The Accidental Handyman

“I can do this!” I said out loud, as I surveyed the blueprint drawing on the kitchen table. In retrospect, it was a bold proclamation by an amateur on a grand idea, pitting me – and my lack of building expertise – with a new, untested and sizeable building project. In short, I was in over my head.

Allow me to elaborate. My wife had informed me that our small one and a half story house, though adequate (for me), was no longer suitable (for her), as the walls were figuratively pressing in on her. Expecting to add to our family, I had envisioned doing some minor alterations, but this did not conform to her needs. So, what was I going to do about it?

Well, the next logical step would be to add an addition. The best way to accomplish that was to build directly on top of the kitchen, in effect utilizing the same square footage and completing the second level. We would have the master bedroom we had always wanted, leaving the other bedroom for future bambinos.

The plans (drawn up by a designer from a local lumber company) made it look easy. But it always looks easier on paper when starting out. The rep had explained how all I had to do was remove the sub-roof above the kitchen – it only existed to facilitate water run off – then build a subfloor, frame and erect the walls, add the trusses and sheeting, shingle the roof, and I would be home free. The soffits and gutters could come later. For good measure, I could consult with them for any potential problems if I ran into difficulties. With all the excitement, I had neglected to tell him that I would essentially be doing all the work myself. Either the rep didn’t care – having already made the sale – or he simply had far more faith in my abilities than I had.

When I had first shared my dream of adding to our house, a few well-meaning friends offered to help when able. Also, I reasoned that I was in fairly good physical shape, had four weeks of holidays at my disposal and had (in my opinion) learned enough carpentry skills along the way to qualify. I should point out that I had considered hiring a carpenter, but in the end decided against it strictly out of monetary reasons. After all, I wasn’t going about building an entire house, just adding an addition. In any case, the project was to go ahead that spring, come rain or shine. Famous last words.

The first week went relatively well. A friend had stopped by and helped me in the removal of the shingles and support structure above the kitchen. Another friend came by and helped with hoisting and positioning the 2×12 boards that would form the frame work and be part of the support structure for the future walls. So far so good. Now working alone, I enjoyed wielding the hammer, using the skill saw and watching the floor come together. Again, with a little help, I managed to hoist the 4×8 sheets of plywood onto the frame, nailing them in place. The end of the first week was in sight, just as dark clouds were starting to form in the west. I covered the sheeting with several tarps and securing them, confident that they would do the job and keep most of the water out. Mother Nature begged to differ.

That night, while staying in our temporary rental unit, a storm hit our community. Strong winds and rain battered the houses, and I prayed that my tarps would hold up. The following morning, at first light, I headed over to our house, only to find that the strong winds had completely ripped off the tarps, exposing the partially completed roof to the elements. Checking inside the kitchen, I found that the drywall in the ceiling had ballooned (from all the water) and resembled an inverted bowl, with the trapped water dripping through the light-fixture in center.

As I surveyed the damage, I couldn’t help but think back to the planning stage, where everything seemed to look so easy. Now, I stood in the midst of reality – and the mess from the storm – and it was up to me to work through it. A profound sense of despair and hopelessness hovered over me, like the damaged ceiling fixture above my head. But I shook off those negative feelings, determined to salvage what I could. Amazingly, the damage was confined mostly to the ceiling (I’d have to replace the drywall and the vinyl flooring), but the interior kitchen walls were fine.

 My father had taught me to be resilient and to look for the silver lining even in the most difficult of circumstances. So, I shook of the discouragement and went back to work. Naturally, plight of my misfortune had reached my friends, and those that were able came over and helped clean up.

In the space of a couple of days, we had removed the old ceiling, cleaned up the debris in the kitchen, and started to frame the walls. Things go much faster when you have more helping hands. One of my ‘helpers’ was a farmer and a jack-of-all trades. With his help and vast experience, we had the walls up in a matter of hours and were able to hoist the roof trusses up the following day. I had the foresight of ordering and erecting metal scaffolding around the perimeter. It proved a godsend when lifting and maneuvering all that lumber to the second level. We man-handled and lifted those 4 x 8 sheets all the way up to the roof, no small feat.  

When I reflect on my accomplishment, I shudder to think that I (along with my friends), worked on that steep pitched roof – easily eighteen feet above the ground – while hoisting, positioning and nailing the plywood sheets in place, with none of us wearing any safety harnesses. Some may attest our good fortune and lack of injury to plain old-fashioned luck or guardian angels, but I firmly believe that God was watching over us – specifically over me, the novice builder – making sure I didn’t fall and break my neck.

I learned several valuable lessons in the course of my building adventure. First, be prepared for the unexpected, particularly when weather becomes a factor. It certainly played a big role in my case. The tarps seemed like a sound idea, yet proved inadequate. Second, nothing can compare to finding yourself in difficulty and being bailed out (pun intended) by the timely arrival of a few trusted friends. And lastly, having the courage and humility to accept one’s fate and learning from the experience.

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