That "Tool Girl" Thing? I get it now

Thursday, December 6th, 2012
Richard using the gantry he designed and fabricated to move a one-ton firepit into a client's backyard, going up two steps and through a door with 1/2-inch clearance on the way.

I've said before that I would never be Tool Girl. I didn't grow up using power tools at all, and in the decades I lived with my beloved Tool Guy, he never gave me any reason to learn.

Partly because he spoke Tool and Building so fluently. He could fix, design, fabricate, sculpt or build just about anything, from simple forms to custom furniture, and whole houses.

Partly because a lifetime of living with Raynaud's Disease, a circulatory disorder that causes restriction of circulation to one's extremities, including fingertips and toes, has left me with less than a full compliment of nerve endings in my digits, not an advantage in working with tools.

Richard's shop, now light and tight

I would likely have continued in blissful ignorance of the use of all but the most simple hand tools if Richard had survived brain cancer. His death a year ago late November left me in a house that along with its attached guest apartment and his century-old shop is simply too large for me alone. Hence my decision to sell, a relatively easy one.

But not simple. My wonderfully creative love had the vision, knowledge and skill to restore that very dilapidated shop building, and to help design and build the house and guest cottage. Only he never quite finished any of them. I don't claim his skills. At all.

This past spring and summer, a whole community pitched in to finish the shop, readying it for its next century. I am profoundly grateful for the help.

The new patio

This fall I worked on outside projects, including finishing the flagstone patio off our bedroom and the flagstone walk in front--with help moving the heavy stones. That's landscaping, something I can do, and in fact, am good at.

I had planned to hire out the inside work--interior doors, trim, baseboards, finishing the master bath. I've been agonizing about how to honor Richard's vision: simple, beautiful design that pays homage to this formerly industrial site and uses materials efficiently. How to schedule the work around my writing time. And how to pay for it. Attempting to resolve those conflicting requirements cost me a lot of sleep.

Until I I woke one recent night hearing Richard's voice say in that tone of patient logic, "Well... Just do it yourself." Of course, I thought groggily, I'll just do it myself. And sat straight up in bed, sure I had lost my mind.

The idea grew on me though, and when I suggested it to our friends Maggie and Tony, who rehab old houses and other buildings by the sweat-equity method, they took it as calmly as Richard's voice sounded in my head.

The peninsula from the kitchen with its unfinished "see-through" cabinets.

"But I know nothing about carpentry," I protested. "I don't know what sizes lumber comes in. I don't even know how to turn on his tools, much less know what they do."

"We'll teach you," said Tony. Maggie nodded.

I decided my first project would be to box in the  peninsula between the kitchen and the dining area, a counter over cabinets that Richard never finished. I started by painting the interiors. Then Maggie and Tony helped me measure and cut a piece of quarter-inch plywood for the cabinet back.

The cabinet back boxed in.

They demonstrated each step, and had me do it. By the time I had the back cut out, I was in love with Richard's huge table saw with its elegant efficiency and six-foot extensions. (I do not love the noisy circular saw, but I do respect it.) When it came time to attach the plywood to the cabinet, Maggie got out the pneumatic trim nailer. "You'll love it," said Tony. "It's cute."

I was dubious. The air compressor that powers the nailer is startlingly loud and has a nasty hiss; I'm a little afraid of it. But as soon as I began nailing on the cabinet back, I realized Tony was right. I do love the trim nailer. It dances in my hand.

The tin snips on a cut

I also love the big and very sharp tin snips that I found in the shop and figured out how to use to cut the corrugated metal roofing I bought to panel the back. And my Makita cordless driver, which Maggie and Tony patiently instructed me on using to fasten that corrugated metal to the plywood.

And I'm ridiculously pleased at how the almost-finished cabinet looks. It just needs trim and some angle-iron edging. I'll get those done this weekend.

Next, I'm going to learn how to hang interior doors. And rip 1X6s for trim, and cut down fancy finish plywood for baseboard. And hang galvanized steel on the walls of the unfinished shower enclosure.... I found a nifty tool in the shop for trimming laminate. Maybe I'll make the bathroom counter myself.

The corrugated metal paneling.

I get it now. That Tool Girl thing. It's empowering to learn how to use tools and build with your own hands. It's deeply satisfying for me to use the tools Richard used. And to know that my own work will help finish this house which he built with artistry and love.

Now when I go to the lumberyard to buy materials, I find myself eying tools. There's this cordless random orbital sander, in particular, that looks really sweet....

I hear Richard laughing.

(In the first version of this post, I neglected to acknowledge my foremost mother-in-tool-inspiration, Susan Tomlinson. Her blog spans cooking, gardening, art, and her quiet but astonishing competence with tools and design. She builds her own bikes, for heaven's sake! Also look at Bobbi Chukran's Two Sister's Cottage for a charming renovation story.)

My first carpentry project