The Wrong Tool

Sometimes it seems I remodel to support my tool habit. Over the years I have acquired quite a collection. Since each aspect of construction is unique, it requires its own specialized tools. I am involved from the foundation to the roof, so naturally I need the tools to do each and every one of these disparate tasks. After all, if you’re going to do a job right, you must have the right tool for the job, except when you don’t. Sometimes the best tool for a job is the wrong one.

A bucket may appear to be the tool for catching water, but what about under a sink? The space not taken up with pipes, p-trap, garbage disposal, and dishwasher lines has been filled with cleaning supplies. They don’t make a bucket that can fit under such a nest of plumbing. They do, however, make a plastic paint tray that is perfect for the job. Its low height, about three and a half inches, allows it to slip easily under all that piping. There is even plenty of room left to work. The rectangular design means it can fit into the corners, and the broadness of the tray makes it wide enough to catch the water from the supply hoses and the p-trap at the same time.

These trays can comfortably hold three quarts, or a full gallon if you want to push the limit, but since a p-trap and supply lines combined hold less than a pint, there is plenty of capacity to get the job done. In addition, the sloped part designed to even the paint out on the roller is a great place to put that nasty, hair-clogged trap you just removed.

When working under a sink I like to put an old towel under everything. This catches any water missed by the paint tray as well as acting as a drop cloth. It also provides a bit of cushion while trying to reach those out of the way places. Like Arthur Dent I don’t go anywhere without a towel.

When you’re all done under there, be sure to check for leaks. Leaks don’t always show up right away and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a slow leak and water left over from the repair process. I like to leave a piece of cardboard under the pipes for an hour or so. Any drip

shows up nice and clear on it so I can be sure the job is done right.

A common tool abuse that I can not condone is the use of a screwdriver to open paint cans. This often results in damage to the lid that prevents it from being put back on correctly. This not only makes it harder to open the next time, but it can also allow air in to dry out the paint. If you don’t have an actual paint can opener then my two-bit advice is just that: use a quarter. They are quite effective and the round edge won’t damage the lid. As for putting the lid back on, the traditional method is to use a mallet or hammer to tap it down firmly. Some will set it on the ground and stomp it shut with a foot, putting the boot in as it were. These are effective, but care should be taken to avoid splatters. Excess paint on the rim can be squeezed out at high velocity during the process, decorating surrounding objects. I like to use my roller extension pole. I lay it across the center of the lid and with firm pressure, roll the lid closed in both directions.

A final word on painting. Don’t let your brushes stand upright in the paint, or while soaking in water. This forces the bristles out of alignment and ruins the brush. Insert a small screw into the wide part of the handle with the head sticking out a bit and you can conveniently hang it on the side of your container.

If there is a lot of hand sanding to do, trade in that sanding block for a drywall sander. The wider sanding base and actual handle make the job much easier. Pre-sized paper is commonly available from 80-150 grit, although you can cut your own to fit.

Very few construction tools require thick grease, so when it is called for it may not be readily available. This can become a problem if you are removing ceramic tiles. An air hammer makes this job considerably easier. But it needs an application of viscous grease on the shaft to work properly. My environmentally friendly solution can be found in any well stocked medicine cabinet, petroleum jelly.

The most useful item in my unconventional tool box is my x-ray safety goggles. With these I can see through walls. I have built and torn open enough of them to know what I am likely to find inside. Before starting any project I study the area carefully. All those switches and outlets have wires

running to them. Not something you want to cut into while removing drywall. Nor do they look good running through your new window or doorway. A careful look at their layout can predict their probable path. It is a good idea to have a plan for moving them before you begin your tear out. I find a trip to the attic to trace what wires are heading into what wall and where is very helpful

That wall behind the sink is going to have not only wires, but an inch and a half vent pipe running up it. This makes it a difficult place to put in that sunken medicine cabinet. If you are considering removing a wall, check the rafters above it. If they run perpendicular than it is a bearing wall. That means the weight of the roof is resting on it. A little forethought can save a lot of frustration.

The x-ray glasses can also be used to find studs. Look again at those electric outlets. They are almost always nailed to a stud. If you have trouble determining which side of the outlet the stud is on, simply remove the cover plate and have a look. This also lets you see if there is an extra screw on the top and bottom which will indicate that it is a remodel box and therefore not next to a stud. Studs are typically spaced at sixteen inch intervals. So once you’ve located one stud, it is just a matter of measuring to find the one you want, or all of them. I use this method whenever I put in baseboards. A note of caution, every window and door has studs on either side irregardless of the rest of the layout.

These are a few of the tricks I have learned over the decades. There are many more. One of the wonderful aspects of the construction trade is the constant inclination towards innovations that make jobs faster, easier, and safer. In the two decades that I’ve been in the business I have seen many changes. The ones that work become the new standards. These changes are the results of the most powerful tool available, the human brain.

Compost Happens

Yes, I recycle. Even as far back as my lonely childhood in the backwoods workhouse for parentless children I recycled. The instinct was there in my genetic makeup since I certainly wasn’t encouraged to by anyone around me. This was way back in the last millennium when only hippies did so and our president could say without political consequences that “A tree is a tree. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.”

There were no recycling centers beyond the local store (five miles away) who would redeem glass soda bottles for a dime. This did not count for much with me since I had neither access to sodas nor the store. But I would do things like make scrolls out of the large paper bags the cow feed came in and reuse old nails from the fallen down fences to use in my tree forts.

I still recycle aggressively, and I still find unique ways to reuse. I’m not just talking about aluminum cans and office paper. I am a remodeling contractor, so in a sense. I’m recycling houses. All the scrap comes home with me. Anything reusable, like fixtures, go to Habitat for humanity. Scrap wood gets made into toys, or firewood, depending on quality. Rotten, non-burnable wood goes in the composters or becomes them.

Compost is one of the biggest productions that happens in my back yard. Because of the Texas heat, we chose to live in a house surrounded by large trees to help with cooling. As a result, we have an inordinate amount of leaves to deal with. This requires an equivalent amount of composting. All my neighbors just stuff them in plastic bags to go to the land fill, a practice of almost criminal waste.

After many experiments I have finally developed a simple way to handle my scrap lumber and composting at the same time. Using 2x material 4-5 feet long, I stack them alternately to form a sort of log cabin box. I can fill the interior with compostable material and build it as high as I need to. The gaps between the boards leaves plenty of room for aeration. Regular watering speeds up decomposition. When it is time to turn the compost, all I need to do is use the same wood and build a new one, transferring the top of the enclosure and the compost to the bottom of the new pile. As a result, my yard is much neater and the soil vastly improved without the need to import fertilizers.

For me, every day is earth day. How about you?

When Desperate Housewives Call Me

It can be difficult to make a living as a writer. That is why I moonlight when I can. Desperate women from all over the Austin area call me to come over and do for them what their husbands can’t or won’t. They pay me well to satisfy the one real need they have for a strong man who knows what he is doing, and they get it without all the bother or commitment of a relationship. It is also a task I usually enjoy preforming, even if it gets hot and sweaty.

That’s right, I fix things. I also remodel kitchens and bathrooms. I worked construction to pay for college and enjoyed it so much I ended up becoming a general contractor. Okay, there was a little more to it than that. For the equivalent in paperwork and cash as a semester at college, I became a licensed contractor, a member of the California Contractors Association and started a business that earned over 60k in the first year of operation.

But that did not leave much time for writing. So twelve years later I’ve reversed priorities. Being a writer is now my primary occupation. If that is what I want to do with my life, then it must come first. I still do some remodeling, but it gets done around my writing schedule. You have to be who you want to be now. Someday starts today if it is to come at all. What are you doing to follow your dreams?

If My Opinions Were Humble I Wouldn’t Be Giving Them

About writer’s block: all it is is not knowing how to start. I start anywhere and see where it takes me. Writing is habit forming. Once I get going, I just keep going.

I write because I think about things. I am constantly exploring the world around me with my mind, and writing is a way to make these thoughts tangible. It translates them from a passing fancy into a physical product, often crude and ill-formed at first, but capable of refinement. By rewriting and possibly researching these ideas, I am able to get closer to the truth. I gain a better understanding of the universe around me.

To me, fiction is the language of mythology. Mythology is a way of understanding a basic truth without empirical proof. In the New Testament, they were called parables, but they are the same thing. Jesus told a fictional tale to illustrate an underlying truth. I like to think that by constantly trying to understand the world around me and the people who inhabit it, I have gained some wisdom thereby. If I can pass some of this on to others in an entertaining way, then I have become greater than myself. I have become an active participant in this dance we call life.

I’m afraid I got a little sidetracked. What was the question?