Cementing my relationship

When my wife and I married, we had a classic New Englander which she had bought several years before. The house had some beautiful features, including gable ends which protruded about 18 inches above the rest of the building and connected with the rest of it through graceful curves.

The house also had a few drawbacks, including a cellar floor which was half dirt. This was particularly irritating to me since this was the space for my “workshop.” It was nearly impossible to keep clean and it came about an inch shy of standing headroom.

The obvious solution was to pour a cement floor over the dirt portion. The obvious method (for me, anyway) was to do it myself. Afterall, I assumed, the cost of a large truck filled with concrete and burly guys would be astronomical, wouldn’t it? And besides, I only had to cover half the floor.

My plan was cemented (so to speak) one day in a conversation with my neighbor who assured me he had done the same thing to his cellar floor many years ago. “Piece of cake” he assured me.

It would make a nice winter project, I thought. Mixing cement, pouring it into forms, seeing my new workshop space grow each day.

And so, once fall had passed, I began in earnest. The first step was to prepare the floor. Since the new floor would claim four inches of the precious headroom that was already in short supply, I figured I had to remove about six inches of dirt from the cellar.

This proved a bit challenging, since the cellar lacked any kind of direct (bulkhead) access to the outside. There was one small window, shoulder height, through which I could pass dirt.

“It’s only six inches,” I thought to myself.

After three hours of hot, sweaty digging, hoisting the shovel to shoulder level and passing the filty dust-ladened dirt through the tiny window opening, I began to have second thoughts. I went upstairs to get a calculator. On the way I passed the hall mirror and caught a glimpse of my reflection. Except for the white of the paper dusk mask I was wearing, I was covered head to toe in filth.

I tiptoed into the kitchen and got the calculator without being seen by my wife. I snuck back into the cellar and began punching buttons.

Six inches, over half the floor (12′ by 24′), calculated out to a little over five cubic yards of dirt. I peered out the window at the mound of dirt I had placed there. Hmmm…. maybe half a yard.

OK — to heck with the extra headroom and who says a floor has to be four inches thick? Two inches should work fine. I punched the calculator’s buttons some more and came up with a much more acceptable 1.7 yards of material.

Back to shoveling. By the end of the day I was in agony. A thick film of dirt covered everything in the basement and even my teeth felt gritty. I looked out the window — maybe 3/4 of a yard. I leaned the shovel against the wall and limped upstairs to take a shower.

It took three weekends until I felt I had cleared enough for the floor. I hopped in the minivan which also served as my pickup truck and drove to the local lumberyard.

My plan was to use bags of ready-mix concrete. I’d haul them home in our minivan, carry them down into the cellar, pour and mix them in small batches. I wasn’t sure how much one bag would cover, but I figured 20 would be a good start. At least half the job, I thought.

I backed the van up to the stack of bags in the lumberyard. “20 bags,” I confidently told Kevin who was standing next to the stack ready to load. He smiled and began loading the 80-pound bags. At five bags, the van’s center of gravity had shifted noticeably to the rear. At eight, the rear tires had taken on a distinctly oblong shape. After the 10th bag was loaded, Kevin turned to look at me with a question in his eyes. The rear of the van was nearly touching the ground. The front wheels were barely touching. The van resembled one of those cartoon drawings of high speed in action.

“I’ll be back for the rest,” I said and climbed into the now much higher front seat.

Driving was a challenge. The steering was extremely sensitive. The slightest movement of the steering wheel caused a violent reaction in the direction of the van. Actually seeing the road was a challenge, since the front of the van was angled upward in a position resembling that of a spaceship ready for takeoff.

Fortunately, home was nearby.

I pulled into the driveway, opened the hatch and grabbed the first bag. With a grunt, I heaved it to my shoulder and staggered up the front stairs, (6 steps), down the hallway, opened the cellar door. Carefully I descended the narrow and steep steps (an unlucky 13) and with yet another grunt, deposited the bag on the floor. One down, nine to go.

With all the bags in the basement, it was time to start the fun stuff – pouring.

I figured I’d build forms that were as wide as the floor (12 feet), two feet wide and two inches deep.I built the first, laid it down and went to get my first bag of concrete.

But, I wondered, how many bags would I need? Hmmm. I went to look at a bag. 2/3 of a cubic foot, according to the instructions. “Doesn’t seem like much,” I thought. Out came the calculator. A few pecks and I had my answer – 6.036 bags per form.

I hauled six bags over to the form, slit them and dumped them into a small pile. Now to mix. I drew a bucket of water and poured it onto the pile. Then I grabbed my hoe and began mixing. And mixing. And mixing. This was much harder than I thought. The water seemed to go everywhere, then suddenly disappear. The concrete was heavy and kept falling out of the form. I kept hitting large pockets of dry material.

Finally I felt I had mixed the pile thoroughly. I tried to level the pad with my form by “striking off” according to the instructions in my Reader’s Digest home repair book. But there wasn’t enough concrete. Where had it gone? I guess I must have had more than 2 inches of depth in the form.

I opened two more bags and dumped them into the form along with some water. Mixed and mixed some more. Muscles in agony now. Still short, but closer. I dumped the last two bags and some water. Mixed and mixed. Still not enough to fill the form, but close enough, especially since I had no more concrete. I took a trowel and did what I could to smooth out and level my floor. It seemed to tilt a few degrees in one direction, but there was nothing I could do about that now.

One down, 11 more to go. I stretched my aching back and pondered the rest of my winter grimly. But still, I thought, it’s cheaper than calling some guy which will cost a fortune.

And so I continued. Each weekend for the next 11 weeks, I dragged the poor van to the lumberyard for an 800 pound load of mix, hauled it home and into the cellar (six steps up, 13 steps down), mixed and leveled. By Sunday my back and shoulders were screaming in pain and subsided slowly over the course of the week.

I finished late in the winter. The resulting floor looked something like a Hawaiian lava flow — a little rough with slabs of concrete tilted at varying subtle angles. But still better than dirt. And cheaper than “calling a guy.”

It was, wasn’t it? Out came the calculator. Let’s see, 82 bags of concrete mix (some forms took less than 10 bags for some mysterious reason), multiplied by $8.50/bag came out $697. I didn’t add in wear and tear on the van (which died shortly after) or the visit to the doctor after my shoulder really started hurting. Those were incidental.

I looked in the Yellow Pages and called the first concrete company I saw. I described my (previously dirt) cellar floor and asked, casually, what would be a ballpark price to pour a cement floor over it?

“Oh, about $500.”