Sunday, May 12, 2013

Work at the southern end of my cellar

In my blog post of 11 April 2013 entitled Spring has sprung... at last [display], I mentioned my intention to construct, in my ancient stone cellar at Gamone, an old-fashioned wood-burning oven for baking bread and pizzas. This is likely to be a long and arduous project, since I first have to prepare the cellar for the installation of this massive object. In the present blog post, I shall describe the very first operation in this project, which I'm carrying out at the southern end of the cellar. This information is relatively technical, and is designed to be appreciated primarily by François, Emmanuelle and Christine, who have always remained interested by the evolution of the property at Gamone.

Let me start at the beginning. Here's a view of the southern façade of my house, taken in November 1993 (several months before I became the official owner of the property):

The scene reveals why, at that time, we took few photos from this viewpoint. A giant linden tree prevented an observer from obtaining a meaningful view of the southern façade of the house. But this photo indicates clearly the proportions of the roofed area behind the house (above the cellar), where a white van is parked. To reach this spot, the vehicle had to approach the house (on the opposite side of the photo), pass in front of the house (on the gravel down on the right-hand side) and then reverse up the grassy slope alongside the linden tree.

A long time ago, I asked René Uzel to remove that linden tree, along with the old apple tree that you can see on the left-hand edge of the photo. Since then, the southern façade of my house has been clearly visible, as you can see from this photo that I took this morning:

It's not easy to compare details in these two photos, 20 years apart, since it's hard to see anything at all in the first photo. It should nevertheless be apparent that a huge amount of earth has been removed from beneath the wheels of the vehicle in the old photo, enabling us to observe almost the entire southern wall of the cellar (which was completely buried in the old photo). You can even distinguish the upper half of an entrance into the cellar, shown here in an enlargement:

A decade ago, I had asked René Uzel to use his mini digger to remove the earth under which this southern entrance into the cellar had been buried, maybe for several centuries. As soon as the stone wall and the entrance became visible, I was in for a major surprise. Noticing the way in which fragments of hard earth remained attached to every rough stone in the façade, I suddenly realized that this was no doubt the first time ever, since its construction, that this wall had been brought out into the open daylight. I had always imagined that the entrance (which formed an alcove when seen from inside the cellar) had been blocked by earth, a long time ago, for unknown reasons. I now realized that, on the contrary, this entrance had never, at any point in time, been cleared of the earth that blocked it. In other words, this wall and entrance had been constructed from inside the future cellar, using the original earth as a formwork (coffrage in French). And nobody (up until my intervention) had ever got around to removing the formwork. Faced with this unexpected situation, I decided that a reinforced concrete retaining wall should be erected on the left, as soon as possible.

Here's a closeup photo of the entrance at the southern end of the cellar, taken a month ago from the top of the short earthen ramp that leads down from the level of the outside ground:

As soon as René had unearthed this new entrance into the cellar (and the house), I sealed it firmly by means of a pair of old wooden doors that I jammed in place. Now that this wood work has been removed, I can look out from inside the cellar towards the south.

Before thinking about having a door installed here, I needed to build a concrete threshold. So, I promptly tidied up the ground and laid down the formwork for the future threshold, as shown in the following photo:

Clearly, a previous owner seems to have used this alcove to support wooden shelves.

Here's a closeup view of the threshold formwork:

A fortnight ago, when I turned on my electric cement mixer with the intention of starting to lay concrete for the threshold, I was annoyed to find that the machine stopped turning after 20 seconds. I unscrewed the cover, and discovered that the cam belt had slid off the big cog on the drive shaft that makes the drum rotate.

Knowing nothing whatsoever about the mechanics of concrete mixers, I drove immediately to a big hardware company in Saint-Marcellin to seek guidance. Usually, as soon as I open my mouth in such a setting, full of professional tradesmen, the staff and onlookers realize that I'm a do-it-yourself tinkerer, and I sense their condescending regard. But everything changes in a positive sense when they hear you explaining that you've opened up your concrete mixer, discovered that the cam shaft has slipped of the big cog on the drive shaft, and that you need to fix it. Anybody who talks that kind of talk in a tradesmen's store must be taken seriously. So, I was thrilled to find a tradesman in overalls come over and tell me that, after having installed the new cam belt, I should rotate the drum manually for a few turns, to make sure that the new belt is in place. It was surely the first time in my life that French tradesmen seemed to be respecting me as a member of their fraternity. I felt elated, but I forced myself not to say much more, for fear of being revealed as a fake.

The next morning, I was able to examine closely the mechanism of the electric motor in my concrete mixer, and I discovered that the old cam belt was in perfect shape. The cause of the breakdown was a simple bolt that had escaped from the motor shaft, enabling the small cog to drop off. And, five minutes later, I was able to insert a new bolt, tighten it and get the machine running perfectly. Funnily enough, when I went back sheepishly to the hardware store in order to return the new cam belt and ask for a refund, I was received once again as a genuine "tradie" (as Aussies say). Not only had I taken apart the motor of my concrete mixer, but I had been able to detect an unexpected problem and repair it effortlessly. The fellow at the counter found it perfectly normal to refund the cam belt.

Finally, I used two bags of cement to lay enough concrete for the threshold, and the final result is perfectly acceptable.

The concrete slab might appear to be exceptionally thick. In fact, it needed to be a little higher than the level of the future elevated wooden planking that I intend to install (once I've finished the construction of the wood oven) throughout the entire cellar, which measures 6 meters long (from north to south) and 4 meters wide (from east to west).

The threshold slab is not solid concrete from top to bottom, since the level of the ground is located about halfway down the slab. As for the future staircase, it will reach the outside ground level at about the top of the wooden barrier, which holds a rock fill on the other side.

Yesterday, a carpenter from Pont-en-Royans dropped in to take measurements for a door at this place. Later on, I intend to build a concrete staircase from the threshold up to the level of the outside ground. It will be composed of exactly 9 steps, each of a so-called rise (height ) of 17 cm and a so-called run (depth) of 25 cm. See, I'm already starting to talk, once again, like a genuine tradesman. I must be careful not to get a swollen head, otherwise my tradesman's hard hat will no longer fit on my skull.

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