Building Skills for Building Stuff

For four years now I have been hosting Airbnb guests at the cottage that Bradley and Beth built on my property.

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As a kid Bradley always loved to build things in the shop – I remember when he was a teenager and I prayed he would be careful with dangerous power equipment. He was, and he taught himself many aspects of carpentry that he later incorporated into the cottage, such as the coffered ceilings, cherry tongue-and-groove floors, all the custom-made windows,

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and the beautiful railings in the loft.

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During the building process, he and Beth worked tirelessly at full-time jobs and the work on the cottage.

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I worked too, but mainly many hours at my job at the hotel. I paid the bills, made food and talked through material and design decisions with them.

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Here and there I contributed actual labor, but as anyone in their 50s knows, there is a big difference energy-wise in what you can do in your 50s compared to what you can do in your 20s. I marveled at their energy! I wanted to help! But plain and simple I was too tired, emotionally and physically, by the end of the day. It was their amazing project.

During a few of the cottage-building years, my son Lincoln and his wife Julia lived nearby. Lincoln worked at a woodworking shop in Richmond, honing the skills he himself had been developing. He and Bradley together built not only the original chicken coop, but also skillfully remade the base of my antique dining room table using solid mahogany – they designed and built graceful, perfect legs and gave new life to a family heirloom.

If I had been more present during those years, how much I could have learned from them both! I remember thinking this, remember admiring them, remember longing to work alongside, remember sitting exhausted in a chair…

Lincoln and Julia moved to Vermont in 2013 and Brad and Beth left for Seattle in August of 2014. The decision to try hosting through Airbnb, to “share” this gem of a cottage with others who might appreciate it, seemed reasonable. It took till early October 2014 to get everything ready, but from the get-go, literally within hours of posting the details of my cottage on their site, I had my first guests, and it has been great guns ever since. For two years I managed both the cottage and my job at the hotel (a bit of a juggling act). Then in a good-sized leap of faith in October 2016, hoping that I could get by with just the cottage, I resigned my position at the hotel.

Now I have time and energy for building things! Or unbuilding things, as the case may be. Sandy handed me the drill and up I went on the roof of the old chicken coop run to unscrew the metal panels in order to clean them and put them back on a rebuilt frame.

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Filling holes with concrete? I can do this.

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I can also dig out earth to make a level place for a deck to connect the old and new chicken coops.

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And build the coop deck’s framework with scrap 4x4s and 4x6s in rows to support the decking boards.

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I worked with my Uncle Ernie to make a bench for that deck, getting a little more comfortable with the chop saw. I still don’t like using the table saw.

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And once that all was finished (and huge thanks to Sandy for doing the lion’s share of the work) — oh, how beautiful it looks to me on this rainy November morning —

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we turned our attention to the house foundation

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and front porch project. I’m the grunt labor, I know this. Sandy is the energizer bunny, working for endless hours, bringing skill and ideas, and has way more confidence in my capabilities than I do. And Joe and Samuel have been invaluable in this getting so much of this work done so quickly.

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A few years ago, I assure you I did not envision myself nailing in joist hangers!

What happened? Yes, I now have more time, and yes, I am not so sapped of energy as in the past. But there is something else. Actually two somethings.

  1. I have always admired the things people accomplish when using their hands/bodies together with their brains, but in my world it was the men who were building and fixing things. My hat is off to all of them evermore, but while Bradley and Beth still lived here, my friend Peggy one time gave him some of the tools she didn’t need any more that she herself had used for years for woodworking and for fixing things! She is the first woman I knew who was not intimidated by machines or carpentry. I expect she has no idea how I marveled at her, how I admired that aspect of her great character. She also gave Bradley a SHOP sign that he proudly affixed to the shop door. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Peggy!

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2. I was always intrigued by the concept that you are never too old to learn something new. Back in the homeschooling days, I read a lot of John Holt’s work. I paraphrase here a story he told of someone who wanted to learn to play the violin but was 50 years old. “I’ll be 55 by the time I can play it decently,” the person said. “Yes,” he replied, “but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway, so wouldn’t it be better to have learned to play the violin during those years?”

In five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

That phrase stuck with me. I stretched it to not only:

I’m x-years old now. I want to learn [pick a skill]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to have learned that skill in those five years – even if not to the master level – than to get to x+5 years old and still be wishing I could do that thing?

But also to:

I’m x-years old now. I struggle with [pick a subject]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to make some strides in that area in those five years than to get to x+5 years old and still be struggling in the same way with that thing?

So here I am, cutting decking boards on a chop saw, knowing the difference between a rim joist and a sill plate and a ledger board, toenailing deck joists in place to hold them until it’s time to screw in the hangers. In a conversation with my son Lincoln the other day, he said, “It’s very cool to see you learning how accessible and simple all this building stuff is. Not just some magic that you have to ask some pro woodworker to do every time. Measure, mark, cut, secure, repeat!” I told him I have my limitations: I am not very strong and I am scared of some of the equipment. He said, “Well you should be scared of those tools! Every safe woodworker is.”

Today I am grateful for all the people I’ve known who have woodworking skills, all the encouragement I’ve received from people I love (in ways they are probably not aware of) and all the enthusiasm of friends and family who cheer on these projects. All of this has developed in me a greater interest in the craft and a hunger to learn more. One of these days I might do more than the grunt work, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I’m having fun and there’s a wonderful result!

Here we are now, with temporary steps on the side! For the first time in almost a month, we can go in and out through the front door 😊

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What’s Under Your House?

Funny how we can avoid some things for a long time. I can’t see the serious rot in this picture (hiding under the porch as it was) so everything must be fine, right? On October 7, the front porch looked like this.

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The steps are fairly new but the rest of the porch doesn’t look great, I’ll grant. It shows signs of age. It’s not going to win any prizes. But for seven years we could walk on it and use it as people use a porch, as the transition in and out of the house, from earth to indoor space and out again. And for 38 years before that, the previous owners did the same.

Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. I wanted a new front porch. That’s what drives this whole project. I wanted a new one in part, I admit, because the old one looked shabby, but mostly because I knew it was in the way of addressing why we sometimes had water coming into the basement. Water coming into the basement made me nervous. It didn’t happen often, but it happened.

Something was wrong, but what? When you know your foundation is wood, and you’ve got leakage, you suspect the wood has something to do with it. But you can’t get to the problem unless you remove the porch. And once you remove the old porch, you have to build a new porch. See? Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. In the end, I get a new porch!

Reality was unavoidable as deconstruction began.

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The joists that held up the decking boards don’t look terrible from afar. But closer up, their condition is clear.

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Ah, well, those are going away anyway, you say. Nothing even salvageable here. And once the porch was off the house completely, it still didn’t look too terrible.

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Until you got up close.

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There are actually two boards here, one on top of the other, one exterior and one interior. I’ll draw a red line so it’s easier to see what was left of the exterior board after we – easily! – removed the soft, spongy fibers of what used to be solid wood.

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Rot is not as icky as some icky things, but it is nonetheless firmly in that category for me. Rotten wood is soft and dry-spongy and comes apart in shreds and flakes as you scrape at it. When you see rot, you think of the insects and the moisture have been working steadily along for decades (that’s what makes it icky for me), turning a hard, dense, supportive substance into a weak filler. When that weak filler is holding up a portion of your house, you had better do something about it.

It’s not always a pretty world. This rot was under my porch all along. How did it get this way? Time, certainly, will cause wood to rot, but the bigger factor is water.

When you look out of my living room windows, you are facing the Southwest Mountains, foothills of the Blue Ridge, a mountain range that starts in Georgia and ends in Pennsylvania. I love the view but I have to be careful of those windows. When it rains, the rain wants to come in on that side of the house. If I have left windows open in warm seasons and I wake up to the sound of rain in the night, those are the first windows I go check. Guess what else faces those mountains: my front door.

When we first moved into this house, rain came in under the front door so bad that it damaged the oak flooring that the previous owners had installed just before selling the house to me. Bradley had taken up the damaged part. When we saw what was underneath, I remember shuddering and thinking yeah, that’s going to need to be addressed sooner or later. He replaced the damaged boards with new boards, Sandy installed gutters that presumably arrested the further development of the rot under the door and we were able to forget about it for a while. All right, for seven years.

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The day after Sandy took the front porch off, Joe dug out the dirt. Then it looked like this.

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All that weight of all that wet earth for all those years in this part of the foundation made the wall weak. Removing the dirt relieved the pressure, but the blade of the excavator nicked the sheet of plywood in the middle and it was enough to push the soft, compromised wood in just a bit. From the inside it looked like this. You can see that plywood, pushed in, as well as the 2×6 next to it with a large crack.

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We put new plywood over the old on the outside, but had to mend the inside of course. We started with a horizontal bottle jack that forced the upright (cracked) stud to a reasonable vertical again, then added a 2×6 to either side of it (and to the upright to the right) for additional support. We also removed those wires and redid the electrical in that area.

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Upright supports were strong again, so then we could address the horizontal rim joist in such bad shape under the door. That involved jacking up the house, the nerve wracking part of this project that no one wanted to do, but there was no avoiding it. More on that soon.