• Into the closet

    Posted by Steve on Tue, 09/19/2006 - 8:50am

    I've been fighting a sore throat and sniffles all day, but I'm tired of my belly aching. That's why I'm so behind bloody schedule here.

    Yesterday, I got the rough framing done for the new closet in the master bedroom. Well, almost done. I thought I had the 4" lags and shields I needed for the upper cabinet's deck support. Because these houses don't have attics, I need to build one for dead storage. There will be two levels in this closet, with cabinet doors on top.

    I want a profiled corner on the closet, not a square edge. This will make a softer return back to some oak built-ins I have planned for the space on the left (four 42" drawers and a linen cabinet above).

    The curved corner top and bottom plates were made from 3/4" scrap plywood. I made a circle from a tracing of my drill press table, then scribed the inner diameter with a compass.

    You might notice something odd about the top plates. I like using metal track in lumber framing, at least in situations like this where I have to frame a wall in place. It's unconventional but I have my reasons.

    One: despite well-meaning friends, I invariably wind up doing these jobs by myself and metal track is a lot easier to handle on a ladder than 2-by lumber. Another reason is because the metal channel applies friction against the side of the stud to hold it in place. This lets me do my stud spacing comfortably on the floor. Then I nail/screw in the bottom of all the studs. I set the plumb while standing on a ladder. The metal track makes that easier as well because it holds the stud lightly in place as I tap it into plumb. A couple of fine-threaded screws through the track attaches the stud at the top. Done.

    Metal track also means that you don't have to be as precise with cutting stud lengths. If a stud is 1/8" short, the track will still grab it. If the wall and floor are splayed a bit, no problem. You won't have to toss a stud or wedge it with a shim because you cut it a hair too short. But what it mainly means is saving time. You can cut all your studs at once, slip them into the track, do your alignment, plumb and fasten.

    Even though I've got a nice Hitachi framing nailer, I like to toenail studs with coated deck screws. Screws give me the option of fixing measuring mistakes or changing my mind. Things that look great on paper don't always make it when you see them in context, like the position of a wall opening. Also, the Hitachi has so much torque that if the nail hits a knot it can kick the stud out of plumb by an inch or more. I have two Dewalt cordless drills; one loaded with a bit to predrill the pocket hole and one with a screwdriver bit.

    I'm also a fan of construction adhesive, particularly when working on old houses like this one. You never know if the nail/screw you just drove into the wall planted itself in a cracked or dry rotted 100 year-old joist. It's a little bit of cheap insurance is all.

    My next task is to retrieve the leftover drywall and A/D plywood my neighbor is giving me from his five month repairs following a basement fire. Actually, my next task is to hit the sack with a warm beverage and a bottle of C and beat this bug. It's strange. Every time I rip down plaster here I seem to come down with a cold or flu a couple of days later. Sometimes I wonder what ancient, sleeping diseases are lurking behind these old walls.

  • Plague Walls

    Posted by Steve on Mon, 09/25/2006 - 10:30am

    With great reluctance, I pulled myself out of my sick bed to get back to the master bedroom renovation, which means more demolition. Lovely.

    A couple of hours later Karen called to see how her patient was doing. Karen's an anesthesiologist who had to leave medicine because of a severe latex allergy. So she takes things like breathing both personally and professionally. When I told her I was ripping down old woodwork and plaster I thought her hands were going to zoom through the phone and strangle me, Bugs Bunny style.

    "Are you <bleeping> nuts, you stupid <bleep>?! Do you want bronchitis or pneumonia? Do you want your lungs full of mold spores while you're still fighting off a fever?"

    Message received. I told her I'd stop and hung up promising to go back to bed. I just didn't say when. I went back to work, making a note to look out the window every few minutes to check for her car.

    As usual, she was right. Even with a fresh mask I lasted about another hour before I started coughing like a coal miner. I knocked off, showered (I'm glad I installed that steam generator) and had just crawled back into bed when the doorbell rang. It was Karen. Talk about cutting it close.

    Anyway, I got this much done.

    What you don't see is the mess that was living behind this woodwork. Really fine spooge, like grey talcum powder mixed with sand. To avoid stirring up dust sweeping it I decided instead to use the central vacuum to clean out the cavities as I opened each one of them up. My vac, a VacuFlo, is one of those bagless tornado action units that exhausts the really fine dust outside, under my back deck. After sucking up a pile of this stuff I went into the office to answer an instant message summons when something caught my eye out the window in my back yard.

    Omigod, FIRE!! The back yard was full of billowing grey smoke belching from what appeared to be my basement. I ran downstairs in a panic, yelling at the dogs to pack their milkbones. But the basement was fine. It was dust from my central vac's exhaust port. Whoa. I figured that it probably wasn't in the best interests of public health to keep doing this. I managed to completely fill the vac's six-gallon collector bucket too.

    Back to the renovation, the idea here is to get rid of that steam radiator on the left by tucking a pair of smaller radiators in soffits under the windows. I have a plumber friend coming by this week to size the units I need to buy. The soffit facades have to be easily removable because steam radiators require periodic replacement of their air valves.

    What I'll probably do is frame out boxes under the windows using 2x3s and face it with red oak panels containing removable grills. I also have to insulate around those windows as well.

    This week I want to get those radiators in, finish the closet framing and complete demolition in this room. That's what I want to do anyway. My plumber friend is a little slow returning calls and I have to stage my demolition projects because Sanitation will take only so many bundles from me twice a week. The last time I left a huge pile of contruction debris for DoS they wrote "Balls!" with a magic marker on my garbage can and left without taking anything.

  • The Most Painful Free Drywall In the World

    Posted by Steve on Tue, 09/26/2006 - 1:27pm

    Yesterday, I got the framing completed in the new closet so it was time to fetch the free drywall my friend, John, around the corner had offered to me.

    John is another home renovation tyromaniac. In fact, I wouldn't have found this place if not for him. He was the former NYC City Register so I had a complete history on this place a few hours after its former owner had mentioned to John that he was thinking of selling.

    John knew I was looking for a cheap fixer-upper with a garage for my bikes. He called me, I rushed down here from Manhattan on my Triumph, did a quick inspection, negotiated a selling price and snagged a commitment from the owner before he had a chance to contact a real estate agent. Then I waited nine months to close, but that's another story.

    John and Joyce did a fantastic renovation job on their old house. He's a woodworker from way back and, like me, he opted for restoration rather than rehab. Joyce has an artistic decorating eye that I lack. Their house always feels like, I dunno... Christmas.

    Anyway, John and Joyce are a rare breed: home owners who actually completed their renovation. Just last year, in fact. Then they experienced a homeowner's worst nightmare: FIRE!

    This past February, John couldn't sleep and went downstairs around 3am for a glass of milk when he saw smoke. The power went out a few seconds later. He woke his wife, called 911 and they exited the house into the sub-freezing night.

    The firehouse is only a block away so FDNY appeared in a couple of minutes. They quickly extinguished the basement blaze, then ripped down Joyce's tastefully sponge-painted walls and John's wild cherry woodworking on the first and second floors to make sure the fire hadn't chimneyed in the uninsulated interior walls. Even though they regretted the loss of their years of hard work, they felt very lucky. The fire had moved incredibly quickly. FDNY's inspector said that if the truck had been a minute or two later the house would have been a total loss.

    Nevertheless, the basement, including his shop, was completely destroyed along with all his tools. Almost nothing survived the fire, heat, smoke and water. The culprit was an old Con Ed feeder line which had inexplicably shorted out. It's one of the few things he hadn't replaced.

    They had to move out of the house for the next five months, mostly to repair smoke damage. Their insurance company, USAA, really came through for them. They had a general contractor in the house within two weeks. Literally everything that wasn't nailed down... and even some stuff that was... was removed and shipped out to be professionally cleaned. Walls were torn down, the brick scrubbed clean and sealed and new walls rebuilt. New hot water heating was installed. New electrical too. And of course a new basement.

    It gave me a newfound respect for fire, especially the damage of radiant heat. PVC pipes were literally sagging like wet spaghetti from the ceiling forty feet away from the source of the fire. But the crayons on his Jet table saw only five feet away from the arcing electrical short were pristine. They were shielded from the radiant heat by the saw's blackened fence.

    I spent a week reorganizing my shop to get everything remotely flammable away from the Con Ed service entrance. I also installed two smoke detectors and two portable extinguishers on each floor.

    But this is a digression from the story. The point is, John has left over building materials from the rebuild so he's giving them to me, including the five sheets of drywall I need for the master bedroom renovation. Last night I dropped by to pick them up. John's hip isn't in the best of shape so I offered to bring another neighbor to help me. John wouldn't hear of it.

    Weaseling that drywall out of his tight, twisty basement entrance was like trying to thread a needle with welder's gloves. I managed to re-injure my right elbow in the process. Then rather than walk the drywall around the corner to my house sheet by sheet John suggested that we use his hand truck instead. I knew that was a bad idea but I also saw that his hip was hurting him. So we loaded the five sheets of drywall on the hand truck vertically. We didn't get a foot before I knew this was an even worse idea than I had anticipated.

    The leverage of those vertical 4x8s meant that I had what felt like 250 pounds sitting on top of my head while simulaneously trying to keep the hand truck from zooming away from me. I say "I" because, while John tried to help, I'm about six inches taller than he is so the rock was resting on my head. Trying to muscle the handtruck to keep it vertical while still moving forward was a bitch. I knew I was gonna pay for it this morning.

    We also couldn't see where we were going. We hit a low tree branch and had to back up the sidewalk, and I mean "up" because I live on a hill street. We moved into the road against oncoming traffic we couldn't see. I was waiting to get centerpunched by some cellphone-yakking SUVer any second.

    We succeeded but today I've got aches in places I didn't even know I had. On a more positive note, my throbbing elbow doesn't hurt as much because my neck and shoulders feel like a tree fell on them.

    Tonight, I go back for the plywood. Sigh.

  • You don't know until you try

    Posted by Steve on Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:09am

    The guys at Kamco were right. Quarter-inch drywall can curve to a minimum five-foot radius, dry. Wetting/scoring it can reduce that to as little as three feet "if you're really good!" The problem is, the radius of this corner is about ten inches. That's even too shallow for High Flex, which I could only get by special order and only in palette quantities anyway.

    The story of this closet starts here. I could have saved myself a lot of problems if I'd just built a square corner on that closet. But I really wanted a radius here to match two other curved walls in the room as well as one in the hallway leading into the bedroom. I haven't even started thinking about how I'm gonna do the 9" red oak baseboard moulding around that curve. I imagine there will be a few blog entries about that ordeal too.

    Anyway, I bought two sheets of 1/4" drywall at Kamco, one for experimentation and one for production. I sliced one sheet up into the 14" panels I needed, scored the backs and stuck them in my steam shower for an hour. But that didn't give me the flex I needed so I poured warm water on them for about 15 minutes. As soon as I took them out of the bath I knew it wasn't going to work. The panels crumbled about halfway to the radius I needed. Drat!

    So, Yet Another Plan B. I'm going to attempt to make the curve with plaster and a home-made plaster knife cut to the radius I need. It will have wings to rest on the surrounding 1/2" drywall.

    I sliced up the remaining 1/4" drywall into 4" strips and screwed them to the studs giving me a sort of octagonal profile. Then I took a rasp and eased the corners on those panels so they'll be below the profile I need. Because the surrouding drywall is 1/2" this should give me the foundation I need to build up that curve with plaster. Then I taped everything together using plaster (not joint compound) and crosshatched it with a taping knife to give the next coat something to key to.

    The next job is a run to Lowes to see if they have a plaster bonding agent like PlasterWeld. I also need to look for some material I can use to make that plaster profiling knife. At the moment, all I can think of is masonite with a couple of coats of sealer on the edge to reduce friction.

    It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to get me in the ballpark. As the saying goes, "there ain't no f*ck up that a sander can't fix up". I'm just dreading that job with my lungs still congested from my recent bad cold.

    I'm going to have to retard the heck out the plaster to give me a good working time. I usually use white vinegar for this, although milk works in a pinch.

    A neighbor asked why I don't just do this with joint compound. Joint compound is just liquid dust. When dry, large accumlations of joint compound have almost no hardness or grip.

  • A hundred pounds of plaster later...

    Posted by Steve on Fri, 10/06/2006 - 12:33pm

    It worked! It took four days, three fifty pound bags of plaster, a makeshift profiling knife and a couple of finish coats but the radiused closet corner is done.

    There was only one mishap. Jack the Dog, my Newfoundland, was standing at the base of the ladder looking up at me when about 8 ounces of wet plaster fell off my palette and landed squarely on his head and muzzle. Against his black fur it looked like he'd been smacked in the face with a custard pie. So there was a quick diversion to the back yard for a bath before the plaster dried. He took both ordeals in good spirit but when I got back my batch of plaster was hard as a rock. So I had to run out for another bag.

    If you're new to our three-part closet drama, Episode One was the framing. It was followed by the exciting tragedy in Part Two: the skinning, or the Drywall Strikes Back.

    Anyway, I cut my homemade knife to the profile I needed from a scrap of masonite. I gave it a couple of coats of urethane to seal the open edge and to keep the wet plaster from sticking to it. I drew a vertical pencil line on the wall as a guide for the outside edge of the knife. Then I painted two coats of Quikrete bonding adhesive on the wall.

    Plaster should be applied over a tacky bonding agent so before the second coat dried I mixed up a bag and a half of plaster and water spiked with a half cup of white vinegar to retard the plaster from setting too quickly. I made the mix a little wetter than normal so the knife wouldn't gouge the plaster.

    I started from the bottom of the wall, laying in a thick bed of plaster about three feet at a time. Despite the retardant, I had to work quickly. When wet plaster hits dry plaster it seems to reduce the working time to a handful of minutes.

    The first coat looked bloody awful -- like the surface of the moon -- but the profile was perfect. I let it dry overnight, painted on more bonding adhesive and repeated with most of the remaining plaster to fill in the large voids.

    After that dried, I sanded down the rough spots with 100 grit and an orbital sander attached to the central vac. (The vacuum's exhaust port also laid down a thin coat of fine white dust all over my back yard... the spider webs under the deck looked amazing). Then I mixed up the last of the plaster and troweled on a thin, wet finish coat.

    There was a final sanding and a cosmetic touch up with joint compound then...

    My first architectural plaster! And hopefully my last.

    Was it worth all this time and work? Certainly not, but I could say the same about most of my obsessive projects here and that doesn't stop me. I just wouldn't want to do it again.

    But it blends in better with the existing upstairs walls, which I realized only recently don't have any square outside corners.

    My plumber friend showed up and sized the replacement radiator for me: 19x32. When I learned how much this chunk of cast iron weighed, I decided to hire a plumbing company to do the job. That plumber specced a whole different radiator called an "element". He said my friend specced a radiator that's both too small to be used in a convection application like this as well as a size which isn't made anyway.

    Total price for this job is a whopping $989. Yikes! The element alone costs $500 and weighs 300 pounds. I know that Sessa Plumbing ain't cheap but they do excellent work.

    After some mental back/forth about whether to do the job myself, I fell back on my Sun Tzu mantra: pick your battles. In this case, lugging a 300 pound radiator up two flights of stairs is something I can't do, especially with my still-healing elbow, nor is it something I want someone without insurance to do.