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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

I took a notion into my head that I wanted an empty whiskey barrel. Moreover, I wanted to finish said whiskey barrel by sanding and sealing it so it would become a bit of art.

We tried for years to acquire one from Leiper’s Fork, our favorite local distillery.

It seemed like a good idea. I think whiskey culture is beautiful and fascinating. Everything from the shape of barrel staves to the bottles. I love the distilling processes and the stills, I love the rickhouses and the backstory.

Whiskey has a truly fascinating history as part of politics and culture. It’s art and science. And that’s before you even get to the tasting part.

Anyway, I decided I needed a barrel.

This past summer, Leiper’s Fork finally had empty ones available so we jumped right on that and brought one home.

Even empty these things weigh about a hundred pounds, and that had to make it up three flights of stairs to our apartment.

In the middle of summer.

We plunked it outside on the balcony and I spent a lot of time gazing adoringly at it. I spent even more time googling “how to refinish a whiskey barrel.”

It turns out there is exactly one guy who tells you how to do it.

It didn’t seem all that complicated, I mean, you sand it, you stain it, you stand back and admire it.

It still seemed like a good idea.

What also seemed like a good idea was sanding it by hand. As in, without a power tool. I was looking forward to having a little art project and sitting outside on my balcony running sandpaper over the splotchy, discolored sides to reveal the natural wood beneath.

I figured it would take a while, but it was meant to be kind of Zen, a relaxing weekend project that I could go back to week after week until I could look proudly on my accomplishment.

Did I mention it was summer? Last summer was nothing if not brutally hot. And humid. And full of wasps that somehow always want to be right in front of my balcony even though I’m on the third floor and there isn’t a single flower or thing to eat or place to nest now that I’ve thrown away the chairs where they had previously decided to invade and nest.

The internet tells you a lot of ways to keep wasps away. Some of those things include making sure there is no food. Or water. Some of those things include planting mint, basil, rosemary. Some of those things include spraying peppermint oil and lemon oil.

I can tell you with certainty that none of those things keeps wasps away, not even spraying them right in the face with a whole bottle of peppermint oil. It just makes them mad and they flip out and fly off for a little while before returning to haunt you.

My balcony was covered in mint and basil and rosemary. And wasps.

But I digress.

All of this conspired to keep me from making much progress with the barrel. I sanded a bit, and enjoyed it, but there is only so much time I can spend with a bottle of peppermint oil in one hand and a sanding block in the other with sawdust streaming down my face in rivulets of sweat.

Then fall came, and the weather suddenly turned unnaturally cold. It rained. It blew. The barrel project stalled.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I picked the project back up. It was fun. We had a couple of days of balmy weather, the wasps were chill, and I got through nearly two full rotations around the barrel.

I wore my old Covid mask to avoid breathing in sawdust.

Then Ralph noticed.

Apparently, Ralph does not want me to die, so he bought me a respirator so I could breathe and sand at the same time.

It’s a ridiculous piece of equipment. It’s got a strap that you put over the top of your head and another one behind your head and these two giant cheek attachments that took a half hour just to figure out how to adjust. I look like I’m posing for a poster of Breaking Bad.

It’s heavy, so it mashes my face and pulls on my neck and it’s plastic so in about five minutes it’s stuck to your skin in a pool of sweat.

The next time I sanded the barrel I donned my HAZMAT armor and made it through about fifteen minutes before giving up. I can’t actually bend to reach the mid section of the barrel because the mask just slides up into my eyeballs and I don’t have a third hand so I can hold the peppermint spray and the sander AND the mask in place.

My Zen project had become the exact opposite.

It was an incredibly frustrating experience, not least of which because it’s going to be a year soon since I got this barrel, and I’m barely a quarter done. There is no way I’ll be able to finish it in 15 minute increments, not with the summer coming again and this respirator sucking my face.

I appreciate the fact that I need to live through the experience, so the respirator is necessary. I especially appreciate Ralph for taking care of me in a way that I don’t take care of myself.

But my idyllic little vision of sitting on the balcony, perhaps with a pour of whiskey in hand, leisurely sanding this barrel into perfection has been thwarted first by heat, then by wasps, then by cold, and now by reality.

But I found a solution. I set the respirator down, went directly to Amazon, and ordered an orbital sander. Now, as soon as it stops raining, I can go out there suited up, geared up, and just get it done.

I have also heard that you can often drill a hole into the bottom of an empty barrel and extract at least another liter of whiskey. I do not own a drill. But I have friends who may, and I bet they wouldn’t mind sharing some of that extra-aged bourbon with me.

Assuming I can ever finish sanding this barrel.

Photo top: the barrel in progress.
Photo bottom: the infamous respirator.