The Garage Door Spring

December 27, 2010

The design for the new garage featured a single ten-foot garage door. It needed to be that size because I have a trailer almost eight feet wide.

But it couldn’t be just any door. It had to be a bit special. Internet searches proved fruitless until I finally spotted the perfect 10X7 in a Kijiji ad in Lakefield. It claimed to be a mahogany-paneled door, but the two-tone photo made it clear that it had luan panels and some white wood I couldn’t identify for its rails and stiles. Nonetheless, it looked good, though the price was steep.

We towed the trailer to Lakefield and bought the door from a custom house builder who had it left over after a change in plans. Considerable research traced it from Stewart Garage Doors Ltd. to its original builder, a small factory in Toronto. The wood other than “mahogany” turned out to be hemlock, admired by the builders for its strength and resistance to rot.

I spent two weeks applying the latest opaque stain to it in preparation for installation day. But then came the sheetrock which dragged on until Roz fitted and screwed the bottom foot around the walls on Christmas Day.

So yesterday we began. The door went together quickly and well until we came to the spring-loaded gizmo that mounts above the door to serve as a counterweight.

The instruction booklet from Stewart’s was obviously never intended for use.

“Professionals install these doors,” the builder had told me. Nonetheless I resolved to rely upon the burnt-fingers method and twenty-five years of experience repairing an ancient 17′ plywood monster. It didn’t have this spring-around-a-shaft mechanism, though.

The Internet provided several good videos on the subject, most of which emphasized the sheer insanity of torquing the spring with anything except a pair of purpose-built 1/2″ steel rods. Pieces of rebar and screw drivers were uniformly dismissed as insanity likely to maim, if not kill. I took that part seriously and made two fine bars, even marking the ends with tape to indicate when they were fully inserted into one of the four holes to turn the end of the spring.

Stewart’s let us down at a critical point. By following their instructions to the letter, I was doomed to fail. When I tightened it, the spring eventually gave a terrifying lurch and crawled up both of its hubs, jamming against the adjusting mechanism on one end and the stationary support on the other. Now what?

Charlie and I managed to pry up the door and escape the garage, but a night of worry produced no real alternatives. By morning, though, contributors responded to my plea and explained that I had probably assembled the thing backwards. They suggested a couple of websites which provided good information. Charlie returned and we went from there.

The spring was partially blocking one of the four holes into which I needed to insert the two winding bars in turn. A couple of seconds at the grinder created a flat 1/8″ deep area on the other end of a winding bar. This allowed it to slide by the offending spring and deep into the hole in question. We were back in business, only this time on the right side of centre, rather than the left. (Conservatives reading this will no doubt clap with glee at the irony.)

Winding this spring is difficult and dangerous. Fastening the little gibs on the hubs is equally stressful, as they must be torqued with a tiny wrench to between 22 and 44 pounds, but the hollow jackshaft keeps collapsing underneath them, so it’s very hard to know how tight to make the screws. Then try it with the end of a large spring up against the square gib so that it makes a loud “sproing” every agonizing quarter-turn.

Part of the burnt-fingers methodology involves frequent stops for feedback. This meant many attempts at raising the door to see if the spring was tight enough yet. Each time we had to fasten the shaft again with the vice grips, inserting a rod to hold things, then back out the gibs and torque the spring yet another turn or two. Force required and stress created increase exponentially throughout this process. Misadventures with these springs resulting in amputation or death are widely reported on home improvement sites.

By the middle of the afternoon, though, Charlie and I were still very much alive with all of our fingers, and the door operated acceptably. On we went to the remote opener. Charlie had never installed one of these before, so he watched a bit bemused as I whipped the familiar parts together. I had installed two.

But he was on hand for the heavy lifting. The simple way to install an opener involves assembling this long beam, bolting one end to the opener mechanism and the other to the garage wall above the door. Then you lift the unit into place and fasten it with metal straps to the ceiling. This is a breeze if you have someone to hold the unit in place.

After the stress of the counterweight, the electronics can wait for another day. The safety beam can be tricky, and training the cars to talk to the opener requires Charlie’s brand of patience.

As for that infernal spring, by the time we’d figured out how to deal with it, the job was done.

The Roofer’s Dictionary

September 19, 2010

Shingle-surfing: a giddy sensation of movement one experiences when the shingle on which one is standing detaches from the nails holding it and begins a descent of the roof, necessitating rapid instinctive movements to restore balance and control before collision with the scaffold or the ground below. The adrenaline rush is palpable, though because this activity fits the definition of an extreme sport, participation by persons older than forty years should be discouraged.

Chalk line: container for string which can be unwound and stretched from time to time to 1) illustrate by the depth of the gaps below the string how uneven the rafters are 2) demonstrate how leaving tools out in the rain turns blue chalk into an interesting paste.

Magnet: efficient device for the salvage of used shingle nails when the calculated allotment of “1000 nails” runs out.

Ice spud: useful device for the scraping of old shingles from the roof (see also shovel, kitchen knife, bread board).

Roll-up: what occurs when an energetic newbie discovers that the soft, bonded-together shingles can be rolled up (nails and all) like a piece of old carpet and dumped over the edge of the roof into the backyard (see beginner’s luck).

Hammer: common construction tool available in a variety of weights and configurations in student households, marginally suitable for the pulling of bent nails but remarkably efficient at mutilating aluminum trim and fingernails. Straight-claw variants of this common tool can actually be used in construction, though the pulling of nails turns this common type into a catapult for the projection of bent nails in all directions.

Tin snips: reinforced scissors for the cutting of sheet metal until pressed into service to cut shingles when the knife blades run out.

Utility knife: oft-maligned disposable cutting device invaluable for the trimming of shingles, thin aluminum trim and roofing membrane. When used freehand, occasionally allows the user to produce artistic shapes in shingles, which earn negative reviews from gallery viewers. Used in conjunction with a straight-edge, has the effect of slowing the entire project down, enabling volunteers to concentrate upon consolidating the shingles into a solid mass by aimless rambling around the roof waiting for something to do.

Mazda 3: modern hatchback automobile, utterly unsuited to the transport of shingles, even though the internal capacity of the vehicle with seats folded down is about right.

2 X 4: common softwood product which can be cut, shaped and adapted to any number of applications in roof repair, limited only by the supply of such products, a saw which has not yet cut any shingles, and a supply of 4” Robertson screws.

Robertson screw: ubiquitous fastening device in Canadian workshops, banned by patent law from American building sites. In conjunction with the cordless drill and screwdriver bit, produces the characteristic loud “churrrrl” sound of the handyman at work.

Roofing membrane: delivered to the jobsite in ridiculously heavy rolls, a new wonder product for use as an ice dam on low-slope roofs. Two broad plastic strips protect the adhesive side. In some cases these can be removed by pulling after the product is in position on the roof. Other attempts produce lumps of mangled plastic under the adhesive, imparting an interesting architectural contour to the otherwise bland plane of the roof. If freed from their adhesive, the white plastic strips can then blow about the building site, imparting a festive air to the project.

Flashing: sheet metal product configured to exploit principles of differential expansion and solar heat to lever fastening devices out of brick walls, utilizing hardened tar as a fulcrum; traditional behaviour of high steel workers to commemorate the completion of a project.

Rules for volunteers on the roof:
1) bring the shingles 2) lay the shingles 3) get out of the way.

Ladder: portable grounding device for the testing of the current-carrying status of overhead wires; wind gauge indicating unsatisfactory weather conditions for roofing when it blows over; justification for the wearing of hard hats on construction sites (see above).

Stepladder: useful device for climbing if set up on a flat, horizontal surface; unstable platform for balancing and contortion acts for the entertainment of spectators when installed anywhere else (see extreme sports).

Backyard: landing area for used shingles, scrap, tools, wrappers, flashing, so that the roof can appear neat and tidy in photographs. Cleaning up the backyard is never figured into calculations of cost or labour allotments.

Volunteerism: strange psychological disorder compounded of empathy and testosterone imbalance leading friends or the curious to pitch in and help. Generally one work session is sufficient to cure sufferers of this strange malady, but some will keep coming back until the shingling is complete. Even these few rare individuals will never, however, show up when it’s time to gather up the shingles and other junk in the back yard.

Used asphalt shingles: hazardous waste to the budget of the homeowner, accepted reluctantly at landfill sites after payment approaching the cost of the replacement shingles. Profit source for removal contractors.

Pickup truck: highly desirable possession of a friend, suitable for the hauling of shingles, brush, old appliances and other debris piled high in the backyard of the recently-purchased house.

Newbies: new owners of older home, prone to embarking upon major projects without knowledge or experience, relying upon energy, the Internet, and considerable intelligence to make their way through. When asked if she would do this again, this one responded: “Sure. Now we’ve done it I would never pay someone to do a roof.”

Pouring a garage floor

August 20, 2010

You Tube offers a variety of film clips on just about any subject, but when I looked for instructions on how to finish concrete, the supply of information suddenly dried up. After yesterday’s pour of a garage slab at the farm I now understood the reason. With four compulsive photographers on the job, not one thought to pick up a camera. There was just too much grit, too much to do, and too little time to spare for non-essentials.

None of us had poured a floor before. Derek offered to help before heading off to MIT for post-doctoral work. That physics background helped: he turned out to be a smart and willing concrete worker. I suspect Martin, the biologist, had never set foot on a construction site before, but he learned quickly and showed amazing strength and stamina. A veteran of projects with Dad, Charlie brought an eye for detail and a dose of caution to the mix, determined to head off his father’s sometimes-reckless excesses.

The family book on me is that I’m good at measuring and cutting but hopeless with anything sticky. Charlie’s never quite gotten over the time I varnished the transom of the boat with a mop. Concrete was an unknown, the transition from liquid to solid fraught with mystery and conflicting opinion, but all sources agreed that timing is critical.

Building inspector Alahan Kabdasamy insisted that I couldn’t pour a floor by myself, nor with one helper: I would need a full crew. So Charlie rounded up Derek and Martin and the plan came together. It’s one thing to plug away by yourself on a project. It’s quite another to schedule an inspection, a volunteer crew with little time-flexibility, and a truckload of highly-perishable concrete on a day with good weather for a pour.

It worked. The truck pulled in two minutes early, and Charlie and Martin were on time. Derek followed them in the lane. The sky was clear.

The driver quickly sized us up and took charge. He knew what to do. I had straightened a sixteen-foot 2X4 that morning on my jointer. That would be our screed. A small beam laminated up out of 4″ pine boards divided the floor in half and set the grade. We would be able to support the screed on the outside forms and the pine beam to level the concrete, then hopefully remove it at the end of the pour and fill in the gap.

The rebar at the perimeter of the slab sat neatly wired to the little plastic “chairs” I had located in Kingston the day before. For the mesh which covered the bulk of the floor the supports were just a hindrance, though. Pulling the mesh up with a hay hook or garden rake worked much better. I hadn’t anticipated quite how chaotic screeding ten cubic yards of concrete – that’s 40,000 pounds – can be. Alahan was right: we definitely needed all four guys on the crew for this part.

To push across the floor with a bull float, you hold the handle low to plane the large trowel fastened rigidly to a 12′ pole over the rough surface; for the return trip you pull from above your head to plane the other edge of the trowel on the way back. Yikes! Much taller Martin took over and quickly became proficient with the thing. He even had enough energy in reserve to shake the float to work the moisture to the surface as the LaFarge guy recommended.

I placed the anchor bolts and Charlie shaped the edges of the slab. Derek went around the bolts with a hand trowel.

Much debate ensued about when was the right time to start the power trowel: the concrete at the southwest corner was almost two hours wetter than the stuff at the northeast, so when and where do you begin?

Charlie looked horrified as I stepped up onto the slab. Oops. Sank too much. Hasty repairs. Twenty minutes later, though, I only sank about a quarter-inch, and that’s when the Internet advice suggested we start to trowel.

None of us had run one of these things. There are no useful sets of instructions available, either. We put the coarse paddles on it, started it up, and the lads lowered it onto the pad.

A power trowel has to be the most right-brained tool I have ever operated. I couldn’t tell you now how to control it. The more I troweled the less I had to rely on strength, but I don’t know what I did differently. The coarse paddles took a serious toll on the anchor bolts, though. Derek and Martin stayed busy with repairs.

But the machine reduced the sticky concrete to a workable substance I could measure and cut, so I soon had the grade where I wanted it. Internet advice said to continue to trowel until you don’t care any more. That point came quite quickly because we were bushed. The slab was smooth and slightly grainy. Any smoother could be a safety hazard. Into the trailer and back to Elgin the strange inverted helicopter went.

Fortunately by 3:30 a thunderstorm took over and gave me a break from spraying the slab. After supper I rolled on a coat of preservative and the day’s work was done. Whew!

This Mother’s Day the time had come for a decent barbecue. Mom had always resisted the things because my dad didn’t like charred food, and taking the unit apart and storing it inside each night was too much work. I determined to put one in place which would connect to the house propane line and be durable enough to survive outside for several seasons without protection from the elements.

I wasted a half-day negotiating for a used Weber in Ottawa, “a steal at $750.” Then Bet suggested for the tenth time: “You should be able to find a new one in town for less than that.” On Friday evening I set out to gain an education in gas barbecues and find an acceptable deal.

On my first stop I ran into a young man who obviously knows his gas grills. I looked at the gleaming Weber at the front of the store, but he seemed to think it was a bit rich for my blood. He directed me halfway back to a row of plain, Ontario-built models. He told me he owns one of these and finds it great for all of his outdoor cooking needs.

I looked to the gleaming monster beside it. He dismissed it as a cheap knockoff and wouldn’t tell me any more about it. He then moved down to the lesser grills and explained how they will cook, but won’t last nearly as long as the one he had chosen for me.  I thanked him. It was closing time in his store, and I had a lot to learn yet. This guy knew his stuff; I’ll give him that.

Next stop was a large department store. I briefly looked at a myriad of huge grills with laughably low prices and lurid product names.

At the farmer’s store I encountered only two models. Ah, limited choices. Good. A shiny one had many bells and whistles. The other one, an Ontario-made model, seemed very plain but had the same price. I couldn’t find anyone in the store, so I headed on.

The Tire place displayed a bewildering variety of grills under a generic name. Two models in my range were priced identically, had similar features, yet looked as though they had been built on different continents. I managed to corner a clerk, who promptly radioed for help. After this process repeated two more times, I got to talk to a manager who obviously knew nothing about the grills. Maybe Friday evening is not the time to shop.

My next department store stop had the predictable array of Asian knockoffs, though one smaller model looked pretty nice. Three clerks into the depth chart and I found one who actually owns one of the grills. All she could tell me about it was that it works well, and she has had it for four years. I added this model to my short list and dashed home to watch a hockey game.

Saturday morning dawned with the realization that I still didn’t have a grill for Mother’s Day dinner, and was more confused than ever. So I asked Google, which promptly turned me over to an assortment of discussion groups devoted to gas grills.

The first thing I learned was that everyone dismissed the imports as cheap throw-aways. The same five brand names kept coming up as quality products. The choices were narrowing down, but time was running out.

This time I found an alert clerk at the farm store, so I peppered her with questions. The brand-name grill turned out to be an orphan which had been around since the store opened. I tossed a low-ball offer. She countered. I offered a more reasonable number which she took to her manager. After a delay she came back, acting a bit frazzled from the battle, but told me the deal had gone through. I wheeled it out to the parking lot, missing drip tray and all.

Once Bet caught and prevented me from firing up the grill with the parts bag still inside, things went well until she tried to remove that blue film which covered the stainless steel parts. She came back into the house looking for a chisel and I figured we had a problem. The blue film simply wouldn’t let go of the metal underneath.

WD40 and varsol didn’t work. Google located a lady in Texas who had faced the same problem. Turns out household ammonia releases the adhesive in the film. I put on my charcoal fume mask and spent an hour scrubbing. Next time I’ll buy a new grill from the guy who knows his job.

Then I accidentally located another little item on the Net. Consumer’s Reports has failed only one barbecue in the last five years. Guess which one melted during its test, dripping molten metal down onto the tank below? Mine, the orphan grill at the farm store. So much for my vaunted research skills. At least the company website makes it easy to order replacement parts online to get the unit up to spec.

Even though the steaks were fine at dinner, it isn’t a good deal if the grill melts when you light it.

The Floor Sander

February 18, 2008

The biggest renovation task when we moved to an older house involved tearing up old carpet to get to the good hardwood floors underneath. The rusted staples through the underlay made my blood boil, but we managed to bleach most of the stains out. Some rooms were so heavily coated with oily varnish that it proved quicker and much cheaper to scratch the finish off with a brace of hand scrapers than to gum up the sander’s belts in seconds of use.

Over a couple of weeks the floors and stairway succumbed. Most of the varnish went on very well, but I had read that the open grain of oak required filler before the varnish, so in the living room I slathered on a generous dose of the goop and waited for it to set. It didn’t. More research revealed that Japan dryer mixed into varnish makes it dry much more quickly. I resolved to put a coat of modified varnish onto the floor in the hope that it would mix with the filler and cause the whole thing to harden. This left a living-room pool of smelly liquid. Not good. Maybe if I used more dryer. To apply the second coat I had to wade, so I settled upon woolen socks covered by clear plastic bags as the footwear of choice. In I went with the foam applicator on a broom handle, and on went the third coat with a fervent prayer to whatever deity controls the drying of varnish.

It worked. The whole thing set up beautifully. Two more coats of gloss and we had a magnificent living room floor.

Thus emboldened, I set my sights on my son’s bedroom. He needed a desk and shelf-unit, so I picked up 300 bd. feet of red oak from a mill north of #7, ran it through the planer and built a complex work unit. This left a great deal of surface to sand, so I resolved to rent a floor sander for his bedroom floor and then press it into service for the new wood, as well.

The old-style Clarke drum sander hurts my back. The angle is just wrong. At that time I was at the stage of life where I tended to adjust things to suit. It turned out that the handles don’t adjust that high. This discovery came to me as I held dumbly to the handle while the rest of the unit took off down a flight of stairs, under full power until the cord pulled out.

Yikes! Fortunately the oak baseboards were pretty tough and I hadn’t hit any balusters, so I got by with one dent in the pine flooring on the landing.

The day was wearing on and I still had that pile of oak to sand, so I moved the unit to the back deck and smoothed the two desk tops without incident. But the deck was the wrong shape for shelves. Ideally a long, flat area would be best for the narrower pieces. The street! Church Street at that time was a series of long, concrete slabs: a smooth, uninterrupted sanding surface.

Fueled by coffee and determined to complete the job before the sander was due back at the rental agency, I arranged the shelves one after the other along the quiet street. The heavy red cord wouldn’t reach the outlet in the garage. In haste I grabbed an extension, one of those yellow things on a reel which were popular in the 80’s. It reached. I plugged in and started the first shelf. Pop! The sander quit. The breaker on the cord reel had let go.

In frustration I walked over and punched the reset button.

Nothing on this earth accelerates as quickly as a Clarke floor sander on concrete. By the time I could get my finger off the breaker the thing was down the street and out of sight behind a Pontiac. What’s worse, I heard a loud “crump” when it hit the curb.  Silence.

I looked around.  Everyone in the neighbourhood had vanished, even the owner of the car.

The sander did not enjoy its encounter with the curb. It cracked the cast aluminum casing. Of course I tried to puzzle out how such an accident could have happened – or more likely I tried to find an explanation which made me seem a little less of an idiot. It came down to the clearly-labeled electronic switch on the unit. Electronic switches don’t normally start up after a power interruption. This one obviously did. Turns out the rental guy had replaced the worn-out switch with a regular light switch, but hadn’t changed the label.

Still, returning the sander was easily my most embarrassing moment to that point in our life in Smiths Falls. Later on I bought my own unit, but I’ve never tried to raise the handle. I just sand until my back hurts, and then quit for the day. It works fine that way. Oh, yes, I also threw that yellow, wind-up cord away and bought a heavier one.