I just achieved a milestone in my home improvement career. I completed a project that involved a ladder and fell off of it exactly ZERO times. Admittedly, this was a relatively simple project and the ladder involved was a four foot step ladder, but success is success. I did have one close call when I tried to set the ladder up on the steps. Fortunately Linda was close and she backed me down.
“What are you doing?” she asked warily.
“I’m setting the ladder up so that I can paint the outside of the posts,” I answered simply.
“Does it seem sound to put two of the ladder legs on one step and two on another?”
“Well, as long as I lean the right direction it seems OK to me. Does it bother you?”
“Just a tad. What do you say we put the ladder on the level porch and you reach around to paint the outside of the post?”
“Well OK, but that seems a little dangerous to be leaning out like that.”
“You’re only leaning eight inches. It’s the lesser of two evils, trust me.”
It worked and the porch got painted without any falls being involved. That’s not usually the case when I tackle a home improvement project that involves ladders. The time when I painted the trim on our house in Indiana is a case in point.
The paint on the trim was beginning to crack and peel a little so, one spring day, I pulled out the paint, ladders and supplies to tackle repainting. It was a ranch style house and most of the wood was within reach of an eight foot (that’s 2.44 meters for most of the world) step ladder. I opted to start low and work my way up.
My ladders consisted of a six foot step ladder, an eight foot step ladder and a sixteen foot extension ladder. All of them were thirty years old and made of aluminum. Before we go further, it’s important to mention that, when those ladders were purchased, I was twenty something years old and weighed a lot less than I do now. To their credit, they had all handled my increase in mass very well though the years, which is a testament to the standard engineering practice of designing in an adequate safety factor. That concept does have its limits though.
I began with the window trim on the back of the house and the first few windows went fine. The ground around the fourth window was slightly uneven and, instead of taking the time to grade the ground with a shovel, I decided to let three of the legs on my ladder find their own plane and then lean so that the ladder didn’t wobble on the fourth leg. That worked for a few minutes.
As I was reaching to paint the top of the window I put an inordinate amount of weight on one ladder leg. I thought I heard a creak from the aging aluminum, so I stepped down the ladder to inspect it. Nothing seemed amiss, so back up I went to finish the window. Again I leaned and again I heard the creak only this time a shudder accompanied the sound. I froze momentarily and then started to gingerly crawl back down. I made it one step before the leg gave away and the ladder collapsed, sending me and a quart of paint tumbling to the ground. I saved the grass by catching most of the spilled paint with my shirt.
Several profanities later I crawled to my feet and examined the ladder. Apparently I had exceeded the built in safety margin by leaning on one leg and the end result was a piece of extruded aluminum bent at ninety degrees. I hate it when you have to say goodbye to a faithful companion, but this time I had no options. This ladder had given its all to the cause and it was time for a replacement. Off to Lowes Home Improvement I went.
I entered the store and walked straight to the ladder department. Being frugal (Linda has another, less kind, term for that), I found the least expensive eight foot ladder and started for the check out counter. Before I was out of the ladder aisle I was stopped by Carl, one of the Lowes employees.
Carl and I had become friends over the years. He’d learned that whatever amount of supplies a given project takes, he could count on me to buy at least twice that amount. I don’t think he was paid on commission, but I did contribute greatly to the company’s profit margin, so he always gave me special attention.
“Where are you going with that ladder Jerry?” he inquired.
“To the register. Why, do you think I’m trying to shoplift an eight foot ladder?” I answered.
“No, it’s just that I’m wondering why you have one with a red label on it.”
“We’ve known each other for five years Carl. You should know me better by now. It’s the cheapest one you have.”
“Yeah well, here’s the thing. Cheap kind of works with screw drivers, but with ladders, not so much. A red label means that ladder is rated for 200 lbs. Have you stepped on a scale recently?”
“Yes I have, and your point is what?”
“My thought is that you need a higher capacity, perhaps an orange label rated at 300 lbs.”
“Those cost $100 more. I’m not going to pay that much for something I use twice a year.”
“Hmmm, how much did that trip to the Emergency Room cost you last August when you fell off of your roof?”
I pondered that for a minute and walked back to the ladder rack. After some soul searching, I put the red labeled ladder back in place, took one with a blue label and headed back out. Carl stopped me again.
“That’s a little better, but blue is only rated for 250 lbs.” Carl said as he lifted his eye brows and cocked his head to the side.
“That’s more than enough capacity,” I said. “Especially since they always figure in a safety margin.”
“Really?” Carl replied as he glanced at the white paint stain that covered my chest and stomach. “How’s that safety margin thing been working out for you so far today?”
I pondered again, but this time I decided to hold my ground. Carl shook his head as I made my way to the register, paid for my new ladder and headed off to finish my painting.
It took me the remainder of the weekend to finish the work low to the ground, so I tackled the soffit and fascia the next Saturday. Bright and early that morning I got out my extension ladder and went to work. When I’m working high I like to start at the top and work my way down. That way I’m doing the most arduous work early in the day when I’m most rested.
The peak our house was about sixteen feet high so I had to set the extension ladder at its maximum. Even then, because I had large shrubs along the house and had to keep the base of the ladder well away from the wall, the ladder was short of the mark. This forced me to stand near the top rung, a fact that was in the forefront of my thoughts as I started up the ladder with a paint brush and full gallon of paint. I found myself unconsciously looking for a non-existent color code label as my feet pushed off on each rung of the ladder.
I reached the top and took a deep breath as I dipped the brush in the paint and made the first few swipes at the trim. I had a rhythm, dip the brush, make four swipes and then do it again. It was cathartic in a way and served to ease my apprehension about being so high. I usually don’t mind heights, but something that day had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Suddenly, on the fourth or fifth dip of the brush, I heard a familiar creak. Actually, this time the sound was deeper; it was more of a groan rather that a creak. I started down the ladder immediately, not waiting for a second warning like I had done the week before. But even the early start wasn’t enough.
On my second step down the ladder groaned again. This time it was an abiding groan accompanied by a sudden jolt as the ladder twisted and began to crumble. I fell, still holding onto the nearly full bucket of paint. I remember glancing at the red brick exterior and wondering how it would look with a white splash of paint dried into every crevice. I was determined to keep that from happening.
I fixed my gaze on the paint can and twisted and turned my wrist in a desperate attempt to keep as much of the paint in the can as possible. As I hit the shrubs and rolled into the lawn, containing the spill became nearly impossible. With my eyes closed, I hoped for the best while waiting for the fall and bumpy landing to come to an end. The first thing I did after opening my eyes again was look at the can. Against all odds, almost two thirds of the paint was still contained. Most of what wasn’t was on my shirt.
I crawled to my feet and gazed around at the carnage. The ladder was a mass of twisted and bent aluminum. It would never extend or retract again. The side of the house was pristine. Not one drop of paint had made it to the red bricks. The shrubs took damage. Some of it was from paint, but most of it was from me and the ladder landing on them. Shrubs are resilient. In the end they survived.
I did too. I had a few scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones. After I cleaned up the mess, I made another trip to the ladder aisle at Lowes. Carl saw me walking in, saw the white paint stain on my shirt and approached me with a knowing grin on his face.
“So, are you coming back for the orange labeled ladder.”
“No, the blue one worked just fine.”
“Really?” he said glancing at shirt one my time.
“Yes. Tell me, do all ladder types use the same color code system?”
“Fine, I need a blue sixteen foot extension ladder and if you say anything else I’m headed to Home Depot.”
Carl might not have been paid on commission, but a sale is a sale. He helped me carrying my new blue extension ladder out to my truck and tie it down. Then he smiled and waved as I pulled out of the parking lot. He knew that sooner or later I’d be back.
P.S. I’ve had many other unfortunate ladder related experiences. If anyone ever asks, using a board between two ladders to paint the wall behind the toilet is a really bad idea.