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Another decade old muse on the joys of DIY.

An Existence Ill Used in Montreal. Part I.


My mother-in-law decided that it would be nice to have her patio decking ‘done’, and what that means is that I’ll be doing it out of the goodness of my heart. Anyway, not content with a new layer of paint, she decides that it would be nicer stripped down to the bare wood and tinted, or stained. This plan was encouraged by my troublesome wife, who agreed that it would be lovely. Okay, not too traumatic so far. The decking is about 17 foot by 10 foot and raised off the ground by about a foot and a half. There is no access underneath, and no way of taking it apart in any way (just in case you are thinking about it). The first problem is that the planks of wood are all set apart by about half an inch, not flush together. So, bright blue paint is all down the sides of the planks, and highly visible.

Solution 1: The paint stripper.

Suggested by my father (who has extensive experience of stripping paint off various surfaces). He said, paint paint-stripper down the sides, then scrape it off with a blade. ‘Should be easy’, he says. It might be worth pointing out here that I was never concerned about the surface of the decking, as I always thought I’d just sand that off with an electric sander. Okay, so I buy a few litres of some super-decking-stripper-without-the-pain from the local hardware store that says it’ll strip a couple of football pitches, or some other equally blatant lie. Anyway, I follow the instructions and succeed, eventually, after hours of backbreaking scrubbing (which the product claimed I wouldn’t have to do), in revealing the yellow paint under the blue, and a few patches of wood. The sides of the planks stubbornly clung to their paint though, resisting all attempts to brush it off. Suffice to say that I ran out of product half way through and started swearing.

Solution 2: Improved strength paint stripper.

Not for the faint hearted this stuff. Guaranteed to contain chemicals that dissolve concrete, or your hands, on contact. This product claimed that I would merely have to hose down the decking after application and watch the paint wash away - absolutely painless, just ensure all pets are indoors type of thing. Anyway, it didn’t bloody work and I ended off scrubbing like hell for hours on end, and getting a similar effect to the first product.

Solution 3: Leave the whole thing half done for a number of weeks in the hope it will go away.

It didn’t.

Solution 4: I had a brainwave.

I cast my mind back to woodworking at school and remembered a tool that we used for just such purposes as removing layers of wood in awkward places - a ‘rasper’. I started to check out all the hardware stores in an effort to find one, but was always out of luck. I had no idea how to say ‘rasper’ in French and my attempts to explain always led to plain old files (which didn’t work, as I had tried this in a moment of desperation already). So, I forgot all about it for a week until I saw a rasper, accidentally whilst buying some carriage bolts somewhere. I rushed (well, maybe not) to the decking and spent three hours rasping away. It worked quite well, produced copious blisters, and quite a good result. The problem was that three hours of work only covered about one tenth of the planking sides. Another thirty hours of the same activity didn’t sound too good to me, and in fact made me break out in a cold sweat.

Solution 5: Ignore the sides and just do the top.

This is my mother-in-law’s idea actually, along with my wife. I think they suspect that the snows will arrive before I finish the sides, which would be bad news for the decking. So, I agree that I’ll just sand the top and tint it, then rasp sides and top up the tint, as and when I have time - perhaps over the next several years. I pointed out (and still do) that you’ll be able to see yellow and blue paint on the sides of the planking, but my mother-in-law claims that she can’t, which is nice of her.

The Sanding Machine

Now, my mother-in-law produces this bit of paper, cut out of the local newspaper, which reviews a new machine for stripping wood ‘without pain’. The actual title was something like ‘Stripping without pain’. I was sceptical. There was a picture of a man, smiling, actually smiling, as he stripped wood off a plank with the new and funky machine, which employed magic, or something equally dubious, to achieve its unbelievable result. Anyway, there was no putting her off, so we set off to the local ‘outils location’ (or whatever) shop, where we would rent tools from burly, condescending types in overalls.

Turns out that they didn’t have the new super-magic-without-pain machine, and the chief (or chef) of the shop actually sneered when shown the article. He said he’d tried one at a trade fair, and that a belt sander was quicker. I’m still confused as to what this magical machine does that a normal sander doesn’t, perhaps throwing a flame or something. At this point I should mention that we did talk about heating guns and scraping tools, but I dismissed it as being longer, or equal in length to the rasper.

Anyway, we took a belt sander. He eyed me and said, ‘Do you know how to use it?’ I had to bite my tongue, as it was about to say, ‘of course’, and instead moderate my reply and say, ‘I haven’t used one of these before.’ Emphasising ‘these’ so he was aware that I’d actually used a sander before in my life.

With a flick of the wrist and slight-of-hand, he mounted a belt in place and locked it down tight, without me seeing.

‘Like this’, he said.

‘Okay’, I lied, ‘no problem.’

He went on, ‘When you start it, the belt will go this way, turn this knob until it comes back this way, then when you start to sand it will go this way, turn the knob to make it go this way. Keep it in the centre.’

‘Right.’ I said. How difficult could it be?

Half an hour later and I’m sanding the decking. When I started the machine, I twiddled the knob and corrected the wobble, then twiddled it again when sanding, and it was all going terribly well. I did a plank, then another, then another. Great. My knees started to hurt, I stood and did another, my back started to hurt. I began to suffer, and did another and another. So after about 4 foot square I was dead and couldn’t hear anything. My mother-in-law insisted on going out to buy me earplugs.

The sanding started to get harder and harder and I realised that the belt was wearing down, so I unplugged it and pulled up the release lever, which relaxed the two wheels that the belt sat on. The belt slipped off okay, and the new one slipped on fine. I pushed the lever back and was quite pleased. Poised to start again I was dismayed when the wheels whizzed round and the belt stayed stationary, flapping a little. I unplugged and examined the mechanism. The belt was too big for the wheels. Damn. I took the old belt and put it on and that was too big too. Okay, the belt was the right size and I was stupid, perhaps. It took me a good ten minutes to realise that turning the mysterious knob that controlled the tilt of the belt also lengthened the distance between the wheels, stretching the belt (curiously, it did this whatever direction you turned it in). The knob was a mystery to me. Anyway, the belt was on.

When started, it shot off the side, like an elastic band. I re-applied it and furiously turned the knob to make it slide in the other direction, and it did, and stayed there, refusing to return to the middle. I stopped the machine, unplugged it again and reloaded the belt. Turned it on and it shot to the side and refused to move. I turned the knob one way about ten turns, nothing, the other way about ten turns, nothing. Well, the band was turning, what did it matter if it was skewed to one side, I reasoned?

I sanded for perhaps ten minutes when I noticed the hole appearing in the top of the metal sheet covering the band. I watched in fascination as it opened up and started to gape wider. I stopped the machine, unplugged it and examined the mechanism. The belt had eaten through the metal all along the side, and also some plastic. My heart sank. Was that really me? Could the sander really eat itself like that? What the hell would the burly, condescending overall-wearing guy say when we took it back? ‘What the HELL have you done to my sander!?’

I showed my mother-in-law and explained that there might be serious consequences upon return of the rented item. She shrugged and asked if I could continue with the decking?

So, I sit down for a serious study of the appliance. I take off the belt and notice that the front wheel is sitting at an odd angle, explaining the reluctance of the belt to move to the centre. I lock the mechanism and it straightens a little, but not a lot. I twiddle the knob. Nothing happens. There are no more controls apart from on and off. I examine the knob, it seemed to be connected to a little rod that hovered meaninglessly in the air. Twiddling it simply seemed to rotate it. On a whim I kept turning it in one direction for a long time and watched it descend slowly until it hit the wheel and then pressed against it, changing its angle. I swore and cursed my stupidity once again. I had obviously unscrewed the knob too far in one attempt at control, and since then it had no effect whatsoever.

Control re-established, I sanded for five hours in the day, getting between a third and a half done. Tired and groggy, I was going to finish at 4:40pm, but decided to push on until 5pm, making a round number. As if in a dream, with heavy hands and aching back I started to sand the last fateful plank of the day. Half way along I heard an odd buzzing noise and stopped to have a look what it was - an unlucky wasp maybe? No, of course not. It was the power cable of the sander. As if I hadn’t inflicted enough damage on the poor machine, I had also now sanded off the outer casing of the power cable. Revealing, rather dangerously, the inner wires.

I packed up an had a shower, warning my mother-in-law that they might be unhappy with the sander when she takes it back. She seemed unconcerned. Perhaps with a few hundred dollars worth of bill, she will become more so.


So, there’s sawdust everywhere. It’s in my hair, under my nails, in the fabric of my clothes, in my nose, my ears, between my toes, and generally settled in my lungs. Not the nice kind of sawdust that you plunge your hand into to grab a prize at a lucky-dip, oh no, the finer kind, the dust and airborne kind. Yes, after another day with unlikely sanding machines.

When I next met my mother-in-law she informed me that we were going to hire equipment form another vendor. This struck me as suspicious - had the last people said something about the sander and she had just not mentioned it? As it turned out, she had decided to change machines as she didn’t want to see me bending over for another five hours with a belt sander, so she had another thing in mind, something she had seen used by workmen in the past - the ‘upright sander’.

Imagine a vacuum cleaner, but more severe.

So, another burly, overall-clad, condescending man later, we hauled an extraordinarily large and heavy sander-cum-vacuum-cleaner into the boot of the car. It was very, very heavy. As is (now) usual, the man had shown me how to load the sanding paper onto a large roller in a casual, non-informative way and curtly dismissed us.

True to form, we couldn’t work out how to fit the paper - it involved three screws (which previous renters had mangled terribly), a flat metal bar, and a large cylinder. After some faffing about we managed to mount the first roll. The plug was so old and battered that it kept falling out of the wall, so I had to employ some masking tape in large amounts to secure the connection.

On goes the machine.

It’s not as loud as the belt sander, surprisingly. I lower it to the wood and it makes an angry, snarling, ripping, shredding, end-of-the-world type of noise and spits the sanding sheet out onto the decking, in tiny bits.

We mount another sheet, using a different technique. I lower the revving machine and the same thing happens. We discuss the problem, she seems to think that it is due to nails, so I hammer all the nails soundly further into the wood, although they aren’t proud (so to speak). The next attempt is a little better and I manage to strip wood viciously for about ten seconds before the sheet rips to shreds. We decide that it is due to the uneven wood ends and to stick to the centre of the planks for now. The next sheet mounts tightly, having got the technique right, finally, and I manage to sand for about forty minutes without a problem.

It all went rather well in the end. I got better and better, and I had no more ripping sheets. My mother-in-law retired inside, obviously satisfied that I wasn’t going to destroy the machine.

Anyway, four hours later and most of the decking is smooth and lovely. The edges still need to be done with a belt sander, as do a few patches where the wood is uneven, but it’s a good job.

Anyway, we take the hulking sander back to the shop and wait for half an hour as burly overall-clad men ignore us until we finally get to pay. My mother-in-law mentions that we’ll be back to hire a belt-sander to finish the edges. What? Says the man, Didn’t you use the edge attachment?

What edge attachment?

Well, they are supposed to supply with the machine an add-on which allows you to sand edges next to walls and corners.

‘Sorry’, he said.

The saga continues.