Anyone can do basic carpentry. All you have to know is how to read and which way is up.

August 29, 2010

Turns out each of these is a tall order. My usual crew members have departed for B.C., one on vacation and the other to a conference, but the trusses for the garage arrived a week early. With thoughts of the pristine trusses turning to pretzels in the August sun, I made a quick call to former student Dale Edwards at Rideau Lumber and soon had materials for the walls to hold the trusses up.

Years ago when I worked in the shop at Rothwell-Perrin someone else did the layout on the panels we banged together all day. The houses seemed to assemble at a fairly quick pace. It’s another matter entirely when there’s just one old guy, a pile of new, straight 2X4’s starting to curl in the heat, and the Ranger to serve as cart and workbench.

The first task on the first panel was to fit the treated-pine 2X4 which sits on the concrete pad. The anchor bolts looked a little snaggle-toothed when I approached them with a drill. How would I get all of those angles correctly copied into the bottom of the wood?

I placed the green scantling on top of the row of bolts and gave each a firm tap with a hammer to mark the spot. Then I guessed. I drilled the holes out and the 2X4 fitted over the bolts neatly, so it was on to the layout stage.

I pressed the Massey-Ferguson into service to lift the panels with the loader. I’d left off the last foot of sheeting to create space for a chain. This worked.

But then it got tricky. Do you know how many ways there are to foul up the arrangement of two 2X4’s lying beside each other on a bench? On that third panel I think I discovered all of them. Two attempts at a very simple wall were abandoned to confusion on the first day. The following morning I laid it out again, this time with a black magic marker. I’d reached the point of no return.

The tractor lifted the panel onto the anchor bolts, two in this case. They went on fine, but one end of the panel now hung over the yard and the other was dangerously close to the centre of the garage. What?

It’s all about knowing which way is up. I had figured out how to nail up the panel without having to turn it over or reverse it, but in the process I lost track of which surface of the bottom plate had to be UP to fit over the bolts. It cost a few frenetic minutes with a hammer drill and what had been a pretty good woodworking bit to set this error right. Bet’s confidence in my abilities as a carpenter did not increase that morning.

What’s worse, I wasn’t sure the same thing wouldn’t happen on the next wall.

Then comes the second half of the woodworking prescription: the ability to read. An email from a truss manufacturer which promises delivery before September 3rd may mean the truck will arrive without warning on August 25, so it would be wise to have the space ready well in advance. I had to make the guy wait while I leveled 18 yards of gravel to make a semi-flat surface for his load.

But that’s not the only kind of reading required of a framing carpenter. My dad always put great faith in his square, but I’ve never trusted the thing. Unless you’re an expert it’s too easy to build a cumulative error into layout with one.

I remember in the mid-seventies when a group of us put up the trusses on colleague Robin Fraser’s garage. Paul Smith went down one wall with a square and I shinnied down the other. Nobody thought to check if we ended up with the same number of spaces at the end. Brimming with testosterone, the gang of young teachers on a Saturday morning had the things up and braced before anyone could look. Robin told us later that Paul and I did, in fact, end up with the same number of trusses by the end of the garage, but he had to cut every sheet of plywood they installed on that roof because of the errors accumulated over 30 feet with coarse marking crayons.

The same thing happened when I tried to transfer the marks around to the other side of 2X4’s after laying them out upside down. Factory-machined dimensional lumber has rounded edges and every line requires guesswork to transfer from one surface to the next. Things just didn’t line up right on the panels. Window frames were a little crooked. I compensated by making the openings a little larger and soldiered on. There’s always foam, and for really big gaps I can cut shims with my band saw.

What I had thought would be an easy woodworking job has turned into a real challenge because I keep losing track of which way is up. But this is the easy part. Wait until those trusses go up.

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