windows is full of wood and steel.

Here is a sketch (thanks to my newly acquired skills in Google Sketchup) of a typical section of wall for my Park City house.

Typical wall system in a U.S. stick-built house.


Bid Negotiation in a Recession

March 15th, 2010 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in Cost and Budgets, Notes on Approaches

I just spent a week in Park City negotiation bids on the Mountain Modern house. I’m building the house with the help of Steve, the broker who sold me the land. Steve lives a couple of miles from the site and has built a series of homes in Park City and elsewhere, so has a lot of local expertise. So, while technically this is an “owner build,” I’ve hired a “consultant” to arrange the subcontractors and to keep me informed about construction on a daily basis.

New home construction in Summit County is very slow right now. Just two building permits have been issued in the first 2.5 months of the year. As a result, almost no one in the building trades has any work right now.

Our strategy has been to select 3-5 subcontractors for each task based on the quality of their work, and then to make a final selection based on price. We have let these subcontractors know this is how we are proceeding.


Marmoleum “Click”

April 25th, 2010 by KTU | 3 Comments | Filed in 5. Interior Details, Notes on Approaches, Vermont Mini Cabin

I chose Forbo Marmoleum for the mini cabin floor. I’ve used Marmoleum in two other projects– my church house kitchen (twice actually) and in a commercial project at work. I like the material quite a lot. Marmoleum is a trade name for  a type of linoleum, which is a composite sheet material made from sawdust, linseed oil, dyes, and a jute backing. It is very forgiving, durable, and comes in a lot of funky colors. The sheet version comes in a 2 meter wide roll, which is really the only weakness of that form, requiring seams for most applications. The material is very heavy, so I knew I couldn’t haul a roll down the trail. Fortunately, the material comes in tiles, which are roughly 1 ft. x 3 ft. This version is called Marmoleum Click, because the tiles are supposed to click together.

The finished Marmoleum Click floor.


Repairing Spalling in Concrete Floors

May 9th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches

I have finished concrete floors in my lower level. I like them quite a lot. However, the area under my chair at my desk had developed some spalling. The spalling is a crumbling of the top surface of the concrete. I believe this is caused by a failure of the surface layer, which is comprised of the concrete “fines” which float to the top during troweling. I suspect that some gritty material gets on the caster of the office chair and with repeated rolling causes some little compression cracks, which then spread. The spalling was not deep, but I suspected it would get worse if I did not deal with it.

Grinding and polishing concrete floor to repair spalling.


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GC’ing the Job

September 28th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Cost and Budgets, Notes on Approaches, Park City Mountain Modern

I set up a fairly unusual arrangement for the Park City Modern project. Recall that this is a second home for me, and the distance between home and the job site is 2400 miles, about 7 hours door-to-door via Delta and a rental car. Thus, being on site every day was not feasible.

I visited a construction site with the architects last summer and talked to a contractor they had worked with before. This was a monstrous house , which had been under construction for over 2-1/2 years. It was 15,000 square feet and had a budget of $600/sq-ft. (That’s $9mm in construction cost for those who have a hard time with decimal places.) The GC boasted that the owner had only been on site twice. (Whoa.) I knew precisely then that this guy was not for me. His truck was too nice and his homeowner kiss-up skills were too polished. Those guys serve a very important need…getting a great house built for very rich and very clueless owners.

This is a typical punch list for a 24-hour visit to the job site. If you don't like making lists like this and plowing through them, you won't like being your own general contractor.


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Excellent Hanging Shelf Hardware

March 12th, 2011 by KTU | 11 Comments | Filed in 6. Interior Materials and Finishes, Notes on Approaches, Park City Mountain Modern

My architects like hanging shelves and I do too. They often take the “cowboy” approach of using galvanized threaded rod and nuts and washers to support the shelving. I wanted something a little more refined, but didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for fussy little European hardware bits. Here’s a solution I came up with, which has proven to be excellent in all respects.

Excellent hanging shelves, but where do you get that hardware?


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Replacing a Pressure Relief or T&P Valve

March 19th, 2011 by KTU | 2 Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches, Pennsylvania Church House

This is not an interesting topic. However, I couldn’t find what I needed for this little project on Google, so figured I’d create a post that is likely to be found when people are searching for a solution to a leaking relief valve.

Your water heater has a T&P valve, which stands for Temperature and Pressure Valve. This valve opens when temperature and/or pressure exceed a pre-defined threshold. This is a safety feature so that your water heater does not explode if the pressure goes too high. I have a Weil Mclain Superstor indirect water heater and the T&P Valve is on the top, as shown below. It usually is designed to open at 210F and/or 150 psi, which is waaay above the safe operating temperature and pressure of a domestic water heater. Watts is the leading brand of these devices.

The T&P Valve on a Water Heater (the bronze thing with a 90-degree angle and shiny lever on top)


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Flor Carpeting Revisited

October 29th, 2011 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches

The FLOR carpet tile system is an intriguing concept — affordable, DIY, floor covering, with interesting design possibilities. I used the system for my family room in the Church House about six years. That room is (partially) shown in the next photo (c2005).


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Baltic Birch Media Shelf Unit – CNC Routed Parts

July 7th, 2012 by KTU | 1 Comment | Filed in 6. Interior Materials and Finishes, Notes on Approaches

In the Park City house, we have three bedrooms that all are set up nearly identically with wall-mounted TVs. We fed the wires through the wall, but then have the pesky cable box to contend with. I wanted a shallow media shelf of some kind that would accommodate a cable box and a DVD player, but be relatively small and unobtrusive. The main problem with some of the products on the market is that they are too deep. I really wanted something about 11 inches deep, which is plenty for the items to be stored.  So, I designed a shelving unit that could be assembled from tubing and flat shelves. Here’s what I ended up with. It’s 32″ W x 11″ D x 21-1/2″ H.

The finished shelf unit in place.


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Whiteboard Paint

June 17th, 2013 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches

For some time, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of painted on whiteboard surfaces. I have a shop/office in a commercial loft in Philadelphia with plain white drywall partitions. When I was in Home Depot I saw this Rust-Oleum paint. It’s about $20.  I thought I’d give it a try.

Rust-Oleum Dry Erase Paint


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Sous Vide Cooking “as is” Vacuum-Packed Meat

April 20th, 2014 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Karl's cooking hacks, Notes on Approaches

I’m always looking for short cuts in cooking. I recently bought a Nomiku consumer sous-vide immersion heater. I have been pretty happy with the low-cost Ziploc-brand vacuum bags and manual pump. I don’t really see a compelling reason to buy a $150 vacuum sealer.

However, a lot of cuts of meat come already vacuum packed in a low-density polyethylene (LDPE) wrapper. Can you just cook the meat as-is in that wrapper as it comes from the store. That would sure make things easy. The short answer is yes. I have now done this a dozen or so times with skirt steak, flat-iron steak, and today with a leg of lamb (for Easter).

Sous vide roast with golden skin from oven finish

Finish for 10 minutes in 500F oven for golden skin.


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Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs

August 2nd, 2019 by baubilt | No Comments | Filed in Karl's cooking hacks, Notes on Approaches

I haven’t posted in forever, but I was inspired this evening to just document what I have found to be the best approach for perfect hard-boiled eggs. What do I mean by perfect hardboiled eggs? Two things: (1) the yolk is cooked to the hardness I like, and (2) the shell peels off easily without that annoying sticking of egg white to the shell. (For the food nerds out there, my understanding, via an explanation I read in Cooks Illustrated, is that by dropping the eggs into boiling water you cause the membrane surrounding the egg white to bond to the shell allowing for easy peeling. Whereas if you bring cold eggs and water to a boil together, the membrane bonds to the egg white and the shell causing that annoying pocking of the egg white– or something like that.)

Total time from start to finish is about 20 minutes — with only about 2 minutes of actual work time, the rest waiting for water to boil and eggs to cook. We all should have a carton of HBs in the fridge all the time. No excuses not to.

perfect hard-boiled egg

I want my yolk just barely solid -- just kicked over from soft in the middle.

easy to peel shell on hard-boiled egg

The shell can't stick to the white -- should peel easily.

Here’s what you do. Follow exactly. The only deviation that I have found to be discretionary is cooking time. If you prefer softer eggs, use less than 14 minutes. If you are cooking at high altitude, you’ll need longer.

1. Prick the top of each egg with a fat tack while the eggs are in the carton. Make sure the tack goes all the way through the shell.

Prick the top of each egg.

Prick the top of each egg, while in the carton, with a fat tack. This is an upholstery tack.

2. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. The water is about 2 inches (50mm) deep here. Must be at a boil.

3. Using a pair of tongs, hold the egg vertically and slowly lower it into the water (maybe 3 seconds duration of immersion process). You’ll see in the second image that one egg has that annoying white eruption of egg white. I did that on purpose to demonstrate the importance of vertical immersion. If you drop the egg in with the hole down or to the side, the small air gap inside the egg shell will expand and extrude that egg white out the hole. That’s why you grab the egg with the tongs and lower it into the water over a period of about 3 seconds with the hole at the top. The air expansion happens nicely in this case, and you’ll see bubbles coming out of the hole and no egg white spilling out. It seems that as long as the air bubbles get started out the top it doesn’t matter if the egg then rolls over to the side.

using tongs to lower egg into boiling water

Use tongs to lower egg into boiling water, with hole pointing up.

egg white eruption

See the little egg white eruption? This only occurs if you drop the egg quickly on its side or upside down. Lower it slowly with the hole side up and the expanding air can escape without extruding the egg white.

4. After all eggs are immersed, start 14:00 minute timer. (This will end up averaging about 14:30 cook time, given the time required to lower the eggs into the water before you start the timer.) Note that this time will be invariant of the number of eggs so long as you have plenty of water and keep the heat high initially. The point is to keep the water at 212F/100C, in which case the cook time should not depend on the number of eggs you cook.

5. At 14 minutes, pour off most of the water and dump a big pile of ice into the pan.

6. Let the eggs cool for a few minutes. This allegedly further causes the membrane to do the right thing, but I think the more important effect is to stop the cooking process at a precise time. If you’re going to eat some eggs immediately and like them warm, I pull them after a couple of minutes so they are at perfect eating temperature. If I’ll be storing the eggs in the fridge, I let them chill.

Ice the eggs

Pour off most of the water and dump some ice on top.

7. Store or eat. (Cut the top off the egg carton and store the eggs that way — you won’t forget they are hard boiled eggs and you’ll be reminded you’ve got a nice inventory of nature’s perfect food ready to eat.)

store eggs in carton with lid cut off

You’ll get perfect eggs every time.