Have you ever built a house? No? Me either. Have you ever built a staircase? Maybe you have. I haven’t. Have you ever built a single step? Maybe yes, maybe no. Yesterday I built a single step. It was amazing and changed my life….. Ok, slight exaggeration perhaps, but it was pretty cool. There is a lot to it, and then at the end you simply take a hammer to it.
The step I made was number 7 of 15 steps currently being built by my friend in his new shell of a home in Castelsarrasin, near Toulouse in Southern France. The stairs are steep and will eventually take people up into the attic bedroom at the top of the home. I came here to visit my friend Grant and his finance Lucie, and intended on helping them with the building. Grant lulled me in with talk of hammers and French wine and I was keen to help.
It quickly became clear that my extremely limited woodwork skills would result in less stairs being built than during an average day, and more wine being drunk. However my friend was entirely patient with me (wine helps with patience), trading in speed with showing me how to measure, cut, plane and sand.
What a delight! As soon as the angle grinder started spinning through the wood, the room smelt like school again! I was transported back to woodwork class as a 15 year old and remembered that calm feeling that comes from working with timber. The deep earthy smell filled the room and my whole body exhaled. The threat of the angle grinder’s blade dissipated, replaced with a relaxed concentration of ensuring the blade made a straight line.
Picking up the plane I rounded off the edge of the stair and loved how the wood moulded so easily….seeming to want to be a stair (indulge me here!). For such a solid material, wood has this softness that allows you to shape it and create it, without it loosing its own strength. It never looses it’s own line, and imperfections are desirable.
With the measuring, cutting, rounding and sanding done, we slotted the new step into place. Grant took a hammer to it, and a few nails later we had a functional step! As easy and relaxed as that. It looked good and we were one step closer to the room above.
Happy with that progress we ditched the building site for bicycles and headed over to the canals for lunch. As we cycled I started to look at all the buildings with fresh eyes, suddenly seeing every single step, every tall door, every ornate door handle, every piece of curly iron banister and every hanging wooden shutter on the beautiful French buildings. In this part of the world beauty takes priority and you can find beauty in every rustic shutter hinge if you look closely.
The further we cycled the more beauty there appeared to be. Maybe it was the sunshine, and possibly the wine, but whatever it was, this place has a sense of the serene, with an impeccable attention to detail.
Humans can build beauty. One step at a time. One stairwell. One house. Keep on building. With a little bit of measuring up, cutting back, rounding off, and sanding down. Then, take a hammer to it and lock it in. Good as new.