Friday, October 31, 2008

Block & Tackle & Horseshoe

Continuing my homage to honest labor: Here's to hardware and hard work. There's beauty in good tools, and there's beauty in rough people.

(You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A poem by Terry Adams

Here's a poem by Terry Adams from his book Adam's Ribs. Like me, Terry has combined a life of writing with a life working in the trades. Like me, he recognizes that building a house is only the beginning of a story - or a poem. And yes, though it looks like prose, he calls this a poem:

Last Draft

I wrote a long poem on a kitchen counter made of wood planks in an abandoned cabin in the Southern California high desert. I took all afternoon. I broke my pencils - clogged the ballpoints. The words got smaller as the poem expanded. The sun shines through the roof and the planks are dry and cracking. Sand blows in. Mice shit on the words; pieces of the roof fall in. The cabinets beneath the counter are rotting. There are bullet holes everywhere. The walls are patched with sheetmetal. An old stovepipe rots in a corner, the single bed is rusted springs. The temperature reaches 125 degrees. There are hailstorms, sand storms. Somebody might pry the boards up and stick them under a truck wheel stuck in the sand outside. Maybe a lonesome drunk will vomit on it, maybe light a fire on it, stand on it trying to hang himself. Somebody will make love on it, or climb on it to get away from a snake. I was trying to evoke the free soul of the place - desecration, and sacrament - what it is like to love someone whose love is a damaged thing.

I was trying to write about whoever built the place, and everyone who has taken something or broken something in there. The cabin might be 20 years, or 90 years old. It is leaning and it will collapse soon - it is surrounded by black mining equipment, cracked retorts, shattered barrels, twisted wire fences. An old truck body. Piles of mine tailings.

This is in a canyon off Highway 168 on what is sometimes called Death Valley Road, sometimes Waucoba Saline Rd. If you go there, and you can read what I said, please contact me. Most of what I write is laying around someplace on a piece of paper. Sometimes I have this feeling I do not want to be left alone with what I write - or I want to forget it - I did not want to forget what I wrote there, but I did. I kept at it all day. It might be 1000 words. My feet got tired. My hand cramped. I didn't edit anything, and I felt driven, and free. I felt heard. Please find me. Call me.


In my novel Clear Heart I write about how each house is the beginning of a story, how each tradesman leaves a piece of himself there. We leave pencil scratchings measuring rafters, the mill face of a hammer on a top plate, sweaty handprints on the back of drywall. We also leave a style, a quality of workmanship that either gives the house its endurance or plants the seeds of its destruction - sometimes we don't know which. And I write about how the story continues as each subsequent owner adds a new chapter. In this case, Terry inscribed a poem into a ghost house, adding to the ongoing story, and then forgetting what he wrote. I hope somebody calls him, tells him. I sometimes wish some of the houses I've worked on could call me, tell me how they're holding up.

I asked Terry if the poem is true, and he responded that it was: "About six years ago, on the trip home from Saline Valley, we (two couples) stopped by that old way-abandoned house and I felt moved to write something on the kitchen counter, which was raw boards, but very clean - like someone had used it for something recently. You can actually see the place on Google Satellite. Take 395 south to Big Pine, turn East on 168, then south on Wacouba- Saline Rd. - somewhere along there - maybe 30 - 50 miles from Big Pine. I think I stopped there to take the chains off my van after the long wet climb out of Saline Valley.

"For me the poem is partly about a left-over pioneer spirit - or the remnant of that spirit. I actually wrote my email address, and maybe my phone # - but no one ever contacted me. The abandoned cabin is about half-way between Big Pine and Saline Valley - the route is all primitive dirt road - the valley road is 90 miles long.

"I am hoping to go back there - maybe in April. You have to go in either October or April. Other months it is either too hot, or the high passes are subject to being snowed-in. We were almost snowed-in on that trip. Saline Valley is a clothing optional wonderful semi-secret wild hot spring area, kept up by die-hards, miners, and hippies, over many years. Every once in a while the Shoshone try to take it back and make people put clothes on. Death Valley National Park annexed it about 14 years ago, but thankfully the Feds have left it alone, except for posting "Clothing Optional" signs so wayward tourists are fore-warned. There is a volunteer care-taker named "Lizard Lee" who lives there year-round. The Feds gave him a radio and a 4x4 confiscated in a drug raid somewhere, and let him be the local 'Ranger.'

"There are several other semi-abandoned primitive houses/ranches/structures/ all over that area - really neat to see. Some are apparently used intermittently. Once we came upon a small private plane parked on a straight stretch of the road. The pilot gave my friend a ride in exchange for having the Springs pointed out to him. There is a primitive air strip near the springs.

"The place is so vacant-seeming, and so wild, but there is a persistent semi-wild human aura. Charles Manson used to hang out there."

The poem is copyright © 2008 by Terry Adams, used here by the author's permission.

Clamps, old and new

That clamp on the left is marked PHOENIX HDW CO. As near as I can determine, the Phoenix Hardware Company went bankrupt somewhere between 1912 and 1918, and it never arose from the ashes. In spite of their problems, they must have made a decent clamp.

You can see the oil on the threads. Ken is a careful steward of his tools. A good clamp deserves good maintenance, simple as it is.

(You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cable and bolts

When I found these bent bolts in Ken Laundry's barn, I laughed with recognition. Back home in my garage, I had a couple of similar items. In my case, I was trying to pull my neighbor's house back onto the center of its foundation after an earthquake. It was an emergency; I was desperate; the ground was still shaking with aftershocks. Roads were closed; power was out; you made do with whatever you had. I was using a two-ton come-along attached by steel cable to eye bolts. The house, it seems, weighed more than two tons. Much more. I ended up with a mangled come-along and some strangely shaped eye bolts, which I kept for a long time in my garage.

Apparently, Ken tried something similar involving turnbuckles, bolts, and cable to move an outrageously heavy object. And if you're a practical man, you hate to throw things away. So you hang the cable back up in the barn. You save the turnbuckle and bolts because they might still be useful some day. You never know when a bent bolt might come in handy.

As for my neighbor's house, that rainy night in 1989 just after the World Series earthquake: Before the come-along got twisted and stripped, it managed to budge the house just enough to save it.

(You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Latch and groove

There’s beauty in old hardware, and there’s beauty in hard work. I’m going to stop trying to rationalize my fetishes and simply state them as fact. There’s beauty in good tools; there’s beauty in rough people.

I’m going to post a photo each day for a while. The unity, I suppose, will be what I stated as the original theme of this blog: The heart of a carpenter. The tools, the sawdust, the traces of ourselves we leave behind.

I’ll continue to update about the usual subjects as well.

(You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Starting at the Bottom

When we think of carpenters, we think of hammers. Nails. Sawdust. But on a construction site, what surprises beginning carpenters is how little time they spend actually working with wood. Especially when you're the new guy, you get all the non-wood jobs, starting with some of the tools in this photo. You swing a pick. You dig. You move a pile of gravel or muck around in concrete. You might use the pry bar, the ax, the bolt-cutter. This is where most structures begin.

That pry bar, by the way, is one of Ken's favorite tools. He calls it a "pinch bar." I think he likes the way you can work it under something - like a wall, say - and jiggle something massive, with fingertip control (if you have strong fingers, carpenter's fingers), placing that wall or log or boulder precisely where you want it. Where it will stay. For centuries.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ken: Saws

How many saws does one man need?

If you've spent nearly a century working with wood, the answer is: Quite a few. In Ken's work shop, he keeps 11 handsaws in easy reach:There's at least one crosscut, rip, all-purpose, hack, fine-blade, coarse-blade, and bow saw plus a back saw that is nearly hidden. Then he needs a table saw and a variety blades:In the barn he keeps a buck saw (along with horse bridles, though he no longer keeps horses):another bow saw (along with a child's sled and some insulators):and spare blades (each blade having a different purpose):He has a couple of two-man saws:and a couple of spare blades. Of the two blades shown above, the deeper, rounder blade in back is for cross-cutting (the extra thickness makes it stiffer, less likely to bend) and the front blade is for tree-felling (less depth makes it easier to insert wedges behind the blade to prevent binding). Both blades are hybrids of peg-and-raker teeth (the single-point teeth in pairs or sets of four) and M teeth (the double-pointed teeth):There's a fascinating comparison of the two types of sawteeth (fascinating, I suppose, to a select few of us) at this Forest Service website.

Then finally, Ken has chainsaws. Somehow I failed to get a photo of one. Maybe next year.

After some 30 years in the construction trades, my body's worn out. Just looking at Ken's saw collection makes my vertebrae twinge and my shoulders ache. Yet, he started helping his dad in the lumber business at age 7 and retired, sort of, from most carpentry a couple of years ago at age 92. That's a working life of 85 years. And just this year, when a tree fell on a neighbor's property, who's the first person she called? Yep. Ken Laundry:

Friday, October 24, 2008


Last night at Moon News Bookstore I read two poems and a song. Here is one of the poems:

March 4, 2006

I am in bed around midnight when the doctor
calls. She says my brother
is in the emergency room with high blood
sugar, dehydration, a possible stroke.
She wants guidelines.

My brother is sixty-four years old.
He has dementia.
He cannot feed himself or control
his bodily functions or, most days, talk.
Or even smile.
He lights up when he sees me -
you can sense it in his eyes.

As a child I chased
after him on a tricycle.
He taught me baseball,
rebellion, girls. Taught me to drive
our old Studebaker. Sent me
letters from California until
at last I followed, too.
Now he leads
on this new path.

"No heroic measures. Do not resuscitate."
“Okay,” the doctor says, "what about a feeding tube?"

When the heart stops, it is as if the
body has decided to die.
But if the body cannot swallow?
He slowly starves.

To the black bedroom a soft light comes
through the window from somewhere.
Rain is dripping.
Dogs are sleeping on the floor -
one with a gentle snore.
I am naked under flannel sheets.
My wife, head propped on hand, lies on her side, watching.
In that quiet night with a phone to my ear
I am an incompetent god,
but the only one on call.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I'll be making an appearance Thursday, October 23 at the Moon News Bookstore in Half Moon Bay, California, USA, planet Earth. They have an open mic which is always an interesting mix of readers from raw beginner to smooth professional. I've appeared there several times for the 10 minutes of fame. It starts at 7:30 p.m.

Meaningless link.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Motor oil as a wood preservative

My question about the use of motor oil as a wood preservative has been answered by the honorable Stephen A. Shepherd, who is a walking encyclopedia of historical woodworking practices. He is unable to post comments on my blog because, apparently, Google requires that comments be posted by people who have accepted the twenty-first century. :-) In an email, though, Stephen tells me: "I have heard of using motor oil, it is cheaper than watco or orange oil and about the same thing. I have also heard that it causes the wood to deteriorate, as I have experienced looking at old benches in metal working shops. That is why I don't use mineral oil, it is a laxative and I am a regular guy anyway. I would stay away from motor oil for wood, petroleum distillates and wood don't go good together, both aesthetically and chemically."

Thank you, Stephen. For more of his wisdom, visit his Full Chisel Blog.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ken: Workmanship

If you look at the pages of a magazine such as Adirondack Life, you’ll see (as in these first two photos) that the rustic Adirondack style has been put on steroids and elevated to either high kitsch or high art, depending on your point of view.

The real deal is what Ken has been building all his life. It’s not an affectation with him. It's rustic, and it's Adirondack, but it's not a style. It’s how he’s made do with what was available, cheaply, creating rough and rugged beauty.

In the case of the boathouse, it buckled at one corner. Over the years the logs had softened until the notches no longer could resist the outward force of a roof covered with snow.

In fairness to Ken, he knew of the potential problem and swept the roof clean of snow until he became too old for the job. He also tied the opposing sides of the building together with a heavy chain every winter to brace them. In recent years, nobody swept the roof and nobody set the chains as winter approached. And the wall started to buckle. I’ve repaired it by building an inside brace out of 2x8’s and bolting them to the logs, making use of Ken’s jacks, my favorite tools, to lift the corner while I braced it.

Ken's a hammer and nail guy.
You rarely see anything bolted, screwed, or glued that he built.
I’m the opposite, rarely using nails when there’s an alternative, but I can’t argue with his results. What Ken makes, stays. I wish I could say the same for everything I’ve built.
You'll find Ken's work all around Silver Lake, from a stair rail to a split rail fence.
I’m still learning from Ken. This summer when I was photographing his work shop, I noticed two jugs, side by side. One was marked "Linseed Oil" and one was marked "#10"
Later, when it was too late to ask him about it, I learned that Ken sometimes used motor oil as a wood preservative instead of linseed oil. When he built this cabin 40 or 50 years ago, he used motor oil on the cedar shingle siding, and it still looks okay:Next summer, I hope to ask him why he did that.

Does anybody know anything about the practice of using motor oil as a wood preservative? Is it a bad idea?

Update:  My question about motor oil has been answered at this link.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ken Laundry: Craft

Ken is a hero to me. I deeply respect the man and his work. I’ve learned many lessons from him, beginning with the coffee cans that I mentioned in an earlier post.

He’s a difficult man to work with. You do it his way or you’re wrong. And even if you do it his way, you won’t do it as well as he thinks you should have. I’ve heard him berating people who with all good intentions were just trying to help. I once offered to help him install a dock. Though he respects me and the skills that I have, he smiled and shook his head and said, “No thanks, I want to stay friends with you.”

So is he a meticulous perfectionist? No. Are his projects precious works of art? No. Does he have a unique method, a signature style? No, and no. But these are the wrong questions. Does he build to last? Yes. Has he survived over 90 years in a hardscrabble corner of the mountains, weathering the Great Depression and raising two fine boys while building what needed to be built for whatever meager budget was available, making the best of it, earning the respect of everyone he’s ever worked for? Yes. Absolutely.

I read many woodworking blogs. They inspire and instruct me with photos of wonderful carvings, inlaid patterns, perfect dovetails, handmade tools. But they rarely talk about the meat-and-potatoes of carpentry: Get it done. On time. On budget. In a workmanlike manner that won’t fall apart. Which is what Ken has been doing for nearly a century.

Check out the dock he wouldn’t let me help him with. It wouldn’t be boastful to say I could build one just as good. Possibly better. But he wouldn’t let me help because, for example, if you don’t tighten the bolts enough, they’ll slip, and if you tighten the bolts too much, you’ll strip the threads. How can he be sure they’re tightened just right unless he does it himself? And Ken wants it right. He builds to last. You’ve seen it in his barn.

Now, here’s a cabin he built about 1940:
It’s still sound. I sleep in it every summer. We replaced the roof shingles a couple of years ago. I’ve repaired the foundation, which is simply cedar posts on flat rocks:
When I began the repair, I was amazed that he’d built a cabin on flat rocks that lay on top of the ground. I thought you were supposed to dig a hole below frost line (which is about 60 inches here) to prevent frost heave. Ken patiently informed me that for the time and money available, a flat rock was the way to go. He built that cabin 7 years before I was born. Now I’m 61, and the cabin still stands. The cedar posts were rotting at the bottom; the cabin was out of level. But now I’ve fixed those little problems, and maybe the fix will be good for another 68 years of Adirondack freeze and thaw.

Here’s Ken’s toolbox:No dovetail joinery here. Wood scraps, probably recycled, joined by nails. And here are the tools he carries in that box:Nothing fancy or top-of-the-line. Here’s a house Ken built:And here’s a boathouse he rebuilt when the original was in a state of collapse (and he rebuilt it, of course, with logs he’d salvaged from somebody’s old barn):Here’s a corner of that boathouse:

It’s possibly the most beautiful building Ken ever made, and there was a flaw in how he made it. But this blog entry is getting too long, so I’ll continue later.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why Self-Publish?

Thirty years ago I wrote a novel called Famous Potatoes. No big publisher would touch it (“too quirky”), so I self-published. By doing it myself, I got to choose the design and layout and general “feel” of the book. And I got to include illustrations, which no big publisher would have allowed.

I must have done something right. Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte saw the book while it was still in galleys and bought the rights. They kept the illustrations and general feel of the book - after all, that’s why they bought it - and then they designed a new book jacket while staying true to the spirit of the novel.

I got a savage review in the New York Times. My wife printed some quotes on a T shirt: “Stupefying dullness and improbability” on the front, “Mawkish” on the back. I wore it with pride. Loathed by Manhattan, I got a reputation as an “underground” writer.

Famous Potatoes was translated into seven languages. It went out of print 25 years ago, but I kept getting letters. With the advent of the internet, I started getting e-mails. They’re still coming, not just from the USA but also from Germany, Australia, Japan, France, Israel, Great Britain, South Africa, and lately from Italy. They usually say something like “I found Famous Potatoes on a bookshelf in some dusty hut in Guatemala when I was hitchhiking to Tierra del Fuego, and I just wanted to tell you how much I liked it.” They never say they bought the book; it seems people passed it hand-to-hand. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t make much money from it.

Now an Italian publisher wants to reissue Famose Patate in Italy and wants me to promote it in conjunction with the Piacenza Blues Festival - which I’ve never heard of, but it sounds like fun. Folks, I never get invited to anything. Well, okay, once, ten years ago I got invited to accept an award and give a speech in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But Italy! I’m thrilled!

In a few weeks, I’ll self-publish Clear Heart. Again, no big publisher would touch it (“too quirky”). No illustrations with this one - I couldn’t afford them - but I like the look and feel of the book so far. Maybe the podcast of Clear Heart is the illustration. I still have an offbeat audience, so I still don’t expect good treatment from the New York Times. Another T shirt, perhaps. But maybe, thirty years from now - should I live so long - just maybe, somebody will invite me to a do-wop festival in China.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ken Laundry: Jacks

Tucked away in one corner of Ken’s workshop/hen house behind a bag of cement are my favorite tools: Ken’s jacks. Every year when I go to the Adirondacks I borrow several of those funky little powerhouses because my idea of a sweet summer vacation is to lift up old buildings and repair their foundations. Okay, I warned you I had strange passions.

In my novel Clear Heart I have characters repeat the question, “Can you lift a house?” It’s both a metaphor and a gag, and the proper answer is, “Nail by forkin’ nail.” But with Ken’s jacks, I regularly lift entire buildings, corner by forkin’ corner.

Their beauty is in their humble power. This pair of bottle jacks, the least powerful in Ken’s collection, can each lift 1 1/4 tons for a rise of 8 inches.

A bottle jack operates by inserting a steel bar into one of the upper holes and screwing the top part upward while the base remains in place. Here’s one with the threads showing:

It can lift 2 1/2 tons 14 inches. The writing on this jack says “Dumsey Co Seneca Falls NY.” A google search for “Dumsey Seneca Falls” turns up not one single hit - well, maybe now it will hit this page. From the name Dumsey Company, can anybody suggest an age for this jack?

The masterpiece in Ken’s jack collection, the one he speaks of with fondness and pride, is what he calls a “railroad jack.” He says it comes from an old iron mine nearby, the one where Ken’s grandfather worked as a powderman. (A powderman was the guy who drilled holes in rocks, stuffed the holes with black powder, and lit the fuse. As a result of his occupation, Ken’s grandfather developed a healthy respect for mortality - and accidents - and was one of the few people of that time to buy insurance, including house insurance. When he left a pipe laying on the armrest of a chair, and his house burned down, Ken’s grandfather saw an opportunity. He used the insurance settlement, $450, to pay half the purchase price of 108 acres on Silver Lake, where Ken lives today.)

The railroad jack can lift a freight car. It can, in fact, lift 35 tons. It’s a piece of history and a piece of Ken’s family. The writing on it says “AO NORTON INC BOSTON MASS PATENTED AUG 27 1918.” Since Ken’s grandfather bought the farm before 1900, I’m not sure how the jack came into their possession, but I do know that both Ken and his grandfather were constant scavengers. It was a survival skill.

I never weighed that railroad jack, but I can tell you that I always used two hands and good back mechanics when I carried it. To Ken, it’s a piece of family history. To me, it’s a thing of beauty. And it’s nice to know that tucked away in a corner of your workshop, should you ever need it, you have the ability to lift a railroad car. Or a house.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ken Laundry: Old Hardware, Strange Passion

We all have our secret passions. I’ll admit to a few, Dr. Freud. Please, Doc, tell me what they mean.

I love old hardware. Not the ornamental stuff, but the plain old get-the-job-done type of hardware. I love this latch:
I don’t know how old it is, but the door to which it is attached is part of a barn that was built around 1880 using material salvaged from an even older barn. The latch looks hand-forged, and perhaps the U-bolt was, too. I’m sure the U-bolt and latch were created at different times and only later united for the purpose of holding the barn door shut. No lock, of course. It was simply a cow barn. The wood is the original old cedar, recycled from the older barn. The webbing was added as weather-stripping at some point a long time ago. The nails are round, not square-cut antique. Nothing precious, nothing pretty. But Doc, I feel strangely happy looking at that picture.

Likewise, for me gazing at the following picture has an effect like chanting Ommm...
It’s another door, same barn. The cedar was painted white sometime before 1935, sometime later than 1880. The wood was milled using a great big circular saw in somebody’s ancient sawmill leaving those large-diameter kerf marks. The remains of the original latch are visible, a raggedy square of leather. The hook latch must have been added later, though long enough ago that it has worn a groove in the wood as the door swung open and closed. The mold speaks of freeze-thaw cycles and of warm moist animal-heated air seeping through the cracks to the frigid outdoors. Near the latch the paint has worn off and the wood has worn smooth from the friction of fingers, of white-breath mornings and pink sunset evenings tending to cows day after day, year after year, decade after decade. I swear, Doc, it gives me goose bumps.

Here’s another latch, and like the first, this one employs a bolt:
It also employs a chain. Have I mentioned that I love old chains?
And all forms of old hooks and clasps?

Ken thought I was nuts to be wandering around his barn taking all these photos. So I guess you could say that Ken has already psychoanalyzed me. We’re still friends, anyway.
Oh darn, our time is up. In the next post, Doc, I’ll confess to another, perhaps even stranger, passion.

[You can click on any of the images to see a larger view.]