Things are always easier with a friend, but especially maneuvering 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood through a table saw. Every weekend, Victoria Salvador and I have been getting together and cutting wood, piece by piece, crossing off our list and measuring twice. (And more than a few times, cutting twice despite that. Things happen.) Four sheets of ¾” furniture-grade plywood run through the table-saw later, and we have begun to see the stairs take shape, one cut at a time.
The stairs, while really just a simple set of boxes, took some figuring out, since mostly what we had was a Sketchup drawing from Imgur, sans anything but the scarcest idea of scale from which to extrapolate. Philip Spangler and I had begun building the stairs, and included an inset into the loft that presented numerous problems in our design, since it had been planned for a completely different set of stairs, with a 12” rise and spanning half the length of the trailer. The inset into the loft and the height differential from the Imgur drawing was a head-scratcher for a while, but eventually we figured out that while most stars are built with a center post and risers, we could go with a set of stacked boxes that allowed for storage and only took up three square feet of space. Several design sessions and sets of plans later, we were ready to begin cutting. But first we had to remove the stairs that were there and dismantle them and re-use what wood we could salvage, though there was more waste than I would have liked.
After stepping up on a crate several times, I had begun to realize that a 12” rise is somewhat uncomfortable, and given that I’ve had knee troubles I worried it might even be painful at some point. So despite the small step size, the 9" rise we wound up with in this design promises to be more comfortable, and the new stairs will now free up so much space I can almost add another couch. The new stair design provides for pantry space in the kitchen in the largest cavity, shoe storage in the steps, and a lift-up desk with office storage space underneath in the base.
But one of the small triangular steps was confounding us. I didn’t want to waste an inch of interior space, so the open plan could provide for as much storage as possible: In a tiny house, every inch matters. The original design we had was a sort of flag box with a lift-up step, and in the midst of cutting wood, Victoria asked the pertinent question: “What are you gonna put in that box?” My lack of an answer stopped us while we reconsidered the design. Any support on the inside for the lid made it even smaller…and would I really lift up my step in order to store things in that breadbox-sized awkward space?
But if we closed it in, it was a box filled with air. That wouldn’t do, either, and made me crazy with its inefficiency. Then it hit me: a closed box with a large hole in the front goes from being useless empty space to a perfect kitty hideaway — and thus was born the “Monkey Hole.” My cat, Monkey, will have his own little space-age bachelor pad in the stairs, a perch from which he can see me at my desk and survey the entire room. He will be thrilled.
While both Victoria and I have our own skill sets, neither of us are master carpenters. My dad, however, was a master carpenter and I would hang around his wood shop from the time I was a little girl, gathering golden curls of sawdust and hiding them in my own blonde tangles. By ten, I had my own block of wood clamped to my dad’s workbench filled with as many nails as a Congolese Nkisi figure. But try as I might, I couldn’t convince my dad to teach me more than how to drive a nail. Every time I touched his power tools or implored him to teach me, he would impatiently pull the tools from my grasp and do it himself. As a young artist I asked him for a circular saw for Christmas, and he got me a handsaw…possibly with the mistaken notion that it was safer, or possibly with the idea that I should learn to do it by hand first. (While it has gotten use over the years, there’s still no replacement for a good table saw with a sharp blade.)
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned any carpentry skill at all, and I wistfully imagine the skills I could have picked up from my dad if he’d had the patience or desire to teach me…much more than I could have learned from all of the covert watching and hovering I did as a kid. Now I spend my days putting the healthy fear of power tools into students, and the one thing I will never do is take the tool out of their hands, having felt how disempowering that was as a kid. I’m proud to watch my students build their first objects in wood, from their first tentative, frightened cuts to confidently using all the tools in the shop in a few short weeks.
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But despite the number of times I’ve taught a student to cut an angle, and even though between us Victoria and I knew all the basics, certain things were somewhat confounding — like how to cut a perfect angle for the corner stairs, which took some improvising and setting up of jigs. But 46 pieces of wood cut later, we’ve begun assembling the steps and have four of them done. Next week, we should be able to get to the point where we are building the stairs into the house, weather permitting. But we’re getting it done, one cut, one nail, one step at a time.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is writing about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on westword.com. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.