Tool Girl Again: The Rewards of Finish Work

A little over two years ago when I finally got the Certificate of Occupancy for my little house and garage-studio, there were a few things undone still, details large and small I knew I'd want to finish at some point. But by then I'd been living with construction guys coming and going for nine months, and I just wanted peace and quiet to settle into the spaces I designed for myself and this new solo life. 

Last winter, I started thinking about finishing those last projects. I spent some time designing in my head, and then mentioned to Dan Thomas, my wonderful contractor at Natural Habitats, that if his crews had any time, I was in "finish-it" mode. 

A couple of weeks ago, two of Dan's lead carpenters, Mike Downey ("Mackie") and Mike Potts, came over. Both of them worked on the house and garage/studio at various stages of construction, so they know the place well. 

We talked about the projects: a porch "roofette" over my front door in the style of the existing porch roofs on both buildings, a built-in breakfast counter in my kitchen to add dining space, a counter/nightstand next to my bed in the bedroom, and a built-in bench for the new flagstone dining patio I've mostly finished at the foot of the stairs to the studio. 

They measured and asked questions, and the three of us tossed around ideas. Mike P drew sketches in his notebook and wrote notes about dimensions and materials; Mackie made notes in his head because that's what he does.

At the end of our discussion, I okayed the materials order, and they said they'd be back the next week to start work when it came in.

The next Monday morning, they set up chop saws and table saws, and began work on the front-door porch. And I found to my surprise that I enjoyed having construction guys around again; the creative work of dealing with the details of design and building was a good counterpoint to the emotional intensity of revising Bless the Birds

Mike P is on the ladder attaching the galvilume roofing; Mackie is giving advice… 

By early afternoon on Wednesday, they were putting on the roofing and flashing, and I was admiring the way it shades and shelters my south-facing front entry, giving it a welcoming feel.

Then Mike P went to work on the counters, and Mackie cut and sanded the rough-cut Douglas-fir we had decided on for the dining patio benches. That evening, Mackie's son-in-law, Lee, came over to consult about the brackets to hold the benches for my dining nook to the existing metal railings. 

Friday, Mike and Mackie finished shaping the counters, which involved more design questions, and a trip for me to Johnny Berndt & Sons, the local heating/cooling shop where the galvanized metal edging would be made, so I could explain my design to Ken and his helper. In between finishing up edits on my memoir, I painted both counters and Mackie took them to Berndt & Sons, and then Lee brought over the brackets, and they installed my gorgeous new dining benches.

Mackie and Lee installing the brackets for the dining patio benches. 

Over the weekend, I applied deck oil to the top and sides of the new benches. I stopped often to admire the benches and the front-door entry roofette. I was ridiculously pleased to see my ideas come to life, even better than I had imagined them, thanks to the skills of "my" guys.

The dining bench, thanks to Mackie and Lee; the steel table is one Richard designed and built for his gallery in Denver. I lacquered the table to protect it from the weather. 

On Monday, I picked up the finished counter edging, and then Mackie and I consulted about how to install it. Because my workshop is small and the construction adhesive needed to dry overnight, he worked on one counter at a time. Which was fine because it gave me time to touch up the painted upper surfaces. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Mike and Mackie and I discussed counter installation details. A few hours later, the counters were in and they were packing up their tools again. By evening, I was enjoying peace and quiet, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment that comes with being involved with tools and materials and construction again. 

Over the weekend, I cut and installed carpet squares to go under the new breakfast counter in the kitchen, and finished some other little details. And then just walked around and beamed at what we'd built: the porch roof, both counters, and the dining benches. 

The new breakfast nook counter on the right. Richard's steel table used to take up that space. 

Writing–spinning words into compelling stories–is my way of understanding the world, and sharing what I know. It's rewarding work even when it's frustrating and intense and difficult.

But it's largely a mental exercise. I forget sometimes how gratifying it is to spend time creating physical objects. Especially ones that improve my little house and the way I live in it.  

As with writing, houses are never actually finished–each change made shifts our perspective and understanding of the whole, and new ideas emerge. So while I say my house is now finished, the truth is that now I'm thinking about a few other improvements…  

The new counter in my bedroom, which gives me space for an "altar" of family photos where I do yoga and say my gratitudes every morning. 
Self-portrait in the bathroom mirror: note the pencil behind the ear, a portent.

Tool Girl Redux

Self-portrait in the bathroom mirror: note the pencil behind the ear, a portent. Self-portrait in the bathroom mirror: note carpenter’s pencil behind the ear.

Last spring, when I was starting to feel like I knew what I was doing with finish carpentry, I said confidently to my builder, Dan Thomas of Natural Habitats, “I’ll do the trim work for the new house.”

Big words. By the time I moved the air compressor out of Terraphilia and finished the final details, I had rethought that pronouncement.

For one thing, I’m slow. I have to figure out everything–tools, materials, design–step by step. If I were experienced, a lot of that would be automatic. (Which isn’t always good–sometimes the best solution isn’t the habitual one.)

For another, I had a few other things to do: pack, sort, organize, sell, and move.

A steel rod with an eyelet at each end holds lace curtains, and slides out to remove them. A steel rod with an eye hook at each end holds lace curtains, and slides out to remove them.

And I was simply burned out. I had pushed so hard for so long to finish the work at Terraphilia (and did, thanks to the help of various friends) that I had zero interest in plugging in the air compressor and picking up my tools again.

I didn’t even organize my new workshop just off the garage at Treehouse. My neighbor Bev helped me move the crates and bins of tools, and there they sit, unpacked.

I’ve done a few little things: I hung a couple of robe hooks, screwed a paper towel dispenser under a kitchen cabinet (the screws supplied were too long, so that was a learning experience), laid carpet tiles in my office, and invented clever steel-rod-and-eye hook curtain holders for the French doors.

Others did the big stuff: finished and put up the trim and baseboard (thank you, Mackie and Verlin), built the kitchen cabinets and the desk and bookshelves in my office (thanks, Rob and Rachel), and built the counter and pantry shelves in the utility area of the bathroom, the workbench in the shop and the shelves in the garage (many thanks, Eric)….

There’s still plenty to do to make life in 725 square feet comfortable. For instance, I have only one closet, which is of course in the bedroom. My coats and jackets ended up buried in the back of it.

The compound miter saw is built into my workbench. The board (a scrap of trim) that will be the base for the coat rack. (The sign on the back of the workbench is from a gallery that carried Richard’s work.)

The other day I had an aha! moment and realized that the wall behind my bedroom door would accommodate a coat rack. I could have bought one, but really, why would I?

I perused the selection of  hooks at Hyltons, the lumberyard a block away, and bought four.

This afternoon, I went out to my workshop, sorted through the scrap pile, and found a length of 1X4 trim perfect for a base for the hooks.

I cut the board to length with my miter saw, searched through bins until I found my random orbital sander and sanded the front and edges.

Screws, bits and drivers for my cordless drill, hooks, the drill, tape measure, the rack base, and my little torpedo level Screws, bits and drivers for my cordless drill, hooks, the drill, tape measure, the rack base, and my little torpedo level

I found the appropriate color of paint to match the wall, dug out my good brushes, and painted the board.

Then I brought my coat-rack base inside and assembled tools for mounting it to the wall and screwing on the hooks. I figured out where I wanted the rack on the wall, leveled it, marked the corners, and checked to make sure I knew where the studs were.

I was feeling pretty competent until I drilled the first hole and found no stud. Huh. I drilled another hole and ditto.

So I got one of those clever plastic drywall anchors, tapped it into the first hole and screwed into it. At least I knew what to do….

My brand-new coat rack, already full. My brand-new coat rack

I got the board up, measured the spacing for the hooks, drilled holes for their screws, screwed them in, and voila! I have a coat and hat rack, neatly hidden behind the open bedroom door, yet still easily accessible.

It’s nothing fancy, but I made and installed it myself. I forgot how satisfying that is.

The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom.

[Re]Learning My Limits

The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom. The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom.

I’m close! So close to completing the finish work on this house that my punch-list lives in my head, not on paper.

In the master bath I only need to etch and seal the concrete floor in the shower, and seal the steel trim on the galvanized wall-panels.

The plumbers still need to put in the shower fixtures and plumb the two sinks. My glass guy needs to install the two half-walls of reedy glass above the sill in the shower area. But my part of that tricky job is almost finished.

In the rest of the house, I need to install the thumb-pulls in the closet doors in the guest bedroom, cover a gap where two panels did not quite meet in the corrugated tin of the back porch ceiling, and nail a doorstop I invented last night in place in the master bedroom. That’s it. (I think.)

Mesquite drawer-pull I crafted for a drawer in the kitchen. Mesquite drawer-pull I crafted for a drawer in the kitchen.

I’m this close thanks to my patient and talented friends Tony and Maggie Niemann, who not only taught me finish carpentry, but who regularly nagged me to set up weekend work days so they could help.

And consulted whenever I got stuck, as I did the other night while installing the drawer-pull in the photo, crafted out of a chunk of mesquite trunk salvaged from my parents’ Tucson yard more than a decade ago. (Richard crafted pegs from that same mesquite to join the corners of the cabinet face frames, a Craftsman touch.)

I figured that once I finished my punch-list here, I’d start on the trim carpentry at Creek House. The walls are painted, the light fixtures and ceiling fans are in, and Westwood Cabinetry is at work on built-ins. Trim work can start anytime now.

Door trim in Terraphilia. Door trim in Terraphilia

I’m planning the same simple Southwest style of trim I’ve done here, using 1X6 pine boards (No. 2, paint-grade), ripped in half lengthwise and painted the same color as the wall. The header piece extends an inch and a half out on each side, like the trim around the bathroom door in the photo to the right.

(That photo dates from late winter, before baseboard, before I invented narrow galvanized steel trim to finish the raw edge of the drywall around the chiseled block walls, and before the lovely curved counter in the bathroom. A lot of work has happened in that time!)

I had thought I would do the trim myself. Until I realized that I was regularly waking in a panic at four am.

Until I realized that I have six weeks and a day to finish Terraphilia, meet a couple of writing deadlines, oversee the work on Creek House, get packed, sort through and sell or give away the contents of Richard’s shop, and move. (Closing for the sale contract on Terraphilia is September 13th, with possession at noon.)


The living room half of the front room at Creek House (the kitchen area is behind the camera). The living room half of the front room at Creek House (the kitchen area is behind the camera).

Learning to notice and respect my limits is one of those life lessons I never quite complete. I figure it out–usually the hard way, and then… Perhaps I get too complacent. Maybe it’s arrogance (No! Me do! shouts my inner toddler). Or control issues. (I am a double Virgo.)

Sooner or later, I find myself over my head again, waking at four in the morning reviewing all I have to cram into the next day, next week, next month…. The frantic tide rises. I find myself rushing through my days instead of enjoying the moments.

And then something causes me to stop and reassess. Oh yeah. I don’t have to do everything myself. It’s not all on my shoulders. I can delegate.

That’s where I am now.

Siding in progress at Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House (my new house). Siding in progress at Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House (my new house).

So with some regret, I’m delegating (read “paying for”) the trim carpentry on my new place. I’ve proved I can do it here. I’ve got plenty to do over the coming six weeks.

If I don’t try to do everything myself, if I [re]learn my limits, I might even enjoy that time, wild ride or no.

That sounds good to me.