I bought a drill today. I paid 40 bucks for it. It’s the first major tool I’ve bought in many years. I live in a one-bedroom apartment. I don’t use tools a lot. On occasion I’ll need a screwdriver or hammer but never anything like a power saw or electric drill. I’m not a builder. I don’t do construction. The last big job I did was to change out the fill valve in the toilet tank. I do own a toolbox and there are a few other tools at my disposal, wrenches, pliers, etc., and these items came in handy for the fill valve job. So why the drill?
Several months ago our building had a leak in the entry hallway. A slow drip. One of the members of our condominium scheduled some plumbers to come out and fix it. They had to make holes in the drywall in a number of places to get at the leaky pipes. The leak got fixed, but we were left with four big holes on the upper landing and a section of ceiling removed in the downstairs hallway ceiling. Contractors are hard to find for these jobs in Seattle because they don’t profit from it sufficiently to make it worthwhile in a city of such extreme affluence, and it’s the type of job that requires repeat visits to slather on the drywall mud. Fortunately, one of our neighbors with experience in construction, volunteered to fix the holes himself. He did so, and he did so with great aplomb and expertise, fixing the holes with such mastery that you can’t tell there had been so much as a scratch in the wall, much less a gaping hole. I was impressed. Inspired, in fact. How is this magic done, I wondered. I began watching YouTube videos about drywall repair. I almost wished that we had another hole to experiment on.
And then I remembered, we did. This was in the laundry room. A small square hole at the base of a narrow wall where we had been storing gallons of water in three big blue plastic tanks for an emergency, most likely the “big one,” a magnitude 9 megaquake seismologists have been predicting for the northwest since at least the 1980s, warning that the 700-mile-long Cascadia Subduction Zone is prone to big quakes in cycles of 200 to 300 years. The last big one occurred 317 years ago. If we’re still here when the next big one occurs, it will be a glad day when - happily assuming any of us survive - one of us manages to dig through the rubble to find that water.
The hole in the laundry room had been there a long time. Years ago, there had been a leak in the apartment on the other side of the wall and the plumber had removed a section of wall to see if the leak was coming from a pipe. The leak turned out to be coming from elsewhere, but we were left with the hole. Our neighbor was just finessing the last smoothing and texturing of the drywall repair upstairs when I told him about the hole in the laundry room and that I’d seen some videos and was thinking about repairing it myself. I didn’t want to impose any further on the guy and ask him to guide me through it, but he was kind enough to glue a slat into the hole that I could use to foundationally screw the drywall into, and left some nails, some drywall tape, and a little left over mud. I asked one of our other neighbors if I could borrow his drill. He said he would do it himself. The weeks went by, and the work hadn’t been done, so I thought fuck it, I’ll buy a drill and do it myself.
The drill is a Black & Decker cordless 12-volt drill with a “smart select clutch” which allows the user to choose the correct power and speed appropriate to the work to be done by twisting a dial about the chuck with the icons of differently sized screws (the bigger the screw, the bigger the power), a 3/8 inch chuck and a motor delivering 130 foot-pounds of torque. It has a nice rubber handle that feels pleasing to the grip, a charger similar to the one I use for my laptop, 12V battery, and a double-ended screwdriver bit tip clasped to the base of the drill.
The first screw went in easily. Until it didn’t. That is to say, it went through the drywall plaster easily, but then hit something hard and stopped. The drill was unable to move it any further. I pulled it before damaging the motor. I tried screwing the rest in manually, but it was extremely tough going. I had to resort to a ratchet screwdriver we had had the good fortune to purchase earlier in the week to remove a stubborn screw from out DVD player when a disk got jammed inside and I had to remove the top to get at it. I was able, at last, to get the screw flush with the wall. It occurred to me later that the wood our neighbor had glued in there was scrap lumber from the ironwood balcony that had recently been installed on the front of our building. The lumber used for that job was ironwood. Ironwood is not a misnomer. I had wondered why our neighbor had glued the wood in there instead of screw it, in the usual manner. Now I knew.
The next three screws went in easily. Too easily. They penetrated the drywall but didn’t seem to get traction in the slat of wood on the other side. This puzzled me. I knew it was there. I knew I was drilling in the right place. But the screws weren’t catching.
Putting the mud on was easy. I added some pre-measured tape and smoothed it all out with a joint knife. Then I let it dry for a day.
I added more mud on Wednesday and let it dry. I needed to add another layer of mud so I went to the Five Corners Hardware store on West McGraw and bought a quart of lightweight spackling compound (I would’ve preferred joint compound but I didn’t want to buy a whole five gallons of pre-mixed joint compound) and a 3M Drywall Sanding Sponge. I lightly sanded the patch and then added the spackling compound which was a little gobbier than the mud and harder to work, but I managed to get it pretty smooth the joint knife.
On Friday I went to paint the wall, but noticed a tiny nail-head sticking out. I have no idea where it came from. I did a little more sanding, then dabbed some compound on the offending nail-head, and mushed it smooth with the joint knife. Hopefully that will keep it hidden. I began to suspect that there were things going on behind that drywall patch that bordered on the supernatural. What next? A finger poking out?
On Saturday, I decided to go ahead and apply primer to the wall. I got a small stepladder out of the utility closet and poured some of the white primer into a paint tray, dipped the smaller of two brushes into it, grabbed a sheet of newspaper, and went to work. I knew the space was small but it felt more cramped than I’d imagined it would be. It had also had several pipes bending this-a-way and that-a-way and I didn’t want to get primer on them so I tried slipping the sheet of newspaper behind the pipe with one hand so that I could slop and spread primer onto the wall with my other hand. This proved too awkward and the newspaper tore so I just went at it as carefully as possible with my right hand. Roberta came home just as I’d started which proved quite fortunate as I’d forgotten to apply painter’s tape to the sides and my hands, adorned with surgical gloves, already had paint on them. Roberta changed her clothes and came out and applied the painter’s tape. When she was finished I resumed my operation.
The primer stank. I had never used primer before. It’s quite different than the latex paint to which I’m accustomed. It smelled different. There was a faint smell of ammonia. It wasn’t long before I felt woozy and got a headache and my eyes began to sting a little bit. I looked up primer later on the Internet to discover what was in it. All the sites I found made reference to an ingredient called a binder, which is most generally a polyvinyl acetate. Perhaps that was the source of the smell. It might also have been a built-in fungicide to prevent mold, or an anti-corrosive pigment. None of the actual chemicals were mentioned. They might’ve been on the label, but I had already returned the can to our neighbor.
I poked, daubed, dabbed, smeared, smudged, massaged, fussed, and brushed until the wall looked evenly coated in primer. Then I stood back to take a look.
The final job looks pretty spectacular. But I know where all the flaws are. I can see them. A tiny, barely visible crease where the upper part of the patch would be, a seam the drywall tape was seemingly (but just barely) hiding from view. Those screws that never found purchase in wood on the left side of the square chunk of drywall were not there to anchor the loose section of drywall to keep it from revealing an ever-so-slight unevenness with the wall. That bugged me. It will continue to bug me. I can’t edit it any further like I might a paragraph. This paragraph, for instance. Words are forgiving. Until they’re in print. Once in print, typos, grammatical errors, bad ideas and clumsily expressed thoughts join all the regrets, blunders, misunderstandings and bad decisions of our life. The past cannot be edited. Every dumb thing I said or did is now a permanent sketch on DVD. My head is a bin for Blu-ray.
I enjoyed learning how to do drywall. The parallels between construction and writing are pretty strong. A woman who suffered depression once said that she could not find a match between her mind and her words. There will always be those screws that penetrate just so far, but never completely. There will never be a complete match between what I’m trying to achieve and the final result, between the ineffable and the clumsy efforts at making words try to carry that action.