The taming of the screws, and other tools

Of course, the small mistake I made was to admit in the first place that I do, in fact, know how to put up shelves. By comparison, I know a number of longtime married men who, in the prenuptial buildup, made a point of confessing with disarming candor that they had never managed to grasp the precise function of a screwdriver or to work out the difference between the two ends of a hammer. Yet they subsequently have led perfectly content home lives.

Masculine pride may militate against such sage admissions. Who wants to appear to his future bride a dead loss in the matter of Do-It-Yourself? Besides, in my case, why did I have a workshop and loads of tools - including an impressively versatile-looking radial arm saw surrounded by snowdrifts of sawdust - if I didn't know how to use them?

So there it was. I was caught. And lately - well, over the past decade or so - Saturday and Sunday afternoons have been Do-It-Yourself time. We still have plans and projects for our house that, with the rigor and inevitability of Renaissance perspective, stretch away into the unforeseeable distance ahead.

There really is no end in sight. The trouble is that there have been a lot of other things not "in sight."

The garage on the side of the house is the center of operations. What happens is this: We decide to construct a completely new storage area in an available space in the cellar. After breakfast the following Saturday, work is to begin. The first thing I need to do is break up and lower the floor. (In these old Scottish houses, cellar floors like ours are simply a covering of tar, like brittle black toffee, spread directly on Mother Earth.) To break it up, though laborious, is not difficult. But you do need a mallet and possibly a stone chisel, several buckets, a shovel, and a sturdy pair of gloves.

So the job begins - with a search. None of these items is immediately in evidence. They may be anywhere and all in quite different places. The most likely thing, though, is that they are buried deep under numerous layers of ... sawn-off wood, rolled-up carpet, coils of hose, bubble wrap, sheets of polyethylene, cans of varnish, ladders, handsaws, the lawn mower, cement bags, and seam upon seam of this, that, and even more of the other ("other" being mostly sawdust). None of these objects has any idea where it's supposed to be because there has never been time between jobs to organize places for any of them. Furthermore, since the workshop is now full to capacity (the floor hasn't been seen for years), there has been spillage and a leaching so that even more stuff has wandered off and nested virtually everywhere.

In a nutshell, the first half hour of any new job was characterized by my wandering around like a satellite lost in space muttering, "Where, in heaven's name, is the mallet?" This is accompanied by a sporadic stirring and overturning of the upper layers of the archaeological site I call my workspace in the forlorn hope that the mallet has not sunk without trace and started to fossilize, only to be rediscovered by future generations intent on discovering what life was really like back in 2005.

The mallet is not entirely impossible to find. Much harder are the small things, such as a brass screw of a specific length and girth or a masonry bit to bore a hole no less than 2-1/2 inches deep and 1/8 inch in diameter.

Measuring tapes are notoriously elusive. That they have acquired a reputation for vanishing is evidenced by the frequently bright, indeed fluorescent color of their casing supplied by manufacturers. But even lurid pinkness is only too easily hidden under dust.

About a half-dozen Saturdays ago, my spouse and I somehow arrived at an almost millennial decision: It was time to "tidy the garage." Initially in heavy-groan mode, I explained that this would take weeks and weeks and mean the suspension of all other projects. But a strange determination seized us both, and the endeavor began.

One thing I was firm about: If we were to perform this cleanup, there must be no half measures. Every item must have a place where I can forever find it. Every hook and eye, chisel, pencil, and paintbrush, every jar and bracket, file and spanner, glue tube, glass cutter, tile spacer, gouge, gauge - and every mallet - must have its known position or slot. The ladders must be on hooks on the walls, and every usable piece of wood must be sorted by size.

I have installed a large board on one wall, and every hangable tool now has its specific black silhouette determining its place of residence. It took two weekends to sort and categorize the nails and screws and construct special boxes with tailor-made compartments for them. I had enough to set up shop. The hand saws are now hanging from nails in a graded row.

All this organizing did not take the half-hour that such things appear to take on TV programs about keeping your home tidy. It took far longer. But - to cut a very long story to a bearable length - the job is done.

It's amazing. I keep visiting the garage just to have a look. The bare concrete floor is a thing of beauty. The object-free bench is an exhilarating sight. The tool board is like a trompe l'oeil painting to gaze upon: Those tools almost look real! Wow! They are real!

The power tools are all shelved in the same unit. There is no sawdust anywhere.

As I told my brother-in-law when he was visiting for lunch, if I now need a hammer - not just any hammer, but one that suits a particular need - I just stroll nonchalantly over to the wall without even looking and lift it off. Then when the job done, I put it back scrupulously where its outline indicates.

"How boring," he said.

But I knew he didn't mean it. And he knew I knew he didn't mean it. Actually, the word is "heaven." Now I wonder: Are there any shelves that need to be put up?

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