Chapter 8

Inhabiting the teahouse/study. Part 1.

Kieran Egan



Getting help



Now this easy and pleasant pastime of knocking bits of wood together until the teahouse is completed has become a bit pressured, and, I'm sorry to have to tell you, you aren't entirely blameless. My kind editor assures me that you are, although unaware of the book at this point of my writing, subconsciously clamoring to buy multiple copies for Christmas. In order for this very sensible outcome to enter the world of the possible, she needs the manuscript finished in less than two months. If the weather continues as it has been, this seems hopeless. Also I do have a job, which my employers inconsiderately expect me to spend time at. As the writing can only follow the building, and the building is hampered by weather and other work, I conclude that, if your entirely understandable desire for the book is to be satisfied, I need help.

It has been a kind of exasperating fun hammering the teahouse/study together. I have become increasingly confident that the wood will all stand up if I attach it together with enough sturdy metal bolts, nails, and screws. But there is so much I am having to read about how to do it, that completing everything, even in ideal weather conditions, would require more than the luck of the Irish. So, with some regret, I have asked Brendan, a carpenter, if he will give me a hand.

He has looked over what I have done so far, and may have been lying through his teeth or hiding a smirk of pity, but he said it wasn't too bad. I asked how long it might take him, with my help, to get the framing finished. I had been calculating about three more weeks.

"Oh, I think we can have the roof on in two days."

Suddenly it begins to look possible.

Brendan has turned up in the mornings for the past three days. He cuts and hammers, expertly, and the teahouse has exploded upwards into the unsuspecting sky. I have been thinking of the teahouse construction in terms of Stonehenge or the pyramids, and it has been a little sobering, standing on my floor under the skeleton of Brendan's roof, to have him say, "This is a nice little project."

He brings his dog with him, a large black beast of indeterminate breed. But he is the friendliest animal, and sits contentedly in Brendan's truck, or sniffs around at the end of a long lead, delighted to be patted.

"I got him six years ago after someone ripped off my tools. My dad said that a dog in the cab would be the perfect deterrent, and he was right."

We chatted for a while about what we might do to give the roof a distinctive shape, and a wide overhang. After about ten minutes the dog started barking at the other end of the garden. Brendan said only: "The boss. Time to get back to work." And, indeed, as soon Brendan started sawing and hammering, the dog was perfectly content.

As I see Brendan hopping around on the roof, I think getting help wasn't a bad idea at all.

I had imagined that I would be helping Brendan as he worked, but watching his practiced ease, realize that I would as likely slow him down as help. So I leave him to work on the teahouse while I try to fix up various so far unfinished features of the garden as a whole. Also I work at this text when I can.

One feature of the teahouse that I included in my vague plans, then rejected as too problematic, and included again, and rejected again, is a small alcove at the rear corner flanked by two tall thin windows. I had decided, reluctantly, that the cedar tree was too close, and that I wouldn't be able to make the alcove wide enough to put a seat between the windows. I mentioned the idea to Brendan, who smiled, and within a few hours, had the thing framed, the floor extended backwards a couple of feet, and supported with 2" by 8"s bolted onto the base posts.

Adding the alcove, I discover, is a bit presumptuous. It seems that up to the end of the Edo period in Japan (1615-1868), building an alcove was a privilege available only to samurai and rich merchants. I don't qualify on either score, but there it is with the window spaces ready on either side.

Perhaps you are disappointed that someone else is so heavily involved in the project at this point. I do feel somewhat ambivalent about it, as there is both the sense of loss that what results will not be of my own making, but also the sense of wonder and delight at Brendan's swift and competent work. At least I can sit in the finished teahouse/study confident that the roof won't come down on me.

Having betrayed the idea that I would build the whole garden myself&endash;&endash;though I don't think this was ever more than a subconscious desire&endash;&endash;I couldn't shake the feeling that I was repeating something, but I couldn't put my finger on what. Then I remembered that this rather whimsical enterprise of building the garden, and then writing about it as I went, echoed in a very minor key Hilaire Belloc's buoyant and vivacious The Path to Rome. I found my old copy of the book, and the passage my own plight reminded me of.

On a whim one day, Belloc vowed to walk from the valley of the Moselle, where he was born, to Rome, doing thirty miles a day, and attending Mass in St. Peter's basilica on the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. As he walked, he described the people he met, the adventures he had, and his thoughts and feelings. Once into Italy, exhausted by heat, and unable to cover the distance towards Rome in time, he entered a church to pray and rest and decide what to do. There were two candles nearly burned out. As he watched their slow race to extinction, he decided that his choice of whether to keep on walking and risk illness or to take a train across the plain of Lombardy to Milan would be determined by which of the two candles remained alight longer:

"They were a long time going out, and they fell evenly. At last the right hand one shot up the long flame that precedes the death of candles: the contest took on interest, and even excitement, when, just as I thought the left hand certain of winning, it went out without guess or warning . . . . The right hand candle waved its flame still higher, as though in triumph, outlived its colleague just the moment to enjoy glory, and then in its turn went fluttering down the dark way from which they say there is no return" (Belloc, Penguin, p.159).

Unlike Belloc, I can't claim that the gods insisted I get significant help with this last stage of the project, but I suspect my journey is also more likely to be completed as a result.


Choosing colors

In order to finish in time for the editor's deadline, I decided to take my annual holiday early, so that I could be out working on the garden, or in, as now, writing about working on the garden. For a week or so the days had a regular pattern. Brendan arrived and set to work on the teahouse, we consulted on various design features or discussed what needed to be done next, and I set to work on completing the garden.

Now that the garden is done, we can work together on the teahouse. He has finished the framing, has the roof shingled and tarpaper around the whole. His method of putting on the tarpaper, which protects against moisture while allowing some ventilation for the wood, is simply to go around the whole structure, covering windows as well. As I sit here, peering through the marginal pond plants, to whom I am providing the hospitality of my study during winter, I look out on this black clad structure. It seems like the kind of teahouse Darth Vader or Batman might have contemplated.

In the basement downstairs is the treated plywood that will form the outside wall. We will paint it inside the house, as it is presently too cold to paint outside. Brendan picked up the wood yesterday, and my job was to choose and pick up the paint. I had admired the effectiveness of the solid color stain I had used on the fence, and went back to the mega hardware store where I had bought it. I took along one of my Japanese gardening books, with a picture of a teahouse with just the ochre/mustard color I wanted.

There was no other customer at the paint area, so I easily got the attention of the three "paint associates." First, just the elderly Chinese man looked at the picture and selected some of those tiny slips of card that indicate the endless range of colors they can mix. He went to get some more cards and another folder or two, till we had every shade between a greeny ochre and an orangy mustard that the human eye can distinguish, or at least my human eye. By this time, the other two associates were leaning over, indicating which of the tiny blobs of color they considered most like that of the pictured teahouse.

A young woman manager was drifting by, looked over to see what the interest was, elbowed her way in, and began offering her opinion. I stood back and let them at it for a few moments. All four had different preferences, and were arguing, most pleasantly, among themselves. I think I could have gone away and no one would either have noticed or cared.

It is a desperate business trying to decide on the color of the main part of a building based on a tiny half-inch square of color on a white chart. The sensible thing would be to buy tiny pots of the three or four best choices, take them home, test them on pieces of wood, let them dry, and then decide. But all that would add a couple of days to the project, and time is running out. We are now into February.

Brendan wants to get the windows in next, so we have to stain the outsides of them and varnish the insides. They are to be delivered in a couple of hours, so here I am at the computer catching up on yesterday's paint buying. These minutes are due to be interrupted by the pinger announcing that the cookies are ready. On his first day, I asked Brendan if he would like a cup of tea, and took it out with a couple of cookies. He clearly enjoyed these so much that a regular part of my day involves making tea and bringing out cookies. And this requires my making sure there are cookies to take out. I make them from one of those premixed batters, so it is no great culinary feat to slap blobs onto cookie sheet and heat them up. But it isn't one of the tasks I'd expected to be involved in while building the teahouse.

Now if you could see the windows and door piled in the basement, you would have to concede that my painting is not obviously worse than Brendan's. It's just that he does it at about six times the speed I do. I am a very careful painter&endash;&endash;Sistine Chapel kind of pace&endash;&endash;and after two days of putting three coats of solid color stain on what will be the outside of the windows, and four coats of varnish on the inside, I am ready to volunteer to climb under the teahouse and nail up some more plywood&endash;&endash;even though Brendan did most of the work.

I had imagined moving at a slow pace through the spring and summer, gradually building and making leisurely decisions about each next step. But Brendan is asking for decisions on the color of this, how to shape that, where to put the other. Usually he has some excellent suggestions, and saves me floundering around. He had brought samples of cedar for the soffits&endash;&endash;the exposed area at the sides and front of the teahouse under the eaves. Did I want them stained? Solid color or semi-transparent? What color? Clear cedar or knotty (the latter being half the price of the former)? Somehow in the conversation, bamboo was mentioned. Brendan said we could indeed make the soffits of bamboo.

In some of the books I had seen pictures of the underside of overhangs covered in bamboo, but had assumed that bamboo would be too difficult to work, and that the right kind of bamboo would be unavailable. Then I remembered that the landscape supply center had plenty, and of various sizes. Brendan calculated what we would need, and I drove over and ordered it. They delivered the dozen twelve-foot poles within a couple of hours&endash;&endash;one benefit of working at the raw and unfashionable end of February. Using Brendan's table saw, we cut the poles in two, though he later discovered it was easier and neater to splice them. It would now be a matter of drilling small holes through them and nailing them to the rafters. They had the further advantage that I wouldn't have to worry about staining them, nor about what kind of system to fix up to allow ventilation into the roof. The bamboo slices laid side by side would allow perfect ventilation. A layer of mesh behind them would serve to keep out any marauding insects.

As I go out at the end of a day to see how the teahouse is coming along, there are occasional unplanned delights. Looking through the frame that will hold the garden-side window, I was greeted by heavy nodes of small pink blossoms from our old winter flowering jasmine nodding familiarly.

Brendan seems as enthusiastic as I ought to be about this project. He told me yesterday how he is the envy of his carpenter colleagues, because he gets these really interesting jobs. I hadn't thought of it like that, and guess it must be more fun for a skilled woodworker to be able to improvise and make suggestions, and discover techniques for using bamboo, instead of having the typical job of zapping in wall studs at sixteen-inch intervals for new houses.

One of the losses connected with Brendan's contribution to the project is in my interactions with suppliers. While I am hardly the chatty type, I have enjoyed discussing the project and getting advice from so many different people. I do have one friend who manages during the filling of his car with gas to get on so well with the attendant that by the time the tank is full he knows the birth-dates of each of the man's children and has an invitation to the eldest's wedding. This project has supplied an excuse to get beyond my usual reticence, even if I can't aspire to my friend's communicative league. But now, instead of chats with Rob about what kind of window-framing material I might need, the exchanges are more like this morning's phone call:

"Hi, Kieran. Rob here. Brendan's in picking up some framing material. Shall I charge it to your Visa?"


"Thanks. Bye."

Yesterday I added a further coat of solid color stain to the exterior wall-panels, on the principles that it's easier to do it now and the more coats the better protection.

How does one apply stain to ten sheets of four-foot by eight-foot plywood panels in the small entry area of a basement? I followed Brendan's procedure. One begins by laying the ten sheets one on top of the other on the floor, and clearing a nearby area of wall against which one can stand them. Then one unscrews the handle from a brush and screws it into the end of a paint-roller. With a large dollop of stain into a paint tray, one dips in the roller head and starts rolling the stain onto the top sheet of plywood. The rolling takes only a few minutes, and is the pleasant part of the job. When finished staining, one then has to lift the sheet of plywood onto a couple of pieces of 2" by 4" near the wall, slotting at the top another small piece of 2" by 4" to prevent the stain making a neat line across the wall. Then one sets about the second sheet on the floor, lifting it onto the 2" by 4"s by the wall when finished, and slotting another chunk of wood between sheet two and sheet one. And so on down the set of ten sheets. And there they stand, with a fan at the end encouraging them to dry.

I read that the average yearly production of plywood would allow one to lay a panel 12-foot wide from the end of our garden or from downtown Philadelphia to the moon. Or at least it would be allowed were it not for some inconvenient physical laws. Plywood is made from thin veneers of wood glued together, the grain of alternating layers at right angles to each other. The product of this ingenious arrangement is astonishing strength for its weight. While these thin slabs are crucial to so much modern building, it is hard to feel a lot of affection for plywood. There's something a bit geekish about it&endash;&endash;clever, useful, and eager to help, but a tad deficient in character. Mind you, it is not as bad as those composite woods. You knock on them and a dead sound greets your alarmed knuckles.

In the end I decided to stain the trim the same green as the fence. The problem with all the pieces of trim is what to do with them in an already over-full basement once they are covered in wet green stain. On the first day, after finishing work on the windows, I had time only to begin, and decided to do all the smaller pieces. I was quite proud of my ingenuity. Taking a couple of two-foot pieces of spare 2" by 4", I tapped in nails of varying sizes sloping backwards. Once I had stained a piece of trim, I laid it against the rear nails across the 2" by 4"s. Each of the other pieces of stained trim was leaned against a further couple of nails. I had to go to work the following day, despite holidays, and Brendan came to stain and varnish what remained. He tacked nails to the vertical beams in the basement and had the longer pieces of trim stained and neatly stacked one above the other when I came home.

Clearly when sadistic medieval committees sat down to decide on what precisely a gallon should be, they calculated very carefully just how much paint would be needed on the average job centuries hence, ensuring that the gallon can would contain just a tiny bit too little for whatever job one had on hand. Another of Murphy's laws.

We are now ready to put in the windows, and to nail on the outside layer of plywood and the trim. Each piece has multiple layers of stain or varnish, and my wife would like to be able to navigate through the basement without tripping over paint cans. But, of course, we have had a couple of days of heavy rain, and Brendan has booked into an indoor job for the next two days, in the hope that we'll get better weather later in the week.

Another problem this sudden speed of construction has created is financial. I had been expecting to work gradually at the teahouse and garden till the summer, buying wood and stones and drywall and tatami mats as I could afford them. But now I have to shell out daily, pouring sackfuls of loot into the eager hands of hardware store investors, window manufacturers, lumberyard owners, and on and on. I have had to spend as much time at the bank as in lumberyards of late, arranging lines of credit to finish this extravaganza.


Planning the interior

Brendan has worked so fast completing the exterior, using his power nail-driver to fix the stained panels to the sides, putting in the windows, adding trim all around, that I find myself having to study books that will help me decide what to do with the interior. The best I have found is Koji Yagi's A Japanese Touch for your Home.

The easy part, I thought, was the floor. Tatami mats would cover the base of the teahouse. They are made from a rice straw core, covered with a woven soft reed skin, and finished off around the edges with a cloth border. They are quite heavy, but are delightful to the touch, excellent insulators, and very sturdy. I had long ago cut an ad. from a local magazine for Japanese products, and now decided I needed to visit the showroom and see how much further enough tatami mats to cover the floor would set back my bank im-balance. The ad. said that one needed to phone to make an appointment.

While Brendan finished putting on siding and trim, and fitting the bamboo soffits under the eaves, I drove out to my appointment with Mr. Lee. His office is in one of those industrial streets, with low warehouse-like buildings, that seem like some Soviet bureaucrat's notion of efficient planning. A dull street, broken by the bridge of the SkyTrain in the distance. Set back from the road were the two-storey bunkers, monotone, grim, windows at the front fashionably tinted in dark colors with shutters blocking any sense of humans inside. They were separated from the road by a broad stretch of colorless stones, with clumps of weeds poking through, and what seemed like the dead stumps of trees chain-sawed down to knee level adding to the sense of desolation. Inside, the building had bare cinderblock walls, and narrow stairs about ten feet ahead, cheaply carpeted. I was about to head up them, but noticed immediately to my right a door, the same dun color as the inside wall of the building. There was a small card pinned to it announcing Japanese products.

I pressed the bell, and Mr. Lee invited me in with a friendly handshake. I had been prepared to bow, though Mr. Lee was clearly Chinese not Japanese. A year earlier, when visiting Mike and Tanya in Nagoya, I had been waiting in the airport when a group of about four or five Japanese businessmen was greeting a similar-sized group of visiting American businessmen. Each had obviously been studying the customs of the other; the Americans all bowed from the waist as the Japanese held out their hands to be shaken.

From the brutal industrial exterior, I walked into a room of beautiful and delicate Japanese constructions. There was a raised platform of tatami mats, shoji lamps and screens, antique wall-hangings, minimally-patterned sliding-door covers with white-feathered cranes among pines and bamboo overlying mountain scenes, with perfectly proportioned and fitted fir trim around the walls. One doesn't have to experience such contrasts, or spend much time in Japan, to recognize why they consider us barbarians.

The tatami mats are available only in three-foot by six-foot sizes, a shade over two inches deep. We spent some time trying to work out how best to cover my irregular floor most economically, as they also charge $60 for each cut that has to be made. Mr. Lee explained seriously that cutting the mats is difficult to do well, and it has to be done by hand, and then a new cloth band needs to be sown on. It became clear that my awkwardly sized teahouse floor would cost a fortune to cover in tatami.

I considered the Japanese sandals, and thought I might take four pairs, so that guests might slip them on at the door of the teahouse, leaving their shoes outside. And a couple of Japanese lamps for the wall. But they would be useless for reading, as the shoji paper restricted them to 25 watts. Such a room should have subdued lighting, to encourage quiet in one's soul. As I looked around, there were so many possibilities that Mr. Lee suggested that I should simply make notes, and come back when I was sure what I wanted. Driving away, I feared that the tatami mats were going to be much more expensive than I had expected, and that perhaps I should consider some other kind of flooring. But I realized that if I simply took three mats and laid them side by side, it would leave me with just about a foot spare all around. I could lay fir or some other wood between the mats and the wall.

Mr. Lee had recommended that I visit one of his competitors to see further options. I had mentioned that some pictures suggested that I might have bamboo on the ceiling of the teahouse, or planks of fir or cedar, with strips of bamboo across them. The best source for bamboo in the city he said is Elaine's. He phoned to make sure she was open, and sent me off with another gracious handshake.

I described to Elaine what I was trying to build, and said that I was considering bamboo for the interior ceiling of the structure, and wondered what kinds of bamboo she had. At the front of the shop she showed me thin bright yellow reed strips, woven into six-foot by fifteen-foot mats, then a slightly thicker pole fence bamboo. Either, she said, could be simply stapled onto the rafters. I looked around at the variety of further possibilities. I had come in search of a single kind of bamboo, and would have been happy with that single choice, but faced with so many possibilities I was feverishly trying to locate the best, and think of what other surfaces I might cover in bamboo.

"So many possibilities!" I said.

She laughed and invited me to come to the rear of the shop. We passed an elderly Chinese man making roll-blinds from bamboo slices at a large workbench, and wandered through mountains of burlap bags full of bamboo poles from a quarter inch to five inches, and up to fifteen-foot long, in endless shades of yellows, browns, greens. She seemed amused as I examined them, wondering at their variety and beauty, and said they could cut them in half for mounting on the ceiling, if I wished to do that. Then we wandered through a delicate forest of hanging roll-blinds, brown, tortoise-shell, white and off-white, multi-patterned, till I couldn't calculate the possibilities of what I might be able to use. Like Mr. Lee, she laughed and invited me to make notes, visit their site on the Internet, and then come back when I had decided.

So that's what I did. I measured up all the walls and ceiling and floor spaces to be covered, then came home, drew some diagrams of each surface, and began planning what to put where.

One thing I have said little about is the wiring of the teahouse/study. I phoned an electrician who has done work for us in the past, with whom we get on well&endash;&endash;what the Italians call my electrician "di fiducia"&endash;&endash;my trusted electrician. Though in Italy the term is used almost universally about any tradesperson. They are all "di fiducia," suggesting that one has particular access to the very best. I asked if he could do the job soon.


"I'll be away tomorrow."

"Leave the keys in the usual place. Stick a card where you want things, lights, plugs, etc."

I came back that evening, and there was a new conduit tube fixed onto the fence to the back of the garden, and all the wiring was in place. I still haven't seen the electrician. But he will be back when the drywall is up to finish off.

(A break in the writing for more cookie-making.)

Brendan is out fixing the final spliced bamboo poles under the eaves. They look great; a rich brown with hints of green and yellow, which shine dully with reflected light. These bamboo canes were innocently growing in China not long ago and now find themselves mounted on the underside of a hybrid teahouse/study in Canada. We'll never untangle this world now.

There is something a bit bizarre about sitting here at the computer, looking out at Brendan cutting and tapping on the last of the trim. I find myself wondering how he is going to get up to the top peak under the roof to put in the final pieces of the wall-panel, and am fascinated by the ingenuity and speed with which he nails up 2" by 4"s from the front and rear sides of the teahouse to the balcony rails, then stretches a long two by eight from front to back, and, lo, he has a small scaffold neatly in place. While he is doing this, I keep pausing and looking out. How does one compare, as kinds of work, a couple of paragraphs with a neat scaffold, and a few further sentences with measuring and cutting the final panel, climbing onto the scaffold and nailing it into place? The invention of writing has confused so much for us.

The commonest criterion for comparing kinds of work these days is money, of course. I think Brendan may be on the much more lucrative hourly rate&endash;&endash;given how long this scribbling has taken.

One of the basic principles of Japanese design is that one should "Eschew any decoration that is not integral to structure." I'm not sure I am coming close to adhering to the most austere interpretation of this, but bearing it in mind does help me to make some decisions. Brendan asked whether I wanted to add a horizontal strip of green trim at the top of the wall against the bamboo soffits. The bamboo itself looked good against the side panels, but then so too did the piece of trim he held in place. Applying the principle of eschewing needless decoration makes it easy to choose to not add the trim.

My role in building now seems reduced to Brendan occasionally shouting up the stairs to where I'm typing this, telling me, as earlier today, that he'll soon have run out of bamboo. He needs four more poles, he thinks. So I save my text, scoot down to the car, and am greeted increasingly cheerfully by my friends at the landscape supply yard. I open the passenger-side rear window and two guys come to help slide the bamboo delicately into the front passenger leg space. That leaves about six-foot sticking out in the cold breeze. After paying, and discussing the merits of bamboo for soffits, I tie a red flag to the end of the bamboo and negotiate the heavy traffic with my poles ready to scrape buses and trucks unless I give them appropriate leeway, or to take out the occasional tall loiterer at bus stops.


On to Part 2

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