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Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
Or sometimes, we just gab.
This is a tale of plans gone awry.

We know well that, when planning any renovation project, it’s wise to double the estimate and triple the timeframe, but we’ve gone past even that. By an exponential factor.

The shed was supposed to be finished by now.  Actually, it was supposed to be finished more than a year ago, one step in the long process that, were it to work perfectly, would make me a very happy homeowner but, circumstances being what they are, happiness—at least on the house restoration front—is one elusive beast, and I’ve taken to skulking around the yard shaking my head and muttering dark comments to myself.  I’ve begun to act like a madwoman.

Maybe I should start at the beginning, or some 16 years ago.

The Backstory

The house was almost lost in a thicket of overgrowth, invisible to the road except in the winter when all the foliage was dead.  The woods had crept up from the riverbank and surrounded the house, and the treeline was roughly even with the back.  We put a contract on the house and started to work with the bank even before we saw the back side.

Our first purchases were a chainsaw, a weedeater, and heavy work gloves, and our first endeavor was to hack a path around the house.  So Andy was cutting saplings and I was hauling brush, on hot August afternoon in 1997 when suddenly from the middle of an impenetrable thicket of brush and trees, I heard the chainsaw choke off and Andy shout: “Hey! I think there’s a building back here!”

There was indeed a building.

This is a meat house, made for hanging and curing country ham which a local delicacy. No smoke involved. The hams are covered with a concoction of salt and spices and then hung from rafters until they’re cured.  It takes months, although hams that are aged more than a year offer an unforgettable taste experience.  

The way it’s done around here in this the Brass Buckle of the Country Ham belt, the ham is boiled and sliced. If you never had country ham, the closest mainstream counterpart to it is prosciutto. Thin sliced and served in a soft, sweet biscuit, with a little mustard, a good country ham is a thing of beauty.

However, the meat houses that produce country hams are not things of beauty.  Having suffered the same neglect as the rest of our farm, this one was particularly bad.  The foundation had rotted, the floor planks lay in the dirt, the front of the building had developed a definite lean forward so that the door wouldn’t close, and the whole thing was filled with trash and mud from flooding, and more than smattering of paper wasps, mud daubers and bumblebees.

Unfortunately, cleaning it out didn’t help much. The posts supporting the northern end of the building had rotted, and we realize that repair would be really...complicated. Also, we had other more pressing things to do, like supporting the floor joists in the house and patching the holes in the walls. So we cleaned the meat house out as well as we could, stored garden and yard equipment in it, and time passed.

Actually more than a decade passed.  The meat house became our catch-all shed. And as long as the roof was good, this project was definitely filed under “infinitely postponeable.”  Each spring seemed like the building settled a little deeper into the dirt and, with a bad-tempered and aggressive but elusive watersnake (elusive, it seemed, except when we found ourselves empty-handed) in residence, we managed to ignore the meat house’s deplorable condition.  Until the day a tree fell on it.

The Standoff

It was a Sycamore, a heavy riparian species with the long eastward reach, and after a thunderstorm its roots just let go. There wasn’t even any real wind. One bright wet Saturday morning the crash knocked us out of bed. Daybreak revealed the damage: a couple of smaller trees flattened and the meat house knocked forward a few more degrees, a branch tearing through the the old tin roof and poking into and through the ceiling. We realized then it was time to get on repairs.

But of course, first we had to remove the tree.  And that took a couple of months, because the tree—no surprise here—had a better-than-four-foot-circumference, and it was summer, a season already packed with too many essential chores.

Fast forward a year or two. Or three.  The meat house had started to come apart along the north side, and we’d been talking about how to fix it for more than a few years.  

I tend to be the historical purist, when I can get away with it. So I wanted to return the meat house to its original condition, with a pitched metal roof  and narrow clapboards, using as much of the original material as we could. That’s what I wanted-- but I am not the carpenter.

The carpenter preferred to work with newer materials. Also, he had no idea how to build a pitched roof. So our game plan boiled down to stabilizing the building, removing the sides, removing the tin off the roof and reducing the weight as much as possible, and then resetting the building, one by one replacing the rotted supports. From there, we would go on to stabilizing and replacing the floor and putting new siding on the exterior, conserving as much of the original materials as we could.

Yeah, like that would work.

For one thing, I really didn’t recognize that the building had been made out of recycled materials, at least not until we got the siding off and I took a good look at the frame. And then there was the problem of how to fix the floor. Still a bad plan is better than no plan, so we proceeded on a hot afternoon, with our son and some of his VMI cadet friends, to disassemble—carefully--the old meat house.

The work crew and the equipment.
Once we were down to the skeleton, we figured out the construction.  The floor had been built on top of four enormous logs that were laid in the dirt, and the walls built on top of the floor.  When the logs began to rot, the whole building slid off but, thanks to its unbelievable overbuilding, it remained intact until the rot ate away the wall supports. Under those logs, we found broken pop bottles, bits of metal and nails, and the remains of a man’s short-sleeved jumpsuit from the 1930s. So that gave us a provisional date.  And the building materials were obviously salvaged from some earlier outbuilding.  It wasn’t nearly as old as we thought.
The logs are in the foreground.
Still, I was wedded to the idea of reconstruction as far as we could go, and Andy is a patient man, but there are some places he just won’t go.  I wanted a pitched roof; he wanted a salt box roof, and we stood at loggerheads.

The Compromise

I’m embarrassed to admit how long the siege lasted—two winters, anyway.  Finally I figured out that the building was going to fall down before it got fixed, and I gave in.  You have to pick your battles, and you also have to recognize when you’re not going to win one.

This is the first construction project I actively worked on, and I learned a lot. I learned how to set posts, how to cement them into the ground, how to ensure they stayed square and straight. I learned to set a level, place floor and roof joists, etc.  But Andy did the majority of the work.  He’s a damn good carpenter when he puts his mind to it, and he was extremely happy not working with old wood that possesses either the consistency of dust (rotten) or iron (sound).

Our work as a team boils down to one thing: we each do what we’re good at.  Usually, though, if the work involves power tools or internal combustion, he’s all over it, and if it involves meticulous handwork it’s mine. It works for us.

So last fall, the building took shape. Andy did most of the cutting and setting and all of the supervision.  Since I’m better with heights, I climbed up and nailed the roof in place. Then we had a traditional standing seam tin roof installed.  Now, barring sycamores, the new building—or at least the roof—will last a hundred years. We saved the windows and door out of the original building, and I repaired and stabilized them for reinstallation.  
The hard part was done and all that remained was to nail up the siding.  I was already scoping out shelves and hooks and everything we would need to maximize storage.  And then …everything fell off the rails.

What happened?  Well, winter.  But there was also the Great Mobile Home Cleanout and Demolition project, which I’ll have to save for another day in order to 1) do it justice and 2) not drown you in text.  Besides, it’ll take a while for the sting from this particular adventure to fade.

When I took this date for a diary, I thought that certainly I could show off a finished, albeit unpainted, new garden shed to take the place of the meat house.  Instead, there’s this:

Notice the windows in place.  Under that tarp is a work table and a pile of 2 x 4's.
But progress is progress, and we’ll get there.  To me getting this shed done is a serious priority to me because it’s in the way of the next project, the porch.  Yes, the porch, where right now all the yard equipment gets dropped, and it’s all in my way.  I have some old tongue-in-groove paneling that are going to become walls.  This year.  Really.

Yeah, right.

I’ll be in and out this morning, but right now I’m ripping the walls and ceiling out of a mobile home.  Because of a con artist.  Long story.  Be back soon.  Until then, I'll be playing Clue.  I'm DrLori, in the mobile home, with a crowbar....

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