Sunday, May 8, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 128: The Half-Washer Solution

Monday, May 8, 2000

It's one of those folding-down-from-the-ceiling attic ladders.  I've installed several of these over the years.  I buy the most heavy duty model I can find and yet they're always rickety - not when you install them, but as they are used over time.  This one I installed about two years ago, and already it's falling apart.  Like the house that surrounds it.

The house is much older than the ladder.  When Bill and Doris bought it, they consulted with a local contractor who advised them to blow it up with dynamite. 

They chose to keep it.  They developed a deep and abiding hatred for the San Mateo County Building Department and tried to avoid permits whenever possible.  When I came on the scene a few years later, their house became a source of steady (non-permit) work.  I had a hand in many repairs, several improvements.  We became friends, fellow poets, fellow parents - three children for each of us.  I remember encountering Doris in the grocery store when she had seven gallons of milk in her cart.  "Seven gallons for seven days," she said.  And then Bill died, much too young.

Bill was a nuclear physicist.  Like most good scientists, Bill was playful.  And like a good scientist, Bill accepted that projects don't always have the intended outcomes.  He looked for solutions that were simple, elegant, and cheap.  Usually, you can have two out of three.  Usually, elegance is the missing element.  Like the radiator hose he once used as a sink drain. 

When I originally installed the ladder, I shaved one leg slightly shorter than the other because floor and ceiling were not parallel - a normal condition in that house.  Now I see that the differing leg lengths had the unintended outcome of causing the ladder to sag to one side when someone's body weight was near the middle, at the point of maximum stress.

The ladder needs an adjustment because one of the metal joints has bent from the strain.  There's a gap between wood and metal.  The solution is to add a metal washer to a quarter-inch bolt - no, wait, the wood is twisted…  Okay, the solution - after some work with a hack saw - is to add one half of an extra-wide metal washer, like half a flattened donut, held in place with epoxy.  The donut-washer will act as a shim. 

Next problem: a C clamp squeezes the half-washer out.  Next adjustment: I wrap the assembly in blue painter's tape to hold the washer in place until the epoxy is hard.

Removing the tape, the half-washer and epoxy don't even show.  The ladder feels solid again.

You won't find this solution in any repair manual.  Simple, elegant, cheap.  With bonus points for being creative.

We all do it: cope, patch, invent.  Sometimes this work feels like play.

Somewhere in heaven, I imagine Bill is watching, approving, smiling down at me.

(There's more about Bill Ash here and here.)

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