I can tell I've officially joined the old-house owners' club because I need more storage space than my circa-1900 Foursquare provides. The good news? I was able to create substantive storage space by thoughtfully renovating my unfinished walk-up attic. The project rescued a husk of a space, remained true to the room's original lines, and created living and storage areas my family uses and appreciates every day.
The graceful hip roof capping my home created a wide-open attic that was both unfinished and underutilized. To make the most of it, I installed paneled knee walls around the attic's perimeter, closing off a storage area and finishing the room at the same time. Since doors actually make up the bulk of the walls, my wife, Theresa, and I can readily access our stuff—everything from printer paper to holiday decorations to that boogie board I always forget to bring to the beach—without having to call in a team of movers.
When we dreamed up the scheme for our knee walls, our overarching design theme was "make it look like it grew there." In an effort to create a seamless fit, we intentionally used materials and techniques that would have been available to the carpenters who built our house. Our components were simple: 2x4 framed walls, 1x6 knotty-pine tongue-and-groove paneling, and steel hardware.
We knew the knee-wall closets had to be sized properly in order to look right, so we used the room as our guide. A wall 50" out from the house's top plate (where the rafters hit the wall) rendered a graceful line around the room. Combined with the rafters' pitch, it left us with a 42"-tall wall plane on the room side.
Our design also called for the wall's top edge to be notched around the bottom cords of our rafters [A]. Getting this to work required some advanced carpentry and lots of tools.
Tip: To Notch, or Not to Notch
We notched our walls around the bottom rafter cords, but an easier technique (requiring less advanced carpentry skills) is to dead-end the wall at the rafters. Just bring a return down from the angled plane of the ceiling—a piece of drywall, for example—so it meets the bottom of the rafters, leaving a straight line. You’d then run your tongue-and-groove planks up to this line and cover the gap with a piece of trim.
Any successful carpentry project starts with a good layout, and this requires plans in three dimensions. To locate walls, measure out from the top plate in each corner of the room; the intersecting lines create a crosshair. From the crosshair, extend each line out using a framing square. Next, take a 4' level and plumb up to the first common rafter on each side of the hip rafters; this is the wall-height location. After doing this in each corner, snap chalk lines on the floor and across the bottoms of the rafters to see where the walls and floors should intersect.
Once floor lines are snapped, mark off the door locations. My door openings are each about 42" wide and 36" high, and evenly spaced in the finished field of the wall. Once I marked those locations, the fun part—framing the walls—could begin. Since framing pieces are short, you can cut studs quickly and accurately with a miter saw.
With lines snapped and doors located, you can now transfer those marks to your wall's top and bottom plates. I cut the plates to length [B] and transferred my layout marks from the floor plate. Next, I laid out studs on the plate. Finally, I transferred the marks from one plate to another with a speed square. Because flush doors don't have a 1-by door jamb like standard doors, use the studs as jambs instead. Be careful to keep the studs plumb [C]—and openings square—upon installation; framing and trim are practically one and the same on a project like this. Start running paneling in the corner and work out from there. Make sure the first piece you install is dead-plumb, because every other piece registers off of it.
Tip: Finding the Angle
For notching around the common rafters, I used my 7" bevel square to transfer measurements from the rafter to panel stock. The hip rafter intersects the first piece of tongue-and-groove in three planes of space—up, across, and through—and each needs an angle cut. The best way to get accurate cuts is to map out the notch on a scrap, then copy it on the finished piece. At the cut bench, I used a series of saws—miter saw, dual-bevel jigsaw, and Japanese-style pull saw—to put steel on wood at various angles.
I built and installed the doors as I installed the paneling. Each door will be four to five boards, depending on where it falls among the field of tongue-and-groove boards. You want to use the groove of one board to overlay the tongue of the next where each door slab meets, so using a full board on each of these pieces is best. Each door assembly's height will likely vary slightly, because if your old house is like mine, the floor makes a rumpled bath towel look flat.
To assemble the doors, you'll need to create door blanks (the basic door shape). First, lay out each blank's overall width. Next, rip one side of the groove off, then squeeze subsequent boards onto the tongue of the first board. You'll probably need to rip the hinge-side board to width. Cut top and bottom rails for each door blank out of 1x4. Make them 2" shorter than the door width.
Square a line across the first board, then dab some construction adhesive and place the rail (1x4) on the line [D]. Next, fasten it in place with 11⁄4" narrow crown staples [E]. (You could use screws, but staples make very fast work of the job and have great holding power.) Then weave in the subsequent boards, squeezing them tight to the first board and fastening. Repeat for the top rail.
Take the entire blank to the slide compound miter saw and square-cut one end; then measure for the finished height and square cut the other [F]. I made one cut, flipped the blank over, registering the blade on what I just cut, and finished the job. Note: Cutting this width requires two passes with the saw; to be safe, you should have a cut table. (I can't get by without a cut station, which I made in my shop for just a few bucks.) Finally, install the door blanks using steel strap hinges and a steel pull [G] Leave about 1/8" at the jamb to give the door room to travel.
Tip: Insulation & Air Flow
Before we began, we insulated and drywalled the rafters behind the knee walls. If you do the same, before stuffing rafter bays with insulation, be sure to install baffles—air channels—against the roof deck. This keeps an air channel open, allows the roof to breathe, and helps prevent mold and rot from hampering your roofing system.
The final carpentry step is installing the base molding (I used 1x4 knotty pine), then wiping the boards down with a couple of coats of boiled linseed oil (be sure to open the windows). Oil brings out the grain and patina in the wood like nothing else, aging the classic pine walls and helping them feel like they grew with the room.
Mark Clementis working on his century-old house near Philadelphia, and is the author of The Carpenter's Notebook.
Note: Always wear eye protection when using air-powered tools.