Building Confidence

Volume 20 Issue 6
ISSN 1923-7162

Welcome to Dave's Shop Talk's Home Improvement Newsletter of questions from our members on their construction projects, a Tip of the Month and a home remodeling article, both from our website at

Tips of the Month

An easy way to figure out the length of rail between two stiles. Place the two stiles together, edge to edge. Put your tape measure on the right side edge at the measurement wanted, say 13 15/32 and read off on the opposite edge what the measurement will be.

When using a router always try the setup on a scrap piece of identical material to be sure it is correct before trying it on the actual piece.

Ask Dave!

Hi Dave, First, thanks for a great site. I am building stairs leading up to our front porch and used your videos and stair calculator with great results so far, despite having only basic or even below-basic skills! My question: I have cut the stringers and treads, and just learned that most outdoor stair projects use pressure-treated wood, whereas I used plain old Douglas fir. I have not yet assembled the stairs. Now aware of my mistake, I have bought some copper naphthenate to treat my wood, but am told that painting over it might be a problem, especially with a light color (I have a gallon of light grey porch paint), as the c.n. might bleed through. I see my options as these: 1. Forget about the c.n. and just paint, hoping that the paint will preserve the wood well enough. 2. Use the c.n., but get a dark paint color (losing the $30 I paid for the grey paint). 3. Start the project over, with pressure treated wood. This is not ideal, but not out of the question, as I want to get this right. What would you recommend, or are there other options I have not considered? I live in Grass Valley, CA, in the Sierras. We get about 55 inches of rain per year, and in the summer the sun is fierce (the stairs will be directly exposed to the sun). Thanks for any advice you can offer. Gary

Hi Gary,

Yes, these days we use pressure treated wood (PTW), within 12" of the ground.

To clear some things up: PTW is for insects eating the wood, not for preserving wood from the sun or rain. It may be an option to preserve your underside of the stringer and treads where they are 12" from the ground with the copper naphthenate. It is true that the copper naphthenate will bleed through, but if you seal it with Shellac, then paint it with the grey paint you should be alright.

Now your problem is to protect the surface from the elements. Is the grey paint an oil or alkyd based, rather than latex based? Check the label to see if you need a primer on bare wood. Also check the label on the copper naphthenate to be sure to wait the required time to dry, before covering it. You live in the same humid climate that I do. We have moderate temps, but about 30" of rain, most in the winter, spring and fall. We had trouble with our own deck. The surface would last two years or so then start to look bad. My wife who is a paint expert, finally made a deck stain out of linseed oil and tint. It seems that every couple of years she re-does the surface. Our deck is cedar.


Thanks so much, Dave. Very helpful! Two other questions occur to me. 1. You refer to Shellac as a way to seal the c.n. Would polyurethane work? I have some left over. 2. Are risers merely an aesthetic consideration or do they have important structural or protective advantages as well? I read somewhere that risers help to protect the stringers (from the elements?) and should be used for longer stair life. The Home Depot guy says they're not necessary. What do you think?

Hi Gary, you're welcome.

Shellac is a sealer where polyurethane is a finish. Some would argue that shellac may be used as a finish also, with multiple layers and this is true to a certain point. If shellac is left without a finish over it, alcohol will affect it. The solvent for shellac is methyl hydrate which is methyl alcohol. Shellac is a great sealer, it dries quickly, sticks well and seals stains of all types that want to bleed through. Have you ever seen a t-bar ceiling tile, donnacona, that has blackish water stain? Use shellac then paint over it.

When I build inside stairs, I like to use the risers as support for the back of the treads:

Diagram of tread-riser unit in a staircase.

In this sense the risers are both aesthetic and structural to a point. Usually, we use 1 1/2" treads, outside - two 2x6s work well, so don't need the riser for support. The double treads work well, with a 3/16" space between the boards to let water drain through.

I guess the risers may help protect the stringers from the elements, but then the risers need to be protected, themselves, causing more work than just maintaining the edge of the stringers. There is no way, in our climates that we can get away without doing regular maintenance on our homes - caulking, painting/staining. I was told by a professional painter that he likes to stain his wood trim, etc with a good quality oil base stain. Then in a couple of years when the stain starts to fade, paint over the stain with a good latex, acrylic paint. I did that with my cedar trim around the house and it has worked well. The tough parts to keep looking good is the horizontal surfaces of decks and stairs. You just need to keep them maintained, it seems like every 2 or 3 years, they need to be re-painted with a good semi-transparent stain. Paint just seems to peel off. Solid stain is just like paint on a horizontal surface.


How to square up a gate would triangle blocks in the 4 corners be the best way to square up this gate? sags about 1 inch.

No, you need a diagonal brace from the right top to the left bottom.

Here is a drawing (yellow) on a photo:

Photo of a handrail gate.


Hi Dave, We are going to lay slate tile on our front porch. The porch is under a small roof. Do I need to seal the concrete porch before I put down the tile? I didn't think it would be necessary, but someone at HD told me I had to seal it. What do you think? I also need to put some leveling compound in a couple "dippy" spots. The leveler I bought is concrete based. If I have to seal the porch, I would put down the leveler and seal the whole thing afterward, correct? We also thought about having a 12' X 16' slab poured out back in front of one side of the screened porch (where we would also add another door). I was going to put down a buff colored natural stone that would look really pretty contrasting with the grass/yard. Do I need to seal that slab? If I need to seal the porch, do you have any recommendation on which sealer is better? I hope I don't need to seal either one. Pat

Hi Pat,

I think you know more about tiling than the guy at HD. He may be referring to preventing moisture from coming up through the concrete. Usually, we pour the concrete on 6 mil poly to prevent this.

The concrete should be cured, as should the floor leveler. It should say on the bag how long to wait before tiling on top. As far as I am concerned the sealer goes on the finished surface, not under it.

All the best,


Dave, I am building an addition to our cottage which is located 22 km east of Burk's Falls, On. The addition is 20' wide x 10'3" deep. The addition is for a bedroom, centre hall and a bathroom. I am using 11-7/8" engineered floor joists on 16" centres (got them for free). I plan on fastening the matching rim board to the end cottage floor joist with hangers attached to the rim board. At the outside end I have four 8" dia. concrete posts (the whole cottage is on piers since it sits on bedrock) with triple 2" x 10" PT boards for the support beam. My questions: I planned on using 1/4" - 5/16" lag bolts to attach the rim board to the existing floor joist - is this ok and what spacing do you suggest; do I need to install rim boards to the outside ends of the engineered floor joists since the OSB wall sheathing will extend to the bottom; and finally the support beam which will sit on the concrete posts I propose to laminate as follows - two 10' boards end to end, one 10' centred over those boards, one 5' board at each end of the centred board and again two 10' boards on top then glued and screwed together ending up with a 4-1/2" x 10" x 20' beam. Does this all sound right? Arnold

Hi Arnold,

These engineered joists are a unit consisting of the joist and the rim board. The purpose of the rim board is to keep the joists vertical, not for supporting the load on them. I would prefer to see you install a ledger board under these joists, rather than have them supported by the rim and hangers. The 2x8 or 2x10 ledger would be lagged into the existing box joist of the house, if it is 1 1/2" thick or the studs, depending on the height, with 2 - 3/8" lags, vertically, top and bottom, at 16" centers. These joists would be taller than the ones in the cottage, right. Along with the ledger for load support, I would install blocking between the upper and lower chords of the I-joist to prevent the joist from falling over. This blocking is usually 2x4 nailed on the flat to the framing of the house. By rights, when installing engineered beams, trusses or joists, the engineer specifies the fastening schedule, spacing, etc. Here is a website for Georgia-Pacific a big manufacturer of these joists:

On your question of beam support. You have 4 posts spaced over a 20' span. The 5' board, from the end, will line up with an area called the quarter span between posts. This is good. The 10' board, from the end, lines up in the centre of the span between posts, which is not good. Any chance of using 3 - 20' pieces? Instead of the arrangement you suggested, I would go with starting with the 5' then 10' then 5' boards on the outside laminations and the 10' and 10' on the inside. This would be according to the code. You need only 2 plys for the joist span and the span on the posts, but 3" isn't enough bearing for the I-joists. You need 3 1/2" so a beam of 4 1/2 is good.

I would use your engineered rim board on the outside of the addition and run your sheeting down it, as well. For the inside, follow my suggestion, above.

Hope this helps,


Dave, Thanks for the info, one more question. Is it necessary to put vapour barrier under the floor? As mentioned the floor is elevated, insulated with Roxul R22 insulation with Typar stapled and taped underneath A

Hi Arnold,

No, we don't put VB under the floor. It has to be on the warm side of the room. Floors usually have lino, carpet with pad, tile, etc. which acts like a vapour barrier to some extent, anyway. It is better to glue and screw/nail the subfloor to the joists, which is another v. barrier. To put VB in means to fold it in between the joists then insulation against it which would slip out. So the code leaves it out for those reasons.


Feature Article of the Month

(taken from our website:

How to Build a House 1: House Lot and House Plans

How to Build a House, First Step: Find Your Lot

The house lot and house plan is like a horse and carriage, you need both parts for it to work properly and one comes before the other. It would be silly to have the carriage pulling the horse. Just as it would be to buy a set of house plans for your new dream home before buying a lot. As some houses are suited for a level lot others are suited for a steep lot. Which way is the view, toward the front or back of the lot? Is the house layout compatible with the lot layout? Are the windows looking out in the direction of the view?

You and your spouse have finally come to the conclusion you want to build your own house. This may include physically driving every nail or acting as the General Contractor and hiring sub-trades to do the work. First thing to do is go and look around for a nice house lot. Consider the area in which you want to purchase, the price of a lot or acreage and the amount of view or privacy provided.

Finally the day has come to walk the lot you have chosen. Now you can research the type of house to build to fit that lot. I live on a sloped lot to the front. My house is a two story with full basement. I have basement entry on the front side and second floor entry on the back of the house. Looking at the front we have a three story house, from the back a two story house. Our view is in the front, our back is bordered by a green belt of trees. Our entrance is through the garage at the front or up the front stairs to the main floor. I bought a catalogue of house plans and my wife and I picked three possible plans that would fit our lot. We came to an agreement on which house we wanted to build and sent off for the house plans. The only variation I did to the stock house plans was to add two feet to the ceiling height of the garage. I ran into rock which needed to be blasted. To save two feet of blasting by raising the ceiling height in the garage from 8' to 10'. This was a good decision on my part since I use the double garage as a workshop, as well. It's nice to have a couple of feet of extra height when swinging around a sheet of plywood.

How to Build a House, Second Step: Find Your Plans

Most house plans can be chosen from a catalog of stock house plans. If unable to satisfy your options for a house to build an architect would be more than happy to design you a house plan from scratch or alter a stock house plan to suit your individual needs.

Before delving into the realm of building codes and permits, you should understand how to read a set of house plans, also called blueprints. The Building or Engineering Department in your municipality, regional district, city or county has requirements on the drawings that they expect to see from you in the process of issuing you a permit.

A set of house plans consists of drawings showing different views of the house from different perspectives. The term "plan" is used to designate a bird's eye view. The viewer is above the house looking down at it. Plan views include the Plot Plan (each type of plan is defined below), the Foundation Plan, the Floor Plan, and the Roof Plan. In some sets of house plans we can come across a Reflected Ceiling Plan, which shows the ceiling as if laying on your back looking up, rather than flying above it and looking down. A set of house plans usually is not limited to plan views. It should include Elevations and Sections. An Elevation is the view of the side of the house or a wall in a room as if the viewer is standing back and looking straight at the house. A Section is a drawing of the internal aspects of a wall or floor, etc. as if the viewer cut the wall or floor of the house in two with a knife to see what it is made of. Common to each drawing in a set of house plans is the Scale. To fit the size of the house you want to build on a sheet of paper the drawing is reduced in size. This reduction is known as the scale of the drawing. Most drawings in a set of house plans show - Scale: 1/4" = 1'-0". This means that every 1/4" on the drawing represents 1 foot on the house or 1/48th scale.

A set of house plans does not give instructions on how to build a house. It only draws the shape of the house to scale and specifies certain sizes of lumber and building materials to use. A good set of house plans will show the building code requirements as needed in its general area. The house builder is responsible for knowing the code for headers over openings and good framing practices. The building inspector is the final authority. He will inspect the house plans and will mark all over them in red ink anything he wants to draw to your attention.

How to Build a House, Third Step: Know Your Plans

These are the common drawings in a set of house plans:

Plot Plan or Site Plan: This is a plan view showing the building envelope (the perimeter of the house) in relation to the lot's boundaries. It should have the shape and outside dimensions of the house and lot, the location of the driveway, and the set backs of the house to the lot lines. The Plot Plan may have height elevations at the corners of the house and lot, as well as a geographic direction indicator: north, south-west, etc. The scale may be a bit smaller (Scale: 1/8" = 1'-0").

Foundation Plan or Basement Plan: This drawing is a Plan view of the foundation walls and slab of the house. It also shows the floor joists above it, their size and direction, shown by arrows.

Floor Plan: This drawing shows each floor of the house (main, second, etc.) and indicates the floor or ceiling joists above it or the recommended roof truss layout. It should show the layout of the kitchen along with the appliances and kitchen cabinets. It will show the exterior wall and interior partitions and any stair layout. It also may show the layout of the switches and lights and plugs, as well as hose bibs, plumbing fixtures and heating ducts. This drawing may refer you to a Section or Cross Section it wants to detail and the direction it is looking at in the section. This is shown on the floor plan in a circle with a point on it. Inside the circle is the letter of the section and the page on which to find it. The point or arrow on the circle refers to the direction the viewer is looking from. The circle is attached to a line which cuts the drawing along a certain part to depict the internal section of that part of the house.

The drawing may show a Detail, which is a larger scale drawing of a certain area to more clearly display it. Details are usually on the same page.

Elevation: This drawing shows each side of the house including the foundation and roof, as though you took a picture of the side of the house. This view shows the configuration of the windows (sliding, casement, awning windows, etc.), the outside doors, handrails, gutters, the pitch and overhang of the roof, the siding, roofing, and any chimneys. Usually the dimensions are left off, but the drawing is to the scale noted. This drawing is used to determine the shape and openings of windows, with bathroom windows noted as obscure, the look of the exterior doors, and the shape of the roof. The height of the house can easily be determined, as well.

How to Build a House, Fourth Step: Submit Your Plans

When you purchase the house plans, go over them very carefully and determine if the dimensions add up, if the layouts make sense and are according to the building code. At this point in the process you should be familiar with the building inspector who services your area. Probably you will need to phone him and ask questions about building code requirements, such as how deep do the footings have to be to get below the frost line. Once you are happy with the house plans and no further changes must be made, submit them to the local authority having jurisdiction in your area. He'll take a minimum of two weeks or longer, depending on how busy he is. Don't be surprised if the house plans come back with red ink all over them. This is normal. The building inspector just wants to draw your attention to certain details which he finds necessary. After all, he is working for your best interests: the safety and durability of your house.

How to Build a House, Some Final Questions

One question to ask the building inspector is if you need a survey of your house lot. It may be an old lot and the iron pins are no longer available. A survey may be in your own best interest. Get that neighbour back to his own side of the property line.

When hiring sub-trades, the homeowner is responsible for Workers Compensation if anything happens to a worker. Check to see if the sub-trades have their own coverage. In my locality we are required to cover our own employees but not ourselves if working alone. As a homeowner employing a sub-trade or worker you may be responsible for any injury. Better to check it out before hand for your own assurance.

It is also smart to consider a construction insurance that protects you from liability, fire and theft. Before long you will have a good sum invested in your new house that should be insured.

Don't be overwhelmed when looking at your house plans. Get good advice if you have any questions before you start. Take one step at a time. Nobody builds a house all at once; we start with the footings and build from there. The next in this How to Build a House series will discuss the foundation of your new house.


Almost the End

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(Ask Dave) (About Dave)

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Hi, I'm Dave Osborne. With over 50 years experience as a journeyman carpenter, foreman and contractor in heavy construction I enjoyed working with apprentices and sharing the tricks of the trade that others shared with me. Now I get emails from Members all over the world and we include many of my answers in our Free Monthly Newsletters. Some of my answers include drawings and instructions specific to a project, but may also answer your questions. I use correct construction terminology, so you can confidently inform your building supply dealers or contractors exactly what you need.


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