Chapter Seven

Framing the teahouse/study--Part II

Kieran Egan

The insulated floor

The samurai who had slammed the black pine into place, you may remember, fiercely instructed me to water it heavily every day it didn't rain. I had set off to Ireland, asking my wife to please give it a soak on dry days. When I got back she told me there hadn't been a non-raining day. Nor was there one for the following month. The newspapers began running stories about how there had been a wetter December in 1972, and we were still a few inches shy of the 1898 deluges. While this did save having to water the pine, it also meant I was unable to get out and work. And you made things even worse. The contract to make this book suggested I finish by May, which meant I needed to get the teahouse finished earlier, unless I wanted to move from description to imaginative fiction. Sitting watching the rain pummel the site each day, day after day, began to introduce some anxiety into what was supposed to be a casual hobby. On the shortest day of the year, suddenly, the skies cleared and we had one day of clear blue sky.

Lack of planning does lead one to interesting and unique situations. Alas, I realized that sometimes they are unique because no sane person would ever get him- or herself into them, which is no doubt why I can't find in any of my books hints for how to go about what seems the necessary next step. Because I want to insulate the floor, so that I can use the teahouse/study during the winter, I need to nail a base to the bottom of the joists. On this base I will lay the insulation, staple some plastic over it, to make it proof against insects creeping up, and then on top of that put the thick plywood floor. Easy. Well, I now had to face lying on my back on the pea gravel, and nailing sheets of thin plywood up against the bottom of the joists, swinging a hammer close to my nose in the confined space.

I thought it might be a bit difficult, but my imagination couldn't prepare me for the reality. The quarter inch plywood came in 2' by 8' strips. First I had to cut them so that they would slot neatly around the supporting posts. Then I pushed the strip over the gravel and under the joists, slotting the cut holes around the supports. What to do next? I stood with an old piece of carpet, designed to protect me from the damp gravel, wondering how I was to get it under the plywood, then get me on top of the carpet and under the plywood&endash;&endash;in the foot and a couple of inches of space between the bottom of the joists and the gravel. As with everything, just begin.

Sitting on the strip of carpet at the rear facing the pond, I slid my feet under the plywood. Then I pushed forward, knees getting under the plywood, then lying back and shuffling myself, pushing with elbows, till I had the plywood resting on my nose, knees and feet pushing it up against the joists further down. With impressive contortions&endash;&endash;a tribute to my yoga instructor&endash;&endash;I reached over my shoulder with one hand to grab the bag of nails and hammer, and with the other pushed the plywood firmly against the joists by my head. Holding the plywood firm with my forearm, I picked out a nail, and held it place, and drove the hammer head towards it at the only angle possible to me. The hammer struck it sideways, shooting it off somewhere onto the equally gray gravel. I tried another, and hit my thumb. I edged to my left to get a better swing, and, having so little space, held the hammer sideways to allow an extra inch or so. The third nail ended up stuck in my sweater somewhere. The fourth actually stuck into the wood. A few more hits and it was in place, followed by a further five or six nails along the rear edge. They went in with only minor damage to my fingers and thumb, and the spraying of maybe another half dozen nails around the gravel.

I then had to move downwards towards the pond, pushing the plywood up with feet and knees as I went. There was nothing much to hold onto, and I was also trying to drag the piece of carpet along under me. Heels and elbows and a kind of horizontal waddle got me a few inches further down, and I began hammering again. Frequently I missed the joists above, and would have to pull out the nail and try again. I worked out a way of squirming forward, helped by the occasional pull against a post, using muscles in my lower stomach that I think had long ago concluded they had accepted a retirement package from the body's management. It took an hour of hammering in the confined space, each blow resounding close to an ear, but in the end I had the first piece of plywood in place, ready to accept the slight burden of insulation.

With some relief I stood up, straightened, then measured and cut the second piece of plywood. I climbed under from the rear again, remembering pictures in childhood books of coal miners working a seam that was running out. My hammering was becoming a little more efficient, but efficiencies in technique were countered by aching muscles, particularly in the arm tying to swing the constrained hammer. I switched hands for a while, ensuring that I crunched fingers and thumb on the other hand as well. Slowly I squirmed towards the pond, the resounding hammering incessant, the sweat building despite the coldness of the day.

I finished that strip, emerged into the vertical world to cut the third piece of plywood, and crawl back into my confined hell. All the hammering was at odd angles, and it was hard to trace the line of the joists from one end to another. Also I was increasingly fogging up, as I was not going to give up the protective glasses as ill-hit nails might shoot in any direction. In the middle, aching so that I could hardly lift the hammer, I passed it to the other hand, then, just for some relief from the strained position, I began to turn, as one might in bed after lying too long on one's back. One shoulder stuck against the plywood and the other was ground down into the gravel. I had nothing to lever against, was dog-tired, and thought I might just have to stay wedged like this till my wife came home to pull me out. I should have brought a cell phone in with me to call for help.

I imagined my wife phoning, and telling me, from her comfortable office, how delighted and envious she was that I had been able to work in the garden on this lovely, sunny day.

The good news was that clearly the pea gravel was inhospitable to cats. Far from becoming kitty-litter central, I had never seen a cat on it. Perhaps something about its shifting and clicky surface bothered them.

Realizing that my wife might come home but never think of looking for me under the plywood, I eventually scraped and grunted myself free, and carried on the slow drive down to the pond end, hammering and squirming. The third sheet had taken me longer than I had hoped, and I was quite late for lunch. I pulled myself out, stood up, and felt nauseous, dizzy, and disoriented. I had been three hours on my back, using retired muscles, and wondering what on earth I was doing. I found myself constantly repeating, with varied purple words, "I don't know what the x I'm doing!" This was, I later decided, not just a comment about the practical task at hand&endash;&endash;I didn't know how to hammer properly, or to fit the plywood, or to consistently hit the joists, etc.&endash;&endash;but about the whole enterprise. None of the jobs I had done, from the beginning, was really done properly. And such moments, confined under the plywood, pressed into damp and cold gravel, do tend to stimulate reflection on the whimsy with which I started the whole project in the first place. But, there was no way out except by finishing it now.

Lunch, followed by tea and cookies over the paper, revived my spirits, and I found myself later looking down at another sheet of plywood, with the old piece of carpet beneath it. I stood looking for a while, physically reluctant to squeeze my body between the two. An act of will dragged me to a sitting position, then shoved my feet under the plywood, then impelled the lower-stomach squirm till the plywood rested on my nose while I grabbed backwards for the nails and hammer.

The hardest action was moving forward once I was about half way down towards the pond. There was nothing to lever myself against. I could squirm to and fro, but, unless I wanted to rest my head in the damp gravel, I needed at the same time to drag the carpet with me. The trouble was that I was lying on the carpet, and couldn't raise myself from it without banging my head against the plywood. By bending one arm in ways I don't think the joints were designed for, and giving tiny pushes against the other elbow and mini-leaps from lower-stomach, then pulling and sliding at the same time, I could manage an inch or two's progress, keeping the carpet more or less under my head. The further trouble was that each slide brought more bits of gravel onto the carpet, so that by the time I reached the pond end it wasn't clear that I was any better off with my head in the gravel on the carpet than I would have been without the carpet altogether.

As I put each piece of plywood above me, I added to the problem the afternoon was bringing on this shortest day of the year. As I shrugged and squirmed down the last strip, I could hardly see what I was doing. I only became conscious of the effects of the setting sun, the layer of plywood above me, the misting and dust-bespattered protective glasses, when I realized I was hitting my fingers more often than the nails, and could hardly see the nails. For the last few on the final sheet, I had to take off the glasses even to be able to work out the rough area I was aiming at. But gradually the nails found their ways through the plywood into the joists, and the final sheet was ready, and I lay back too exhausted to feel satisfied. No doubt I could get used to this, but fortunately . . .

The following morning I couldn't raise myself from bed. The stomach muscles that normally do the job were tied up in some way with the new-found muscles I had used in the squirm, and were refusing further work without exacting a massive price in pain. I was able to roll over and off the bed, and was fine once I stood up. Getting into the shower, I noticed a string of bruises down the inside of my left arm, but couldn't think what action had been responsible. But, apart from a few patches, the plywood was in place, and now I could move on to the relatively simple tasks of putting in the insulation, hammering down the thick plywood floor, framing and roofing and living happily ever after.

Boxing Day was the next chance to do more work. There were a few gaps in the base plywood that needed filling in. The circular saw slices thin plywood like paper, and in a few minutes I had cut pieces for each of the gaps. But then I had to climb under again, and felt quick though muted nausea as I dragged myself beneath the floor across the gravel. By now I was quite practiced with hammer and nails in a confined space, and had all the holes blocked within an hour. I also discovered how I had bruised the underside of my left arm, getting leverage against the rear joist as I heaved myself out again.

It was a relief to work vertical, and slotting the pink insulation on top of the thin plywood went easily.

I stapled a film of plastic over the whole surface area, lay the thick sheets of plywood that were to be the floor on top of the plastic, and then was called to go to lunch with grandchildren Joshua and Jordan. Jordan was born about the time Joshua was looking into the hole with Moby Rock.



I bought a bunch of 2" by 4"s, read a bunch of books, and started the framing for the teahouse. The books usually assume you know the most basic things that you can't really start without knowing, but which I don't know. Like what size nails one should use. As usual, the first three people I asked in hardware stores each gave different answers. But the carpenters next door coincided, confidently, with the growing consensus around the three-inch common bright nail.

Framing is the part that has most to show for the shortest effort. Within a couple of hours I had the rear wall ready and standing. I should try to find out who first thought of making walls mostly of space. The intuitive way of going about building a wall was the lay down cut stones one on top of the other, or cutting logs to fit one on top of the other. But this idea of making a relatively slender frame and then attaching the weatherproofing and insulation to it is really clever. Perhaps they got the idea from Stonehenge.

The chair in the picture is my saw-horse; pieces of wood rest on the workbench and stretch out to the back of the chair.

Framing came to a halt after the first successful day by further rain, and by children being home for Christmas and the whole family taking off to an island cabin we rented for the turn of the millennium. And then was slowed by more rain. I began the second side of the teahouse frame on the first rain-free day, only to realize that I couldn't do much until I knew exactly what dimensions I should leave for the window. Shopping for doors and windows is not like getting a new pair of socks, I discovered.

The first place I stopped at I was greeted by a large Asian man who sat behind a laptop of computer, in the rear of a display shop full of attractively finished windows and doors. I located his voice by peering around at angles through about four different windows. I told him I wanted a door, with a round window, sand-blasted to echo the opaqueness of shoji paper windows, a large non-opening 4' by 4' window at the front, behind which I would build a desk, two 4' by 3' windows for the west and east walls, and two 1' by 4' non-opening windows for the sides of the alcove.

Each item was typed into the computer, but seemed to take an enormous amount of time. After a considerable time, I realized he was drawing each window to scale using his mouse. I said I was just hoping to get some general sense of the kinds of windows he could suggest, and their cost.

"This way will make it all faster down the road," he assured me, smiling at the screen. I'm not sure that his eyes left the computer screen all the time I was there. Also I wasn't sure what "down the road" meant. I sat twiddling my thumbs as he worked away on the computer. I couldn't imagine what he was doing. After a while, I said I had to leave as my wife wanted the car for the afternoon&emdash;all true.

"Just a moment now, just a moment." He spoke with real urgency. "I'm nearly there. Just the finishing touches."

Clearly I was grossly trying to rush an artist. He hit a key hard, raised the hand high in the air on the rebound, and smiled seraphically at his creation.

"It's printing now," he smiled.

Across the showroom, a printer did indeed begin to whir, and I followed him towards it, relieved that he could walk and was not physically attached to the computer. He proudly handed me three pages of details, with, indeed, little pictures of each item in each section. Around the diagrams was a mass of information, mostly following abbreviations which meant nothing to me (DBL CLR NAC), though I could guess, and occasionally using whole words, which I couldn't understand (e.g. "brickmould"), though I found out later. All the dimensions were given in millimeters. The only translation into feet and inch measures was for cubic feet. Thus the 1/4" = 1' scale picture of the 5 foot by 4 foot window was to be 7.373702 cubic feet. (I had imagined first a very large window, but then realized I might have difficulty also fitting a door on the same wall if I didn't constrain my imagination a bit.)

As a product of massive investment in time on the computer this was all somewhat mystifying. But each item did have a price attached, down to the penny. The next day, when I could have the car again, I visited a couple of other places, and was given quick and workmanlike quotes. Sitting at home at my desk with the three sets of quotes in front of me, I felt about as bewildered as when I began. The prices quoted varied by hundreds of dollars. What was the ignorant consumer to make of this? The computer man wanted $1,342.61 for the door, whereas the man I liked most, and who was enthusiastic about the project when I told him what I was doing, quoted $754. Would the cheaper one fall to pieces in a few weeks? The middle quote was for $980. The computer man wanted $410.38 for each of the 1' by 4' windows, whereas the pleasant guy wanted $159.00.

I phoned each of them and explained my quandary. Perhaps the computer calculated for gold hardware? When I talked to the middle quoter, he expressed surprise that his competitor a few blocks away was quoting so much less. I asked what was there about his that might make them so much more expensive (e.g. $525 for the 4' by 3' windows as against the $381 quoted by my good friend up the road). There was a moment of panic, and an admission that the competitor "made a good product too". He phoned back later to offer revised figures, but by then I had contacted Rob, and we were to meet to get all the final details sorted out&emdash;like which way the door was to open, etc. Rob was so keen on the project that I thought he might offer the door and windows for free. Oddly he didn't.

Another afternoon of framing between the rainstorms, and I had two walls up. The hard part was pushing the walls up to vertical once I had nailed all the pieces together. I should have had help, but, as usual, there was no-one around. The first wall frame went up without too much trouble, though it was a lot heavier than I had expected. That was the rear wall. I had nailed 2" by 4"s onto each side to support the wall and prevent it from falling forwards. The cedar tree was behind it, and would prevent it falling that way. The next wall to go up was the one facing east, overlooking the bamboo and fence. I wasn't sure how to support it, as I could fit a 2" by 4" brace only on one side. I heaved it up, and felt a sudden panic as it swayed and threatened to keep going over. It would have smashed the fence and crushed the bamboo. I hung onto to it desperately, pulling it back. I leaned down with one hand and grabbed another eight-foot long 2" by 4" and slotted it against the window frame, hammering it in to make another brace. I added a couple more, then climbed up to the top to nail a temporary short brace across the two walls.

Sitting at my desk the next morning I saw a huge back hoe operating in the garden beyond my Japanese-style fence. It seems Shirley and Jerry, of the Japonica quince and empty lot to the east, had finally sold the land, and the new owners were doing as she predicted, leveling the whole surface of the garden. At least that would be the end of the morning glory, I hoped. As the monster came closer to my fence, I went out to recommend they preserve the quince.

I couldn't see how much clearing they had done. When one of the workers looked up, I waved, and he came across to the fence. I shouted, over the roaring of the back-hoe, that he might be interested to preserve the beautiful quince just behind the fence.

"Don't worry. It's all gone!" he shouted, waving cheerfully. So my liberating half the quince was sort of justified.

I did something a while ago to strain my elbows, perhaps connected with lugging around too heavy stones. Now I have exacerbated the problem by the heavy bouts of hammering, and seem to have developed tennis elbow, or is it golfer's elbow, or perhaps both. Lifting a phone after a day's wielding the hammer is agony. Aching at those joints most noticeably, and at all the others too (as I wouldn't want your sympathy to be too localized), creates an odd dilemma. Normally when I strain something and am in pain, I go to the doctor or physiotherapist, and learn that I must rest it and do the following set of impossible-to-remember exercises, twenty of each, three times, twice a day. But I can't rest from this job, or the skeletal frame will sit there for weeks. Indeed, I learned the term golfer's elbow from a friend who claimed to have it and described symptoms just like mine. I didn't confess to having it also, as he had a brace on his arm and was using it as little as possible. I am having to try the alternative, more Irish, therapy of ignoring it and hoping it will go away, bored by neglect. I'll let you know how it works.

There is something in this approach of ignoring pain, I'm sure. I had read of a study some years ago that recommended going off painkillers after an operation as quickly as possible. The pain initially was much greater, but went away much more quickly, the study claimed. I was at the time having the second of identical knee operations, and had followed the usual routine after the first of powerful pain killers in the first days, gradually reducing them over the weeks, till the pain was more or less gone. It took nearly a month of considerable discomfort. (The operation was fairly nasty and involved carbon, molybdenum, and nickel screws in the shinbones&emdash;not three screws but the three elements made up each screw.) After the second operation I decided to try giving up painkillers as soon as I left hospital. The first two days were bad, but, as the study predicted, by the third or fourth day, my brain had clearly decided this was boring and gave up registering pain.

Well, after that uplifting story, we need to get back to the framing. What was fairly frustrating as I hammered away, bending the occasional nail and having to tug it out, was hearing the guys begin work over the fence on a new house. The pneumatic thump and hiss of their power nail guns made me and my aching elbows feel a bit envious. I'd buy one if I didn't fear nailing myself to a wall with it.

These winter days when it isn't raining, I carry out the workstand and a box of tools, and begin to measure and cut 2" by 4"s. There are moments of exasperation when I measure, carefully, I think, and make a pencil mark on the wood, then extend the mark into a neat line with a set square, then cut carefully with the circular saw, and find that the cut piece of wood is a quarter inch short. How does it happen? But mostly, by being even more careful, I manage to cut the wood to the right size, lay it out on the floor, then nail it together. The framing goes quickly, and from a suitable distance (measured in miles) looks quite professional.

Standing at the workbench, in the old black coat my father bought just before he died, the mind relaxes, and odd thoughts drift through. This morning I read in the paper that the Galileo spacecraft had recently flown by Jupiter's moon, Europa. Measurements of the moon's magnetic field apparently support the theory that the moon is made up of an icy crust, some miles below which there is a watery ocean. As I lean over the next 2" by 4" and coax the saw blade along the pencil line, I feel Europa somewhere out there, with its waters swirling. My other relaxing pastime on this magnificent coast of North America is kayaking, and for a moment I realize that as I am cutting here now, very particular waves at particular points on Europa are moving restlessly, as water pulled by celestial neighbors moves. So far from the sun, and under a thick surface of ice, the waters would be dark. A while ago, a little foolhardily, I was in a kayak at night on English bay, gradually coming in towards the lighted high-rises of Vancouver's West End. I was far enough away for the city to be silent, with just the noise of the waves and paddle slicing the water. Somewhere on Europa, on its dark interior ocean, I imagine idly as the cut end of the 2" by 4" falls, one might kayak. Protective suiting and an oxygen pack might change the feel a tad from a spring evening in English Bay. Jupiter's enormous nearby heaving force keeps Europa's core warm, and who knows what waves that force piles up in that dark ocean. All very well, the mind says, but it's time to cut the headers for the windows, and less attention to Europa and more to the measuring tape might be in order.

Now I have done something rather shameful, and a bit embarrassing, and it's your fault. But I think I need the break to a new chapter to build up the courage to tell you. Meanwhile, here's what the tea house looks like framed with some sheathing on it:


Return to Japanese Garden Introductory Page

Return to Home Page