Sippican Cottage

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

Water Tables and Other Discontents

So when we first moved to western Maine, things were different and strange. The people who lived here thought I was different and strange. I thought they were different and strange. I’ve been here a while, now. I’m no longer different, just strange. They’re no longer strange, just different.

I went to the lumber yard. I know my way around a lumber yard, there’s no terrors for me in there. It frightens folks accustomed to Home Depot, where you’re more competent about what’s on the shelves than the clerks. Regler people go into a lumber yard and there’s just a battered formica counter with a husky fellow glaring at you from behind it who say, “What do you want?” You have to tell them. You can’t point like an infant to stuff on the wall. All the good stuff is out back stacked in barns. You’re not getting out there until you buy something. It’s just you and the dude. So you open negotiations. You start out in a convivial mode, something small. You say you want a 2 x 4. I can’t get in any trouble with that, can I? Then they shoot back, “Stud length?”, and you’re asea all of a sudden with your decks awash. They have their own lingo, basted in a lumberyard patois, and you’re a stranger in there.

I’m a stranger in there for other reasons. I’m this weird out-of-towner who bought a house no local would touch with a ten foot pole, which by the way they have in the back, two dollars a foot. So I go in there, and start asking for things, and strike out for entirely different reasons.

“I need some cedar clapboards.”

Blank stare.

“Um six inchers if possible, but I’ll take eights if that’s all you have.”

Blank stare. Then:

“You want a what now?”

“Cedar clapboard. You know, bevel siding.”

“You mean vinyl siding?”

I may have said, “Sir, I would rather be pulled apart by horses and have my entrails barbecued in front of me while I watched than put vinyl siding on my house.” Or I might have said “No.” I can’t remember, it was years ago.

“Oh, do you mean pine siding?”

“You have clapboards made out of pine?”

“Sure. How many do you want?”

“Well, I want those, only made out of cedar.”

“I’ve heard of that, I think, but I’ve never seen one. Maybe the boss knows how to order them.”

“Never mind. Give me the pine. I’ll get used to it.”

Cedar clapboards were a fundamental building block of my existence for half my life. I might be able to calculate how many miles of them I’ve nailed onto houses, but I’m lazy and have a headache. It is however, impossible to determine how many miles of them I’ve painted, until quantum computing comes online. Let’s call it a lot, and move on.

But time and distance are real things, and need to be accommodated. They don’t do that around here. I’ve learned all sorts of stuff about my new home, a lot of it from my new home, as it were. Pine clapboards are awful. They’re full of knots that need to be sealed, they’re twisty and too soft to suit me. I could have gotten in high dudgeon about climbing down from tradition, at least until I saw the price. They cost about a quarter of what cedar claps would. I would have embraced the clerk like a brother, but for the intervening counter. I’ll take a bunch, and cut out the worst knots. Maybe I belong around here after all.

So we have to put the fabric of the house in order, too, not just jack it up like a Chevy with a flat. Let’s see what’s what.

You heave up the forty-foot ladder and get your face right in it. There’s a temporary patch I put in on day one to keep the largest animals out of the attic. Now we have to really fix the eave and wall where holes in the roof had done their work for somewhere between 25 and 50 years.

That’s some funky framing, y’all. That’s what’s called dry rot. Dry rot happens when wood gets wet, over and over. Don’t ask me, I didn’t name it. The bluish stuff you see is blown-in insulation. The denizens of our dojo weren’t entirely daft over the decades. Back maybe 50-60 years ago, some fairly competent workers drilled myriad holes in the house, blew in insulation in a lot of the house, and covered up the holes fairly well. Back in the day they used to remove lengths of clapboard and drill holes only through the sheathing to do their work, and then replace the clapboard. Nowadays they mostly drill through everything and plug the hole with what looks like a wooden cork, and your house gets acne.

If you’ve ever heard a spray foam insulation sales pitch, the first thing out of their mouths is that blown in insulation settles, so put in foam. Hmm. Enough water has sluiced through the giant hole in the roof to make a 2×4 stud completely disappear (look at the slot next to the other rotten stud), but the insulation is still standing there.

There are generally two kinds of loose insulation: cellulose or rock wool. Cellulose is just shredded newspaper treated with borates to make it flame retardant and make bugs avoid it. Rock wool is spun from mining slag. It’s basically fluffy rocks. It can’t burn and bugs hate it too. I couldn’t tell just by looking at it which kind it was. It tasted like rock wool. Don’t ask me how I know that.

At any rate, we patched up the framing and skinned over the eave and wove in some fascia and clapboards, and it didn’t look half bad. More like 75 percent bad. But it’s three storeys up and the squirrels are the only ones who will see it up close.

Then we came down low and put tar paper, claps, and trim over the sheathing. When we first moved here, a neighbor, who no doubt thought we were strange, was removing all their vinyl windows and replacing them with vinyl windows. You read that right. Some people just like talking to salesmen, as Kevin Spacey once said. They asked us if we’d like the old ones, because they were just going to the dump. We took them all, and fixed the hinky balances and so forth. We opened up 11 boarded up windows and put the freebies in the holes. There’s one now:

Around the driveway side, we had a different problem.

That’s a little shed someone made along the way by enclosing the posts that held up the porches on the second and third floors. Then they dumped soil against it and paved the slope down to the back of the house.

We can’t get rid of it, fix it properly, or live with it. You know, like Congress. So we did something funky. We jacked it up, which was easy because it didn’t weigh much, put in new footings, patched the posts, excavated a slot next to the wall, slipped in some pressure treated studs and plywood, and concrete board, then stuccoed it. It’s not the Taj Mahal. It’s not even the Garage Mahal, but it will last until I’m dead and can let someone else worry about this dump instead.

A long time ago, I was supervising the construction of a fast food restaurant. There was a meeting in a trailer-office with various project managers and site supervisors and customers and assorted dirty men. The town the restaurant was being built in was twee, and the restaurant plans were most decidedly not. The town took the plans and got out the red pencil and added various colonial, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and any other old-timey gimcrack they could think of, and wanted it pasted all over the building. The customer’s project manager was looking the plans over, trying to see what it would all cost, and asked, “What’s that thing called, at the bottom of the wall, above the foundation?” Everyone in the trailer tied their shoes, or looked at their watch, or scratched themselves, and generally did anything except answer the question. Finally, I said, It’s a water table.”

There was a pause, and then they all burst out laughing. They didn’t know anything, but they knew it couldn’t be called that, and I must be an idiot to think so. I’m sure they’re still telling the story of that guy who thinks that, you know, thing, down at the bottom of the wall, above the foundation, is called a water table.


I don’t buy ink by the barrel, but I have an inexhaustible supply of pixels, so I’d just like to say, to an audience that spans continents, that it’s a water table, you giggling imbeciles.

[Tune in tomorrow to see me settle old scores and do some more work on the house. And tell an intertunnel friend about Sippican Cottage]

5 Responses

  1. Man that’s beautiful but SO MUCH WORK
    Glad one of us can get our home projects done
    You must buy Aleve by the barrel
    Left Coast Dave

  2. We bought an old farmhouse in the Heart of the Hive™ of Mpls way back when, which had been built in 1901. It’s our belief that it had been built with rough-cut lumber from the site, a quarter-section piece of farmland that probably had some good trees on it. According to the deed the land got sold off in chunks right up until the city platted that area, and then it was a standard-size city lot. Balloon-framed two-story it would have gone up in a heartbeat if it ever caught on fire. A some point they had lifted it up and put a half-poured, half-block foundation under it, and then put in utilities. You know, city stuff like water, sewer and natural gas. No electricity then; we found the old gas pipes for lanterns in the walls.

    When a hailstorm machine-gunned our roof we found out that we had 3 layers up there including the original cedar shakes. The roof “trusses” (hah!) were genuine 2″ x 4″ lumber, and baking in the attic had left them hard as cement. The original roof boards were variable-width rough-sawn boards from 6″ to 18″ wide, sometimes on the same board, many with bark still on the edges. When the roof was off you could stand on the ground and look right up into the sky through the gaps, which our roofer told us was to allow the shakes to breathe rather than rot. Yeah, with a 12/12 pitch roof two stories off the ground I wasn’t going to do this myself.

    We had ’em put new OSB (that’s small pieces of scrap wood with a huge amount of glue) over the existing roof boards, then put down the tar paper. We had two (count ’em, 2) layers of ice-dam material over the first six feet of roof up from the edge since out wall/ceiling/roof interface wasn’t too well sealed, and then had shingles put on.

    With all of that up there, that roof may leave if a tornado strikes, but it’s going as a single piece that’ll come down somewhere, prompting awe and wonder.

    I could talk about chasing galvanized plumbing gremlins through the house until we could finally afford to rip it all out and have a “do over” with copper, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

    Thanks for the entertainment and for prompting some memories.

  3. Hi Dave- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I appreciate the compliment, and I hate disagreeing with the customers, but it ain’t beautiful. However, it is presentable, and will mostly only rarely collapse, I’ll wager. I’ll call it a win. Tune in for another couple of days to see how it looks when it’s finished.

    Hi Blackwing- Thanks for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment. We’re apparently brothers from another mother, architecture-wise. All 100 years of roofing was still on my roof, too. It was as thick as an old mattress in some places. To get a glimpse of our roof, you can refer toRoofing; My Ass

  4. Oh, gosh, that roofing story from 2011 triggered a whole pile of memories. Mostly about the house my parents bought when I was 11 years old, built in 1919, uninsulated, which had never been heated during a Minnesnowta winter. 3 stories tall, with a tuck-under garage on one side making it a 4-story drop from the roof. The couple that stand out are:

    – My brother and me strapping a TV antenna onto the chimney in the middle of winter.
    – Me up on an extension ladder chiseling away at an ice dam, my older brother and dad down below keeping the ladder from sliding off the gutter until I could chisel a pair of grooves for it to land in.
    – Up in the attic with a busted ski, in the dark because the single 5 watt light bulb got busted, swatting 17.8 million bats and shoveling the corpses out of the attic hatch to the trash barrel below.

    I’m guessing that would qualify as child abuse these days, back then it was “earning our keep”.

  5. Hi Blackwing-

    You know, the weather in Minnesota is a lot like what it’s like here in western Maine. There’s a patch of far northern Minnie that’s even colder than where we live, although it’s about the same as the farthest northern reaches of Maine.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

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