January 11, 2018

For some reason this week has seemed very long. I’m trudging through my lists.

Yesterday afternoon the temperature began to climb and after work I spent ninety minutes sweeping snow off the big stack of tongue-and-groove panel boards I had stored on the porch, shaking them clean, and carrying them into the mudroom. It has been so cold that the boards were still dry. I did not want them wet, or worse, encased in ice.

Every Sunday I look at the long-range forecast and stage all the week’s chores according to the weather. This wood-moving job had been penciled in for Tuesday, but I had the students’ stomach virus that day and barely dragged myself through classes. Thankfully, the serious thaw didn’t start until last night.

However, now — in addition to moving boxes, jackets, barn clothes, boots, dog paraphernalia, and the giant air compressor and other tools — the mudroom is crowded with stacks of boards. There is a narrow path through all the mess.

I must finish the paneling. I just haven’t had time.

I had planned the work for this Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, because DH was supposed to leave this afternoon and be away for four days on business. Just clearing a space to work on the walls will require a lot of shifting and stacking. Everything will look very much worse before it looks better. DH is a neat person by nature and living in any sort of mess is stressful for him. He has enough stress right now. So I had thought, Terrific! He’ll be away for the mess tornado! But now it appears his trip has been canceled.

Of course I’m happy to have DH home and not putting in exhausting hours on the road. However it means I have to figure out how to manage this job without the house looking like a FEMA site.

Before I can do that, today’s challenge is to dig out the buried barn paddock fence — now four feet deep in wet, heavy snow — before it refreezes into a permanent winter landscape feature.


Plan B

December 11, 2017

I worked hard every minute of the weekend and made a lot of progress. Just not enough.

I still have five reports to write this morning before work, thirteen more finals to grade, and classes to prep for. Meanwhile yesterday I didn’t get a single panel up on the sheep paddock.

The panel that meets the barn runs up a slope of gravel. This gravel is frozen solid. Chips of ice and rock stung my face and ricocheted off my glasses. At one point I thought my lip was bleeding.The pickaxe was striking sparks in the cold. Why, oh why, did I not do this job in October? I spent an hour on this two-foot section and chipped away only about two inches. That small hump is holding the entire fence panel four to six inches off the ground.

There is so much more work to do for this project: eleven more panels to hang, ten more t-posts to drive. This doesn’t even count cutting two panels, straightening (how?) a fence post that one of the cows rubbed and pushed out of plumb, rerouting the fence wiring, or building the necessary barn door. It is due to snow 4-8″ tomorrow and drop below zero Wednesday night. I realized yesterday in the gathering dark at 4 PM that I would never be able to finish if I kept trying to do the job properly.

My new plan is to drive all the t-posts today after work and then tack the panels to the wood posts with a single staple in each end, not worrying that they’re not perfectly straight and level. I’ll secure them for the winter to all posts with zip ties, pile rocks along any gaps (rocks will freeze to the ground; just collecting them will require a sledgehammer to knock them free), and correct everything next spring.

Rocks and zip ties were never part of my plan for this paddock, but as the saying goes, “Needs must when the devil drives.”

Back to reports!

Starting the Sheep Paddock

December 10, 2017

Last Sunday I began putting up 16-foot welded wire panels to build the sheep paddock. I meant to start this project six weeks ago. Unfortunately due to other commitments it kept rolling off the bottom of the list.

The first task was to carry each of the fourteen heavy, wobbly panels two hundred yards to the future paddock. Next I had to assemble my tools: pickaxe, shovel, hammer, bucket of fence staples, level, string, nails, steel t-posts, post slammer, wire post clips, and clip tightener. By the time I got it all to the site I was sweating and could remove my wool hat.

If you look at the top picture you can see that the ground is very uneven. This continues to greater and lesser degrees entirely around the future enclosure.

To erect each panel I pull a string tight between the two treated posts, and sink a t-post at the midpoint. Then I smooth the path for the panel, digging out the high humps with my pickaxe and filling in the low points with my shovel.

Last Sunday the ground was half frozen, coming up in chunks fanged with hoar frost, but I could still work it. I got my first two panels up.

I had realized belatedly (while Damon and I were setting posts) that this corner would be problematic, as it backs up to a stone wall. It was too late to do anything then, with Damon in pain and two posts already laboriously set. I imagine I will put extensions on those posts and run electric lines or barbed wire across the top. It will look a bit strange, but with my budget I can’t worry about looks, only effectiveness.

I had meant to get the rest of the panels up over the course of last week. I had printed out a schedule with two hours of fencing written into each day. Unfortunately, issues with my real job suddenly rose up to take over my life.

Every spare minute and ounce of energy was burned.

Now it’s a week later. Yesterday afternoon, after writing (late) student reports most of the day, I managed to put up two more panels before dark. Each panel takes an hour. The ground is now frozen solid three inches down.

As I chopped with my pickaxe, chips of ice sprayed my glasses. My numb hands were bleeding from the barbs on the fence staples I pulled out of my pockets. Typical! I smiled to myself, remembering Allen’s scolding. Blood from my cut hands dripped down on him from my perch on a ladder in the snow as we put up metal roofing on the homemade sauna. “How come you always do this shit in the winter time?” However I knew he would respect that I was out there trying. No skills, maybe no wisdom, but I could work. In one of our last conversations on the phone, Allen laughed hearing my list and said affectionately, “You are a busy bee.”

Today’s list, with times attached to each chore, is 10.5 hours long. Only one of those hours is devoted to fencing. Tonight the temperature is due to fall to 14° F and by Wednesday it will be below zero. I think in my one hour I will need to pull all my lines, sink all my posts, and do my best with the pickaxe. The ground will soon be iron.

* * *

This morning there was a large pile of coyote scat in the middle of the driveway in the bend by the birches. He was right under my window.

Tiny Pleasures

December 4, 2017

Yesterday was a busy day without much time to concentrate on projects.

However I did add a few boards to the mudroom paneling, including this one which made me happy. To fit this piece I had to cut a hole in the middle of the board (not from an edge) and trim off the back of the groove (there was no way to slide the groove over the tongue of the lower board in the tight space). All of this would be obvious and easy for anyone with a better brain than I have, but I felt extremely clever to figure it out.

Soon, of course, the board will nearly disappear under door trim and brick trim from each edge, but beneath will remain this tiny board that whispers to me: You’re not entirely incompetent!


Slowly Paneling

December 3, 2017

Work on paneling the mudroom proceeds slowly. Not only has my time been limited but the mudroom itself is a challenge.

The poured concrete floor is not level. The ceiling is not level. The walls are not plumb, leaning slightly either in or out, and in several spots are bowed. While the concrete floor is not my fault, the rest is a testament to my limited building skills back in 2009. It all would have disappeared under the smooth blankness of sheetrock, but for some reason last spring I had the bright notion to panel the room with the straight lines of tongue and groove pine. What was I thinking?

At the bottom of the first corner, I worked very hard to line up the boards, like matching a pattern at a dress seam. However the floor slopes, the west wall leans west, and the north wall bows in. Despite all my efforts, when I made the bottom board level, the joint was 1/16″ off.

I knew this discrepancy would multiply as the wall grew higher, and sure enough it did — to half an inch.

I couldn’t think what to do, puzzling over it for an embarrassingly long time. My brain doesn’t work spatially, remember?

First I tried cutting down the groove on one small board. Oops, that does nothing. Then I tried cutting down the tongue. Nope. I finally realized that to get back on track I’d have to remove the boards and rip a lower board down the middle to remove a quarter inch.

However, my table saw is submerged in the flotsam of the garage … the boards on each side of the window had to meet and be level above it … and I was dealing with a bow in the wall that meant the capping board wanted to stand out a half-inch from the surface (the finishing nails were not strong enough to pull it in). At this point I gave up and decided to go with my friend Gary’s advice: “The simplest thing is to add a piece of trim over the joint and worry about something else that is really important.”

The decision was made. Still, I hated to have the obvious fault, so I pulled DH out to the mudroom to show him.

“I’m going to add a piece of corner trim,” I said, “and there will be the wood cookstove and the chopping block in front of it and the hanging rack above, so I think it will be OK.”

DH was reassuring. “Of course! No one will ever notice.”

Certainly he will not. A few minutes later he asked if we had a hatchet. He wanted to split some kindling for the woodstove in the homemade sauna I built for him in 2010.

“Yes, we do. It’s on the shelf in the garden shed.”

He looked baffled. “Where is the garden shed?”

I built the garden shed two years ago. It’s an 8′ x 12′ building. He has walked past it hundreds of times.

He has never noticed it.

I think for all its imperfections the mudroom will be fine.


Starting to Panel

November 26, 2017

Yesterday after a last sad trip to the dump with ruined items from our storage, I was finally able to start paneling the mudroom with tongue and groove pine.

Though it’s true that I’ve been fiendishly busy with other projects, it’s also true that I’ve had a bit of avoidance going on. I am always nervous using new skills. Power tools are like math to me. I can memorize and know math for a test. Then it vanishes completely from my mind. The same is true for power tools.

I own a giant 65-gallon air compressor; Damon traded it to me years ago in lieu of some money he owed me. The compressor comes up to my breastbone. It’s much bigger than I need, very heavy and unwieldy. Looking at its dusty dials I had zero memory of how it worked and a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the summer when I thought I was going to be paneling the mudroom at any moment, I’d bought an inexpensive, no-name-brand finish nailer. I didn’t know how that worked either.

In the latter case, I could draw on memories of my father. Whenever we worked on projects, unlike all the male stereotypes, Dad always patiently unfolded and read directions. With Dad mentally at my side, I sat down, read the directions, and loaded the nail gun.

There were no directions for the compressor. I called Damon. He was on the road and the connection was bad. He has used compressors since he was a child. He couldn’t remember exactly how this particular one worked but if I had any trouble he could stop by on his way home.

I turned on the compressor. It roared to noisy life and I watched in alarm as the pressure rose to 125 psi. (The small gun required +/- 100 psi.) I turned off the compressor hurriedly and called Damon again. He told me to check the regulator.

“Which of the two dials is the regulator?” I asked.

“The regulator is the regulator! It regulates the pressure!”

“Okay,” I said, staring hopelessly at the compressor, understanding the words but, as usual, nothing about the machinery. “I’ll try again.”

I went to turn back on the compressor. Nothing happened. Click. Click.

I called Damon again. “Now it won’t even turn on.”

He could not hear me through the crackling on the connection. I hung up, defeated. No paneling today.

Then I had a brainwave. I hate this giant compressor, I thought. I’ll buy a little one! And it will come with directions!

All my builders have had small Porter-Cable compressors (called ‘pancake’ compressors because they are squat to the ground). They must be good. And they were on sale at the farm store, Tractor Supply. $99 but it will last the rest of my life and be worth it to never have to deal with this monster again!

I drove to Tractor Supply and located a clerk. “Can you tell me where to find your pancake compressors?”

His brows knit. “We don’t sell anything to do with pancakes!”

When the confusion cleared, it turned out the store didn’t have a single small compressor in stock.

Oh, well. I am sadly accustomed to changed plans due to malfunctioning equipment. Back at home, I was onto my next chore when the door opened and Damon limped in. “What’cha done now?” He worked on the compressor for five minutes, explaining the controls and dials in his usual impatient growl. Of course the compressor worked perfectly. “I knew you’d fucked it up!” he said, laughing, as he went out the door. Damon has rough language but he is a true friend.

I started paneling in the northwest corner of the room, between the woodstove and the wall. I figured this area would not only use up a lot of short pieces but be an excellent place to practice with the nail gun, as there will be a chopping block in front of it to hide any mistakes.

Sure enough, I made a few, but after I got the hang of the gun the work went quickly.

I cut holes for the outlet boxes with my jigsaw…

… and didn’t worry that some of the boards were slightly short because I knew they would be overlapped by panel boards from the north wall.

Of course, speaking of those north wall boards — given my lack of spatial awareness, it didn’t occur to me until I was nearly finished with the section that the nailer on that wall was not plumb, and thus I should have paneled the north wall first. Now, though it might be said that at the bottom of the course I had just enough nailer left over to catch the ends of the north wall boards…

… at the top, because the nailer is not straight, my west wall boards were nearly flush.

I stopped to make dinner. Today I will rip a 2×4 to add another nailer. Next time I’ll know to scout the nailing surfaces and plan ahead.

Of course, if I have to panel anything a few years from now, I’ll have forgotten again.

The Basement Stairs

November 8, 2017

Five years ago I saw a bolt of carpet — a stair runner — on Craigslist for $25. Though it was 100% polyester, it had a familiar pattern with familiar colors. I thought to myself, Someday I will have a house and that house will have basement stairs. So I bought it.

Today I have the house, and I have the stairs. I thought it would be fun to carpet the the stairs during my week camping in the basement. I could work on it at night and it would be a surprise for DH on his return home.

The first thing I had to do was to cut a nubbin of steel from a lally post alongside the stairway. I’d asked Nick to cut off the edge of the post plate that stuck out dangerously. He had brought in a grinder and removed 3/4. The grinder could not reach behind the stair edge, so he’d left a piece. I thought this might be dangerous to future grandchildren.

I put a metal blade in my Sawzall. Whenever I use tools I tend to think of the person who taught me to use them; the Sawzall came from Damon years ago.

It cut through the steel easily. (Thanks, Damon!)

Eventually I will fit a piece of board to the beam end to make that area flush and remove all possibility that a small hand or foot can catch on the jagged edge. But for now I was satisfied.

I had read articles online that told me how to carpet stairs. The first step was to measure the stairs, mark the center, and nail up tack strips. Tack strips are pieces of Douglas fir studded with tiny nails.

The article said I could cut the tack strips to length with metal snips. It seemed incredible that I might cut Douglas fir with scissors, but it did work, in a clumsy fashion.

Handling the tack strips to cut and nail them was tedious, like handling small cacti. They are cheap but for some reason the rug store calculated my need so carefully that the last few steps had to be nailed up out of fragmentary left-overs. At last it was done.

Next came carpet padding. I hate cutting carpet padding. Over the years I’ve created angry purple indents in my thumb from forcing scissors through the heavy felt. A woman in the hardware store sympathized and told me that the trick was a new blade in a box cutter, and something soft underneath that you don’t mind slicing into. I own three box cutters, but two are tumbling somewhere in the garage tsunami. The only one left in the drawer did indeed need a new blade.

Since my carpet pads had to be cut to 11.5″, I found a scrap of 12″ shiplap barn siding. With a sharp new blade and the soft pine to press into, cutting the pads to cover each stair and nosing was easy. I started out using my staple hammer (thanks, Dean!) but though it was faster, it wasn’t as accurate. I soon went back to the boring old staple gun.

Now I used a combination square (thanks, Gary!) to draw lines on each edge of the tread to guide me in placing the carpet.

Then, starting at the bottom of the stairs and using my staple gun, I began stapling on the runner. Various sites had said that a staple gun loaded with 9/16″ staples would work. It did not work for me. I had rented a carpet kicker for $5 (it was quite a bit more battered than this one pictured). Every time I “kicked” the carpet tight, all the staples popped out. By 11 PM I was exhausted and had a rumpled stair runner bristling with tiny silver fangs. I gave up, removed all the staples with pliers, and went to bed.

Early yesterday morning before my first class I returned to the carpet store. Did they rent an electric stapler? No. However, looking at my tired, discouraged face, the owner softened. “Maybe I have one in the back you can use.” He did.

While I was paying the $20 rental, I asked they also rented stair tools. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “The men all have their personal stair tools that always ride in their trucks.” You’d think I had requested to rent their underwear. These tools, that look like heavy fat chisels, are not expensive but they are a specialty item not carried in most hardware stores. I did not want to drive an hour to the city.

I spoke to my friends Tom and Larry at lunch. Tom was sure he had a chisel that could do the trick. Larry listened and found me in my classroom fifteen minutes later. He had quickly welded for me a homemade stair tool out of steel scraps.

After work, using the electric nail gun and the homemade stair tool (I couldn’t manage the kicker, the stair tool, and the gun all at once, so the kicker was gradually left behind) I laid the carpet.

It’s not perfect. I’ll definitely hire professionals for the real stairs. My runner wanders 1/4″ from side to side and the risers have a few wrinkles over the tack strips. However, it’s DONE. Another chore crossed off!

The basement is still a half-unpacked hodgepodge (the floor rug in the background  isn’t actually going to go there) but with the new carpet runner on the stairs, I feel we’re moving towards civilization.