Some projects best left to those with a tape measure

April 01, 2006|By ROB KASPER

IT WAS AN "OH NO!" MOMENT, ONE OF those instances of dramatic tension that afflict the dicey world of home repairs.

This case concerned a tall armoire and a low ceiling.

The armoire, or wardrobe, had been restored by my wife and me, stripped of wallpaper and several layers of paint, then rubbed with Danish Oil. The process had stretched over six months. Now, as we assembled the glistening pieces, it appeared that our whole effort could be for naught. Was this towering piece of furniture going to fit in the kitchen, with its low, 7-foot-3-inch ceiling?

We were not sure. It appeared to be a close fit. Somehow, we should have thought of this sooner. Or maybe we did. The armoire looked smaller when it was in parts, splayed on sawhorses in the backyard, where most of the restoration work was done.

Also, we had not figured that we would need extra ceiling room when it came time to attach the top piece to the sides of the cabinet.

Our predicament reminded me of a family story. Some of my cousins, the Mahoney brothers of St. Joseph, Mo., once constructed an elaborate float in a garage with plans to wheel it out for the local St. Patrick's Day parade. The trouble was that they couldn't get the wide float out of the narrow garage. For years I had ribbed my cousins about this mistake; now it appeared I had fallen victim to a similar folly.

Last Saturday, during a tense afternoon, my wife and I scooted the partially assembled cabinet over to a kitchen stairwell where the ceiling was higher. Gingerly we put the top piece on, then scooted the tall cabinet back toward the part of the kitchen with the lower ceiling. The process brought to mind images of a tall ship easing under the Bay Bridge, or an 18-wheeler inching under a low overpass.

We made it, but with only a half inch to spare. The ceiling measured 87 inches, the armoire 86 1/2 inches.

Despite the tight fit, the armoire looked good, like it belonged there. We felt proud and accomplished. That feeling did not last long.

I was polishing one of the doors when suddenly the entire wooden mass leaned heavily. It was collapsing like a house of cards. I caught one side before it fell too far.

This was another "Oh no!" moment. It turned out that our masterpiece was disintegrating because it was missing a major component -- its back.

I had left the back off, a flimsy piece of pressed wood, because I had not cared for its looks. I had planned to replace it at a later date with something more substantial, say a piece of three-quarter-inch plywood. The back might have been feeble-looking, but without it the armoire dropped faster than the Dow after a jump in the prime rate. When the armoire went into its leaning Tower of Pisa imitation, I realized the back held the structure together.

So once again we scooted the armoire back to the stairwell. We took it apart. Then we put it, like Humpty Dumpty, back together again; this time with the flimsy back screwed into place. This time it did not fall apart.

Since then, I have spent a lot of time simply staring at the armoire. The wood, burnished walnut, gives the room a dignified tone. But for now the armoire is more beautiful than practical, sorta like a pair of Italian shoes.

It is supposed to function as a coat closet. But its flimsy back can't support coat hooks. So until I replace its skinny backside with something thicker, the armoire remains a decorative piece, proof that a home repair project can have a happy ending, as long as it survives a few "Oh no!" moments.

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