How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Or, Starting Again on the Barn Addition

In the past two weeks I have started work again on the addition to my barn. This project has languished for eight months. I had planned to build the addition last April, while my teenaged helper Luke was home on college vacation.

My goal had been to put the farm on a paying basis. To do this, I needed more room under cover for livestock. A simple shed off the west wall of the barn would give me 320 square feet of additional space at a very reasonable cost.

Naturally, after I bought all the lumber and supplies, our freakishly warm spring had turned cold again. Luke and I had begun our first morning moving all the stored items away from the barn.


Then we cut all the pressure-treated wall posts to length. My friend D had lent me his Dewalt chop saw, which we set up in the farm garage. As we had spent several years sweating outside with hand saws in rain and snow, Luke and I were both excited by this leap into the 21st century.


We had measured down the outside of the barn on both ends…


… and snapped a chalk line across the siding.


Then Luke set my battery circular saw to a 1″ depth and began cutting the siding.


I followed behind him with a pry bar to remove the short, cut sections, exposing the original barn header. We also pried off the siding over the barn support posts, and nailed up 2″x6″ ledger boards to cover them. These ledgers would support the heavy header for the addition.


And this header was extremely heavy. It consisted of two 16-foot lengths of 2″x 12″ LVL — Laminated Veneer Lumber, a mix of wood layers and adhesives that is much stronger but also much heavier than standard wood. A normal 16-foot 2″x 12″ weighs about 75 pounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if each length of LVL weighed twice that. I dreaded trying to lift my end of each board over my head, especially while attempting to climb a ladder. (I hate being a weak old lady.)

“When you gonna get them boards up?” D asked carelessly on the phone.

“I imagine we’ll get to it tomorrow around lunch time,” I said.

I should not have been surprised when D showed up just before lunch. He and Luke hoisted the LVL on their shoulders and walked up the ladders without a pause. Five minutes later D was gone. He is a good friend.


Unfortunately when Luke and I went to put up our side posts, we discovered that the concrete piers had been set in the wrong places.

These piers had been a nightmare from beginning to end. When Allen and I originally put them in, in the spring of 2011, we had measured carefully and accurately with a laser level. However I had not counted on the lumberyard substituting at the last minute a different, shorter brand of footer for the Sonotubes. (Their intention was helpful, to save me money.) But because I didn’t notice and correct for the change before we buried the 6-foot tubes, this would have put the eventual height of our piers underground.

Allen and I decided to duct-tape extensions to the Sonotubes, and went to some trouble to do this. However then had come flooding rains, which destroyed the cardboard Sonotubes entirely. We had to dig out the footers and start the job over again, in sucking mud. This time in the confusion, hurry, tiredness, and glop, mistakes were made. Several people were handling the 100-foot measuring tape, which reads in inches on one side and centimeters on the other. In the end, our first Sonotube was six inches out of square and the next three were measured from it.

Now in April Luke and I erected our back post reasonably square but the front one (nearest the camera) was hopelessly off. In the photo below it is not braced straight because we knew it couldn’t work in that position.


Meanwhile my family was hit by a severe crisis. After only two days of work, the project had to stop. Eventually Luke returned to college.


Months passed. All summer long, as I dealt with one problem after another, I averted my eyes from the gaping holes in the barn wall. I felt beaten and sad. Why had I ever ripped the side off my beautiful barn? The bad post was knocked further askew in a wind storm. It hung there drunkenly, its Simpson plate hopelessly bent. The plastic I tacked over the window openings flapped and shredded. The effect was very depressing. The rest of my life was none too cheerful, either.

In my efforts to make the farm more manageable, in October I had arranged for Lucy’s 27-year-old horse, Birch, to go to a wonderful retirement home in Connecticut. That plan disappeared with Hurricane Sandy. Now the ground was frozen and I could not put Birch down painlessly on the farm. Nor could I let him go to any place that might not care properly for an aged horse. I would need the barn addition.

My stomach clenched.

Well, now, I told myself. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The week after Thanksgiving I forced myself to spend an hour with paper and pencil. I broke the project down into small — sometimes ridiculously small — steps.

1. Cut down bad post

2. Buy new Simpson plate


I knew I did not have the time or the emotional stamina to tackle the big picture. But I could always put in the odd hour or two, here or there. I told myself that if I worked methodically down my list, crossing things off, eventually the time should add up and the job get done.

And so I have started. Before I left the barn one night, I cut down the bad post.  Two days later I hired my son’s friend, Stephen, for a few hours between his other work commitments. We burned a problematic brush pile, took down the barn window coverings, and nailed up the last two ledger boards.


Then I hired another boy, Donald, D’s daughter’s boyfriend, to help me put up all the posts. This took a total of three mornings as Donald and I struggled to place the posts on the mis-measured piers in a pattern that would work for the building.


My friend Len at Shelter-Kit (the wonderful company that provided the kit for the original barn) had explained that I could correct for square by running my girts past the posts, and fastening the corner with an angle brace. In this manner the frame would be square despite the posts. Once the siding is up, “only your sheep will know.”


Still, there was a lot of measuring and re-measuring. The Pythagorean theorem was getting a workout. I knew we needed to measure the diagonals of the addition and adjust the frame until both were the same, but I could not figure out how to measure properly when the post was in the way. Donald was losing patience.

D’s truck pulled in. He took in the situation at a glance.

“What the hell ya doin’, still fuckin’ around after all this time?” he snapped.

D has the worst language of anyone I have ever known. He also has the shortest temper. However I have learned that most of this is window dressing, hiding a very warm heart. It would be hard to list D’s many kindnesses to me alone.

Still, I am not accustomed to men who rant and roar. I timidly explained the problem of pulling the diagonals.

“We’ve measured over and over,” I said. “I think Donald is ready to kill himself.”

Donald said quickly, “It’s not me I was thinking of killling!” He jerked his head in my direction. “So, tell me the truth,” he asked his future father-in-law. “Is this the reason you drink? ‘Cause you work out here?”

D inspected our girts.


Within a minute he had the solution. “Attach two boards, same length, on the outside of both your corners, goin’ past your post, and pull the diagonals to those.”

Of course! It seemed obvious once he told me what to do.

We cut twin pieces of 2×2 and screwed them down to our side girts. With all three of us lifting, we picked up the entire frame of girts and shifted it into position until the diagonal measurements matched and the frame was square. Then we nailed it up to the posts.


Before D and Donald left Saturday afternoon we had the middle end girts up, too, to brace the whole.


Little by little, we will eat this elephant.

3 Responses to How Do You Eat an Elephant?

  1. Missy says:

    That elephant might need a lot of seasoning to make it palatable, but when it’s done you’re gonna feel so proud and happy. I hope it works out for you this time. 🙂

  2. Michelle Canfield says:

    Good for you! I do the same thing, I just talk myself into sometimes only doing 15 min towards a project for the day. Tho usually once I’m started I’m motivated to do a little more. My husband jokingly calls it the “tried-and-true, little-by-little method” but it’s amazing what can be accomplished by this small measure of self-discipline.

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