I’ve always found that winter weather looks coldest when I’m sitting inside a warm house.
But once I set out to complete some outdoor winter job, it’s never as bad as I dreaded. At least not if I’m dressed in a very specific way.
I learned how to dress for winter work while building concrete forms on commercial construction sites during cold seasons.
I put the secrets into practice again last New Year’s Day, when I had to complete emergency shingle repairs on a snow-covered roof sloped at 45 degrees. The right kind of gear made the job bearable, and even fun, in an Edmund Hillary sort of way.
The first thing to understand is the value of merino wool long johns and an undershirt. No other fabric that I’ve tried delivers as much warmth. If you have to work outside in super-cold weather (or choose to play outdoors when the temperature plummets), you can’t do better than this stuff.
The kind of merinos I own remind me of one of those fancy Italian sports cars — incredibly high performance, but also expensive and temperamental.
Pull this underwear on too briskly and you’re liable to tear it. You also have to be careful to wash and dry the garments gently or damage will occur.
That said, what does any of this matter when staying warm is just about the only thing that’s important? Absorbency is the reason merinos work so well. They soak up sweat and hold onto it, keeping you warm and dry where synthetics retain dampness that induces chill.
For the last couple of years I’ve been using some Swedish work wear made by a company called Blaklader (www.blakladerworkwear.ca; 905.592.1335).
They’re relatively new in Canada, but apparently have been used over seas for half a century.
This stuff is also distinctive. Really distinctive. Blaklader’s work pants have lots of exterior pockets, for instance, making you look like you’re wearing your pants inside out.
But who cares when it means you can grab the tool, screw or nail you need all that much easier?
They’ve also got a radical work kilt, also with lots of dangling, exterior pockets. I wore it this summer while doing stonework, along with high-topped wool socks and work boots. It was the most comfortable combination I’ve ever worked in, and it came with an added bonus.
The constant stream of funny looks and snide comments about a guy wearing a skirt is an effective way to gain a thicker skin.
The Blaklader item I like most so far doesn’t look distinctive at first glance, but does have a great feature. Two features, actually. Their ToughGuy jacket has a pile lining and cotton outer shell that’s both pleasing and puzzling.
How come this simple, cozy combination is so rare these days? Why do so many other winter coats make you feel like you’re wearing a crinkly, synthetic shopping bag?
How come so few have a nice, fuzzy lining up around your neck, where it counts? The ToughGuy’s cotton exterior and sheepskin-like lining prompts me to wear the coat way too often, in settings where my wife reminds me I really should be wearing something fancier.
The best way I’ve found to keep hands warm while working involves a compromise. Instead of thin gloves that allow full use of all fingers,
I wear leather snowmobile mitts for as long as I can, taking them off only when it comes time to do small work with dexterity.
Remembering back a year ago, I have to admit that being 30 feet off the ground as the sun rose over a quiet, cold Canadian New Year’s Day did have a certain attraction to it.
Though not quite enough to keep me up there any longer than necessary — even with my finicky, high-strung merinos on.
Steve Maxwell is Canada’s award-winning home improvement expert, and technical editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine. Sign up for his free homeowner newsletter at www.stevemaxwell.ca