One long-ago summer day I found my father sitting in the loft of a barn he was building, staring into the middle distance.
It was an unaccustomed postures for him. He was a square-framed Texan who was always building cabins and chicken houses and garages and tree houses without making plans or sketches or even very many measurements. One movement flowed into the next with hardly a pause, and his work rose straight, true and tight as though the beams and boards knew where they were going.
The barn project was the biggest he had undertaken, and several weeks of the summer had echoed with wop, wop, wop. of his hammer and the root -unh, root -unh of his saw, regular as the beat of a metronome. I paid close attention, because if the silent intervals lasted longer than it took to fetch a new board from the pile it might mean he was looking for me to do some work.
But on July afternoon his hammer had an uncertain sound. It was slow, it was irregular, it was, well, tentative . It was so unlike him I wandered in from my hideout in the woods and interriupted his reverie.
"Whatcha doing?" I asked.
"I have built myself into a blind corner on this job," he said, "and I am waiting for the barn to tell me how to get out of it."
I decided he was setting up for one of his wicked punchlines - he had a million of them - and went off to skoosh bugs. After a while his hammer and saw resumed their rhythms, and soon the barn was all taut and shipshape and ready for vandals to burn.
It was more than a quater of a century later, after I had built myself into the umpteenth blind corner during home remodelling jobs, that I recalled his words and finally understood what he had meant.
He was applying the principle of Zen to the problem, getting his ideas out of the way of his mind. My father was a slow-spoken, thoughtful plainsman who had examined and rejected Eastern mysticism. If pressed he might have called the solutions that rise unbidden in the relaxed mind simply "intuition," and that's all it is, really, letting your brain free-wheel within the discipline of what is possible and come up with answers you didn't know you knew.
For every building or alteration job there are many wrong ways, several all-right ways and a right way. The right way is inherent in the problem and the amount of time, money, materials and space available. Skill is a secondary consideration; there is nothing a plumber, mason, carpenter, electrician or any other tradesman can do that you can't do as well - or better - and cheaper, if you take the time to learn how.
The right way usually is a standard practice, a practice that became standard because it was right. For most jobs there are good do-it-yourself books that will walk you through anything from replacing a lamp cord to building a three-story addition. What you buy from a tradesman is his time, and sometimes the price you pay includes living with a permanent reminder of his dishonesty or indifference.
The price of doing it yourself is your own time. The cost of materials vanishes in the savings on hired labor and contractors' profit. Much, often most, of your time should be spent thinking about the job. If you can't see what you're going to build in your mind or on paper before you begin, not just the outlines but all of it, each piece in its place, you are likely to wind up with a Tab A for which is no Slot B.
That's what happened to my father on the barn job, I think. The building was meant to accommodate a jumble of purposes - feed storage, workshop, studio for my mother - and perhaps he had thought out the parts without thinking through the whole. What stumped him seems to have been a stair to the loft for which he had not left sufficient space. In the end I supposed he said the hell with it, nailed up a ladder and went hammering on, serene in the knowledge that for some problems there is no solution.
Most home projects seem complicated until you read up on them, take the measurements and make a few sketches. When the plan is refined enough so that the materials can be calculated, I usually bop off to the stores full of purpose and hurry home to get going.
That's where I go wrong. The jobs mainly fall into the category of coping with things that the original builder or subsequent owners either left undone or did wrong. I have approached the problem logically, forgetting that if the basic structure I'm working on were logical there would be no problem and no need for a solution. Somewhere along in the job my rational, i.e. plump, wall runs into the skewed (irrational) wall with which it is supposed to mate.
That leads to shims and putty and extrawide trim and all those other tricks for coping with the gap between Tab A and Slot B. Sometimes the finished result is adequate, but I come away from such jobs dissatisfied, and since they are part of the place I live in, those gaps and bads corners and ugly seams reproach me daily.
The way to do is to put the job off and think about it. It's a little like letting a story cool before rewritting it. With one solution in mind, try to think of others, using your own imagination rather than extending the concept of the original builder. I was hung up for months on one job before I found myself mentally walking through the massive brick wall I was trying to cope with, and that was the answer: the wall, or a door-sized portion of it, had to go. Sometimes the right way is the hardest way.
Since my mind is no more disciplined than that of your average public-school product, I seldom succeed in thinking my jobs all the way through before I begin, but I have learned to allow room for maneuver. I leave 3/4 of an inch where 1/2-inch drywall is to go, because there always is some curve in the straightest studs and plasterboards are thicker in some places than in others and you never measure the same twice.
When the real 2x4 in my hand refuses to perform the office my imagination assigned to it, I try to figure out what it will do; sometimes it's as simple as rotating it or swapping ends. It is the difference between using materials and working with them: A mystic might call it letting the board realize itself; a street dude, going with the flow.
This Zen approach extends to the tools. I have a saw that will cut some boards true and hack up others, a hammer that occasionally forgets how to drive nails and a level that sometimes isn't. When one of them is having a bad day I go down to the basement for a backup tool. Whichever of us needs a break, we both get one.
It goes well more often than not these days. Sometimes I just look at a board and know it will cut wider than it measures, make "racko' eye" allowances, and then it goes into place so snugly it hardly has to be nailed. Or my mind will wander while I'm taping plasterboard joints and I'll find the compound has spread so smoothly that there are no lap marks to sand.
The satisfaction of living in a shelter you made or remade, knowing it is done right all the way through, is unending. The investment of an extra hour, day or week of your time yields dividends of years.
I have learned to control my impatience (much of the time) and seldom any more am tempted to fake it the way I used to. There is a flaw in a project I did years ago that I literally papered - wallpapered - over; one of these days something will bump that hidden void and I'm going to have to tear out four feet of wall and redo it right. Cutting corners in construction is like cheating on your tax return; what you save is seldom worth the uneasiness it costs you. And there is no statute of limitations on bad building.
The results of the Zen approach can be startling. I dithered for days recently over the trim for a junction between a closet and a sloping ceiling. Several trips to a lumber dealer and discussions with a cabinetmaker were fruitless. Then one evening, without any thought process I was aware of, I picked up a piece of leftover 1/2-inch half-round molding and laid it on the 3/4-inch quater-round molding already in place. The result was just what I had been seeking and the piece of scrap fit exactly.
As a Zen master might say, "The arrow found the target by itself."