Thursday, June 22, 2006


I've been making the last few finishing touches on last summer's kitchen re-do - mending walls where the upper cabinets dinged them, installing & painting little chunks of baseboard - and have finally gotten to one of my favorite renovation projects: stripping the hugely over-painted door to the back room off our kitchen. I say "favorite" both sincerely and sarcastically, because I truly do love slopping that Zip-Strip around, scraping off the resultant sludge, and steel-wooling everything clean; however, I also really HATE trying to clean paint out of the curvy, recessed corners of old 5-panel doors. But, as I was being reminded yesterday of how much the damn stripper BURNS when you accidentally get it on your bare skin, I got to thinking about how disposable our lives - well, specifically the things IN our lives - have become. Consider:

This door that I'm stripping is as old as the house: 106 years old, to be exact. It's a typical heart-pine door, made of two long outer rails, four stiles of varying widths mortised in between, and 5 inner panels (one horizontal between four vertical). It's a beautiful door, and while I know that paint is a typical covering for these doors, my upbringing is rooted heavily in acknowledging the beauty of the wood itself, so I'm ultimately planning on a satin polyeurethane finish. This door is heavy...easily 40 or 50 pounds. The awkwardness of its shape made it difficult to haul out to the garage by myself. It has black cast-iron hardware (including intricately designed steeple hinges) and swirly brown ceramic knobs (MUCH less common than the plain black or white kinds, thank you!). This door was most likely built with lumber from first-growth Michigan pine trees, cut during the lumbering heyday of the late 1800s. It was, in short, a door built to last. That I can refinish it now is testament to that fact, as is the notion that someone could ultimately bury it in paint and repeat the refinishing process AGAIN in another hundred years. We have 5 other doors in the house that match this one...all of which will eventually be returned to their piney, wooden glory.

I compare these doors to today's common hollow-core "privacy" doors. The kind that, if Jack Nicholson needed to get through them, he wouldn't even need an axe; he'd just punch his fist through and announce "Here's Johnny!" My grandparents have doors like this hanging in their circa-1963 brick ranch: hollow doors, hollow brass-plated knobs, and plain extruded hinges that are nearly paper-thin; but they'll hold, after all, since the door itself probably weighs less than 10 pounds. This is not a door that can be refinished. If you somehow struck it with a sharp object - let's say a butter knife flipped oddly off your plate - at the very least you'd nick the maple veneer. More likely you'd actually poke a hole right through it, and there'd really be no fixing it; you'd either live with the hole, or eventually you'd end up with a door that looked shabby enough you'd simply replace it.

That concept of replaceability (is that a word?) seems to have crept into our national and social subconsciousness without our ever really being aware of it. Houses that were built of wood siding, plaster, hardwood trim and floors...all of these things could be fixed, redone, rejuvinated. My current vinyl siding is great in that it never needs painting and won't decay from rain & snow...but, if I mow over a stone and the mower launches it into the side of the house...well, it's probably gonna break that siding. Wood might get dented, but that can be sanded down and repainted. The plaster which is original to the house might be cracked in places, but a little Dap (okay, a LOT of Dap) fills those cracks and returns the plaster to its original rock-hard surface. What is drywall? Gypsum (translation: powder) pressed between two layers of paper. My window trim is 6 inches wide with a beveled inner edge; hard pine, from old-growth trees. If I wanted to invest the time I could strip it all down. (I don't.) The floors, too, are all strip pine; no hardwood here, but still...a guy with a drum sander took three days to remove the old, crackled finish and make them good to go for decades. Friends of ours have Pergo floors: they look...well, KIND OF like wood, but again, drop a knife handle-first and you've chipped the surface beyond repairability (another possibly made-up word).

An older couple I know is having a multi-million dollar home built on Mackinac Island; the level of craftsmanship is, in a word, stupefying. Hardwood everywhere, the kind of trim from a bygone era...and all of so expensive that the average (even the above-average) person would never be able to afford it. And maybe that's where replaceability began to creep into our lives: replaceable equals affordable. Eliminate the man-hours from the cost of building a home, and suddenly the Santinis of the world can afford their own little abode in Bailey Park. When the little machine-milled ranch houses decay far enough...tear 'em down and replace 'em with more of the same. Somewhere along the way we were willing to trade craftsmanship for affordability.

A radio from 1925, if the tubes were treated well, probably still works; my clock radio from 1976 can't be reset for Daylight Savings Time, as the "hour" button no longer works. Taking it to a repair shop would cost a minimum of $40, just for a guy to look at it; cheaper to simply throw it away and buy a new one for HALF that cost. TVs are the same way: an old 12" Sony Trinitron was my mother's first color TV, and it worked for decades. A TV/VCR combo that she bought in 1995 weighed less than half of the Sony, and lasted less than that: after 2 years the VCR no longer worked, and the repairman told her it would be cheaper to buy a new one. Put a dent in the side panel of a 1950s-era car, you either bumped it out or filled it in with Bondo. Now, wait a few weeks for a new part to come in and replace the whole thing.

I have a general distaste for waste, so I find the concept of "cheaper-and-easier-to-replace" a little reprehensible. I recognize this makes me the odd one out. Whatever. I take pride in the way I appreciate quality; I guess that's the Robert Pirsig influence coming out. Quality is better than quantity. I'd rather spend $150 and 15 hours to strip and refinish a door; for me, that's a better use of time and money than the numerous hundreds I'd have to spend to replace the door with one of like kind...and the inner me finds modern privacy doors are a great representative metaphor for modern life: hollow.