Renovate This!

(Excerpt from ‘The Marcy Street Irregulars and Other Fables’, my upcoming collection of life and mishaps in a small town)

June is Brain Injury Awareness Month, also known around our house as the month my wife proves to the world that yes, in fact I was dropped on my head as a baby.

Two Junes ago she convinced me that I should help coach LilBear’s softball team, or at least give him a few pointers. I ended up as the manager of a group of early hormonal hellions who preferred to fill each other’s water bottles with sand to learning the finer points of bunting.

Last Spring she convinced me to help her in ‘re-designing’ the flower beds, complete with my ‘If I can’t eat it, why grow it?’ attitude. By the end of the summer we had what looked surprisingly like Kudzu overtaking the front porch and a rather bald tulip patch out back (“The mower is possessed dear, I SWEAR IT!”).

This Spring I hoped, silly me, that with The Junior General much more ambulatory, I would be spared domestic torture in favour of taking said son to the park or the beach.

Silly me indeed! About the beginning of May my wife started delving deep into the Home Hardware catalog and muttering mysteriously under her breath about ’tile versus laminate’. All was explained in the latter days of May when out of the blue she announced we were heading to the Home Hardware store in Gorrie (I KID YOU NOT that is THE name of the place!) to have a look at laminate flooring.

Several hours later we returned home, proud parents of 7 bouncing bundles of North Wales Slate laminate (Berry Floors no less, with the 25 year guarantee) and one large roll of what looked like a new heat shield for the shuttle. My wife also ordered a new, matching countertop.

My wife was way ahead of me this time, sending me the URL of an excellent video on installing Berry Floors (she said), which she requested I watch PRIOR to unbundling the laminate.

Perhaps a little background is in order. At one time in my life I was considered a fairly decent handyman, having renovated a couple of houses, framed numerous bedrooms, bathrooms, rec rooms and basements, as well as roofing houses and even pouring the odd load of concrete.

But that was some time back, say 10 BG (Before Geek). Since then I have aciduously avoided home repairs, skillfuly deferring projects ‘to a later date’, losing the appropriate tool at an inconvenient time (usually about 5 minutes after the hardware store closes), or making sure I was absent at some mission critical appointment. This is not because I don’t like doing renovations, no not at all. In fact I quite like the satisfactions of standing back and viewing my handiwork at the end of the day. Unlike geek work you can see your progress, whether it is a cabinet, bathroom plastering jobs or a set of stairs that no longer squeek when I head for the fridge at 2 a.m.

The fact of the matter is that for whatever reasons, since 0.001 AG (After Geek) EVERY reno project I have been involved with has resulted in at least one injury, somewhere between minor and life-threatening along with copious amounts of anatomically impossible verbiage.

At first it was the usual hammer compression injuries (thumbs, fingers and once my right foot when I foolishly tried to balance a 2×4 fireblock with my foot while nailing it in a frame wall). Later came the sneaky injuries, like the time my skill saw jumped when it hit a nail in a sheet of plywood and left my right thumb hanging by a thread of skin. So far I have only required a few trips to the local Emergency but after while it does tend to prey on your mind.

So you can see why I was less than keen to tackle a laminate floor. Granted there were no nail guns involved (I love click and fit laminate by the way – Bravo to Belgium!) but from the beginning I had a certain sense of unease. The first few rows went slowly, until frustration set in and a tamping block was liberally applied to offending pieces. After that we covered the rest of the floor in a few hours. So far so good…

The real problems began as we started the tricky fittings around our living room doorway. Being from the late teens or early 1920’s the doorway was a strapping 36 inches wide with a rather heavy French door that liked to swing closed when left unattended. In order to fit the pieces you needed to almost stand on your head while cocking a foot towards the couch to keep Monsieur Door at bay. Add to this that my wife was cutting the underlay back as we worked towards the wall.

Looking up from her work my wife commented that the underlay was rather tough to cut in this one section. Even with my back turned I had a crawly feeling in my stomach.

Looking cautiously over my shoulder I could just see a bit of Cat 5 cable peeking out from under the underlay not a foot from my wife. To her credit my wife had stopped cutting and was carefully peeling back the underlay to reveal a clean 4 inch cut in my network cable.

“Is this cable live?”, she asked.

“Not anymore”, I replied as I slipped the wounded cable over a nail near the ceiling. As my only 50 foot Cat 5 cable it would require some delicate surgery later or else I would be offline for a few days.

We continued, my Father In Law smirking to himself from the corner of the room.

At the far side of the doorway some previous owner had drilled a hole in the door casing and run a telephone cable along the baseboard to the telephone jack about a foot away near the fridge. I had previously replaced the jack and made a mental note to replace the entire cable at a later date. At the time this particular telephone jack had served a secondary phone in the kitchen. Later on I had upgraded our network and this jack now serviced the ADSL link and wireless router for the house (hence my Cat 5 cable in the general vicinity).

Reaching this side of the doorway my wife worked up against the wall, contorting as she attempted to fit in an exceptionally tight piece of laminate. Near her foot dangled the telephone line, waving perilously close to her foot. Standing up triumphantly my wife turned to pick up another piece of laminate.

Behind her there was a small poofy click, like the sound of a muted telegraph key. I had heard that before somewhere.

My wife looked behind her.

Then down at her foot.

Then at the bedraggled telephone cable projecting out behind her shoe.

I looked at the ceiling and picked up the phone.

It was dead.

I made another mental note to replace the telephone cable.

The remainder of the job went relatively smoothly, even if I did cut through my wife’s wash stand with the jigsaw (Hey it was dark on the back deck at 11:30 pm!) and I actually felt a sense of proud relief when we were able to step back at midnight to view our new slate floor.

The next day the countertop arrived.

Confidently I hauled it into the kitchen and began to disassemble the ancient sculptured faux marble counter that had done yeoman service since probably about 1968.

Somewhere I am sure there must be a museum for tacky 1960’s moulded Formica countertops. If you know of one please let me know before the dew in the back grass turns the particle board to mush.

My wife asked me several times if I was ok working by myself, before leaving to pickup The Junior General from school.

I nodded confidently and hitched up my tool belt. I knew that after 40 years there would be little other than the splash moulding holding this sucker in place. Turning off the water and unhooking the plumbing I reefed up on the countertop. With a pleasing rrrrip and plop sound it came free and as a unit lifted nicely off the cabinets, revealing two long lost slide out cutting boards and a dead beetle that had obviously been a bit slow when the old countertop had been installed.

Calling to LilBear we hefted the countertop out the back door and tossed it on the lawn.

As with most of the cabinetry in this house, it was obvious that nails and screws were much cheaper in years gone by. I swear sometimes whole rooms are held together simply by the number of Ardox in the wall.

The counter was no exception.

Oddly enough one end of the counter was festooned with a plethora of 2 inch Robertson screws (the business end standing up like punji sticks of course) while the other only had a couple at the front and one at the back. Grabbing the Makita out of my tool belt I removed the screws, tossing them into my toolbox for later use. Quickly I was down to the lone screw at the back of the cabinet.

Here Murphy’s Law kicked in.

Each time I tried to back off the screw it would go about a quarter inch then stop, spinning wildly in its hole but going no farther. After a few minutes of this madness I reached into my tool belt for plan B – the 16 ounce hammer. Since I wanted to save the screw for later use I decided not to hammer the sucker down the hole, instead opting to use the head of the hammer like a pry bar to put pressure on the screw while I unscrewed it.

Stupid I know, but effective – on occasion.

At first it worked – sort of.

Then the screw stuck again.

I pried harder.

With a pleasing groan the screw began to back out of the hole.

Then the hammer slipped and my hand slid across the previously revealed cutting board at an alarming rate, knuckles down. A searing pain through my last three fingers indicated that I had missed a screw, this time in the dead centre of the cutting board. And if the pain in my knuckles was not evidence enough the case was made complete by a fine spray of blood that shot over my shoulder and onto the new countertop.

Howling in pain I dropped the hammer.

Luckly it did not land on the new laminate floor.

Unluckily it landed on my left foot.

Howling and hopping about the kitchen I invoked the names of at least 10 Apostles in a less than spiritual manner.

Meanwhile LittleBear had headed out to the front porch to continue prepping his papers for delivery. One look through the screen door at me hopping about with a fine jet of blood squirting about the room and he headed straight for the medicine cabinet upstairs.

Smart boy that – or perhaps it was just experience.

To make a long story short I spent the next three days with large amounts of gauze swaddling my pinky. The nail, sadly, was ripped out of the finger at the base so other than looking like a fine bit of black marble it will surely be replaced by natural healing over the next few weeks. The gashes on my middle and third finger were not as severe and already I can see new pink skin forming about the puckering wounds.

But every cloud has a silver lining.

One of my unfavourite jobs is cutting the hole for a new sink, especially in a pristine countertop.

It is not difficult but I sweat buckets fearing that when I insert the new sink the drain will be woefully off line, or worse that I will cut into a framing member in the cabinet below.

Luckily I have a Mister Fixit neighbour, who upon looking at my bloody fingers, promptly grabbed the jigsaw and in a few minutes had created a perfectly aligned new home for MissusBear’s sparkling chrome sink (with the high necked faucet she always wanted).

Yesterday I replaced the telephone cable in the basement.

(Update… it has been more than 10 years since I ‘tried’ to install the countertop. LittleBear is now a registered nurse – probably all the practice he had around the house, my sainted Father In Law has passed on – miss him dearly, and to this day MissusBear has not asked me to tackle another renovation project. Come to think of it, it has been years since a major ‘industrial accident’ around our place…)

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