Dee Williams is the author of The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir and the proud owner of an 84 square-foot house. She is a teacher and sustainability advocate, and the co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings where she leads workshops focused on tiny houses, green building, and community design. This blog post is part of a series drawing from Dee’s experiences and themes from The Big Tiny, on sale April 22.
“A few days ago, I spent almost an hour trying to recondition an oscillating fan that I found in a junk pile. I’m not certain, but I think the reason it was tossed out was because it had a frightening wad of human hair wrapped around the spindle where the fan blades connect to the motor. It was disgusting and curious, and exactly the sort of thing you find on junk day in Olympia.
I love junk day. Everyone puts out their rubbish—their busted-up washing machines and hot water heaters, dysfunctional blenders and vacuum cleaners—all so they can be hauled off to the dump. But before they go, passersby like me can walk around scanning for useful goods, occasionally lunging into the debris piles like a pearl diver. Last year I found a perfectly good electric lawn mower that I was able to rewire and repair with a couple rolls of duct tape; today I found this hairy fan.
I took everything apart in the garage, cut the toupee out of the machinery, and repaired a break in the electric cord. I sprayed the fan with vinegar and swabbed the plastic, dabbing here and there, and flipping the unit like it was a newborn and I was a neonatal surgeon.”
Excerpt from The Big Tiny
Ten years ago, as I was getting ready to build my house, I couldn’t fathom spending my time meandering through my neighborhood picking through junk piles. I was completely absorbed, and marginally overwhelmed, by the design process; drawing sketches, making lists and re-thinking exactly how much space I needed to make a peanut butter sandwich, put on a pair of pants, or sit-up in bed. I started carrying a tape measure and pocket notebook everywhere I went, so I could not-so-subtly investigate the height of my desk at work, the size of my chair, or the rise and run of the steps leading up to my doctor’s office. I read a thousand books and dreamed about sheds and cabins.
A month later when I finally picked up my trailer – the foundation for my little house – my plans had firmed up enough to start cracking things open with a Skill-Saw. I’ll never forget standing in my driveway, staring at the bric-a-brac of tools and wood stacked around my trailer, clicking things off in my head - extension cord, power drill, coffee, gumption… check, check, check and mostly-check. I realized that this was IT. I was now going to do a swan dive into the grizzled manly world of carpentry. I took one step back and immediately fell into a tool bucket, knee-caps over earlobes.
In the next three months, I discovered that carpentry wasn’t something I could learn from a book. Not even a really awesome book with pictures, annotated references, and color-coded “Helpful Hints,” though they are a good place to start. I couldn’t learn by watching YouTube videos either, since it hadn’t been invented yet; instead, I had to learn by doing — by gripping a stick of wood and trying to manage it onto a wobbly-wheeled cart at the lumberyard.
In the first weeks of building, I had as many set-backs as successes. I nearly twisted my arm off with a power drill. I glued my hair to the house and spent countless hours salvaging wood only to find out I couldn’t use it. I kept at it, though, and one day without really thinking about it, I discovered my arms knew exactly how to run a piece of wood through a table saw and my back remembered how to gracefully lift plywood off my car’s roof rack. I knew how to read the grain on a piece of wood, and could problem-solve why the rafters weren’t lining up perfectly. My muscle memory took over, and it saved the day, day after day for three months.
If I had it to do over, I’d have celebrated a little more the first time I was able to lift a 60-pound piece of plywood without feeling I’d rip my arm out of socket, and I’d have seen what a miracle it was that I – a small woman, a cardiac care patient, a ding-dong when it came to carpentry – was building my house.
My advice to other would-be builders is to DO IT! Get some good books and then volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or other building organization. Take a carpentry class, or help your carpenter-neighbor build a deck. You can’t beat the education you’ll get by unloading a truck that is full of lumber, or by holding sticks of wood together so they can be fastened in place. You won’t just get smart, handy, and sore, you’ll also probably have a ton of self-satisfied fun.
Fun is what motivates me out on junk day, and it is the thing that’s currently nudging me to stop writing so I can get back to banging the rusty nails out of the stack of beautiful scrap wood I just dragged home from the neighbor’s junk pile. Cheers to having fun while living the dream!