Ode to sheetrock

Essay by Matt Gaylen

Remodeling – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Ode to sheetrock

A reflection inspired by Juan de Oñate’s quest up the Rio Grande

by Matt Gaylen

Although there are many types of tools, I classify them into two major categories; tools that do work and tools that do more work. For example, a run-of-the-mill screwdriver will push a threaded shaft of metal through a piece of sheetrock into a wooden stud — in time — while a screwgun will pop that baby right in.

I first began taking apart my house so I could rebuild it, shortly after I bought it in 1992. Baking under the valley’s end-of-July sun, I tore the past from my roof with a crow bar so big I respectfully called it, “The Chief.” Shake by shake, 1890s cedar came off soon to be replaced by 1990s metal.

There were places where I had to excise the past, one nail at a time. And when I’d pulled all the nails, I discovered the importance of gravity in holding a house together. I believe I now know why there are no atheist contractors.

After the mythic process of destruction, came the laborious process of construction — empire building; the cutting of studs, building of walls, floors, ceilings.

Perhaps the best and only good part about my remodeling project (besides perhaps someday being finished) is I got to take my truck down to the lumber yard and stock up on “materials.” I can say with pride I’ve never felt quite so macho as when I pulled up to the big wood shed at the lumber yard in my diesel-powered pick-up and said, “Load ‘er up.”

But that feeling of control over destiny is short-lived when the “material” turns out to be “sheetrock,” and I now know why they call it “material.” It’s because if they called it “sheetrock” you wouldn’t stop at the lumber yard. You’d keep right on going and end up fishing out at Rainbow Lake.

Sheetrock is the bane of mankind. If native peoples living in pueblos in New Mexico had sheetrock in 1598, the conquistadors would have sped back to Mexico as fast as their horses could carry them.

The problems with sheetrock begin right after you purchase it, and never end. First, you have to unload the delivery truck. An average size house uses several hundred sheets of the stuff. A twelve-footer weighs about 70 pounds. They come two taped together. In a two-story house, they have to be carried up the stairs.

I had to custom-cut pieces of sheetrock to fit into every nook and cranny as well as the apex of the cathedral ceiling and then fasten them with screws and nails. During this process I wondered if sheetrock screws and nails were invented by a religious cult in Montana. When I began sheetrocking in December, I purchased what I thought was a lifetime supply of screws — a 25 pound box; enough I thought, to be buried with the left-overs. There were thousands upon thousands of the little devils — a veritable sea of screws. Last Saturday I had to purchase another five pounds to finish hanging the last few sheets.

I was hanging one particularly stubborn piece of sheetrock on the ceiling of my stairwell when I discovered that any given piece of sheetrock probably doesn’t like me any more than I like it.

I had placed opposing ladders on the stairwell with a 2×12 between them for scaffolding, then had perched a construction bench upon that so I could reach the ceiling where this piece had to go. Somehow I lost my balance and the sheetrock decided to take the opportunity to escape. It went rolling down the stairs at a break-neck pace. The assault was futile, however, as my double-pane glass door valiantly gave its life to foil the breakout attempt.

Even after I hanged every condemned piece, the work wasn’t finished. I still had to put special tape on the seams and mud to cover the tape and all nail and screw heads. Between coats of mud, mud, mud, I had to sand, sand, sand, which made dust, dust, dust so I had to sweep, sweep, (cough, cough) sweep.

Finally the walls were smooth. I was still not finished finishing. Primer. Every square inch must be covered. Next came two coats of paint.

Sheetrock scares the devil himself. And the devil is in the details. No matter how much time you’ve spent hanging, taping, mudding, priming and painting there’s always the electrical contractor who comes in and says, “Oh yeah, I can see all your mistakes.”

It was about this time that I began to think in a different light. That weekend I took a break to attend George Sibley’s Headwaters conference where Juan de Onate, the visionary conqueror, was discussed.

Questions of conquest, empire building and finance were posed. Why wasn’t Oñate happy where he was? Why did he feel the need to travel all those months on horseback up the Rio Grande? Did he kill so many native people (600 in one raid) so that the natives would know he was really serious about his religion? Did the results justify the costs? Did the ends justify the means?

In fact, I had been asking myself the same questions about my remodel. What was it about Oñate’s journey that teased him forward? What was it about my remodel that lulled me ahead? Is what we have somehow never as good as what we don’t? Is there something in the vision of the finished product?

I don’t know anymore, I truly don’t. Perhaps there was a time when I thought I did, but I now know that what I thought I knew may have been only a myth, a pipe dream. I will say, however, that I now go to church on Sunday.

Matt Gaylen helps publish Bones, a literary quarterly based in Gunnison.