18th September 2015
Also, this wall has to complement our staircase window – richly coloured stained glass, still in production – and the staircase itself, which will be a rather gorgeous organic metal artwork by Jonnie Rowlandson. So we need to turn down the volume a bit here, without losing the Arts and Crafts emphasis on the beauty of natural materials.
So: I have spent this week making and installing 1158mm square birch ply panels, which happen to fit perfectly on a three by five set-out. Birch is not usually thought to be a particularly exciting wood. It is the model for the vinyl veneers of Billy bookcases, for God’s sake. Yet when exposed on a large scale, the imperfections within the wood begin to shine. Our wall includes falling angels, fungal growths, distant stars, flashes of electricity and mysterious organic pulses.
It wasn't an easy job. First I had to make the panels: cutting sheets of plywood down and chamfering the edges with a block plane. Then I set out the wall with immense care to ensure that, by the time I got to the top, the final panels would fit perfectly. I wanted to keep the front faces of the panels unblemished so I used dowels to secure them to the wall. This involves the following procedure:
1. Hold a template against the wall, the size of the plywood panel, and mark out where the dowels should be to ensure that they correspond with the battens in the wall (we are up against a layer of sound-proof plasterboard).
2. Transfer these marks to the back of the plywood board and drill out holes for the dowels, taking extraordinary care to ensure that you do not drill through to the front of the panel (tip: don’t tape your drill bit, mark it fresh with a felt-tip pen every time)
3. Insert dowel pins (little metal markers) into the holes and offer the board up to the wall in exactly the right place, thereby creating pinhead marks in the wall.
4. Drill out the wall where the pinhead marks are and fill with glue. Remove the dowel pins from the board, and glue the dowels into the board.
5. Singing the national anthem but not crossing your fingers, because you need all of them, offer the board up to wall again and slot all dowels into holes. Using appropriate tools, bang into place.
The tolerance here is less than a millimetre because it’s basically going to look shit if the boards don’t line up. Two boards had to come out and be redone because they were 3/4mm out, and one board came out because I decided I didn’t like it.
Once the last board was in place, four and a half days in, I celebrated with lunch in the café down the road before returning to sand off my grubby fingerprints and other marks, using an orbital sander.
Mistake! Unhappily I oversanded one of the four-way junctions, revealing the black glue beneath the first layer of birch in the ply. Unfortunately this junction will be the most prominent as you walk down the staircase so my failure will live forever. At this point I almost burst into tears but was saved by the wonderful Katie Keat, who is building the house next-door-but-one and is a furniture restorer. A bit of oxalic acid helped and some further touching up when we have oiled the panels should disguise my clumsiness. Thank you Katie!
Now then, back to those floors.