My Tiny House Starts with a Window

Arched Window ... and A Beautiful Arched Door. And a brand new Custom Vardo Trailer. And a Kitchen Sink, for good measure. I'll write about those in upcoming posts, so stay tuned! But today, we'll start at the beginning, with my window.

Three years ago I scored a gorgeous set of double-paned arched windows - for free! I hauled them home and admired them, trying to figure out how to give them a second life. I kept coming back to the idea of putting these arched windows in a gypsy wagon with a curved vardo roof. An architect friend who took a look confirmed that they were worth building around, so most of the tiny houses I've schemed up for myself over the past three years have an arched roof that honors the curved line of the window.

Now that I've lived in two tiny houses on wheels, a travel trailer, and a yurt, I'm ready to begin building a tiny home of my own. We have several months before building season begins, but January is the perfect time to start prepping for a build. (It's also the perfect time to spend a crisp afternoon drinking tea and perusing seed catalogs as I did last Sunday. Thanks, Danell!) This winter I've been revising my budget, laying out my timeline, tweeking my Sketch Up Model, researching my options for compact appliances, and swapping building notes with fellow tiny housers.

The first tangible item on my Vardo Task List was Find Someone to Make Frame for Arched Window. Fortunately, my former neighbor Tom recommended a fellow named Dale Harley (though as Tom told me, everyone calls him "Wooddale.") So yesterday I rented a car for the day and took my arched windows down to Wooddale Windows in Oregon City. The facility isn't much to look at. In fact, I drove by the first time because it didn't even occur to me that the nondescript building with a fiberglass door and vinyl windows would contain the region's most incredible wood window workshop. But indeed it does.

Wooddale Windows

The moment I stepped in the door, I was greeted with the smell of wood shavings and a firm handshake from Wooddale himself. He and his employee were working away on a set of windows for a historic home in Portland's Irvington neighborhood. But I'd warned him I was coming down, so he pointed me to the door and we walked out to the rental car to haul in my windows.

"My first question is whether they're worth working with," I told him, realizing as soon as I said it that if they weren't worth building around I'd spent the past three years arranging my whole house around a fantasy.

"Yeah, they're money," Wooddale told me. "They aren't originals. They were probably made in the 80s, see? Or maybe the early 90s. That's when they started using the insulated glass. But they're replicas and they probably weren't cheap. If you like 'em, they're worth building around."

I assured him that I do like this window and asked if he could make me a frame for it. "Oh yeah, no problem at all. We'll make the frame like these ones here," he said, pointing to the set of frames stacked against the side wall of his shop. "I'll have to build a jig for it, see?"

Big Maroon Interior

I do know about jigs. I've been pouring over PAD's Vardo Plan Set, trying to wrap my brain around how I'm going to build my laminated arched rafters for my vardo. I'm looking forward to that process, but I knew I was out of my league building a window frame for an arched window. And I knew that was Wooddale's specialty.

He flipped my windows this way and that, inspecting them. "I don't like the way they did the bottom, see? But I can fix that. And this latch system, look at this. Someone can just slip their knife in there and open the window. Looks like someone has!" He pointed out the spot where the window frame had been roughly hacked with a blade. I laughed and told him, "Well, these windows came out of a women's dormitory, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone climbed up and perched on a balcony and let themselves in." Wooddale chuckled, too.

"Now you mentioned you're interested in another window, too..." Wooddale said, pulling out a piece of paper and a pencil. "Yes," I told him. "I'd like to have a set of three windows, all mullioned together, two sets actually, one for each side of my house." Wooddale sketched it out while I talked.

I want a triple window over my kitchen sink, but not vinyl!

Then he said, "You mean like this?" and he took me to the back where there was a frame with one window in it, exactly what I was looking for. "Yes, just like that!" I told him. Except that when we measured it we discovered that it's six inches bigger - in both directions - than I'd been planning on. And, as you know, six inches makes a world of difference in a tiny house. "I built this one for someone who decided they needed a different mullion for their historic home, so if you want this one, I could give you a discount," Wooddale told me. So tempting! "Okay, I'll do some figuring and see if I can make it work, but I want two of them, one for each side of the house." "You and your wants," Wooddale teased me, leading me back to the piece of paper where he jotted down a few more notes.

Iowa Trolley

"And I ideally they'll have a little bit of trim at the top to give them a little bit of a curved look, like the old streetcar windows." I added that bit in with the pencil. Again, that wasn't a problem at all. Wooddale could make my windows just how I wanted them. But, of course, there's a price tag on that. And it will take time.

I told him I wanted to get the arched window into the queue but that I had to do a little figuring on the set of three windows. I wanted to see if I could make it work to use the bigger window. I also wanted to see if it made more sense for me to order them through Anderson or Jeld-wen instead. "Well, you've got some time," Wooddale told me, indicating with a sweep of his hand that there were plenty of other projects ahead of mine.

"I'll work on your window on my time. Don't go calling me in two weeks asking where your window is. We make wood windows the old-fashioned way. These things take time and when the time comes for your window I'll clear everything else aside and do it right."

my tiny house starts with a window...

I believed him. These days customers chant the mantra "the customer is always right." They wouldn't tolerate hearing that their timeframe doesn't matter. Or worse, that there isn't an estimated delivery date at all. But I'm rarely a customer anymore. And I have enough of an appreciation for quality craftsmanship that I didn't mind hearing that Wooddale would take the time to do it right. I am glad that someone still builds windows with this level of craftsmanship. "Making wood windows is a dying art," Wooddale told me. And we talked for a while then about lumber and windows and historic homes and milling and about how the trades are dying out.

Wooddale told me that when he started making windows in 1977 there were 12 other wood window makers in the area and they all switched over to vinyl and laughed at Wooddale for being old school. But when the recession hit and their companies all suffered, they were surprised to see Wooddale still doing his art. "'You're still here?'" they'd ask and I'd say "Yeah, someone's got to make good wooden windows for all these historic homes."

So Wooddale and I will work out the details get our invoice and deposit squared away so we can get my windows into the line up. These windows won't be cheap. And they won't be here in 2 weeks. But they will be beautiful.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with craftspeople like Wooddale. If you're looking to have some beautiful windows made, look him up. Just don't you dare jump ahead of me in line!