We Are All Tool Girls

It started out innocently enough: On Friday afternoon, Jeff Durham, my contractor, was trimming the outside of the new windows in the kitchen bay, which is right next to the front entry. (The photo above shows the old windows, the brick enclosure in front of them on the left is the "planter" box.) I looked at the brick enclosure, and said, "You'll have to climb over that stupid thing." "Maybe it's time to take it out," he said a grin, knowing I can't resist a challenge.

That planter box has been on my to-demolish list since I first looked at the house. It's not original, it doesn't fit the house design, and worse yet in my book, it's unusable, wasted space. Because (1) it's too far under the deep eaves which keep my house cool in summer to get enough sun to grow anything, (2) if you filled it with soil it would rot the original cedar-shake and redwood siding that abuts it, and (3) it's too deep to fill anyway. 

"I'll take the first swing," I said. I had made good progress on one of two essays I'm writing for the 2019 Weather Calendar published by Accord, and I was feeling cocky. 

Jeff said mildly that each course of brick was two layers deep, so a sledge hammer might not be the demo tool of choice if I wanted to salvage the bricks. (He's worked with me for seven months now, so he knows my "recycle and reuse" ethic.) He went out to his workshop trailer and got his Bosch rotating hammer, something I had seen guys use in the past (Richard had one) but never laid hands on myself.

My new favorite tool: an 8-amp rotary hammer with chipping bit.

Jeff plugged in and proceeded to chip out part of the first course of bricks while I watched. He set the hammer down and looked at me. "Maybe you want to do it yourself," he said, with that grin again. (He does know me!)

I did. I got my work gloves, and while Jeff finished bending and cutting the powder-coat metal trim for the two windows outside the planter box, I whaled away at the top three courses of brick on the box so it would be easier for him to step over to do the trim on the next window. It took me a little while to get the feel of the rotating hammer, which is like a mini-jackhammer in terms of impact and kickback. 

Getting started on planter-box demo…

By the time he was beginning on that last kitchen window, stepping over the now-lower brick box, I had gotten my technique for separating bricks from mortar down, and had a good rhythm going. We worked companionably until about six-thirty, and then as he packed up his tools for the night, Jeff said, 

"I can leave you the rotary hammer so you can finish up tomorrow." 

I straightened my sweaty back and rotated my shoulders, aching from bracing the 8-pound hammer and its vibrating impact. I looked at what I had done, including the pile of mortar chunks and un-salvageable brick (some bricks are cracked, some don't come free of the mortar). "I think I need your dump trailer too."

He nodded and said he'd pick up the workshop trailer in the morning and leave the dump trailer when he did. 

Progress… (Notice those beautiful new kitchen windows with their custom white metal trim.)  

Which is how I came to spend most of my Saturday muscling a noisy rotary hammer, and sweating as I hauled bucket-loads of mortar chunks to Jeff's dump trailer, parked in my driveway. I honestly didn't think I'd be able to finish removing all the brick–12 courses high on one side, 14 on the other, double-thick, and 40 inches long by 50 inches wide equals a lot of brick and mortar to remove. 

And that hammer got heavier and heavier over the course of the day, as I got sweatier and more gray with mortar dust. But I kept whaling away, and I swear I felt my skinny biceps growing with each course of brick removed!

I can't shoot a photo of me working with a rotary hammer, because keeping it balanced and aimed is a two-handed operation. But my friend Connie Moody stopped by late in the afternoon and shot some photos. So there I am, sweaty and filthy Tool Girl. 

You'll have to imagine the noise, like a small jackhammer banging away… Thanks, Connie!

Brief commercial: Connie is half of the duo of Jay and Connie Moody, who manage the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center outside town. If you are looking for a peaceful retreat place with gorgeous long views of the nearby mountains, check out the center's website. TAC boasts comfy and moderately priced rooms, a labyrinth to walk, Jay's beautiful Habitat-Hero-award gardens, and Connie's delicious meals. You don't have to be Christian to stay there… 

I finished chipping out the last course of brick late yesterday afternoon, and then schlepped the remainder of the pile of mortar chunks plus the broken bricks to Jeff's dump trailer, one bucket at a time, my muscles groaning with each load. I swept up the worst of the mortar dust, and hosed down the newly exposed walls and porch post. (I'll remove the mortar stains later, with a small grinder equipped with a brush.)

Then I just stood there with a huge smile on my face, admiring my new, more open front entry. I can already imagine the built-in bench that will tuck into the corner once walled off by the brick planter, with a small wall-mounted water feature above it bringing the soothing sound of trickling water, which I will be able to hear inside the kitchen too… 

I was sweaty, filthy, and weary, with every muscle aching, but I felt great. As I soaked in the tub later, I thought about what is so satisfying about this Tool-Girl work. Part of it is getting to do some of the actual hands-on work: I am project manager on this house renovation. I design (with Jeff's input), search out materials (ditto). But I rarely get to do the actual work, because I'm not the expert and I have a fulltime job already. 

Another part is knowing that Jeff will lend me his power tools, that he trusts me to be careful and capable, even if it's my first time with a particular tool. Reminding myself that I can do this hard work makes me feel powerful, in a positive way, and capable, and strong. 

That's a lot for a 60-year-old "girl" who grew up small and slight. And who didn't grow up or go through most of her adult life with any kind of tool-girl tendency or competence. I am Tool Girl, hear me roar… 

Every "girl" should know how to use tools, and learn the basics of building and un-building, of creating and repairing what we and others build. Whatever we do in our lives, knowing how to work with our hands and muscles makes us strong and capable, more grounded.

The truth is, we are all of us, whatever our age or size or background capable of being Tool Girl. We just don't believe it, we don't know it in our bones until we do the work ourselves, even just once. Then our bodies remember that strength and power and pride in ourselves, and carry it into the rest of our lives. That's a good thing for everyone.

We are all Tool Girl, hear us roar…

The dozens and dozens of bricks I chipped out are now edging the gravel paths and patios under construction in my yard. (Gravel to come later.) in this new incarnation, they're both useful and beautiful.