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My Craft Struggle

When I stand back and look at a finshed product that looks "good" or "right," a product that opens or drives or doesn't fall down or leak or has a rhythm that your foot can't stop tapping to, stand back and not become aware of its structure, I know something deeper is happening than what appears on the surface. The simpler a product seems at first glance, typically, the more complex the underside of that iceberg is. Most people who create understand this. Yet the challenge is everpresent. Why can't I stop eating this twinkie? Where did the last 20 minutes go during Per Norgard's 2nd symphony? Why does this cabinet door open in the summer and the winter year after year? Someone (or some multinational corporation) has set about to put me in this state of compliance. Building a set of doors has, in the larger scheme of things, the same qualifiers that, say, baking a pie does. Does the door open? Does the pie hold together? What does it look like: burnt and slapped together? Will the panels split as the seasons change? When sliced open, does the filling leave the crust like rats from a sinking ship?

The garage doors are large, roughly 4' x 8' - think about that sheet of OSB you've got lingering in your garage and add 80 pounds. The material and structure needed to be robust. The past is resplendent with answers when one looks. Large doors are everywhere. Notice the front of the 19th century cathedral downtown, boy that's a big door. The door has a frame in which panels of some kind probably sit. The panels add some rigidity and help keep the door square, but really, they are not keeping the door from being trampled by ferverant worshipers exiting for sunday brunch. The frame has 2 main components, a verticle piece of wood (stile) and a horizontal piece of wood (rail). I was perenally challenged by this nomenclature early in my career and latched onto thinking about the rail as train track running on the ground, on a horizontal plane. Chew chew chewing along until it hits a stile. Where the rail meets the stile there has to be a way to hold the two together, and I'm sorry, but glue and screws are not going to do it for an exterior 80# door. History tells us that the mortise and tenon joint is one of the strongest devised and the appropriate joinery for these doors. 

I decide to use a mid grade (some small knots) Douglas Fir for the doors. The fir is quite strong, has decent rot resistant qualities and, because we were painting, a reasonable priced choice. I ordered the material from Tree House Hardwoods who in turn called Vermont Wholesale, 5 minutes down the road. VT Whole sale is the supplier to Chittenden counties lumberyards and has the contractors cornered by only dealing with the lumber yards. Everytime a new supplier touches the wood it is marked up. Whatever. I like dealing with TreeHouse as Carl can go head to head with the level of irony and sarcasm needed to deal with most workers in wood. I ordered the material in the 2x10 form as these larger pieces tend to be more stable than the 2x4 variety, which, typically, are bonus cuts from the log. Speaking of, Vt Wholesale gifted me 2 extra 18 foot sticks that were "laying around." Fir bonuses don't happen very often and I was finally getting my own little slice of the CEO dream. 

 

I first met the homeowners in June of 2016. They were about to have a baby in a couple months, I was about to have a baby in a couple months more. This all seemed serindipidous. Our first meeting was to look at the garage and get a basic feel for what the project would entail.

The house was built around 1920 in the Craftsmen style - stucco exterior, a deep porch with tapered columns, a 3 over 1 window arangement, exposed raftertails on, what looks from the ground, to be about a 2 foot eave. I assumed the garage was built around the same time frame based on the framing vintage and the same stucco detail - gritty with a smooth wash coat. The house and garage are on the State Historic register.

The homeowner had pulled a Non-Applicability permit in 2012 to repair the garage "in kind." This "in kind" concept is ripe for interpretation. As it might be possible to find building materials from the 20's and repurpose them, the practicality of such an endevor is somewhat constricing to the average person. The usual miasma of time, budget and availability can make this realistic or unrealistic. Do we really need true 2x4's from the 20's, or is rough saw lumber from a local mill ok? Most of this depends on what you are trying to accomplish and what your budget is. Burlington's Historic Preservation policies are concerned with what people experience within the city, not necissairly what people experience while in the buildings. Zoning and Planning's web site quotes the National Trust for Historic Preservation's former President Richard Moe in saying, "Preservation is in the business of saving irreplaceable places and the quality of life they support." Now, does an antique garage sinking into the ground, in the deep recesses of a city lot support the general public's quality of life? If a garage exists in a forest and no one sees it, does it have value?

 Baby's being born got in the way of the second meeting, so we postponed the projects movement for a few months, then reconviened. I was given historic example of garage doors from the period which the clients liked, then looked to the existing windows. I took measurements of the lite size to use as a reference for the glass in the new door's design. We then looked at hardware options. The clients wanted strap hinges, with a handmade look. We browsed examples from WhiteChapel, Hardwaresource and LeeValley, and discussed some sizing parameters (more on this later). I then came up with a few different designs and a rough budget. The clients approved both, a contract was drawn up and the project moved into the shop for construction. 

 

A Set Of Garage Doors, Pt1

      75’ beyond one of the rare stucco homes in Burlington lay a detached two bay garage - nestled against the back regions of four other city lots, bearing dirty parking strips brimming with out-of-state plates, a decrepit forest of Box Elder, wild Maple and Ash trees, and one other motor house of yesteryear. A tall, flat-sawn treated fence defines the boundary to the North, joining with the remains of a chain-link fence at the eastern corner. 

The treated fence still has the nuclear glow of wood fresh from the chemical vacuum press, looking somewhat less arsenic-laced than its 20th century cousins. Local collegiate artists have marked this boundary with black spray paint  ̶ unintelligible scrawl, a definition of rogue ownership, or a hyperlocalized tweet that has inspired others to like what they have seen by adding their own brackish musings.

What’s left of the chain link has been reclaimed by the earth through years of walk-throughs, initially climbed-over; then, as the fence became lower to the ground, stepped-on and finally, with one last push, crushed into the earth by countless feet.  The homeowner has fought the walk-throughs for years, an evolving process of trial and error. The most recent manifestation is a wall of brush and garbage sitting like a Medieval rampart slowly built up to keep the collegiate trolls and urban campers at bay. The two garages create a narrow corridor between them. This has been filled with jettisoned mattresses, stacked vertically, in a wedge shape. Their quilted faces show interlocking stains, nocturnal mineral pools, wet with rain water, now ripening in the mid-summer heat. One could negotiate this Northeast Passage by squirming through the wedges, but would emerge tattooed in a yeasty musk of dynamic molds and fluids. These improvised fortifications are working and the walk-throughs have been kept at bay.

The garage has long lost its front doors. Are they composting deep in the pile? There are 2 large, framed openings surrounded by deteriorating stucco. The client has already rebuilt the roof framing by replacing or sistering onto rafters with similar rough-sawn pine. The sheathing is also new, shiplap 1x6 pine, rough-sawn. The rafter tails are exposed, meaning the stucco wall runs up between them. A couple of the doorjambs still remain and upon closer inspections, the original hinge mortises are there. This leads to the deduction that the originals probably had strap hinges with mortised pintles. Further deducing suggests that there were four large doors - two openings roughly 8 feet across by 8 feet vertical, bisected in two.

Outside of the front doors, what remains is an open-ended, hipped roof box on a cracked and sloping concrete pad, trying desperately to give in to gravity and return to the earth. There are two windows, boarded over from the inside, on the rear of the garage. To access these from the client’s lot one simple negotiates either the mattresses or the garbage-stick-pike pile. The sashes’ joinery still holds their shape; the mullions are still housed in their mortises. Most of the windows’ glass is long gone in the 8 light arrangements. The ground is littered with broken bits of the glass, as well as a heady crumble of stucco, plastic bags full of dog excrement, aluminum cans, last year’s Box Elder leaf fall, small twigs and sticks, and what looks to be the remains of a toaster still loaded with a semi-edible pop-tart half toasted. Yet, the windows sit simply in their jambs, with square stops holding them fixed in place, a century of use behind them, and a testament to practiced joiner’s work.  There is also a 5 panel human door on the Northern side hanging in its jamb, still swinging open with the right amount of lift and kick.