The remains of the project

This week, Jon’s been hiking somewhere, and George put in a few half days doing some little stuff. He sealed the backsplash, put a second coat of sealer on the floor, installed oak trim around the hearth, and did some cleanup.

Jon’ll be back on the job on Monday. I leave tomorrow for another week in North Carolina, and I hope that when I get back, the place will be, as Jon promises, unrecognizable.

The big things that remain are to install the hardwood flooring in the music room, sand and refinish the hardwood in the dining room, tile the entry way, and install baseboards in all of the above. Jon ought to be able to get a big jump on these while I’m gone.

There’s also a jillion little things. Here’s another of those “Honey-Do” lists, this time written by me and Jon, for Jon and George. George has already knocked some of his off.


  • install glass in cabinets
  • seal backsplash
  • outlet plates
  • outlet plate for junction box at old subpanel
  • run speaker cables from living room to music and dining rooms (which will involve running conduit outside the house under the part of the living room that’s cantilevered over my carport, into the crawlspace, and up through the floors)
  • finish outlets including switch in upstairs bedroom that’s wired backwards (or screwed in upside-down, whichever)
  • clean back deck
  • rest of handles
  • trim around hearth, under sill
  • install knife racks (I had an 18″ rack and a 12″ rack, and we decided two 18″ racks would look better, so I had to order a second rack–it has just arrived)
  • dining, music room ceiling lights
  • trim piece at threshold
  • phone jack
  • pot rack
  • glass shelves–>bar
  • finish ceiling @ hood
  • paint
  • seal floor 2d coat


  • hardwood
  • tile
  • scribe
  • dishwasher door squeak
  • get a shelf for under lazy susan garbage?

A kitchen is born

Last week, Jon and George got my kitchen working at last. George finished up the undercabinet light valances, most of the other misc. bits of trim, outlets, and switches, and Jon hooked up my faucets, disposal, drains, dishwasher, and refrigerator. On Friday, the two last big things remained: the range and the hood. These were big in more ways than one.

First, the range presented a surprise. Oakland code requires that gas hookups be made in an adjacent cabinet, so that you can switch off the gas without pulling out the range. Wolf design requires that gas hookups be made behind the range. So Jon had to replumb the gas line–argh!

Next, the range is huge and heavy. It has legs in front but giant casters in the back, so that somewhat normal humans can move the thing, but it’s 36″ wide (just under a meter) and therefore had to enter the kitchen sideways. That meant that Jon and George had to roll it as close as possible on a dolly, then ease it onto cardboard sheets, then sort of slide it over the cardboard sheets until it was far enough in that they could finish the job on the rear casters. It’s a good thing it didn’t have to go very far.

The hood presented some challenges of its own. I’ll spare you the details of how complicated it was to install the inner duct into the ceiling duct inside the chimney while attached to the fan-and-damper mechanism and while attached to the underside of the hood (the part you see when gazing up into it while cooking), because I’m only vaguely aware of all the little gotchas, but it involved lots of things that all had to be done first, so that what they ended up with was a large, clumsy, intricate contraption that one person had to raise up into the ceiling ductwork while the other tried to find access to the screws that would secure them.

I stayed in my office most of the time.

The hood is supposed to extend to 30-36″ (just under a meter) from the cooking surface, and it was right at 30″. The problem is that 30″ off the stovetop (even given my higher-than-usual 37″ counter and stove height) is about 6″ below the top of my head. We all agreed that it was way too low–it looked monstrous, dominated the line of sight, and was perfectly positioned to do skull damage to anyone of Vangian height.

Jon and George suggested taking out the 12″ chimney section and hang it directly from the ceiling, at 42″.

I called Vent-A-Hood and explained my predicament to their rep. He said that, especially over a grill, it really did need to be in that 30-36″ range for a 100% capture of all the smoke, vapor, and grease. He suggested that I could order a custom-fabricated shorter chimney extension, but he didn’t know how much that would cost (presumably a lot more than the $280 standard 12″er) and did know it would be at least 6-8 weeks to get it. I asked how bad he really thought it would be to move it up to 42″. He said that, off the record, he thought it would be fine, so I gave Jon and George the go-ahead to take out the chimney section.

An hour or so later, it was done. I wish I had pictures of George holding the whole thing from below, both arms overhead, looking a lot like Atlas, while Jon maneuvered around him to screw the thing into the ceiling, but I’m pretty sure they both would have killed me if I’d gotten out my camera at that moment. Instead I took a turn at holding one side of the hood so George could shake some circulation back into one arm. About the time I should have moved to the other side, Jon had finished up overhead, and George dropped his arms in relief.

At this point, Jon had to rush off–he was already late getting home to leave on a week’s vacation hiking in the Sierras–and while George did some clean-up, I made my first meal in the kitchen. I was rushing off to an emergency opera gig–my friend Alicia had gotten flu, so I was sight-reading Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in Walnut Creek–so I didn’t have time for much, but I did get out a skillet, some butter, and some eggs, and I made me and George the best darned plates of scrambled eggs I’ve had in a long time.

I spent most of last weekend moving into the kitchen. Only one size of drawer/door handles had arrived in time to be installed last week, so most of my doors and drawers have blue masking tape handles for now, but the kitchen was fully functional at last.

In a later post, I’ll wax ecstatic about how nice it is to cook in this gorgeous kitchen. For now, I leave it to your imagination. Place yourself in these pictures:

Moved in!

Let’s cut to the chase

I love my contractor.

I almost can’t believe Jon’s fastidiousness. It has really come out in his tilework for the backsplash. Every time he comes to an outlet or switch, he makes incredibly fussy, perfect cuts around it, even though the edges of the tiling will be covered by plates. Each time the backsplash turns a corner, he does beautiful mitred cuts to match the tile edges up, and then he picks up the pattern on the new plane by repeating the fractional tiles at the edge of the previous plane. Look at pictures to see what I mean: whatever part of the diamond is on the left, he repeats on the right, so that each corner has perfect symmetry. He also lays the pattern out such that it’s perfectly centered on whatever is logically the centerpoint of the wall. See the picture over the sink: there is a column of whole tiles perfectly centered in the frame created by the cabinetry, and the pattern goes out from that center.

Yesterday I came home from work to find that he’d almost finished the backsplash along the back (sink) wall. He had one tile with a curved corner cut-out to wrap around the higher bar-top, and the margin between the tile and the granite was maybe half again bigger than the usual grout margin. He said to me, “I might have cut that one corner a little wide. It’s a little bit too far off the granite. I’ll redo that if you want me to.”

He was right about it being a smidgin too wide, but in the context–a backsplash tile that is under a cabinet and will probably be blocked from view by a telephone or something in real life–it didn’t seem like a problem. I said, “I’ll leave it up to you to decide, Jon; I’m okay with it either way.”

He walked in, looked at it one more time, and said, “Aaagghh–it’s too wide. I’m going to fix it!” With that, he ripped the offending tile off the wall and scraped off the thinset. The man is fussier than I am!

The last activity yesterday was for George to put the first layer of lacquer on the kitchen floor. I’ve chosen a lacquer called “Wet Look,” which gives the richest, brightest, shiniest color, to maximize the color and texture of the slate. The floor looks amazing.

I came home today to find Jon’s beautiful, completed backsplash, with all but the newest section grouted. The intricacy of it is already a thing of beauty, but I can’t wait to see it fully grouted and lacquered. See it yourself in the:

Newest pictures!

Almost there!

Old pictures

Two and a half months


Preparing for chaos

Demolition and chaos

One month in

Still later

Two months in


George has installed about half of the switches and outlets and the rest of the light valances are now in place. A few more scribe bits need to go in around the edges, and the glass (now resting in the living room) needs to be put in, and then the cabinets will be done, except for the handles, which should come in Thursday or Friday.

George is off tomorrow, but Russell is coming in, and Jon plans for them to get the big old hood installed, along with the range, refrigerator, faucets, and if time the dishwasher. His goal is to have the kitchen functional before he leaves for a week hiking in the Sierras. It’s hard to believe that by this weekend I might actually be moving back into the kitchen. What a luxury to have a full, functioning kitchen again after all this time!

I wonder if I’ll remember how to buy normal groceries?

Cutting to that promised chase, my point is this: I am fortunate indeed. Most people hate their contractors by this time. I was a little worried that I would, too–at the very least, I worried that I would be at wit’s end handling delays and stupid little mixups. I worried more about how I would deal with Jon if he did something awful or seemed to be cheating me in some way. I did not want to have to yell at a friend or, even worse, start playing legal games (which is part of why I went to the trouble of having my lawyer friends next door vet the contract).

Jon himself warned me that by this point in the project I would be so sick of seeing him, his mess, and all the delays that I would want to strangle him, and he would probably want to strangle me. I’m a project manager. I know that he was right: odds were that we’d be good and sick of each other by now. But the truth is, his work is so good, meticulous, and tasteful, I just want to hug him most days. Several times we’ve sat down with a glass of wine at the end of the day and enjoyed a good talk about music, or life, or whatever. He’s a total sweetheart, he’s doing a beautiful job, and I’m a ridiculously lucky remodeling client and friend.


David, my violinist, has been incredibly patient about this whole ordeal. (Doesn’t everybody have a violinist?) (Just kidding. He’s my housemate who plays violin, and he’s the cats’ beloved uncle.) He has some of the same incentive I do–that we’ll have an amazing kitchen (and dining room and music room) when it’s all done–but as my tenant, he shouldn’t really have to put up with this kind of crap. He pays rent for a livable living space, and that’s not exactly what it’s been around here lately. Before the work started, we agreed on a reduction in rent to acknowledge his higher costs for eating out, buying ready-to-eat groceries, and so on, but still, it’s a pain, and he’s been a saint about it.

Recently, though, David commented that it’s been getting harder. He’d expected it to get easier as we start to see it looking more like a kitchen, but he’s found that it just gets harder.

I, on the other hand, am finding that it’s getting easier as the end draws nearer. I suppose it’s partly because now I can see that it will end some day–see it, not just know it–and partly because it’s exciting to see how beautifully it’s all turning out.

I think I’m also getting more used to camping in the house, and I’ve drastically lowered my culinary expectations for the time being. My main gourmet effort these days is to make many, many pots of coffee for Jon, George, and me. I eat lots of salads (assembled in the loo-kitchenette) and cold leftover grilled meats, and on weekends for a special treat I scramble eggs on the campstove. I’ve gotten in a habit of hard-boiling a batch of eggs for the rest of the week’s breakfasts, and lunches I just sort of scrounge from cheese, cold-cuts, and so on. If I do eat out or pick up take-out, I make sure to order too much food so that I’ll have leftovers, and believe me, that’s pretty exciting.

The real difference, though, might be alcohol.

I remember an episode of M*A*S*H whose conceit was that a MovieTone News reporter was filming a slice of life at the 4077th. He asked Hawkeye (or was it the Padre?) whether the MASHers drank too much. The response was something like, “You should be asking, do we drink enough?” His quip makes sense to me now.

As I wrote a while back, my colleague Katrina in Boston suggested that I should infuse vodka with some of those berries.

(Raspberries? blackberries? Turns out there’s a zillion indistinguishable [to me] species of the genus whateverus, and while mine look more like raspberries than many of the other choices, supposedly raspberries don’t grow in this half of the country. I’m ready to throw in the towel. I’m calling them Montclairberries until somebody else figures it out. Calling all botanists!)

After a few weeks, I had a rich, dark purplish stuff that I strained off into a different bottle and threw in the freezer. So now it’s a hard purple slush, and every so often I urge a few inches of it into a glass and enjoy some kind of Montclairberry Cosmo Slurpee which tastes so good I then have to urge a few more inches of it into my glass…

And when you’re “cooking” in a half bathroom and salads with leftover grilled meat or reheated Thai are fine dining, you need a glass of wine, that’s all there is to it. When I bought the plastic-jug vodka to make the Montclairberry stuff, a new brand of… wait for it… wine in a box caught my eye, and I thought, “Why not?” It seemed about right–camping wine for camping cooking in my construction zone. I’m eating weird things off paper plates, when I’m lucky. This is a time for alcohol on tap, not wine snobbery. I bought three boxes–a Black Box Chardonnay, a Black Box Merlot, and a Handy (white box) Shiraz. I put the Chardonnay in the fridge, and the other two I put upstairs on my bathroom counter. I know–wine ten feet from my bed doesn’t sound like such a healthy thing, but this is temporarily The Apartment.

It’s not bad stuff. Really, it’s not.

So last week, after David and I had been commiserating about the situation, I pointed out to him that he wasn’t drinking enough. With that, I drew him a glass of box wine, and we toasted the much-awaited day that we have a real kitchen again.

As for the rest of you, you really ought to plan a visit to come taste Frozen Montclairberry Cosmos soon, while the bottle lasts. Bring take-out for extra credit.

Granite and ranges and tiles, oh my!

Jon was right when he said things would start seeming fast–they sure have. I’ve been a bad blogger again/still, so I have some catching up to do.

Wednesday two of the Granite Guys came back to finish up the granite work, cutting out the bar sink, drilling faucet, airgap, and soap dispenser holes, fitting the other slabs, fitting the window sill, and gluing all of them down. Jon, meanwhile, was scraping, sanding, and staining the side pieces of the wooden fireplace frame, since the granite would be placed right over the top of them, replacing the front wooden pieces but not completely covering the messed-up side pieces. (This is too hard to explain without a martini and a lot more effort, so just look closely at the before and after pictures if you really care.)

Speaking of pictures…

New pictures!

Two and a half months

Old pictures


Preparing for chaos

Demolition and chaos

One month in

Still later

Two months in


A few hours later, while Granite Guys were getting started on the fireplace, Delivery Guys rolled up in an eighteen-wheeler to deliver the range, hood, and microwave. Of course, I couldn’t be happy with a range normal humans could lift; I had to get the massive 36″ Wolf complete with grill, which weighs approximately a gazillion pounds (about a jillion kilos, for my European readership) and is awkward as hell. Somehow, through, three guys and a handtruck had rolled that sucker down the street and up my steep driveway and humped it up twenty-five steps and around four corners to my frontdoor. It wasn’t as awkward a shape as the massive fridge Jon and Manuel had struggled with several months ago, and they’d removed every last removable part to get the weight down, but we were still impressed at how handily Delivery Guys handled it. A dozen trips later, they’d also carried up the massive hood, the little teeny microwave, and all the miscellaneous range parts they’d set aside.

In a few more hours, Granite Guys finished up with the fireplace, and Jon sent them on their way. While they were clumping down the front stairs, though, I thought to double-check that the cover for the natural gas log starter valve doohickey (just look at the pictures, please) would fit in the hole they’d drilled in the hearth, and it didn’t. I suppose it wouldn’t be tragic just to leave that doohickey out of the picture, but Gjetost enjoys lifting it with her little paws and tossing it around. Jon called Granite Guy the Blonder back up. He said he’d already his largest hole-saw drill bit, but after about 15 minutes of going at it from slightly different crooked angles, he’d managed to widen it just enough to get the doohickey to fit. I’m sure Gjetost will appreciate it. The fireplace looks spectacular in granite–a tremendous improvement over the icky 1970s tile that seemed to cry out for avocado appliances and a harvest gold Princess telephone.

George didn’t come in at all Wednesday; his car had crapped out despite the measures taken Tuesday. It turned out to be recall work, no charge. He hadn’t gotten the recall notices, since he’s moved too much. Having lived at five addresses in the last ten years (and eight home phone numbers in the last eleven), I know how that feels. There are still some orchestras sending W-2 forms to my previous address in San Francisco. I bought this project (I mean house) five years ago!

Meanwhile Wednesday, Jon finished up the kitchen floor tilework and a few other odds and ends.

Thursday I worked at the office, so I can’t do blow-by-blow, but when I got home, I found a painted kitchen, a grouted floor, and some wicked impressive tile-cuts.

Oh, yes: grout. Remember my mentioning the countless details that I wouldn’t have even thought of, much less gotten right? On Wednesday, Jon had brought in some grout color samples to look at, and he was recommending that we go with a dark, muddyish green. At first I was appalled. I figure the goal for grout is that it disappear in neutralness, providing just enough border to neutralize color changes from tile to tile but not to call any attention to its own color. Green grout, even the muddyish green of the sample, seemed way too colorful. I thought we should do a dark grey, like the one I’d used upstairs between the Indian Peacock slate tiles. But when we put the grout-color sample stick thingy between a couple of the Brazilian slate tiles, I could see what Jon meant: in this context, that muddy green is what disappeared. The grey I would have chosen was way too bright and colorful. I went with Jon’s advice.

I was both pleased and chagrined to find upon my return home Thursday night that Jon was right. The muddy green looks great–it disappears and becomes the greyesque noncolor I wanted. Actual grey wouldn’t have worked. It’s really annoying, though, that Jon is right so often.

About those tilecuts: Slate tile is stone. You can only cut it with a diamond-blade in a wetsaw and a lot of patience. These suckers look like table-saws with big old cutting wheels. They’re no jigsaw. So if you need weird-shaped cuts, you’ve got some figuring to do. I’ve done it, to get those funny little cutouts to go around toilets and faucets and so forth, and it ain’t easy. So imagine my delight at getting to watch Jon figure out how to cut beautiful arcs to go around the curved base under the curved corner shelves. Basically you have to cut out the rough shape as well as you can, and then make little radial cuts to the edge as well as you can, break off the little chunklets, and then sort of rub the edge against the spinning blade to smooth it out as well as you can. Pain in the neck!

So Jon did several of those, and I was pretty much ready to bow down as it was. Then I come home last night and find a little stack of tiles that have rectangular cut-outs to go around the outlets, and I’m done for. I have no idea how he could fiddle around to get those right and not wanted to slash his wrists or at least mine. Look closely at those pictures of the backsplash, folks. There’s some might impressive saw-work. Oh, and you can’t see it, but where the tiles meet at the corners, he’s mitred them, freehand, just holding the tiles at the right angle to the blade. He eye-balled bloody mitre-cuts! I can’t do a decent mitre cut on a wooden baseboard with a mitre box! This man knows what he’s doing.

Today, Jon did the backsplash behind the bar and along the pantry wall. Look closely at those pictures; he came up with a clever way to create a border where the backsplash stops (and figured out a priori where to stop the backsplash).

Meanwhile George installed under-cabinet lights, then put in little baseboards behind the refrigerator, dishwasher, and range. Next he started putting in the light valances (the trim bits that go under the cabinets to cover the under-cabinet lights). They’re installed at a little gap from the doors for a cool floating effect.

Jon had an odd idea to install the upper trim bits (essentially these act like baseboards between the cabinets and ceiling) at a similar gap from the ceiling as from the tops of the doors for a subtle but nifty effect where all the upper cabinets seem to float near the ceiling instead of looking attached, instead of installing them flush against the ceiling, which is more normal. It’s a funky little detail that I wouldn’t have thought of or expected to like, and Kyla (his wife, who was over to do some computer stuff with me) didn’t like it, but when we looked at it both ways, I decided to go for it. I got up on the step ladder and held the trim bits each way for Jon to look at from a distance, too, and he also preferred the gappy way. So, gaps it is. You’ll have to wait a few days to see the pictures of that, because by now it was quitting time, and here I am at 8:30 finishing up on the blog and getting ready to take some reheated leftover takeout Thai up to the apartment.

Negative delay

Project managers usually keep track of pessimistic things like delay, critical paths, and occasionally in an optimistic (usually fleeting) moment might contemplate “slack,” which is how much freedom a given task has to start early or late without affecting the overall outcome of the project. Something so rare that its name is stupid actually happened to the kitchen project today: negative delay. Negative delay is when something fails so badly to be late that it happens early.

(Which reminds me of a witty violist’s comment that our particularly bad conductor was so confused he was liable to start telling us we were rushing too slow and dragging too fast. [Yes, there are some witty violists. At least two, maybe three. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.])

Yes, that’s right, something started early.

Granite Guys were supposed to come tomorrow (Wednesday), as were Range Delivery Guys, which as it was already had Jon and George hustling yesterday (Monday) to prep the way, but they had a cancellation, so they were coming this morning at 9:30. George and I learned this at 9, when we returned from dropping George’s ailing car at the garage down the hill. George and Jon then whipped into a flurry of activity to clear the decks for Granite Guys. I tried to help, but after hauling some cardboard down to the recycling bin, it became clear to me that the best way to help was to get out of the way and go back in my office to work.

Granite Guys didn’t actually show up until noon. Were they lost? Doing some emergency quick installation somewhere? Taking a long morning coffee break? Who knows. We don’t ask these things.

Anyway, once Granite Guys set to work hauling obscenely heavy slabs of granite (so heavy that the bar-top, which is not glued down yet, feels glued down) up the stairs and fitting them into place, George took up a position at the diamond wetsaw outside, cutting 16 inch slate tiles into quarters and diagonally-cut half quarters (for the backsplash), Jon ran off to buy the under-cabinet flourescent lights, and I ordered pizza and got back to work at my day job as a project manager. At 1:30, George, Jon, Tara (George’s Airedale), and I took our pizza break. By 4pm, Granite Guys (three Romanian boys who barely looked old enough to drive the truck, much less do a multi-thousand-dollar granite installation) had put all the kitchen slabs in place, done the cutout for the kitchen sink, and glued those two slabs down. The bar, sill, and other slabs are just sitting in position. Tomorrow they’re coming back around 9am (“Or later. Depends,” said Blonde Granite Guy) to do the bar sink cutout, fit the sill slab cutout, glue everything down, and then affix the fireplace slabs. It turns out there’s enough to do the hearth and face (yay!).

Petty little yucky picky picky picky problems

My friend Deirdre once described a list of “petty little yucky picky picky picky problems” she’d gotten back from French localizers, and the phrase promptly entered my repertoire.

Last week we dealt with several of them, most notably with phone lines.

There was a phone line in my kitchen’s ceiling, and it had an amateurish-looking splice job about in the middle of the ceiling: a black electrical-tape job that was yet another of myriad bush-league details Jon et al. have uncovered since starting the job. Black-tape splice jobs are not looked upon with favor by phone guys. George had to add another splice when rewiring the phone jack over the bar, and this he did with Scotch caps, which it turns out are also not looked upon with favor by phone guys.

Enter phone static on Sunday.

Why Sunday? When nothing new was happening? Who knows. But on Sunday I started hearing all kinds of static on my phone line. It got bad enough that it completely disrupted a meeting I was having while working from home on Monday, so I put in a problem ticket with Comcast. Thursday afternoon, Comcast Guy (Brian) came out to look at the problem. Long, long, long, expensive (three hours of labor!) short, there was some kind of problem in the hunk of wiring in the kitchen. Who knows which splice is to blame, or maybe a rat got industrious somewhere between the kitchen and my office, but the solution Jon came up with was to chop that hunk out of the loop, send a new feed to my office (which in turn feeds the upstairs jacks), and try again on the kitchen jack, rewiring it down through the floor (and that peninsula wall) to the feed that Comcast Guy left.

Last two times Comcast came out to service either my phone or ISP service, they either forgot to billl me or service was included. Brian was pretty sure I was going to get billed for that one.


“It’ll all start feeling faster now”

Jon said that it would all start feeling faster now, and he’s right.

The cabinets are now all installed, so Granite Guy came on Friday to measure for the granite. As feared, the job oozed over two slabs into three, so in a twist of the usual “As long as we’re at it” syndrome, Jon asked if there was anything else I wanted to do with the extra rock. So we also had Granite Guy measure to put granite on the wide new-dining-room window sill where I’ve been stacking my mug collection, and to replace the hearth and facing of the fireplace’s ugly tile with granite. If there’s not enough for the whole fireplace, we’ll do just the hearth and then redo the facing in slate. Either way it’ll be a big improvement on the baby-shit tan blotchy tile that’s there now.

Jon says granite-fabrication will take about a week. He’s planning to start in on the tile work, and he’s bought a huge pile of slate tile, now resting in my driveway. George has the underlayment work all done, including the front closet and the mouth of the hallway. The hardwood will come next.

You can see all the gorgeous cabinetry in the latest new pictures:


Old pictures:


Preparing for chaos

Demolition and chaos

One month in

Still later

Two months in

George has the puck lights installed. Under-cabinet lights are next.

The glass I’d originally picked out for the upper cabinet door-fronts didn’t come tall enough, so I went back to the Stained Glass Garden in Berkeley to pick out glass all over again. This time they had a pattern I liked even better: Rivuletta, with a subtle vertical reeding. Jon ordered the pieces we need and it came out, of course, several hundred more than the allowance in our contract. Yet another change order–ouch. Damned good taste of mine!

It turned out that we just couldn’t get the Golden Butterfly granite (at least without an indefinitely long wait for a slow boat to bring it from Brazil), so we’re back to uba tuba.

What a difference a kilo makes

Last August I had to have a massive red oak tree behind my house taken out because it was

  • starting to lean over the house,
  • showing signs of some kind of illness or root problem, and
  • likely to keel over and die.

Six hours, a swarm of laborers with chainsaws, and two thousand dollars later, I had a massive pile of red oak chunks (most between 12 and 18 inches in length) next to my driveway.

I remember when I was six, Grampa and Gramma Vang (don’t quibble with me about my spelling, the were my grandparents) came to take care of Kevin and me (or torment us, as it felt at the time) while Mom was in the hospital having her gallbladder out. One fine day when I supposed to be napping, I watched Grampa split what seemed like most of the cord of firewood we had out back. It was wintertime and cold enough out that Gramma wouldn’t let us go outdoors without our “overshoes” (as she called them, in only one instance of the language barrier we encountered that week–I’d always thought of them as boots), but before long, Grampa was down to his longjohns and dripping with sweat. It was pretty impressive how he usually needed only two or three strokes of the axe to split a log. If I recall accurately, and who knows if I do, these were probably some kind of pine logs about 16 inches long and four to six inches in diameter. Somehow I remember his longjohns being red, too, but that might be a flight of memory’s fancy.

Another fine day when I was supposed to be napping, I sneaked out to watch Gramma make lefse, and a vague memory of her kneading the dough turned into a burst of lefse-recipe-interpreting insight three decades later, but that’s another story. Ask me at Smørgåsbord V (ack! Sweden!).

Anyway, I figured I was my Grampa’s daughter and could split wood if he could, so when Tree Guy and his crew finished up, I googled “wood splitting” and learned that

  • red oak is easiest split when green, unlike most species, and
  • women are best off with a three-pound axe, a six-pound maul, a wedge or two, and a six-pound sledge-hammer.

I bought some tools, wired myself up to my iPod, and tried to emulate Grampa. I went at it for all I was worth for several weeks, and my housemate David also gave it a try, but neither of us were much good at it. As you saw earlier in the “Two Months In” kitchen photo-spread, my confessional photo of a pathetically-small pile of split wood a year later showed that I was nothing for him to be proud of. Splitting wood is ridiculously hard work.

Almost a year later, I’ve resumed my splitting efforts and learned that most of the advice I googled up was wrong. Red oak is easier to split when drier. It’s got a swirly grain that knots fibers together against all axe-logic, but drying and the action of rot and termites do help. Today I broke my first sledge-hammer (a six-pounder) (I have to admit, I’m feeling a little macho about breaking a sledge-hammer) and went to buy an eight-pound replacement, along with an eight-pound maul, and I’ve also found that eight pounds is a much better-weighted tool for me.

Women’s clothes and bikes don’t fit me, either, so why did I think women’s axes would?

While I certainly don’t want anyone to think it’s child’s play to throw these eight-pound implements around (the stiff muscles I have everywhere are witness that it’s not), that extra two pounds (almost one kilo) make a huge difference. Where before it took four or five strokes, in which I threw the sledge with all my might, to get a splitting wedge visibly further into a log, now a single stroke with the heavier sledge does the job–and I now understand why that googled article recommended a technique where you initially lift with dominant hand gripping at the end of the handle and other hand gripping near the business end, raise the tool overhead, slipping the other hand down toward the dominant hand, and then hurl with all your body’s might, eyes focused on the target (either the spot you want the axe or maul to hit or at the splitting wedge in progress). With the six-pound tools, I found it wasn’t worth the trouble (damn the backache) to do that whole hand-sliding thing, but then I needed to throw all of myself into each hurl. With the eight-pound tools, the hand-sliding thing helps a lot to stave off exhaustion, and the extra two pounds makes throwing myself into the hurlage more optional.

What a difference a kilo makes! Today I split a log that had frustrated me so much I’d set it aside into three hunks, and I got through several more intimidating hunks before I’d finished my litre of water and hour of iTunes.

I’ve still got nothing on Grampa, but I like to think all the same that he might be grinning a little curmudgeonly grin from the grave now at the sight of me dripping sweat and throwing myself for all I’m worth at stubborn hunks of red oak, even if I’m not wearing red longjohns while I do it.

Things that are better

Norton seems to be out of the woods. He kept me on pins and needles all weekend, acting normal and seeming to be comfortable, but not pooping from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning. Then he didn’t poop again until yesterday. Fortunately his poop Sunday looked normal, and pooping didn’t seem to strain him, which was an excellent sign. I talked to the vet late Monday afternoon, and she said if he hadn’t passed it or shown distress by now, he must have digested it. So, let’s hear it for Norton’s digestive system, and for the good digestive thoughts of my readership! Norton and I thank you!

The cabinets are nearly all installed now, and it’s starting to look like it’ll be a nice kitchen. When the sheetrock was put in, suddenly the space seemed too small for everything that was going to go in, but Jon said the cabinets would make it look roomier again. How this could be defies reason, but he was right. Now that most of them are in, the kitchen actually feels spacious, and the vast expense of alder is gorgeous.

George has finished installing the underlayment in the closet and at the mouth of the hallway.

The old dining room is no longer a chaotic crowd of cabinets, and it too feels more spacious. (The new dining room is full of saws and so on, so it feels far from spacious.)