Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The lessons from a little screw

The first time I encountered cement tile-backer-board was about 1980.  A friend's brother was attempting to remodel a house and gotten himself in way over his head.  So we went to give him a hand and the job of the day was laying floor tile.  The recipe was backer-board over plywood and subfloor, then thinset, and then tile.  The ply was already well-screwed down when we arrived so installing backer-board was the first order of business.  Keep in mind that this product is essentially a thin portland cement slab wrapped in a fiberglass envelope.  This makes it very heavy so it usually comes in a 3' x 5' (92 cm x 153 cm) sheets, unlike drywall that comes in 4' x 8' (or 12') [122 cm x 244 cm (or 366 cm)]  Since most framing in USA is based on 2' centers, 3' x 5' material doesn't match all that many spaces.  So to install cement backer, you will soon need to make a bunch of cuts.

The instructions at the time assured us that we could install backer using the same methods as used to hang drywall—utility knives and screws.  Supposedly, if you scored the sheet through the fiberglass layer, if would break just like drywall.  And drywall screws would snug up just fine.  Well, no.  Between the fiberglass and the cement underneath, a knife blade lasted about two cuts and the cement had a tendency to crumble at the break line.  The latter problem was so serious, any cut less than 2" (5 cm) from the edge of the material was effectively impossible.  I took one look at the cutting problem and volunteered to screw the pieces down.  Turns out that was problem two: drywall screws are not strong enough to countersink their bugle-shaped heads into a slab of cement.  You would just about get the screw to set when the head would twist off—not such a tragedy if it broke off well below the surface of the backer-board but a major headache if it snapped just above the surface.  Then the problem was somehow backing out the busted shaft with nothing to grip.

When I discovered that the plans for our project included cement backer, I cringed at the memory and determined that I would only proceed if there were better solutions for both the cutting and screwing parts of the installation.  As for cutting, the folks at Bosch have developed a carbide-tipped blade for their hand-held jig saws designed especially for backer.  They wanted over $20 for the thing but as my Bosch jigsaw is one of my favorite tools, that decision was easy.  The better screws were also a revelation.  Apparently, I am not the only person who cursed drywall screws for backer installation because someone has devoted an incredible amount of clear thinking to the problem.

The local supply store devotes a whole aisle to specialty screws.  There are stainless steel screws for fastening outdoor treated-wood decking and different screws for composite decking.  There are finish screws that actually replace finish nails. And hiding in this vast array of goodies were the backer screws.  They are teflon-coated to ease their way through the fiberglass layer.  They have square drives which transmit torque without all the down pressure required to keep phillips screws engaged.  And best of all, they have little ridges on the underside of the head which "drill" their own countersink holes.  Yes they wanted $9 for a box of 150 and a drive point, but considering how well they worked, they would have been a bargain at five times the price.

One of the reasons I do projects like this is that they remind me of just how different the Producer Classes really are.  Here are two excellent examples of how they create prosperity.  Cement backer-board is by far the best mounting surface for ceramic tile.  Yet because it was so difficult to work with, there were probably many projects that created seriously expensive waste, and in the case of DIY projects, some were probably abandoned because the going got so tough.  And yet a simple blade and some truly innovative screws turned this irksome task into something that smoothly built to a satisfying and morale-building conclusion.  It is clever little designs like this that are the true engines of human progress.

And if you really want a nice tile job, it should look like this at some earlier stage.  The house framing was still remarkably square after 58 years which is good because tile is very unforgiving when it comes to getting it straight.

And yes, the insulation disaster has been fixed.  2" ridged foam was cut to create a force-fit between the framing and then 50-year silicone caulk was used to compensate for any future problems caused by expansion / contraction.  On top of that, a layer of aluminum-backed foam was placed at a 90° angle to provide a thermal break on top of the studs.  Not surprisingly, even though it was already below freezing outside, the room got dramatically warmer as it was buttoned up.  Hopefully, long hot baths will stay longer and hotter.


  1. Inspiring stuff, thank you. Was starting to worry what might have happened to you the last couple of days.

  2. Same thing with me about worying.
    And now off topic to crack the usual monotony of the perception of everyday life.
    A little bit of male rationalty which is just remote connected with this.
    Have you ever tasted red pill? I know mr Larson usually writes about red pill truths conserning economy, but economy is inevietably affected by male-female relations. If you don't understand those relation, you'll never know what was the primal spark that lead to all this (relatively speaking) modern-day economic prosperity. In order to understand that, there's good starting point:
    I know it usually doesn't fit into the ordinary leftist narrative which deas with the opression of women but it's stil cool. It is never too late to understand the rules that guide the world around you. Enjoy one more red pill truth on other subject unavoidably connected with economy.

  3. And several more things. Mr Larson, from my personal standpoint, seems to be a good old man full with excellent economic and life advices to youngsters such is me. I read Veblen years ago, but only on this blog it was fully disclousured to my by mr Larson what really Veblen thought and what all of us have to do in our lives in order to avoid unproductive lifestyle and social parasitism. That line of life philosophy have shifted the priorities of my life forever. Althought not being Protestant myself (I'm actually Ignostic), I really appreciate protestant/lutheran strong emphasis on values of constant hardwork toward productive goals and honesty in interpersonal/business relations. I'm convinced that are the values which should be followed by the rest of the world uncondittionally. That's the ultimate reciepe for eternal world peace and constant technological progress.
    On the other hand, I think I'm lucky I have discovered the red pill philosophy in this age (beside Veblen, of course). For me personally, it helped me with girls a lot.
    With all the benefits the highly developed economy provides, it seems that increased comfort of those days inevitably eradicates masculinity. And that's not good for economy because then men are loosing motivation to work, and even more importantly, to invent. Over 95% of patents males did. Without the active tension on sexual market - patents are going to die off.To simply put it, most of guys just don't know what to do to gain the attraction of the opposite sex/gender. So there's a small but steady rise in so called MGTOW social movement. That's bad trend given the previously descirebed situation. Since the dawn of the early humans, human psycho-sexual dynamics played a major roll in the development of civilisation. And now, thanks to increased life comfort (which is the product of modern high-end technology and isn't bad per se) and insane (maybe even malicious?) public policies which doesn't consern scientific findings on nature of gender relations but only takes into account the ridiculous talking points of the third and fourth wave of feministic ideology, the entire economy of developed countries is crumbling apart due to low fertility rate and unrestrained immigration. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that you mr Larson explained very well, but I don't want to adress them now.

  4. And the last one thing. A little bit personal. It seems to me that you, mr Larson, you are a typical representative of post WW2 baby boomer generation. Beside that, reading your bio, I've gotten impression that you're also a typical represent of scandinavian beta males which skills and brainpower (beside imported scientists) were building the american industrial giant during the cold war. I'm just guessing, but your divorce seems to me as result of insufficient knowledge on how women really think and what they really like. Just guessing.
    So, what's the ultimate point of all of this writting? I'm sure that's impossible to separate human psychosocial dynamics from the actual economic processes. In my humble opinion, under the light of recent findings on human psychological sexual nature, the final goal of economy should not be the achievment of endless and unconditional resource abundance as, for instance was promoted by Joan Robinson, but to set up economic mechanism by which productive synergy of all human activities (familiar, sexual, creative, social and so on) can unrestraindly take place. The point I want to articulate is that, during evolution, the behaviour of the human beigns evolved and can be functionally correct only under regime of BOTH scarcity and abundance. Every end of that spectrum can and will lead an average human beign to unhappiness and usual genetic flow will be disruppted either by distinction caused by scarcity or by rise in selfish behavior due to hypergamy of the next generation of humans living in some dream world which possess plenty resources.
    Maybe sounds crazy (like my writing over here :)), but I think the blog written by Rollo Tomassi is worth of consideration when it comes to understanding of the mutual relation of the sexual market and the actual state economy market.
    I really don't know why I wrote all of this. Maybe I just felt need to express my thoughts on some of topic you're dealing with. Who knows? Any contribution is better then none of it.
    Keep on good work and stay healthy

    1. I am so happy you find my blog useful and thought-provoking.

      Couple of points here. I have a woman in my life with whom I share a relationship that can withstand a bathroom remodeling project. (This is no small matter, I can assure you.) So I am not divorced.

      As for being a Nordic beta. If alpha males are people who can organize groups of people, can get folks to listen to them, and are go-to people whenever problems emerge, then I have plenty of alpha traits. But since I am not a football coach, or an army sergeant, and tend towards a pacifist solutions to virtually all problems, folks rarely think of me that way. You don't.

      But as Veblen taught with his famous Leisure Class / Industrial Class analysis, it is quite possible to have alpha personalities running Producer enterprises. Famous examples include Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs. As Institutional Analysis teaches, the main determinate of your beliefs and habits is mostly driven by how you choose to make a living. Those boundaries can accommodate a fairly wide range of personality types.

      The producer occupations contain a lot that are classified as women's work in most societies, so any man making waves in the Producer world usually has his macho belittled (The Big Bang Theory, anyone?) But as some of the major alphas of Producerdom like Werner von Braun or Kelly Johnson have shown, they can be as effective and charismatic as any Napoleon who ever strutted around on the world stage.

      One other note on Veblen; the feminists of his day considered him one of the good guys. As for his Instinct of Workmanship, women tend to have it in abundance. Considering how many of the women I have known who were walking examples of I of W, there are times when I believe they have a virtual monopoly on this premiere virtue of them all.