This past summer, I had the opportunity to create a detail that is now rare in construction. The trade seems to have lost its flair for creative, interesting, and alluring details. All too often we have been transformed into simple assemblers. One of the reasons why I love remodeling is that no job is the same. While some parts of a job are unavoidably familiar, new challenges arise on every project. And some projects push us more than others.
In the winter of 2009, I took a course from Billy Dillon on eyebrow dormers. When I heard about the class, I thought, “Hey, this would be fun to do, and maybe I can learn something that has always intrigued me.” The West Coast seems to have a shortage of schools that teach high-end carpentry. Most of my studies have been on my own, gleaning what I can from books, construction forums, and the occasional carpenter who has graciously shared the true gift: knowledge. I am humbled that these men, who have spent many years honing a skill, would be willing to pass it on.
The class with Billy Dillon opened my eyes to an entirely different world of carpentry. I learned that drawing something can be very, very valuable—up until this point in my career, I had not really drawn things out (my poor chicken scratches don’t count). The second important thing I took from Billy’s class was the power of collaboration: Learning from others and sharing in a free exchange of ideas is unbeatable. The class also reinforced my belief that, over time, we have lost many carpentry methods that were commonplace only a few years ago. Lastly, Billy’s class showed me that we must be willing to teach one another if our craft is to continue to be something that we are truly proud of, and if we want to leave a legacy for future carpenters.
I felt overwhelmed by the end of Billy’s eyebrow class. I didn’t really know if I could actually build one myself, and I didn’t get an opportunity to find out until an unexpected project came my way.
Billy emailed me last year, when someone contacted him to have four eyebrows added to a Seattle home. Billy gave him my contact info, and before long I was in communication with a new client (sometimes jobs can come in the most unexpected ways!). Since Seattle is about four hours north of me (I’m in Portland), I wanted to build as much of the eyebrows as possible before transporting them for installation. I happened to go to Seattle for a tangential handrail course, so I decided to take advantage of that opportunity to meet my new client and see the house firsthand.
I teamed up with two other contractors to pull off the project: Clint Howes, with Revive Construction, and Lavrans Mathiesen from Mathiesen Woodworking. Once we settled on what size the dormers needed to be, it was time to head to the drawing board (or, in this case, some 1/4-in. plywood). We drew everything full-scale in order to check our work and cut back on errors in the actual pieces. We decided to build curved roof rafters that run perpendicular to the main roof rafters, with both inner and outer valley developments. The rafters would be letting light into a very rough, unfinished attic space that was going to be turned into a playroom.
We used seven full-size drawings as guides in order to work out all of the required geometry.
Each of the drawings in the process is important. Information gathered from one drawing is used in the next drawing to then gather more information. Together, the drawings provide a systematic approach for developing the complex shapes required for this type of dormer. The following animation gives a basic overview of the process.
One of the things that made this project convenient was that we could fit one drawing on one sheet of plywood.
|With seven sheets of full-size plywood-drawings, it helps to label them so you can keep them in order.
Once all the drawings were done, it was time to get in the shop and make some sawdust. It was an old house, which meant that the framing conditions were a little unknown. We decided to leave the inner valley drawing for after we set the eyebrows. We also decided to have insulated glass units made rather than ordering a custom window. This allowed us to meet our timeline, keep to the budget, and give a local glass shop some work.
Our goal was to send fully assembled units to Seattle. First, we needed to cut out the outer valleys.
|We made templates from the drawings, and then cut our valleys out of 2×12 fir framing material.
|We happened to have some leftover Mahogany from another job, and decided to re-purpose that for our window sashes.
|We made the primary rafters from Ply-Lam. We cut the secondary rafters from standard framing materials.
In the photo above, you’ll notice that the primary rafters have the bevel of the roof ripped on them. Part of making the outer valley developments is that you need to put the bevels on the valleys to give you a smooth transition from the roof to the dormer. Getting these valleys right is a must.
|This is where all the tools in the toolbox come out. A reciprocating saw was used to get the approximate depth of cut for the bevel, and then a grinding wheel was used to shape them fair to the lines.
|Once the valleys were shaped, it was time to attach the rafters.
If everything has been done correctly, it should all lay out right (hard to believe we are still just rough framing).
Once the rafters were installed, it was time to put on the sheathing. Since this dormer was on a fairly tight radius, we went with bendy-plywood. We decided on two layers of 3/8, with a good layer of wood glue between, and lots of staples. Due to the size of our windows/dormers, we did not have a design that dictated anything specific in regards to the windows themselves, only the opening in the roof.
Here’s a peek at the process:
|Working on cutting out the plywood for the sheathing.
|Fitting the sheathing.
|Trimming the sheathing to fit.
|Sheeted and almost ready for transport.
|Ready for the trip to Seattle.
This is the way the home looked before we installed the eyebrow dormers:
The contract was to put two on the front and two on the back. Our first priority was to strip off the 1×8 sheeting on the inside, and then check out the rafters that would need to be cut.
|The picture is a little dark, but you can see the new doubled-up side rafters in this photo (left). We added new headers above and below the opening, as well as support running on the bias to support the shrinking width of the eyebrows.
All of the connections were to be attached with various fastening products (I prefer Simpson Strong-Tie.).
I elected to sub the roofing out due to our limited time onsite. This allowed our crew to focus on the carpentry aspects. We primed the exterior sashes with an oil-based paint, but didn’t do any of the finish painting—the homeowner elected to handle that himself.
Once we got the framing done, and the openings created, we were able to set the eyebrows. We used LedgerLOKs to set them into the framing below, and we also used them in the framed nails through the sheeting on the perimeter.
The photo above shows the first one set. It was a little tricky, due to the chimney being so close, but it came out just fine, as did the other three. We had to balance squaring them with the outside look, as well as the inside look. It was one of those “look right” and not necessarily “be right” days. At the end of our first day onsite, we had all four set, the roofed tarped, and a clean job site.
|We used some of the drawings that we had previously made, expanding upon them to get the inner valley layout.
|These points from a previous drawing allowed us to plot the curve of the inner valleys.
Once the inner valleys were set, it was time to start finishing the interior. We needed something that would take the curve fairly well. We decided to use 1×4 fir flooring to somewhat match the finish that was in the house. We would usually bring in a plasterer to do the curves and blend everything in, but we weren’t in a finished space.
|The roofers were wrapping up the outside while we were busy working on the inside.
|Once the interior finish was put on, it was time to re-install the original 1×8 sheeting, and then blend it all together.
|This is where having a small electric chainsaw would have been helpful. We made do with pull saws, recip saws, Multimasters, Bosch Finecuts, and grinding wheels.
|We learned how easy it can be to cut more material than you want to! It’s better to take it slow. Adding material at this point was, shall we say…difficult.
Building these in a shop was a great way to go, and extremely efficient. It took us about four days to lay out and build them, and then another three days to install them onsite. If it had been a larger window, I would have probably used a window manufacturer to build the window instead of making it myself.
A few more tools to the arsenal would have also been helpful. As I said before, an electric chainsaw would have been handy when we tackled the re-installation and blending of the original sheeting—the long-cutting action blades of an electric chainsaw would have given us the opportunity to follow some of the roof contours better. Also, if we had used an electric chainsaw, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the fumes in the enclosed attic. Some of the guys mentioned it, but I thought, “A chainsaw? Yeah right!” I guess they get the last laugh.
My wish list for future projects also includes a compass plane, either hand or electric (which would have been useful for shaping some of the rafters), and a Porter Cable Oscillating Spindle Sander, which I actually borrowed to help us fair the curves.
And lastly, though I haven’t used it yet, Festool’s RAS would have probably been a good tool for working to blend the surfaces.
In the end, I’d say that the most important part of the whole project was the drawings. At one point, we laid out the inner valley wrong, and had to do some adjusting before we could finish it up. We went home and re-worked what we did to find the error. The beauty and simplicity of a project like this one is that if you follow the drawings through, it works.
Architectural features like this are missing from our modern buildings. I hope that eventually we can feel like older generations of carpenters did, and know that we’re creating art with our work. I think the tide is slowly shifting toward clients who don’t just want something cheap. I think, more and more, people are truly valuing craftsmanship, art, and beauty.
Thanks to Billy Dillon for passing on the craft he loves so much.
And thank you to my family for putting up with me while I learn new skills in the art I love.
(SketchUp animation by Wm. Todd Murdock)
Editorial Note: If you have questions/comments for Billy Dillon, or if you’d like more information about Billy’s eyebrow dormer class, please submit your inquiry through our Contact Page.
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Joshua Farrand, of Eight Inch Nails Construction LLC, is based in Portland, OR. He is always in search of new approaches and techniques, and ways to improve the trade that he enjoys. Someday, he hopes to build furniture, and teach others the wonderful craft that is carpentry.