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Deck Building - A humorous account

All Decked Out

By Mike McIntyre

I'm building a deck in my front yard. Let me rephrase that: I'm assembling a collection of lumber pieces and hardware in our front yard with the hopes that I can make it look enough like a deck, or at least some recognizable structure so that the neighbors won't laugh. At least not out loud.

It started out in a seemingly harmless way as a "free estimate". You fellow homeowners know the scenario to follow. You can probably already hear the familiar "Jaws" music beginning now. We had a roof that looked in need of some work. Specifically, it looked as if every wind that ever encountered our house was at an upward angle and contained some amount of airborne greenish slime. The edge shingles were curled up like moldy taco chips. So when this guy called on us to give a free estimate on re-roofing the place we thought, "hey, what could it hurt to get an estimate?".

Well, three days later it hurt to the tune of $15,000. It included not only the replacement of the house roofing but several other items. Re-roofing and re-siding the garage, a new garage door with an opener, all new windows, glass-block windows for the basement, and finally, at the insistence of my wife (whom I may never trust again), the breaking up of my perfectly functional (though ugly) concrete front porch and sidewalk. This was to allow (force) me to build the front deck that I had been talking about for years. And since we weren't quite ready at the time to replace the existing structures, we lived for several months with an assortment of rubble McNuggets in our front yard. The person that I'm sure this bugged the most was the postman. He not only had to traipse through all of the broken concrete rubble, but also had to probably lob our mail NBA-hook-shot style up to our mailbox, which is mounted next to the front door. This is because with the missing porch the mailbox was now about nine feet off of the ground. He's a nice guy, but this had to try his patience, and I can only hope that he doesn't own any automatic weapons.

I thought that I could build this deck since I have prior experience. I built my first deck at our house in a Detroit suburb. It ended up as a structure on which you could park a cement truck. It was up against our pre-fab (factory-built) house that was located in an upscale mobile home park. If a tornado ever hits it (c'mon, what are the odds that a tornado would hit a mobile home park?), the house may go, but the deck will still be there.

So when I bought my first real house, of course I had to build a deck. This one ended up in the back yard, is 22x24, and includes two finished sets of steps, several flower boxes, a built-in railing bar (for food and drinks), and custom-cut trim/molding everywhere. It is the overkill deck from hell, and you could probably park TWO cement trucks on it (as long as you don't mess up the trim).

Much like my current project, the problems started happening on my backyard deck almost immediately. I had a nice detailed plan of where everything should go, and I thus began the actual constructing phase of the deck building with confidence. But the first thing that needs to be done is to dig the post-holes. Contrary to popular belief, the ground, when not covered with buildings or pavement, does not consist simply of dirt. Evil forces have managed to place other things down there, many of which are harder than the tool that you’re trying to whack them with. In our back yard it was roots. We have this wonderful old silver maple tree that provides us with hours of shade during the hot summer months, and roughly 8,000,000,000 “helicopter” seeds each spring. It’s a nice tree but it’s very old. I believe that long ago male dinosaurs lifted their leg on this tree. It’s as big as a rental car at the base, and almost as indestructible, but the significant issue is that it has roots as big around as my leg.

I chose to use the same post-hole-digging tool that I had used in my prior deck. It looks like two skinny shovels, mating shamelessly and you work it by ramming it into the ground and then performing the very unnatural act of pulling the handles away from each other (as opposed to squeezing them together as in pliers or scissors). Sometimes you get a largish clump of dirt and you feel like you’re really accomplishing something. Sometimes you get six dirt molecules, four of which fall off when you pull out the digger and you feel like renting a backhoe. I’d be digging away, making progress, and suddenly I’d hear the familiar “thuck” of contact with one of the roots.

I could almost hear the tree laughing so hard that it dribbled sap down its sides. Now I had to examine my options. I could redesign the deck so that the posts were in different places, but with my luck there would be even bigger roots in the new locations. I could dig around various places in the yard until I either passed out from exhaustion or I found some suitable spots for posts, but this could have caused my backyard to resemble a landfill. Then I realized that I had two things going for me to help the situation: (1) I’m a guy, a species who’s problem-solving techniques are often severe and occasionally dangerous to a point approaching stupidity, and (2) I have a large collection of power tools. If the local authorities ever watched the way that I use some of these power tools, they would require me to obtain a permit. Or move.

One of these tools is a chainsaw. This is a fun tool for guys because it makes a lot of noise and you can destroy things very quickly. And so I used the chainsaw to attack the roots. There’s a picture somewhere of my kneeling over a post-hole holding my chainsaw entirely below ground level to cut one of the offending roots. The picture doesn’t show it but dirt and sawdust and grit were flying everywhere. I had to stay up late some nights learning new swear words because the ones that I knew weren’t sufficient for this task. I don’t think that my chainsaw has ever forgiven me for this abuse because it takes about a hundred pulls and even more swear words to get it to start these days.

The other problem that came up with the back deck was angles. I decided that my first deck, while sturdy, decent looking, and perfectly functional, was too boring. So on the back deck nearly everything that could be cut was done so at forty-five degrees. Granted, forty-five is a much easier angle to work with than, say, sixty-seven, but since everything including the steps and all of the floorboards were angled, I had a great deal more cutting to do and a lot of leftover wood scraps in weird shapes. Here’s a tip for anyone considering building their own deck: the reason that lumber comes in the shape of rectangles is a clue that this is the shape that decks were meant to be.

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But the deck got built, and we’ve enjoyed it for years, and I continue to get compliments about it from neighbors and guests. So, fast-forwarding to the present day and the present deck, I felt that even though I was a few years out of practice I was still riding a winning streak. This confidence quickly ended during the digging of my first post-hole when I hit something that didn’t make that “thuck” sound that meant that I got to play with my chainsaw again. This sound was more of a “chink” and it vibrated clear up through my dental fillings. It was part of the foundation for the old porch, lying there in its grave, waiting to haunt me. Once I saw what it was, I knew that I was in trouble because I don’t have a cement-cutting blade for my chainsaw. I could have called back the guys who broke up the porch in the first place to dig up and remove the foundation, but I wasn’t too crazy about handing over another future year’s worth of disposable income at this point. I thought about renting a jackhammer. I though about using dynamite. And for the briefest of moments I really missed my old porch.

I had to relocate seven of the ten posts, messing up my professional-looking drawing and leaving me with holes that not only didn’t line up with each other, but it some cases didn’t appear to line up with anything at all. It looked as if a band of terrorist gophers had decided to target my front yard. As someone who takes pride in his work, it was embarrassing. It became even worse once I put the posts in, because you could then see the misalignment from the sidewalk and the street. One of my neighbors passing by even asked me in all seriousness what it was going to be. Obviously he didn’t think that any normal structure could be built on top of randomly placed posts that were clearly installed there as part of a prank. I had this fear every day that I would come home from work to a summons from the building inspector to answer to the charge of “Committing an Obscene and Totally Tasteless Act of Construction Involving Lumber and Displaced Dirt”. I was certain that I’d serve some serious time for this, and also that the warden would laugh hysterically at any of my attempts to add “wood shop” to my list of rehabilitation activities while in the slammer.

But I got the beams and joists bolted together, got the floorboards screwed down, and I’m working on the railing as I’m finishing this article. The article will be done before the deck, but I think of them both as part of the overall project. Because the deck will soon become a part of our everyday lives, and anything that familiar deserves to have its story told.

Our thanks to Mike for sharing his story with us

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