August 12, 2018

Almost ten months ago, back in November, I put up concrete backer board in the mudroom to go behind my wood cookstove. (Projects here take a long time.) I planned to cover the backer board with brick veneer, and slowly over the months had bought the necessary boxes of Old Mill “brickweb,” bricks sliced in half and glued to sheets of webbing. Reviews said the brick was super easy to install. The very heavy boxes had been delivered and were stacked in a corner of the mudroom.

I am always nervous when faced with a project that requires skills I don’t have. However, I couldn’t put this one off any longer. My builder had emailed that he was going to return, and one of the things on his list was connecting my cookstove. I had to put up the brick and move the cookstove into the house.

I began by putting up temporary trim on each side of the backer board to guide my edges. The right side was easy, just a straight 2×4. For the left I had to get creative in the narrow space. Finally I used the cut-off tongue of a piece of my wall paneling.

To cut the bricks, I bought on sale a grinder with a diamond blade (and also bought eye protection and a mask). Putting the blade on the grinder was tricky. Though I’m accustomed to reading directions, I could not find anything in the directions that looked like the tool in my hand. Finally I drove it back to the hardware store and threw myself on the mercy of the boys behind the counter, who have known me for years. They laughed. Apparently this is a common problem with Makita directions. To have a tool that looks like the drawings, the tool must first be disassembled. Five minutes later I was in business and heading home.

Now I had to mix my thin-set mortar. I had inquired of the company what product I should use if the bricks were not simply decorative but subject to heat behind a cookstove. Their tech person replied, “Modified thin-set.” I bought a bag and mixed it carefully in a five-gallon pail according to directions on the package. While the mortar set up, I rewatched the installation video on the Old Mill Brick website. Start at the top, and work your way down the wall so the bricks stay clean. The process seemed almost as easy as press-on lettering. This would be a snap!

It was only after I watched my first section of bricks slide down my wall that I realized all the videos show installation with mastic adhesive, not mortar.

Sweating in the humid heat, covered with sloppy mortar, and near tears (what expensive disaster have I created now?) I forced myself to stop and think. OK, I’ll start from the bottom. Since I had to have an air gap, I found a piece of wood to use as a shim under the bottom row. I found my drill, a fistful of screws, and my four-foot level. And I started over.

With my spatula trowel I threw mortar on the hawk, and with the smooth side of the tiling trowel I smeared mortar onto the wall. I raked it with the notched side. Then I pressed the brick into the mud. I put screws into each sheet to hold it level while it dried. As the sheets still had a distressing tendency to sag, eventually I cut a 3/8″ shim and used screws and shim together to hold things in place.

In an effort to keep the bricks below clean, I taped paper over the completed rows.

Clean was an elusive goal. I had mortar on my hands and arms, on my face, in my hair. My shirt and jeans were smeared. Thankfully I’d covered the mudroom floor with drop cloths — wet mortar regularly slid off the hawk and trowels in ugly grey blobs and then I stepped in it and tracked it. Meanwhile the porch was gritty with red brick dust and it was so hot that whenever I put on the protective glasses to cut more brick, the glasses fogged over immediately.

I had been predisposed to think I would enjoy working with brick. My early readings of the memoir Cheaper By the Dozen, which described Frank Gilbreth getting his start laying bricks in the 1880s, had made me believe that laying brick was something any reasonable person could do — even if I didn’t conduct time and motion studies or reduce my motions from 18 to 4. What I didn’t count on was the ticking clock of the setting mortar and how this pressure would unhinge my brain as I rushed back and forth outside to cut bricks.

At one point in my feverish hurry, I decided I would track less mess if I took off my shoes. (My brain was unhinged.) I promptly stepped on a tool. I registered the pain but was in too much of a rush to pay attention. I only realized that I had cut my foot when I was puzzled by bright red blotches all over the drop cloths and porch deck and finally noticed that my sock was soaked with blood.

After four hours, I had only put up a third of the small wall. The videos had suggested this much could be done in ten minutes. However I needed to stop, clean all my mortar-encrusted tools (including the drill and level), do barn chores, and fix dinner.

As work on the wall had to be fitted around many other chores, it turned out that I always worked in four-hour chunks of time.

The second day was much easier. I had no expectations that it would be a snap. I had everything ready — shims, drill, screws, paper towels for my hands — so there was no panic. I also had a tarp to keep the brick clean.

The wall slowly grew.

By the third day everything was going smoothly until I realized belatedly that I had not covered a 10-inch section of 2×4 at the top of the opening for the stove pipe. [See first photo, above.] Of course, I had thrown away all my scraps of concrete backer board back in November. I called the local lumberyard. I called the school. No one had a scrap of backer board lying around. Would I really have to buy a five-foot sheet for a 10″ x 2″ sliver? While I dithered, my bucket of mortar was hardening inexorably.

I called Damon.

“Sure, I got some in my garage behind the stove you can cut a piece off. When you comin’?”

“Right now!”

Well, he was on the road — but I was welcome to stop by his garage.

What a great friend. I threw my grinder, a square, and an extension cord in the truck, rocketed across town, let myself into his garage, and in the gloom marked and cut off a piece. I rushed home.

Of course, I had also thrown away the half-dozen extra metal spacers Larry had made for me. (“When will I ever use those?”) Now I had to think fast and improvise. I needed something non-flammable and one inch thick — what? what? I rummaged in the garage frantically. The answered turned out to be four washers and two big nuts on each screw.

Whew! I got the piece in place and the bricks mortared just in time.

The wall was finished, except for grouting and trim. I wasn’t worried about trim…

… and grouting, how hard could that be? I had bought a grout bag and an 80-lb bag of Type N mortar, as recommended in an email from the tech at Old Mill Brick.

The idea was to fill the grout bag and squirt grout in all the crevices. “Just like cake decorating!”

Again I watched the relevant Old Mill Brick instructional video. In the first moments, the demonstrator intoned, “You do not want to use Type N mortar, it is too difficult. Always use Type S.” What?

My experience with instructions for DIY projects is that they are often vague and sometimes, as in this case, contradictory. I’ve been told directly that men never read directions, so writing directions is not a high priority. Back in 2006, when I complained about the lack of clarity in the directions for building my barn, the company countered, “Have you ever built anything bigger than a breadbox?” In other words, I should already know. I thought crossly that the words “easy” and “for beginners” should be eliminated from all DIY advertising.

I drove back to the lumberyard and bought a bag of Type S mortar. I mixed it and grouted the brick. I suppose it was like cake decorating, if your cake was being decorated with mud by a crazed three-year-old.

My forearms ached from hours of twisting the bag and I would wake up the next day thinking I’d developed rheumatoid arthritis in my right hand, but the wall was done. The grouting and tooling was very far from perfect but I had no more energy.

Two days later, the wall is dry.

Now I just have to move the 400-lb. cookstove in from the garage! I’m sure it will be a snap.



A Driveway At Last

August 11, 2018

Thursday was D-Day: Driveway Day. Here is Damon in the skidsteer at the edge of the highway at 7:00 AM, waiting for the first gravel truck to appear. Like his father Allen, Damon arrives early; he had warmed up the skidsteer at 6:45. He told me it was raining in town. We crossed our fingers and prayed the storm would miss us.

I limped down to the barn to do chores and when I got back Damon was smoothing the first load of gravel on the upper part of the driveway.

I went off to move the sheep. When I returned again, the third truckload of coarse road mix (called “crusher run”) was being delivered. The driver, George, would tailgate the load of twenty tons, dropping it in a long pile.

Damon would follow immediately behind him, spreading.

He had to work quickly to flatten the mix while the truck was turning around by the barn, so it would be able get out of the driveway again.

In the meantime, however, the second truck arrived. This less than desirable situation would have made me frantic — how foolish of the gravel yard to send both trucks at once rather than stagger them all day long — but the men were unfazed. There was nowhere on the narrow upper driveway for the second truck to pull over, so this driver, Albert (my neighbor), pulled it into the trees.

George squeezed his truck out to return to the quarry for another load…

… and Albert backed out of the trees and started down the driveway in his turn.

This process was repeated all day long.

After the driveway was coated with coarse stones, Damon switched the order to fine. While trucks and equipment roared and beeped over many hours, the storm blew away and the sun came out.

Due to the timing of the deliveries, Damon would have periods of intense labor followed by a long lag while the trucks drove the hour round-trip to the quarry. In that time he worked on the driveway, smoothing and scraping.


I bought him a big lunch and he ate it. He got out of the skidsteer to sit in the sun. He watched me weed the apartment garden and offered helpful comments. (Glaring at the flowers: “I’d rip all that shit out.”)

The next load of crusher was dropped near the house.

Damon created parking for three cars.

The eleventh and final load made a small “overflow parking lot,” by the upper gate to the south pasture.

One of the many great things about Damon is that after so many years, he, like his father, knows the tasks on the farm and automatically problem-solves for me. It is hard to express how much it has meant and still means, to have another brain thinking and planning on my behalf.

Damon knew I needed to move my winter manure pile away from the barn. “We should do it while you got the machine.” During the years when he could not work, Damon had sold his dump truck, but he called a friend with a dump trailer, and together he and Corey moved the pile.

They were almost finished when Corey’s trailer battery, like Larry’s years ago, went dead. Remembering the job of mucking out Larry’s trailer by hand, I groaned internally. However, Damon lifted the dump box with the skidsteer and the load slid out. Thank you, God!

Damon pushed the new manure pile together, and on his way out of the pasture, flipped last year’s pile (which had weeds growing on it). After a year of rotting, it has shrunk to half its previous size. This pile is on my list to spread in the next couple of months.

By now it was almost 6 PM. Damon was so tired he was bleary. My bad leg was throbbing. I washed the skidsteer bucket and tracks in a fog. He drove it up the clean new gravel and parked it at the top of the property for pick up. At last we were done. The driveway was finished.

“It’d be good if we had a roller, smooth it out,” Damon said as he sat in his truck, ready to leave. “But it’ll pack down.”

The driveway will require maintenance every spring but the biggest work and expense are done. I am relieved and happy.

*   *  *

Meanwhile I leave town next Wednesday to go to Connecticut for my granddaughter’s operation. I just heard in an email from my builder that he plans to return at that time. While it will be good to have work completed, the timing adds a lot of chores and pressure. (Among other things, he put a lot of 16-foot lumber and materials in storage when he left and expects me to have it all out and ready for him to work.) I have written the list of everything I have to have finished before I leave and am trying to plot the next four days hour by hour.

Rock-Picking the Backyard

August 8, 2018

My “backyard” is a mess. The man I paid to grade around the house last summer promised to return with a load of crushed stone to spread over the weed barrier I’d put down under the basement window. He never came back.

My builder has since declined to build the finished porch stairs, so the stairs are now on my list. (He had cut down and hung the former interior construction stairs so we could pass inspection for the mortgage.)

Weeds have taken over.

A thorny thicket of raspberries blocks the back entrance to the mudroom.

The builder also decided he now will not build the small 4′ covered porch here. I am going to talk to Tom and my friend Len at Shelter-Kit and see if this is a project Tom and I can do together, or even that I can do alone.

In the meantime I need to mow the weeds and spread grass seed. Before I can mow, I have to pick the rocks. Rocks are everywhere.

I’ve been trying to spend an hour a day collecting rocks. For now I am bypassing the big ones and only pulling those a foot across or smaller.

They always add up quickly.

Rock-picking is tedious work and hard on my bad knee. However it’s mindless, familiar (I’ve cleared every inch of the farm in this way), and ultimately satisfying as I add another square foot of clean ground to my total.

The wagon is old and groaning under the load. This afternoon I will empty it, pull a few hundred more stones, and spread grass seed. Then I will mow the weeds to fall over the seed as mulch.

At least that is my plan.

The Hall Light

August 4, 2018

I grew up in a rambling colonial home which my parents built in 1954. Fifty years later, my mother died and my siblings and I had to empty the house for sale. It was an amazing amount of work. Here are my two sisters and my brother-in-law, stopping for a picnic supper on a blanket-covered side table under the disapproving gaze of our great-great-grandfather, Captain Joe.

The moving trucks were almost loaded when I suddenly looked up at the hall light and had to have it. Certain details meant home to me. The jouncing noise of the spring on the back storm door. The bottom wooden kitchen drawer that a small child could stand on to reach the shelf for a water glass. And the pretty brass light in the front hall, from which Mom always suspended a shining ornament at Christmas.

It must have been my brother-in-law Don who kindly took it down for me, as I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to do it. To keep the fragile light safe, I wrapped it carefully in linens deep inside a moving box. Unfortunately, that box went into storage for thirteen years. The storage unit leaked. The linens became wet, moldy, and very heavy indeed.

When I finally unpacked the ruined box last fall, I found the brass had tarnished severely; one cross-bar of the light’s frame had cracked and another had broken in half.

Last winter I carried the collapsed light to a small store in town where in shabby, dim surroundings a craftsman sells stained glass lamp shades and rewires antique lamps. I left the hall light for him to solder. I stopped and bought brass polish.

When I returned a week later to pick it up, the craftsman was apologetic. He had tried to solder the lamp frame — “But it’s not brass.”

It’s not brass? What is it?”

He shrugged. “Some cheap metal, plated.”

I was shocked, but when I thought about it, I realized I should not have been. Mom and Dad were struggling parents of small children in 1954. They didn’t have money for a real brass front hall light. Of course they bought something cheap that looked nice. I would discover the same thing when I went shopping for small lamps for my sideboard and searched for theirs on Ebay. They had used inexpensive bedroom lamps. As a child I thought these were the height of elegance.

Out of curiosity I priced a front hall lamp in real brass today. $600-$800. That was not happening!

Although the craftsman said the fifties lamp wiring was “better than lamp wiring today,” I now had a tarnished, broken front hall light. The rest of the fixtures in the house are brushed nickel. The question became: just how strong was the pull of sentiment for me? Answer: pretty strong.

I decided I would fix the light and see how it looked. In addition to the cracked and broken bars, a screw and brass catch that held the glass in the frame on the broken side had disappeared. Undoubtedly both had been somewhere in the tangle of stinking linens, but I’d long since hauled them to the dump.

Repairing the lamp was on my list all summer. Of course I had not gotten to it when the electrician suddenly let me know that after no response to numerous emails, he now would return while we were in Vermont. I had to fix the light that night, with materials I had on hand.

What could I use for the brass catch for the glass? With considerable difficulty I cut in half a brass shelf pin. The fragment was the right size, but very sharp.

I took off the worst of the knife edge using the old bench grinder given to me by Larry.

The result was not perfect, but serviceable.

Now I needed a tiny brass screw. Rummaging through junk boxes, I could not find one. The smallest screw I came up with was still too long, and it was white. Beggars can’t be choosers, however, and I had to make it work. I decided to tighten the screw against the glass by adding a washer.

Before I went to bed, I mended the broken spreader bar with epoxy, using a clamp to hold it together.

Early the next morning, I washed the old glass panes, inserted the last one in the mended panel, and tightened my white screw. It all held. I left it on the counter for the electrician.

When Lucy and I got home from Vermont, the light was hanging in the front hall. After living for a year with a bare bulb, at first glance it seemed enormous. I suddenly realized that my front hall is 1/4 of the size of Mom and Dad’s front hall.

However, the old light works and it makes me happy. I tell myself that if it is too tarnished, shabby or mismatch-y, I can always replace it someday. In the meantime I stopped in the hardware store and for 24 cents bought a brass screw, climbed on a kitchen stool, and replaced the white one.

Dad has been gone for nearly thirty years but I know the whole thing would make him happy, too.

Driveway, Round Two

July 27, 2018

One day last week Damon felt better and drove out to put in the second set of driveway culverts. It all went easily at first.

I thought our biggest challenge would be to fit the culverts together. Lucy came outside for a few minutes before leaving for work and with each of us holding a floppy, heavy, 20′ length, she and I had tried to ram them together. Unfortunately we could not make them snap to fit. (Our helpless laughing — lunging at each other with giant culvert snakes! — didn’t help either.) Damon later suggested a block and sledgehammer and, though dull, his method was effective.

It was at about this moment that the bucket began grinding on stone. Given the boulders all over the farm, this didn’t surprise Damon or me. However, when he was finally able to pull out the rock, we found it was embedded in concrete. Oh, dear.

Once upon a time this property had a small cottage in deep woods. I had cleared two acres of the woods and originally hoped to rehab the cottage. After twenty years standing empty and vandalized, however, the little house was rotted beyond saving. I looked into having it burned by the fire department as a training exercise, but in the end my friend Tommy knocked it down.

Now we were finding buried pieces of the stone foundation . . .

… as well as shards of the house.

Damon’s language was unprintable.

I was extremely apologetic. Between logging, terracing, putting in a driveway, building the garage and then building the house, the land has been so altered that I hadn’t realized we were near the spot of the tear-down.

An hour passed as Damon sifted the mess with the bucket while I pulled out chunks of wood and he tried to find enough good dirt to bury the culvert. Eventually we had to quit. “Ain’t nothing here but crap!”

I had no choice. We made calls and the next morning a tandem truck arrived from the gravel yard, carrying crushed stone.

The culvert is safely (and expensively) buried.

I have taken all the large broken scraps of wood to my burn pile, but there are still stacks of rocks, concrete-edged boulders, and piles of trashy dirt at the edge of the driveway waiting for my attention. I have added them to the list.

But not for today. For some reason I woke up this morning at 2 AM. Even reading a book on colonial tools and studying a dozen types of adzes could not get me back to sleep.

A Grand Stroke of Luck!

July 24, 2018

I have been worried about my well pump for more than a year. It has been running constantly; I would hear a quiet hiss when I passed it. Yes, I know that this is bad for the pump. I was told by Damon. I was told by my contractor. I was told by my electrician. However when I called the well company last summer I was told it would cost $400 merely to send a man out to assess the problem, and over $2000 to replace the pump and in-well tank. I didn’t have $2500+ and it was not yet a crisis — and I was dealing with so many crises at the time. I pushed the pump problem to the back of my mind.

However it remained on my list, so yesterday I forced myself to call the company again. The original owner has retired, but his office manager, Cathy, still has my file from 2008, when they drilled the farm well. Again she went over the chilling litany of probable expense, and reminded me that they do not take credit cards. Feverishly I ran through scenarios in my mind, juggling dollars. I did not want to have a water failure in January at 30° below zero.

My mind stuck at the $400 charge to come out. Could a local electrician fix it? Not likely. Another well company? The other well company was only ten minutes closer. I was too far from everyone.

“We hardly ever get calls to your town,” Cathy said regretfully. “Though, actually, I have someone up there today.”



“Would it be possible for your guy to stop by to look at my well, while he’s up here — just to diagnose the problem?”

“I suppose… but he’s hard to reach. He has terrible cell service.”

“Oh, would you mind trying?”

She agreed. Five minutes later she called me back. “I’m sorry. I can’t reach him. He’s probably already on his way home by now. Or he might just be in a dead zone for service.”

“Really.” I sighed. “Where was he working?”

She paused to look it up, then named the road.

“Oh my goodness, that’s our road! It’s only seven miles long! If he’s still here, he’s five minutes away! Can you tell me the number?”

She gave the number, and the name. The technician had been working at my friend Marie’s house!

I told Cathy I would call her back, then jumped in my truck and drove over. At first sight, my heart dropped. No well truck. Rats. I’d missed him. Backing the truck to turn around, I caught a glimpse of a van behind the house. I jumped out, ran over, and tapped on the passenger window. A teenaged boy rolled it down.

“Cathy has been trying to call you!” I exclaimed to the driver. He was startled but kind. They had just finished work on Marie’s well. I explained the situation and a half an hour later he and the boy were at my house.

Naturally, after two months of drought, it now began to pour. “If we all put on our raincoats,” I joked, “the rain will stop.”

It did.

I stayed with them as they took the well cap off and worked to find the problem.

It turned out that a small hose to the pressure gauge had cracked and was spraying water, freezing the gauge with rust and keeping the pump running. The young technician thought the pump itself was fine.

It took two hours to cut out all the bad parts and replace them. The teenager and I were the nurses passing tools and holding hoses, electric wires, and the flashlight as the technician doctored my well.

At last it was done! Marie and her husband, George, drove in just as the tech was packing up his tools. The three of us were damp with rain and smeared with mud and rust. Marie and George, immaculate and smiling, looked like advertising models from another planet. They hugged me anyway.

My well is fixed! $300. I am very lucky. Thank you so much, Marie, George, and the Universe!


The Heat Breaks

July 7, 2018

After ten days of suffocating heat, in the wee hours of Friday morning a thunderstorm blew in and swept it all away with pounding rains. At least I’m told of the rain by Lucy. I heard nothing, asleep in the basement with the roar of the dehumidifier. I mowed yesterday wearing a hooded sweatshirt and was cold. Hooray! It will be hot again soon but with luck, minus the smothering humidity.

I wasn’t able to get as much work done this week as I’d hoped, but I did put up the flag. This flag was a thoughtful housewarming gift from Elaine and Ed last year when we moved in. However the house was in such calamitous condition at that time (as well as having no porch yet) that I could only fold it carefully away for another day. That day finally arrived.

It makes me so happy to look up and seeing the flag cheerfully waving. 

After all these years of dreaming, I have a (partly) white farmhouse with a flag! I am blessed. Thank you, Ed and Elaine!