Lessons Learned?

Yesterday the teak and concrete table (plus benches) was finally finished. J. & I drove up in the morning and I gave the exposed-aggregate panels a coat of clear sealer, lightly sanded the bare teak, and drove down the mountain to deposit a cheque and wander comfortably through the crowds at the Ganges Saturday market. Ironically Jesse the concreter was strolling there too, with his new baby strapped to his chest. What the hell, I thought, and stepped through the ambling tourists to express some regret for our "disagreement". I rather think he had to restrain himself from an impulse towards physical violence. Perhaps the baby was in the way. Anyway he made an angry noise and disappeared into the crowd.

A little history: after learning that the panels were unacceptable (previous post), I tracked down a much more appropriate aggregate. This was not difficult - I simply asked the concrete supplier. Oh yes, said a bright eyed young man, there's a bit of our old pea gravel over there - it's been there a while...
I took a bucket of the new gravel home, called Jesse, and he said he'd make me a new sample panel before the weekend. The weekend passed, and on Monday morning he rushed in with a sample panel on his way to work. He had clearly prepared it in a rush, washed it off too soon, and said he'd do another one next  weekend. High words followed, and he stormed out of my driveway in a spray of gravel and smoke, incidentally  breaking my old rack-and-pinion  latch as he slammed the workshop door in anger:


Obviously I hadn't handled this well. Telling a new young father that he wasn't going to get paid until the job was properly finished was not tactful, or, probably, even fair. But I was cross, and my assumption of a rather pedantic calmeness (how one loves spell-checkers: I'm offered "calmness" or "clamminess") clamminess must have been particularly galling.

Obviously this working relationship was going no further (he did get paid, by the way, by the simple expedient of driving to my clients' house and demanding his wages...), which left me with  really only one alternative: do it myself.
This was not a new idea, and various friends had suggested it, apparently on the grounds that if one is a competent craftsperson in one field, then surely it wouldn't be hard to pour a little exposed aggregate? This argument does have an appeal, but over many years and several failures I've come to distrust it. Norah and I once tried to learn paper-marbling from a book. It looked to be simple enough: buy some oil pigments and some ox-gall, a bit of cellulose wallpaper paste, soak some paper in alum, and we'd be making marbled endpapers in no time. What we in fact made was a lot of mess, and a discovery (not new) that the devil is in the details. So much so, in fact, that the whole experience still stands as an object lesson in the unwisdom of ignorantly undertaking projects with multiple interdependent variables. (In the case of the marbling we did at least learn what they were, if not the nature of their interdependence.)
I had a feeling that concrete ("Oh, anyone can do it! Just mix it up, spray on the retarder and wash it off when it's ready!") was going to be rather the same, and that those who ignore the lessons of experience are doomed.....etc. etc.

In the end, however, it proved otherwise. My friend Roger loaned us his concrete mixer; I bought a new shovel, and a snazzy little wheelbarrow with two wheels (designed, I think, for the "more mature" worker), a load of pea gravel, a load of sand, three bags of cement, new re-bar, re-constituted forms, a gallon of retarder, a pencil vibrator and a garden spray. (This last after I blasted my first test panel with a standard hose-nozzle and washed off all the exposed aggregate and made a large hole in it.)
Then one bright morning J. & I set to work - J. on the mixer, I. on the panels with a pencil vibrator and a length of 2x4:

DSCN0091    DSCN0093

(Note the rejected panels on the ground behind the concrete mixer)

We happily mixed, filled, vibrated, screeded, and sprayed retarder when it seemed time (the directions on the container were vague on this point, and not only vague, but downright inconsistent on when to wash the surface layer off: we were getting too close to marbling territory at this point), and then finally covered the panels with plastic, tidied up and went up to the house to have dinner, watch a bit of the third season of Doc Martin, and so to bed.

I can't quite remember when it suddenly came to me - perhaps whilst brushing my teeth -  that I hadn't checked the dimensions of the largest of the forms. The forms were made originally by using ply panels which had been accurately fitted to each of the table and bench recesses. After the first pour, I'd used the largest template for some other purpose, naturally and quite wrongly assuming that I wouldn't be needing it again. When the forms were in fact needed again, I assembled the largest without the template, meaning to return to the table (now up the mountain) and make another template. By chance the newly poured panel might be correct, but this was an exceedingly unlikely possibility. We'd have to do it all over again.
The next morning I realized (always sharper in the morning) that the largest rejected panel was at least the right size, and would serve as a check. I went down early, and confirmed that the panel would in fact have to be re-poured.

At such times, fortunately, I am able to remain calm, competent, and decisive. Some people faced with this sort of thing might panic, but age and experience do bring some benefit besides a monthly cheque from a grateful government. I dumped the wrongly dimensioned panel on the ground, cleaned up the form, assembled it correctly, bought more rebar, and we were ready.
J. was summoned, the tools re-assembled, and we began mixing. Very quickly J. pointed out that we didn't have enough gravel. More could not be fetched (closed on Saturday), so we substituted the old rough aggregate for the lower layer. Then it became clear that we didn't have enough sand either. (Closed on Saturday.....) so I drove around hunting for sand as the mixer churned away, and finally came back with a bucket of quite nice sand, but not the right sand.... a different texture and colour, actually, but it would have to do.

(Anybody who has read this far knows perfectly well how this is going to end. We knew too. (Well, J. did, but then she has mysterious powers of prophecy.) 

It was now approaching four o'clock, and the rented vibrator was due back. A reluctant J. drove it back to Ganges, and I carried on mixing the last load. (In extenuation, I'll say that we had to leave the island the next afternoon to take our sailboat over to Canoe Cove for its biannual haul-out, for which we were booked on Monday morning. Additionally J. was due to fly out to Montreal on Monday, and I would not be able to work on the panels again until Wednesday).

While J. was returning the tool, two things became clear. I had barely enough ("barely" was optimistic) gravel, and not enough cement. Fortunately we did have some extra cement, although it had mysterious calcified lumps in it. I ran up to the house, grabbed the flour sieve, and J. returned to find me crouched coughing over a bucket sieving cement powder.
Somehow we made enough concrete to fill the form, but the mix seemed wet, and the screeding was difficult. Moreover it was now quite late, and the weather was distinctly cool. Under the best of all possible circumstances I would be hosing off the top layer at 10.30 that night. Well, so be it.

The curtain fell on this comedy of errors, or this tragedy of hubris and ignorance (choose one or both), as I tried to wash off the uncured cement layer later that night by the light of a work-lamp. I need not say, but I will, that it was a complete disaster. (Of Kipling's "two impostors" much, much the hardest to deal with. Triumph is a piece of cake).

To be continued.