Building A Garden Shed

Some time ago I realized I had made a mistake when I hired loggers to move my shed to the back acres behind the cabin, painted the interior, and turned it into a bunkhouse. The previous summer we’d had numerous visitors who overflowed the cabin, and for whom a bunkhouse would have been helpful. However, that scenario has not recurred — and as we inexorably age, I’ve realized fewer of our friends want to sleep in a shed.

Meanwhile, I have far too many gardening and fencing supplies to store in my garage. I’ve been parking the motley collection of lawn mowers in the bunkhouse every fall. But where do I store the nine rolls of sheep and pig netting out of season? How about the extra fence posts, the garden stakes, the baskets, the seeders, the lime spreader, the forks, the rakes? I could store many of these in the bunkhouse, too — but it is hardly convenient to hike to the back of the farm for a shovel whenever I need to dig a hole.

I briefly considered hiring the loggers to come back and move the bunkhouse closer. However it is not a thing of beauty, solid and squat-roofed. I didn’t really want to look at it every day. Moreover, it occurred to me that for almost the same money as it would cost to move the bunkhouse, I might be able to build another shed right where I wanted it. So, as is my wont, some months ago I began to accumulate materials a little at a time.

I had no printed plan to follow. I thought I would copy the Amish-built shed that is the bunkhouse, simply changing the dimensions, the wall height, the door placement, and the roofline. (I blithely did not consider the ramifications of most of these changes.)

I started the project five weeks ago. I’ve rarely devoted more than an hour to it in a day, and many, many days have gone by when I’ve had no time to work on it at all. Nevertheless, the new garden shed has slowly come together. The languid speed has meant no pressure — and plenty of time to recognize my many mistakes. Thirty years ago, I learned to bake whole-grain bread from Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. The opening chapter is called “A Loaf for Learning.” It takes you through baking a loaf of bread one small step at a time. This project has been A Shed for Learning.

Last summer Allen had helped me put together three raised garden beds in the open, south-facing space in front of the driftway. Yes, under all these weeds, there are three garden beds.


Because the land is so rocky, I had to buy the topsoil that filled each bed, and it is difficult to keep the surrounding area mowed. Nevertheless, someday I will have time for these gardens. (Right now they are filled with some wholesale daylilies that after weeding I will plant out elsewhere.) I decided I would tuck my garden shed behind the beds, slightly hidden by a copse of balsams.

First I mowed, very carefully, between the rocks with a push mower. Using a shovel I dug out a flat base parallel to the driftway fence. To smother the weeds underneath, I put down some leftover black plastic I had on hand. I leveled the two 6×6 treated skids on concrete blocks.


Over the course of a couple of days I nailed up all the joist hangers.


I had scored some treated 2x6s last fall from a tear-down. I cut off the old ends full of nails and nailed the fresh ends snug. Here are most of them nailed up. As I had extra boards, I doubled the joists on both ends, in hopes that the frame would be stronger in case I ever had to move it.


Next I nailed down the plywood floor. The plywood was my first big mistake. Before purchasing it, I had asked if 1/2″ ply would work for my floor. The phrase “would work” was my error. On learning that my joists were on 16″ centers, the man told me 1/2″ would be fine. It is “fine.” But it is spongy. Every time I step on the spongy floor for the next twenty years I will remember how foolish I was to save $20 on 1/2″ plywood instead of buying proper 3/4″.


One day while I was mucking the barn I had Kyle quickly paint the floor with some leftover stain.

Next I walked out to the bunkhouse, studied the layout, and counted the boards. I drove to the small lumber mill a few towns over. For less than $200 I bought all the remaining lumber for the shed. It is rough cut, most of it milled just for me, and so green that water spurted from the boards as I drove every nail.

It was fun to set up my Christmas saw horses and my birthday clamps to notch the 2x4s.


Gary taught me how to cut notches when we built the apartment deck. I used my Skilsaw (a Christmas present from DH three years ago)…


… and a chisel (a Christmas gift from DH ten years ago). Et voila. Notches!


The back wall frame went up. The bunkhouse has a 5’4″ side wall. I made mine 6′. I also splurged and gave my walls a bottom plate, which the bunkhouse does not have, to make it easier for me working alone.

I have a compressor and could have borrowed a nail gun for this project. However, I wanted to keep things simple. I was building in half-hour chunks stolen from other chores and didn’t have time for elaborate set-up every day. Thus I bought a five pound box of 16d galvanized common nails for the frame, two boxes of 10d for the siding, and used my hammer.


Over the next week, between mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall, fencing the back pasture, and other chores, the side and front wall frames went up.

I had decided to use a window left over after building the barn addition, so I framed that in, too. The rough-cut 2x4s were of varying thicknesses, which made many of my measurements (and notches) slightly off. I decided I would do my best to keep things plumb and level and not worry about it. I reminded myself, Charles Ingalls didn’t have kiln-dried boards to build the little house on the prairie.


Next came the 1×12 siding. Like the 2x4s, the siding boards were of slightly varying widths and thicknesses. I knew they would all shrink severely as they dried so I worked hard to butt them tightly together. Sometimes I used a ratchet strap to close a bowed gap.


Instead of a door in the gable end, like the bunkhouse, I wanted a big door on one side, like the garden shed at school.


Next came the rafters.  I wanted a steeper pitch to the roof than the bunkhouse. I like the classic New England look of a steep roof; I also like attic space for storage. My barn has a 12:12 roof, and I wanted the garden shed nearby to match. However, a steep pitch requires more lumber and more metal roofing. I studied diagrams of roof pitches online and decided a 10:12 pitch on a smaller structure would give the same visual effect as 12:12, at less expense.

I consulted a rafter calculator. I read carpentry blogs. I drew sketches of birdsmouth cuts. The seat cut. The plumb or heel cut.

At last I was confident that I knew what I was doing. The day was rainy, Kyle was not coming, so I figured I could burn an hour and cut all fourteen rafters.

Four hours later, I had ruined four boards and finally had a single correct rafter. At one point in frustration I’d carried a board and the rafter square home to lay out on the kitchen counter next to my computer, so I could manipulate the square step by step alongside the directions. Over the years I’ve learned that my brain, which can spot an incorrect verb modifier in a flash, simply cannot picture most spatial relationships unless I’m physically handling the objects, and even then I am easily confused.

Using my correct rafter as a model, the next day I cut three more. I nailed these four rafters to a ridge board. (The bunkhouse does not have a ridge board, but I figured having one would make it easier for me to put up rafters alone and keep them properly spaced.) I marked the rafter layout on the ridge board in pencil, screwed in two temporary cross-braces, and when Kyle’s father arrived to take him home, the three of us boosted the rickety frame of rafters up on top of the building.

They did not fit. If you double-click to enlarge the picture, you can see the north-side rafter notches are floating over Kyle’s head. After all that careful work and arithmetic, my rafters were too short. Kyle and his father left. I was in shock.


I stewed about it all through chores and milking. What could have gone wrong? Finally it occurred to me that all of my calculations were based on a building 8′ wide. With siding nailed up, the shed was now 8′ 2″. I decided to pry off those siding boards, notch them, put them back up, and see if the rafters now fit.

They did.


Of course, I could have simply recalculated my rafters based on a building 8’2″ wide. But that would have wasted the lumber (I had no more extra) and increased my costs. Instead I carefully pried off each siding board, notched it with the jigsaw DH gave me for Christmas two years ago, nailed it back up, and put up my rafters. With so much else going on, this tedious process took more than a week.


But at last they were all done.


Oh dear. I was looking at the rafters one day, thinking about building double doors, when I realized the rafter tails would block the doorway. While cutting my first trial rafters, I had sawed the tails off. However in the end, when I got the birdsmouth cut properly placed, I had decided to leave them. A mistake in such a short wall.

Standing on a ladder, I marked the tails over the door and cut them off with the jigaw. (I tried my Sawzall but the saw was too heavy for me to hold steady in the air and the cut would have been sloppy.)


I bet you’re way ahead of me. I bet you have such good spatial awareness that you have immediately grasped that for me to be able to open the doors against the walls, I needed to cut all the tails off. I didn’t realize it for another couple of weeks. I’ll cut them off soon.

I’d moved on to the gable end siding. Before cutting the roof angle on my first board, I automatically put the level on a corner post to check for plumb. It was way off. What? I ran around the building, checking all the corners. They were all off. Panic! It finally occurred to me that when I had nailed up the rafters, the frame had racked a few degrees.

I pulled it plumb again with my truck and an old climbing rope of DH’s.


Then I began cutting and nailing the gable siding. Kyle took a photo of me one day, hammering between the rain drops.


At last the siding, too, was done.

I cut and nailed up rafter ties, which would be the attic ceiling joists. Again, the variations in the rough-cut lumber thicknesses made for some less-than-perfect carpentry.


Moreover I realized when it rained and a puddle formed that my northeast corner had settled a half inch. I could jack  it up but I had built to plumb on the settled base. If I lift it now I think I would throw everything else off.


It is a garden shed, I tell myself. It will be fine.

A bigger disappointment was my realization, as the building went up, that it was not perfectly perpendicular to the barn. I had laid out the base parallel to the driftway fence, not seeing that the fence itself is not perpendicular. Thus the garden shed is not at right angles to the barn, but slightly kitty-corner, cocked a few degrees northeast. This drives me crazy.

“Do you suppose I could pull it straight with my truck?” I asked Damon one day, when he was at the farm to mow the fields.

“What are you talkin’ about?”

I pointed out that the garden shed was not sitting at a clean right angle to the barn. “Could I pull it, do you think?”

“Leave it the fuck alone!” he snapped. “You’re always worried about stupid little fuckin’ shit like that.”


I knew that although he would have said it more kindly, Allen would have agreed. I could hear him in my mind. “You ain’t buildin’ a church.” This has been my mantra.

Still, I will ask Gary what he thinks, the next time he visits.

I nailed up the 1×4 roof laths.


Then I stained the garden shed to match the barn, and the next afternoon Kyle and I put up the roof.


There is still plenty to do. I forgot to order long screws for the ridge cap, so that still has to go up. I am going to order some metal edging for the gable faces. The doors have to be built and hung, and the rafter tails cut off. The window needs two new glass panes before it goes in. Just as I knew they would, cracks are appearing between the boards as they dry and shrink — you can see the yellow stripes in the photo — and after a few more weeks of drying I’ll cut battens, nail them up, and give the whole building a second coat.

Still, with the roof on I have been able to start using the garden shed already. Yesterday I took an hour and built shelves, a counter, and hanging racks out of scraps; I’m starting to put tools away. (The garage will soon be available for storage in the event of a move.) Little by little, I will get it done.

I will also weed the garden beds.


11 Responses to Building A Garden Shed

  1. Don says:

    Good work. It’s always nice to see how others creatively deal with their mistakes! I do have a small suggestion. Rather than cut off all of the rafter tails so that you can put it your doors with the ability to swing open, why not just add a 2″ x 4” (or whatever you need) to the top of the door frame to reduce the height of the doors enough to clear the rafters? The doors will still be tall enough. Also are you sure you want a center post in the doorway? It looks like you have plenty of structural support already. Our garden shed has the two doors with no center post and it definitely is a help.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thanks, Don, Newly, Shawn, Ned, and Jane for your very kind words!
      Don, I thought of lowering the height of the door, but since I went to such a lot of trouble to raise the walls so I wouldn’t conk my head (wearing a baseball cap all the time, I conk my head regularly), I think I will just do the tedious work of cutting off the rafter tails. I also debated about the center post. My header is only a doubled 2×4 and that is a load-bearing wall. The school’s shed has a 4×4. I compromised on a 2×4. I measured my various mowers/wheelbarrows, etc. and they can all get through a 35″ opening. However, if I change my mind I can always remove it later.
      THANKS again! 🙂
      Newly, I think of Dad all the time. 🙂

  2. Newly says:

    Beautiful, Sel. I can see our dear father, with his bemused, loving and somewhat astonished “what hath God wrought?” expression, and can feel his complete delight. My heart is full. Wonderful. xoxo

  3. Ned says:

    Very nice! Especially working mostly by yourself.

  4. Jane Welker says:

    That shed is fantastic. You are amazing! 🙂

  5. Jack says:

    Im amazed and proud of you Selden your doing a fine job.

  6. Erika says:

    Beautiful shed! I admire your ingenuity and talent.

  7. Jack B. says:

    I love the shed. Just about finished my own little backyard wood shop. Perusing the “internets” for ideas and ran across your wonderful blog. I love the siding. So satisfying when you look at something you built and the history behind it.

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