Monday, November 23, 2020

Storm door

     So how you doing? Holding up, between the election and the endless vote tally and the laughable lawsuits and the COVID? Good, good. Me too. Not much news to relate. The boys were home, for about six months, but they're back at school—well, the younger one. The older one went to study in Florida with a classmate, which is possible thanks to remote learning. Smart and resourceful.
     I finished a wooden door. And since some readers are outraged when I write about something that isn't politics, I should say, we'll get there, but it'll take time, as good things often do.
     But finishing the door, is a far, far more complicated process than I could have ever imagined. I'm tempted to write a weeklong series about it. There was the genesis of the project. The hideous battered old black aluminum screen door that was completely wrong for our 1905 Queen Anne farm house but I nevertheless walked through several times a day and tolerated because, well, people will tolerate just about anything, particularly if it is already in place when they show up. There was a period of years where I talked vaguely about "replacing the door" but did nothing, as people also tend to do. Then my wife floated plans of buying a new white aluminum door, and pointed out this complicated Suburban Screen Door System at Home Depot which reminded me of the hatch of a battleship, airtight, which I assume was the appeal.  
     Maybe that was her way of giving me a nudge. Maybe it was sincere, who knows? Anyway, it worked, and I realized that if I was to have a door in harmony with the 115-year-old aesthetic of the house, I'd have to take charge of the project, which I hate doing. But she gave me an additional nudge by going online, and finding the exact right wooden door, in the right wooden door factory right in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It was quite expensive. For a wild moment I contemplated driving up to Fond du Lac to examine this door candidate. But, COVID. So I put my reportorial skills to work, and phoned up the factory and quizzed someone over the phone—friendly people, in Wisconsin, Scott Walker notwithstanding—getting various details, including the fact that the door is sold at Evanston Lumber. 
     I sent an email, then when that did nothing, phoned the owner, and went there, to look at the door, and got to know the owner, a little, who told me he bought the nine neighboring houses so they wouldn't complain about his lumber yard that had been there for nearly a century before they ever showed up. Which is one way to solve that problem. 
    A series of columns would be easy. The factory. The lumberyard. The process of buying the door would be one column, as would Tom, the salt-of-the-earth carpenter  hired to hang the door, since I knew that if I'd put one screw hole 1/64th inch off and the door would never hang true or open properly. His services cost more than the door itself, but I was glad I hired him.
     But since your time is precious, and news is going on, I'd better cut to the chase. The door had to harmonize with our current door, and that took buying a multitude of cans of stain—four, maybe six—before I found the exact right shade, Gunstock ("Gunstock"? Jesus. Why do woodworking and conservative politics go hand-in-hand? That could be yet another post). Once the stain was found, we arrived at the main challenge: marine spar varnish. Close friends of ours treated the old door of their lovely old house in Berea, Ohio with marine spar varnish, and my wife, who'd have been happy with the metal aircraft carrier hatch door let slip, several times, the advisability of using marine spar varnish. It was almost an order, though I liked the idea—it seemed very nautical, and my father was a sailor, and we did once sail across the Atlantic in a ship together, so I guess I'm a bit nautical too, if only in fancy. 
Only $40 a quart
     But applying spar varnish is like building a house. It's like gall bladder surgery: an enormously complicated process. Go online, and look at the tool porn videos of salt-of-the-earth handyman types explaining how to apply spar varnish. At first I thought I would mix the stain into the varnish but the guys I consulted at J.C. Licht—a Northbrook paint store around the corner from our house that I have to plug for all the times I raced in, asked them some frantic question and left—said, no, you put on the stain first, then the marine spar varnish. 
     Only you don't. There is also preconditioner, as my wife discovered, doing her own independent online research—teamwork—which keeps the stain from going on splotchy, and nobody wants splotchy stain. So I watched a variety of wildly differing videos online, some suggesting the stain be applied 15 minutes after the preconditioner, and some saying no, no, it has to be 24 hours. I tried to balance who was right. The divergence was so extreme, it was like watching competing home handyman videos by Martin Luther and the Pope.
     I practiced. I'm ashamed to admit it. I cut up little blocks of wood and practiced applying precondition and stain and marine spar varnish. Then practiced sanding them, a process that itself took a few days. Practice seemed to make sense. Given the cost of the door and the carpenter, I didn't want to then swoop in and Fuck It Up with a bad finish. That would kill me.
     When time approached to actually finish the door, I thought to do it in the garage, and was sweeping out the thick layer of crumbled leaves that lives on our garage floor 12 months a year, no matter what we do, when my wife, who has a genius for bold, out-of-the-box insight, pointed out that our TV room is utterly empty—like many, we're remodeling the homes we're trapped in, covering over a hideous linoleum floor that we tolerated because we're dead inside with real maple flooring—and I should do it there, and I looked at her, amazed, love blooming anew, because I never, ever would have thought of that, and would have suffered for hours and hours in the bone chilling unheated detached garage instead. I prepared the TV room, putting down a drop cloth to protect the floor that is going to be covered by maple flooring anyway because I'm an idiot that way, and set up a pair of sawhorses.  
     So how long to finish a door? A solid week. A day for preconditioning, which I decided needed the full 24 hours because it says so on the can. That's how serious I was about this. I read the can. Then two days of applying stain—the first coat, not dark enough, so sand and apply a second coat, which is just right.
    Then three coats of marine spar varnish, which take six days—and given how bad people are with simple practical situations, I should immediately explain why, though I'm tempted to make you squirm. Three coats require six days...why?
    Sigh. Two side of a door. You stain one, carefully stroking it on, slowly, to avoid bubbles. Then the thing has to dry for 24 blessed hours. Then you turn the door and do the other side. So each coat takes two days.
   Not solid days, mind you. I'd say it took 15, 20 minutes tops to do the door, plus the inset for the screen, for springtime and the glass, for winter (both had to be masked off, using painters tape and brown paper; I'm leaving off all sorts of intermediate steps, like sanding in between coats; I told you, this could run over a week. Or two). 
     So for six days, the door sat on sawhorses in our utterly empty TV room, just before the wood flooring arrived—and on the seventh I gave it a final caress with 350 grit sandpaper: really more like emery cloth—and the spar varnish was like glass.
     The process could not have been rushed. If I hadn't let each coat dry 24 hours it would pill up when sanded (touch the surface after 20 hours and it was still a bit tacky). If I skipped the preconditioner it would have been splotchy. One coat of stain was too light. And three coats of spar varnish were needed for the fabulous glass-like finish I was looking for. I could have done a fourth—some of the endless YouTube videos mention a possible fourth. But I decided not to gild the lily—a glasslike finish would have to do.
     So here's my question: as laborious as the above was, nobody read it and thought, "He should have rushed the door. He should have only given it one coat." So what's the problem with waiting three weeks to thwart the various pathetic legal dodges of the would-be demagogue who would undo it? To make sure every vote validly counted by an American citizen is recorded and certified and shoved up Donald Trump's ass? How is preserving democracy less important than my storm door? Yes, it feels like forever, while it's going on. But when it's done, it'll just be a moment in the long history of our great country. As will be waiting until Jan. 20 for the beast to be booted from office. We should be ecstatic. Squirm as he likes, he's going. The rest are details. So no, I'm not too worked up about his selling drilling rights in the Arctic or appointing judges. He can steal the light plates from the Oval Office for all I care. All that matters is, he's going. Eight weeks from Wednesday. It only seems forever.


  1. It's beautiful. Nice work and you don't see wooden storm doors very often. And hiring someone to hang it, good move. Takes intelligence and usually experience to know what not to do.

    1. Nope, you don't see all that many wooden storm doors very often. I lived in a couple of Midwestern locations that had them, including South Evanston. Ths standard thin painted kind, with a simple latch.They have a screen in the summer and a six-paned storm sash in the winter. And they matched the floorboards of the porch. Painted that ubiquitous shade of "Chicago porch blue"...or gray...or blue-gray...or whatever the hell that shade is. Porch color is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Loved this. My dad taught me woodworking starting when I was about eight. Since then I've refinished everything from furniture to wooden radios cabinets, most of which are still in the house. You'll enjoy looking tb that door every day and thinking "I did that".

  3. Good thing you have that wife. You shouldnt apply finish when the temperature is under 55 degrees

  4. Well done! But no woodworking is harder than you think; you merely discover the numerous subtleties involved in getting it right.

  5. I would've gone with polyurethane. Much easier to use.

  6. "Whats the problem with waiting three weeks..." If an angry child is throwing your Crate&Barrel dishes during his tantrum, should you wait until he gets to the priceless family heirloom? What if he's trying to rip your new screen door off its hinges? BTW, nice job. The door and the post.

  7. Great looking door. Whether or not it could have been done in less time is really of no importance. Pride comes from doing a job and doing it right. I am one of the few who still appreciates the work of one's hands, especially where care and concern are given to doing something meant to last. And I'm probably one of the few who would enjoy reading 6 columns of yours on everything associated with hat went into the door. Luckily you had the time, resources and support of a loving wife.

    1. I would read a week long series on the door project too. Fine work. Hopefully the project will continue to pay dividends in the form of long lasting satisfaction with the result.

  8. "So what's the problem with waiting three weeks"

    Uh, not to put too fine a point on it, but tens of thousands of people will have died from Covid during those 3 weeks. Cases are skyrocketing; things are worse now than in the Spring and both the so-called "Trump administration" and much of the country are focused on the carnival barker's bleating rather than dealing with the crisis. Not to mention the way his stonewalling is hindering the smooth transition to a rational Commander-in-Chief that would be particularly beneficial this time around. You may not be too worked up about the damage the toddler will do in his lame-duck period, but I certainly don't understand why not.

    Plus, there are 73 million people, not a few of whom are batshit-crazy, that he continues to rile up with his lies and intransigence. He's obliterated norms throughout his regime, but sending the message that losing an election decisively is something to be sued over and whined about, rather than acknowledged, is not a good message for our benighted nation and its misguided citizenry.

    The amazing thing -- and it's hard to even imagine, when you think about it -- is that, despite everything he's done, this classless, treasonous exit has trumped almost everything that's come before. If he had had the intestinal fortitude to look at the results, at least by Nov. 7, and graciously acknowledge Biden as the next president and approve a cordial transition, people might have at least given him a bit of credit for that. Now, his "I won, by a lot" attitude will be held against him forever. By people with any sense at all, at least.

  9. The door is gorgeous. Good work. I'd also be happy to read another column or two about the project. I can also see that I will double space after a period for as long as I live.

  10. Your door looks fabulous! Such patience to go through all that! You are as handy as you are talented!

  11. Her Majesty Queen Anne would approve. As would her Royal Architect, Christopher Wren.



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