It’s About Time
Lately, my job has been sanding. It gives me a lot of time to think. I work in a bubble—face mask, ear protection, hat and eye glasses—for safety, but it keeps me in my own head. Of course, there’s always the day job, so my attention is split, part to regular work and part to building. While I sand, Rick has been busy working the site, rough wiring, and building, installing the boards that I’ve finished sanding.
I learned sanding from my Dad. I think I earned that chore as a little kid because I was observant and, well, anal. I have a constitutional tolerance for the tedious. Now as I sand, I hear my Dad’s voice—and it’s a comfort.
“No, go with the grain. There, that’s it.”
The task of sanding is so integrated with my childhood memories that the sandpaper, the smell of sawdust, and the feel of sanding are enough to bring my Dad back. His voice and advice is a part of the physicality of the job. I’m using the sander he advised me to buy. I’d burned through two Black & Deckers, prepping my house for a paint job, when he said I needed better tools. So here I am, twenty-six years later, still using the Porter Cable he’d recommended.
We’ve had a lot of trouble with lumber on this project. We’ve rejected nearly a third of what we’ve ordered from local building supply houses. We even tried the local “specialty” builders’ outfit—and paid a significant premium for what was supposed to be custom picked lots. You can get quality lumber from the discount guys, but you’ll have to spend a ton of time picking through it. So, we swallowed hard and tried a “pro-builder custom order.”
It was a more than a disappointment. It was just as junky as if we’d picked from the top of the rejects pile at the discount stores. For this we paid an extra 25%? I called to complain. Rick and I sorted the pile into junk, usable and good. The sales guy lives not far away; he said he’d drop by. When he did, he looked at the pile and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s just not right.” Even then, it took two more deliveries to get it right. Another delay.
Every glitch just burns daylight. We’ve had snow flurries already so the delays are really a problem. We want to achieve a “defendable” enclosure before any serious snow accumulation. As for lumber, we’re back to hand picking on our own—it’s cheaper and, if you get junk, you know who to blame.
“Check your sand paper. See, if it clogs up like that, it’s time to change the paper. Here, let me show you.”
“Daddy, how will I know when it’s done?”
“You’ll know, honey, your fingers will know.”
My dad had a belief that sometime, in our past, there was a Golden Age of Tools and Materials. Even when I was little he would curse the shoddy workmanship in building supplies. When materials fell short of the mark it was the fault of some national disgrace. I grew up to the litany of, “Goddamn Canadian nails!” or “How can they sell this shit!” He cursed like a trucker.
Rick shares this creed. He’ll eye a 2 X 6, shake his head and throw it back in the pile. “You just can’t get quality materials anymore!” (Another kind of echo from my Dad.) Picking up yet another bowed or twisted 2 X 10, he points out the wide soft wood between the growth rings, “See that, plantation lumber, grown fast and weak.”
Was there really ever a NeverNeverLand of strong nails and straight lumber?
I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s an argument about quality that’s been going on at least since the Industrial Revolution—and probably back beyond that—to the woodworking guilds of the Middle Ages. Wood is an agricultural product. Trees are not perfect. What makes lumber true, is time. Time and effort. Somewhere in the chain of commerce someone has to care enough, or make enough money, to make it worthwhile to spend the time to do it right. It’s the same for building and for any craft. In a world of mass production, suppliers will produce any product that will sell. Unfortunately that means that the quality will be as marginal as the market will bear.
As my father aged he became more and more of a fine craftsman. He complained less about milled lumber, not because it got any better, but because he bought raw, and milled and finished it himself. Towards the very end of his life the furniture he built was more art than craft. He was not fast. He certainly couldn’t have made a living at it. But he knew the work was good and it gave him great satisfaction. He reached the point where he’d select wood for its “flaws,” knots or whorls, and then fashion the piece to highlight these natural features.
In the months before he passed away he and I were enjoying morning coffee at a walnut table he’d made. “See this?” he tapped a spot where the grain swirled and rippled, catching the light. “That’s where I let the sun out.” He smiled and ran his hand along its smooth edge.
Rick and I are building a log cabin. The purveyors of the materials would prefer we call it a log home, but ours will be a modest dwelling that fits within the cannons of the design’s history. It’s suited to the simple lines of its primitive forebears. There is a lot of natural wood. Rick is taking the time to position the beams to their best advantage, even to straighten them with weird clamps and strapping devices of his own invention. I don’t think a builder could afford that level of care on a paying gig. This will be our home.
A traditional log cabin would have beams across the log perimeter, with a heavy plank ceiling that served as both the ceiling above and the floor for the second level. We searched for the right material that would work, and be in the spirit of a log cabin. We settled on kiln dried, southern yellow pine, beveled, tongue and groove, 2 X 6s. It was a special order so we had to take the quality on faith and wait several weeks for it to arrive.
When it did, it was a huge disappointment. The wood was much more knotty than the catalogue description. It was not “finish-milled” and ready, as described. Rustic shouldn’t be synonymous with slivers. This wood bore the deep mill markings, chatter and the “tear-out” that you get when the mill’s blades are not sharp. Worse yet, the wood arrived moldy. And I’m not talking about the ubiquitous blue stain that comes with some pine. This wood was alive with green and orange colonies of mold. (Again, I can hear my Dad’s voice, “Kiln dried, my ass!”) Our expensive special order was a bust. We had to decide whether to reject it (and pay the chunky restocking fee AND wait for new wood) or whether to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem, which brings me to sanding.
I am neither as strong, nor as skilled as Rick in building. I am really just a knowledgeable gopher, but I can sand. And that’s what we did. We bleach treated all the areas of mold and then sanded it all to remove any sign of mold or mill markings. All 150, 12-foot lengths, both sides. (There I was, sanding pine, a wood my father didn’t think was worth burning!) It took me an extra two weeks—while Rick worked on site grading and electrical. It’s up now, and looks really good. A silk purse from a sow’s ear.
I have my hands on my hips now. “Really Daddy, how will I know, how will my fingers know?”
“You’ll know it’s done, honey, when it’s as smooth as a baby’s ass. You just keep sanding ‘til then.”