Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Re-upping my producer credentials

The one activity in my life that has been stimulating while bringing inner peace, that embodies the best of enlightenment thinking—especially the joys of intellectual freedom, that is both a teacher of great obstacles and great accomplishment, is building—the more difficult and complex, the better.  When I start a project with no plans but dozens of variables, I actually enter a "zone."

Unfortunately, building is also a serious physical activity so it's a young man's game for the most part.  Moreover, I am reasonably certain that I have already learned the important lessons building has to teach—after all, I have been making something or other since I was a little boy.  But our last move put us in a 1958 house so it has it's share of problems owing to its age and the level of skills that went into the original construction.

The most pressing problem concerned an aging bathroom with a shower that leaked through the floor every time it was used no matter how carefully the shower curtain was arranged.  Worse, the leak had eluded several serious attempts at a fix so whatever was wrong, finding and repairing it would not be easy.  On the other hand, this was a simple replace-fixtures-and-surfaces fix.  We would not be moving walls or pipes for an assortment of reasons including cost.  A tricky fix combined with very modest decoration goals sounded right up my alley because it required more brains than brawn.

So for perhaps my last time, I decided to rebuild a bathroom.  I have done at least 15 before so I did know what I was getting into.  But I am 65 and the floor seems a long ways away these days.  I would soon discover why I stopped doing this sort of thing in my 40s.  Yet, I figured that if I paced myself, there were still some lessons to be gleaned by this sort of problem-solving.

Fix the leak

This was the ugly reality.  The mold and yuk growing in the cracks of that ugly plastic "tile" demonstrated deeper woes.  The additional "tile" near the top was also a plastic fake but without joints to leak.  Add in some globs of caulk, and it was apparent someone had at least tried to fix this leak—more than once.

In fact the wall surfaces had been leaking for so long, the plaster had begun to rot.  This is how much I could pull free using only a gloved hand.

When the tub came up and the plaster removed, the leak had actually destroyed the floorboards and the bottom of the stud on the left.

The rot had even damaged the wall's baseplate.

Start by replacing the old floorboards

A cripple and a sister and the rotten stud has been repaired.

The floor would be tiled so a .75" (19 mm) exterior-grade plywood subfloor was laid.  The room was small so two sheets covered.  Lots of tricky cuts to make everything fit.  It was screwed down with course anodized screws long enough to penetrate the floor joists.

The leaky corner next to mother duck's tail.  Turns out the problem all along was that the original tub was installed with this corner low.  So instead of the water running down the shower wall and back into the tub, it traveled along the edge and then ran down the wall.  We set the new tub in cement so we got it level.  BTW, I am pretty proud of that nifty tile cut that follows the shape of the new tub.

Wheelchair / walker accessible

This bathroom was very cramped.  The door was only 24" (61 cm) wide and worse, swung inward.  Not only did this take up valuable floor space, but it meant if anyone fell against the door, getting help into the room would become very difficult.  However cute that vanity was when new, time and neglect had nearly destroyed it.  Since the walls were not going anywhere, widening the door meant installing a much narrower vanity and sink

Custom vanity with sink from IKEA.  8" (20 cm) more space makes a BIG difference.

The old wall was damaged.  Rather than fix it, we chose to cover it with a mirror.  This meant installing the wall sconces through the mirror itself.  Wasn't especially tricky and the outcome is very nice.

This sink really only gets used for hand washing and toothbrush rinsing so it's lack of depth is not a problem.

Enlarge a door and changes must be made to the walls on both sides.  In this case, redoing the outside "only" required stripping off some truly ugly wallpaper, repainting the plaster and refinishing some trim.

New products

PVC-based corner tape.  Not so long ago, an outside corner was created using metal corner bead while an inside corner was created using paper tape, mud, and someone skilled with a corner trowel.  The product below replaced both inside and outside corners, is made from a fiber form of PVC so will not rust, cuts with a scissors, and is ridged enough so that those inside corners don't need a skilled hand with a corner trowel (which is really good for someone who doesn't do this very often.)

Backer screws.  These insanely clever screws made hanging the tile backer-board a pleasure.  I have posted about these before. link

The backer board installed

Spar urethane.  Remember when spar varnish was the best finish for wooden boats?  Well, this is the urethane version and it is supposed to be waterproof.  It is very low VOC so you can barely smell it.  It dries in less than an hour.  And it really is clear as water.  It provided a spectacular finish.

LED light fixtures.  These are SO cool.  14 watts.  550 lumens.  20,000 hour projected life.  3200°  Dimmable.  Even better, the light doesn't change color when dimmed.  Mounted through a mirror so they really do light up the whole room.

Better toilet.  Easy to clean.  Low water usage.  And 2" higher so it is easier to get up.


3M sandpaper.  I have been using 3M sandpaper since forever but they have really upgraded their line.  The green paper is for stripping off old finishes, while the brown is for sanding between finishes.  Both are considerably more expensive than the papers they replaced.  Both last far longer which means where you really gain is the time and tedium of swapping paper.

Tile drill bit.  Mounting the grab bars meant drilling holes in ceramic tile.  This used to be a nasty chore and holes drilled too close to the edge of a tile could easily crack one.  The longer old-style bit had "wings" sticking out of the tip made of carbide.  The new one is essentially a carbide arrowhead on the end of a shaft.  The tip's curve is long.  In practice, this means the bit is easier to start and stay centered as it gracefully punches a very clean hole in the hardest tile.

Vibrating saw.  These things did not even exist when I last built.  Now there are dozens of models.  This one cost $30, was variable speed, and had an LED light aimed at the cutting edge.  Our bathroom had plaster with corners reinforced with steel mesh.  Since we were keeping some walls and the ceiling, that embedded mesh had to be cut.  After several false and messy starts, I found this tool.  Problem solved in two hours.

Mud mixer.  We needed to mix thinset and grout.  The old-style mixer was this paddle made of metal.  It did the job after a fashion.  But if you hit the side of the mixing bucket, it tended to scrape out some plastic.  With this mixer, it scraped the walls and bottom of the bucket like a spatula so everything was mixed thoroughly.  It was very fast.

Nasty problems

Making the floor stiff enough to support a porcelain tile properly also made it slightly higher than the hardwood floor in the hallway.  A threshold that would ease the transition from the two surfaces was necessary.  A shape that would accommodate the tile was first fabricated from .75" (19mm) stock.  But that was too thick so material had to be removed.  With a good planer, this would be a snap but that is usually only found at a good millwork.  So I took off the correct amount with a router,

Perfect fit!

The tile side was set in clear silicone caulk and the joint is centered on the door.

Nordic hinge arrangement.  Since the original door jambs were this beautiful solid red oak, we went out of our way to keep them.  But since we only had one door to hang, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way—with a chisel and hammer.  And since I was going to all this trouble, I decided to set the hinges in a Nordic pattern.  No, the hinges are not symmetrical.  But yes, the load is better supported at the top which should slow the sagging common to traditional hinge arrangements.

Note the exquisite grain pattern.  Note how well that spar urethane sets it off.  The advantage of buying at a big-box home store is they let you pick through the pile.  This is an extremely nice $30 door.

Lever lock.  There are still a bunch of doorknobs in USA.  The reason is simple.  A mechanism that keeps the lever level requires sturdier materials and springs.  Doorknob-cheap levers quickly look pretty trashy.  This lever was purchased online for $50 and is very solid.  Between this lockset, those solid jambs, and that hollow door, this door closes with a very satisfying thunk.

Tile layout.  Big tiles on small floors make for some interesting design choices. Normally, it isn't a good idea to have a row of slivers like on the right.  But since that row would be under the vanity, the advantage of having a full row abutting the bathtub and another centered on the window was just too tempting.  Yes, the debate on how this tile should be laid lasted FAR too long.

Energy efficient.  We took this opportunity to upgrade the insulation package for the room.  This was covered in a pervious post.  link

Lots of grab bars.  Actually there are four of them.  They are rated for 300# (136 kg.) but you could probably tow the house off the foundation with them.  We lucked out with the two in this picture.  It is extremely easy to step into the tub while keeping one's weight directly over the feet.

Little projects-big junk.  Yes, even little construction projects make for lots of waste.  We made our bathroom safer, easier to use, and more energy efficient but...  Anyone who ever says going green is easy is obviously lying.

The lesson learned

While the folks designing goods for the DIY market have not been advancing their art as dramatically as say, the digital imaging or smartphone guys, they have improved their wares quite a bit since I last built a bathroom.  I kept thinking, "Imagine if the Leisure Class arts (economics, politics, law, international relations) would have improved as dramatically in the past 25 years as the skills, methods, and products of the Producing Classes."


  1. Wonderful, through, fascinating. You are so kind and generous to share all that good information.

    It looks great! And all the new stuff available now is an encouraging an otherwise increasingly discouraging world of unsafe and unhappy future prospects for so many.

    1. My great dilemma. On one hand, I KNOW that a much better world could be built. On the other, I often despair when I realize how damn easy it is for the bad guys to wreck things and how willing they are to do it.

  2. Very nice! Glad to lend advice when i could.