At 25, John Clarke Mills, a software entrepreneur with a background in engineering and woodworking, bought his first house. John’s “starter house,” an 1890 three-story, 8-room Victorian in San Francisco, looked like a home most people would aspire to owning somewhere down the road. For John, however, it was the perfect starter. Even before he moved in, he was able to begin plotting out, and blogging about, a slew of renovations that would restore and modernize his new old home.
“The amount of work we have taken on is due only to our own ambition,” says John, speaking about him and his housemate Brian Harris and the centenarian structure that was in perfectly fine condition. John and Brian, both handy and aesthetically minded, have a vision, and the last three years have been spent, when not at their full-time jobs, using wood, wires, siding, tile and a whole lot of tools to realize it. Crucial to this realization was a dedicated and organized work space—“the key,” John says, “to getting your projects done right.”
The shop that John built occupies the 1300-square-foot basement/garage where saws and drills share space with a 1973 BMW 2002 that John restored himself. Before John started filling the space, he called in a crew to reinforce the brick foundation. Though the house stood up to many earthquakes in its lifetime, John wanted some insurance moving forward. Once fortified, amenities, supplies, and the places to put things all followed, bit by bit.
Central to the space is a workbench that John built using a slab of $75 maple butcher block, a $40 salvaged drawer set, 3 Rockler vises, and a couple of wood 4×4’s and 2×4’s. The periphery is dotted with iconic Craftsman storage pieces; “I feel good knowing that they are Craftsman and guaranteed for life,” he says. Hardware organizers, both hanging and standing, are labeled clearly. John believes spending time to organize saves time in the long run.
The space is well lit and overhead electric offers easy and safe power. A utility sink offers a place to clean brushes, while pegboard above offers a place to let the brushes hang and dry. A big shop vac takes care of the dust that’s generated by just about every wood maneuver. Some big ticket power tools include: a 1980s Hitachi Joiner/Planer, a Bosch 10” compound sliding radial arm saw, and a Mikita oil-lubricated compressor. He loves the ingenuity of ratcheting box wrenches and always buys extra needle nose pliers because they just seem to get lost. And there is a corner just devoted to clamps; a collection now totally more than 50.
The DIY gene has been cultivating since young John was a welcome presence in his father’s shop. Though not a career cabinetmaker, John’s dad is a highly skilled woodworker with more tools than anyone. Growing up, John helped his father work on countless projects and as John got bigger, so did the projects. Most recently, Dad lent an expert hand to the install of his son’s Victorian library, a clubby red-oak-and-leather retreat John has always dreamed of. One day, John’s collection of tools and machinery may grow to rival his father’s.
“Interesting projects have no end,” says John, who will continue to create them, execute them, and share them. John has learned a lot from the internet, and his blog— San Francisco Victorian—enables him to give back to that community. “When you truly aren’t afraid to fail, it’s amazing what you can teach yourself,” he says.
“Of course, being honest with yourself and knowing your limit is a big part of life and renovating a home is no different,” John adds. When confronted with any task, he admits to running through a complete list of questions—from actually visualizing himself doing the job to how many days it will require, will he need to learn new skills, what other projects could he get done if this one were outsourced, and, most importantly, can he do a professional job. “There is a whole order of operations that goes through my mind,” he says.
“It’s a cost benefit analysis that takes into account my own time and labor. At the end of the day I’m a realist and I have no problem admitting when something is over my head.”
You can see some of John’s San Francisco Victorian posts at Bob Vila Nation—a newly launched DIY community platform.