Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How To Handle Old Nails When You're Gutting and Mucking

I am sitting in the (I think) annex / community area of a church in Aransas Pass, Texas. I am conscious of the fact that I am being antisocial, maybe conspicuously so: I have headphones on, and I'm writing this, during evening hours that most people are using to socialize. One table over, eight of my fellow volunteers are playing laughing, merry poker.

I am volunteering with an organization called All Hands, which is active at a number of domestic and international sites of natural disaster; they do immediate response and--they emphasize this, so I mention it--more long-term community rebuilding as well.

I spent the day "gutting and mucking" houses in a low-income housing development; we (All Hands) were teamed up with another nonprofit (Team Rubicon) for this work.

It is weird, me at this moment: headphones on writing with everyone shootin' the sh*t. But y'know there's a whole thing here, which I think is in earnest, of 'look after yourself', 'you can't work well if you don't'. I'm a weird, solitary guy. This is how I look after myself. I hope they understand. I think I was an okay team member today, doing "gutting and mucking." I tried to be.

"Gutting and mucking"--I'm sure that my definition is incomplete--is when you go into a house that's been damaged (flood; rain) and basically rip out everything that's inside. You of course clear the house, first; of debris, for example, if there was a major storm that ransacked the residents' personal effects. And then you really just gut it. You rip out drywall and insulation--in case of water damage, like ours, the insulation and interior spaces may be riddled with fungus/moss: blackened with visible spores. If there's a lot of this stuff, you wear one of those full body suits like in movies, just less dramatic and more flimsy.

There's also more advanced work, for those who know better than I do: removing water coolers, gutting plumbing out (bathtubs), etc.

But if you're a grunt, as I'm lucky to be, the anchor of your work will be dealing with the drywall and then doing "QC". Dealing with drywall is very straightforward: you kind of lever behind it with crowbar and hammer, and pull it from the wall in the biggest chunks you can muster. Sometimes you bang through it with a hammer, first, to gain purchase; but the idea is not to just go around hammering out every square inch of drywall (inefficient). "QC", at least as All Hands uses the term, is what you do after the drywall's all gone. I think it stands for "Quality Control"; if I'm right, that doesn't quite make sense to me, as it's really a part of the process. Regardless, what "QC" is: pulling out all the nails. I'll explain! You're ripping out drywall and insulation, right? But not tearing down the house. Not knocking over the wooden frame structure. The idea being that the house has been riddled with (say) moisture and moss, and you need to gut it but not tear it down. The bones are fine; the skeleton of this house will remain, and get muscles and nerve and skin put back on. For example (end metaphor): drywall will be reinstalled. And in order to have--

Sorry, it occurs to me: this blog post is probably comically ill-informed, to many of you. Or that other thing, where someone has just discovered something so it's new to them, but it's not a new thing at all, so the fact that they are explaining it as if it is is either a little bit charming or a little bit embarrassing or sometimes a bit of both. To many of you, my whole explanation here is probably a bit of that second thing! And indeed, I'm writing explain it in the way that I'd need it explained. i.e., veeeery simply.

So, in order to have new drywall properly installed on the preexisting, reclaimed wooden structure--in order to rebuild this house that's been "gutted and mucked"--you have to be able to fit that drywall flush to the existing wood structural elements. Which means, obviously, there can't be a great bunch of gnarly bent-a$$ nails sticking out every which way. The problem being that that's exactly what you are left with, after pulling the drywall: as even I knew, drywall is silly and brittle; it crumbles and breaks much more easily than (say) a well anchored nail into wood, the result being that the drywall as you remove it mostly crumbles off around the nails that had fixed it in place, leaving them there.

So this is a thing that I learned today, then, because I wound up for much of the day doing "QC". What I learned was the trick of getting these nails out. A., who has a movie-star grin and hazelgreen eyes and one of those haircuts where the side is all buzzed beneath a longer top (on one side), and who has been a volunteer for twelve months and is absolutely capable of taking that water cooler out,explained it to us outside. We were all having this problem where the heads of the nails, like the part that you hammer, would PTANG! get torn off when you pulled with your hammer (that back part of the hammer that you use to grasp and yank nails out), so you'd be left with a naked ungraspable shaft of tiny metal stuck deep into wood.

We were outside, on break, wondering why these nails were so annoying: if they were crappy, or just old; if the fact that this is government housing meant that the lowest-bidding contractor did the work; if the fact that this is government housing meant that the lowest-bidding contractor did the work and then perhaps used even cheaper materials than they'd promised to in their bid; etc.

And A., who has been at this stuff for a year, said a thing:

Well, until the 1980s or so, drywall was always secured with nails -- not screws. So a lot these buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s, you see this with the nailed in drywall.

Which was a very tidy way of diagnosing, based on the development of building practices and materials, the age of these buildings and why these (old) nails kept on breaking.

I will note, further: later that afternoon, up on a ladder, ripping some drywall away from wood beams (I did a lot of the higher-placed drywall; I'm tall-ish), I found a note from 10/1/1975 in chalk; it seemed to be marking someone's work hours, C, I think: C had started sometime after 9am and knocked off around noon, and someone else had initialed and OKed this.

I am not claiming this proves A.'s factoid true; I am saying that I do not care to further investigate A.'s factoid.

Let's review:
-- anecdotal evidence of satisfying explanations for things I know nothing about can be, itself, satisfying and compelling to me (esp. up a ladder with a hammer and crowbar)
-- it is way better to get the nails out! if you do not get the nails out, you have to hammer them in so they are embedded in the wood: the point is that the surface must be flat and pretty smooth for the reapplication of drywall. (B., our able team-leader, talked me through this)
-- if you fail to get the nail out with a hammer, you still can remove it, but you have to do this thing with pliers that takes a long time. (winching the stupid nail back, back and forth, denting the wood, watching out for glass (as, once, stupidly, I failed to))
-- but: it's hard to get the nails out with the hammer! Cuz the stupid head of the nail snap right off when you pull it! stoopid old nailz!

In response to all of which, here is what I learned. (A lot of it's in the wrist; I felt that, during the day, my wrist getting smarter.) (I also felt, and feel, my fingers and hands, unaccustomed to some of this work, tightening up). But a lot of it is a consciously replicable and expressable thing:

I initially approached the challenge of pulling a nail from deep wood as being mainly about levering  pressure with that back part of your hammer, using that head of the nail to grip onto. You slip the head of the nail in that v-slit at the back of the hammer, the head catches when you pull, pull against it. voila. Except not 'voila', since as I've said that head of the nail breaks off.

So: you get good at eyeing the placement of the nail, and do a crisp quick motion where CHAKK you drive that backside of the hammer against it; i.e., you jam it in such that the nail itself gets wedged in that biting v at the back of the hammer: you're not using the head to pull up, you've jammed the nail in the bite of the v itself. And you use that torque, judiciously, and


pull it out.

It's fast and it's good! You can get many nails removed this way, even ones that are awkwardly placed.

I would not have been able to figure this out, because I would not have known what to do at all, or even how to be safely inside of that house, without the help of B. and A., aforementioned, as well as E., J., C., and (other) A. -- a fellow noob but a more skillful one.

Tomorrow, we're gutting and mucking again. I might learn something new. Might just do more of the same. We'll see.

I'm glad I'm here. 
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