A Tale of Two Bridges

Once upon a time (okay, it was in 2014 which was when I bought the Money Pit) there was a garden bridge. The former owners had left it behind, along with a rotting and too-big-to-be-legal garden shed, a somewhat shaky red-painted pine arbor, and a small bench made from a granite rectangle atop two legs.

Chapter One: Ye Olde Bridge

In the summer of 2018, the bridge looked like this. It was, shall we say, not the sturdiest thing I’d ever walked on.

In September 2019, the beds flanking the bridge were cleared out, and aluminum edging installed along the original outlines. At that point, a problem was created.
This was the problem. Originally, there were two very large rectangles of bluestone placed between the end of the bridge and the edge of the bed. I discovered too late that the rip-out crew, despite being told not to remove those pieces, had thrown them into the dumpster along with all of the smaller bluestone pieces that formed the old edging, and thereby had broken the large ones to bits.
I planned to get some new pieces until I examined the underside of the bridge and discovered the extent of the rot. O-kay then, obviously a new bridge was needed. The old bridge was 5 feet long.

Chapter Two: The Candidates

I spent a ridiculously long time internet-shopping for a replacement bridge. The actual span of that central area is 9 feet. These were the candidates I came up with:

Five-foot-long bridge kit, made of fir, on Amazon for $149. This was the cheapest, and also the one that would disintegrate fastest. Sadly, my track record for building things from kits is pretty dismal. And I’d still need to fill in that end area with bluestone, slate, pavers, or whatever.

Six-foot-long bridge kit, made of cedar, at Home Depot for $260. See my comment about kit-building ‘expertise’. The empty end area would still be there, although a bit smaller, and the wood looked very ‘cheap’.

Six-foot-long cast-stone bridge by Massarelli. This at least would not entail any assembly, and would never need maintenance either. It can be had in a choice of a number of color finishes. It would need to be delivered and installed, because of the weight. I was also not sure that I liked having no side rail at all. Of course, all of them are purely decorative but somehow this bridge looked incomplete (more like a walkway than a bridge) and would probably end up invisible among any plantings. And the price was daunting: $700, not including sales tax, delivery, or installation. Ouch.

This was the longest bridge I found that appealed to me. Made by The Carriage Shed in Vermont, it comes in 8’, 10’, or 12’ lengths, and a materials choice of cedar, vinyl, or pressure-treated pine. I emailed them to ask the price of the 8’ version in cedar but never received an answer. This was, however, the closest I had found to the vague design notion that I had in my head. Until…

…I saw this photo on Pinterest. It was love at first sight. This photo was taken in an actual Japanese style garden, and I had already planned to make that pair of beds a modified Japanese style (which was a big reason for wanting to replace the old bridge.)

Of course, nobody was selling a bridge like this. That is when I remembered hearing that the fellow next door was a retired woodworker and had made one of the cabinets in the guest bathroom here. Photo printout in hand, I conferred with Lou the Woodworker. Could I get the bridge I wanted, in cedar, in the 9-foot length that I needed? I could…but it was going to cost me. $900, to be precise (that would include staining the bridge with whatever stain I chose and would provide.)  I gulped, and did some quick mental math.

The $150 Amazon kit bridge would be unlikely to last even five years, assuming it would even assemble properly, and would be four feet too short. The $260 bridge would probably last longer but truth be told, I didn’t like it all that much. The $700 bridge had no rails, was still too short, and after adding our 8.625% sales tax and $100+ for delivery and installation, would cost the same as the custom bridge (but yes, would probably last forever.) C’mon, you know what I did.

Chapter Three: Bridge Birth

Here are some ‘baby pictures’ of the bridge – in the delivery room, so to speak!

These were taken just before the final fine-sanding, before the stain was applied.

Oh yes, the stain. Now that drove me absolutely crazy, because I gave myself a crash course in what kind of stains and finishes to use on what kinds of wood and objects made therefrom. I finally narrowed it down to a brand (Flood) and a stain type CWF-UV5 (Clear Wood Finish, Ultraviolet protecting) penetrating wood finish. But what color?

These are the colors offered in this product. Walnut was the closest to the bridge in the Pinterest pic. But would I be happy with it in that color? It looks gorgeous in the photo, but I’ve had black cars and chocolate-brown sinks and bathtubs in the past, and so I know that a dark color on a horizontal surface will show EVERYTHING. Such as, for example, shoe prints – not to mention bird poop. So I decided to go with Natural (Tint Base) which I assumed would be the same color as the bridge itself was (like in the photos) or perhaps just a skootch darker.

Then I found out that no store within 50 miles of my house had this particular product in stock and it was not available online. I’d have to special order it. Okey-dokey then.

Bridge, freshly sealed. A few days later, it was put in place; luckily, Lou the Woodworker has a Bobcat. (He also has a Leaf Zamboni – that’s what I call it anyway, it’s a giant leaf vacuum that gets towed behind his little tractor – at which I turn green with envy every autumn while I slave away with my rake.)

I was privately taken aback at the difference in color when the bridge was in full sunlight rather than in the garage; I hadn’t expected it to be so orange-yellow. ‘Walnut’ suddenly began looking better and better, but that was no longer an option now. I began telling myself that “the color will fade over time…” This was in November 2019.

Chapter Four: Time Marches On

The color did fade…but not evenly. This is the bridge in March 2020. I knew that if I were to re-coat it with Walnut, the areas that were still yellow would remain yellowish; that would not be good. So, I waited.

By August, there were still too many splotchy areas to risk a re-color.

Still not evenly weathered by October. I realized that unless I wanted to sand down the entire bridge – something I didn’t want to risk doing – it would need at least another year of weathering for every bit of the “natural” color sealer to break down.

2021 came and went, and in the spring of 2022 I started thinking about that Walnut stain again. This would be a drastic color change, and if I didn’t like it (or made a bad job of it) I’d be living with the result for much longer than two years. I dithered all summer without making a decision. Then, in November and purely by chance, I came across an online article about wabi-sabi.

Chapter Five: Say What???

No, it’s not a spicy condiment; wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy based on ‘the acceptance of transience and imperfection’. It’s the polar opposite of the Western focus on the new, the shiny, the bling-is-beautiful, the quest for eternal youth. Wabi-sabi embodies the realization that the process of aging, fading, and changing over time creates its own beauty – one that Western culture too often strives to avoid in our desperate attempts to stave off the effects of time.

The word sabi is sometimes translated as “the delightful contemplation of that which is old and worn.” As I read this, I suddenly thought of the bridge and immediately went into the garden – but this time I didn’t look at the bridge with my usual “when and how can I make this look better” eyes. In that moment, I saw it in an entirely different way. I turned around, went back inside, and tore up the piece of paper on which, three years ago, I’d written the product code number of the Walnut stain.

Chapter Six: A Bridge for All Seasons

I took these photos a few weeks ago. In the past, I’d have cleaned up those oak leaves beforehand but this time I saw how perfectly their so-called ‘dead’ color blends with the changing Nandina ‘Firepower’ leaves, and left them in place.

Also noticed how the colors in the aging bridge planks precisely match those of the old bluestone pieces that abut the north end. And yes, that single oak leaf, which by pure chance had fallen between two planks in almost but not quite the exact center of the bridge, was left in place on purpose. Why not?  🙂

No longer do I see those remaining patches of sealer as something to be fixed; they’re now part of the bridge’s surface pattern, just like the grain and the occasional knots. And I love how the color of the posts differs from the rest of the bridge. I think the bridge would be just a bit less interesting if the posts were to match the rails. However, the entire bridge magically becomes a rich coffee-brown when it rains. 🙂

Left to age naturally, my bridge will probably not last as long as it would if I’d gone ahead and stained it Walnut or whatever. But you know what? That’s okay. We both – myself and the bridge – are aging, and I’ve decided that we’ll do it together. The bridge planks will develop some cracks, and I’ll develop some more wrinkles…and we’ll both get even greyer, lol. Funny thing about that: I would never consider dyeing my hair back to its younger-days brown, so why would I want to dye my garden bridge?

Eventually I won’t be able to walk all the way across my bridge, not because of infirmity (I hope) but because of Geoffrey the ginormous conifer. He’s gotten quite hefty over the past few years and I suspect he’s not done growing yet.

Right now, there is still space to step off and walk between Geoffrey and the south end of the bridge, but someday those branches will probably be able to reach out and tickle those planks. I have a hunch that my bridge will still be there.

  4 comments for “A Tale of Two Bridges

  1. Betty McCullough
    January 1, 2023 at 10:17 pm

    I enjoyed your bridge adventure and agree with your choice. You are lucky to have a woodworking neighbor to help solve your problem. Your yard has really come together beautifully since I read your first report. .

  2. January 2, 2023 at 1:00 am

    I’ve always wanted a bridge similar to this… what a great read and very inspiring.

  3. January 2, 2023 at 11:42 am

    It is beautiful! And a fun story too!

  4. January 3, 2023 at 7:49 pm

    Yes, the bridge was on the orange side the first day, but still a beauty and its only become more beautiful as its aged. New things always stick out a little so i guess it just needed a little time.
    Your garden is really coming along.

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