Monday, September 24, 2007

We put the fear back in blogosphere

Sunday! Up and at 'em!

Before I was fully awake Dad already had the new chainsaw running and was doing some practice cuts on the end of one beam. The Husqvarna looked, in fact, just like a hot knife going through butter! A good sign. And indeed he was able to make nice square cuts to get the beam down to size--10 feet, 9 inches, I believe. Looking at the cut ends, I realized that the beam is from the heart of the tree, the strongest part. Sniffed at the fresh cuts to learn the smell of oak.

Around this time, from inside the house, I heard John say "hooray!" I hoped that meant that our friend Alex was coming over. And he was! Hooray!

Until then, there were joints to make. Dad had given us a few options for the design of the joints and we'd settled on a simple, square tab on each post that would fit into a notch in the beam. For each chunk we needed to remove from a post or beam, he made a series of circular-saw cuts a quarter-inch or so apart, leaving thin slices that could be chiseled away. He and John settled into this task and, realizing I had some time to kill, I decided to paint the trim on the kitchen window, which I've been trying to get to since July. As I was setting up the ladder I noticed a dead bird on the ground. Oh dear. I identified it as a wood thrush--one of my favorite birds because of its lazy, melancholy song usually heard far back into the woods. What was it doing flying around our house?

As all this was going on, Alex showed up and kept us entertained with tales of his recent adventures. Finally, around 1 or so, the joints were finished. Then I went into the crawlspace and pulled heating tubes out of the way so John could drill a small hole through the floor where the tool room post would sit. This would be a marker for John to look at from underneath while sliding in a 4x4 support to rest on the footer, since that post fell between two floor joists. (The bathroom one, as luck would have sit, sat right on a double joist.) At this point, Dad gave me a crazy-eye look and said "We're getting dangerously close..." I think that's when my heartrate first climbed—not to descend to normal again for a couple of hours.

Dad explained the plan. We would carry the beam inside and set it down between the two temporary walls. Then he, John and Alex would lift it overhead so that I could screw cleats (basically, short lengths of 2x4) into the framing on either end as temporary supports.

We put some blocks in place to set the beam down, about a foot and a half tall. Then got in line for the big haul. Have we mentioned that we estimate the weight of the beam at 350 pounds? We got it inside pretty smoothly, though, some banging around in doorways notwithstanding. Set it on the supports. Dad announced a change of plans. "We're not going to bench-press this thing, guys, are we?" he said. The backup: They would raise the beam one end at a time, one foot at a time, like a seesaw. I'd still screw in cleats, just more of them.

We started on the bathroom side. The strong men lifted the beam a foot or so and I squirreled under with the screwdriver and put in the cleat. Over to the tool room side. Now, whereas on the bathroom side I was screwing into the new lumber we'd used to build those walls, on the tool room side the lumber was the old original hard stuff. This cleat didn't work out too well. Top screw didn't go in at all, and the bottom two pulled the cleat out toward their heads instead of pushing it in. It held the beam, but not in a way that made anybody feel very good. I always find the bit on a power screwdriver to be a site of some anxiety (all that force and pressure concentrated on a tiny point that wants to slip) and this was some major force and pressure, with three guys straining to hold this massive hunk of wood right over me as I put the cleats in.

We decided that it would be wise to use longer screws, so John took off to get those from the hardware store. And we decided that, at least on the tool room side, we could just slide successively longer 2x4s (4 feet, 5 feet, 6 feet, 7 feet) under the beam as it went up, rather than relying on screws to hold a cleat. So we cut those to size and added reinforcement at the top of each one.

O.K. Ready for the attack. We started on the tool room side. While Alex stabilized the bathroom end, Dad and John lifted, I unscrewed the old cleat as fast as I could and got the 4-foot support underneath. Then we switched sides. Dad and Alex lifted, John stabilized and I put a new cleat in just over the old one. As I did this the lifters made some rather frightening sounds. Heavy breathing and grunting. Oh jeez. After that they started putting a short 2x4 under the beam, like a handle, and lifting that way instead of trying to get their arms around the beam.

We were at 4 feet. Back to the tool room side. Dad and John lifted, I kicked out the 4-foot support and slid in the 5-foot one. Same on the bathroom side. Back and forth two more times. The last lift--from 6 to 7 feet--seemed really crazy, just going by sounds.

Now the bottom of the beam was 7 feet off the floor. That put the top within a couple of inches of the ceiling joists, where it would ultimately rest. Dad put some long steel clamps on the beam, holding it to the joists and rafters overhead in strategic spots. Then we moved a spare 6x6 post under the middle of the beam to be a base for the small hydraulic jack. As soon as Dad raised the jack a little bit, John let out a gasp. The beam was wobbling around in a most menacing fashion.

Another change of plans! We would put the jack on one end instead of in the center. From where I was standing--that is, in a corner with my hands covering most of my face--it looked like the 350-pound monster was basically being held up by these clamps, which were hooked over the joists, which in turn rested on our temporary walls. How could this actually be working? Why is my dad standing UNDER the beam, poking around at the jack which is resting on a not-very-plumb 6x6?

Every muscle in my body was tensed, but jacking the beam at the ends worked fine. We got it up to its full height and clamped it well. Time to bring in the posts, tool room end first. A little too tall. We took it out on the porch and Dad trimmed the bottom end. Brought it back in, hit it into place with a mallet. Same procedure with the bathroom-side post.

And there it was!


We took out the temporary walls in the blink of an eye, carried all the extras outside, and cleared out the whole space under and around our brand new posts-and-beam. There you go! Suddenly what used to be the edges of two rooms was the center of one big room, and where we'd been used to ducking between old studs we could prance around under our big beam!

It looks awesome.

Both Dad and Alex had to leave shortly after we got done--we did have a little time to sit and admire it, beers in hand (though unfortunately not Alex, who's participating in a blood-pressure study and can eat only what he's given, which on that day was 57.6 grams of pretzels and two packs of Lorna Doones) but then it was just me and John again.

It was only about 3:30 and we spent the rest of the day wandering around in some sort of dream state. Not only do we have this major change in the structure of our house, but it was yet another experience of having angelic helpers descend on us and make huge things happen. Alex really made it possible for us to lift that thing into place (not the first time he's done that!). And Dad brought so much knowledge and confidence and strength to this whole project--not to mention a crucial dose of complete insanity.

Truly a grand gift!

- Erika



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