95 Percent Finished

By: Dan Cooper , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings

People actually show up at my house for tours. Usually, one of the group have been here before for a visit or what have you, and for some reason, they’re sufficiently impressed that they ask to bring friends over, although the place still looks like Dresden in 1945 to me. Their telephone call invariably comes when I’m trying to hang a sheetrock ceiling or flashing the chimney. For once, I wish I could pull a Tom Sawyer and get them to help sling mud on the newly hung ‘rock, but no, they only want to watch. For them, it’s construction porn. They’re always effusive in their praise, but let’s face it; I’m my own worse critic, and just because I can fool you, doesn’t mean I’ll ever fool me. Or even more so, fool Eastwing.

Eastwing was my carpentry mentor, and I worked as a second on his jobs when he needed someone to hold the stupid end of the tape measure or stand up on a plate and nail rafters into place. Eastwing walked into my newly finished kitchen, looked up at the beams and king-posts and instantly noticed the insufficiently sanded jointer marks. His idea of praise was “You know your limitations, and you’re pretty good at working within them.”

When we first met, one of the things we shared in common, besides eerily identical handwriting and fathers who were psychologists was the fact that we both made our own pipes in high school. Mine were crude blocks of wood with a cutting of screen jammed into one of the holes, while Eastwing made beautiful scrimshaw pieces out of deer antlers joined together with polished brass fittings. At 16, he was already an artisan; I was just a mildly industrious stoner.

But back to the house tour: so as I lead folks about, listening to their misguided admiration, I’ll say “I built these cabinets, and they’ll be done as soon as I get the latches on them.” Or: “I just need to hang the picture molding, and then the hallway will be finished.” Or: “as soon as I can find the right snorkel tube for the toilet, I won’t have to bucket-flush it.” In other words, despite a decade of hard work, there isn’t one room that’s truly finished in my house. Not one: a door always needs a strike-plate or a porch needs a railing.

At the tour’s conclusion someone always chimes in with “You know you love this; what will you do when you’re finished?  You’ll just buy another house.”  I just smile thinly, and my grip tightens on whichever tool I wished I was using instead of chatting. The truth is, I’ve been banging nails for too long. I have friends who live in the West Village in a 700 square foot condo with austere white walls and a black leather sofa. They can clean their home in 20 minutes, even after a party. Right now, I’ll swap a craftsman parlor and an Anglo-Japanese dining room for simplicity.

It’s a curse being able to do your own work; those of you with a checkbook and no construction skills are luckier than you think. Sure, sometimes the electrician never shows when he should and fouls up the entire production line, which causes all the other subs to drift onto other jobs, but at least you can’t blame yourself; you can grouse about them, but ultimately, you can’t say “I could have done this better, cheaper and quicker myself…”

Dan Cooper writes for many architecture and antiques magazines, and is currently finishing a book on the architecture of Albert, Righter and Tittmann, to be published by The Vendome Press in the fall of 2009.  He is also president of Cooper’s Cottage Lace, LLC and is the United States representative of Enterprise Weaving Ltd., an English firm that specializes in historic Wilton and Brussels carpets.