The Infinite Complexities of Shake Geometry

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At long last the shakes on three walls are finally finished! I can’t say I’m sad to be done with that part of the house. Those things are not the most enjoyable thing to install. Yes, they are thin cedar boards, which means they’re flexible and easy to cut with a razor, but at the same time those same qualities lead to them breaking, cracking, and being an all-around nuisance.

Our last post on the subject was when I was working with mainly nice, big, square pieces. It was a good place to start, and relatively easy to measure. But once I started on the cheek walls (the vertical walls between the dormers and the gable roofs), things got especially tricky. For one, the two roofs are different pitches – our dormers are 12 degrees and the gables 42. So I had to take that into account when creating the pieces. Next of course, I’m leaning on the roof, so maneuvering around the ladder made it challenging to reach everything, especially since one side of our house is parked so close to the fence that it’s nearly impossible to stick a ladder in there. But, at least with the cheek walls everything was cut on straight lines. Yes, an occasional shake cracked and yes, an occasional curse word was uttered, but it wasn’t too bad. I think they turned out pretty well.

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Right side and cheek wall
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Left cheek wall

But the biggest, most challenging surface yet was the dreaded half circle window on the front of the house. Here are some of the challenges:

First, the thing is a half circle, which means lots of angle-calculating and geometry. Geometry wasn’t my best subject in school (although my teacher Ms. White was a godsend and really helped me through that class), and I’ve apparently forgotten most, if not all, of my geometry skills (sorry Ms. White…). Drew and I had recently worked on the trim for the half circle window and were clever enough to come up with a template that I could use for the shakes. So simple, right? That would make everything so much easier. Yeah. Right. What I originally thought I would do would be to lay out the template on the work table, insert shakes underneath the edges all the way around draw a line and cut them with either the jigsaw or band-saw, and then install them on the roof. That way they’d all fit against each other (since they matched with the template) and it would simplify everything.

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My initial plan for how I was going to complete the shakes

Yeah. Right.

So of course it didn’t work out that way. What I didn’t account for was the angle of the roof – because the half circle window is so large, part of the trim on two sides butts up against the roof and creates an infinitely small gap (that lessens in size as it goes) leading up and around the trim that I have to fill with some sort of shake. (Also, note that the smaller the shake, the more likely it is going to break when being screwed in.) Also, the trim wasn’t the exact same shape as the trim template, and the eave trim (which came down more than 4 inches) made it really hard to access the tight areas underneath it. Using a drill bit extender helped, but it was still difficult to access. So the method I had come up with would have worked in theory, but it didn’t quite fully make it to fruition.

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The area I needed to access… (imagine there’s 4″ wooden trim surrounding the half circle window as well.)

So, as many of these things do, it turned into a guess-and-check situation (or, as one of my other math teachers would have said, a ‘plug-and-chug’). I would create a shake using the template as best I could, go out on to the ladder, check it, see it was off, go back inside and cut it, go back on the ladder and check it, see it was off, go back inside and trim it again, etc. etc. For such a small section it took a long day to complete. Also, something else I didn’t think would be a factor but did was how difficult it would be to make sure all the shakes were oriented 90 degrees so that they were flush when installed. For example, when placing a shake under the template I needed to use the square (a triangular device that helps carpenters makes 90 degree angles) to make sure it was positioned straight up and down.

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But hey, now it is done, and the shakes are complete. (I’ve probably made it sound a lot worse than it was.) We’re getting pretty close completing the entire exterior of the house! It will be nice working on the inside, although I bet progress will slow down a ton since we face a rather large learning curve with the plumbing and electrical. (Hopefully not as much geometry.) Onward!

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The Highly Technical Half-Circle Trim Installation

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Alright, to get you ready for this one lets start with a joke:
Q: What kind of tree do math teachers climb?

A: A geometry

Corny, but hey – without geometry, life is pointless.

So Drew and I recently added trim around the half circle window on the front of the house. It draws the eye and is a bit of a showpiece for our house, so we wanted to make sure it looks especially good. Seeing as how we weren’t sure how to go about turning rectangular pieces of wood into a smooth radius, this proved to be a challenge.

The entire process took a couple days. We had kept our cardboard template from when we had routed the hole for the window, so we decided to use that when calculating the trim. We’d bought large pieces of 2×8 cedar and planned to lay them under the template, draw the trim, and then cut and install it. But this posed a couple problems. For one, we had to fit our trim smack dab in the middle of the triangular roof and the circular window, which only provided a clearance of a few inches from either edge. About half way up both sides of the window is where the half circle window comes the closest to the roof. The roof has a 42 degree pitch, so it becomes its most narrow in those sections. To make the shakes easier to install, we wanted to butt the trim right up against the roof in those sections. The problem was the window wasn’t quite in the center of the wall – the maximum clearance on the left side was 4 3/8″ from the roof, and 4 9/16″ on the right. So whatever trim we installed would need to be wider on one side than the other. Not only that, but the narrowest points on either side were not symmetrical! (I don’t remember the exact measurements, but it was roughly 18.5″ on one and 19″ on the other) so this made our original plan difficult.

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Our original cardboard templates – the larger one is the half circle window that goes over the front porch. The smaller one is the dormer window on the end wall.

Then we came up with another idea: we decided to tape a string to the bottom center of the half circle template and lay the whole thing on another large sheet of cardboard. We outlined the existing half circle on the new cardboard, and then pulled the string taught out past the edge of our template and drew marks of a consistent width on the new cardboard. We were essentially creating a shadow, or an up-scaled model of our original template that would be the exact size and shape of our window.

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Here we are trying the string idea. The front piece of cardboard is our template. We used the square (the metal ‘L’ shaped thing) to measure an accurate distance. We’d then mark the cardboard all the way around until we had a half circle trim template.

This allowed us to make a geometrically accurate model of our old template on a larger scale, and it also allowed us to make small width discrepancies where needed to make the trim narrow or thicken as we saw fit. At the end, we had an inverted “U” shape that we cut out of the cardboard. This was to be the exact size and shape of the trim we needed to cut.

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Here is the half circle window template with the finished trim template above it.
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We completed the same process for the dormer window.
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On the half-circle template we placed marks where the trim would be hitting the roof. (This is the left long side of the trim.) We also measured where the center of the trim would be and matched it up to the center of the window template (not pictured).

Next, we marked the center point of our new template and placed a cedar board underneath. We centered it and copied the shape of our trim onto the board. We now had our first piece. We drew its placement on the template also (where it began and ended) so we knew how to place the next piece.

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The board we used underneath the trim template was actually a bit thicker than this one, but this gives you an idea of the process. We placed theĀ  trim template on the board, marked around it, cut it with a band saw, and then continued on and made the next piece.

Drew then went ahead and cut it out with the band saw as I figured out the next piece. We did this for all the pieces until we had five trim pieces.

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Sorry it’s not the best picture quality-wise, but it gives you an idea of how the trim looked around the original half circle template. (You can see the green tape where we had attached a string to draw the trim template.) We later finished the trim by sanding and oiling it.
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We completed the same process for the dormer window. We left the side legs long until we were able to place it around the window on site and more precisely fit it with the window’s bottom trim.
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Same thing, just different angle. We’re waiting to install this piece until we being working on the back wall.

Next, we glued and screwed all the pieces together and let them dry. After that we tested it out. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of this, but I’ll sum it up for you and say it didn’t fit quite yet, but it was a good way for us to see what we’d especially need to sand down. So we set to sanding both the interior and exterior of the trim. This process took a long time, but we finally had finessed it enough that it looked great and fit perfectly! So we took it down, oiled it, then installed it, and voila.

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Next I’ll be installing shakes around that window… Wish me luck.