Sheetrock and Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement
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Sheetrock and Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement

by David Owen

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David Owen, author of The Walls Around Us, recounts his projects -- from catching the home improvement bug while watching workmen replacing a leaky roof to his first tentative foray into DIY. As his skill grows, so does his confidence: replacing a broken light switch turns into wiring an entire room, making bookcases is followed by building an office. Soon


David Owen, author of The Walls Around Us, recounts his projects -- from catching the home improvement bug while watching workmen replacing a leaky roof to his first tentative foray into DIY. As his skill grows, so does his confidence: replacing a broken light switch turns into wiring an entire room, making bookcases is followed by building an office. Soon he takes the big leap from renovation to building a new house -- a weekend cabin a mere six miles from his home -- from the ground up. The experience launches Owen's enthralling and hilarious discourse on everything from kitchen countertop materials to the complete history of concrete and a near disastrous mishap involving a tree, a roof, and a chainsaw.

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Simon & Schuster
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

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Rooms and Dreams

The best-selling poet in America in the nineteen-thirties was also a newspaper columnist, a small-time actor, and a successful designer of Hawaii-themed dinnerware. His name was Don Blanding. He wore an oversized fedora and had a Clark Gable mustache, and he described himself as an "artist by nature, actor by instinct, poet by accident, vagabond by choice." He was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory, in 1894. In 1912, he saved the life of a six-year-old neighbor, Billie Cassin, who grew up to be the actress Joan Crawford. In 1915, he briefly shared an apartment in Chicago with the novelist and playwright Sherwood Anderson. For a few years in the nineteen-forties, he was married to the crayon heiress Dorothy Binney. He was famous for having no fixed address, but he kept turning up in certain favorite warm-weather locales, mainly in Florida, Hawaii, and California. He died in 1957, at the age of sixty-two. In 1986, the musician Jimmy Buffett borrowed the title of one of his poetry collections, Floridays, for a song (which he dedicated partly to Blanding) and an album.

I first heard about Blanding from a friend, who had bought one of his books at a flea market and thought that I would get a kick out of it. The book is called Vagabond's House. It was first published in 1928, was reprinted more than fifty times during the next couple of decades, and is still in print today, though only barely. I bought my own copy from a used-book dealer; the flyleaf is inscribed "Aloha Don Blanding." The book is — well, the book is virtually unreadable. And the illustrations, which are also by Blanding, are on the creepy side, full of statuesque naked ladies and dated-looking silhouettes. But the title poem is kind of captivating:

When I have a I sometime may...

I'll suit my fancy in every way.

I'll fill it with things that have caught my eye

In drifting from Iceland to Molokai.

It won't be correct or to period style

But...oh, I've thought for a long, long while

Of all the corners and all the nooks,

Of all the bookshelves and all the books,

The great big table, the deep soft chairs

And the Chinese rug at the foot of the stairs,

(it's an old, old rug from far Chow Wan

that a Chinese princess once walked on).

My house will stand on the side of a hill

By a slow broad river, deep and still,

With a tall lone pine on guard nearby

Where the birds can sing and the storm winds cry.

A flagstone walk with lazy curves

Will lead to the door where a Pan's head serves

As a knocker there like a vibrant drum

To let me know that a friend has come,

And the door will squeak as I swing it wide

To welcome you to the cheer inside.

And there are a couple hundred more lines, all written in the same merrily sprung anapestic blandometer. I've never drifted from Iceland to Molokai, and I don't own a Chinese rug or a Pan's head door knocker (although I now sporadically search for both on eBay), and some of Blanding's decorating touches are mildly disturbing — "An impressionistic smear called 'Sin,'/ a nude on a striped zebra skin," "a nook / For a savage idol that I took / from a ruined temple in Peru, / A demon-chaser named Mang-Chu" — but the impulse that drove his fantasy must be close to universal. The theme of Blanding's poem is the same happy daydreaming that leads to the construction of tree houses, backyard forts, ice-fishing shacks, cottages at the beach, and three-bedroom raised ranches in suburban New Jersey. The Vagabond's reverie is a reverie of shelter.

Don Blanding is unrelated to Jim Blandings, the fictional protagonist of Eric Hodgins's 1946 novel, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (which was made into a movie, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, in 1948, and was remade, as The Money Pit, in 1986), but Blanding and Blandings share a belief in salvation by home improvement — and so do I. Anyone who has spent a happy hour wandering the aisles of the Home Depot, or has looked covetously at a neighbor's brand-new pressure-treated garbage-can enclosure, or has used two hooks to hang a picture on a freshly painted living-room wall and then stepped back to admire the completed project from various distances and angles, understands how a drifter like Blanding could take comfort in the idea of a fixed anchorage, and why a sensible urbanite like Blandings might yearn to upend his life by buying a decrepit country place on the verge of collapsing into its cellar. All shelters, even real ones, have fanciful dimensions as well as structural ones. All houses are also houses of the mind.

There's a second poem about the Vagabond's House in Vagabond's House, just seventeen pages after the first one. It begins:

I wrote of a house of dreams one day,

My "Vagabond's House." I told of the way

That the rugs were laid across the floor,

I told of the walls and the paneled door,...

The jars of spices along a shelf,

I told of the things I chose myself

To grace my house...those priceless things

That an hour of idle dreaming brings.

So vividly real it sometimes seemed

That I quite forgot that I only dreamed;

...So I wrote as though the house were real.

The book went forth and made appeal

To some far person in some far land.

I know, for a letter came to hand....

"Dear Friend," it said. "I don't know you,

But I am a dreamer and a vagabond, too,

And the house you built of fragile stuff

Is the same as mine. If we dream enough,

If we strive and work, I truly feel

That we can make our houses real.

And if mine comes true and I build some day

A house of wood and stone or clay

In a summer land by a drowsy sea

I hope you will come and visit me

For the door will open to rooms beyond

For poet and artist and vagabond.

Forced rhymes aside, I feel the same way (except for the last bit, about dropping by for visits). Home improvement is a powerful creative act, maybe the most ambitious creative act that all but the true artists among us will ever undertake. Remodeling a room, building an addition, planting a garden, even installing a bathroom sink are all forms of three-dimensional self-expression. Over time, houses evolve into structural extensions of the people who live inside them: our shelters become projections of our selves. I still have an almost physical memory of the houses of all my best friends when I was growing up. Each of those houses was a unique micro-environment, with its own topography, smell, ambience, quality of light, and temperature of parental authority, and each had features that came to seem indivisible from the personalities of its inhabitants. My memories of my grandmothers, who died more than fifteen years ago, are partly memories of their houses, which I visited often when I was little and which seemed to me, and still seem to me, as much a part of them as their potent perfume and their soft, fascinating skin. My memories of my own childhood are scenes in which the scenery is often a room. A nautilus is a living creature, not a shell, but when we think of the creature what we picture is the shell.

My direct adult relationship with home improvement began a week after I got married, in 1978, when I was twenty-three and my wife, whose name is Ann Hodgman, was not quite twenty-two. We had just graduated from college. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we loaded our belongings into a small Ryder truck in Rochester, New York, said good-bye to Ann's parents and their dog, and drove to New York City, where we had rented the unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in which we would begin our married lives. I took the wrong expressway exit in Manhattan, and we nervously drove, for what seemed like several hours, down an avenue that neither of us had seen before. At some point earlier in the day, a short circuit had developed in the truck's steering column, and periodically it caused the horn to blare unexpectedly, sometimes for many seconds. The only way to stop the horn, I had discovered, was to pound the center of the steering wheel with my fist. At the corner of 120th Street, while we were waiting at a traffic light, the horn suddenly started, and when the people in the crosswalk looked up to see what the problem was they saw me, in the cab of our Ryder truck, face red with aggravation, pounding the center of the steering wheel with my fist.

Somehow, we got where we were going. Two friends from college helped us move in. The move didn't take very long. The friends went home. The sun went down. The power in our apartment hadn't been turned on yet, and we learned from the building's superintendent that no one from Con Ed would be able to turn it on until Tuesday, after the holiday, three days from now. The phone didn't work, either. We couldn't afford to go out. There was hardly anywhere to sit, because we didn't own a couch yet. Our apartment that night seemed as big and blank and dark as the formless future. The empty rooms were no longer quite empty, since we had heaped our boxes on the floors, but the apartment was not in any sense inhabited.

We lived in that apartment for seven years, and, little by little, we turned it into our home, initially just by filling it with possessions: our shell grew around us, chamber by chamber. We bought a couch, then some bookcases, then some other things, then a cheap metal table to hold the sole piece of office equipment that we owned in those days: a used IBM Selectric typewriter, which I had bought in college. Ann's parents gave us some old curtains. We hung pictures on the walls. After a few months, I could no longer quite recall what the apartment had looked like when it was truly empty — could no longer re-experience the sense of portentous excitement and anxiety I had felt when the rental agent first unlocked the door and walked Ann and me through the starkly unlived-in rooms. Week by week, my brain overwrote the old memory files. The shiny expanse of parquet flooring receded beneath rugs and furniture and laundry, and the blank walls pulled away. Gradually, the rooms acquired an identity that, in the minds of our friends and neighbors, and even in our own minds, was no longer easily separable from us. Our apartment became our living shell, our first joint act of home improvement.

Eventually, that shell became so crowded with stuff that Ann and I sometimes had to walk sideways and step over stacks of magazines to change channels on our TV. A friend remarked that our place was decorated more like a yacht than like a house because our chairs and tables appeared to have been stowed rather than arranged. Our living room was like the trailer of some circus performers I met once, who had crammed so many boxes and old clothes and papers under their couch that the couch seemed less like a piece of furniture than like the topmost item in a pile. Ann and I didn't actually own that many things, but space was scarce and the things we did own filled virtually all of it.

In 1984, a few months before our first child was born, we decided to have the apartment painted — to impress the baby, I guess. The superintendent told me to move all our furniture at least three feet from any paintable surface, and this forced me, among other things, to remove all the books from each bookcase and stack them on the couch, then move the now empty bookcase three feet toward the center of the room, then put all the books back on the shelves so that I could load the couch with the books from another bookcase, etc. — a tedious process that had to be repeated in reverse when the painter had finished (about fifteen minutes after he arrived, with a single huge bucket of extremely white paint). Disassembling the rooms in this way was jarring, like rearranging the features of a familiar face. Very briefly, the upended apartment became a window through which it was possible to glimpse our younger selves, during the long-ago week when our still-sealed moving boxes had been piled on the floor. Then the painter left, and I put everything back, and the present re-swallowed the past.

The one major physical renovation project that we undertook during those seven years was also baby-related. Our apartment contained about seven hundred and fifty square feet of living space. It had a decent-size bedroom, a small bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a living room that had a box-like dining alcove at one end — the kind of place that New York City real estate agents sometimes describe as having four rooms, but that in most other parts of the country would not be credited with more than two and a half. The dining alcove was so compact that when we had guests for dinner we sometimes had to take apart my home office — which occupied one dark corner — and move the living-room couch a foot closer to the TV. Yet the cramped alcove seemed to be the only conceivable parking space for a baby. Several months before our daughter was born, we moved the dining table behind the living-room couch, moved my office next to it, and turned the alcove into an official room, by walling it off. We also carpeted the new room's floor, and discovered that wall-to-wall carpeting can make a small space appear larger — a useful trick of the eye.

The partition with which we created our new room was actually a wall unit — a floor-to-ceiling bank of bookcases, with a real hung door in the middle. It was built to fit by a company for which I'd seen an advertisement in the Village Voice, and it was installed by a trio of surly workers. It consisted of four thirty-inch-wide floor-to-ceiling sections, one of which contained the door. These sections were bolted to each other, and the whole thing was held in place vertically by a couple of dozen threaded bolts with metal pads at the end, like the leveling feet on a washing machine. This hardware, and the gaps along the floor and ceiling, were concealed behind moldings and skirt boards. The completed unit, from the living-room side, looked like a real wall with a bank of built-in bookcases in front of it.

Our original plan was to install our baby inside this new subdivision, as various Manhattan acquaintances of ours had done already with their own babies in their own transformed dining alcoves in their own tiny one-bedroom apartments. As Ann's due date drew near, though, I began to worry. Our unborn daughter already owned more bedroom furniture than we did; how would we fit all her things into a space that had scarcely been large enough for our dining table?

Then I realized that there was an easy solution: we could give the baby our bedroom, which was significantly larger than the alcove, and move ourselves behind the books. This idea appalled most of the friends I mentioned it to, because it seemed spineless — as though we were pre-spoiling our child, by capitulating in advance to some outrageous infantile demand. Older adults, in particular, viewed it as a dangerous act of trans-generational appeasement. My father-in-law chuckled knowingly, as though this were merely the latest in a series of my follies. But the more Ann and I thought about the idea, the more we liked it. Children need lots of room in their rooms; grown-ups don't. By giving our daughter our bedroom, we were actually carving out more adult space for ourselves in the rest of our apartment, since we would now not be forced to let the nursery overflow into the living room. And because the baby's big bedroom was situated at the far end of a (short) hall, on the other side of the kitchen, we would still be able to stay up late, carousing in the living room with our friends — something that would have been impossible with an infant sleeping just a few feet away, on the other side of our significant collection of heavily underlined books from college English courses. (This was at a time when we believed that our social life would survive the birth of our child.)

Living in a tiny bedroom turned out not to be the imposition that Ann and I had feared it might be. We discovered that compactness can be a genuinely appealing bedroom feature, as long as the occupants have outgrown any need to keep toys and diapers and bouncy chairs on the floor. In most supersized master bedrooms, the surplus square footage serves no useful purpose. Why waste interior acreage on a room in which you spend most of your time unconscious?

Home improvement is an ongoing collaboration between a dwelling and its residents. Changing our apartment changed Ann and me, too, because remodeling works in two directions: as we shaped our living space, our living space shaped our lives. Walling off our dining alcove to create a new room provided our first real experience, as a married couple, of the transformative power of renovation. Remodeling and construction are human processes as well as structural ones, and they leave all the parties altered, just as marriages and lawsuits do. Ann and I set out to turn our apartment into the kind of place that we thought we wanted to live in, and we ended up meeting it halfway, by becoming the kind of people who, it turned out, would live in a place like ours.

Notwithstanding our fortuitous discovery of the appeal of claustrophobic sleeping spaces, when our daughter was almost a year old we decided that we now absolutely had to have more space, plus a yard, and that to acquire these things at a price we could afford we would need to move fairly far from New York City. One Wednesday in June, I rented a car and went shopping for a house in a small Connecticut town about ninety miles north of Grand Central Station — a town that we had selected essentially at random. (My parents had friends who had a son I'd never met who lived there; Ann's step-grandmother had graduated from a boarding school there in 1921.) The town had a postcard-quality New England village green and fewer than four thousand residents. The first house the real estate agent showed me seemed too small and too new, and I told her so. (Ann and I had decided that we didn't have many strong opinions about what our house should be like, except that it should be "big" and "old.") The second, which was near the village green, was much bigger and much older. It was a two-hundred-year-old white box with black shutters, and its asking price was only about 25 percent more than the absolute maximum that we had figured we could spend. The house had a colorful history. During the previous two centuries it had been a private home, a social club, a prep-school dormitory, and a private home again. In 1970, after being decommissioned by the prep school, it had been sold to a local teacher for a dollar, sawed in two, moved by truck (in two trips) to its present location, and put back together on top of a new foundation. There was a seam in the floor in the hall where the two parts had been shoved back together, and the floorboards at the seam were a half-inch out of alignment. The owner had converted the attic into a rental apartment, which was now occupied by a second-grade teacher and her husband, a recently married couple a little younger than Ann and me. The shingles on the roof were worn out, the exterior paint was cracked and peeling, the interior walls were covered with at least a dozen mutually contradictory patterns of garish wallpaper, and the garage, which theoretically had room for three cars, was falling down and was filled with leaves, trash cans, and squirrels.

But there was a tantalizing abundance of floor area inside the house: eleven rooms that I had never seen before, each of them a blank slate. Shortly after Ann and I had moved into our apartment, I'd had a dream in which I opened a door I'd never noticed before and found a staircase leading to our apartment's unsuspected second floor, which was filled with comfortable antique furniture and Oriental rugs, and had windows that looked not onto Second Avenue but far across a rolling expanse of generic countryside. Exploring this two-hundred-year-old house in Connecticut made me almost as happy as I had been in that dream. After walking from room to room for a while, I stood in the yard and tried to imagine myself living here with my little family. I realized that I could. I counted the rooms on my fingers; there seemed to be more than enough. Then I told the real estate agent, "I think I'd like to buy it." Her jaw dropped. This was only the second house she had shown me, and we had spent just a few minutes inside it, and I hadn't asked her anything about (for example) the quality of the local schools — because how could a one-year-old ever become old enough to go to school?

When I took Ann and our daughter to see the house, a few weeks later, I couldn't find it; in fact, I couldn't find the town. And when Ann finally did see the house she didn't like it: the wallpaper depressed her, the kitchen was too dark, and the garage seemed to be on the verge of self-destruction, among other reasons. (Also, our daughter was crying and it was raining.) Nevertheless, that night, after a brief, gloomy discussion in a Burger King in a neighboring town, we decided to look no further. Finding this house had taken me almost an entire morning; what was I supposed to do, rent another car? We moved in a couple of months later, and we've lived here happily ever since — now more than twenty years.

Our decision to proceed was uneducated but not irrational. We had no idea what we needed, so what could we have gained by looking longer? By electing to complete the deal, Ann and I were, in effect, allowing a dilapidated eighteenth-century building and an unknown town to assume partial responsibility for directing the course of the rest of our lives. And that's what's happened. The lawyer who handled the closing and his wife became two of our best friends, and their daughter became one of our daughter's best friends, and their friends became our friends, too, and our friends became theirs, and most of the people we hang around with now are people we met through them, or met through other people whom we had met through them, or met on our own and later introduced to them, and so on. One thing led to another. Our lives brachiated and complexified, as lives always do, so that our accidental network of friendship and acquaintance eventually came to seem far too intricate, convoluted, and inevitable to have been the product of anything but intelligent design.

The house, on the other hand, had all the usual problems. One day, when I was out doing errands, Ann smelled something burning and called the volunteer fire department. When the firemen arrived, one of them opened the basement door and shouted, "It's down here!" Ann's reaction, naturally, was not dismay but relief — the same relief one feels when one's child vomits in the waiting room of the pediatrician: it wasn't a false alarm. The firemen quickly found the smell's source, a smoldering electronic control box connected to the submersible pump in the well that supplied our drinking water.

I had been vaguely aware that we owned a well. I knew, for example, that we had running water and that the water must run from somewhere. I also knew that the purpose of the small, ugly barrel standing in the yard not far from the backdoor was to conceal the uppermost end of the well's pipe-like casing, which protruded about a foot and a half above the lawn. But I had never bothered to wonder how water got from the well into our house, or to consider that anything might ever go wrong with that process, whatever it was. That afternoon, a plumber removed the ugly barrel, opened the top of the casing, and used a contraption that looked like a huge fishing reel to raise the pump from the well's lower reaches, two hundred feet underground. The pump — which was cylindrical, a couple of feet long, and a few inches in diameter — had been zapped by lightning, or, rather, it had been zapped by a subterranean electric current related to a nearby lightning strike, a common problem with submersible well pumps, the plumber told me. Replacing the pump and the controller, and adding a "lightning arrester" to the well, cost roughly a thousand dollars, a sum I soon began to think of, in connection with home-repair disasters, as a "unit." A unit was a depressingly large amount of money to surrender to solve a problem that I hadn't known I needed to worry about, yet a unit, I noticed, seemed to be pretty much the minimum charge for anything that went wrong with a house. If, the day before the well disaster, my closest friend had asked to borrow a thousand dollars to pay for emergency medical care for his child, I would have explained, in desolation, that I just didn't have the money. Yet here I was, giving that same thousand dollars to a plumber. Our house was somehow able to find money we didn't know we had, and suck it from its hiding place before we'd had a chance to recognize it as ours. You buy a house for more than you can afford; then, almost immediately, the house forces you to spend even more money, generally on parts of it you didn't know it had. As my friend Jim, who also owns an old house, told me once, "If I'd known I could afford to spend this much on a house, I'd have bought a nice one to begin with."

Somewhat surprisingly, incidents like this, rather than making me yearn to move back to the city, increased my determination to become a proud, confident homeowner, and inflamed my curiosity about my house and how it worked. I ordered the entire Time-Life series of home-improvement books, and when its successor series came out, a year or two later, I ordered that, too. When tool-bearing men arrived at our house to fix things that had broken, I used their presence as an excuse to stop doing my own work and stand around observing them — self-defeating behavior, since, in truth, I needed to work even harder to earn money to pay them. Under my cheerful supervision they replaced the leaky roof, expanded a cramped screened porch, and remodeled a bedroom. These improvements occurred whenever Ann and I were in funds and couldn't recall what a nuisance the previous round of improvements had been — the same forgetting process that enables parents to have more than one child.

Sometimes, the workmen seemed to enjoy having me around while they measured and hammered and drilled; other times, they didn't. One carpenter devised a passive-aggressive technique for getting rid of me: whenever I asked him a question, he stopped what he was doing, turned to face me, and amiably provided a thorough, thoughtful answer — for which, I finally realized, I was paying him the same frighteningly high hourly rate that I was paying him for his carpentry. After that, I learned to learn mainly by watching. I also began to buy tools of my own. When we lived in New York, I owned a hammer, a couple of screwdrivers, and an electric drill, but I seldom used any of them for any task more complicated than hanging a picture or reattaching a towel rack to the bathroom wall. Now that we lived in the country and didn't have a superintendent, what was stopping me?

The first new power tool I bought was a saw that I ordered over the telephone, after seeing it demonstrated on TV. It was the answer to all my cutting needs, according to the commercial. Its gleaming saber blade could handle the most delicate scrollwork, yet was stout enough to fell young trees. I would never need to buy another saw.

My first doubts arose when the UPS man handed me my purchase: how could a box containing the world's most versatile cutting implement weigh less than a family-size loaf of bread? The blade, buried deep in packing popcorn, turned out to be flimsy, dull, and nearly impossible to attach. When I flicked it with a finger, it twanged. Nevertheless, I hurried to the basement and attacked a large plywood scrap, which the house's previous owner had bequeathed to me. The blade noisily chewed into the wood for a foot or so, throwing inch-long splinters in all directions, before being seized by its own meandering kerf. Then the saw performed a trick that I hadn't seen on television: it used its now immobilized blade to hold the plywood steady while pounding its base plate furiously against the surface. An acrid odor ascended from the motor housing. After five or ten seconds of deafening percussion, I released the trigger. I never used my new saw again.

Later that day, I had my first inkling of a profound truth about power tools: instead of buying a single, inexpensive device that is intended to perform many functions, one should buy a large number of costly devices whose purpose is narrowly defined. In fact, the costlier and narrower the better. I now own several saws, and the price of each was a significant multiple of the price of the first. None of my saws is capable of doing everything, but each can do one thing better than the saw that I bought over the phone.

Of course, mere use isn't the only point of owning a fabulous tool. I love my saws in part because they, unlike the projects that I undertake with them, are beautiful and enduring and brilliantly engineered. As with all good tools, their power lies partly in their promise. Buying them, and proudly exhibiting them on the shelves above my workbench, is itself an act of home improvement.

As the months went by, I found opportunities to attempt small remodeling projects of my own. One of my first successful attempts at actual construction was building an enclosure for the baseboard hot-water radiator near the toilet in our downstairs bathroom. Years of heavy use by the previous occupants had turned the radiator into a sort of low-tech factory for converting splattered urine into odor and rust. (If men did all the world's bathroom-cleaning, they would sit down to pee.) Using discarded boards and some perforated-sheet-metal grillwork, I devised a decent-looking built-in cover, which also served as a shelf for magazines. I cut the joints with a twenty-dollar handyman miter box and backsaw, which I had purchased at my local hardware store. Few of the joints were tight, and none of the corners were perfectly square, but in an old house concepts like plumb and level are relative rather than absolute, and by artfully arranging the magazines on the shelf I could conceal most of the worst flaws. (A few weeks later, I bought an expensive electric miter saw — my favorite power tool ever.)

Results aside, I found wearing a tool belt to be so much more fun than doing my actual job that I began to look for ways to combine the two activities. In 1987, after spending many months dealing with crumbly old plaster walls in our living room, dining room, front hall, and bedrooms, I wrote an (appreciative) essay about Sheetrock, for The Atlantic Monthly. That essay later became part of a book about home improvement, called The Walls Around Us, which was a compendium of slightly more than everything I knew at that time about how a house works.

Researching that book and working on my house taught me two powerful lessons. The first is that the knowledge one gains in undertaking a major home-improvement project is inevitably the knowledge one ought to have had before attempting it in the first place. The second is that a house is far less complicated than the average ignorant homeowner usually assumes. The seldom-seen spaces inside walls, floors, and ceilings aren't filled with circuit boards, laser beams, and liquid helium; for the most part, they contain nothing but insulation, mouse nests, and stale-smelling air. The difficult parts of a house are relatively few and compact, and they fit together in a logical way, and when they malfunction they do so for reasons that can almost always be discovered, understood, and dealt with. Every time I learned something new about my house, my anxiety about it lessened.

Fairly quickly, I became truly adventurous in my renovation efforts — which I began to think of as an exalted, adult form of play. I built a stone wall and rebuilt a patio. I made some bookcases. I tore open a 140-year-old wall, in the dining room; found a 200-year-old wall behind it; took samples of ancient wallpaper, plaster, lath strips, and nails; made a cursory, futile search for clay tobacco pipes, gold coins, and arrowheads; and closed up the wall again. I successfully reproduced some century-and-a-half-old paneling. I helped a friend do a poor job installing Sheetrock in his guestroom. I hung a door — after trimming one side of the door on my new table saw, a very, very bad idea. I replaced a broken light switch, then wired a room. I joined some other volunteers in helping to complete the unfinished new house of a woman whose husband had recently died in a farming accident. I built an entire room on our third floor, and another in our basement. I gave an old wood-burning furnace to some plumbers, who, in return, taught me to join copper pipes — and as soon as I'd gotten the hang of the technique I realized that there wasn't a room in our house which wouldn't be improved by the addition of hot and cold running water (an idea vetoed by Ann).

My deepening immersion in remodeling inspired me to become surprisingly thoughtful on the subject of home improvement. When Ann and I moved into our house, it was still the shell of the previous owners, even though they'd legally signed it over to us and moved to another part of town. The stove, the wallpaper, and the flaking powder-blue toilet seat in the upstairs bathroom were still entirely theirs. So powerful was their presence that for months we felt like intruders — like imposters only pretending to be at home.

Then, gradually, we displaced our predecessors. We patched, we scraped, we painted, we moved things around. We removed their low-hanging chandeliers and replaced them with fixtures that were less likely to crack our foreheads and were also, to some extent, expressions of us, not them. Room by room, we got rid of the sandy, textured finish that they had applied to all the ceilings. Living for an extended period in any house in which someone else used to live is an act of personal superimposition. This is especially true if reciprocating saws are involved, but even physically unchanged parts of our house underwent a transformation. The ugly slate-tile floor in the kitchen — which the previous owners had installed and then, in a masterstroke of poor judgment, coated with polyurethane — stopped seeming like a holdover from the prior regime and began seeming like an unfortunate decorating decision for which we ourselves were somehow solely to blame: time had made it ours.

Shortly after we moved in, we attended a party given by a couple our age who also lived in an old house. They said that fixing up their place had taken six years and that they weren't finished — even though their living room, unlike ours, didn't have bare walls that nobody had gotten around to painting. I scoffed inwardly, figuring that putting Ann's and my transplanted former dormitory into the sort of condition that a self-respecting grown-up's home ought to be in would probably take two or three years, at the most.

Well, it has taken twenty so far, and we aren't finished, and there have been many surprises. When we moved in, we agreed that the first room to be gutted and remodeled would be the upstairs bathroom, which was huge (it had been a bedroom originally) and almost comically unattractive. Back during our house's dormitory days, there had been a walk-in shower and several urinals; those fixtures were long gone, but other horrors had taken their place. The walls were covered with lush floral wallpaper, which had been hung upside down. The floor was covered with light-blue vinyl sheet flooring with a fake-pebble pattern that made people think of The Flintstones. The toilet seat and the tub enclosure were the same pale blue as the floor.

The bathroom was an embarrassment, and Ann and I agreed that it would have to go. But the house knew better than we did. We first began to suspect that we were wrong when we noticed that our daughter liked to play there. The floor on one side of the room was raised about four inches, to accommodate the plumbing, and she liked to walk up and down the small step between the two levels. (Real steps frightened her, but this one she could handle.) She also liked arranging toy animals on the fake pebbles and squeezing herself under the bottom shelf in the closet.

When we saw that the bathroom was temporarily too useful to gut, we began to decorate it. We had an old green couch that didn't go with any of our other furniture, so we moved it in, along with an old sewing-machine table, a rocking chair, a couple of bookcases, and a whatnot that had belonged to one of my grandmothers. On the wall above the couch we hung a large picture of some sheep, and on another wall we hung a small picture of some other sheep. When my parents cleaned out their attic and found an old gilt-framed oil painting of a barefoot peasant girl walking through a mountain pass, they sent it to us and we hung it over the toilet. When the old refrigerator in the third-floor apartment died, I put it next to the sink (after first removing the power cord and the doors). For years, we stored towels, toilet paper, and bath toys on the shelves, and we kept books in the freezer.

On winter evenings, that bathroom was often the warmest room in the house. The windows would steam up, and our dachshund would lean into the blast of the heater and fall asleep standing up. One of us would bathe our daughter, while the other read a magazine on the couch. Occasionally, we stretched bath time from dinner until bed. When we had company, we sometimes served cocktails in the bathroom while our daughter had her bath, so that neither of us would have to miss the party.

If we had had the money at the outset, we would have fully remodeled that bathroom before moving in, and we never would have guessed what we had lost by forgoing an opportunity to store towels and toilet paper in an old refrigerator. Instead, the ugly bathroom survived for fifteen years, until our kids were shower-dependent teens, and it generated many happy memories. Those memories should be considered a joint production of the bathroom and ourselves.

A reporter from USA Today once asked me which remodeling task I had found to be the most difficult. I said, "The last 10 percent of anything I start." I used to feel bad about that, but now I think that it is inevitable, and even desirable. Home improvement is not an onerous chore to be finished once and for all, like paying down a mortgage. It's an ongoing relationship between a dwelling and its dwellers, and when it's done right it doesn't end. My renovation role model (after Don Blanding and Jim Blandings) is Thomas Jefferson, who spent most of his life working on Monticello and felt no overwhelming need to drive the final nail. Jefferson took "a very long time maturing his projects," according to one acquaintance, who also observed (in a diary entry), "Mr. J. has been 27 years engaged in improving the plans, but he has pulled down and built up again so often, that nothing is completed, nor do I think ever will be." Jefferson began the site work for Monticello when he was in his twenties; he was still cooking up ideas for changes and additions when he died, nearly sixty years later.

Truly completing almost any big project is always a little unnerving: it reeks of mortality. As long as I haven't installed the shoe molding under the vanity in the kids' new bathroom, I don't have to step back in final judgment and I can preserve the fantasy that the end result will be the masterpiece that I imagined when the project began. When I look at an unfinished room, I see only its possibilities; once the final coat of paint has dried, though, I begin to brood about shortcomings. It's always better to leave a few ends dangling.

Besides, completion isn't the real goal of home improvement; you might as well yearn to be finished with your life. Ann and I have lived in our impulsively purchased former dormitory for more than two decades, and fixing it up has followed a course that neither of us could have predicted at the outset, when we thought that all we needed was a little less wallpaper, a little more paint, and a significantly less ridiculous bathroom. The fact that we're still at least 10 percent away from being finished is a good sign, not a bad one: it's life-affirming. Every so often, I will run down a mental inventory of projects that I've either not finished or not begun, and feel comforted, rather than dismayed, that there is so much left to do.

Copyright © 2006 by David Owen

Meet the Author

David Owen plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, wore a copper wristband because Steve Ballesteros said so, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent -- just mediocre. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a contributing editor to Golf Digest, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly. His other books include The First National Bank of Dad, The Chosen One, The Making of the Masters, and My Usual Game. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.

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