Old to New


The last few days I’ve been limping around with every muscle in my body pulled and aching to some degree or another.

I started on wednesday with an empty dumpster.

Well, mostly empty, anyway. The toilet is the old one I replaced 2 years ago; it has been sitting (“resting”) in the basement waiting for me to have a good way to get rid of it.

Main hallway, 2006

A brief bit of back-story: in 2006, I bought a decommissioned elementary school to use as a photography studio, woodshop, sewing room, darkroom, offline library, and place to store stuff. Basically, it’s a 5,500 square-foot closet with off-street parking on 9 acres with a view from a bluff over the west branch of the Susquehanna. I had been looking for a store-front I could rent in Clearfield, and turn into a studio/darkroom, but the real estate agent I was talking to said, “why not look at the elementary school? nobody wants it, and it’d be cheaper to buy it than to rent someplace.” So, that’s how that happened. I’m embarrassed by how inexpensive real estate is around here; let’s say that I owned the place outright for about $250/month. There are downsides, of course: fixing the roof has been a pain, it’s been broken into once and I spent a week running wire and installing an alarm system. When I got it the well pump was broken (since then city water has come through), I’ve had to put on MOPP gear and remove asbestos, etc.

Over the course of the last decade, I’ve done several “winter project”s – usually, I take some room of the building and convert it, or organize it, or sometimes mess it up much worse. In 2015 I retrofitted the girls’ bathroom into a steampunk-style darkroom for wet plates, in 2014 I renovated the 2nd grade classroom into a photography studio with a built-in cyclorama. My work-year usually has two seasons of busyness: spring and fall – winter is fairly dead. So it’s great to have someplace to go and a project to work on.

Since I’m going to be doing more knife-forging, I decided to empty out the 4th grade classroom, which had become a sort of dumping ground for large, awkward things.

Well, it’s nice to have a flat place where you can lay out lumber scraps. And, something like a freezer chest is awkward to get rid of, and if it’s not bothering anyone, it may as well sit.

The reason I included a picture of the front hall is because the best place to put a dumpster is at the exact opposite end of the building from the 4th grade classroom. I know: “first world problems.” So I spent a very long wednesday hauling the larger stuff out to the dumpster, then sorting through the lumber to figure out what goes in the dumpster or what goes back to the farm to get stored in the horse-barn (there is a nice storage room there that is perfect for lumber) Each trip back and forth is on concrete, and I think I must have walked 10 miles and probably moved 4 tons.

I spent a few hours on saturday moving more wood and pulling up some of the rotten floor tiles (bare concrete is fine for a metal shop!) and made a lot more trips to the dumpster. There is a decade of accumulated bizarreness in there – seats from my old Suburban (2003) and my old jeep (2006) and my step-van (2008) various stands and props I welded together – stuff like that: heavy junk. The dumpster services around here recycle construction parts so I’m pretty sure a lot of that stuff won’t go to waste.

When I renovated the 2nd grade classroom and set it up as my photography studio, I pulled down the ceiling tiles and the wooden supports they were nailed to. It is nasty, dusty, dirty work, but it makes a big difference to how to the room looks and feels, especially since I can then get up into the ceiling and re-do the electric system. The building was constructed in 1957 and the wiring is decidedly not modern. So I will probably get another dumpster in and pull down the ceiling next week. I have a cordless sawz-all that will make a dogawful mess of that in a real hurry. Then it’ll be a simple matter of cleaning up.

I’m 54, now, and my joints are starting to ache for the first couple of hours of each morning. It gets worse every year, which makes me realize, as the sages say: “getting older sucks.” I think the worst part of this whole project has been facing the decision of whether or not to do it, at all. Do I want to spend a few hundred hours setting up a nice forge-shop and use it for a decade before my joints completely give out? What if I start to fall apart even faster? I don’t want to just give up and become a hermit that plays computer games, blogs, and solves internet security problems but I am starting to get a visceral sensation of what it feels like when the signs start saying “Freeway ends, 20 miles.” I’m incredibly fortunate that I was in on the beginning of a new industry and that has positioned me to lead the kind of life I do. It was all luck.

Pedal to the metal.------ divider ------

As the project progresses, I will probably post pictures now and again. It may not be interesting, so I’ll keep an eye on the page-view statistics and if The Commentariat collectively is not interested my busy-work, I’ll know and I’ll stop posting them.

Comments

  1. Brian English says

    Is this a morality tale about decadence?

    Your country is crumbling, as evidenced by the discarded school you’re using for your nefarious ends, and you’re crumbling as well.

    Probably not.

    I’m a decade younger than you, but I’m crumbling quickly. I’m collecting medical conditions at a good rate, some inherited (haemachromotosis), some self-caused (lard arse who likes booze), others caused by who knows what (sarcoidosis). Joints are pretty good, except the hip I slammed into the pavement a decade ago when I tried to beat a red light on the bike in light rain, which ended my ability to jog painlessly and contributed to my sloth…. Good times!

    I need a beer after that winge! As the great elder, Homer J Simpson said: Beer, the cause and solution to all my problems!

  2. kestrel says

    Holy shit. You own an old school? Wow. The mind boggles. No wonder you can have so many projects going! That is pretty damn cool. I can’t even imagine…

    Also, you seriously need to get some chalk and draw pictures on that chalk board. I can’t believe you haven’t taken care of that already. :-D

    As to getting older, and it sucking: in my own personal view, at this point in time anyway, it sucks even worse to be dead. So I try not to whine too much about getting older. As tempting as it is. I figure those aching joints just let me know I’m still alive. ;-)

  3. Owlmirror says

    I am wondering about the energy requirements of forging — do you need an actual gas line, or are small tanks of propane or other gas sufficient to the job, or will you rely on other fuel sources? And don’t you need good ventilation to keep the air clean for your head?

    I am looking at the bulletin board, and wondering if it might not benefit from a good conspiracy web as decor (Rand Corporation — saucer people — reverse vampires — and so on and so forth)

  4. says

    I haz building envy.

    Oh and the 2 hours after getting up that are full of grumbling joints is best spent with a leisurely breakfast and the computer going, no sense rushing at your age. Written by a 56 year old with grumbling joints. Go Forth And Modify, Young Man.

  5. chigau (違う) says

    Marcus
    Don’t be so quick to lie down, you could live to be 100.
    You’re barely half-way there.

  6. says

    A school? Oh, I am so fucking jealous. Yes, getting older sucks. I live with pain every day, but most days, I’m still very happy to be breathing, and manage to enjoy myself. So what if you only use a forge for 10 years? That’s a good 10 years, right?

  7. says

    Caine@#7:
    A school? Oh, I am so fucking jealous.

    Cheap real estate is about the best thing of living in this area (other than that it’s gorgeous)
    What really blew my mind was when they sold the high school in Philipsburgh, a year after I bought the elementary school. The high school was a full city block, 2 stories, and went for $150k, which is what you’d pay for a parking space in the washington area. I paid much less than that for my building.

    I semi-justify it as that I’m keeping the place from being demolished (which is true) but mostly it’s just incredibly nice and convenient to have a huge building you can do anything you like with. It mostly keeps me from making a mess out of my house.

    I live with pain every day, but most days, I’m still very happy to be breathing, and manage to enjoy myself.

    And your pain is much worse than mine. I’m just a whiner – my body worked pretty much exactly as it was supposed to, for a very long time. Ah, well, “use it or lose it” and “you’re gonna lose it anyway.”

    So what if you only use a forge for 10 years? That’s a good 10 years, right?

    Besides, that way when I finally give it up, someone will walk into a pre-configured set-up.
    There is an old 1900s high school in Clearfield, about 10 miles away, that was bought and turned into an arts consortium. You can rent a room there and paint, or whatever – I think that’s a fabulous idea. When I started asking about whether I could build a chemical safe for my cyanide, they decided there wasn’t any space for me to build a darkroom. That was when I started looking for other options and discovered I could own my building outright for less than half of what the other place wanted for rent.

    One think that’s a bit sobering is: I’m not even close to being in the 1%. I have enough $ that I can do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want, and I still have lots left over that I try to put to use. A 1%-er living out here could own the entire county (and could easily start businesses that created jobs, etc) (For that matter, I was going to try to situate my start-up in Clearfield: bring in some software companies and you can zap an economy to life)

  8. says

    Owlmirror@#3:
    I am wondering about the energy requirements of forging — do you need an actual gas line, or are small tanks of propane or other gas sufficient to the job, or will you rely on other fuel sources? And don’t you need good ventilation to keep the air clean for your head?

    It’s pretty intense. Most of the forges I’ve seen are built around 2 propane jets which run pretty much “full on” – you’re trying to get the interior up around 1500F or so and you’ll run it for an hour or two at a time. I haven’t scoped out the propane tank, yet, but I’ll probably get a pretty good sized one. I’m a bit nervous about that – will I need to pass some kind of inspection before the hookup? And what will they think when I say “yeah, it’s hooked up to that thing there that’s mixing propane with air as fast as it can!”

    Most forges are built as a sort of open-ended barn that is aligned to the prevailing wind, so you have a nice cross-draft. Fortunately, all the windows in the front room can be opened, so there’s a lot of air transfer.

    When I shoot in the studio in the winter I heat with a great big kerosene jet that’s pretty intense. I’ve never had a problem. In fact, the hot, dry, air is great for keeping the mold down.

  9. says

    Lofty@#5:
    Oh and the 2 hours after getting up that are full of grumbling joints is best spent with a leisurely breakfast and the computer going, no sense rushing at your age.

    That’s pretty much it! I have a couple cups of covefe and check stderr and plan my day. Some days, I never get past step 2!

    Go Forth And Modify, Young Man.

    “Beats sitting around waiting to die.” – Townes VanZandt

  10. says

    kestrel@#2:

    Holy shit. You own an old school? Wow. The mind boggles. No wonder you can have so many projects going! That is pretty damn cool. I can’t even imagine…

    It’s insanely nice. There’s a lot to be said for “mine, all mine!” if I want to drill a hole in that cinderblock and mount something: I do. If I want to pile something in the hallway and forget it for 3 or 4 months: I do. This is basically “mom does not come here” land.

    Right now, the assembly hall is my sewing and fine assembly room (leather-work, jewelry work, knife scabbards, sewing machines) The 2nd grade class is my photography room with the built-in cyclorama, 3rd grade is my wood shop which is a horrible mess, 4th grade will be the forge. The principal’s office is restored to original condition and I sometimes use it to write if I need undistracted time. The library is full of negatives, glass plates, and books. The music room is full of costumes and photography props. The girl’s bathroom is my darkroom. The kitchen is electronic assembly and a mess. ..

    Also, you seriously need to get some chalk and draw pictures on that chalk board. I can’t believe you haven’t taken care of that already. :-D

    If I could draw!!
    I do use the blackboards when I need to think visually. The chalk is in the other room.

    As to getting older, and it sucking: in my own personal view, at this point in time anyway, it sucks even worse to be dead. So I try not to whine too much about getting older. As tempting as it is. I figure those aching joints just let me know I’m still alive.

    An artist I know has MS. There isn’t a day I wake up that I don’t say my little ritual of thanks as I drink my first cup of coffee. It starts with “damn, this is great…” So many people have it so hard and I’ve been incredibly lucky.

  11. says

    chigau@#6:
    Don’t be so quick to lie down, you could live to be 100.
    You’re barely half-way there.

    With my family’s history of alzheimer’s if I make it to 100 there’s a good chance I won’t remember the ride. But, yeah. I’m not going to lie down. I’m just creaking and grumbling when I get up.

  12. says

    Brian English@#1:
    Your country is crumbling, as evidenced by the discarded school you’re using for your nefarious ends, and you’re crumbling as well.

    It’s really a metaphor for something. There are 2 generations of schools in this area: the 1900s and the 1950s. Both have been decommissioned and sold to people like me. There’s a new school – West Branch – which is K-12 – and it was built in the 90s following a process of corrupt bidding and cronyism. It immediately started to have problems like leaks, bad electric, plumbing failures, poor design, etc. to the point where the school board constantly fights whether to close it down and build another, or not.
    Yes, it’s emblematic of something, and everyone around here knows it.

    except the hip I slammed into the pavement a decade ago when I tried to beat a red light on the bike in light rain, which ended my ability to jog painlessly and contributed to my sloth….

    Isn’t it weird how stuff that hurt when you were a kid goes away, for a while, then comes back around your 40s? I caught a motorcycle that was tipping, in 1986, and my back went ‘pop’ and hurt the next day. It wasn’t until I was 42 that I discovered I had herniated a disk.

    Did it start with the “why does that hurt?” in the morning? That’s how it was for me.

  13. says

    Bruce@#4:
    Interesting. I wonder what other school artifacts will prove useful?

    It’s been complicated and often sad. When I got the building it was full of desks and chairs made of oak and maple. I went to the 2 nearby towns and offered them. I went to the montessori school, the library, 2 churches, and 2 day-cares: all they want is the plastic and metal stuff not wood. So I used them to heat my house one winter (I used to have an outdoor wood furnace) – smashed them up with a sledgehammer and fed them into the firebox.

    I have a full commercial kitchen but it’s incredibly inefficient stuff from the 50s. Know anyone who wants a 400lb floor-standing cast iron mixer? Or a cast iron meat slicer? There’s a lot of stuff that’s perfectly functional but it’s “old” and people don’t want it. So I sit here with the other old things.

  14. says

    I envy you the space and stamina. I have to be content with 3×5 meter workshop that i build myself. If i were to clean and repurpose a school, I would probably die of despair.

  15. says

    With regard to propane forge – Marcus, of course I have no idea about legislative at your place, but be careful about ventilation. Carbon monoxide is a real danger with propane burning, and good ventilation is a must.

  16. Johnny Vector says

    Load up the roof with solar panels and stop using that kerosene for heating! Unfortunately, the building is probably not well enough insulated to hold the heat you can produce during the day. But I bet it’s got a hot water heating system, right? If so, you could heat a bunch of water in the day and cycle it around at night. Or just not be there at night.

    And plus also you can use the solar electricity to cool yourself in the summer. Throw a mini-split in the forge, and you’ll be all set. Or set-ish, anyway.

    Also also, having just moved all my stuff over the last couple weeks, at the same age, I concur with your thoughts on aging.

  17. cvoinescu says

    Holy shit. You own an old school? Wow.

    Does this make you an old-school guy, in the most literal way possible?

  18. says

    It’s really a metaphor for something. There are 2 generations of schools in this area: the 1900s and the 1950s. Both have been decommissioned and sold to people like me. There’s a new school – West Branch – which is K-12 – and it was built in the 90s following a process of corrupt bidding and cronyism. It immediately started to have problems like leaks, bad electric, plumbing failures, poor design, etc. to the point where the school board constantly fights whether to close it down and build another, or not.

    We have exactly the same problems here. New state owned buildings are ridiculously expensive to build and once they are built it turns out that they have all sorts of defects that need fixing.

    Before 2008 crisis we also had entrepreneurs who bought some land in a swamp and built some houses there. Then they sold those houses to some poor suckers who took 40 year mortgages to pay for these houses. After living in their new shiny homes for a few months the new home owners experienced the first spring. And they saw their floors covered with water. That’s what you get for buying a house in a place where there are floods every spring (from melting snow and nearby rivers getting more water). Oh, and did I mention it’s not that simple to declare bankruptcy in Latvia. A few people did earn a bunch of money with these swamp houses though.

    It’s been complicated and often sad. When I got the building it was full of desks and chairs made of oak and maple. I went to the 2 nearby towns and offered them. I went to the montessori school, the library, 2 churches, and 2 day-cares: all they want is the plastic and metal stuff not wood. So I used them to heat my house one winter (I used to have an outdoor wood furnace) – smashed them up with a sledgehammer and fed them into the firebox.

    Aww, nooo! I hate it when old furniture gets burned. Some decades ago furniture was made from quality materials and it was beautiful. It was made with the expectation that it will serve for decades. Nowadays instead we get ugly furniture made from glued sawdust and manufacturers expect it to be thrown out and replaced in a couple of years. I hate this. It’s painful to see people throwing out beautiful vintage stuff and replacing it with ugly disposable modern garbage.

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