Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Building a Wall

Robert Heinlein said that a true man doesn't specialize in just one thing his entire life. He has to learn many things, and at least once, he should build a wall. Ironically, it started as a Mother's Day gift of live lilac plants of many colors to my wife. My son and I thought we'd just pull a few weeds in the existing flower bed, dig a few holes, and viola. The married men in the audience are already chuckling or moving stealthily toward a convenient exit. People ask me how I get my story ideas, and they usually start by suckering the main character in with something that sounded like a good idea at the time.
   First, we had to entirely regrade the flower bed to drain water away from the house. You see, the original owner sort of piled more dirt there each year and rain/spring thaw channels right past that basement window you see to the left. That meant removing the trellis work and clearing excess dirt from the gravel drainage we installed a few years ago. Children have small hands, so they work well for this. The excess dirt got spread over the garden. While we were under there, we found out that after 14 years, the landscape timber retaining wall was rotten and the downspouts on both sides were contributing to the problem.

   I bought spout extenders at Menards, but timbers for another 10 years would cost as much as the cinderblock walls they have on sale. "Who wants to do this again when we're ten years older?" my wife asks. Let's do it right the first time. Since the blocks are 58 pounds each, hauling them would take several trips. I decided to start with the three-layer side to learn the ropes. Consult your own DIY source for legally binding tips. This blog is for entertainment purposes only.
  Step one is demolition. Okay, we had to start with fumigating the hornets, but you get the idea. Digging up the ties buried underground was the hardest and required a lot of leverage. Again, children love to dangle from the end of long poles if you tell them it's like being on a playground.
   Did I mention the large, waddling creature that made it's home back there? Hmm. We had to refill and level the area under the deck stairs with pavers to make the steps stable and keep the critter from returning. We used dirt from the garden to fill. Didn't I see this scene in "Cool Hand Luke?" Then I sprinkled the wall base with sand to make it perfectly flat. The first layer is dead simple to lay. Anyone with a two-by-four and the ability to lift that amount of weight while hunched over double and bowlegged can do it. You need to slide the first row forward a couple inches because each row sits back a little more. The sand just off the edge of the sidewalk makes a perfect place for the locking lip on the bottom back of the blocks to rest. I filled the hollow parts with dirt to make the platform more level and stable.
   Now we have an issue. The best walls stagger by a half block each row. That meant carefully splitting a block for each level. I considered renting a power splitter, but the cost would have been more than the wall itself. The guy assured me it was easy to break myself. He said to score it all around with a screwdriver and hit it with a rubber mallet. Not in your wildest dreams. I eventually managed it with several passes of a chisel and a baby sledge, but this caved in part of the hollow block. With a little practice, I mastered this art, though. The V groove in the back sides is the key. Etch all the way around with your chisel, but on the second pass, pound hard in this V. It should sound different and sink in deeper the further down the line you travel. A quarter of the way, you can see fissures forming. At the halfway mark, it splits. Like is was made for it. Show this version to your kids, and toss the other one you practiced on. You'll want a few extras anyway because the store will discontinue the model you bought at the end of the year, making future maintenance impossible.
  Continue on, back-filling and leveling at each layer. If something leans, redo it now in minutes. The top layer is a thinner, solid capstone that weighs the same amount as the whole hollow block. Don't buy the universal caps, because they aren't universal, no matter what the guy at the register says. Get the ones sitting next to your blocks in the yard.
  Now, you get to run the drain hoses, reattach the lattice, fence in the flower bed, put down landscape fabric, spread rubber mulch, and rehome all the plants you dug up in the process. Finally, this is what the lilacs looked like. I was proud of how it all turned out. Okay, in a few years, they'll be really pretty. We just have to water them every day for a while.