Our new friend Susan Tweit shares the story of learning something new: finishing the custom home and studio that her late husband started.
I was 55 years old when the love of my life, my sculptor husband Richard, died of brain cancer, leaving me with a beautiful but unfinished house, his historic studio (also unfinished), and enough debt to be scary. I am a writer—a botanist who loves the out-of-doors, a stepmother, a creative cook, a gardener, and designer of urban habitat. I am not Tool Girl.
In our thirty years of marriage, I never had to be handy. I knew what to do with a screwdriver and a crescent wrench, but that was about it. Richard, my late love, was the quintessential “Tool Guy,” the sort who didn’t just have one (or two or three) of every kind of tool you could imagine, he spoke Tool. He could fix, design, fabricate, sculpt, or build just about anything, from simple raised garden beds to custom furniture and whole houses.
I would likely have continued in blissful ignorance but for financial necessity. I needed to sell our property in order to pay the medical bills and salvage some savings. The real estate market was good. But few buyers appreciate a house lacking interior doors, trim, baseboard, and finished cabinets. Much less a studio that needs rewiring, ceilings, and new plumbing.
A community of Richard’s fellow artists and trades-folk pitched in to finish his studio, for which I was profoundly grateful. Our nephew Andrew came for a visit and did the trim work in the guest cottage. Which left me “only” the house, with its soaring ceilings and 37 untrimmed window and door openings, a kitchen of unfinished custom cabinets, and a skeletal master bath.
It was important to me to honor Richard’s artistic vision, which included bathroom basins that he carved out of local granite boulders and built-in shelves of red flagstone. But I didn’t have the money to pay for custom work. Resolving those conflicts cost me a lot of sleep.
Until I woke one night hearing Richard’s voice say in his tone of patient logic, “Well… Just do it yourself.” Of course! I thought groggily. And then sat straight up in bed, sure I had lost my mind.
In sober daylight, I mentioned the idea to our friends Maggie and Tony, who rehab buildings when they’re not designing software. They took it as calmly as Richard had sounded in my head.
“I know nothing about carpentry,” I protested. “I don’t know what sizes lumber comes in. I don’t even know how turn on those big machines in his studio, much less how to use them.”
“We’ll teach you,” said Tony, confident. Maggie nodded. “Pick a project.”
We were sitting at the unfinished peninsula that separated the kitchen and dining area of the house. “Let’s box the back of the peninsula in,” I said.
First they showed me how to measure for a cabinet back. Then we went out to Richard’s studio and found a sheet of quarter-inch plywood. Tony turned on Richard’s huge table saw, motor rumbling and wicked blade spinning, and showed me how it worked. Then he stepped back and let me cut the plywood. By the time I finished, I understood why Richard loved that saw and its six-foot-wide extension tables.
Maggie pulled the pneumatic trim nailer out of the stack of nailers. “You’ll love it,” Tony said. “It’s cute.” I was dubious. The air compressor that powers the nailers is loud, and it has a scary hiss when you detach the hose. But as soon as I began nailing up the cabinet back, I realized Tony was right. I did love the trim nailer. It danced in my hand.
I also learned that I love the tin snips (right-hand, left-hand, and straight) I used to cut the corrugated metal roofing I picked to “panel” that plywood back. And my new Susan-sized Makita cordless driver-drill, which Maggie and Tony patiently instructed me on using to fasten the corrugated metal, and then to add angle-iron edging and trim.
When we finished, I was ridiculously pleased with how the peninsula looked. And with myself for the finish work. The next week, another friend taught me how to hang interior doors. Then Maggie and Tony showed me how to rip 1X6 boards into the trim I envisioned to begin finishing the many window and door openings. After which came what seemed like miles of baseboard, and building a counter and finishing the master bath, walls and all…
Nine months of weekend work later (I owe Maggie and Tony more than I can ever repay!), the big house and studio were finished and sold, and I was overseeing construction of the little house I designed just for me.
I get it now—that Tool Girl thing. It’s incredibly empowering to learn how to use tools and build with your own hands. It’s deeply satisfying as well to use the tools my late love, Richard, used. To have added my finish work to the house he built with such artistry and love.
Now when I go to the lumberyard to buy materials, I chat with the guys and eye tools. And I hear Richard’s spirit laughing. I am Tool Girl, hear me roar…