It has been said that they don't build them like they used to. I have fixed things that fly, float, drive, and shelter, and I will answer, Baloney.

All ages build a great mass of shoddy cheap product. It's a human thing. It's just that those things fall over and are forgotten while the really good bits last and get cherished. And then are mistakenly said to be representative.

It's the delusion of nostalgia. And it's a good delusion. It makes some of us try harder to match an imagined bygone quality and so make that quality a real living thing today.

I had ample time to mull about this once. I was called in to do a quick job fixing up the woodwork on an older house before the painters came along.

The client was remarkable herself. She loved the house. It was a three storey Victorian divided into rental units. She bought it knowing she couldn't afford to live in it. That she would have to keep the renters. She planned to be able to move in by the time she retired. Meanwhile she would live elsewhere but take care of it. Painting one of these wooden frolics costs a fortune because it looks awful if you don't do it right, and you've got to do it or the rain gets through and destroys the house. She knew this and had painted her own house herself so she afford professionals for the Victorian. Rare client.

The work was pretty straight forward until I got to the weather side of the house. It had been exposed to sun for 94 years, and I found large areas of decorative cedar shingles that peeled away like cellophane. The nails had rusted through.

Most of the shingles were a simple 4 inch diameter half-circle at the tail. Very common in this area. An afternoon on the phone brought out the unforgivable fact that replacements do not exist. I could get regular expensive grade A square-ended cedar shingles, or ones with a 5 inch diameter tail for an even more jaw-dropping price.

These bits of bad news were brought to the client. She is a good soul and a business woman. She stared at the house, which was already costing too much with the paint job alone. Now we couldn't get the right shingles. She was trying to digest the cost, and couldn't accept putting up the wrong shingles. I suggested, gently, that I could cut 4 inch diameter shingles from grade A regulars, but it would naturally add to the cost, and probably be a good deal more than the 5 inch, because those were a production item. Just information. I didn't think she'd do it, and I wouldn't blame her. I just wanted to offer some sort of solution. She stared at the house. "Okay. Yes. We'll do that."

You can't help but back a client like that. I hand cut 1,400 shingles. I came out cheaper than the 5 inch. The old ones came off like they had decided they were ready to travel. Remember I said the nails were rusty? I keep old hand forged square nails when I can find them. From all those shingles I got less than a baby jar's worth. But underneath the structure was dry. 94 years and held by memory alone the shingles had not failed. I renailed all the structure I could reach with stronger galvanized nails. I wasn't going to let the structure nails rust through before the new shingles needed replacement themselves. I didn't think to tell the client either; the priority had already been put clear: do this right. Each new shingle was nailed down with galvanized nails, just so. "Like the old days" but even stronger. There's a technique to it, so the shingles can swell when wet, and so there are no hairline cracks to split them decades from now. Good carpenters know how to do this, but damn few ever have a client willing to pay them to be sure each one is perfect. Clients will tell you they want the best, and want to know how fast and cheap you can do that so they get a "deal". Which will do for a thirty or fifty year roof, so that's what gets done. But this time it was to be as before. Before was a one hundred year roof. Each shingle was set spot on. And this time each has nails that may outlast the shingles, so I have no idea how very long it will be to next time.

Which is a unique feeling. I got to replace the work of someone so long dead before I was born as to be forgotten, and my work will also last enough generations that the next reshingler will have no idea of me except to be amused at the funny nails used "back then". I'll be in the ground before those shingles even start middle age. I can't imagine what my city will look like when it's time to replace them, just as the former carpenter could not have imagined now.

Which is because of that client and her reaction to the house. This is stewardship, not ownership. And this always has been rare. I really don't give a hang about the house. It's what it represents. What can be done when people care. It's not about anything being x hundreds of years old, but the feelings it produces in the people who have decided to make it so.

This site is strictly personal. I give no guarantee to the accuracy of my facts or my fictions.
© 2001 Owen Briggs
last modified on 15 may 01