At times this year it has felt like we’ve been trudging through concrete. While exciting and productive, we’ve experienced more than a few events which have thrown us out of kilter at times. Dear reader, lest you see this opening statement as a mere metaphor, we have been trudging through concrete!
A few weeks ago, our good friend Yvonne and her son Lorenzo came to visit. In addition to helping out with the usual chores of walking Sam, tending to the chickens and bird feeders, carrying firewood and building fires, we had to find a few more chores for this very active and eager seven year old. Hard to believe, but this little boy can’t wait to visit and “do chores”. Personally, I’d like to have a day or two free of these tasks, but when he’s around, we make a long and thorough list.
This time, we turned our attention to mixing concrete as we had one more base in the shed to build for a new oil tank to heat the AGA and fuel the boiler. And, who knew this project could be such fun?
Last year, Roger and I went through two tons of ballast and several bags of concrete mix to lay a concrete base for a new diesel tank which fuels the generator. It took us all day and while the concrete slowly dried, our muscles quickly ached and ached. But as the saying goes, many hands make light work. Even little hands, accompanied with massive levels of energy, recently helped to make a hard project relatively easy.
For a long time, people have been using concrete. The earliest concrete hard floors may have been in Serbia around 5600 BC. The Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese and Greeks knew how to make concrete even if it wasn’t used much. The Romans during the time of Emperor Nero used a lot of concrete in their buildings. After the fall of Rome, neither the Islamic Empire nor the European kingdoms used as much concrete, preferring to build in stone. More recently, a church designed by Takeshi Hosaka uses six inverted arches made of concrete to outline an amazing roof.
My own experience with concrete dates back to Indian Princesses, a YMCA program designed to foster understanding and companionship between father and daughter. Each meeting was held at a different little girl’s house and each father was charged with the task of feeding the group and organizing a project or activity. As I recall, my Dad had us mix concrete, pour it into little molds and when it was set – after our snacks – we put our hands in it and made handprints! Several decades later, my Dad still has us make cement stepping-stones to commemorate annual family gatherings.
In doing some of our home repairs, we’ve come to discover that certain projects require concrete. It’s not that hard to make a mixture of concrete, but it is certainly messy. Despite the advice on all the DIY websites, we ignored step one, “Keep tools and materials away from children.” Instead, we had the able assistance, along with self-appointed supervision, from the young Lorenzo.
First things first: In making a concrete foundation, you must make certain to excavate a solid area, build the frame and make certain it is level. Roger and Lorenzo spent one afternoon readying the area where we would pour our concrete to make a base for a new oil tank. Digging, spreading, measuring with the spirit level, the two made slow work of the task.
The next step was one I liked because it involved lists. Lorenzo and I had our checklist of tools:
Watering cans? Check.
Cement Mixer? Check.
Ramp for Wheelbarrow? Check.
Snacks and drinks? Check and check!
One important part of mixing concrete is to get the ratio right and it is here where we seemed to hit a small stumbling block. It is one thing to make a stepping-stone where you dump a bag of concrete mix into a bucket and add the requisite amount of water. But when using a concrete mixer, what is the ratio of ballast to concrete to water for a sturdy base? What did we do the last time? After a bit of hemming and hawing and a quick review of the cement bag, we were back in business and it was all hands on deck.
Quickly, we fell into our roles. Roger lugged the heavy bags of cement and maneuvered the wheelbarrow. Lorenzo filled water buckets and added water to the cement mixer. I shoveled ballast and hefted it in buckets. Yvonne held the most important role: she helped in all aspects where needed of shoveling and hefting, but more importantly, she kept count of what anyone of us put into the cement mixer. In short, she kept Roger, Lorenzo and me from doing anything that would make a mess of the entire project. It is easy to forget the number of buckets when you are completely exhausted from shoveling.
Roger had the challenging task of pouring the mixed concrete into the wheelbarrow and then, without tipping the wheelbarrow at a wrong and inconvenient moment, had to propel himself and the wheelbarrow up a plank and tip its contents into the previously prepared area for the base of the new oil tank.
DIY websites advise the key, especially in hot weather, is to work quickly. We had classic British weather: rain mid-way through the project. For us, we weren’t racing against the clock and heat but instead just wanted to get the damn job done. And once done, Roger and I set about cleaning shovels, the wheelbarrow and cement mixer, while Yvonne cleaned up Lorenzo and herself and pulled lunch together.
Ultimately laying cement is the prep, the right tools, the correct mixture, pouring and leveling, followed by the cleaning up. One step never mentioned in the DIY research is the one we added: Later that day, when the cement was nearly set, the youngest worker on site made handprints in the cement.