Building my own root cellar: Slow, imperfect, but progressing

Half wallThis winter’s project is to build a root cellar in my basement. Our basement is unfinished, and only about 1/4 of the house has a full-height basement – the rest is a 3′ tall crawl space with a dirt floor (and 6 mil plastic sheeting covering the dirt). The house is about 55 years old and the basement definitely seeps moisture in the spring. It’s no beauty, but it’s actually got some good potential for a root cellar.

The way things are set up, I can close off one end of the full-height part and make an 8’x8′ room that will become the root cellar – just by building 1-and-half walls. There’s also a 2.5’x3′ extra space off the back right corner, which you can’t see in this picture, but will hold a Rubbermaid tub of veggies nicely.

In this picture, you can see the half-wall that I framed in this weekend. I still need to build the wall across the space, coming out from the half-wall about where that outlet is and going across past the drain. It’s hard to tell in this pic, but the outlet is outside the root cellar and the drain is inside. That space is exactly 8′ wide, which makes planning and building ever so easy.

You can also see the window, which will be modified to become a ventilation system. Root cellars should be very cold – about 35 degrees – and very humid, with really good ventilation. And, of course, I’ll need to insulate the ceiling so the living room floor doesn’t get cold.

I used to help my father build stuff when I was a kid, but I’ve never built anything remotely like this before. This seemed like a good project to practice on. No load-bearing walls; doesn’t matter if it’s not pretty. That stupid half-wall took about 3x as long with 4x as much effort as it should have because I apparently don’t know how to read a tape measure. I ended up having to take it apart and take 1/4″ off each upright so it would fit in its space. Ah, well.

Done so far:

  • Researched root cellars and drew up plan
  • Moved wiring from the joist above the half-wall so it’s outside the root cellar
  • Moved everything out of that end of the basement (no mean feat!)
  • Bought framing materials, some of which came from the ReStore (including an insulated exterior door, pre-hung, and still in the packaging!)
  • Framed half-wall
  • Walls prepped for painting: scrubbing the walls and floor with a stiff brush and a mix of TSP (well, phosphate-free TSP) and bleach.

Yet to do:

  • Attach half-wall to cinder blocks with masonry nails
  • Painting the walls will mildew-resistant paint
  • Building the full wall
  • Hanging the door
  • Moving/replacing wiring for the light (including changing the outlet to an indoor-outdoor style one)
  • Insulating the ceiling (fiberglass batts, vapor barrier, and rigid foam)
  • Insulating the walls (same as ceiling, or maybe without the fiberglass)
  • Install ventilation pipes
  • Building shelving

I still haven’t decided what I’m using to sheathe the walls on the inside of the root cellar (which, ironically, has “exterior” conditions). I have one sheet of 1/4″ plywood that I found at the ReStore – so I might just get another one, paint it with exterior paint, and call that good. Anyone have other suggestions?

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12 Comments

  1. farmergal said,

    January 18, 2010 at 11:05 am

    It’s no wonder that my husband has put off building our root cellar! Sounds like a lot of work. With the strange weather worldwide, food shortages are being predicted, so maybe the hard work is absolutely necessary. Farmergal

    • Emily said,

      January 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

      It’s funny…I was rather intimidated by this project when I was planning it. I kept thinking “Maybe I’ll just hire someone to do it.” But I really want to learn some carpentry, and, well, hiring it out is expensive.

      As I started breaking it down into little pieces, though, it started looking much more do-able. Today’s task: assemble studs for half-wall. Ok, I can do that. Next task: scrub walls. No problem. We’ll see how it goes, but I really think this is doable…and I have basically no carpentry experience aside from watching.

  2. Ed Bruske said,

    January 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Great work, Emily! You’re so organized….

  3. TeacherPatti said,

    January 18, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I have a root cellar but at some point, the ingress/egress stuff (that allows the cold air in) got taken out. My husband has resisted my efforts to get it together again. However, now that you are doing it, I can say, “Emily says it’s totally doable!” He’s learned to trust the things that “Emily says” 🙂 🙂

    • Emily said,

      January 18, 2010 at 3:59 pm

      Oh, how cool! The air thing should be simple if the rest of it is there. Here’s a diagram – it’s not great, but the two-pipe idea is standard.

      You sure the hubby doesn’t just dread “Emily says”?? 🙂

  4. onestraw said,

    January 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Plywood tends to delaminate in high humidity, so careful there. Painting may be enough to seal it. I had always thought to use concrete board (used in bathrooms) as it hangs is unfazed by the humidity – I had even intended to throw water on it to let it evaporate off the larger surface area. If pretty isn’t an issue, the vapor barrier may be enough without sheeting. Some corrugated roofing may work too.

    A mistake I still make when cutting wood is to not fully take into account the “kerf”width of the saw blade which can easily throw you off 1/8 to 1/4”. I’m getting a lot better as the farmer I do projects with was a cabinet maker in a former life… he builds compost bins to 1/32″ tolerances.

    • Emily said,

      January 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

      Would mold-resistant wallboard work?

      • onestraw said,

        January 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

        Likely. I would go for cheap and effective. If the ReStore has something and it can take water contact then I’d give it a try. Some cheap shower/bathroom kits have thin hard vinyl sheets that would work well too.

        My reading of most books and talking to folks with working cellars led me to believe you spend a lot of time flinging water around trying to get the humidity up. – does that drain in the floor work? That would be super handy.

  5. El said,

    January 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Great project, Emily, especially when the snow’s still flying!

    I wouldn’t overthink it too much. The optimum of course is cold/humid but anything that’s plain cold will help you save some veggies. Every produce item has different needs so what’s great for spuds doesn’t work for cabbage or apples, etc.

    Me, even though I have a root cellar, I try not to use it except for potatoes and I try to get everything else fresh out of the ground. Garden-buried carrots, beets, turnips keep much better than stored ones in my experience…and then pulling them out of the greenhouses is best of all. And, after years of dealing with mushy cabbage, I decided the late crop in the greenhouse was the way to go and it’s done much better! So now my only root cellar maintenance is picking the eyes off my spuds. I am much happier now. 🙂

    • Emilt said,

      January 27, 2010 at 9:54 pm

      I have tried keeping produce in the garden for years, and it’s not a good fit for me. It’s much colder here (we hit -15 or -20 most years) and I’ve not had much luck keeping the ground from freezing. And worse, my laziness means I never want to go try to dig stuff up, anyway.

      I will try keeping some things in the greenhouse, but I held off on a root cellar until I was fairly certain I couldn’t do it any other way. And also…I just want to learn to build, y’know? 🙂

  6. June 26, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Had there been tyvek back in the 50’s, I just wonder if it, would have been enough of a water vapor barrier to keep moisture out of a root cellar, and still maintain its integrity these 50 yrs later?

  7. Paul P. Geri said,

    December 8, 2010 at 9:47 am

    when I retire I well be building a root cellar in my back yard. 12X16 with 2 to 3 foot of dirt over it. the intrence well be a door way 4X7 and everything else well be sand bagged, except the beam’s they well be 6X6, I well be keeping my canned vedges , potatoo, sqush and can I hang meet in there with them?


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