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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Things found in walls

An attic under renovation.
An attic under renovation. - 123RF Stock Photo

I have a friend with a fair amount of environmental science training and education who up and left his job to become that most difficult kind of carpenter — the kind who do careful restoration work on older buildings, the sort of work where you never know just what you’re going to find behind the walls.

On some days, I understand the choice completely. (The other days, the ones where I can’t understand it at all, are usually the achingly cold winter ones.)

I understand it because there’s something different about the inventiveness you have to find to do carpentry at all, and the way it uses a completely different part of your brain from anything like an office job.

But renos take that different kind of calculation to even another level. If you’re building from scratch, you know exactly what you’re getting into: plans and regulations tell you the materials you’re going to be using, and, if you’re a professional, you already know what you’re going to be doing. What I mean is that you start fresh, building on a blank slate.

On a reno, you’re already hemmed in by what others — professional, unprofessional and downright ham-handed — have left behind, and by how far (and how expensively) you can go down the repair rabbit-hole on a job that was supposed to take a day or two. For life-safety reasons, little jobs become big ones. Start stripping just three runs of clapboard, and maybe you’re still taking clapboard down a day later.

Clapboard you thought was fine splits into those familiar long wooden daggers as you try to lift what you thought was a good piece to slide a new one underneath, the sheathing behind that clapboard is unexpectedly punky, a badly-installed window has wept a little of every storm’s rain into the wall so that beams have rotted — it’s an experience, and only a good one when you find what you hope for, rather than what you expect. The further you go, the worse it’s likely to get.

Restoration carpenters, like journalists, get used to delivering the bad news.

I like to find a little bit of that carpentry-mind myself — I find small jobs to be an excellent stress reliever, if for no other reason than because finding solutions and just plain remembering measurements drives all politics and ethics out of my head, leaving me with a nice clean mental chalkboard, calculating angles instead of sentences.

There’s the wonders of the work, but also the wonders of what you find.

Start stripping just three runs of clapboard, and maybe you’re still taking clapboard down a day later.

Sometimes, you ponder the practicals: who thought this repair was a good idea? Who thought this would work? What didn’t they realize there was no way that it wouldn’t leak? Where did that sandwich bag come from?

Other times, it’s more arcane, messages that make you wonder about who left them, when, and why.

A general contractor looked at a problem I was trying to deal with and drew a solution for me with a few pencil strokes on a beam — now, I don’t want to cover that simple, perfect diagram up. But I will, and someday, maybe someone else will find it.

Taking down vinyl siding, I found the scribbled measurements written on the clapboard and then covered by the siding installers who had written them down.

But most fascinating are the objects: I opened one wall chase and, at the bottom, found a small mirror, an old Remembrance Day poppy, an electric pink comb, a toothbrush and a mouldering paper book of matches with only one match used.

And the story-writing part of me knows there’s a whole story in there somewhere.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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