Shed Happens

The shed as a SolidWorks model

The universe is expanding. So we should soon all have more room. But it should come as no surprise this does not apply to sheds. Our family has outgrown two of them. Outgrowing them is easy; replacing them is the trick. What’s a family with too much stuff to do?

Tapping into the hive mind reveals building your own shed to be one popular solution. Yeah. Uh-huh. When it comes to do-it-yourself projects I’ll paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: You were so preoccupied asking yourself if you could, you didn’t ask yourself if you should. Should you build your shed?

After 12 straight weekends up to my elbows in my shed project, plus a full vacation spent building the bulk of it, I have the definitive answer: I’m not sure.

There are lots of other ways to get a storage building onto your property. There are plastic sheds. We had a Keter that we just loved. There are metal sheds. We had an Arrow that we did not love. You could buy a shipping container. Built watertight, dust tight, and vermin proof, these are surprisingly cost effective. Throw a cammo net over it so your neighbors can’t marvel over its utilitarian beauty and you’re good to go. But our property has no alley. A container would have to be dropped in with a big crane. That’s a non-starter. Big cranes are expensive. Likewise, you can buy a prebuilt shed. That’s the shipping container problem, just with a smaller crane.

Then there are shed kits. These range from some pretty questionable offerings from Lowes, to some pretty spiffy offerings from not-from-Lowes. Spiffy means expensive features I didn’t need. At the next level, you can buy a shed, built by professionals, from a company like Tuff Shed or Home Depot. Pick your basic design, pick your options, level your lot. Tuff Shed comes in with prebuilt panels and finishes the construction on site. Or… you can be a dumbass and design and build your own shed. That gets you what you want. And it saves you some money. Reluctant to forgo being a dumbass, I followed the hive mind down that rabbit hole.

So the Keter and the Arrow are gone to recycling. I now own a real shed. No, correction. I own a 10X14 storage building. I also now own a miter saw and three 1 nail guns. I also have a sore back, a very tiny portion of a fingertip missing, a few bruises, and a tan to make George Hamilton jealous. The process saved me—using Tuff Shed prices as a guide—about $3000.

That looks good on paper. But, I put about 50 hours into designing it. I put another 150 hours into building it. So, that means I paid myself about $15 an hour to design and, singlehandedly, build the thing. Sometimes I really question just how smart I am.

Then again, huge swaths of this project had intangible benefits. One such is that weird thing called a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment and $3 gets you a coffee at Starbucks. It’s worthless. That is, until you accomplish something. Real accomplishment is harder and harder to come by these days. Or, to knap that flint to a finer point, our accomplishments are more artificial. Sure, we fine-tuned that spreadsheet. Yes, we closed the circles on our health app. Yep, we checked ‘balance the bank account’ off of our to-do list. But are these accomplishments? At the end of last year’s Grand Canyon trip, stepping out of the raft at Diamond Creek was one of the great moments of my life. But the water in the river is dam controlled. The highly regulated Canyon backcountry is routinely patrolled. The entire run is well mapped, well documented; there are few surprises waiting. In the end, I’m not sure what I accomplished. Hell, I didn’t even row a boat for more than an hour. Real accomplishments are hard to come by, for sure. But putting up my own storage building sure felt like one.

Then there is doing actual work. Words are elastic. They stretch and shift, taking on new meaning over time. Work is one such word. I’ve met any number of fat-asses, gussied up in suits, garroted in neckties, who sally off to their desk job in the financial sector each day. To a man, each one has proclaimed how hard they work. Work? I suppose. I suppose some explanation is in order for just what makes skimming off the top so lucrative. I go to a desk job everyday too. I get that it is stressful. I get that it requires a certain skill. I get that I dedicate a lot of time to it. But it’s tough to truly call it work. Work can be measured. Pick your term—horsepower, calories, watts—we can define work being done. Put me in a metabolic chamber, a calorimeter, let me use my brain as hard as I can. I will never raise the needle above my basal metabolism. That’s because, frankly, no work is being done.

During nine straight days of shed building I lost five pounds. Not in water weight. Not in muscle mass. I dropped five pounds of fat. Losing a pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories. So in nine days, I burned through a 17500 calorie deficit. This despite eating anything that I wanted and drinking about six gallons of sugary lemonade. In short, work was being done. The output is measurable. A storage building now stands where there was dirt. And I literally worked my ass off. Admittedly, I enjoy not working for a living. But with projects like these, I truly enjoy the work.

And then there is the club I now claim membership in.

Dad used to quip that you only need four woodworking tools: a saw, a hammer, a drill and a slotted screwdriver. (Because the screwdriver could also be used as a chisel.) He was kidding of course. Dad came from a family that just seemed to know how to build things out of wood. Not a single one of them ever had a minute of training. They just did it. My grandfather built, first a log cabin; then a two story house—skinned from slabs from his sawmill to look like a log cabin. My uncle built the house in Glade City he still lives in today—with its, not paneling, but actual wood plank walls. Knotty pine and wormy chestnut.

My dad worked the other two ends of the precision spectrum. He built a pole barn for my sister’s horses. He converted an outbuilding into a garage. But he would also create the most amazing small things out of wood. I still have a model he made of the 1940’s Batmobile. And I have a cradle he made for my daughters’ first baby dolls. It wasn’t really the things themselves that were amazing. What was amazing is that he seemed to conjure them from memory and thin air. He could draw as well as anybody. (I used to dig though his completed assignments from The Famous Artists School.) But I never saw him put a plan to paper. The objects just appeared out of wood as if an unseen hand were guiding his planer, router or table saw.

Mom also has an uncanny ability to just do things. She is an accomplished cook and baker. She can knit and crochet. She can sew. And not just A-line dresses. One winter, she made my brother and I coats from surplus WWII wool army blankets. She made a full-on wedding dress for one of my younger sisters. She can decoupage, macramé, and refinish furniture. She can hang wall paper. She can butcher chickens and rabbits. She is an expert gardener. She was doing organic gardening in the sixties. Not from some hippie notion of revolutionizing the world. But because it just made sense. I could go on and on.

Between the both of them, I never realized that there were things that people did not know how to do. This has sort of worked against me because my wife believes that I know how to do all of these things she ever saw them do. Believe me, I cannot sew a wedding dress.

While we were pricing Tuff Sheds one Saturday, my wife decided we needed to look at a 10X14 Tall Ranch. Her voice echoed inside it. That echo confirmed two things: one, that was the size shed we needed; two, I would simply build ours. I had made the same decision, fueled partly from the misplaced confidence that if Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Uncle Bob could do those things, so could I.

There was also the fact that I got to spend a summer watching Olle work. Olle was a Swede and he was an actual carpenter. By actual carpenter, I mean that he was not just a two-bit framer. There are lots of guys, like me, who can cut a 2X4 to length; who can end nail them in place, maybe even toe nail them, without splitting any wood, on a lucky day. And sure, we can layout one length of a single story wall and pop it upright. Carpenters, on the other hand, can be amazing. For Olle, king studs, jack studs, cripples, blocking & braces and top & bottom plates were not just words. He understood them and how to use them counter to each other to take the twist out of a stud, or the bow out of a wall. I watched him frame a staircase using nothing more than a tape measure, pencil, framing square, hand saw and hammer. You could almost see the trigonometry equations circling above his head. Watching Olle was like watching a moving meditation. Like my dad, he was slow and deliberate. Like my dad, I never saw him pull out a set of plans for the guest house he was building. But as he worked tools floated in and out of his hands like they were willed by the cosmos.

Olle’s wife owned Swiss Heights Kennels. I was working for her that summer repainting the kennels. I spent most of my time curled up inside pens—which had been just recently used as poodle pissoirs—applying fresh latex paint. Twice a day I would stop to feed the dogs. This is where I developed my love for working dogs. Feeding time at the Poodle House was a frenzy. The entire time I doled out kibble the little Jheri-curled pricks would jump and yap. Seeing that wall of leaping sub-canines always made me think it should be part of a carnival shooting gallery. But the big dogs—the Siberian Huskies, the German Shepherds, the Labrador retrievers—would calmly sit, sure of themselves, waiting for me to fill their dishes. I still remember one of the Huskies, as patient as a monk, its ice blue eyes looking at me from some faraway place. But while I was peddling Purina, I would pause to watch Olle complete another piece of the guest house. From him, I learned an appreciation for folks, confident of their skills, masters of their work, who could move from task to task with a transcendent surety.

And I have been on a roof before. During my days as a Watchtower Society adherent, a brother offered to help re-roof my house. It was built-up roofing. And I did little more than carry buckets of molten tar. But I learned a thing or two. Later, I worked beside Brother Bealer re-shingling our Kingdom Hall. Don could lay a shingle in the amount of time it would take you to say, swoosh, tap bam tap bam tap bam tap bam. Don was old school. The swoosh was him sliding the shingle into place. Tap was when he would set the nail by tapping it with a hammer while it was pinched between his fingers. Then bam actually drove the nail. He did not use pneumatic tools. His parents had crossed the plains into the Dakotas in a covered wagon. His mother was tough enough to still be around to talk about it. No, Don used the classic method. And his shingles were placed quickly, neatly and accurately. Let me assure you that, unlike some of these new-fangled nail gun speed demons, every nail Don placed would meet code.

So with sawdust in my genetic code, with a few tips picked up from watching the masters, and from a semester of architectural drafting at technical school, I felt I could knock together what amounted to a miniature house. And I did. For the first time, I felt I could stand with my parents as someone willing to tackle anything.

So I saved some money. On a per-hour basis it wasn’t much. But, being honest, it was the difference between having a shed or not. I have not gotten far from my hillbilly roots: I still belong to a socioeconomic class where sweat equity counts. So that was something. The sense of accomplishment is huge; I might brag about this for awhile. I have always said if money is being made and no work is being done you should ask why. It was nice having a reality check about what work really means. And then there is being able to stand with my parents as someone who can simply do things.

So, yeah, if I were to get a little uppity, if I were to brag on myself a little bit, I would say: Yup. A shed is a great DIY project. You should definitely build yours yourself.

The Shed — A Pictoral History

My original sketch
Start at the very beginning…
Framing up. Roof joists in foreground.
Heavy duty shelves inside.
Nearly done. Waiting for trim and hardware.

1 Actually, two nail guns and a palm nailer. ↩︎