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Do It Yourself: Attic conversion depends on how it was constructed

Gene Austin McClatchy-Tribune

Q. I want to convert part of my attic for storage. How do I do it?

A. It depends on how your attic is constructed.

If you live in an older house with a roof supported by rafters, floor joists at least six inches deep, and reasonably good access, it is a rather easy project. If the attic of your house has truss construction – which includes most houses built during the last several decades, setting up storage is either very tricky or not possible.

Trusses are usually made entirely of 2-by-4s, and are easy to recognize by their web-like appearance with vertical braces between the 2-by-4 rafters and joists. Spaces between the vertical braces are usually tight, and the relatively skimpy joists are not designed to support much weight. Access to a truss attic is often through a small trapdoor in a closet ceiling. Truss attics often have thick layers of blown-in insulation covering the floor.

I’m sure there are people who have figured out ways to use truss attics for some storage, possibly by beefing up the floor joists. But I wouldn’t attempt a storage plan without first checking with building-code officials in your municipality. If storage is allowed at all, it is possible a structural engineer or experienced builder can design a workable system.

Conventional attics are also easy to recognize – they usually have ample open space, insulation is often between the floor joists instead of on top of them, and some have existing flooring or platforms to move about on.

If you have an attic like this but access is poor, it is usually possible to install a set of pull-down stairs in a hallway or central room ceiling. Most pull-down stairs require cutting a piece out of at least one joist and building a sturdy box frame to support the stairs. If in doubt about making a strong and safe installation, have the work done by a pro – most home centers provide this service at extra cost.

If you need to provide additional platform space and plan to walk on it, use plywood three-quarters of an inch thick for adequate support. New platform panels should be screwed to the joists, not nailed; the impact of nailing might cause cracking or chipping of the ceiling underneath.

Keep storage well scattered, not bunched up in one area where a heavy load might put too much stress on the joists and ceiling.

Q. Can oak wood be stained to a darker tone?

A. Almost any bare light-toned wood, including oak, can be stained to darker tones.

Oak floors and cabinets are often stained, although some people prefer the natural color of good oak and simply give it a clear finish.

Both oil-based and water-based stains are available, and special wood dyes can also be used. But oak is a coarse-grained wood, so don’t expect stained oak to look like cherry or walnut, as might be the case with smoother pine or poplar.

You can find a selection of stains suitable for oak at most home centers and paint stores. The instructions on the container are the best source of information on how to apply the stain, but I suggest trying any stain in a hidden place or on scraps to see if you like the result.

You don’t say what you want to stain, but if the wood already has any finish on it, you will be limited in choosing stains unless you want to strip off the old finish.

A few stains will work over old stained finishes. An example is Minwax PolyShades, a so-called varnish-stain; this is a mixture of pigmented stain and polyurethane varnish. PolyShades is available in a number of wood-tone colors, and can be applied by brush or aerosol spray. For more information, visit, click on Products, then on One-Step Stain and Finishes.

Questions and comments should be emailed to Gene Austin at Send regular mail for Gene Austin to 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, PA19422.
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