If I Had a Hammer

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

SHEETROCK & SHELLAC

A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement

By David Owen

Simon & Schuster. 303 pp. $24.95

The pictures are (almost) all on the wall, the keyboard drawer has been secured to the underside of the new desk, the spackling around the hole cut for a wall-mounted speaker is dry (and maybe someday will be sanded and painted), and the wine racks are installed high atop the kitchen cabinets. This old laborer's work is done. For the first time in nearly three decades, I'm living in an apartment rather than a house, and even though my wife and I own it, it's not likely to require much in the way of home improvement, at least not from me. Most of the work to be done around here in the future will be done by service "technicians," as they're now called, and it's work I'm incompetent to do.

Time was, I was a home-improvement stud. Gutted a house all by myself, acted (successfully) as general contractor for its reconstruction, squeezed into the crawl space below and stapled insulation between the joists, built two decks and an outdoor shower, cut and installed what seemed like 6,000 feet of sheet-vinyl flooring, ruined at least one automobile lugging stuff from Home Depot, tacked in new screening for a large enclosed porch, and Lord knows what else. Those were my glory days, but my yesterdays as well, which is why, for me, reading David Owen's amusing and informative "Sheetrock & Shellac" has far less to do with stocking up advice for future projects than with remembrance of things past.

Owen is a smart, lucid and amusing writer who has covered a number of subjects in the dozen books he's published during the past quarter-century but mostly touched on what clearly are his two consuming interests, houses and golf. He gives the impression of being both an enthusiast, ready to take on just about any task that presents itself, and a person of admirable (and enviable) patience, who understands that "easy does it" is almost always the best policy. With his wife, Ann Hodgman, herself a writer, he has been working away on "a two-hundred-year-old white box with black shutters" in small-town northwestern Connecticut that they bought more than two decades ago, and he has learned two very useful lessons from all that labor:

"The first is that the knowledge one gains in undertaking a major home-improvement project is inevitably the knowledge one ought to have had before attempting it in the first place. The second is that a house is far less complicated than the average ignorant homeowner usually assumes. The seldom-seen spaces inside walls, floors, and ceilings aren't filled with circuit boards, laser beams, and liquid helium; for the most part, they contain nothing but insulation, mouse nests, and stale-smelling air. The difficult parts of a house are relatively few and compact, and they fit together in a logical way, and when they malfunction they do so for reasons that can almost always be discovered, understood, and dealt with. Every time I learned something new about my house, my anxiety about it lessened."

Owen further understands, as too many homeowners do not, that a house is an ongoing project that will never, ever, be completed. Everybody knows that a house is a bottomless pit down which one pours stupendous amounts of money, but not so many grasp the sheer endlessness of home improvement. Thus my wife and I thought, after completing an expensive and time-consuming restoration of the two-story wooden porch on our Capitol Hill house four years ago, that the job was done, but of course it wasn't; some of the new boards soon needed to be replaced, and the southern exposure mandated frequent repainting. Owen is right to insist that you don't do yourself any good fretting over projects that seem stalled forever or that last far longer than you'd anticipated; it's in the nature of a house, as it's in the nature of a dachshund (Owen and I know -- each of us has two) to demand constant attention, reassurance and uncritical affection.

Still, Owen believes that "home improvement is a powerful creative act, maybe the most ambitious creative act that all but the true artists among us will ever undertake. Remodeling a room, building an addition, planting a garden, even installing a bathroom sink are all forms of three-dimensional self-expression. Over time, houses evolve into structural extensions of the people who live inside them: our shelters become projections of our selves." No kidding: If our houses suit us and we've invested sufficient sweat equity in them, we fall in love with them, which helps explain why letting go of them can be so hard, even wrenching and disorienting. Certainly I felt that way about the house on the Hill and, earlier, about the little house in rural Maryland in which I'd invested so much of myself.

Owen pretty obviously understands all these emotional components of homeownership, but he's a practical, no-nonsense man who boils things down to their essence: "Construction is a sequence of logical steps. You cut this board, then you cut that board, then you join the two boards together. Some of the steps are more complicated than others, but all of them can be described and understood . . . and they can be performed by human beings." With that as his starting point, Owen launches into discussions of everything from concrete to glass to porches to toilets to dowsing to plumbing to drywall.

He's also an opinionated guy whose opinions, as it happens, more often than not agree with my own. On kitchens, for example ("It is a sign of the essential depravity of the American psyche that kitchens have become more important in people's minds as cooking has become less"), and living rooms: "Many new houses don't have traditional living rooms, and if you live in an old house you probably understand why. Most living rooms defy occupancy. A living room is like the ancient tuxedo that hangs in the back of your closet: it's designed for a part of your life that exists mainly in your imagination." Exactly. First in the house on the Hill, now in the condo on Logan Circle, my wife and I have had handsome living rooms in which no one . . . well, to be honest about it, in which no one lives.

Though "Sheetrock & Shellac" offers many such tidbits and a lot of useful advice about household repairs, most of it is devoted to a description of the construction of a cabin the Owens built as a convenient, low-maintenance escape for themselves. Few of us have had the opportunity to built a house from scratch, to our own specifications and under our own supervision, so this part of the book will be of particular interest to readers who are able to settle for doing so vicariously. It is an exceptionally interesting chronicle from which you can learn a whole lot of stuff that probably you'll never have the opportunity to use. But if you do, you'll be grateful for Owen's patience, common sense and good humor.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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