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If I were glueless, I'd be clueless

By Christopher Andreae / June 4, 2001



It was a bit odd. The staircase rose in all its 1900s self-importance. But it went nowhere. It just disappeared into the ceiling.

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Queenie, from whom we'd bought our new home, suggested that we might contrive a unique decorative feature by balancing a tropical fish tank halfway up this surreal stairway. (We noticed, however, that she had never taken her own advice.) But I had boldly claimed there would be no problem removing the staircase.

Queenie's parents had divided this house in two sometime in the 1950s. It enabled them to sell the upper half as a separate domicile, with its own outside stairs and a front door where a window had been. In this way, they could afford to stay in the lower half. But they had spent as little as possible on the conversion. Thus the unremoved staircase.

The dismantling of the stairway quickly established itself as a priority. But I knew our neighbors owned its upper reaches, rising from a small landing to a larger one. If the lower stairs were taken away, how could one be sure the higher ones would not consequently disintegrate?

One could not be sure. But I am always impressed by others' advice when it agrees with my opinion. And with such assurance, I one day took hold of a crowbar, a wide chisel, and a claw hammer, and (with apologies to Marcel Duchamp) ascended the staircase - fully clothed - and set to work at the very top.

They knew how to make things properly in 1900. The first part was vigorously resistant to my prying and walloping. But at last it came away; then the rest of the staircase creaked and sprang apart, riser after tread after riser after tread, until in no time the hall floor had a pile of large pine boards on it - and no staircase. This unexpected obligingness took me by surprise.

But what impressed me more was the construction of the stairs. Only old-fashioned nails had been used, not one single screw. And - this was what filled me with the utmost admiration - not one dab or smear or hint of glue.

This artifact had been constructed, of course, in a period when do-it-yourself hadn't been invented. I'm sure the carpenter had undergone a rigorous apprenticeship and knew perfectly well that nails, straight and true, are more than adequate as a means for fixing together a staircase.

By the time of my intervention, it had lasted 80 years without shift or twist, and would presumably have lasted for centuries more. So well made was the staircase, in fact, that 20 years later, there's still no sign of our upstairs neighbors plunging through our ceiling as they thunder up and down the portion of stairs left unto them.

One must also remember that the old carpenter lived well before the days of ubiquitous epoxy. Even as late as the 1950s, the only glue in our school carpentry shop was a stinking witch's brew that looked like toffee but was probably made of something like rabbit bones or powdered halibut. It had to be heated fiercely in a small iron pot before being usable. The brush to spread it was clogged into a thick unbending fist. It was enough to make you abandon any thought of becoming a cabinetmaker.

But today, we live in a wonderful world of glutinous, mucilaginous, gummy, and adhesive availability. How humans have advanced in their stickiness! Not just the ferociously fast super glues that hold anything together forever before you can say "Help!" but contact adhesives that flatly secure vast sheets, wood glues that claim to be stronger than the wood they fix, weather-resistant glues that bond anything from bricks to drainpipes - the list is endless.

And look at the advances in sticky-tape technology. Ordinary tape is itself a major revolution. Before that, to wrap a parcel in brown paper, the tape my mother used was itself a brown-paper strip with a gum you had to lick. It tasted unmentionable, and if you made it too wet you washed away its adhesiveness. Nor was it much good at going round corners.

Modern parcel tape has changed all that. You can now mummify a parcel in a few seconds so that it is impossible for the postal services or the recipient to open it. There is multipurpose duct tape. And masking tape. And carpet tape, fabric tape, invisible tape, insulating tape - a glorious bewilderment of tapes.

The glues I like best are the kind that come in tubes and are applied with a gun. Few things are constructed around here without this glue.

If any one down the line in, say, 2050, decides to take apart all the changes I have made to this house - the panels and walls, the boards and floors, the shelves and dividers - they will, I am sorry to say, have to deal with more than nails. They will have to deal with glue. Lashings of glue.

Some brands of gun-glue, however, make claims that strike even this enthusiast as over the top. "NO MORE NAILS" they proclaim. "GRABS LIKE NAILS!" "GRIP IT!" "RAPID GRAB!" It is all very impressive, but there is still a lurking suspicion somewhere inside me. The advertising never says how long the glue lasts. But suppose it has a life span of only 60 years? Suppose everything I've glued begins to peel away, fall off, and drop down?

So, while I fire glue into every conceivable nook and cranny, I must confess: I still use nails and screws as well. Well, you know - just in case.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor