The first time we had wood delivered was in 2018 and we were living in the yurt. We had never really used that amount of firewood before and looked around for where to store it. We found a decaying old frame sitting by some trees that was apparently for stacking wood. It seemed odd at the time. Would we really keep wood out in the rain? Shouldn’t it be, like, dry?
Not knowing what else to do, we moved the frame into the garage and against the wall. This way, in my mind, it would be dry, safe, and sound. When the wood arrived, Ed Stone, one of the island’s wood entrepreneurs, was surprised I wanted to keep it in the garage. He said, “I don’t know why, but firewood does better when it’s left out in the elements.” By that time, I already had wood sitting on the frame, so that’s where it stayed for the season.
After that interaction, I started to notice other homes’ wood sheds. They were all very similar: A small roof, a floor with wide gaps, and no walls. In some cases, a tarp was used on top of the wood instead of a roof.
With the house built and fireplaces in action, I needed to learn more about the raw material: firewood. What does wood need or want? What can I do to treat it well?
Along with local knowledge, I consulted two books: Norwegian Wood and The Wood Fire Handbook. This put me on a course to making the most of our wood and one big idea stood out: we needed a wood shed. Firewood burns hotter and cleaner when it’s dry and dry wood comes from wood that can breathe. That’s why it was weird to keep it in the garage. By being out in the elements, it could naturally release moisture or “season”. In fact, rain isn’t a big problem as long as moisture isn’t trapped where it can create mold and decay.
The clock was ticking. We had two cords sitting in the garden, which was fine in the dry summer weather. It couldn’t stay there long in the wet winter.
We started to consider what kind of shed we wanted and learned that our friends Paul and Erika recently built a very nice shed that seemed to fit the bill. In fact, they used free plans by Fine Homebuilding that we could adapt to our needs.
A couple of weeks ago the work started with a shovel and pick. The shed needed to be level and that meant leveling the ground under it. Digging is always hard, but our ground is probably equal parts soil and rocks. One minute you’re digging, the next, you hear and feel a THUD and realize that a 20 pound rock has to be removed to keep going.
We dug holes, placed concrete piers, tried to get them level, and then realized the fence line we used to line them up wasn’t square. We shook our fists at the sky, and then started over. Leveling and squaring those damn piers was painful. All along I kept reminding Sachi that it was only a wood shed.
We finally got it set and the fun could begin. That meant setting the floor with space for air flow.
Then we built the walls all at once and slowly applied them.
Next was purlins, which are boards that sit vertically under the roof. I had never driven 5″ screws through the thin side of 2X4s, but it worked surprisingly well.
With a few more supports and some galvanized roof panels, the shed was ready and we could finally stack the wood that had been sitting in a pile for a few months.
After years of being on Orcas, our wood finally had a home that should last our lifetimes.
On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.
The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up.
Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up.
Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there.
To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.
The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001.
I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work.
It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.
On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath.
After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.
A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed.
Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.
That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.
Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?
We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect. On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us.
Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins.
In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.
Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.
We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”.
By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower.
I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.
The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.
It’s a familiar story. Two friends decide to build a cabin in the woods where they can get away from desk jobs and spend time away from the city. These stories often cover the same territory: the dream runs headlong into reality. The story below is no different, but has a happier ending.
What I love about this article is that it’s about inexperience and things going off the rails. It’s about effort, strife, and pain. But what really stands out is how much they enjoyed the experience. To me, the magic in projects like this is the feeling, when the day is done, that you have put in the work and learned something new. As they write:
That night, exhausted but content, we jumped in the river and had a fire on its banks. We got good and drunk and temporarily forgot about the fact that we still had to cut and attach the rafters, build out the roof, install the door, finish the siding and windows, construct the kitchen and bathroom, put in the wood-burning stove, finish the loft, insulate and clad the walls, wire and plumb everything, never mind the finish tasks of trim, tile, light fixtures, and on and on.
That’s the magic.
We’re putting real work into on our house project, but most of it is being left to the professionals. We still return home sore and exhausted…and it’s awesome.
The article also contains a a delightful description of backwoods PNW personality:
One time, we were both on the roof when a guy known as Hermit Gary showed up. We’d only heard tales of him, and then one bright day, he emerged from a sea of ferns like a landlocked Poseidon. He wore sweatpants, no shirt, and earmuffs; he held a chainsaw running in his hands. Without saying a word to us, he started sawing a tree at the bottom of our property, which wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that it had grown to hold up a much larger, precariously situated tree that could have obliterated the cabin in one violent collapse. It took a full minute of our screaming before he finally heard us, looked up at the trees, said, “Oh…ha!” and went about his day somewhere else. Sometimes our cabin felt like a house of cards.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.