Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Lamp of Sacrifice

One of the most challenging aspects to striking out on your own as as a craftsperson, speaking from experience, is learning how to estimate. As an employee, one tends to be quite insulated from this aspect of the custom building or furniture business, and it is easy to criticize others for their goof-ups in such matters - however, once this task is something we ourselves must chew upon, we find it is not quite so palatable and easily-digested as we might have thought previously. Experience can be a severe teacher sometimes.

This is especially true, I find, in my line of work, where, except for sawhorses, I have never made the same thing twice - thus with every job there are new unknowns, in material and/or technical aspects, that must be considered. Now, most makers of things who are self-employed can relate tales of woe in terms of mis-estimation of work, and have 'eaten it' on at least one occasion. I'd like to relate a tale from my files in that regard.

When I first bought my one acre in paradise on Gabriola Island, B.C., I was working at that time for a timber framing company a bit further south on Vancouver Island, living in a garage, believe it or not. I had just acquired the land, and knew that my work contract was coming to a close, with nothing solid lined up to follow, and I was pondering what to do. Some urgency attended this matter because my landlady had just sold the house and was moving in a little over a month, which meant the end of my modest accommodation, and a place to keep my things (mostly tools and books).

One day I was out riding my mountain bike, partly for the workout, and partly for the space to think as I turned the pedals in little circles, and I rode down a country lane and past a property where I heard the sound of a portable bandsaw mill. Curious, I went down to investigate and had a chat with the sawyer. He was formerly a logger, and now was in business sawing from reclaimed timber, the material coming from bridges and their abutments on de-commissioned logging roads and so forth. As I rode away, light went on in my head that I might just have enough time before I moved to construct myself a little shed, a place I could erect on my property and at least have a place to store stuff. I reasoned that it ultimately would become the power shed for the property, which is in fact what happened.

The building of this shed was also an opportunity to construct a hipped roof, an object of study for me and one which I hadn't had much opportunity to build professionally. I always strive to challenge myself with each project in some manner. This was my second hipped roof building - the other one I'll talk about in another post down the line. This building was to be done with Japanese framing techniques. The primary materials were Yellow and Red Cedar, with a little bit of Douglas Fir.

I quickly designed a little 6' x 8' shed, and ordered up the material from the sawyer. Once the timbers were delivered a week later, I set to work in a frenzy cutting the building in my little garage space. Working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, I managed to just complete it a month later. It would have been far more ideal to have had 2 or 2-1/2 months to build it, but I did not have that luxury. It would have been nice to have had the time to hand-plane all the parts, but I worked with rough-sawn materials instead. The roof for the shed, when assembled, took up all the available garage space and I had to clamber up and over it to get from one side to another. I had no woodworking machinery, so all the work was done on a pair of sawhorses.

I took all the parts over to Gabriola in my little aged and creaking Toyota Diesel pick-up, and 3 trips later I was ready to begin putting it up - I set up a tent at the bottom of the property and got to work. A couple of weeks later, and with some help from a friend to shingle the roof in Yellow Cedar, the building was finished. Here are some selected pictures showing some of the stages.

Working solo I found to be a challenge at times:


That was the floor of the shed, on its way down to be positioned.

One mistake with this project was not having adequately surveyed the building site. When I got there with the building components, I found that the spot I had picked out for it, what I thought was a flat ledge, was in fact more sloped. This precipitated some last minute scarfing to lengthen the downhill side posts, and when the few spare bits of timber ran out, the raising of some of the foundation points was necessary. I always regretted this afterwards:


I used piercing stretchers, nuki, rather than knee braces:


The nuki, were also more than adequately reinforced by the plywood sheets I slid down between the posts:


My knowledge of Japanese roof work at that time was about 5% of what it is today, so this construction I now view with a certain wryness:


I made a sliding front door, and door-sill, out of Purpleheart:


And I fitted a door handle, a crooked branch of Arbutus, arbutus menziesii (called 'Madrone' in the US), which proved to be quite durable over time:


I finished up the roof with a Yellow Cedar plank ridge cap, and did 'Boston' pattern hip shingling:


And here is how the little power shed looked from the road:


During the process of erecting this little building, my neighbors stopped by to introduce themselves and see what was going on. One of those neighbors talked to a friend and shortly thereafter brought her by to meet me. Her name was Germaine, and she needed a deck built. She asked me if I could come over and have a look, and I said, "sure".

Germaine lived on a fixed disability income from a back injury suffered as a teenager. She desired to put in a therapy pool so she could exercise in safety, and wanted a deck with fence built around the pool. Germaine was an artist and admired the Japanese aesthetic, and was impressed with my little shed. My ego was duly stoked. I liked Germaine and wanted to help her out.

She had an existing deck at the back of her house, which looked like this:


Paint peeling and sticks a-rottin', Germaine wanted her current deck gone, a foundation put in for the pool, a new deck built and fenced, with a gate on one side. The pool was a commercially-produced coopered tub of red cedar, 6' in depth and about 8' in diameter, so it needed a solid foundation. Germaine asked me if I could do all that, and I said "sure." She then said, "how much?". She let me know what her rough budget was for the deck and fence, etc.. I went back to my place, I did a few calculations on the back of a napkin, and realized with the likely cost of materials, and a reasonable hourly for my labor, that she could afford approximately 12 days of work. I wanted to to the job, and thought I could make some sacrifice in terms of pay for the benefit of getting some local work (which, I hoped, would lead to other work opportunities), and sorta, loosely, hoped I might be able to finish he job in 'a month, give or take'. I'd never built a deck, and given that the shed had taken me a month to fabricate, I thought the time frame I envisioned for her project was 'reasonable'.

I told Germaine I'd take the job, and requested just one condition: a bottle of Guinness beer to be provided each Friday afternoon at the conclusion of the work day, and week, thinking then that I'd work only Monday to Friday. She agreed to my 'terms'.

What unfolded, I'll share in the next post.

The title of this thread, by the way, refers to a chapter from John Ruskin's masterpiece "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" (1840), and I'll quote a line from it to give you a sense of the flavor:

"...we should in every thing do our best; and, secondly, that we should consider increase of apparent labour as an increase in beauty in the building."

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