It was a crazy idea: we'd sell my mother's house and turn a massive century-old horse barn into a modern abode.
The proposal was to go in on a property together just south of Boston, consisting of a house and a barn just steps away. I would live in the house, and Mom and her partner would live in the newly-renovated building designed to their liking.
It would bring Mom closer to her son and her granddaughter, and it would allow them to downsize and enter their seventh and eighth decades in a "barndominium" on one floor, plus another roughly 800-square feet upstairs.
We selected a general contractor who gave us an estimate to do the entire job, and we quickly realized we couldn't afford to hand the whole project over. So we went through the estimate with a sharpie and crossed out every job that I thought we could handle — or that we could hire people to do — thus eliminating the contractor's 12% markup on subcontractor work.
Our general contractor was responsible for everything you don't see in a house — from the foundation work to the framing, plumbing, electrical, insulation, and drywall and plaster — and most of the things you do see were on me.
The general contractor said something like, "I respect your resolve, but you're taking on a lot of things here." I rolled my eyes, and Mom got nervous.
On a recent afternoon, sitting in the living room of her recently completed barn-home, Mom told me how she got increasingly worried with each project I volunteered for.
"As we got into the project and we were watching the budget, there were more and more things that you signed up to do yourself," she said. "And I was thinking, 'Oh, my goodness... the stairs, the floors, the railings, the vanities, the medicine cabinets.'"
Mom looked at me and smiled: "I didn't have the confidence in your ability."
Truth be told, I also had doubts, as I had little experience with carpentry. The first time you do something — like install stair treads or hang kitchen cabinets — often takes several times longer than the second try. I told Mom I'd hire people to do work I didn't have the time — or skill — to do myself, and eventually we'd come to an understanding as to how to handle each component of the renovation.
Looking back, there's no way I would've been able to handle all this — but there was an x-factor that nobody could have predicted.
When the pandemic hit — and I no longer had to commute to the station — I had more free time to spend in the barn. I studied installation manuals and construction books, and talked with tradespeople willing to answer my questions. YouTube became my ultimate maestro — with dozens, if not hundreds of pros detailing nearly every intricacy of carpentry I encountered.
When it was my turn to take over in the barn, the timing couldn't have been better. Pretty much exactly when the state of emergency was declared, the plasterer working under the general contractor had wrapped his work, and that was my cue.
From Floorboards To Woodworking
One of the biggest tasks under my purview was the nearly 2,000 square feet of flooring.
I wondered about reusing the old barn planks, which would erase several thousand dollars in labor and materials from our budget, and be a nice tribute to the old barn. I pried off a single board, sanded it and hit it with some varnish. Then I realized what we had on our hands.
The planks presumably came from local old growth softwood — probably some of the cheapest wood you could get when the barn was built in the early 1900s. The wood had mesmerizing grain patterns and the kind of a deep burnt orange patina that only comes with time. Each board was a roadmap of wormholes and cracks and blackened nail holes, thick with the history of the barn's forgotten past.
Because the supply is finite, people pay big money for this kind of timber, and we were sitting on a small mountain of it.
A demolition crew came in and did the best they could to salvage the floorboards. Their level of care was less than pristine — the boards came out splintered with with huge gouges left by pry bars and hammer blows — but I couldn't afford to pay someone to take up each board with a soft touch.
Once the boards were pulled out of the barn and stacked up in the garage, the rest was on me.
I needed a chop saw, a thickness planer, and a table saw powerful enough to cut a few thousand feet of wood. I removed the nails one-by-one from each board, cut them to size lengthwise, and ripped both edges straight and parallel, rounding down to the closest inch so we'd have uniformly sized boards. Then I ran them through the planer, removing 100 years of crud, and taking off about a quarter inch to get a uniform thickness.
I had no idea it would take me months to turn that massive pile of dirty, splintered flooring into something fit for our barn renovation. Our contractor called it "a labor of love," and looking back, that reclaimed flooring job is what started me on a journey into woodworking.
I took on finish carpentry jobs like installing the baseboard moulding throughout the barn, as well as the oak staircase, becoming familiar with terms like risers, balustrade, skirtboard, newel post, and shoe moulding.
My garage slowly morphed into "the shop," a place for tools and woodworking machines rather than cars and landscaping equipment. I started building the furniture to make it a proper wood shop: a large assembly table, a workshop hutch designed by Norm Abrams, a lumber rack, a tool cart.
Once I had the tools and a basic familiarity with their uses, I decided to try my hand at the two medicine cabinets that we otherwise would have bought at a big box store. I made a bathroom vanity with some plans I found online, then designed and built the second vanity — my first piece of original furniture. I became obsessed with not buying things I could reasonably make with wood — I improvised a pair of towel rings and even a pair of toilet paper holders. (Some woodworkers make toilet seats, though I knew that would be a nonstarter with Mom.)
If not for this barn project, I don't know what else I would be doing in my spare time during the pandemic. The shop became a place to clear my head, to focus on making tangible things that will be used for years to come.
In a way, carpentry has taken the place of traveling — and woodworking has filled the void left by social distancing.
A New Connection
I'm not the only one who's turned to woodworking and carpentry during this eventful year. Of the few social interactions I've had since the pandemic began, many have come from buying and selling tools.
That's how I met Juan Mallqui of Swampscott. He works in the consumer products industry, and builds things like doors and cabinetry in his spare time. Juan says his basement wood shop has become something of a refuge during the pandemic. The shop allows him to make things that improve the family's living space, he said, and it helps him be his best self when he's with his family.
"When I come out of that time and I'm reunited with my children and my wife," Juan told me, "I feel like I emerge from my workshop renewed, in a good place — ready to be myself."
Once the pandemic is over, Juan and I plan to visit each other's shops and build something together.
A Finished Barn, A New Hobby
Somehow we finished the barn renovation, albeit a year behind schedule, and Mom’s almost finished unpacking in her new home. Walk inside and you see the reclaimed barn flooring beaming at you — perfect in its gaps and knots and epoxy-filled imperfections — at least perfect to me.
Look up and there are cathedral ceilings almost 30 feet high, with a balustrade wrapping up the stairs made of more reclaimed barn lumber and black iron rods.
There's still work to do, like a kitchen island, and a deck in the spring. And at the moment I'm making a huge corner desk for the barn's second floor — dipping into the big stock of reclaimed lumber sitting in the basement.
Though this nearly two-year project is coming to an end, it feels like something of a beginning for me — the start of a hobby that will be with me for some time.
This segment aired on December 15, 2020.