Winter is upon us.
If you live in southwestern New York, you know this already. But even in the comparatively soft and gentle lands of New England we’ve noticed the cold. When I arrived at the site last week, the muddy ground had turned to rimey crust, hard to the foot – if not quite to the wheel. A skim of ice coated the work of the week before.
I set to work early in the day. It’s tempting to hide in bed until things warm up a bit. But no matter how late you sleep, they never do get actually warm and the sun sets so early now that delay means a short day of work. This particular work went slowly, as last time.
The 2×6 planks are held in place by a combination of nails, construction adhesive (PL400), and each other. PL is a wonderful thing – extraordinarily strong, it will help the floor resist the natural movement of the wood. If you don’t know, wood is not static. It breathes in moisture and dries out as the humidity changes. Even in well-sealed houses, true wood flooring (as opposed to engineered or veneered wood) expands and shrinks. Mostly this happens lengthwise, but on really humid days or in the dry dead of winter with a fire on, boards will swell or contract across their width. There is no way to completely eliminate that movement, but the PL really drives it down. This will keep its appearance well, but more importantly it will form the cement that really turns the framing and the decking into a single engineered structure.
A good house is a unit, a system – a system of systems, really. The disparate sticks that make up the floor become a slab of wood that of itself will resist twisting and deflection. This will in turn help the piers of the foundation to resist the pressures of the soil, and in the other direction, to hold up the walls and the roof. The whole building knits together, each step of construction increasing the integrity of the whole. I’ll point out how each step contributes to this as we move forward.
Last week, I wrote a little bit about the so-called moral superiority of work – and what a thin justification it is for luxury. I’m happy we have this chance. I’m happy to do the work – and with the work. I’ve enjoyed planning it out and working through the challenges of the landscape, adapting the design to the site and to opportunity. Enjoyment, and satisfaction, are good for me. I think they’re good absolutely and it’s true that work like this enables them. I like to look at what a day has yielded and judge its value. And just sort of enjoy it.
This job is particularly fruitful of happiness because wood framing is pleasing to the eye. Every plank has its own character. Some are heavier than others of identical size. All fir, some are reddish, others nearly gray. Some are straight-grained and pale, others knotted and gnarly; some of these even had the beautiful whorls of birds-eye or tiger-striping. When the floor is sanded and clear-coated, all of these characteristics will come out more strongly. As the wood ages in sunlight, further notes will come forward. Handling the wood, clamping the pieces together as tight as may be, kneeling over every inch of the floor, all of this passes under my eye.
These things were every bit as true during the three years I worked as a carpenter. But this is the first time I have worked on a project of this scope for myself – knowing that the successes, the mistakes, and the serendipity are things I will get to live with later, for better or worse. But mostly, I think, better.
Having been on the other side of that equation, however, has jaded me to the arguments some people make regarding the purifying or uplifting possibilities of manual labor. For those arguments to have sustaining truth requires a particular mindset. This is a “way” in the Eastern sense and it must be practiced as a way otherwise the work is simply a job. On these weekends, I have that luxury. With Jamie laboring in the Unit, I worked these days alone with the rhythm of the job and my thoughts. No radio, no generator. But every bit of that is untied to a client or a boss.
Nothing about work is inherently ennobling, I think. I believe that to argue thus is to preach a kind of capitalist slavery that seeks to reward labor with its own sake – or at least such arguments can be made to serve that purpose. I regard them warily therefore.
Late in the day as the sun fades (you know, like around 1:30 or 2), your toes are simply cold, your fingers are simply numb, and all the good that serves is to keep the swelling down when you miss the bang-board and hit your shin with the sledge. At that point, the only thing that makes this so much better than clock-punching is that we get a home at the end of the job, rather than a w-2. I won’t pass off these beautiful boards to someone who doesn’t know them as well and who didn’t love them, briefly (even as he might have cursed them, equally briefly), as he put them in place.
I didn’t quite finish the floor when my two-and-a-half days ran out. Ran out of lumber as the light went down – due mostly to my two bump-outs and additional two feet of deck eating up my calculated surplus. Only two boards were too chewed up to use, and none were over-twisted, waney, or otherwise no good. Next trip will finish the deal and start more upward progress: walls.
The mid-week saw a two-day mini-vacation to Portland, Maine. We lived in the city for a little over a decade and love it very much. Every time we return, though, it seems a little smoother. One less dumpy building, a little less working waterfront, a few more condos, another luxury hotel, etc. When we lived there, especially at first, it was pretty easy to find cheap and good: food, lodging, entertainment. Good is still possible, as is great. Cheap? Not as much. But it’s still delightful. (Too many hotels, though.)
Engineers like to say: Cheap, fast, good. Pick two. With the cottage, I hope we’re picking cheap and good – ‘cause we sure ain’t gettin’ there quick. But unlike the Portland some are nostalgic for, you can get there from here. And we’re getting there.
Bonus coverage of the Nickels on minivacay in PWMland: