THE PIANO STUDIO
by Dorothy Ainsworth
When I graduated from high school in 1960, my father wrote in my autograph book: "When you get married and have twins, don't come to me for safety pins!" Culturally, my role in our large family was Susie Homemaker, and sure enough, by age 21, I had fulfilled my destiny: two kids, two jobs, one husband; then, to lighten the load, no husband.
For 15 years I had put myself on the back burner where hopes and dreams of security and independence were simmering. A notebook entitled "Wants and Needs in a Home" and a filing cabinet stuffed with log and timber-frame ideas revealed my yearning. An apartment-dwelling single mother waitressing in a big city was not my idea of the good life. Something in my genes insisted on a massive medieval fortress decorated in early pioneer. I wanted a house that the wolf himself couldn't blow down!
I diligently shopped around for a nice small town, secured a job and apartment in advance, loaded up Eric and Cynthia (along with his piano and her horse), and we were off. Happiness was Reno, Nevada in my rear view mirror!
It took a year in idyllic Ashland, Oregon to find a suitable piece of land I could afford and to secure a farm loan, and another year to drill a well and get electricity.
The third year I cut my baby (saw)teeth on remodeling a couple of old racked outbuildings into storage structures. Fraught with nothing but parallelograms, I learned harsh rule #1: "Plumb, Level and Almost Square," and tricky rule #2: "Measure Twice, Oops, Cut Twice." That summer the hand tools used me. The dog would slink away when I donned my carpenter's belt and furrowed my brow in grim determination.
For a novice, there's no thrill like the tactile kinetic experience of driving a 16-penny nail home in three blows, then burying its head with two extra whacks for no reason. There was evidence of beginner's overkill everywhere. Electrical cord repairs looked like snakes that had swallowed gophers. A job wasn't finished until all the nails were gone. There were no gimmicks or shortcuts in the learning process. I sweated and strained and scarred. But the satisfaction of sawing a clean, square cut with a hand-saw rivaled sewing a fine seam or baking a perfect loaf of bread, and eventually the results became just as predictable.
It wasn't long before I discovered power tools with my Sears charge card. Yikes, that could mean twice as many mistakes in half the time! My circular saw was a new force to be reckoned with. It came with two blades: ripper and shredder. When I braced myself with gritted teeth and squinted eyes, the dog scurried out of sight.
Once in a while I'd take a break, sip a cup of coffee (liquid motivation) and gaze upon my ten acres of star thistle and poison oak, envisioning a proverbial rose garden (without thorns) and a beautiful log home on top of the hill, surrounded by fruit trees in Technicolor and kittens playing all around. For now, though, I'd enjoy the red-tailed hawk circling overhead and coyotes kiyiying at night.
As a farmer creates his self-portrait in a freshly plowed field, I was driven to carve out an original relationship with this hilly, hostile chunk of land. There was no going back to the comfort zone.
I focused my energy, and lucky things began to happen. Someone told me about lodgepole pine logs available right out of the forest, for 3 cents a lineal foot. This economical option prompted some new possibility thinking. It confirmed my decision in favor of vertical-log construction for minimal notching and for relative-ease in handling and transporting. Inspired, I hastened down and bought a permit from the local ranger district of the USFS. I calculated gathering enough logs for one medium-sized structure.
One day Eric was playing a Bach prelude; the next day his white knuckles were gripping a chainsaw and felling trees! After several excursions of terror and torture, we had stockpiled 180 logs for $43.00. Together we carried each 8"-10" by eight-foot green log 100 feet or more, stepping over slash piles, hobbling, staggering, grunting, and whimpering. As my grip weakened with every step, I kept mumbling to myself: "Only 3 cents a foot, only 3 cents a foot." We loaded 15 at a time in the old Ford pickup and careened home, front-end floating.
Eric wanted an eight-sided piano studio (1000 sq.ft.) for good acoustics, and I wanted a barn-style house (2000 sq.ft.). The terrain dictated pier foundations. We decided to practice on the studio first. Flushed-faced with enthusiasm, we sketched his blueprint on a napkin in a restaurant. Two heads are thicker than one, so we got a book from the library and set up the batter boards to stake out the foundation lines.
Upon one visit to the lumber yard, I spied a huge pile of large timbers in the back lot, and my pulse quickened. It was love at first sight, and I bought them all as impulsively as a woman buys a pair of shoes. The salesman quietly wrote up my order for 10,000 board feet at $250/thousand (all my savings), looked up with one raised eyebrow and said, "Lady, do you know what you're doing?" I said boldly, "No, but I know what I want."
The stack included 30 huge, heavily creosoted, pressure-treated pilings salvaged from an old railroad trestle. I just happened to need 29 pilings for both foundations.
About a week later, a neighbor stopped by, curious about my timbers, and revealed that he owned a boom truck and giant auger bit. After a brief discussion of both foundation plans (my favorite subject), he offered to drill the holes and set the pilings for $10.00 each. I seized the opportunity at once and began the grueling labor of cleaning out six-foot deep holes by day and slinging hash at the cafe at night.
By this time I was acquiring some major muscle, and I needed every fiber. There was no shade. Crow's feet turned into eagle's claws; hands into lobster claws. I kept whispering to myself, "Only $290.00...only one week's wages" (for the foundation holes.) I once read that you get rich by spending yourself. I was filthy, sweaty rich! My sister said I was becoming the man I wanted to marry.
Soon after the piers were set, the backhoe man I hired to dig a waterline trench just happened to have a laser-beam transit in his hip pocket. He voluntarily marked all the piers level with each other. I cut them off and notched them to receive 4"x12" rim joists for the piano studio and 6"x12" girders for the house.
I stood back and affectionately admired my big black pilings, spaced just so, jutting out of the stark landscape like Stonehenge. The time had come to contemplate the architectural overview of both structures and draw up the final plans for county approval.
Logic told me to build within my capabilities, but aesthetics won out. "When ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." Hence the piano studio was to be an octagon converging into a square cupola, with triangles and trapezoids dancing heel and toe on the roof. I was like a spoiled child who wanted everything on my list, except there were no elves to help and no Santa to deliver.
I wanted archways and bay windows, vaulted ceilings and skylights, wide window sills, and a cushioned window seat for reading magazines and eating chocolates on a rainy day. But I would not employ a center post to support the roof! It would ruin the romantic notion of a nine-foot concert grand in the middle of the 30-foot room, with Chopin bouncing off the walls. The laws of physics have a way of humbling even the most deluded ego. I scratched my head while searching my memory banks. "Eureka!" I remembered the yurt-principle. A hidden cable would defy gravity.
Yes, I wanted it all, completed in this lifetime, on a shoestring. Time and energy are the basics currencies of life; lack of money is merely an inconvenience. A sense of urgency gripped me. What started out as we ended up as me. Eric and Cynthia went off to college and met mates. Nature had its way. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was fluttering about creating a nest so there'd be something to be empty. Someday the chickens might come home to roost. I imagined future music festivals: spontaneous gatherings of diverse and harmonious spirits, and rosy-cheeked grand kids giggling and dancing about the room. Goals are dreams with a deadline, so I grabbed my hammer and got busy.
Building the floor was laborious but uncomplicated. Joists and sub-flooring were secured with screws; no creaking allowed. When I needed to rest, I'd peel logs with my trusty drawknife. I documented all progress with construction shots and self-portraits.
The library was usually my best friend, but when it came time to square off the logs, there was no book. With the optical illusions involved in staring at a gnarly tapered log, it's impossible to eyeball the cut. One can end up with a pile of firewood. After trial and error (and a little kindling), I devised a contraption using my chainsaw as a chop-saw, and it worked beautifully.
Erecting the vertical-log walls kept me as busy as a Beethoven sonata. The general procedure was: "Cut 'em off, stand 'em up, spike 'em in." Pre-drill like a drill sergeant. To get from here to there, hug a log real tight and waddle with it. Who cares what the neighbors think? One sunny afternoon two bicyclists rode by and one yelled, "Hey look, they put the logs the wrong way!"
When the walls were standing and the headers were in their final resting places, it was time to place the square cupola aloft. A gin pole put it there, and scaffolding held it fast. Cutting the confounded compounded angles, where three rafters met at the corners, required some finesse with the 12" electric chainsaw. Next, to really challenge my capabilities, each rafter's birdsmouth notch had to be individually measured with a template and custom cut.
After transferring the measurements to a 16-foot 2"x12" rafter on the floor and making all the cuts, I pushed it up a long ladder propped against the scaffolding, one step at a time. Then I pivoted it on the top railing, using leverage to lower it slowly down onto its mark on the top-plate, and fastened it to the cupola. When the birdsmouth miraculously seated in place, I sighed, "Ahhh, life doesn't get any better than this." The word birdsmouth still evokes a spiritual feeling in me.
The hardest job of all was going from the delicious solitude of the country to work at the cafe, where trying to get a bite to eat in 8 hours was like a giraffe at a watering hole with the lions coming. At home I had the freedom of a monkey, climbing up and down the rungs of the scaffolding. My goal was two rafters a day, 60 in all. I'd work right up to the last minute, then put on my war paint, fire up old Bessie, and speed to work, curling my eyelashes with one hand and steering with the other. I lost a few eyelashes that summer.
I glued and screwed every rafter, then drilled holes in their tails (just above the top-plate) to receive the cable and four turnbuckles. I bushed each hole with annealed nylon to reduce friction if the cable ever needed to move. The moment of truth came with tightening the turnbuckles and removing the scaffolding. Nothing creaked, croaked, or settled. The structural integrity of my design was uncompromised.
Eight of the main rafters, like spokes, are true 2"x12"'s, the rest 2"xl0"'s to provide a 2" recessed nailing surface for the l"x12" pine ceiling-boards. With age, pine mellows to a warm and wonderful patina. I helped it along with a coat of semi-gloss lacquer.
Now and again people would happen by offering advice——armchair experts. I never had to ask for a second opinion; dozens came, unsolicited. I discovered that common sense is not so common and gullible ears will be filled with nonsense, so after pursuing a few wild-geese, I became a skeptical inquirer. "Why don't you just?"——was the quickest phrase to make me surreptitiously roll my eyes at the dog and feign snoring, then try to get back to work. In all my brief encounters, I never met a man who hadn't once lived in a teepee and built a log house——a curious phenomenon indeed.
An old friend taught me how to use clamps as a poor-man's assistant. With auxiliary hands the roof plywood went on fast. I topped it off with shingles just before the first rainfall of autumn.
I furred out the inner walls with 2"x4"'s, hid the wiring and insulation, and covered it all with Sheetrock. With the garden sprayer, everything on the outside got a dose of the old boat-builder's recipe (linseed oil, marine varnish, and turpentine) whether it needed it or not——including my hair!
I chinked the logs with 1 1/2" dia. foam pipe insulation, which I sanded and painted brown, then glued in place. I caulked with 50-yr. silicone seal (dark brown) and smoothed out each bead manually. For one month I was the self-appointed "Caulking Queen of Ashland," as evidenced by the splayed out middle finger of my right hand.
Because the walls were a foot thick, I made wide window framing to accommodate. I used 1 1/2 boards (one whole and one ripped lengthwise in half) of pine 2"xl0"'s splined together, screwed and plugged in place. I ordered double-paned glass to fit each opening and secured the windows with my own 2"X2" molding. Simple brass casement adjusters open some of the smaller windows for cross-ventilation. Built-in sliding windows in the cupola and a ceiling fan whisk out hot air.
Spatial relationships reign in the palisaded palace. Windows in clusters of three——and tile work in the entrance way, hearth, and kitchenette bay window——repeat themes for visual appeal. To me, archways are the crowning glory in a home, perhaps hearkening back to my ancestry in a cave. I built them out of 2"xl0" splined pine by cutting the curves on a band saw, then laminating them to the right thickness. I glued and screwed and clamped the pine boards butcher-block style and sanded the attractive end-grain until smooth. The stout arches lend support in spanning the doorways. I covered the 1" sub-floor with 3/4" particle board and cozied it all over with carpet.
I tallied my expenditures. The cost of the piano studio came to $15,000——the sum total of tips I earned and spent daily on it. I was debt-free.
Three years had whizzed by, and I was putting the finishing touches on my baby. I sat down on the deck to rub sawdust out of my bloodshot eyes and pet the dog, when Eric appeared like an apparition! After piano-tuning school and a three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend to round out his education, he came back to visit mom and his piano. I cleared the sawdust out of my ears and asked him to play. When I heard beautiful Mozartian trills wafting out the Dutch door and across the sunlit hills, it was all worthwhile——a labor of love.
Eric is now a tuner, teacher, performer, and composer in Ashland. Cynthia is a model, actress, and photographer in San Francisco (and she still loves horses).
The next project (1989):
Having served my apprenticeship, I was ready to get started on the main house. New dreams beckoned. As serendipity would have it, I met a huge and handsome hunk (Kirt) at the fitness center, and he whispered the magic words in my ear, "Let's go get your logs." We did, 300 of them, for $72.00. This time I was in love and feeling no pain. We laughed and giggled and sighed while laboring through the summer. When I couldn't lift my end of a particularly heavy log, Paul Bunyan carried the whole 300-pounder on his shoulder! I swooned and snapped photographs.
During the winter, I built a model of the house to manifest the joinery inherent in my design: mortise and tenon joints, connecting girts and knee braces (all out of logs). I would use timbers as ridge-beams, top-plates, and cantilevered deck supports.
Kirt was not a carpenter; he had his own career. I wanted to tackle this new project myself, so we agreed he would help me with the logistics of raising the frame and any task impossible to do solo. He comes running only when he hears a blood-curdling scream.
The first year of actual construction (1991) was spent building the floor and peeling logs; the second year (1992) the frame and roof. The pay-as-I-go method (estimated from the piano studio) ultimately will cost $l5/sq. ft. ($30,000). Though I pause to write, I'm in the process of roofing with barn-red metal trying to beat the fall rains again.
When I purchased 2200 square feet of painted steel roof-panels, 4000 screws and all the trimmings, the salesman commented: "This is definitely a two-man job." I thought... gulp..."How about one woman?" It's been a little scary, flirting with the undertaker on a 6 in 12 pitch, 18-feet up, but affordable. This winter as the rain patters down christening the new roof, I'll be working inside with a Mona Lisa smile on my lips——so glad to be on level ground again!
I still blow dry my hair on the way to work with the windows down, but I have a brand new bumper sticker: "Caution, Driver Applying Makeup."