Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

North American Termite Map Is the Name of My Bellamy Brothers Tribute Band

I once tried to make a joke about my house. It’s an old joke we reserved for particularly rundown properties we were renovating back in the day. I said, “It’s not a house, it’s a million termites holding hands.” If you’re working with the kind of person who’s used to pooping in a porta-pottie, it will pass as a joke, anyway. I live in western Maine now, and instead of a snicker, I got corrected. I was informed that there are no termites here. This was news to me.

That’s right, I’ve moved so far north that all the termites froze to death. I checked a North American termite map to be sure. Interestingly, North American Termite Map is the name of my Bellamy Brothers tribute band. But I digress.

So we don’t have termites, just the occasional bear in the back yard. But carpenter ants are a hardier sort of animal. They set up shop in the beam over the big barn door opening, and got jiggy wid it. If you spot carpenter ant infestations, it’s usually too late to save what they’re gnawing at. They gobble up the insides of things, but leave a thin wall of wood between them and the outside to fool the unwary.

The carpenter ants were all as dead as the termites, and for the same reason I imagine. It occasionally reaches twenty below zero Fahrenheit around here, and that takes care of lots of pests, and cuts down on door-to-door salesmen, too. But the ants did plenty of damage before they moved to Florida, just like vinyl siding salesmen do, and the beams would have to be replaced.

I’d already purchased as much lumber as I could afford. The magic money tree in the back yard also can’t stand subzero temperatures, and was permanently out of order. Instead of selling a kidney to buy more lumber, I decided to try my hand at box beams. Besides, the last time I tried to sell a kidney at the hospital, they objected because I brought in a bag with thirteen of them at the same time. This elicited more questions than I care to answer about my affairs.

Back on topic, what are box beams, you ask?

If you watch Better Homes Than Yours, or anything else on H&G TV, or search the intertunnels, this is what you’ll be told:

A Wood Box Beam (sometimes called a faux beam) is a non-structural 2, 3, or 4-sided hollow beam meant to look like a solid beam

Well, at my house, that sort of thing is always called a fake beam. We don’t dignify it with French adjectives either, although we might call it merde, but that’s a noun. No, a true box beam is an interesting structural assembly made from wood, that can take the place of big framing components like door headers, while using less material. It’s made like this:

I’ll link to the document I found for box beam construction. It has span charts and so forth. Those are important, or would be, except they’re all in millimeters and hectares and hogsheads and rods and whatever else they use in the antipodes. But knock yourself out if you speak soccer measurements.

The fellows who built our house over a century ago loved box beams. The entire wraparound front porch roof is supported on box beams atop columns, including a nifty curved section. They didn’t have plywood, so they used regular pine boards and framing lumber. But these box beams never bowed a fraction of an inch, even with some serious snow loads on them. The porch foundation collapsed of course, but the box beams rode untroubled on their shabby underpinnings. We’ll fix that side of the house later.

So let’s build some box beams.

We have some 1 x 8s we were going to use to beef up the floor. Some of the floor would have to make do with less beefing up than a can of Dinty Moore, but c’est la vie. I laid it out it out with a hot pink speed square, either because I’m a very exciting person, or it was the only one they had at the store.

Oh boy, we have plenty of little blocks. We did this whole job, and many others, and never had a dumpster.

We make a sandwich:

We lay it on its side, and glue the bejeezus out of it:

Then we nail it like crazy, because we have a nail gun. If we had to pound all the nails by hand, I’d still be down there.

Et voila, a box beam in place:

I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t deflect at all under what is a pretty substantial load, but it didn’t need to be perfect. If I had let all the glue set properly before I installed it then it probably wouldn’t have deflected at all. It hasn’t moved any more in ten years, so I’m calling it a win and turning off the outfield lights.

So once again, with our two box beams in place, I made the same mistake I always do. I started feeling pretty good about the project. Just then, a strange face peeked around the corner. It was a normal sort of male human face, I meant no insult. But where I live, any face is an unusual face. We exchanged hullos, and there was an awkward silence. Then he announced he was the code enforcement officer for the town. Code enforcement is code for: building inspector these days.

This surprised me about the same as if he announced he’d just returned from a flying saucer ride with a bigfoot at the controls. If memory serves, that is the plot of Star Wars, but that’s not what I mean. I had no idea that the town had any sort of formal building department, or anyone to lord over it. Our town has been like musical chairs led by an arsonist since the 1970s. A handful of people would leave town, arsonists would burn down a couple of houses, and we all kept going around in smaller and smaller circles. There hasn’t been a building permit issued in this town since Jimmy Carter started banging nails on Habitat houses instead of banging on the economy like a cathode ray TV set with the horizontal hold on the fritz. What could this guy possibly want with me?

“Did you pull a building permit for this project?”

“Er, no. I didn’t know we had a building department.”

“Well, we do. I’m it.”

“I’m doing all the work myself. We’re not changing the house’s footprint or adding on anything, or hiring any contractors. I didn’t know you needed a permit to fix your own house.”

“Well, that’s generally true. But when I can see your building project from the highway by the river, or from a low flying plane, you need one.”

“How much is it?”

“Thirty-five bucks.”

“I’ll go down to town hall this afternoon and get one.”

“Great. I’ll be there. Say, what are you doing here?”

So I took him on a tour of the project. I showed him how the screw jacks worked, and how we were going to beef up the framing, and explained how the box beams were constructed, and where we were going to restore the foundation. He seemed quite interested. Then he left.

I went down to the town hall after lunch, and there he was behind the counter. I handed him the moolah, and he handed me the usual cardboard placard. I know how these things go, so I asked him how I should contact him for a final inspection, and if he wanted to perform any incremental inspections, like the foundation or framing or whatever.

“Oh, I’m not qualified to inspect your work. I barely understand what you’re doing. You can inspect it yourself when you’re done.”

Man, I love Maine sometimes.

[We’ll slip a foundation under this mess soon. Tune in tomorrow. And tell a friend that Sippican Cottage is back.]

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