Anyone Know a Good Panel Beater?

It’s rapidly approaching eleven years since we bought Casa Liñeiras, our own little corner of paradise, and we are now as the stage where we are discussing cushions and toilet roll holders for the apartments so we must be very close to being ready to open.

Work has now switched to the outside with ground works for a terrace, tree works, clearing and cleaning, and some drainage to allow access to what will be the parking area. Everything was in hand, a work schedule decided (albeit in my head), and money set aside to pay for the stuff I can’t do myself.

Then, one calm, sunny and dry Friday morning, while we were out at the supermarket, disaster struck.

When we bought the house in 2010 we were ‘blessed’ with a lean-to garage at the far end of the big house from the barn. Our neighbour Carlos kept his car in it, and in one corner in an unlocked cupboard, was his air rifle and ammunition which he used for shooting rats. While no-one could, or would, describe it as an appealing building, I had a grudging admiration of the construction and the way in which a simple timber frame successfully supported the massive weight of about sixty cement roofing panels, three deep in some places after years of patching.

As it was in 2010

Since moving to Galicia we have parked our cars in the garage and just prior to moving we erected a little green aluminium shed inside in which we stored boxes of knickknacks and keepsakes which we brought from the UK, my Golf clubs, and a old wooden bed frame and table. We’ve done no maintenance, except to remove some creeping ivy, and taken this useful storage area somewhat for granted.

Over the winter, after a couple of storms, we noticed that the garage was developing a bit of a twist. The lean-to element was no longer leaning against anything, the entrance seemed to have stooped a little, and the contents were more open to the elements. A few weeks later it moved even further, and we made the decision to no longer use it for vehicle parking, and to empty most of the contents of the little green shed into dry storage inside the big house.

While we no longer trusted the garage, we thought we’d time to determine what to do with it, but there was no accounting for the Galician wood-unfriendly climate, and the devastating effects of an army of hungry woodworm. While we were twenty miles away on Friday morning the garage decided to give up it’s loftiness and to become low-rise.

Oops

We were unpacking our shopping when a neighbour, the one who used to park his car in the garage, broke the news to us. I’m certain I detected a small grin. With sinking hearts we went to investigate, and our worst fears were confirmed.

In these situations there is only one thing to do…. have a cup of tea. So that’s what we did.

We then donned protective closing and full face masks with filtered breathing to set about taking off the panels and stacking them neatly on the drive to await specialist disposal. The aim was to remove enough weight to safely retrieve what was left in the little green shed, rescue Dizzy the hard-working cement mixer, and ensure that no neighbours cats had been trapped inside the collapse.

Most Panels Removed

Five backbreaking hours later we’d; removed all the panels, retrieved a slightly bent ‘Dizzy’, found two crushed Samsonite suitcases, determined that the old pine bed frame was now firewood, and seen the devastation that a tonne and a half of roof and beams can do to an aluminium shed.

It once was a shed

The nine substantial vertical posts which supported the structure were rotten through with a mixture of wet rot and woodworm infestation. On reflection I think that it’s a miracle that the thing had stood as long as it had on what was essentially legs of dust. The big relief is that no-one, and no animal, was inside it when it went, and that we’d no vehicle in there and had removed most items of value.

The really good news is that my golf clubs somehow survived unscathed, although my playing partners here may disagree.

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When Tomorrow Comes

While the literal translation of manaña is ‘morning’, it is often used to mean ‘tomorrow’ as in ‘manaña por la manaña’ (tomorrow morning), which is confusing in itself. Outside Spain it is widely used as a derogatory term, somewhat unfairly in our experience, for a lazy attitude to work which loosely translates as ‘why do something today when it can be put off until tomorrow’.

A few weeks ago, one of my tomorrows finally arrived, a task which I had delayed and delayed, but which, with the inside of the house complete bar furnishing and a few wet weather jobs, I could put off no longer. I had to start the external pointing.

I’ve already done plenty of pointing, several of the inside walls are done, as is the interior and exterior of the bread oven, and the area around the patio, but the big house is in a totally different league. I have calculated that it is around 120m2 (around 400 ft2) of small to large random stone in various states of disrepair and some of which is at around 5m (16’) in height requiring scaffolding and working at height.

I know from experience that I average around 2m2 (6’ to 7’) in a day through the five stages of pointing and it is a thankless and soul destroying task which requires patience and diligence, two qualities which I don’t have in abundance.

Each square centimetre of wall requires five, time consuming, processes;

  1. Rake out the old mud mortar (literally) from between the stones and remove any old render (lime mortar) which clad the entire building a century or so ago. This involves the use of a small raking tool, the size of a hammer, with a lethal point at one end which resembles and ice pick and a sharpened blade at the other end to hack down the joints. Each piece of stone needs to have a border around its entire perimeter which is deep enough to receive the pointing material (see stage 3).
  2. Once all the mortar is removed the entire wall needs to be swept clean of dust either with a brush or using an air line attached to a compressor so that there is a clean contact for the pointing material.
  3. The pointing material (EP2H) is then manually thrown, pushed and generally cajoled into every crevice using protective gloves (that one was only determined after the chemicals stripped the skin off the back of my fingers the first time I tried wearing normal cotton work gloves).
  4. After a short, temperature dependent time, each joint is worked with a soft brush to remove the excess material and as the material starts to harden increasingly stiff brushes are used until the pointing material is removed right into the joint and the stone is allowed to stand proud.
  5. A couple of days after stages 1 to 4 are completed the whole wall needs to be scrubbed down with Agua Fuerte (brick acid/nitric acid), which stinks and brings on nausea if used in a confined space, before being hosed off with clean water.

And that’s why I can manage about 2m2 per day, my only company being Spotify soothing my tormented soul by playing uplifting tunes, and the occasional visit of a neighbour making encouraging sounds about how good it looks and what a change it has made.

Just over a fortnight after starting on the first wall of the house, and 17 x 25kg sacks of mortar, I hosed off the final section and stood back to admire my handiwork.

Just the other 100m2 to do……. manaña!

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When is a Door not a Door?

When I was growing up my Dad had two ‘stock’ wordplay jokes which were dusted off, and delivered on an unsuspecting audience at every possible occasion for yet another re-telling. One related to the word ‘disintegrate’ and when anyone other than Dad said that word, he would respond ‘Dis in’t a grate, it’s a manhole cover’. The second was the infamous door joke, known to the entire English speaking world, ‘When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.’.

As the recent result of my woodworking exploits, or ‘knocking nails into bits of wood’, I can now modify the joke a little to say ‘When is a door not a door? When it’s a table!’.

We need two dining tables for the rental houses and while I could have easily gone to one of the many local wood yards and ordered some 1.5m planks of freshly sawn chestnut to make some perfectly functional and acceptable tables, I thought that it would be nice to do something a little different and my mind and eyes went on the quest to re-discover items that I had laying around from the renovations.

A few years ago, when we replaced the whole roof of the big house, the first job was to gut the interior, moving anything of interest into the lean-to garage and covering it in plastic sheeting before promptly forgetting about it. As part of the salvage I remembered that there were several thick and wide chestnut panels which were used as a room partition and that same partition had a door frame and an old door which provided ingress and egress from the two, now non-existent, bedrooms.

The crazy idea of making a table from the door entered my mind and despite mentally erecting a number of insurmountable barriers to the success of the project I decided to give it a go and wrestled the door from its resting place of the last five years and into my workshop. An initial angle grinder strip of cobwebs, dirt, and soot revealed that there was something there I could work with; a turn of the century (19th to 20th), 30mm thick, tongue and groove, rustic door and I resolved to give it a go.

In its ‘as rediscovered’ state, more door-like than table-like

The first task was to remove the ancient door furniture; hinges, latches and locks, conserving what I could for any future projects. I then had to decide on the dimensions and cut to the preferred size (160cm x 90cm) before getting to work on the many hours of repairs, filling, and sanding. I fitted an extended lip to give it a chunkier feel, sanded it smooth while retaining the patina, and added layers of clear wax it for a silky-smooth finish.

Five months after ordering them from a local metalworker (apparently he’s very busy) I finally collected the fabricated sets of steel legs, to my design, for this and two other tables that I need to make, and with Amanda’s help we fitted them and got a first proper look at the fruits of my labours.

The finished article

I’m pretty happy with the outcome. I think that it is perfectly in keeping with the renovation, looks a little different to the norm, is a lovely feature in the apartment and will perfectly accommodate family meals, long evenings drinking the fantastic local wine and recounting the days sightseeing events, or hosting card games on one of those occasional wet days which we experience in Galicia.

Onto the next one.

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Water Cheats

In his ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Coleridge wrote ‘Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink’. Living in Liñeiras this couplet has become one staple of our autumnal household conversation as the torrent of the winter, spring and early summer gives way to the gentle drip which renders us without nature’s elixir of life from mid-September until the rains return in November.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, the whole village shares a single water deposit, a nearby five by five by two concrete cube which holds 50,000 litres and is spring fed from five kilometres away up in the pristine hills. For much of the year this runs fine, the deposit remains full, excess water constantly running out of the small overflow, and down the hillside. 

Pure Clear Spring in the Hills

But as the water table drops, the springs start to dry up, and eventually the deposit starts to empty with a net deficit between supply and usage. This is exacerbated by our neighbours determined inability and willingness to alter their consumption habits and continuing to fill water troughs for livestock and generously irrigate their precious potato crops. As we are one of the highest properties on the network, and the designated water monitors, we get the earliest alarm that there is a problem. This is usually heralded by a ‘failure to flush’, or that soul-destroying drip from the tap when you go to fill the kettle for a brew. That triggers a machete wielding trip to the deposit to battle our way through the undergrowth and confirm our worst fears.

The obligatory circuit of the neighbours follows as we inform them of the shortage, they know what’s coming as we only really see them on their home turf when there is a water problem. They shrug their shoulders, resigned to losing their weekly bath for a few weeks, or tell us that ‘it’s okay as they never use it anyway’, relying on their own private supply – which they then hurriedly go and switch to.

For the last few of years the situation has been dire, forcing us to ration the supply and only allow the pipes to the village to be open for two or three hours per day. As a village we tend to use a whole day of accumulation in just a couple of hours, despite requests to be frugal, so to ensure we get at least those few hours a day for everyone we have to be cruel to be kind.

Our neighbours know it irked us, and while they didn’t make any moves to moderate their usage, they did seem to sympathise.

We finally decided that enough was enough and secretly, under the cover of a foggy November early morning we installed a 4,000 litre local deposit in one of our ruined buildings, enough to supply ourselves for twenty days of drought, or our apartments and ourselves for at least a good week. We felt very guilty doing it, the deposit is hidden behind a locked door and out of sight of our neighbours, but we had no option for peace of mind.

Our own 4,000 litres

It took a week’s preparation to lay the reinforced concrete plinth and plumb in the necessary pipework, and electrics for the pressure pump to ensure that we had a working system. But once it was up and running, and full to the brim, we were mightily relieved and knew that we’d made a wise investment.

The system now operates in such a way that when we limit the village to their two hours of water a day, those two hours will replenish our tank, so we always have a full tank unless the village is totally without water for an extended period. We still manage the supply for the village, and outwardly sympathise with our villagers, but sneakily we have no worries or breaks in our own supply.  

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We’ve Got Cows

If there is one undeniable, relentless, certainty about Galician life, it is that the grass will never stop growing. Sure, it slows down a little in the heat of the summer, and the occasional cold snap in the winter may curtail the daily millimetres of growth, but as sure as day turns into night the Galician meadow is a relentless thing.

When you peruse potential properties on the various estate agents’ sites, the appeal of thousands of square metres of land is way too much temptation for someone born and brought up in towns. This is especially the case for those of us whose first house had no garden, whose second was a strip of metre wide concrete between the house and the road, and whose third was a couple of postage stamp sized sod-covered clay-soiled areas where your low-price lawn mower required the turning circle of a London taxi.

We therefore gave little thought to the 7,000m2 of finca that was attached to our buildings, except ‘great’. We never thought about the effort it keeping the grass mown, the potential fire risk when it dried to a tinderbox in the summer, or the potential for ‘denuncias’ and associated fines from the local authority for being negligent in the land’s maintenance.

Between buying the house and moving to Galicia it wasn’t too bad. We weren’t living here to see the unrelenting advance, we usually visited in the summer when there was a slight abatement as the sun and heat took its toll, and we were fortunate to have Carlos’s donkey as ‘muncher in chief’ turning the good grass into manure.

It was only when we renovated the barn, and asked Carlos to vacate his donkey from the premises, that the problem became abundantly noticeable.

We’ve since tried horses and donkeys and for a couple of years we had a neighbour from the next village who came along twice a year and cut the grass for winter hay for his cattle. But for the last couple of years we’ve not been able to entice any livestock grass-cutters, and the pasture has grown out control much to our embarrassment and our neighbours disgust.

While I could strim the areas immediately around the house and under the fruit trees, this would take five or six hours of blood, sweat and tears and it was like painting the proverbial fourth bridge. The problem was the open pasture and we had to resort to a twice-yearly phone call to a local farmer who would bring his ‘Heath Robinson’ industrial strimmer, four massive heavy-gauge chain flails attached to a rapidly rotating wheel under a wooden bed on wheels, which he towed backwards and forwards across the land, obliterating everything in its path and throwing the occasional large stone metres into the air. Depending on his mood, and I think the temperature, we were charged anything between €60 and €100 for the pleasure of his noisy, and somewhat perilous, company for a couple of hours.

But this year is different. This year we’ve got cows. We’d noticed the same five bovines moving around the village from pasture to pasture and made enquiries. The owner lives a few kilometres away and was happy to add our finca into his rotation. He erected an electric fence and a couple of weeks ago they arrived, much to the chagrin of Kit the Kat who hates any other animals on the land except of course the birds, mice, rats, moles and lizards which entertain her for a while before turning into a quick, between meals, snack.

Bovine lawn mowers under leaden Galician skies

I never realised how quickly five cows can munch their way through 7,000m2 of thigh high grass, or how much devastation they can do to the now heavily pockmarked meadow. They’ve moved on now, there was nothing left for them to eat, but they will be back once nature has taken its course and the now heavily fertilised grass has grown back to eating height.

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