Archives for category: Building

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I lived in California for nearly thirty-five years. Californians revel in their relentlessly good weather. It is beautiful, nearly bug-free, and… a bit dull. I’m glad to be home. There’s a huge reward in it. It’s wildly green in a luscious, juicy kind of way. It’s a landscape that supports all kinds of life. Bugs are part of the bottom tier of the food chain.

Yes, it’s been brutally hot these past few weeks, and dry. But nothing we have here compares to the dry of a California summer–with no rain from April to October. Here, we usually get a good rain two or three times a week. But not the past few weeks. I suppose that the dry spell might’ve made the heat more endurable–you know…a dry heat.

Though the heat wave is supposed to continue until the end of the month, we got a break the past two nights–with thunderstorms and ample rain. It dropped the temperatures some, but brought the humidity up a lot. And rain always seems like an invitation for the bugs to make meals of us. I fend off the bugs with brimmed hats, long pants and long sleeves, regardless of the temperatures. My Michigan roots are northern. I watch the summer people slap and scratch, and chuckle. We’re part of the food chain, too.

Last year brought an unusually cool and wet season. We’re always left wondering, “Will this be the new normal?” And now, with the mercury in the high 80s and 90s, we’re asking that again. All bets are off.

We built our home without air-conditioning. In the summer, it’s in the shade for most of the day, by plan. If we close up during the day, and open for the cooler nights, we can keep the interior in the mid-seventies. In serious heat, we use a box fan to move more night air, and that works. We’ve been in the house for going on three years, and so far, nothing that climate throws at us has been a problem. We hope that continues, but who knows? This summer, the arctic has had hotter weather than here. It’s funny when the hot weather is coming from the north. Like I said, all bets are off.

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Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

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The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

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Most of the country is suffering a serious heat wave. The temperatures are up–though not searing. The issue is this new measure, the “heat index” that combines heat and humidity for a new measure of miserable. This, they say, is the weather of the future.

In addition to gardening, beekeeping and our other regular outdoor duties, Rick and I are working to finish the exterior of the barn. We have a crew (who seem to show up when it’s convenient for them). So, in their frequent absences, we soldier on, on our own.  Right now we are staining the exterior materials. Two coats of Sikkens.

It’s easier to apply the stain before the siding and trim materials are installed. You can do it inside the barn, away from the sun and the bugs. You don’t have to work 30 feet up, on a ladder. And you get a better finish. I’m doing the trim materials downstairs and Rick is doing the siding upstairs. We listen to the radio.

We’re tuned into a station that plays oldies-rock n’ roll. About every twenty minutes they do an update on the weather. Given the high heat index numbers, the weather report comes with health advisories–warnings to keep hydrated and minimize exertion. We just keep going. Our goal is to finish all exterior work by the end of the month so we can be free of the hassle and expense of the crew.

Yesterday, after the umpteenth warning regarding the special dangers of a high heat index number to “vulnerable populations,” I had a flash of insight. These warnings are for folks who work outdoors, or small children… or the elderly. Rick and I are both in our sixties.

“Hell,” I called up to him, “You know, they mean us!”

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

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We both heard it. We’d been waiting for it, but when it happened the sound was deep, and visceral and in an instant, we knew it for what it was. The snow load on the barn roof had let go. It’s impressive–that sound. The ground shakes. When this barn is finished, we’ll be glad for our selection of roof surfaces. In the meantime, it’s a building education.

You may recall that we started building the barn last summer. There were delays…permitting and then building. What we thought should have been finished by September, wasn’t. After all, hoping for a speedy build, this time we hired contractors to take the laboring oar. But the universe often has other ideas, when one has plans. The builders (twin brothers, who by now, we consider family) had a series of injuries and health debacles. And there were weather delays. By the time winter was on the horizon, it was clear it would not be finished. We changed our goal to getting a defendable roof over the trusses.

The guys resisted. Sure, they could get it built–or they could build through the winter. Yeah, right. I reject the idea of spending half a day clearing snow, so that you can get in a half day of building in freezing temperatures. We politely refused the plan, and requested only a water-shedding roof, before things got too winter-crazy.

We plan on a standard shingle roof. Others thought we were crazy–it’s more expensive and it’s not unusual to put a metal roof on a barn. But my mum has a metal roof on her garage–and when the snow lets loose it can crush anything in its path. I didn’t want that next to the barn. Snow does not slide as much on a shingle roof. “But, but, but–” they all said, “If the snow doesn’t slide off, you may need to shovel it if the snow load is too high.” Believe me, we will never, ever, shovel this roof. We are not young and stupid. It’s essentially three stories high in the front–that’s why we went with trusses, and then doubled up on those. Go ahead, Old Man Winter, show me all you’ve got. Bring it on, we’re ready.

Just under the wire, we got our defendable roof–sheathing and a layer of Ice and Water Shield. Within a week, we were knee deep in snow, and breathing a sigh of relief. Sure the walls aren’t all in, but the the fancy trusses are covered. The snow slides off the slick surface of the I&W Shield–just like it would’ve on a metal roof. Oh, are we ever glad that we’ll have shingles. In a funny way, all the delays created a ‘dry-run’ situation that confirmed our original plans.

It’s raining today, that’s what set the snow to sliding. In a few weeks, the snow will be gone and the guys will be back. We’ll get that roof done–and walls, too. In the meantime, we just feel lucky, and more than a little in awe of the power of a little avalanche.

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

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Notice Anything New?

Can you see it? It’s transformational! It changes everything.

This isn’t smoke and mirrors. (Well, maybe smoke.)

I’ll give you a hint. It’s about heat.

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Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

Friction Fit

A.V. Walters

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting. I have been busy with everyone’s favorite task in home building. I’m insulating.

For good reason, Michigan takes insulation seriously. Back in California I remember building inspectors glancing at insulation, with a nod and a wink. Not so here. Normally, we have winters that warrant a rigorous inspection. Without insulation, we’d spend a fortune (and a lot of natural resources) to keep the place habitable in the winter.

Because there’s little you can do to insulate log walls, the remaining areas get extra scrutiny. In part because the default—fiberglass–is such a miserable job, we considered all of our options. Rigid, closed-cell board, which is not itchy at all, was time consuming and expensive. We secured bids on foam spray installation. They were outrageous—especially because of the manual labor to install the cold-roof baffles, before the spray. Ultimately we opted for the tried and true, the fiberglass, do-it-yourself option.

We have to meet R 49 in the roof and ceilings. When you include the cold-roof baffles, there’s not enough depth between the rafters to get R49’s worth of insulation. So, we found a company that made sturdy R5 baffles AND we firred-out the rafters with 2X2s for extra depth. Then we used high-density fiberglass batts. Of course, they don’t make such things in the depths we needed, so we opted for three layers of R-15 batts to get to the R-value we needed. It has been an amazing amount of work, most of it overhead, unpleasant and itchy (on a ladder, in protective layers and mask.) With three layers, it means dozens of times up and down the ladder to fill each bay. The first two layers are “friction fit,” that is, they are held up by their sheer orneriness. The last, faced, layer is stapled.

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It’s nearly finished. Some of it has to wait—to accommodate wiring and plumbing first. I don’t mind the break, though it might be hard to go back to it. Our little house will certainly be cozy when this is all done. I’m curious to see how it will fare in summer—whether the cold-roof baffles and ridge vent will really keep the roof (and thus the upstairs) cool. In that department, we are blessed that the house falls in the shade of the hill in the afternoons and that should help us keep comfortable, too. It’s important, because we’ve opted not to air-condition.

I’m happy to be nearly finished. It turns out that the only part of this task that is not friction fit, is me.

 

 

The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo Update

It’s only day three and already I’ve missed a day!

In my real life, we’re backfilling over the new septic field (and I thought digging it was hard), moving dirt back over it and being mindful not to damage all the underground pipes; it’s more backbreaking and exhausting than digging the hole in the first place! Yesterday, I started my NaNoWriMo assignment, and promptly fell asleep. So today, I had to double up to try to catch up. Right now my word count stands at 4,295–I’ll need to beef it up tomorrow too, to get back on track. Phew. (And I don’t get to include this in my official word count.) NaNoWriMo–It’s not for everyone. Goodnight All.

In Time for Ladybugs

A.V. Walters

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Two years ago, this week, Rick and I arrived in Leelanau. We’d loaded our truck at my brother’s on a clear, crisp autumn day. Not bothering to cover the load in such stellar weather, we then drove through three hours of mixed rain and snow, all the way to Empire. When we arrived at our little cottage rental, it was full of Ladybugs.

When autumn gives you mixed weather—a clear warning of winter to come—she delivers it with a garnish of Ladybugs. On warmer days, they descend, lighting on any surface warmed by the sun. The air is full of them. They get into the house. If they’re pests, they’re cheerful pests. It’s difficult to work up any insect-phobic reaction to excessive Ladybugs.

We’re rushing to complete some of the outdoor work before the weather turns. The air is full of Ladybugs, so we know well what’s on the way.

Our work is not specifically gender determined. We each take on those tasks for which we have experience. Gender typing does ultimately play a factor—because our respective lives and experiences have formed us along such lines. Generally Rick does the heavy lifting. I have become the expert on surfaces, sanding and architectural coatings. Rick is stronger than me, and has more experience with heavy equipment. I am not afraid of heights.

Rick is just finishing up the installation of the septic tank and field. That’s grueling work—digging, moving stone and sand. It would be impossible without the Kubota, but even with, there’s plenty of shovel work to leave you worn and sore by the end of each day. It looks wonderful, neat and crisp. He does good work (even the inspector said so.) It’s funny to put so much care into something that you immediately bury (and with any luck, you’ll never see again!) But a good septic system is imperative if you want to do your part in keeping surface waters clean. All water flows somewhere, and in this region, everything ultimately flows into our Great Lakes. Proper rural sewage treatment is not rocket science—but it is too often overlooked as a source of contamination. Rick is seeing to it that we are on the “part of the solution” side of the equation.

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Everyone likes the idea of clean water. However, whenever the state legislature, or local code authorities try to strengthen standards or enforce compliance with septic rules, the individual liberties and property rights folks go crazy. As though it were their personal right to pollute our collective drinking water.

When you think of it, sewage treatment is a sort of litmus test for civilization. If you cannot figure out how to deal with your wastes—you’ll poison yourself in your own fetid soup. Not meeting that threshold, means you don’t merit the other percs of civilization. As a culture, we should reflect further on that starting point.

I’ve just finished the exterior sealing of the log walls. First there was the inevitable prep—the critical step in any good home protection system. When paint or stain jobs fail, it’s almost always a failure in the prep process. If your prep doesn’t take twice as long as your actual application, you’re probably doing it wrong. Then, two coats of stain. This has been a stinky, messy, oil-based operation. I cringe at it, but it is necessary for the long term care of our home. I’ve painted several homes in my life, but this is my first initial staining of a raw wood exterior. Before I started, I did research.

After two days of day-end skin cleaning, with solvents and abrasives, I figured out that I could start the day with my face and hands liberally slathered with a cheap, greasy lotion—to simplify clean-up and avoid the day-end toxic ritual. I must have looked a fright. I have “paint clothes” that I’ve used repeatedly over the years. They are more paint than fabric. To this I added a neckerchief over my hair, and one around my neck (daubed in herbal bug repellant.) And then I slicked that greasy layer over the skin of my face and hands. I was unrecognizable. By the end of each day, stain speckles on my glasses made me even weirder looking—and nearly blind.

You can only apply paint or stain within a limited temperature range. Some days, it was just too cold for the materials. I really wanted to get the double coat onto the logs, so I could rest assured that the house was protected for the winter—and for winters to come. Make no mistake, winter is coming—the meaning behind the profusion of Ladybugs wasn’t lost on me. I found a good rock’n roll radio station (or, as good as it gets, in Northern Michigan) and, pumped up with oldies from my youth, powered on through.

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On logs, they recommend (especially for the first coat) that you apply the stain log-by-log, the full length of any given log, before moving on to the next log. Raw logs are so thirsty that if you don’t constantly work “from a wet edge” you’ll have forever-lap-marks on the logs. And, they told me to work from bottom to top. So that any drips can be brushed out. A stain drip on a naked log becomes a permanent feature.

I didn’t argue. Even though this method maximizes the number of ladder moves, I stuck with it. And, I grew muscled with the wrestling of the ladders. My work on the last side, the north side, was confounded by the trenches Rick had dug for the septic—further complicating the ladder dance. (And, it would be the north face—the highest side of the house!) I was chugging along in my usual rhythm until I hit the north side. Then, maneuvering my ladders around the trenches I lost my nerve.

I looked for it, high and low, but I could not get my nerve back. Maybe I was tired. Maybe stiff and sore legs wouldn’t respond as they should, and it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable on high. Maybe someone snuck kryptonite into my breakfast and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was a mere mortal when working aloft. The farther up the ladder I went, the more cravenly rigid and jerky I became on the ladder. I was petrified. Only the sin of pride forced me back up there to finish that first coat (and then I vowed that I would not go back up until spring, or at least until the trenches were all filled.) I was firm in my fearful resolve, that is, until I saw the results of a second coat.

The first coat soaks into the wood. It looks flat and mottled. The second coat is the juicy, outer, protective coating. It intensifies and evens the pigment. It not only protects, it makes the house look great. And it goes on much faster. My second-coat practice on the east, south and west sides built up my confidence. Though some fear remained, I was able to grit my teeth and return to my usual ladder mobility. (It’s funny that I’m good on ladders and in climbing trees, because I’m an absolute clutz on the ground level.)

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With my last brushstroke I called out to Rick (setting pipe in the rock of the septic field) and did a victory dance in front of the house. That’s one ugly job behind me. I triumphed over fear, and got the job done. Next, I need to start insulating the roof and upstairs ceiling. I hear that if you rub copious quantities of corn starch into your skin at the beginning of each insulating day, you can escape the usual “insulator’s itch. “ It’s at least worth a try (and, it couldn’t be any worse than slathering yourself with hand lotion.)

Winter is coming. I have recovered my nerve. We have Ladybugs everywhere, and my hands have never been so soft.

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Waiting on Color

A.V. Walters

Color is late this year. Not just here, I’m hearing it everywhere. Back home, where normally it would be finishing up by now, most of the trees are still green. Here we’re a couple of weeks behind–and we’re only seeing the occasional branch, or isolated tree, that has bolted into spectacular. I keep telling myself I’ll blog when I can post great color shots. And then I wait.

It’s not like the weather hasn’t changed. It’s autumn here. Night time temps are dropping into the 40s. I have to harvest the last of my basil and tomatoes, before the first hard frost. I’m staining the cabin–and some days it’s too chilly to stain. Though staining is akin to paint–and should be an improvement–Rick and I have grown attached to the look of cedar logs. They must be stained, to protect from rot and UV damage. Still, we like the natural look and cringe that the work I’m doing makes the cabin look like Lincoln Logs. I’m sure I’ll get enough warm days to get the first coat on–the cooler days I use for prep. Rainy days, I work on the computer. Rick is busy putting in the septic. Those cool power tools, the Kubota and the backhoe, are seeing good use. We’ll get it in, and inspected, just in time for the weather to really turn.

Some folks plan their vacations around color. It’s a risky venture–trying to guess when nature will accommodate. Is it a failure if you head off to the boonies–and have only green to reward you? I suppose an early winter would be worse–or a dry year with only shriveled, brown leaves. Our neck of the woods has recently been voted the best color-drive in the country. I don’t know how such things are judged. (I’ll bet folks back in the Keweenaw, or at the Porcupine Mountains, will think the jig is rigged.) I only know that it will extend our tourist season–which can’t be all bad for the local economy. The wine-tasting vineyards and orchard stands will be happy.

In the meantime, we keep working. It’s a year late, but we have our winter-defendable shell in place. The doors and windows went in last week. Once we get the chimney in, we’ll actually be able to heat it, making for a cozy place to work until it’s ready for us to move in. All things in due time. Next time, color shots!

Cursed and Blessed, Both

A.V. Walters

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Oh, this project has tested us. It has been beset with delays, but I can’t complain. Each delay has brought hidden gifts. When last year we didn’t have time to put in a garden, we learned through the season that our initial garden spot was not a good place—not the best light and a bit too steep. That delay led to our current (now fenced) garden, which has great light and a gentle southern exposure, which will give us a little edge on spring. Likewise, our delays led to a reassessment on the best location for the septic system.

Some of our delays have had an even longer fuse—and, perhaps, an even better payoff.

We selected the log cabin because we thought it would go up quick. In the process, the guy selling it wanted to also push the “upgrades,” cedar logs instead of pine, the rustic railings and fancy split-log staircase. Mostly we were skeptical. Cedar, though, that seemed smart—cedar resists insect damage, much like the old growth redwood in California. Cedar fence posts last forever. So, when Bob told us that, unlike the pine, cedar logs were dimensionally stable, we listened. The railings and stairs were expensive and, well…ugly, falling into that category of over-rustic, or simply rustic for rustic’s sake. On those, we passed.

“Just how stable?” Rick pressed for answers. Rick had never built with logs, and he was concerned about shrinkage. Log home packages are often sold with adjustment jacks—big, cumbersome screw assemblies that allow you to tweak the non-log support members to keep the upper floors level (and to keep the log walls from spreading under weight.) Our pioneer forebears didn’t have such gizmos and their simple homes were notoriously caddywhompus. In response, Bob said that the shrinkage in their cedar logs was virtually “un-measurable!” Ever logical, Rick pressed further, “If the cedar logs are that stable, why do we need the complicated jack assemblies?”

We should have listened closer to Bob’s response. He said, “You don’t have to have them.”

When the kit was delivered, there were no jacks. I asked about it—and Bob told me that Rick didn’t want them. Hmmm. I shrugged. The kit installers (“stackers”—our very own Flanagin Brothers, though we didn’t know it yet) asked about the jacks—and we told them that Bob had told us that we didn’t need them with the cedar. They shrugged and said, “We’ve never done a log kit without them, but okay…”

Our cabin survived the winter, without any appreciable shrinkage. Rick built out the interior walls and the upper decking—then we wrapped and covered the whole thing until spring. The great unveiling revealed what we’d been led to expect—no real shrinkage.

When the Flanagins arrived to do the roof they mentioned the jacks (again) and we showed them our absence of shrinkage. We reiterated what the seller, Bob, had said. They shook their heads and shrugged (again). Then the roof went on.

The combined additional weight (from the roof) and exposure (now that it was unwrapped) resulted in what the Flanagins had expected all along. Accelerated shrinkage. They measured the growing gaps at the exposed ends and predicted a total of 2 to 2 ½ inches of drop. That meant that our center, load-bearing wall (and thus the upstairs floor above) would end up that much higher than the exterior walls and floors—a veritable roller coaster of an upstairs floor, and potential buckled log walls. Not only that, but the extent of this movement endangers many other building systems—doors and windows, plumbing, wiring and ducting. Until this is resolved (either fixed, or until all the shrinkage is finished) one cannot continue the construction without risking future system failures.

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There is always shrinkage and warping in wood construction. We get that. We are not perfectionists. But, even before all the expected shrinkage has occurred, the end result in our kiln-dried cedar logs is not “immeasurable.” The only word that I know to describe what happened here, is fraud.

A retrofit is never as easy as doing something right the first time. It is beyond our abilities. So we’ve hired the Flanagins back again—to save us yet again. We had to wait again, for a window in their schedule, but we are blessed. This week they’ve re-supported our upper floor with temporary piers, cut out parts of the load-bearing walls, and installed the jacks. All of Rick’s interior framing will have to come out, or be cut shorter, to make way for the downward shrinkage. One step forward, two steps back.

As soon as they finish we can really get going on finishing our home. It’s been trying, but our enthusiasm for the finish hasn’t waned. The question that hangs in the air is whether we “do something about it.” We feel that we’ve been saved from a bad outcome by the Flanagins (again). Solution in hand, we’re moving forward. But, are we rewarding bad behavior? Do we need to confront Bob with his misrepresentations? I, of course, am wracking my brain for what advantage was gained, by Bob…the proverbial why of it. I am chronically that third-grade kid, jaw dropped, because people are breaking the rules. What was he thinking?

It’s not that we lack the skills to take Bob to task on this. I can certainly go there, if not for us, maybe to teach him a lesson for others. Rick shakes his head—he doesn’t believe people like that ever learn lessons, “It’s just what they do.” They’ll always push the envelope, even if just for sport. With great relief, the home project moves forward and the past is there on our shoulders. We’re wrestling with it

And, there, the solution nearly done.

And, there, the solution nearly done.

Up to Our Eyebrows

A.V. Walters

A Roof!

A Roof!

The past month or so has been a whirlwind of work and changes. First, we finally have a roof! We’re working on the gable ends, and the doors and windows aren’t in, but we no longer wrestle with tarps every time the wind is up, or rain threatens. Rain was a real trial during the roof installation. After a record dry May, our crew was finally ready in June. And then the rains came. It was on again, off again, and every transition was a tarp wrangling event.

It’s a steep roof, a 12/12 pitch, on the main section. We’re thankful to the Flanagin Brothers, whose daring and determination made it go up. Rick and I would have been hard-pressed to pull it off by ourselves. (We’re talking about fifty, twenty-foot long, 2”x12”s, here.) Too high, too hard, too scary. They were undaunted by the challenge. Crazy characters, they’re twin brothers whose laughter ( and, on a rare occasion, bickering like an old married couple) rings out from the work site and who, in almost eerie symmetry, work together like interlocking puzzle pieces, finishing each other’s sentences and solving problems near wordlessly–as though building were some kind of secret dance routine. It’s been a pleasure to have them around. Soon, their work will be finished and it’ll be back to Rick and I to finish. We’ll miss their levity, skills, and their cool confidence.

They’d be gone already, but for a last minute idea. They were about to enclose the gable ends when one of them (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that the log to gable-wall transition could really use an “eyebrow” roof. (This would be a roof line that sticks out about two feet, separating the log walls and the A-line gable-end walls.) The other twin completed the idea, “Yeah, it’d give you sun protection in the summer and keep the rain and snow off the log walls.” Rick and I looked at each other and the decision was made. Why didn’t we think of that?

With eyebrows!

With eyebrows!

It’s an old-fashioned design element–a sensible way of using an extra layer of roof overhang to protect the walls and to give relief from the heat of the summer sun, while still making the most of the low-angled winter light. The Flanagins keep trying to sell it to us on aesthetic grounds–but we’re already sold on function. Besides, it doesn’t win us over to tell us it’ll have that “cute cottage look.” We’re not big fans of cute. So, the Flanagins are still with us, and we’re literally up to our eyebrows in the project.

The excitement of building progress–even interrupted by rainstorms–has helped to carry me along. I’ve been under the weather, a victim of self-inflicted illness. I have food sensitivities. While I’m usually very careful, in the busyness of full-tilt construction, I misread a food label, and I’ve been paying the price for weeks. My apologies, dear readers, I have not been up to blogging–or much of anything else. It’s a good thing the bees mostly look after themselves. Had they been pets, they’d have perished from neglect. Rick has never witnessed a full-blown celiac episode, and he has a new appreciation for my normal level of kitchen vigilance.

I’m mending now, and picking up the pace on those things I can do on site. I’m sealing the interior of the log walls, and just starting on the exterior. I’ve been using my downtime to source cool building materials on craigslist, recycled or reclaimed timbers that make the project distinctive, and lower its carbon footprint. It helps to us keep out of the big box stores and away from retail prices. And every offbeat purchase has a story, which gets woven into our story of building the house.

Character and Compromise

A.V. Walters–

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I’ve been sanding, again. Sanding seems to be a big part of my contribution to this project. And, there’s plenty more of it in my future. This time, I’ve just completed sanding the interior of the log walls. The cedar logs come rough-milled. Maybe it’s me, but rough-milled doesn’t meet my needs when it comes to interior walls. Rustic shouldn’t mean slivers. And, I’ll have to keep this place clean in the future and rough milled sounds to me like a haven for dirt and dust. So I donned my sanding uniform—mask, ear-protection and grubby clothes, and set to it.

In no time, Rick and I were headed for trouble. “Whoa there! Don’t sand so much. It’s a log cabin. We want to keep the character of the logs.” I stepped down from the ladder. “Not if ‘character’ means slivers, we don’t.” “Well, we don’t want them with a completely smooth finish, they’ll look faux.” That’s a man that knows my weak spots. Really I don’t want them to look faux-finished. I don’t like anything faux. I went into my spiel, you know, slivers, cleaning, all of my justifications for over-sanding.

He pointed to a lovely spot on a log that revealed its craggy whorls and texture, “We don’t want to lose that.”

I winced. “Maybe, just a little… to take off the sharp edges.”

Usually, Rick and I are very much of one mind aesthetically. We’re also both very practical and rational—common sense sort of folk. We negotiated a truce. The top sides of logs (where dust will accumulate) could take more sanding, as can areas where hands will contact the wall (like on the wall up the stairs.) The general objective is to keep things as natural as possible (without being sharp or slivery!) I had to relax my normal super-smooth sanding standards. He had to let go of the complete au naturel look.

From time to time, he’d look up from his work (installing windows)—to keep tabs on my progress. He said little. I know that I probably sanded a little more than he’d like. It seems fair, since I sanded less than I’d like. Maybe, seeing my needs, he compromised more than I did. Not too much, I hope.

We’re hiring our old friends, the Flanagin Brothers, to help put up the roof framing. I told Fred I was eager, what with the warmer weather, to get things moving. He asked what we were doing in the interim. I told him Rick was working on windows and on the post and beam supports for the front porch.

“Yeah, what about you?” he egged.

“I’ve been sanding.”

“What are you sanding?”

“The interior of the logs.” There was a long pause. I checked to see if the call had disconnected.

“You’re sanding the logs?” “Yeah, just to take down the slivers.”

“Most folks just call that rustic, you know.” I sighed. I didn’t try to explain. Later, when I went back to my sanding, I kept it to a light touch—well within the compromise. And, I wondered about just who was the character in this scenario.

It’s Later Than You Think

A.V. Walters

I suppose I’ll settle into it and adjust; I do every year. But I suffer from Daylight Savings Time confusion. If I’m saving daylight, do I earn interest? If so, how can I collect? Yes, I know there’s supposedly increased productivity, but it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. In exchange for dark mornings and extended evenings, I get to feel tired and, when I look at the clock, confused. In a week or so, I’ll be fine. When did daylight savings kick in so early? I thought it was a summer deal, and there’s still a foot of snow on the ground.

The biggest insult in it is the semi-annual adjusting of the clocks. Some of them do it automatically, some need to be nudged. One year I manually changed all the clocks, and then ended up an hour early to appointments. How was I to know that my devices were automatic, and maybe smarter than me? Better, I suppose, than doing it in the fall and showing up late.

I’m trying to get beyond the artificial construct of time. That’s not surprising, given that I already feel so far behind. I’d wanted to get a roof on the cabin before spring rains, but the guys I wanted to hire decided to sit out the winter, this year. We need help, because, after I broke my rib last fall, Rick doesn’t want me working up high— (too clumsy) and he cannot do it alone. And the guys we want to hire? They say they’re getting too old to work in the deep cold. Hey, they’re a decade younger than me—what is that saying?

I lie awake nights, running through all the steps needed to build. Do we have tar-paper? Should we use Tyvek instead? (What we’ve always called Yooper siding.) Did I get enough cedar shakes to do a chicken coop, too? With all of this pending, when will I find time for the garden? I’ve spent the winter locating good deals on building materials. I have to stop though, because, until we attach some of this stuff, we’re running out of places to put it. It’s amazing how much volume goes into the construction of a house. Worry doesn’t help. Logistically, Rick really has a handle on this, so why am I awake at night?

The alarm went off this morning and I had to lie there and ponder; does my cell phone update to DST, automatically, or is it really later than I think?

First Snows

A.V. Walters

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I’ve been off for a couple of days of travel for the day job. It’s just as well. I’m not much use building right now because of a pesky little broken rib. It’s my own fault. We were moving a washing machine (a great craigslist deal) and, because I wasn’t communicating from my end, I got myself underneath it in a creative and unfortunate way. Sometimes I think I’m sturdier and stronger than I am, and that can lead to trouble.

There’s not much one can do for a broken rib. In days past, they used to immobilize patients, or tape them up. These approaches frequently led to pneumonia. We’re like sharks that way; stop moving and you don’t breathe. So I’m wandering around, doing what I can. With all the other delays, this one is just icing on the cake. A few days travel and work for a little recovery time is a good thing. Then, I’ll take advantage of my limited capacity to do Kubota work. Yay! I’ll get to use the tractor and backhoe!

We have a few weeks yet before the ground freezes. On the way to the airport, the other day, the road was so icy that we floated through a corner–where four other vehicles were stuck in the ditch! Our car has all-weather tires. (I think Rick decided that morning that it’s time to put the snow tires on the truck.) Still, the ground isn’t frozen. There’s still time to dig in the septic tank and maybe even the field.

Despite representations otherwise from the power company, our work site does not yet have power. Like us, they’ve experienced weather delays.  The most recent promise is for early this week. With it nippy, power would sure be nice. Running a generator indoors is not a good idea, even when your “indoors” is a breezy, windowless, roofless cabin. It’d be great to work with artificial light and power tools, without the drone, and stink, of the generator. Maybe, just maybe, this week will bring electricity.

We’ve already seen snow. When I returned from my work foray (48 hours, one seminar and seven flights) the season had changed. We’re ankle deep in the big white fluffy stuff. My mum, some distance to the north, is knee-deep. Being as it’s only mid-November, it’s a tough call whether this is “it,”—whether winter has arrived for good. The weather report for the week calls for snow, every single day, time to find that snowblower that I’ve been talking about.

Actually, I’m excited to see snow. It will bring a return to our snow-shoeing adventures. As soon as the rib is fully healed, I’ll get back to my plan to improve my generally spastic cross-country skiing. Here again, the delay is probably a good thing. Hunting season started yesterday, so it isn’t a good idea to go traipsing through the bush. In the meantime—just don’t make me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s About Time

A.V. Walters–

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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.

In the Zone

In the Zone

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.

IMG_2059

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.

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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.”

 

My Dad's Sandpaper Box

My Dad’s Sandpaper Box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Territory, New Toys…
A.V. Walters

In the early days...

In the early days…

No! Did I say toys? Tools, tools, really it’s new tools! It’s a whole new world of what one needs to do—snow, building, planting. First, after carefully reviewing the used market for almost a year, we got the Kubota tractor—which we we’ve needed for road grading, excavation, and will certainly need for snow clearing. Rick cut in the driveway and dug out the foundation for the cabin with it—it’s no toy.

Then, I saw a good deal on a log splitter, on craigslist. In Two Rock we heated with wood and we split it all by hand—both of us. Of course, Northern California doesn’t pack nearly as much of a winter punch as Michigan. We used to use about two cords of wood a year to keep toasty. Here we figure we’ll need about five. The log splitter was a good call. I used it, feeling like a bit of a traitor to my trusty maul and wedge. But in an afternoon, without breaking too much of a sweat, (though it is still work) I split about a cord. Wow. We already had chainsaws (when we met, Rick and I owned the same brand and model of chainsaw. Kismet!)

The generator/inverter was a no-brainer. So far, there still isn’t any power to the site. (Though it looks like next week the electric company will bring in the underground lines for power—with phone and internet piggybacking in the trench.) Everything needs power—nailers, sanders, lights, saws. So the generator can’t be considered a toy by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in the spring, we were looking at the costs of excavation—road, foundation, well line, septic. It was daunting. We’d already bought what’s called a back-blade (it’s like a big scraper) so, my next job was to look for a used backhoe attachment for the Kubota. It took awhile—It was my job to make it work financially—to make any purchase pay for itself with savings from what we’d otherwise be paying others. I also had to learn about what implements would fit on our tractor. There’s a whole culture of tractordom—sub-frames, hydraulic kits, three-point attachments and PTOs. Things need to match—and I’m not talking about accessorizing. I found one—and we finally hooked it up. It was quite a feat—first, installing a sub-frame, and then uniting two pieces of equipment that weigh tons. The conjoined parts look like a large, prehistoric insect. Usually, I’m not one much for mechanized things, but horsepower does have its advantages.

Rick immediately started digging the line for the well. He’s far more mechanically inclined than I am, within an hour, he had the levers and controls figured out, and he was trenching like a pro. I’m a little jealous. I want to dig, too. (Don’t worry, my turn will come.) In the meantime, I’ve become quite the craigslist maven. Hey, there’s still a snow-blower to consider. A 3 point snow-blower is a thing to behold—throwing a veritable fountain of snow 20-30 feet in the air. Winter is coming… they’re tools, after all, not toys.

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving!

Guylaine Claire Cover jpg

On Monday. And I forgot to send a card.

No, really, usually I celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with a turkey and the whole traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving is my favorite of all holidays. What’s not to like, eh? A day in which we get to reflect on the good we have in our lives—and to share it with those around us. (Of course I do American Thanksgiving the very next month.)

This year there’s just no time. Rick and I are struggling to get as much building done as we can, while the weather holds. There’s an oversized helping of thanksgiving in that, too. So what is missed, is sharing.

So, to share the day, for Canadian Thanksgiving, I’m offering my most Canadian novel, The Gift of Guylaine Claire*, as a free Kindle download on Amazon. It’s available, Monday only at:

http://www.amazon.com/Gift-Guylaine-Claire-V-Walters-ebook/dp/B00CMYC8LG/ref=la_B008AL153M_1_2_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1413081503&sr=1-2

You don’t have to be Canadian to enjoy this offer. Because everything is marketing, if you enjoy the book, please let me know, or post a review on Amazon or GoodReads. In the spirit of the day, feel free to share the link.

Thank you, and have a wonderful holiday.

 

*Readers’ alert, my sister says this is a two-box-of-Kleenex book, but maybe she’s just a sap.

 

 

 

Faux Foe

A.V. Walters

So kitch, they're okay

So kitch, they’re okay

We all have our pet peeves. My brother, for example, cannot endure the sounds of others eating. He has to play music. It just drives him crazy. My sister can’t stand the low hum of a truck idling. She once got up in the middle of the night, walked down the block and confronted a young man working on his truck. (Really, it was late…) When he laughed at her, she sealed his fate. After all, she owns the local general store, and she would no longer let him do business there. (Too bad for him. And, a smoker, too.)

My quirk is not so volatile. I’m annoyed by faux anachronism. It started young. As a kid, I would become peeved at the sight of a Landau top on a car. You may remember them, synthetic leather (don’t get me started), roof bonnets, designed to look like a convertible. Why on earth would one put a perishable surface on the enameled, steel roof of a car?! I gathered that the object was to imitate the upper class Sunday touring buggy of years gone by. (And in so doing, to create a vehicle that would age poorly and look trashy. Go figure.)

That was just the start. I’m a history buff. I like antiques and old architecture. I love the feel of old machines and their workings. I still sew with a 1906 era, treadle sewing machine. I don’t mind eclectic, as long as it’s authentic. I don’t mind reproduction, so long as it’s true to the original and as well made. And, I like things to be period appropriate. I remember that when old style stoves were popular one high-end manufacturer made a heavy reproduction nostalgia model—but it sported modern electric burner coils. For this, appearance over form or function, consumers could fork over thousands of dollars.

I could only have been nine or ten when a family in our neighborhood “updated” their 50s tract home with, of all things, plantation-style columns. I marched right to my mother to demand that she stop them. It just looked sooooo dumb! How could they! Just the sight of this tacked-on grandiosity embarrassed me. She laughed. Not that she disagreed with my aesthetic perspective but she was surprised, even alarmed, by my vehemence. It only got worse. As their remodel continued, they added fake shutters to their windows! (And, the shutters were mis-sized; were they to actually close them, they wouldn’t even meet in the middle—much less, protect the windows. Augh!)

The list of things that would trigger my peevishness grew—vinyl siding, faux brick or rock embellishments, wagon wheel yard art, lawn jockeys, you name it. (Oddly, I exempt plastic, pink, flamingoes, because they’re so off the chart as to be funny.)

We’re starting the building process and it’s bringing out the snob in me. Gladly, Rick and I are mostly on the same page. It’s about windows. Modern technology has given us beautiful windows, inviting light and air into our homes, without sacrificing energy efficiency. Historically, window glass was a major expense, and small panes made window glass transportable without too much breakage. And, they didn’t have the technology to produce large panes of quality glass. So our visual history of homes includes many-paned windows. Even though they interfere with the view, and the old single panes guaranteed a winter chill, the look does have a cottage feel. Even I admit that. But, believe me, the solution is not fake dividers. You can actually pay extra for grids to ruin your view! It irks me, just to see grids in windows. Rick just shakes his head. He is, after all, married to an aesthetic nut. Good thing he doesn’t like things artificial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Year Counting Blessings

A.V. Walters

It’s an anniversary of sorts. A year ago today, two exhausted ragtag souls arrived in Michigan, California cats in tow, truck, trailer and pick up. It was a hairy trip, with no clear home in sight. Here we are, a year later–under construction but with a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve learned a lot, mostly that this still appears to be the most sane plan for what we want to do when we grow up. We’ve survived the fiercest Michigan winter in decades (with another on the way, they say.) We are not dissuaded. It’s been raining–and the forecast for at least the next week predicts the kinds of rainstorms that hold construction work at bay.

We sigh, we shrug. At least we have a solid plan. Our little cabin is wrapped in its raincoat. The well drillers came last week–113 feet to ample, clear, clean water. We’re digging–site drainage, water lines, and then we’ll get to the septic. You can almost always dig in the rain.

I was talking to a California friend today. He asked after our progress and listened for a minute or two while I bemoaned weather delays. Then he made me stop. “Remember, you’re talking to California, here. What we wouldn’t give for just a fraction of your rain. It’s 95 degrees out here today–in October. We look up and wonder when…. if, our rains will come.”

Water was one of the reasons we came. We also came because my mum wasn’t well. I’m happy to report that she is much improved. It’s good to see her with energy and plans again. She’s getting ready for winter, too.

I’m ready for it. We’ll keep on keeping on. We’re feeling lucky on this anniversary.With one eye on the sky, I’m looking at craigslist for a used 3 point snowblower for the tractor.

 

Progress

A.V. Walters

Things are looking up.

Things are looking up.

We’ve been fighting the weather. As you might imagine, we are not big agents of change in that fight. Mostly, the weather is winning. This is not about climate change (though today’s the big march and I wish you all well.) This is about construction.

We have made some great strides in our building—but there hasn’t been any “honeymoon” phase in which we’ve had the opportunity to revel in the progress. No sooner had the last lag been set in the first floor log walls, than the clouds rolled in for days of heavy rain. It’s not like the rain can really damage the cedar logs—but it can wreak havoc on the plywood subfloors, which, so far, are still open to the sky. (Not to mention that it will all drain into the basement, anyway.) So, as soon as the stacking crew packed up, we pulled out the tarps and heavy duty plastic to try to contain the damage. The good news is that we knew this could happen—so we used a deck sealer on the subfloor—which has helped to minimize the absorption.

That first night was crazy—there we were, trying to secure huge tarps in high winds, in the middle of the night. We had some lighting—you couldn’t even hear the generator over the howl of the wind. Finally we worked out a rhythm to the mechanics of it all. By 1:00 am, we’d lashed it down as much as possible, just in time for the rain to hit. Most critically, we’re trying to cover and keep the floor as dry as possible. Each day we (mostly Rick) run out in the dry spells, pull the tarps, sweep out the water (or pump the basement) and then we re-secure it all before the next wave. Last night a squall hit while we were re-tarping. We just climbed under it and waited for it to abate. When inside, Rick is glued to the weather service site—and the radar projections. We no longer have any dry shoes.

Wait, wait, there’s good news! Tomorrow it should clear and give us at least four days in which to get ourselves more battened down. There could be more, but the weather service doesn’t extend its local prognostications to specifics out of that 5 day window. (Though I’ve already seen internet projection for heavier than normal snowfall for 2014/15 season! Sheesh!) We just need to hang in there until we get the roof on—then we can finish from the relative comfort of a weather tight envelope. And having the first floor done is a step in the right direction.

Rick is a builder from California. They don’t build in foul weather in California. I once knew a fence builder in Oakland who’d pack up his truck if the wind picked up on a cloudy day! Here in Michigan, they’re not much for building in driving rain—but you’ll hear them extol the virtues of building in snow! Probably most Michigan builders would laugh at our tarping efforts; what’s a little wet? (Snow is much better for the materials—as long as your equipment will work, why not? One of our stackers was advising Rick that if, in the dead of winter, the oil in your equipment gets too cold, too viscous, you can use transmission fluid instead. I don’t think that he was kidding, but I also I don’t think Rick was contemplating building in sub-zero conditions.)

Yes, we’ve run late in the season—but it’s not yet color (though some trees are turning, harbingers of what’s to come.) There’s still plenty of time to get things “buttoned down” before snow flies. I told my sister if she uses that expression, (buttoned down) one more time, I would button her down. Most of my family is urging us to hire builders. What is it they think we’re doing? Soon we’ll even have power, propane, and even water somewhere on the horizon. (The well-drillers didn’t want to hear from us until all the heavy equipment was finished.)

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

In the meantime, we’re meeting lovely people (the stacking crew—the Flanagan brothers were a total hoot.) We’ve even found a couple of reputable suppliers—rare in this industry. We’re moving right along.

Thunderstorms

A.V. Walters

The good news is that our new basement has proved itself to be watertight. Good thing, too. We’ll be needing that. Michigan sees a lot of wild and wooly weather. I’ve been telling Rick about Great Lakes thunderstorms for years. Though we’ve been here near a year—the weather has not cooperated to show off its best thunderstorm stuff. That is, until yesterday and last night.

It was tremendous. We had dramatic, roiling clouds, winds, driving rain and amazing lightning. For hours! I timed it and the lightning flashes were about 30-40 per minute—and it lasted from late afternoon yesterday until the wee hours of the morning today. Finally he had the chance to see the full-blown spectacle of non-stop lightning, with its  rumbling and crashing soundtrack. Nothing like California. The cats are both CaliforniaCats, too. Kilo was cool; Bob was flipped out about it. Nothing in their experience prepared them for the noise. I’d attach a picture, but unless you’re really good with a camera, lightning isn’t easy to capture. I’m not that good.

Years ago, I visited my sister in Southern California. It was her birthday—a little wine and conversation got us on to the topic of thunderstorms. California is wimpy in that department. That’s a blessing, because with California’s dry summers, Michigan’s lightning would burn California to a crisp! The evening ran long; wine and nostalgia are a potent mix. Two weeks later she packed up and headed “home.” Afterwards, she acknowledged that the conversation made her family so homesick, they decided to abandon the dream of sunny California. I don’t know the statistics now, but then, Michigan had the highest “rate of return” for folks who’d moved on, but couldn’t stay away. Some folks just can’t settle in to a climate that lacks actual weather.

The not so good news was the rain. We got almost four inches overnight. I’m not really complaining, we needed it—but there’s no roof yet on that basement. It’s watertight, but in this case it held the water in. So we came to the site the next morning to a wading pool. We briefly considered having a small lap pool in the basement. Four inches is too much to bail—so Rick headed to the hardware for a pump. A couple of hours later—we were back in business.

 

 

 

 

 

Bunker Mentality–

A.V. Walters–

IMG_1868

We’re building. It’s a small footprint, our cabin at the edge of the woods. We picked the site for its view across the valley, and so that we’d get sheltering shade in the summer. We are months behind schedule. If I were the type, I’d be getting close to panicky. On our walks, I note that we’re seeing the occasional flash of early color in the trees

Initially, we had weather delays—frost well into May, administrative delays—title and permitting problems and then, a comedy of errors on the foundation.

This county requires that building plans be prepared by an architect or a licensed “building designer.” Since we’d already drawn up our plans, we went with the building designer method—to check for technical and structural details, and to make the plans look professional. We informed the designer that there was a slope to the property—but he wasn’t concerned—I guess he figured it wasn’t his department.

When the approvals were finally complete, we hired a local mason to build the foundation. Though Rick is a builder, there are very good reasons to hire out parts of the job to those with greater experience. Most of our building proficiency is from California, where foundations are usually poured concrete (with lots of rebar reinforcement.) California has earthquakes, and they take their foundations seriously. Michigan foundations are often built with concrete block—especially for smaller buildings like our little cabin. It’s heavy work and we are not young.

The plans called for a crawlspace—just enough of a foundation to meet the frost requirements for local code. It’s a cabin, nestled into the gently sloping hillside, with a cozy, low profile. We knew we might have some adjustments because of the slope. We consulted with the mason. He didn’t see a problem, maybe a couple of extra courses of block. He instructed Rick on exactly how he wanted the excavation to be done. Rick did the digging, per instructions, with the Kubota. As he did so, it started to look like the back-side of the hole was a lot deeper than the mason had described.

IMG_1883

On the mason’s return, he too, was surprised by the depth of the hole. He accused Rick of not digging level and true. Measurement proved that it was almost perfect, (a little less than a half inch off, across a forty-foot run.) The mason shrugged. He’d have to go at least an extra two courses of block—and he submitted a revised bid. We nodded. The price seemed fair. After all, what do we know from masonry?

A day or so later, he advised that the wall sill wasn’t high enough, to address issues of drainage and slope, he’d have to go yet higher. This crawlspace was exceeding crawl (except in timing.) We’d gone past duck walk to homo-erectus—though still not a legal height basement. I ran down to the County permits department to advise of the change. The clerk asked me why we didn’t just go all the way, for a full basement. Oh no, it’s just a little cabin. That would be thousands of dollars more and we didn’t really need a basement. It’s a cabin—and with the extra height, we’d be giving up on that snuggled-into-the-hillside look.

It was a Friday night. I went into town for milk and beer. I ran into our buddy, Linus, from up the road. He was picking up a pizza. Linus works at one of the cherry farms, but used to be in heavy-equipment and construction. During cherry harvest he works long days—and pizza-to-go is part of the equation.

“How’s it going with the foundation?”

“Well, it’s a lot deeper than we thought. We’re up to ten courses.”

He nodded. “So you’ll be pouring a floor, then?”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll still keep it to a crawl space—now, it’s just a tall one.”

“No, you’ll be pouring a floor… a four-inch slab.” It wasn’t a question.

I looked up at him. “We really weren’t planning on a full basement, it’s too high.”

“I doesn’t matter. At ten courses, you pour a floor for stability.” He was nodding his head with certainty. He doesn’t talk much, and, for him, this was pushy.

“Yeah? You think so?”

“Four inches—no less.” His pizza was up. He nodded at me, “Tell Rick I said so.”

The weekend was a running debate. We had to have a serious discussion with the mason. Could this be true? Why hadn’t he said anything? Rick reconfigured the plans for a full basement, just in case. If you have to pour a floor, you might just as well go the full twelve courses for a legal basement. And, if you’re putting in a full basement on a slope, you should put in a door on the downslope for a walkout, and, yeah, maybe a window, for light. We tried to imagine our little cabin, perched up on an eight-foot high, block foundation. A bunker. An eyesore! “Don’t worry,” Rick assured me, “If we have to go this route, we’ll bury as much as we can. We’ll landscape it.”

IMG_1904

Monday morning was telling. Rick put it direct to the mason. “A friend said we should be pouring a four-inch, slab floor—for structural reasons—any truth to that?”

The mason didn’t meet his eyes. He scuffed his boot in the sand. After a long silence, he offered, “Well, it is a good idea.” Why hadn’t he said anything before? That made the decision. I zipped up to the county offices with Rick’s revised plans. The clerk nodded.

“You won’t regret it, a basement is really handy.” She smiled, a little smug. But, she’d been right.

For the next couple of days we watched as the courses of concrete block grew, towering above us. We looked for the bright side. You can always use extra storage… right? Rick could have a shop downstairs. We could move the laundry down there, too. And, we told ourselves, the added height gave us a hell of a view from the front porch. The foundation price was now double the original bid. We sighed and wrote progress payments.

During the foundation work the mason’s little daughter took ill. Really ill. She was hospitalized for over a week. Though we only lost one “official” day of work, the family’s trials cost in “attention” time. Who could blame him? If I had a little one at risk, I’d be glued to her. These are the important things in life. We were happy to accommodate.

We did have a little tiff over the details of the floor. We wanted a vapor barrier under the slab. The mason didn’t want to deal with it. We insisted. It wasn’t the norm, he said. He got more than a little grumpy about it. In the end, we’re the owners—we insisted and prevailed.

With the block work and floor complete, the only remaining thing was to insert the rebar and pour concrete into the wall cores. We were anxious for completion—because then the project would be ours again. With us at the helm, we could make up for some lost time. Rick asked the mason about the rebar placement. Given his California roots, Rick was concerned about what looked to be sparse reinforcement. After all, we’d doubled the wall height, so for structural reasons, now was not the time to go light on strength.

The mason threw a fit. Was Rick questioning his professional integrity? He was almost yelling now. The mason went to his truck and took out his copy of the Michigan Code Book. He shook it in Rick’s face. “It’s all in here. I don’t go by California code. I go by Michigan rules. We don’t have earthquakes here!” He threw the book back into the cab of his truck and left for the day.

Tired of being at a disadvantage, Rick came home, went online, and purchased his own copy of the Michigan Code book. But, in the meantime, we had little choice but to trust the mason. He came the next day for the “final pour.” It was a relief. After our inspection, scheduled for the following Monday, we’d finally be able to start our building process. I paid the mason.

Well, “we” failed the inspection. California, Michigan, it doesn’t matter. The code is pretty much the same, no matter, and the amount of rebar in our foundation didn’t meet code. (So much for “professional integrity.”)

I emailed the mason. He called, livid, like it was our fault—accused us of pissing-off the building inspector. We told him to speak to the Inspector, himself. Apparently, that conversation set him straight. We didn’t even have to say that he should read his own Code Book, instead of shaking it in our faces. He was whipped and compliant.

It took another week to get it finished. The inspector told him exactly what he expected in reinforcement—even more than what code would have required, but by this time, the mason was cowed and obedient. We helped with the final pour. Now we have the strongest foundation in the county, a literal bunker. If there’s ever a tornado or a hurricane, we know where to go. Oh yeah, and turns out the vapor barrier, we fought over, is Code, too!

IMG_1914

The foundation took a little over a month. Not too bad, considering all the changes and hiccoughs. It’ll be nice to have a basement, and there’ll be that incredible view from the front porch.

Ripples…

A.V. Walters–

ripples

Sometimes there are crystalized moments in your life, moments that are loaded in a way that forms who you will be, or that define a new direction that your life will take. I’m fascinated at how a chance event can snowball to construct an entirely different version of you, than the expected path might have yielded. You may not even know it at the time but, upon reflection, you can see how the impact of that moment left its fingerprint on you, and maybe on others around you.

We all have answered those “pivotal” questions, “Where were you when…” But they reflect a wider sensibility—that of a community or a nation. And I don’t doubt that those incidents that form the arc of history have an impact overall. What I’m talking about here, though, are the more personal moments—the AHA! events that took who you were, an instant before, and then mapped a new direction for who you became as a result.

 

From time to time, in this blog I’m going to address those ripples—in my life, and in the lives of those I know. I invite you to ponder your own circuitous paths, and how the “you” of today emerged. Feel free to share.

 

The Magnificent Radovini Brothers

stick built

We were stair-step kids, arriving with catholic regularity, one, nearly every year. Before long, our standard issue, three-bedroom tract home was too small, owing to our lopsided gender distribution. When the time came that my brother, the only boy, really needed a room of his own, we four girls were too much for the other bedroom.

My parents own interests were running out of space, too. My father’s woodworking and my mother’s new involvement, in the world of clay, were spilling out of the utility room and into the kitchen. So, my parents took the plunge. Together they sketched out a plan to expand our home to make enough room for our wild tribe, and enough for all the different things we did. An architect made their dreams into plans and the bank gave the go ahead. My parents found builders, the highly recommended Radovini Brothers. These young men accepted the job, but warned that, in the middle of it, they’d be taking off for two weeks for a long planned family reunion. As long as the project was enclosed before they left, and then finished before the end of the summer, my parents didn’t mind. How could they? They understood family.

It was high theater for us. It was summer and we were off school so we could watch. They were doubling the size of our house, there was digging, with its piles of dirt and concrete, and finally, The Radovinis arrived. We loved them. They were five brothers with mops of dark hair and sun-bronzed skin. They worked shirtless. The neighbor women came to watch. The Radovinis worked and laughed and sang—sometimes opera, sometimes Italian folk tunes. The brothers harmonized, in their songs and in the rhythms of their work. They brought enormous lunches, which they unpacked from coolers with great ceremony. Food was important. They ate with great gusto, the jokes and ribbing continuing between bites.

It was like being visited by the circus. They were as charmed by us as we were by them, a string of blond towheads, following their every move like puppies, soaking in the aroma of pine boards, and watching the building take shape.

Our house grew by the day—faster even than we’d been told to expect. These men loved their work, and loved showing off their skills. Our jaws hung slack as we watched the drawings from the plans take shape in the air. It was a two-story addition and they were fearless—walking out on the thinnest of planks, twenty feet in the air, tossing up tools to the outstretched and ready hands of trapeze-artist framers. We tipped our heads back and shielded our eyes from the summer sun with cupped hands, to watch. How lucky we were to have found such tradesmen! As the time for their scheduled vacation approached, they worked long hours, determined to frame and sheath the structure before their trip—as promised.

The oldest brother approached my father. Were we happy with the work? Of course! Sheepishly, he requested that my parents advance the full contract price. The brothers were traveling across Canada for their reunion and wanted a “safety reserve.” My parents, thrilled with their work, were happy to oblige. Hell, they’d have adopted them if they could.

In their absence, we clamored over the new addition like squirrels. We collected nails and pieces of scrap wood—which we hammered into odd towers. When parents weren’t watching, we walked on the skinny joists, high above what would be our new garage. It was all so exciting–we could hardly wait for their return.

My father broke the news at dinner one night. We knew that something was up. My mother’s face was puffed and red. There’d been an accident. The Radovinis, they were going over the mountains—with most of the family riding in a travel trailer. A passing car clipped their trailer and forced it, and its tethered truck, over the edge. Four of them had been killed, along with their wives and children. The surviving brother would never walk again. With him, all that remained of this vibrant family was the elderly grandmother and an infant child, who’d remained home. The singing and laughing, gone.

My parents never mentioned the money. And, from that day, we became builders. My dad rolled up his sleeves and learned. His weekends became building time. We were his cadre of conscripted workers, little fingers stuffing insulation around windows, holding the end of the measuring tape and carrying tools and supplies. He learned wiring and plumbing and tiling (Oh My!) So did we. He harnessed his intense fear of heights to finish the roof and upper walls. We learned to put our fears in context. Money was tight, but skills we could learn. We became a family that built what we needed. We never shied from what willing hands could perform. It took my parents, and us, ten years to finish, but it was done, and done well.

That continues to today—not a professional builder in the bunch, but my siblings, mostly girls, are not strangers to the working end of a hammer. The Radovinis came into our lives nearly five decades ago. Right now, I am poised at the largest project of my adult life—my husband and I are building a home. As I wrote this, the concrete truck arrived to pour the footings.

 

Pouring Footings

Pouring Footings

In my minds eye, I can see the Radovinis, perched, straddling the skeletal ribs of our new roof, drinking ice water from re-filled Coca-Cola bottles. They chug it down and pour the rest over their heads, laughing and working in the summer’s heat.

 

 

 

Right Plan…

A.V. Walters —

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

It’s said that, when the Europeans arrived in Michigan, a squirrel could cross the state, Great Lake to Great Lake, without its feet ever touching the ground. That didn’t last. Michigan’s vast forests became the fuel for building the region’s great cities. By the turn of the twentieth century, the pillaging was near complete. Only a few stands of virgin timber remained (and remain still.) Here in Leelaunau County there were numerous mills—timber being Michigan’s first wave of development. Empire, the little village where we spent the winter, was historically a booming timber mill town, with the largest, best equipped and most productive hardwood mill in the region. Its claim to fame is that they invented tongue and groove boards. (Our previous home, Petaluma, was responsible for the invention of the chicken incubator. It’s always something.)

In 1917, the Empire Lumber Company mill burned to the ground—and not for the first time, either. But, it was the last time. With the timber all but gone, there was no point in rebuilding. The devastation from Michigan’s unrelenting, statewide clear-cutting inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Park System. It was the era of the Robber Barons. They gave little thought to man’s impact on the environment. After all, with all its rainfall, it’s a climate that renews. But you can never rebuild the majesty of a virgin forest. Michigan remains a timber state—eager to clear-cut the very minute the trees are marketable. We’ve seen the results, a striking scar on the landscape, and a hazard of erosion on these sandy soils.

As if to illustrate the point, our property is actually zoned “Timber Cutover,” shorthand for “already cut and too steep to farm.” Though there are some fair sized trees, now, the land shows distinct signs of clear-cuts through its history. It’s crisscrossed with ancient barb wire fences—grazing being the normal succession to clear-cut. The land was last “selectively” logged in 2004—to thin the trees, as recommended by the local extension people. I saw first hand how the taste of timber-money can change one’s view of the land. When I bought the property, I saw it as a sanctuary, a refuge in the forest, but my then-husband’s view of it changed after the quick profits from the cut. It became a timber holding and he, by extension, a timber baron, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to cut. It’s silly to aggrandize so small a kingdom. I knew then that he had no intention of ever living on the land.

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The property is still recovering from the ’04 cut, and we’re suffering the ravages of the ash trees to the Emerald Borer. But, Rick shares my dedication to the land. We walk its steep hills, taking note of the trees and identifying the undergrowth. Blackberries sprout up in the sunny spots where fallen trees have left openings in the canopy above. There are wild strawberries, grapes, and, we hear, morel mushrooms in the early spring. We explore and plan, learning the land’s glaciated folds like the lines on our hands. We’re cutting a little now—mostly scrub pine out front on the more gentle slopes—to make way for a driveway and the foundation of our home. We debate the merits of each tree. Does it provide screening for privacy, sun, or snow? Is it healthy? Does it have aesthetic value? Does it block the view? Is there another alternative to chopping it down? We are pioneers to a new future, which goes to show that life can be full of wonderful surprises. We laugh at the short tag line I use to describe the circuitous circumstances that brought us here at this late point in our lives—right plan, wrong man.

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Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

It kicked on at 10:20 in the morning, and it got me thinking. It’s a beautiful day. Clear and clean, post-storm. It’s not hot out, though it likely will be later today. Upstairs, the landlady’s central air conditioner has kicked on, already.

I’m sorry to burden you with my rant, but more people need to think, to plan a little, in their trajectory on this planet. This is only partly about landscaping but it starts there.

I identify a particular brainless “yard pattern” with Michigan, though I expect it’s all over. You see it driving down any street or road, though it’s particularly noticeable in the country. Michigan is a fertile state. If it’s not planted or maintained, its natural tendency is to revert back to forest. So it’s a bit of a shock that folks will buy a place in the country, cut down all the trees, and put in a lawn. They plunk their house in the middle of it—kings of their environment. Landscaping? Well, it’s a border mentality. They plant along the lot-line. Daffodils, trees, whatever, regardless of aesthetics, they celebrate ownership with a string of ill-advised plantings whose only assignment is to state, “This is mine!”

A century ago, farmers were not so self-absorbed. Clearing land took a lot of energy, which they reserved for their fields. They oriented their homes to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter. They had adequate roof overhangs to protect them from the rain or heat of the summer, and—they strategically planted deciduous trees to shade them from the heat and still let the sun’s warming rays help them in the dead of winter. I lived in such a home in Two Rock, a turn of the (last) century farmhouse that never got too hot, because trees were planted to provide shade. In the winter, the sun’s low rays streamed in through the living room window to provide welcome warmth and light. In really hot summer weather, we’d close the curtains and windows to the sun and the daytime heat. When the evening cooled, we’d open everything up again to the refreshing breeze. No air-conditioning, just good, old common sense. In the seven years I lived there, and despite some really blistering heat waves, that house never went above 81˚F. Where did that wisdom go?

This house we’re in now has been here for some thirty or forty years, yet nobody has ever planted a shade tree to provide summer cooling. (Instead, there’s a line of spruces on the lot line, whose long winter shadows screen the sun’s warmth when it could be useful.) The house is surrounded by lawn, which, to look good, requires regular watering—with the electrical expense of pumping that water. There are plenty of windows, but no one ever pulls a curtain against the summer heat. Instead, before the dew is even off the grass, the air-conditioner fires up its relentless drone. In an era of global warming triggered by energy use, somehow the air-conditioning solution seems to miss the point. I can almost hear the planet sigh, “Work with me here!”

You can always retrofit with well-placed trees. Drapes closed in the daytime, especially in a home that’s empty while you’re off at work—that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a regular steady breeze—so you can open the windows in the evening, smell the fresh country air and cool your home. We can work with nature, instead of against it.

Rick and I have selected our building site based on existing tree placement. We’ll have the summer shade even before we have the home. Those trees will lose their leaves and we’ll get some winter warming and light on the south side during sunny winter days. Window placement is designed to maximize light and sun, when it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary heat loss. In that way, it’s an old-fashioned placement. Sure, there’ll be a view—but not at the expense of energy. We can all do a little more, to use a little less.

That’s my rant. (Live with it – we all can!)

 

Gypsies and Win-Win

A.V. Walters

Cozy kitchen

Cozy kitchen

I have a sister who moves all the time. She’s not an economic refugee; she has a comfortable life. It’s just that she and her husband seem to have itchy feet. They buy a house, fix it up, and then, when even a faint whiff of opportunity calls them elsewhere, they are gone like the wind and the process starts anew. I used to say that her middle name was “never-in-ink,” based on the damage that her peripatetic ways did to my address book. At one point she had three homes (and an orchard with a pole barn) in three different countries! We joke that some people go on vacation and send postcards—my sister buys real estate. Her defense? Well, they needed somewhere to park. The process has slowed some, maybe it’s age. More likely, the real estate juggling has diminished because they bought a big boat that now takes them from place to place, to satisfy some of that wanderlust.

Rick and I are not like that. We are homebodies, gardeners and people of roots. So it’s surprising that in the past eight months we’ve moved three times—with another planned before the end of the year.

We did love our little honeymoon cottage in Empire, but it was, after all, a “vacation” rental and that means that we had to move on once the “season” started, or pay the steep hotel-like rates that tourists pay. In a vacation area, the season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some people extend a little beyond that, for a second-wind season that we call “color.” So, we packed up and moved again.

The problem with living somewhere this beautiful is that, if you’re not a grower (cherries, apples or wine grapes), the most lucrative business for locals is the tourism industry. The county is chockablock with cottages, B&Bs and little hideaway granny units that are rented to tourists by the day, or week. It’s almost impossible to find a longer term rental because everyone is cashing in on the vacation market. Rick and I are building, this summer, and we needed a place to stay—somewhere near the building site—until it’s ready to occupy. We’re getting a late start because of the heavy winter and delays in permitting. That put us smack-dab in the middle of the vacation season—no reasonably priced housing. We checked with our soon-to-be neighbors (two of whom have vacation rentals) but they needed the tourist rates. We considered buying a trailer, or even a heavy duty tent—though that’s a tough transition with cats. Then we stumbled on what looked like a win-win.

 

An old-fashioned look.

An old-fashioned look.

Back in Petaluma, each year in April, we volunteered for an organization, Rebuilding Together, that helps to renovate homes for elderly or low income owners. Often the services are critical to letting them stay in, and maintain, their homes. It’s a great organization—and it was where we met, Rick a volunteer builder and me—volunteer grunt labor. This year, April came and we noted that it was the first time in a long while that we weren’t on a Rebuilding crew.

In preparation for our impending relocation to Cedar, I went around introducing myself to all the neighbors. Some of them I’d known for years. I bought this property over two decades ago, and so I was that absentee owner from California. I thought we should re-connect in more of a, “Hi, we’re moving in,” kind of way. At each stop there were the usual discussions—“we’ll be building, yes, my husband is a builder… no, it’s not a summer/vacation home, we’ll be living here….” One neighbor in particular took interest—“Does he do work on the side?” Apparently some years ago she considered renovating her walk-out basement into a rental. She hired some fly-by-night-guy and it went badly from there. After a considerable investment (and some bad blood) she fired the guy and the job sat, unfinished—in fact, it had barely been started. Though I’d only just knocked on her door, technically I’d been her neighbor for years. Maybe that’s why she felt so comfortable telling me her life story and all her woes, though it seems to be a common thread in my life. People tell me stuff.

It didn’t take long before I thought—hmmmm, she needs renovation work, we need a place to stay… I connected the dots. I suggested it to Rick, before I approached the neighbor. It would be a big undertaking—not to be entered into lightly. Oddly enough, it was an alternative to our usual, April volunteer gig. This was a win-win—there was something in it for us, and it could work for her, too. When we approached the neighbor, she was intrigued, but wary. It took her weeks to decide (and we even had to interview with her priest!)

So that’s where we’ve been for the past month, or so. We’ve been building a little apartment. We were running on a short time frame—after all we had to be out of Empire by June 1. And, as usual, it was on a shoe-string budget. Another project brought to you by Craigslist. We pulled many 10 hour (and a few 15 hour) days until we reached the point of “habitable.” We still have trim-work (baseboards and window trim, etc) to do, but we moved into this little pied-à-terre the first of June. It’s just across the road from our building site. As soon as our permit is approved (which is taking longer than we thought) we’ll be building, yet again, only this time (for the first time) for us.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

We’re not like my sister. We’re not gypsies. We’re itinerant builders, looking for a spot to call home.

Of course, there is next April…