• Mea Culpa.

    Posted by Steve on Mon, 04/09/2007 - 11:09pm


    Forgive me, blog, for I have sinned. It's been a month since my last confession. I've been so busy that I haven't found the time to sit down and write about what I was up to.

    I should break this update into a few posts. Lemme talk about the bedroom reno first.



    After I got derailed by Con Ed's feeder line burning out and putting my 220v Delta table saw temporarily out of commission, I regrouped and decided to start on the finish work. The remaining trim work is mostly shop stuff so I can do it later.

    Three days! Three miserable frikkin days! That's how long it took to fill all the nail holes and sand the 500+ square feet of woodwork in the bedroom and hallway renovation down to 220 grit. After that, I vacuumed and ran tack cloths over every square inch of it.

    Then I applied an oil wood conditioner. This usually isn't critical with hardwood or hardwood plywood but sometimes the veneer blades can leave cutting marks that you won't see until you apply the stain. So I always do it anyway.

    You have to stain within a two-hour window after application of the conditioner so I did the staining job in eight stages, roughly corresponding to the number of walls I had to deal with. The stain was also an oil. Early American was the closest match I could find to the Coming Real Soon flooring. Even though I was going to use a water-based urethane, I hate water-based stains. They streak, dry too quickly, obscure the grain and scuff off too easily. And you invariably need two coats. I like penetrating oils.

    However, the downside with oils is the fumes. And I couldn't have picked a worse day that week to start staining because NYC dove into its last blast of winter. That meant I could only run an exhaust fan in the room. With 2.5 gallons of conditioner and stain on the walls, the house smelled toxic for days. I told Karen (an MD) that I could feel my pulse in my fingertips. She said it was because the distillates were constricting my blood vessels and, by the way, how's my headache?

    But what are ya gonna do?

    It took another four days to complete the staining. Then I started over with the water-based urethane. You have to be careful because a water-based urethane will peel off if the oil stain is still outgassing. One way to test is to rub the finish with a clean cotton cloth and sniff. If you smell the stain or see stain on the cloth, wait another 24 hours.

    Three coats of semi-gloss gave me the finish I wanted, with five coats on horizontal surfaces. Of course, there was more sanding between coats with a 320-grit sanding sponge but this is mainly a scuff job. Each of those passes took a full day too.

    I was afraid that with all this woodwork a dark stain was going to make the room a little gloomy. It sort of does in these shots but that's a digital flash camera artifact. The room actually feels pretty warm. However it dumpstered one paint schema I had been thinking about before I started on the project: dark red walls. Karen picked up some color chips in pastel blues and yellows she thinks might work.


  • Engineered Flooring HOWTO v2.0

    Posted by Steve on Sun, 04/15/2007 - 1:04am


    I don't like drywall. I like plaster. I don't like composite mouldings. I like hardwood. I don't even like prefab mouldings. I like to cut my own. So why would I like something as new-fangled and artificial as engineered flooring?

    Actually, I don't. Even though I went through bloody hell to lay those herringbone floors in the living room, solid hardwood is still my first choice. But there were reasons why engineered flooring was the better option for the second floor in my house. One is that I didn't want to add an extra 1.25" to the height of the top stair. That's what would have been required if I'd gone with 3/4" hardwood. I can't count the number of times I've tripped because of uneven stair heights, on one occasion fracturing a shoulder. Also, an engineered floor has a finish at least twice as hard as that of any job-site applied finish. With two big dogs tearing up my hardwood floors downstairs that's not a small selling point for me. However, there's a big "but" with this stuff which I'll get into later.

    Just to be clear, engineered flooring is in a different class from laminate a/k/a Pergo™ flooring. It's got a facing of real hardwood over a plywood backing. You can even sand them, although the best grades have 30 year warranties. Here's a pretty good engineered flooring FAQ so I won't go into the details, except that I chose Mannington's Ashville Saddle Oak Plank -- the same stuff I used in my office and guest room.

    Here's the floor I started with:



    Before some wag says, "Hey, the original floors look great! Just refinish them!", I did! Five years ago. These yellow pine floors are a PITA. Despite three coats of oil poly, they're delaminating. This is probably due to years of some PO using liquid wax on the raw wood which only melted further into the floor with the heat of sanding. I've got so many splinter scars in my feet they look like they belong to a junkie.

    'nuff said. Let's move on to the HowTo.

    Preparation is critical to laying an engineered floor. The first step is to tighten up the existing floor to eliminate squeaks. I did this by driving 1-5/8" deck screws into each floor board at every intersecting joist. Five pounds of 'em in the bedroom and hallway.

    I used a nail finder to locate the joists and penciled a guide line down the floor.

    Next, use a six-foot level or a very straight board to look for high spots in the existing floor. Any bump 1/4" higher than the surrounding floor over six feet should be sanded down. Fortunately, I only had one of them. A belt sander made quick work of it.

    Now you've got to deal with the low spots, with the same dimensional restrictions. The solution in this case is floor leveler, a vinyl-fortified cement mix. I used Armstrong S-194. Sand the area with 60 grit to remove the old finish, mix up the leveler and trowel it on. Use a screed board to level it with the adjoining floor. This stuff dries very quickly (12-20 minutes) so mix small batches. It also sticks to anything, including expensive lavatory faucets. Ask me how I know.

    Then vacuum the floor thoroughly, fixing any protruding screw heads.

    Depending on how you will lay the floor, you're almost there. You have three installation options with engineered flooring: floating, glue-down or staple down. I'd never have a floating floor in my house so we'll skip that one. I did a glue-down in my office. While the results were good and in some respects superior to staple-down, it was one of the most miserable, messy jobs I've ever tackled. I wouldn't recommend it.

    Staple-down is the way to go. But you'll need a compressor and a stapler capable of driving heavy 1-3/8" staples, like the Spotnails WS4840. They're expensive but don't even think about buying one new. You can find them on eBay for around $40. They're almost useless for anything but laying flooring so a lot of them wind up there after their owners' flooring jobs are completed.

    Using a hammer stapler, lay down either rosin paper or builders felt. I prefer 15 pound builders felt because it has a slight cushion to it. You can also use 30 pound felt, or two layers of 15, for additional cushion.

    The first course is the most important. If it's cockeyed, your floor will be a mess. The instructions that come with the flooring will explain the details and caveats. All I can add to them, besides the warning to read those instructions carefully, is to watch the depth of your staples. My manual said to set the compressor to 80psi. Because I had a hundred-foot hose on the compressor, I needed 90psi to get the staples to seat properly. This is important because of the tight tolerances in the flooring tongues. If the staples are too high you'll see little lumps in the face of the finished floor, which will become abrasion points later. Too low and they'll split the tongue.



    I got this much done in five hours. Keep the floors clean!. Sawdust on these prefinished floors makes them as slippery as ice.


  • At last, that curved baseboard!

    Posted by Steve on Thu, 05/03/2007 - 12:02pm


    I've been pushing off this little project for a couple of months. The bedroom renovation began with construction of the closet and the curved plaster corner I absolutely had to have (if for no other reason than I'd never done one before). I knew that was going to create problems with the trim later but, hey, later is later. Six months later, later became today.



    There are basically four ways to build a curve using solid lumber. One is to steam it and bend it in a jig. Bending 1" nominal hardwood stock to as shallow a radius as I need is probably impossible, at least with my skills, and since I don't have a wood steamer anyway, it's moot. So let's move on.

    The second method also involves a jig but instead of bending solid lumber you build up thin veneer layers like plywood. You can construct a very small radius this way and lots of glue ensures a stable curve. The third way is to saw lots of narrow vertical kerfs in the back of the stock, leaving a thin facing layer to make it bendable. It's tricky but this method wouldn't work for me anyway because the board has a half-lap detail.



    I chose Option #4: build up the curve using several narrow pieces of lumber edge-laminated together. It's not really a smooth curve however but a polygon... kinda like the difference between a raster and a vector curve. However, since that's how all the convex curved woodwork was originally built in this house, it's Authentic. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.



    So how do you calculate the miter and width of each piece? Fortunately, dumb luck made this almost a textbook exercise. The corner's circumference is eleven inches. If I were to use one-inch wide pieces how many pieces would I need? You, the kid in the back corner. That's right, eleven pieces. But how do you calculate the miter angle for each piece? If you glue together eleven pieces of lumber you have ten joints. A 90 degree angle divided by 10 equal joints would mean that each joint would have to be 9 degree corner. Since a corner is two equal miters, then the miter is 4.5 degrees.

    Am I smarter than a fifth grader or what?

    Alright, there's a bit more to it, like the fact that the face of the baseboard will have a larger circumference than the back, but a little guesstimating set the width of each piece to 1-1/8" at the face. Close enough.

    Construction was pretty routine except that clamping was a bit of chore once the curve extended past 30 degrees. So I constructed the baseboard as three sets. Then I assembled them around the jig I'd used to make the knife to construct that plaster corner: a plastic bucket. A strap clamp held the pieces snug while the glue dried.

    It still needs cap and shoe mouldings and, of course, it would look better actually attached to the wall. More to come.


  • I actually do have house stuff to blog about

    Posted by Steve on Fri, 05/18/2007 - 11:53pm


    After all, it's been almost two weeks since my last blog post. However, I like to accompany my renovation articles with photos and the bedroom is currently an eyesore while I reorganize closets and get rid of clothes I've had since my disco show band days. No way am I posting photos of it now.

    A fair question would be why I'm reorganizing closets when I haven't finished the bedroom reno yet. I have a long closet that connects the two bedrooms. That's where I stuffed everything when I began this project. Now I have to lay a new floor in there. Being the well-prepared guy that I am, I didn't cover the clothes when I started the reno so they're buried under plaster and saw dust. I've been washing clothes for the last three days and hanging them in the new cedar closet. I can almost see the floor now.

    Even if disco comes roaring back, I don't think my 28" waistline will. Maybe St Theresa's church can find something useful to do with my purple and green palm tree motif silk shirt. I can't believe the nightmarish crap I used to wear on stage but there are needy neighborhoods in Brooklyn that haven't left 1980 sooo.. burn the disco down, Tony!

    (Nice segue to the fire, dood)

    Earlier this week, I was walking the pooches in the park down the block when I saw a fire engine with its lights flashing. I stopped to check it out because they had the hose on full blast. I thought it was a car fire but it turned out they were just breaking in a new rookie nozzle guy. They were spraying down the sidewalk. Man, what a power washer!

    The firefighters were casually rolling up hose when I heard a radio call over their PA system.

    "Structure fire, XXXX Street, Third to Fourth. Multiple calls."

    Whoa, that's just a block from my place! The FDNY guys hustled on the truck and took off. Being the red-blooded male I am, I like stuff like this so the dogs and I quick-stepped the two blocks to the fire.

    Walking up the street I could see that "my" truck was the second to arrive. I also saw lots of black smoke. By the time the dogs and I made it there, there were at least eight trucks and organized chaos. It was a very nice, old, three story brownstone on an immaculate block full of million-dollar private homes. The ladder truck had already disgorged a bunch of firefighters on the roof and I could hear their saws spinning.

    What shocked me was that the house was for all practical purposes already gutted by the fire. The windows on the two top floors had burst from the heat and I could see nothing but charred blackness inside.

    This is a block where there are always people out front, tending to their gardens and stoop-hanging with their neighbors, especially on a nice day like that one, so I knew the 911 call had to have been made at the first whiff of smoke... probably less than ten minutes earlier. Nevertheless, the brownstone was all but a total loss inside.

    That's how quickly it can happen, folks.

    The first thing I did when I got home was change all the batteries in my smoke detectors, check the expiration dates on my extinguishers and clean up the mounting pile of flammable stuff near my breaker panel. Then I sat down and devised an evacuation plan for me, the two dogs and the two cats. Jack, the 94-pound newfie, is gonna be problematic.


  • Time to buy a bed

    Posted by Steve on Sun, 06/03/2007 - 10:15pm


    I can't freakin' believe it. All my tools are back in the shop where they belong, the paint's up, the room is clean, the nine-month saga of the master bedroom renovation.... so OVER!

    Okay, there are still a few things left to do: the cabinet drawers and doors, the hallway stained glass windows, the doorknobs. I'll get around to it.

    Over the last few weeks I've been finishing up the hallway, the two closets and my outside plantings. There's always a sense of closure when I lay that second coat of paint, especially after a nine month project. I used a wedgewood blue matte finish. It was down to that, salmon or a pale yellow. I couldn't decide so I just closed my eyes and picked one. I like it. It's sorta weird in these shots because the camera makes it look lighter than it really is.



    If you haven't followed the saga of the bedroom renovation, this is all new work, not woodwork refinishing. I tried to keep it period though and with the possible exception of the floor, I think it works. No sheetrock and clamshell moulding here!



    It's time to reflect back on the lessons I learned. At the top of the list is, don't use engineered floors if you have big, energetic dogs. The floors already look like they're five years old (I'll post some shots later). The engineered floors held up well in my office but I have a plastic chair mat and there's not enough room in there for the dogs to get nuts. I really should have gone with solid hardwood flooring, which would have been cheaper anyway.

    Secondly, I'm not sorry that I built that curved plaster corner on the closet. I'd never done one before and I think it's a nice detail. But, man, between the plaster, the baseboard complexities and the cedar paneling inside the closet, I probably spent two weeks just dealing with the annoying geometry.

    This room was orginally two bedrooms. The smaller one on the left was probably intended as the baby's room. I converted its doorway into a window opening so the hallway will get light from the south-facing window in that room. It will get a pair of stained glass windows.

    Yeah, I know I need door knobs. I actually ordered a whole bunch of amber knobs, locksets and brass plates five years ago but I dropped one on a tile floor, shattering it. No spares either. And now I can't find the company I got them from.

    The cedar closet turned out pretty well, even if I can't hold a camera level. What you can't discern from the shot is that there's a six foot wide cedar shoe rack at the bottom/back of the closet.

    What you also can't tell from the shot is that closet is actually quite a bit wider than it looks. It extends three feet beyond that intersecting wall, where the old closet used to be, and it's 'L' shaped. My neighbor, Betsy, calls that 'L' my "panic room" but it managed to fit all my retired musical gear, including two huge speaker cabinets.

    I've been referring to this project as my master bedroom renovation but it also included the hallway and an existing walk-through closet (also cedar). The hallway walls only have primer on them because my next project is to rebuild the funky and crumbling skylight over the stairs. I'll be breaking out the stained glass tools for that. It's also a bit involved because the only way I can work on the skylight is to build a temporary scaffold.


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