Even when you’re working by yourself, you never build alone. At every point along the path, one draws on wisdom and experience gleaned from countless mentors, bosses, and co-workers. Heck, one might have even picked up a tip or two watching TV. As I pushed this project away from mining and toward the actual construction of stuff, I was drawing on several voices in my head.
Batter boards are something that I picked up somewhere between some Saturday television do-it-yourself show and sneaking a peek at some concrete contractors. When laying out a building, it’s essential to know where your corners are going to be, and where your excavation will take place. Once that excavation is complete, it’s nice to re-establish those parameters before concrete and other similarly permanent articles are put into their proper place. Enter the humble batter board. Most frequently made from scraps or cheap wooden strapping, they consist of two stakes pounded into the ground, after which a horizontal piece is attached (I like to use screws so that my stakes stay in place). Now the builder can pull strings between the batter boards, and have the flexibility to move the lines around. In my case, I was trying to get the shed to be parallel with the two fence lines it abuts, while still being square (the fences are not). So I was able to check and adjust and compromise until I got the best result.
And how did I make the corners square? Well that was my geometry teacher from Sophmore year reminding me about the right triangle (aka, the 3-4-5 square). Pull a tape measure from the intersection of two strings 3 feet and mark with a Sharpie. Next, pull a tape 4 feet in the other direction and mark that. The distance between these two marks should be exactly 5 feet. Adjust as necessary. When everything is perfect, you can simply mark the location of the end of the strings right on the batter boards and then remove the strings, allowing you complete access to the site and the option to replace the strings whenever necessary.
Once the corners are established, the digging can begin. My mentor here is none other than my father, and his father before him. Dad grew up on a farm, where boys were expected to help out, and where fences always needed to be built. So he spent many hours digging holes for posts. One of the formative moments in my young life was when my dad and I were spending a Saturday installing a basketball hoop next to the driveway. He pulled out the ancient auger-type post-hole digger and we got to work turning the wooden handles around and around. After what felt like hours, I looked up at him to inquire how much longer we’d be at this. “Until we dig all the way down to the handles,” he said with a slight smile. I must have scoffed, for he gently told me about the many fences he had dug with this very tool when he was my age.
Fortunately, the frost doesn’t go as deep here as in Rockford, IL, so I was spared too much labor. And I needed to use a clamshell digger to pull out the many rocks and stones and roots that litter the ground here. But 6 holes were sunk with Dad and Grandpa on my mind.
Into the holes went some nifty Sonotubes, which are inexpensive concrete forms made of cardboard. Since they are cylinders, they hold their shape well even when filled with hundreds of pounds of wet concrete. And they can be adjusted for height to insure that the footings are nice and level. But how to fill the forms? Mixing about 20 80-pound bags of concrete is no easy task, and I was considering hiring a contractor who lives down the street and his small mixer to help out. But then I inquired of my neighbor whose 10 X 15 shed inspired ours. He humbly let me know that he and his wife had mixed and poured the entire floor of their shed one bag at a time working out of his wheelbarrow. Once they finished that, they poured the knee walls that support the shed, too. He sealed the deal by showing me a twinkle in his eye and telling me that he’d also delivered all of the bags of concrete mix in his car, taking countless trips to the local home center to deliver literally tons of material to his house. It is one of those tales of dogged determination, home-spun engineering, back-breaking labor, and basic stubbornness that puts wind in your sails.
There’s something about knowing that something can be done that inspires confidence. I’d never mixed this much concrete, but I knew that if Saven could do it, so could I. Moreover, the fact that he was willing to lend me his wheelbarrow to mix it meant that I’d have another– albeit non-sentient– advisor. Sometimes, the tools can teach you the way you should go.