Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Horseshoe Nail

You've heard the story: for want of a horseshoe nail, the kingdom was lost.  Not directly, but the loss of the horseshoe snowballed into a perfect storm of losses that eventually lost the entire kingdom.

All I wanted to do was cut some firewood.  It was a fine day, beautifully sunny but a tad cool, excellent conditions for making chips fly and stacking up some heat for winter.  So I got out my chainsaw and spent a few minutes sharpening the chain.  I've seen my Dad sharpen his chain with a handheld file and don't know how he holds the angle steady.  I use a device that holds the angle for me, and the results are usually worth it.  I've only replaced the chain twice in fifteen years, that's pretty good.

Chain sharpened, bar oil tank topped up, gas tank topped up, tug-snap.  Oh, bother.  The dadratted rope has broken.  I don't have a spare in the shop.

Well.  Sharp Hardware in Andersonville will sell me a new one, no sweat.  But if I'm going all that way, what else do I need?  Hmm, Sweetie said the tub's been dripping for a couple of days, let's see what kind of washer that valve needs and fix that while I'm at it.

Now we're closing in on lunchtime.  Wrenches out, dig all the junk out of the hall closet to find the stop valves that turn off water to the tub.  News flash: there are no stop valves.

Okay, no biggie - get the big water key and turn off the water to the whole house.  No problem.  Back inside, screwdriver to remove the cold water handle, tap it a couple of times and off it comes.  Now for the hot handle.

Back the screw out, tap it and pull.  Hmm.  Tap it a couple more times and pull...wow.

I've had this happen before.  The handle's some cheap pot metal but the valve bits are brass.  A little corrosion gets in there and really gums up the works.

But back in the day I was a freakishly strong guy for my size.  Well, not so much anymore but I've still got a fair reserve of upper body strength.  At the time of this story I could do a couple of push-ups with Sweetie sitting on my back.  So I get a better grip, brace myself firmly - and make some allowances so I don't go flying if I suddenly lose my grip - and settle in.

PULL.  There are some physical activities you can do that are just eminently satisfying: carrying a comfortably heavy load when you're feeling good, sprinting a quarter-mile, shoving new appliances into position in the kitchen.  This was one of those.  I got my legs braced, got a good lungful of air, and backed my shoulders away from the valve.  That handle's gonna come off, by golly.


It came off.  I got myself under control so I didn't go headfirst into the far wall.  But the handle felt weird.

I had torn the entire valve stem out of the valve.  All those threads sheared off, shreds of brass were left inside the valve.  I had utterly destroyed the valve.  There could be no repair.

Now I was conflicted.  Sitting there in the tub with a whole new project literally in hand - I had merely needed to replace the valve washers, maybe the valve seats.  That's easy work.  But with the ruined shower control, it's gone from a quick little job to a much larger job.  Demolition work is required, a little fabrication, and where everything was getting done with just two tools and ten bucks before, that ship has sailed.   But on the upside, I had torn this sturdy piece of metal asunder with my bare hands.  I felt like a somewhat klutzy superhero.

But oh, boy.  Now it's past lunch and my hands hurt, and I need to find a new shower control.  Sharp has one, and I snap it up.  Picked up some good ball valves while I was at it, to add to the water lines.  If I need to turn the tub's water off again, the controls are right there, now.

Other supplies:  Solder.  Emery paper.  Copper fittings.  A short length of 1/2 inch pipe in case I need to do a little rerouting.  More fittings in case of that.  Back we go.

Now I had to take everything out of the hall closet, and tear out the back wall.  The pipes were buried behind them, so they had to come out.  Fortunately they were easy to remove.  A little cutting with the hacksaw got the offending tub controls out of the wall and I could start fitting the new ones.  Cutting, sanding, fluxing, soldering.  Soldering is cool, I love it.  It isn't welding, but you have a fitting and a pipe, add plenty of heat and this weird metal wire and the result is almost as if it were one piece of metal.  Get it wrong, heat it back up and you can take the bits apart again.  I could see by the slight darkening that somebody was standing in the hallway, observing the process.  Clearly, she wasn't thrilled with certain developments.

"MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE."  Sweetie said it, not yelling but she was, shall we say, emphatic.

"Don't sweat it, it's under control."  This I said while still waving the torch in the general direction of the fire.  I finished the soldering, then spritzed the whole area - including the flames - with a spray bottle brought for the purpose.  "See?  All taken care of."  The flames leapt back up and I spritzed them back down again.  They stayed gone that time.

"Is that...?   Is that normal?"

"Sure."  I pointed out some scorch marks elsewhere inside the wall, nowhere near where I was working.  "Those aren't mine.  It happens.  There's stuff you can do to prevent it, hang a heat blocking fabric, stuff like that.  I don't have any."  I offered her the torch.  "You want to do one?"  Ever since learning to sweat solder plumbing joints, it's like a drug.  I love doing it.

She thought about it.  "...okay.  Show me."

I walked Sweetie through the process, cutting and deburring the cut end of the pipe, sanding to remove oxidized metal, fluxing to further elminate impurities, heating the pipe and applying solder opposite the heat, how solder flows toward heat, and spritzing the area to put out the fire.  She did a fine joint on the first try.

"Good!  Want to do another one?"

"Yeah!"  Like I said, soldering is fun.  We finished the installation, put the back of the closet back together, turned the water back on.  By the time all was done, it was full dark.  The water heater had been off for hours and we wound up going to her sister's place to shower there.

I never did cut any firewood that day.  The entire day was gone in a project I hadn't even intended to do.  All for the want of a chainsaw rope.

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