Playhouse

There was an old shack on the property when I bought this place. It sat on some bricks. It looked like it had been a kid’s playhouse at one time but in recent years had been used for storing gardening tools. I decided to turn it back into a playhouse now that that I had grandchildren. The first thing it needed was a roof. Without a roof, you’ve got nothing.

I thought about simply putting on some rolled asphalt sheets but the carriage house had a new cedar roof and I thought it would be nice if I did the playhouse roof the same. The first thing I did was pull off the old asphalt shingle. Underneath, the original plywood was riddled with dry rot. I pulled that off too and found myself with four walls and eight stringers, two of which had also succumbed to the rot. That’s the way, isn’t it? You think everything’s solid, immutable, going to last forever and then you take a piece off just to look and you find the whole things rotten to the core. Political parties, homes for orphans, marriages. No wonder a lot of people don’t look.

There doesn’t look too much to shingling. Think again. The first thing’s the shingles. Shingles are shingles, right? Wrong. There’s shakes and shingles and different grades of shingles. You’ve got to measure and calculate and decide how many bundles you want. I took my truck to the lumberyard and heaved in half a dozen bundles, then I gave them my credit card. It was going to be a thin month.

That all went well enough. But many large enterprises fail because someone got a detail wrong. That’s the way it was with the nails.

I’m old enough to remember when clerks got paid enough to live on and stayed on a job until they were an expert. If you didn’t know something about glass or putty or nails, you asked and the clerk told you what you needed to know. It was sort of like having a walking, talking encyclopedia at your beck and call. I went to the local franchise, it doesn’t matter which one, they’re all the same. I explained to the kid behind the desk that I would be putting cedar shingles on and needed shingle nails. He filled a bag for me and I paid at the desk.

The first thing you’ve got to do when you’re shingling a roof, is nail a row of shingles along the bottom edge. Then you nail another row over top, staggering to cover the gaps. Once that’s done, you nail a long board above this double set of shingles and but the next row up against it. As I nailed down the shingles, I kept splitting them. Some shingles started out six inches wide and ended up not much wider than a match. I tried a different hammer, then putting the nails into different places in the shingle. Nothing worked. I drove over to the lumber yard, not the home handyman place, but a real lumber yard where contractors go for supplies.

“Why’re you using roofing nails if your putting on shingles?” Made a difference. Roofing nails are thick, ridges, with big flat heads. Shingles nails are thin with small, barely discernible heads. The work went a little faster after that.

There’s something about this turning over the running of a business to sixteen year old that bugs the hell out of me. When I go to buy something I don’t just expect to pay for the product. I expect to pay to have someone who knows what he’s doing selling the product. But somewhere along the way, the bright lights of business figured out if you broke down all the tasks people do in stores, then you could give those tasks to any dolt and pay them minimum wage. Suddenly, the consumer is supposed to be an expert in everything from automobile parts to pant sizes. I’m surprised that given the use of computers on airlines that the pilots are old enough to shave.

This playhouse is turning into a major project. Since the roof was going to be new, I thought I’d put up white wallboard and paint it with brightly colored pictures. That’s what you get from watching too many of those carpentering is easy shows. I’m inclined to remember how easy it looks and forget that they have one million dollars worth of equipment to do any conceivable task while I have a hammer, a saw that needs sharpening and a drill that is so old you turn it by hand.

My son-in-law came to the rescue. He carpenters as a hobby. He can look at something with a slight squint, whip out a tape measure, make a bunch of pencil marks then cut lumber into pieces that all fit together and actually make something. The process amazes me. There is, somewhere in his head, a little section that sees in three D, that estimates and calculates, an organizes. That something, in spite of my having had a grandfather who was a carpenter, is missing in me.

Three years after we were married, when my wife was big with our second child, by big, I mean BIG–she was short, small boned and so far out in front that she had trouble keeping her balance–she decided that the kids were going to need bunk beds and since we couldn’t afford to buy them, she’d make them. We signed up for a evening course in carpentry. I was there are her camouflage. In those un-PC days, it was unheard of for women to take carpentry courses. There were ten men and her. And me. She came with plans for the bunk beds. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I wanted to make. Instead, I practiced cutting perfectly good planks into smaller and smaller pieces. The night she went to use the rip saw, every man in the shop leaned forward, ready to pounce. There was her and her stomach and the blade and every guy there was terrified he was going to witness an instant cesarean. By the time the boards were cut, the guys wanted to run me through the rip saw.

At the end of the course, she had her bunk beds and I had a pile of sawdust. But that wasn’t surprising. I’d never had any desire to take woodworking since my experience in grade seven. There were those kids whose fathers were carpenters. They glued dark wood and light wood together ,then turned it on the lathe. They made exquisite lamps and ashtrays. I jammed my thumb into the lathe and the wood ground out a deep v that still causes me pain today when the weather turns cold.

I did finish shingling the roof. I even shingled the walls. My son-in-law studying the lines of the shingles said he could tell the job was done by someone who’s very creative.