Drinking Beer & Building Shit: The Deck Stairs

If there ever was a summer in my life that I’d want to be on a roll with building shit, this would have been the one, obviously.

Was I? Absolutely not. 

I’ve never been able to fully articulate the difference between when I’m “on” and “off” as it relates to building. Sometimes–through fate, or alcohol, or the alignment of the stars, or (more likely) brain chemistry–I am just on. I have energy for days, I can hold numbers and building plans in my head without trying, I never mis-cut a board, and the most complex projects seem laughably easy. Sometimes this lasts a week, or a couple of weeks, or the entire first half of 2019. 

And then there’s the other times. Where I will sit and stare at a pile of lumber (or the space where I’m supposed to be building things) for a very long time. I will get distracted by whatever nonsense is on my phone. If I try to force it, I will mis-cut every board twice and then lose my shit

The very strange thing is that this is almost exclusively related to building shit. And sometimes with writing. But it doesn’t happen in the other areas of my life, like with my job (which, like building, requires both right and left brain participation), or my workouts (which, like building, require a degree of energy and motivation).  

My point is… brains are very weird. 

Historically the way I’ve handled this is… I just don’t build shit when I don’t feel like building shit. (Or, sometimes I let myself build whateverthefuck I want, even when there are more critical projects I should be working on.) And that has worked because I’m okay with living in a house that has no flooring and holes in the walls. But you can imagine it’s weird for people in my life (hi mom) who need me to help them with small, building-related tasks, and instead of getting anything done, I’m just staring comatose at the tape measure (when literally the month before I fabricated a couple of built-ins in a weekend out of basically scrap wood.) 

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(True story: In the worst of my “off” period this summer I tried to force myself to finish those cabinets for my mom, and ended up spending a fair amount of money on custom, non-returnable cabinet doors in sizes so wrong I think maybe I had a stroke when I was reading the tape? I mean, come on. It’s a fucking rectangle divided in half, and I have built actual houses. It should not be possible for me to fuck it up that bad. But I did.) 

All of this is to say… this summer, I did drink beer and built some shit. And on the scale of how much I was in Kicking Ass and Building Shit Mode? (10 being this and 0 being those cabinet doors I mis-measured.) I was probably at a 5.7 for this one: 

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That’s what I spent a week’s worth of evenings staring at. The back of my mom’s deck. 

My mom’s deck needs some work in general, but you know what was impossible to come by this summer? Pressure treated wood. Everyone and their goddamn uncle was building decks (which I wholeheartedly support) but also, so irritating when I need lumber and it’s out of stock.  Also, you know what I’m not doing when I’m at a 5.7 on the Building Shit Mode scale? Replacing all the decking and railings on a 600sf deck. Just no. 

However, this was legitimately driving both of us nuts… 

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The existing railing was right at eye-level-when-sitting-down height and blocked the view of the lake. And I was like, okay, I’m not in Building Shit Mode, but, also, it’s stairs, right? I should be able to do this in my sleep (and/or with the help of 4 cases of beer.) 

Here’s the thing about being at a 5.7. This build was miserable. (Also it was the hottest, muggiest week of the year.) But, also, it was not impossible. 

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Luckily, my mom’s house is a mile down the road from the farm, and I have a tractor with an auger. So digging the holes for the concrete piers was relatively easy. (Did I break a shear bolt and also somehow cause a leak in the gear box of the auger? Of-fucking-course.) Was the grade of the ground a pain in the ass? Also yes. 

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Did I buy those stringers pre-cut? Absolutely. 

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Did I also send my mom on a mission to 4 different lumber yards to find enough pressure treated wood to finish these off? I did. 

I basically outsourced (to my tractor, my mother, the liquor store, and whoever cuts those prefabbed stringers) all the major hurdles in the project. 

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It was so miserably hot that for the first time in my life I worked barefoot and in shorts on a project. (Definitely regretted the barefoot thing more than once, but it’s cool, my tetanus is totally up to date.) But I will say that at the end of those hot, miserable building sessions… this wasn’t the worst way to end the day. 

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After about a week of trying not to shout profanity in front of the neighbor kids (whom I adore), there were stairs… 

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And a much better view from the deck. 

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(The railings are temporary until the whole new deck railing goes in.)

Also, here’s a legit (even after 4-cases-of-beer) protip… I ran a 1/4″ roundover bit in my palm router over the ends of the deck boards on the stairs. Looks way more polished. 

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Also, that “starting stair” that’s wider than the rest of the staircase and wraps around the railing posts? That was just because I fucked up on the height of where the top of the first step should land based on the grade… decided to add another step, and decided since I was adding another step, I might as well make it fancy.

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None of which would have happened, if I’d been a 7+ on the scale and all my initial measurements were right. Are we doing philosophical life lessons today? If so… there’s probably one buried in there somewhere.

Like I said, it wasn’t easy. But difficult does not mean impossible.

At the end of the day I’m happy with how the stairs turned out, happy we made a little progress on Lake House projects this year, and definitely not going to talk about how many actual cases of beer it took to finish that project. (It was a lot.) 

8 Responses

  1. So excited to see another post! Scrambling when things don’t go perfectly often leads to interesting and innovative solutions…good for you! Now I just need a story about the angry badgers and I’ll be contented…

  2. In the end – it looks great and you’ve got a nice view of the water now!!!!

    Julie
    p.s. That pressure treated wood shortage made it all the way to upstate NY.
    I keep forgetting to ask my friend if they were able to finish the deck this summer.

  3. Yay! New post! I love reading your posts – you helped inspire me to not be afraid of power tools and build STUFF. The stairs look awesome! Sooooo much better than the before pic.

  4. What you’re describing here – that ‘on’ and ‘off’ cycle is classic ‘creative process’. This year has been a tough one. And all of the greats say to do just what you do – keep on keeping on. We show up. We do shit. A lot of it sucks. We move forward. We show up again.

    1. Thank you for this. It doesn’t matter how many times I go through the cycles… it feels tragic and crazy-making every time! It’s always good to be reminded that is part of the process.

  5. I found your blog because I was trying to search for tutorials on putting up fencing. It was really helpful. My daughter and I are moving to a rural area on an acre and I’m trying to figure out how to best fence it. I’ve used a “pounder” that’s what I called it in my moms backyard for fencing in her chickens and it wasn’t too bad. I’m pretty sure I can do t-posts across 500 feet twice since I did like 20 feet once. 😀 Deciding on all of it is hard! You that you talked about in the post and I’m feeling it bc I’m downloading “fence cost estimator” excel workbooks to try and figure it out.

    If you have any advice on deciding how to decide how to fence it, I would be really grateful. We’re closing next month so I have some time to plan, but it’s hard. I want to keep out dogs that aren’t mine, keep our two geese safe, goats in the future and chickens, while keeping coyotes out and I guess feeling a bit of safety for both my daughter and I. I realize that a goat fence may not keep a coyote out, but it may keep a person out and it will probably keep most dogs out. Electric though is much cheaper, but if it fails I worry that a goat will get taken by a coyote. I could save the money and hire an electrician to power my barn properly though and wire it to that for better safety. I’d still buy those movable electric fence pens for goats and chickens.

    I really appreciate this blog a lot. It’s really inspiring to see women (you) doing things alone and doing them well. Especially for me since I’m 36 and just now making big solo decisions and trying to really carve out a life that I want and that works for me. The recent post you wrote about getting stuck in inaction and indecision really resonated because I was there for a long time. I wouldn’t make a decision because I was afraid to be honest. Most of the shit on my “I should” list aren’t things I really want to do at all or I’m honestly not capable of at the present. I just had to admit that to myself before I could step out of the guilt and blame and decide I didn’t need it anymore. We probably do that because once we give up on feeling guilty for the ways we didn’t measure up and decide to remove it and do a thing we value or we decide we do value that thing, but our plan sucked so we need to restructure it. All that leaves us with is action and action is hard. I appreciate you sharing what you’ve made and built because you’re really talented and there arent a lot of women’s voices in DIY home improvement unless you want to do some trend like chalk paint the whole house. Again thank you!

    1. Hey Amy – Fences are such a pain, but a totally doable project! I don’t have goats (I hear they are escape artists though) but I think for them I would recommend a high (5′) welded/woven wire fence. I believe it will also help keep any neighboring dogs/coyotes out. I like to have my permanent pasture done with the wire fence, and then I also have an electric charger and electric fence I can move around to fence in temporary pastures if needed!

      Also, huge props for starting out on the journey of taking on big solo projects and building the life you want. (The guilt/blame/”should” thing is what holds us back the most sometimes. It takes a lot of time and work to figure out how to navigate through/around that… and some people never do. Action is hard, but the best things come from it too.) Whatever life you build for yourself, it’s gonna be awesome!

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