Modifying Shipping Containers

Now that the containers are up on their blocks in the right places, it’s time to cut one side off of each of them. Plasma cutters are probably the easiest way, but the cheapest machine I can find is $1,000 and I’ve heard that welding of any sort can damage your eyes so that you lose color perception. This is much too high of a price for a graphic designer to pay.

I look around the shop to see what else might do it. I settle on using a SawzAll that came with a loft we rented in NYC a few years ago.

Stop laughing.

The SawzAll needs a hole to start in, so I drill a bunch of holes in a corner of the corrugated wall of the container. I know I’m in trouble when it take more than a minute per hole. I start sawing. This creates a very hostile work environment. Aside from the hot sun and humidity, the saw motor itself gets very hot. The saw blade gets so hot that it softens. The little bits of shipping container that are being thrown off by the blade seem to be molten and pepper my face and hands as I cut. The saw is heavy and is pushing in and out so I have to keep the saw pushed against the container while at the same time pushing it in the direction I want it to cut.

About every three feet, the blade softens sufficiently that it gets pinched and seizes up. Now, instead of the saw moving the blade back and forth with great force, it’s moving me back and forth with great force. You can’t let go of the button fast enough (because your hand is cramped up so badly it won’t release) so the saw keeps punching you in the chest, over and over. Your arms are numb from the vibration and pounding.

The corrugated metal itself changes as you cut on it. It’s very heavy and I’m working away at removing what is holding it up. As I do, it sags and settles — almost like a liquid filling the gap my saw blade has left. I learn to cut little openings that allow me to re-insert the blade every few feet because the cut seems to heal up as I go along.

Oh, and damn the person who installed steel tie-down rings to the base of the walls inside of shipping containers.

I finally get the sides and the bottom cut off, but now face a difficult problem. How to cut along the top? The problem is that the wall probably weighs about 600 pounds and now has sharp edges. The corrugation gives it stiffness in one direction, but flexibility (and worse — elasticity) in the other direction. I can’t just climb up on a ladder and cut it off without it falling onto me and either crushing me or cutting me in half.

I attach an eye-bolt to the top-middle of the wall I’m cutting on. I get the PullzAll out and hook it to the eye-bolt on one end, throw it over the top of the container, and attach the other end with a chain to the base of the container on the opposite side. Now, once the wall is free, it will hang from the winch with which I can safely lower it to the ground.

This plan works perfectly — for the first container. The cut is finished, the wall starts to fall out, the winch holds it up. I use a long pole (through the doors of the container) to knock the bottom of the wall out and slowly lowered it to the ground. I attach the PullzAll to a tree, drill another hole in the side of the now free container wall, and pull it out of the way. It actually functioned as an effective plow, cutting a deep gash into the yard before finally flopping down on its side violently once it was clear of the container.

The second container is harder. After the final cut, the wall falls into the container, instead of out of it, and manages to wedge itself in there nice and snug. I push and pull and bang and curse, but it’s not moving.

“SawzAll!” my wife says. (This has now become a verb at our house, used whenever there is no other option but the brute-force-cut-the-motherfucker-out method of problem solving.)

So I cut off some of the wall that was causing the inconvenience. The moments toward the end of that cut are by far the most dangerous of our entire project so far. I have no way of knowing what the wall will do once it is loose. I don’t know if the eye bolt and winch will hold or not, and I can’t finish the cut without getting close to it. I end up essentially standing around the corner from the thing I’m cutting, so that at least it won’t remove my torso when it pops out. Just before I get to the end, the little bit of metal fails and bang! the wall slides out and hangs on the winch like I was hoping it would. As I lower it to the ground, I notice that the eye bolt looks a lot more like a “C” than the “O” it once was. Very close.

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