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Thinking in Millimetres

Jul 16, 2015 etc

Aka, admitting defeat

This column was first published in the June 2015 issue of Metro. Illustration by Angela Keoghan


As I write this, Tony the Builder is on a ladder outside my new office wall removing broken cladding and then hammering in new stuff, and when he does so the wall beside my right ear jumps ever so slightly.

That’s after he scribes each weatherboard so that it matches the wavy 1950s pattern of the others, and measures the hole where the old weatherboards were, and he does all this by hand with a renovator tool and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

This afternoon he wrote down a measurement on a piece of board with the end of his ciggie, then put it back in his mouth, walked over to the saw and started cutting. It fitted perfectly.

I say new office, but it’s not really. It is actually a workstation in a line of Lundia shelving — so Scando! — beside the kitchen.

We turned my old office into a kitchen with a baby bedroom behind it, but a man has to work somewhere so it may as well be here, beside the laundry and the front door, with a view of the whole house through plates and bowls and timber shelves. My old office was a cave: this one’s a light box.

All this has taken something like 10 weeks, which is kind of remarkable for a 62sqm house. We moved out for a while, and we’ve just moved back in and we’re surrounded by boxes — and our son is due in 22 days.

Which is why this week we had four men attending to a whole pile of jobs — rehanging washing lines, fixing rotten bits of house, digging holes… an endless pile of annoying jobs that I have meant to get around to for three years but never did. This is a bit galling, to be frank — they’re jobs I could have done myself. In fact they’re jobs I prided myself on Working Out How to Do, but we are out of time and out of patience, and now we just want the fucking thing finished.

I take heart from two things. One, I am capable of the odd job. The other weekend, I got a shovel and spent Saturday fixing up a drain that collapsed when the digger drove over it (long story), and then because the downpipes had fallen off at the same time, my stepfather Bryce and I went to Bunnings, where we argued gently about how to connect the gutter to the drain, working out 112º and 95º angles and diameters of downpipe — they come in 65mm and 80mm and naturally, we had both and somehow had to get them to talk to each other. It reminded me of Lego.

Then we came back and connected it all up. That night it rained really heavily, and the water swished happily down the drain, and I was very happy indeed.

Possibly more important, I now know many things about building, at least in theory. A lock is a “mortice” and the rose around the lock on the outside is an “escutcheon” and a thing holding up the deck is known as a bearer. Architraves go on the ceiling, skirting boards — skirts — between floor and wall, and the bit of timber they put between other bits of timber to make up the right length is known as a “packer”. My favourite: the timber that butts up against the weatherboards around your nice new French doors is known as a “scriber”.

In particular, I’ve learned to think in millimetres. You need to learn to think in millimetres if you want to talk to a builder. Put it 200 out, they say. Bring it in 100, they say. Is that 1000 or 1100? To the rest of us, this is 20cm and 10cm, a metre or 1.1m. But there’s something about millimetres that implies a level of confidence, and of knowledge, and a precision: I recently commissioned a cabinet for the fridge that was 688mm wide and 1723mm high and 801mm deep.

I hope it fits, but if it doesn’t we may need to think about alternatives. It might even need a 4mm packer.


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