Why, you might reasonably ask, do I have a copy of "Fuller's Earth, a History," by Robert H.S. Robertson (1986) sitting plumply on my desk?
Actually, this scrupulous tome, tracing the story of calcium montmorillonite from ancient times, is more enlightening than I expected. Mr. Robertson presents his material with clarity and wit, and - if there were world enough and time - reading all 421 pages might not be too burdensome.
However, my interest in fuller's earth does have certain limits, beginning with ignorance of its very existence until about a month ago. As I have gotten by so far without fuller's earth, I am slightly unconvinced of its indispensability hereafter.
So how did this book find its way through our front door? Apart from the Willy factor, it is the front door itself that is mainly accountable.
This Scottish 1900 house in which we live has, like many others locally, a remarkable front door, size-wise: It is almost 10 feet high. It is what is known as a "storm door," the outer of two front doors. Three paces away, there is a second.
This storm door was painted white by the previous incumbents, and we followed suit. Until recently. What persuaded us to strip it down, both sides, to its bare wood was the new door knocker.
This one is iron, the inventive work of a young Welsh craftswoman, Ann Catrin Evans. She has also designed for us special new handles and escutcheons. And she promises a letter box, a cover for the doorbell button, and a new nameplate.
All this fine, original work deserves the naturalness of real timber as its background, rather than the accretions of paint that had buried the door's details like snow over a garden.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll strip and sand a small part, just to see."
It turned out to be a blond, knotless wood that was irresistible. Alternately attacked by paint-remover and the ferocity of a new heat gun, the white surface began to give way to the agitations of my scrapers, of which I have several - none of them quite satisfactory. What works for a panel tends to dig dangerously into a molding; what edges into the intricate crevices of the moldings disastrously gouges the paneling. I have supplemented them with chisels, knives, spikes, and wire brushes - all of which clog up, grow blunt, splinter delicate corners, or have no effect.
But it was underneath the white layers that the real challenge emerged. Here were profoundly glutinous and darksome coatings of underpaint, varnish, primer, stain - you name it - all of which had been applied with a determination meant to resist not merely any future removal tools, manual or electrical, but also the combined forces of vandalism, holocaust, and Scottish weather. So easy it must have been to paint these doors, so hard to unpaint! Even dousings of methylated spirits, rubbed with steel wool, though effective, leave soaked-in stains that repeated sandpaperings never seem to erase.
Weekend after weekend I have been called in for the evening meal after hours of scratching, abrading, fretting, and grating, to be asked: "Nearly done?" And I have had to admit that as far as I can tell, there are still miles to go before I sleep.
Visitors and neighbors have watched the process. Delivering a Christmas card, Gordon said: "So what happened to your door?" as if some wild thing had damaged it. I explained it was deliberate, but, as yet, unfinished.
The man from Supreme Cuisine was kinder.
"Coming on well," he commented.
"Takes forever," I replied.
"Don't tell me. I've been there."
The chap from Parcel Force suggested I might have "had it dipped." (There are companies that specialize in acid-bath treatment for painted doors.) "It is rather large to fit in a Honda," I suggested. But I also silently thought that such an easy solution somehow lacked both heroism and sensitivity. And then there was Willy.
He and wife Carole, a university librarian, live next door. He was very enthusiastic and complimentary. "But look," I said, "at this dark green gucky stuff; that's the killer."
He said, "I have this book that might help." He brought it by a few days later. It was called "The Decorator's Assistant, a Modern Guide" and was published in 1902 - when our storm door was just two years old.
Willy had marked a couple of pages, one particularly apt:
"TO REMOVE OIL AND PAINT FROM BOARDS: Four ounces of fuller's earth, one ounce of soft soap, one ounce soda or pearlash; mix with boiling water. Let it dry, scour off with soap and water. If the paint is of long standing, let the liquid remain some time to soak, adding thereto a little powdered lime, scrape off, and finish as above."
I chuckled when I read this. When I saw Willy again, I thanked him for his book's entertainment value. "But it's like a cookery book - full of recipes. And what on earth is fuller's earth, anyway?"
'Oh," he said, "it really is a kind of earth. Very useful. It's been used in all sorts of ways for thousands of years. Carole has a book about it."
So now I have been lent that book, too.
As he handed it through the front door, I asked him if you can still actually buy fuller's earth today.
"Oh," he replied airily, "I've no idea. I've never looked into it."
Ah, well, I thought, so much for book-learning. And I cut off yet another piece of manually operated sandpaper.