Hard lessons from a tough winter
It was the dead of winter in 2014, and the roller coaster that I own (better known as Megna Building & Remodeling, a residential remodeling company in NJ) had dipped down into a slow, flat spot on the tracks of my business. Feet of snow covered the land where excavators awaited the thaw so that work could begin and money could flow. But let’s rewind a few months to where this story begins.
In the late fall of 2013, after weeks of intense estimating, pencil sharpening, and spreadsheet tweaking, I had finally signed contracts for two projects. The first was a garage with a wraparound porch. The second project was a bedroom addition over an existing garage. The plan was to build the garage/porch first and then have the remodeling roller coaster calmly roll into the bedroom addition, to hopefully have it all done by late summer—a fun ride for all. That was the plan, but the universe laughs at plans.
We had a crazy northeast winter in late 2013 and I was waiting for it to let up so I could start construction. I was beginning to get nervous that the winter delays would push one project on top of the other, causing an all-consuming scheduling chaos to come roaring down upon my small company. I kept thinking, “If only the temperature would ascend from the teens and melt this snow, all would be right.” January passed, and February came and then went. The ground was frozen. It seemed the world was frozen.
Click, click, click, goes the remodeling roller coaster, up the vertical track. So I waited.
I figured this would be a good time to further my construction knowledge, and in March of 2014, while I was still waiting for the earth to melt, I attended a JLC LIVE show in Rhode Island. I am always looking for a new tip or technique that can make a tedious task more manageable. So I took a seat in front of one of Gary Katz’s presentations.
Gary was talking about eave returns—the little hip roof detail that turns the corner, lovingly wrapped in crown moulding. This was a detail that I had admired but never had the need to build. I grew up as a young carpenter on Staten Island, NY, the home of aluminum fascia, aluminum window capping, and the dreaded pork chop!
I sat and I watched Katz display the equations associated with the construction of this eave return. It was as if I was looking at the white board in a hydrogen fusion laboratory. Gary was going to use his construction calculator to figure this thing out on the ground, then cut the pieces and put it together. It was the holy grail of complicated building for intellectual carpenters. But my framers do it all the time with their hip rafters, don’t they? It can’t be that hard. I was glad that I didn’t actually have to build one of these things anytime soon, but I stayed focused on the presentation anyway.
It had been about twelve months since my architect dropped both of the projects I mentioned above into my lap at once, and I may have missed a detail or two in my eagerness to complete both estimates on time. It had also been a few months since I looked at the plans. I couldn’t quite remember how my architect dealt with the eaves!
|During the first break of Gary’s presentation, I whipped out the plans on my iPhone and there it…sort of was?|
The plans didn’t exactly spec a hip on that return. “Oh well, whatever,” I thought, “I’ll deal with it when I cross that bridge, or scaffolding, I guess.”
Climbing ever higher, I sat on my roller coaster. Click, click, click, towards the free fall.
Eventually the weather changed and then came hints of spring, and it was time to build! Of course, I had originally thought I’d have this garage up by that time. And with both clients packed with eagerness like a hill full of snow, there it was—I’d have to do two projects at once, and so we broke ground on both projects in the same week. Diggers were digging for the garage foundation and bricks were getting peeled off of the bedroom addition. I had been dead slow and was now crazy busy! I told myself I could handle it. (At this point, eave returns were not on my mind.)
Long days turned into sleep disturbed nights. Foundations were poured, and I would catch up on paperwork while I would sit, waiting for the inspections. I was putting together framing material lists, for both jobs, hoping my exhausted framer could jump directly to the bedroom addition after he framed the garage. And boom! The garage was framed and sheathed. I tried to sleep, but I was dreaming of eave returns. And in my half-asleep, half-awaken state, I found myself grumbling, “Finish to the rough.” I had read somewhere that you have to work from the finish to the rough. But I was all framed, and the rough was finished! Wasn’t I supposed to have this eave return mocked up or something, so that I could resolve the roof sheathing into the eave return? I tossed and turned. One day, after my 5 a.m. alarm, when it was still dark outside, I was sitting with my coffee and reading the TiC article on eave returns. Of course, half way down the article, the line stared back at me in bold text, “Work from the Finish Back to the Rough.” I shook my head. “Okay,” I thought, “I have to start paying attention to these eaves.” That day, I worked on the bedroom addition until 4:30 in the afternoon, and then I drove 20 minutes to the garage project to set up some scaffolding and start mocking up the eave return.
All the finish trim on this project would be PVC, but I mocked it up with wood scraps. I built the primary block as described in the article out of pressure treated lumber. I temporarily attached it to the building, and I started working out the 15-degree slope on the little hips. I quickly saw that the plywood was not overhanging enough to resolve into the eave, and what’s more, the overhang would not accept my crown molding.
The next morning, I was connecting my two large Festool tracks and cutting the roof plywood back a few rafters on each corner while my helper behind me was pulling nails. “Work from the finish back to the rough,” I grumbled. I think I saw the plywood blush from the expletives I was slinging at myself for dropping this ball.
|Mockup of the poor man’s return after adding new plywood overhang to the roof.|
I was glad I had gotten past the difficulty of figuring all this out and getting everything to line up. I was very proud of the end result. Then, I got a voicemail from my excavator a few days later. “Jim, I just wanted to let you know that the backhoe bumped into one of your trim pieces and nicked it. It’ll be fine,” he says, “you may just have to nudge it back into place.” I ripped it off and built it again. Man do I know some curse words! Who would have thought that PVC could blush, too!
I cannot say that I was entirely successful in building the parts to this eave return using my BuildCalc to then walk the parts up the ladder and watch them all fall into place.
But I got the first one done and the others came together nicely.
I wish I could brag about how well I was able to wield my construction calculator and blow through this thing like I watched Gary do. But that would be untrue. I also wish I could say that every dimension of my poor man’s return was by-the-book perfection, but that would be misleading. In fact, I wish I could say my result is a true Poor Man’s Eave Return, but it’s not, for several reasons. I did my best to follow the limited guidance provided by the architect, but his drawings were minimal and easy to interpret a dozen different ways–proof that proper eave return design challenges architects, too. For instance, instead of installing crown on the eave return, I wish I had mitered the gutter all the way around–that would have avoided the exposed endcap! And I wish I had been involved in the design stage earlier, I would have matched the overhang on the eave with the overhang on the gable with the overhang on the return! Then the raking crown would ‘seem’ to resolve into the eave crown or gutter! But that’s what carpentry is truly all about: wishing and working and wishing some more–improving your craft with each experience.
I can say that without the article in TiC, I would not have gotten my eave return to look nearly as good, to fit as it does on the building. I paid close attention to the proportions outlined in the article, and I worked hard to meet them; I avoided some design errors that could have been an eyesore for years to come. And when it was done, the homeowner, my client, gave me high praise. He’s an amateur woodworker, and he’s got an eye for detail (he made the brackets). He told me one afternoon that someone asked him, while admiring his new garage and porch, if he had a good experience with me, and what his overall impression was. He said any number of really nice things about me and my company’s performance, but all I heard was this last thing he said: “I have had many carpenters work for me over the years but Jim is the best carpenter I’ve ever met.” Now, my sawdust-covered friends, we both know that my being the best carpenter in any setting is just not in the realm of reality, but shhhh, let’s not tell my client any of that!
• • •
Jim Megna is the Owner of Megna Building & Remodeling. He descends from a long line of tradesmen, from his great grand dad to his own dad, who all worked with their minds and their hands. A carpenter by trade with over thirty years in the home remodeling world, Jim has worked on every facet of the home. From radius wall steel stud framing in a six-story brownstone to home additions, porches, kitchens and baths on homes young and turn-of-the-century-old. Jim spent over six years on the board of Central Jersey’s National Association of the Remodeling Industry where, during his time as president, he earned the Certified Remodeler certification. He then went on to help others gain their CR certification by teaching the course at his chapter. Jim enjoys photography, is an avid hiker and backpacker, and hopes to find more time to ponder the world from the flap of his tent. You can see his work at www.megnabuilding.com.
I am a retired contractor in North Hollywood, CA – Originally from Gouverneur, NY. about 20 miles from Canada, NE of Syracuse.
I am 77 years old. Have experienced many facets of carpentry but have never built one of these roof returns. We had them on our family home where I grew up.
After enjoying your article on the subject, now my interest is piqued and I’m going to learn how to do it properly.
Thanks jim for a great read. By the way, yesterday Feb 11-16, the temp. here was 82ºF. We don’t have to wait for the frost to go out. (:-)
Thanks for this Jim! The original eave returns article is a great resource, especially for a younger guy working in New England on historic homes. Fun to read along and watch it play out during a real project.
I am from Sackets Harbor and I am looking to do this on my house. I sort of had this idea but this was the only article I could find. Bet you miss the winters in NY…lol 1977 was a lot of fun.
I now wish I had jumped in on the NARI Certification Classes when you were teaching them. I am still trying to “reinvent the wheel”. – Dennis
Jim, great article. I am a contractor in Quincy MA. A friend and I were also at that same JLC. We both stopped to watch Gary as he began his presentation. Unfortunately, we were with a group of contractors who had come on a bus from our local lumber yard and were pressed for time. So we moved on after a few minutes. I have since wished I had watched the full presentation so I could be prepared to hone my skills. Fortunately I have not had to do formal returns like this yet, but I know the time is coming. You have inspired me to dig up the article to give it a read. I am actually quoting a siding job where this will be handy. Thanks and good work!
It’s good to read a article by someone who struggles at getting the details right.
Jim great article like always you rise to the occasion. You reminds me of a quote that I read the other day from somebody I respect and admire.
When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers you are not going to use a piece of plywood on the back even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it.
You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use the beautiful piece of wood on the back for you to sleep well at night. The aesthetics and the quality has to be carried all the way through.
From your work that I’ve experienced at firsthand. This “Pretty much sums it up.
Great article and nice project. It really came out great. I love the eave return look and have done it many times on older homes and porticos. I have had to struggle through it the first few times, probably more so as I have not seen Gary Katz build one and explain the math behind it.
Regarding using a gutter; we have mitered the gutter and wrapped that around the eve return, but a mitered gutter still looks like a gutter.
The ideal thing would be to build built-in gutters like the houses had 80+ years ago. They look the best and function very well as there are many 80 year old houses that still have them in working condition. We have rebuilt old ones and relined them with soldered copper, which is an expense but a great way to keep the look. But to build them new I have not done in large part because of the cost, so at best we install copper gutters which is still allot cheaper than the originally built in gutters.
Thank you sir for sharing your expertise ,along with your trials and tribulations. I may be wrong ,however,is this return called a “poor mans return”. I understand that a classical return would require “custom” cut moldings for the angled and horizontal cymas. Reason being,the profile used in that manner would not match each other if cut from same molding. Does anyone know of an article depicting that application.
If you’re looking for information on classical eave returns, you may find the three-part series we did on Raking Cornice helpful.
Wm. Todd Murdock
Wonderful, informative article!
Only one typo that I saw…
Would have thought. Not would of thought.
That is all!
Thank you, Biff. We appreciate you noting that for our attention. The correction has been made.
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