Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 25, 2020

A valuable informal education

Husband Art and I recently installed a couple of shelves under a kitchen cabinet in our Wisconsin cottage. The extra storage was desired because, just as at home, we were stocking canned goods and other staples to avoid frequent grocery-shopping trips and the related potential COVID-19 virus exposure.

One option considered was to install a shelf for the microwave underneath the cabinet, thereby freeing up counter space. The second was to keep the microwave where it was and add shelves above it. After several days of pondering and "picturing" how they might look, we chose the latter.

Stopping at the home-improvement store, we found some pieces of particle board in the clearance area. Since Art is an electrical engineer, it doesn't surprise me when he puts in a new outlet, replaces a switch, puts a new cord in a lamp, repairs an electrical appliance, or installs new electric heaters in the bedrooms. But his ability in seemingly unrelated areas such as fixing cars, figuring out plumbing and septic tank problems, and tackling carpentry projects amazes me.

I've also noticed that his building projects require as much time for planning - sometimes even more - than the actual construction. The first thing he did when we were back in the cottage was to hand-sketch drawings of the components. From there, he carefully measured the purchased pieces and then retired to his computer for some computer-aided design work.

My role was to "clear the decks" - meaning remove everything from the counter area - and to stand by to be a helping hand and occasional "go-fer." Additional responsibilities included blowing the sawdust away as Art sawed so he could see the pencil marks on the wood and to make sure our cat's curiosity didn't risk one of her nine lives.

Next, it was time to pre-fit the pieces, including locating and making screw holes. Pleased with the final product, he immediately disassembled it, I stained the parts that required it, and then it was set aside to dry.

The following day, after gathering the separate parts, he applied wood glue to the joints and screwed them together.

The shelf unit wasn't very large, but it was too heavy to hold in place while drilling holes to screw it to the wall. Not a problem! Art put the microwave in place below it and then added various-sized wood pieces between it and the shelf unit to raise it in position below the cabinet. Once in place, he drilled holes where the wall studs were located so it would be held securely.

While it seemed like a lot of time for such a modest unit, I was familiar with all the steps from previous projects we've worked together on, such as adding a computer room and finishing the family room in our basement at home to replacing our cottage porch floor.

Art said he learned a lot of techniques from his father Tom, who was also an all-around "fix-it" guy. Keeping his work trucks operational was Tom's first priority, but after that, his attention turned to home projects. These included removing the large screened front porch from the family's house and replacing it with an "entry-way" style front stoop; taking down a wall between the dining and living rooms; re-doing the kitchen - including making all the cabinets and counters and swapping the stove and refrigerator; and creating a bedroom for Art and his brother in what had previously been just an open attic. The latter project required moving the stairs, adding flooring and walls, building closets and bookshelves, putting in wiring, and adding ducts for heating. In the basement, Tom removed an old coal-burning furnace and replaced it with an oil-burning unit. He replaced the two-car folding garage doors with one large overhead door.

And he did all the work himself, except for some help from Art.

Several "tricks" caught my attention. While drilling, he wrapped a twist tie around the bit just above the depth of hole he wanted to make sure he didn't drill too far into the wood. When he was ready to screw the pieces together, he first ran the screw threads across a bar of soap to reduce the friction when they "sunk into" the wood. When I asked, he said they were both something he picked up from his dad.

Our daughters Mariya and Katie have learned a few tips from their Dad as well. One of Mariya's mantras - just like Art's - is "measure twice, cut once." She took a high school woodworking class, where she made a cutting board and wall shelf for us and a beautiful mahogany bookshelf for herself.

"I just wanted to see if I could do it," she told me. "It was fun to make something with my own two hands."

Mariya was Art's main helper when they renovated her apartment just before she started college. They upgraded the entire bathroom - bath to shower, new lavatory, new toilet, gas to electric water heater - and most of the kitchen - new sink counter and sink, new floor.

In her current home, Mariya has anchored bookshelves and a large-screen TV to her walls and has done various electrical projects. She and wife Miriam also made a "cat tree" for their three rescue cats, modeling it after the "TARDIS" in the British "Doctor Who" science-fiction series. The TARDIS - Time And Relative Dimension In Space - is a fictional time machine and spacecraft in the show.

When we were visiting Katie and husband Matt in New Mexico, Katie and Art put up a pegboard tool organizer in their garage as a surprise for Matt. Katie, who often has said, "electricity is magic," now feels comfortable installing electrical outlets and switches.

After Tom died, Art's mom said she knew life would be different without the man she called her best friend. But what she was not prepared for was how much she would miss having someone around who could do everything from change a watch battery to lay the concrete for their driveway. As a former professor, I understand the value of a formal education as much as most folks. But the informal education passed from generation to generation can be awfully handy as well.

Top-left: The finished product above the microwave filled with goods; Top-middle: working on the cottage porch floor in 2004 in my usual role as "go-fer."; bottom-left: Art's first sketch of the shelves; right: Mariya's TARDIS.

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