Every place I've ever lived has been designed for that "average American family," with lots of bedrooms, living room, dining room, family room, etc. The problem was that I was a single person, not an average family. I needed space, but for hobbies, not people. And because I'm over 6'2", bending over to use sinks designed for children was a constant frustration. Over the years, I collected a list of things I would change if I could have my dream house. As I approached retirement, I realized time was running out for that house; it was now or never.


Dreams are not always perfect, however. I could never afford my dream house, a spacious Southern California home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But I could afford a modest ranch house, with a 20-mile drive to the beach. It was a very long way from perfect, but it had potential.


This blog documents the process of turning that small average house into something that matches my lifestyle. It will be as close to my dream house as I can make it. I'm doing all the work myself to stretch my resources. By not hiring contractors, I can afford high quality materials, and I'll know the job is always done right. The remodeling will be my primary avocation for a few years, even as I try to fit in my writing and other hobbies.


It promises to be an interesting journey, and a challenging one!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

An Accidental Hiatus

Every so often I try to imagine what it would be like to have the house completely finished.  It’s hard to imagine that, because almost everywhere I turn, there are projects beyond my planning horizon.  And yet, sometimes I am startled by how much has already been accomplished. 

And then I realize that almost everybody else lives in a house that is “finished.”  Sigh.

My current unplanned break has given me a glimpse into what a “normal” life might be like.  But only a peep.

My modus operandi during the almost five years I’ve been working on my whole-house remodel/renovation has been to move from one major project to the next, not always in a logical order.  The last project completed was the kitchen countertop, which also enabled me to expand my daily routine with new menu items.  For example, since I now have a cooktop, I can make an omelet, or cook the new generation of vege-burgers (their molecular scientist developers like to call them “plant-based burgers”).  Moving toward greater normalcy, as it were — a theme this post explores. 

At the end of my last post I was dismantling the gluing frame for the countertop, so clearing out my garage for the car to move back into its rightful home.  I predicted that I would next be building cabinets for the pottery studio.  With those built, I could buy and install the electric kiln and reengage in one of my major hobbies — that of creating (or “throwing”) pots.  “Pots” includes all manner of clay creations — bowls, vases, cat dishes, etc. 

Didn’t happen. 

As I was preparing to order more plywood for the new cabinets, a wildfire broke out just to my south — the Lilac Fire.  It grew.  I spent the first day watching the continuous TV coverage.  The major highway I used to get to Home Depot was closed for several days.  That was the incident that began my hiatus from my major project routine — an accident, to be sure.  The fire started at the side of I-15, probably when somebody threw a cigarette out a car window on that hot windy day.

So I reverted to little projects, like working on building drawers, repotting plants, cooking new menu items . . .

I saw that a couple of the gourmet chefs who are selling the new vege-burgers in their many-star restaurants were putting sliced avocados on them, and, as it happens, the avocado trees I planted now have fruit on them.  But when to pick?  Research required. 


Avocados don’t ripen on the tree.  They “mature,” and then stay good for weeks or months on the tree.  But once the mature avocados are picked, they ripen within about four to eight days (and then start to go bad).

I have two trees — Fuerte and Hass.  The pear-shaped Fuerte were the first commercial variety, but they have thin skins and therefore do not ship well.  Hass avocados have thicker skins that tolerate being transported long distances, and so they are now the predominate commercial variety by far.  Hass are oval and have bumpy skins, and mature in the spring (more or less).


Many people think the Fuerte are a bit better to eat.  Fuerte mature mid-winter (this is southern California — 80˚ yesterday), so I’m starting with them.  And yes, good on a burger!  Or a salad . . .


Now that I was off-stride, and perhaps enjoying the break, thoughts of visiting the dog beach intruded, so off we went.  (More fun than scraping old paint off overhead eves.)


And while my mind was off its remodeling rails, I explored other interests.  I’ve been an electric vehicle (EV) enthusiast for more than ten years, waiting and waiting for the “perfect” EV that would last me for a long, long time.  It’s actually part of the same plan as the ideal house — pursuing harmony in my life.

I have had a reservation for a Tesla Model 3 for almost two years, and while that basic car is wonderful, it has features I would have trouble living with — for example, the glass roof (here in San Diego’s intense summer sun), which would not play nice with the dogs waiting in the car, even with windows open. 

My reservation for a dual-motor Model 3 will not mature until the end of 2018, in any case, and there are no other EVs coming soon that check all my boxes.  So I decided I could buy an inexpensive, compromise, used EV as an interim car, so I wouldn’t have to keep driving my gasser.  My gas-burner is nice enough, but not nearly as nice a driving experience as an electric car (which also charges in my garage).

More time on the internet.  I discovered that 2014 BMW i3s, coming off lease, could be had for a relative pittance.  The i3 was an early favorite of mine, and is a really nice EV — comfortable, good performance, responsive, and the first mass-market car to be made of light-weight carbon fiber (plus some aluminum and thermo plastic body panels).  It should last forever.  But it was two-wheel drive and had some quirks that put it out of contention as a “permanent” EV.  The first generation had an 81-mile EPA range (sufficient for my driving), while new EVs generally go 125 to more than 300 miles on a charge.  The current i3 goes about 120 miles on a charge, and by the end of the year, due to advances in battery tech, the next iteration of the i3 will have a range about double the first generation (with a battery the same size and weight). 

 
 The internet led me to a 2014 i3 I liked, at a big Toyota dealership in the southern environs of Los Angeles.  Drove the 60 miles up there, and spent a few very unpleasant hours reminding myself how wretched car dealerships can be.  Ended up without the i3, and decided I could live with my internal combustion car for awhile longer.

Electric vehicles can use the magnetic forces in their motors to slow the car as easily as they accelerate it; these dual functions are controlled by the same pedal (it’s called single-pedal speed control).  This magnetic braking can replace conventional friction braking 90% of the time.  When slowing the car, the motor behaves like a generator and charges the battery, enhancing efficiency.

Magnetic braking only works on the wheels driven by the motor.  Front-wheel-drive cars and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) cars therefore only have magnetic braking on two wheels.  For the most effective magnetic braking, the EV should have all-wheel-drive, which also gives you balanced four-wheel braking.

That’s why my optimal electric car will have motors on both axles.  It’s easy to put two motors in electric cars, because the motors are about the size of watermelons.  All Teslas either have two motors standard or as an option, and most of the upcoming premium EVs have motors on both axles.

I’ve written a number of articles on electric cars, plus this 3-page tutorial for friends and relatives on EV single-pedal speed control (one of their best features) in case you’re interested.  There's also a link on the first page of this blog.

So if the i3 and the Model 3 don’t work for me, what will?  And when?

After the Model 3, Tesla is planning a Model Y crossover built on the same platform, but they have not yet revealed what it will look like.  If it’s not too much taller than the Model 3, and has a solid roof and a hatch, that would be ideal.  Yay!  But, big if.  Expectations are that Tesla will unveil a Model Y prototype sometime during the first half of 2018, and that it will go into production in 2019 (or maybe 2020). 

Porsche is making a very impressive EV — now called the Mission E (not the final name) — that is set for production late-2019.  Camouflaged pre-production prototypes have been seen on German roads, and testing on the famous Nürburgring track.  I photoshopped away the camouflage in the picture below.  The AWD car checks all my boxes, and then some, but might be a little overkill for trips to the grocery store.  Sigh. 


After that, it has been reported that Volkswagen is planning an “AEROe” small sporty sedan with a liftback hatch for 2023 production.  Long time to wait, but battery technology continues to make good improvements in energy density, all while battery prices are dropping.  EVs are inherently much simpler than gasoline engine cars, require much less maintenance, and cost much less to operate.  Before too many years, they will also cost less to buy than combustion cars. 

But back to the house remodel.

Working on drawers at a relaxed pace.  Mostly more drawers for the waterbed base, but I also built the first kitchen drawer.  It’s one of the high side-loading drawers, and I’m happy with it (and looking forward to getting more of the 60+ kitchen drawers made).  It’s not surprising that most kitchens have doors on most of their cabinet storage spaces, because drawers are complicated to build, and while cheap drawer slides are often used, I’m paying about $17-$18 per pair for good quality full-extension drawer slides.  Soft-closing slides are significantly more. 

Photos of the kitchen drawer-shelf, closed and open:




 And the pottery studio cabinets?  Amazon initially told me the drawer slides I ordered for them would be delayed for a month, but just today said I would get them in a week, so hopefully the next post . . . 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Kitchen Countertop — Part 4

At long last, the kitchen countertop is done, and with it a proper kitchen sink and a cooktop.  I have been using the sink in the pottery studio as my "kitchen" sink, but that has involved a small hike to wash a few dishes or to wet a sponge to clean the stainless countertop.  I've been keeping a gallon bottle of water in the kitchen for drinking and cooking, but no more!

At the end of the last post, I had moved the countertop from the garage to the kitchen.  To fasten it to the cabinets, I used a silicone adhesive and screws (from the bottom).  After reading the directions to the silicone, I discovered I only had five minutes of open time to get the countertop clamped, so I drilled all the holes beforehand and started the screws.  (It really does pay to read the directions.)  Then the silicone went on.


I used three 54-pound retaining wall blocks as gravity clamps, then quickly tightened the screws (close to 20 of them).


After the silicone adhesive's 24-hour cure time, I installed the cooktop, setting it in the opening, and making the electrical connections (will be behind future drawers).


Then I used silicone caulk to fill the small gap between the sink and the countertop.  I intentionally left the gap so the caulk would make a good seal. 


I applied a coat of furniture paste wax to the countertop for further protection.  I'll add another coat before the clutter returns. 


I installed the faucet and made the water supply line connections.  While all of this was going on, I had been applying three coats of epoxy to the backsplash, and sanding (same as was done for the countertop).  The backsplash was installed to the wall with silicone adhesive, with a bead of silicone caulk under the bottom edge.  Done!


Time for recovery. — dismantling the glue-up frame in the garage, and cleaning it all up (so the car can return).  Pottery studio cabinets next. 


Monday, November 27, 2017

Kitchen Countertop — Part 3

Moving right along.  Well, not as fast as I would have liked.  The kitchen countertop has been going slowly, for various reasons, but there is now enough progress to report.  The countertop is finally done, but not yet installed.

In the last countertop post, I had finished laminating the first two sections (of three) and was waiting to buy some more maple before continuing.  With wood in hand, I finished laminating and planing all three sections to the same thickness.  Then I carefully epoxied them together, using biscuits to keep them aligned.


I had laminated the countertop longer than it would end up so that I could make clean and square cuts on both ends.  I considered doing this with a circular saw, but with the hard wood, guiding a perfectly straight cut would be near impossible.  I tried, but making a test cut outside of the line (fortunately).  Instead, I ended up using a router with a spiral carbide straight-cutting bit, guided with a straightedge.  Worked well.

After triming both ends of the countertop, I glued the thicker edge pieces on the front and one end:


Here's a closeup of the overhanging edge piece:


Then I used the same technique that worked well to trim the ends to cut out the openings for the sink and the cooktop.  Here I cut out the opening for the cooktop using a straightedge.


For the undermount sink, I had previously made a plywood template to perfectly fit the shape of the sink, and made the cut using the spiral cut bit with a template guide on the router base.  After making that cut, I used a round-over bit for the edge of the sink opening.


The countertop is radiused at two of the corners.  I made templates for those shapes, and used a router again to trim the countertop edges.  Actually — three routers :-)


This photo shows one of the templates with the router in position:


Once the edge pieces were trimmed, I rounded over the top and bottom of the edge to form a "bullnose."

At this time, I turned the countertop over and rolled one coat of epoxy on the bottom to seal the wood (moisture barrier).  Changes in moisture content of the wood (with the weather) could cause the countertop to expand or contract, or otherwise cup or move.  Here's what that looked like (didn't have to be pretty):


Then after a day of curing, I flipped it back over upright and sanded until smooth.  Then I rolled on the first coat of epoxy, this time using a special formulation of hardener that would ensure a clear, colorless finish.  Because the various strips of wood were of different species and different hardness, they absorbed the epoxy differently.  Some strips soaked it up, and with others, the epoxy stayed mostly on the surface.  So the finish was uneven.


I used a random orbital sander (and 60-grit discs to start) to level everything.  Then repeated after the second coat, this time sanding starting with 120-grit discs.  After the third coat, the epoxy was very glossy, but not completely flat, and I was not able to get rid of all the bubbles and bits of grit during the application process.  But the gloss brought out the color in the wood.


I continued to use the random orbital sander, with finer grits, finally up to 220-grit after the fourth coat.  The surface was getting to be quite flat; the dry sanding left white epoxy dust.


 I had considered leaving a high gloss on the countertop (assuming I could get apply a perfect topcoat), but decided the gloss would show scratches and other blemishes.  So I decided on a satin finish, that could be had by sanding.  That also had the advantage of producing a flatter, glass-smooth surface.  So after the last 220-grit sanding, I started to wet-sand by hand, first with 320-grit, then 400, then 600, and finally using 800-grit paper.  The water lubricates the fine paper, keeping it from clogging.  You can also see when you are removing the top layer of epoxy by the white slurry that is produced.


After the 800-grit, I was happy with the surface, and carried the countertop inside to test fit it on the kitchen cabinet.  It fit, happily.


I may apply furniture wax at some point.  But next I have to attach it to the cabinet using screws from the underside, along with silicone adhesive.  Then I will finish and install the matching laminated backsplash.  Then install the faucet and the cooktop.  Those steps will be the subject of my next post.

This is an arid climate (we've had no measurable rain since last spring), so I provide the birds with clean water in my front and back yards.  A recent large visitor (on a hot day), sat on the edge of one of the water bowls (occasionally drinking) for 15 minutes before flying off.



Saturday, October 28, 2017

Test Drawers

Finally.

Drawers for my waterbed base.  I needed five on each side.  I installed the drawer slides during the assembly process for the bed because it would be very difficult to do it after the fact.  So the slides were ready.

Not a very exciting post, this, so unless you're actually thinking about building some drawers and are not too clear about the process, I suggest clicking through the photos and moving on to something more interesting.  (Next post — kitchen countertop — much better.)

I call this a "bonus" project because the work was done ad hoc in bits a pieces while working on other more "substantial" projects.  And not in an organized fashion.  For example, I cut out pieces from plywood remnants that were lying around that happened to be a size that matched what I was making.  So if the drawer fronts were 7" wide and there was a piece of 3/4" plywood sitting there that was 7.5 inches wide, I would rip it to the proper width, and then cut as many drawer fronts as I could make from that one piece.

For the sides, I ended up with enough for all ten drawers.  For another part, enough for three, and others, enough for four, or five.  Rather haphazard.

And the whole assembly process was an experiment, a development process — a test.

And so it came to pass that I ended up with three drawers.  Three imperfect drawers, but nobody will know except me.

So I started with the sides.  22" deep sides (front to back).  Twenty identical pieces, and they sat in a pile for awhile:


After awhile I measured the width of the openings for all ten drawers (five on each side of the bed).  They were not all precisely the same, which is important, because for the drawer slides to work properly (or at all), the drawer width had to be exact.  The width of the drawer had to match the distance between the right and left slides.  A little play allowed.  No wider at all, but perhaps as much as a sixteenth less, so little slop.  Better to be exact.  Drawers slides are a half-inch thick, so the drawer width should be exactly one inch less that the opening.

I measured the openings, and they were very close to nominal (and each other), but slightly different.  So the fronts and backs for the drawer carcass had to be individually measured and cut.  (If you're mass producing drawers, the furniture and drawers are likely machine cut (CNC), and can be made all the same.)

I'm making the drawers for the bed base from 1/2" cabinet-grade plywood, because it's straight and doesn't tend to warp or cup.  It's also affordable compared to solid half-inch thick maple or similar wood, especially for wider widths.  These drawers are 7" high.

I'm also not using dovetail joints for these drawers.  Cutting dovetail joints (with a router) in plywood would not likely be as clean as with solid wood, and for these drawers (holding clothes), the glued tongue and groove/dado joints I use for cabinet building will be plenty strong.  I cover the edges of the plywood with maple trim where they could be seen.  Not on the bottom, though — which shows how the drawers are assembled:


I initially intended to make the bottoms out of quarter-inch plywood, but saw a masonite-type material at Home Depot that was covered on one side by a white acrylic membrane.  It makes for a nice drawer interior finish, and it's strong enough for clothing.  I cut a quarter-inch slot in the sides, front, and back of the drawer to hold the bottom and glued it in place when I assembled the drawer.  You can see the end of the groove in the photo above.

You can also see the part of the drawer slide that is screwed to the drawer.  Three screws.  The slide is positioned using a jig — just a piece of wood ripped to a width that positions the bottom of the drawer just above the bottom of the drawer opening.  Clamp it to the drawer and hold the metal slide against it while screwing it in.  I actually used a awl to mark the holes, then drilled, then screwed.

The drawer box is glued with clamps, making sure it's square.  The bottom helps it keep it square, assuming minimal slop, but it pays to check anyway.  Then I glued maple trim to cover the unsightly plywood edges (also to stiffen the sides).

I like inset drawers (as opposed to drawer where the front overlaps the cabinet edges).  Inset drawer fronts have to be precise, with an even gap around their edges.  This is easier to do if a separate "front" is made and fastened to the drawer after it is installed.  Wait for it.

For the purposes of my bed drawers, I'm making pretty ordinary fronts.  Basically, a piece of painted plywood, with maple edges — to wit:


These are put together with biscuits to keep the edges even with the 3/4" plywood, then glued together.


I like wire pulls, and use mostly the 3" wide variety.


A jig is really required to drill the holes in the front of the drawer to fasten the pulls.  The simple jig ensures that the two holes are exactly 3" apart, and will place the pull in the center of the drawer (right-left), and in this case, the same distance down from the top edge of the front.  If you're doing a lot of drawers, you NEED a jig.

I used 3/4' plywood for the jig, thick enough to ensure the drill bit will be guided perpendicular to the drawer front (I drilled the guide holes in the jig using a drill press).  The centerline of the jig is marked and matched to the center of the drawer (marked in pencil).  You can also just glue on an end-stop instead of measuring the center, but I wanted to use this jig on drawers of different widths.  Clamp the jig to the drawer front.


And drill the two holes in the drawer front using the guide holes in the jig.


Remembering that my drawer openings were not precisely the same width, and that the pieces of plywood for the fronts were measured and cut individually for each drawer opening, it's now time to fasten each drawer front to its matching drawer.  First, position the drawer front in the opening, holding it against the drawer (already installed on its slides).  Then for these inset drawers, shim the front so there is an equal gap all around the edges.  I used pieces of cereal box cardboard for shims.


The photo above also shows one of the drawer carcasses (on the right) installed on its slides.  You can see the maple edging—thin on the top of the front and the back, and a thicker wrap-over piece for the top of the sides — looks nice and makes the half-inch sides a lot stiffer.

I had initially intended to use hot glue to temporarily fasten the front to its drawer until screws could be put in, but tried a quicker method that worked for me.  Once shimmed, I held the front against the drawer and then drilled into the drawer through the holes in the drawer front (holes sized for the screws for the pulls).  I then removed the front and opened the drawer, and inserted the screws for the pull through the holes on the inside of the drawer, and screwed them into the pull, held on the outside of the drawer front.  Then I rechecked to make sure the gaps were good.  Then I drilled and fastened four screws from the inside of the drawer into the drawer front.  From the inside:


One drawer partly open (these have 22" full-extension drawer slides):


And the three test drawers.  Done. 


Now just another seven side drawers to go, and a long one for the foot of the bed.  And drawers for the kitchen, laundry room, pottery studio, workshop, two bathrooms, . . .  Another 150 drawers, more or less.  Some of them basic, and many of them fancy with dovetail joints, solid sides, and very nice fronts (spalted maple, mahogany, birdseye maple, cherry).

Planning to build drawers this winter.  Lots.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tile on Front Porch

The concrete slab for the new front porch was functional, but looked unfinished.  I always intended to cover it with surplus quartzite stone tile donated by my brother, however, and that's what I've been doing.  I took stock of that tile when ready to start the job — I had large foot-square tile and small rectangular tile.  My initial thought was to do a border of large tile, then an accent strip using the small mosaic tile (three or four tiles wide), and then have a center field with large tile put down in a diamond pattern. 

That plan changed when I discovered I did not have enough of the large squares (but had lots of the mosaic tile).  So I experimented, putting down tile in different patterns dry.


I would try to put down as much of the tile as possible without cutting, but needed to cut the large squares to cover the front and sides of the slab.  I used my wet, sliding-table tile saw to do that (and later, to cut the small tile when I reached the front of the house).  The basic process was to mortar the border and let that dry, and then fill in the field with the small mosaic tile, which came in foot square sheets (bonded to a flexible mesh backing).  There was some slight variation in the sheets, and spacing of individual tiles; the trick was to try to even them out as much as possible.


I used a notched trowel to spread the thinset mortar.  For the large tile, I also skim-coated the back of the tile, since none of them were really flat (this being a "natural" stone product.


The edge of the porch tile was sharp, so I beveled the hard corner with a diamond grinder.  Perhaps not pretty, but nobody is going to inspect too closely. 


Here is a photo of the tile all down.  Because of the "drift" of the sheets across the width of the porch, and my inability to adjust the spacing of the tile within individual sheets, the gaps ended up being too big as I closed in on the other side.  So I then pulled the individual small mosaic tiles off the backing, and placed them one at a time, which gave me more control of the spacing.  Probably should have done that sooner, but then again, normal people aren't going to get down and inspect the tile spacing (unless obsessive/compulsive).



When the mortar was sufficiently cured, it was time to grout.  The question was then — what color?  I thought a medium gray — something that matched the average color of the tile.  I had half a bag of "new taupe," and the little color label looked like a medium gray, maybe with a little earth tone.  At that stage, I thought I would seal the stone tile, which will bring out its deep earthy colors, so I thought the "new taupe" would do. 

The basic procedure for grouting is to mix the grout with water, wait ten minutes, mix the stiffened mixture some more (which makes it more compliant and smooth), then spread it and force it into the gaps with a grout float held at a 45˚ angle, more or less:


When that is done, scrape off the excess with the float held closer to 90˚ to the surface.  With regular smooth ceramic tile, that removes almost all the excess grout, but because the surface of this natural stone was rough, there was more grout left on the surface that needed cleaning off.


Cleaning the grout off the surface is done with buckets of water and special small-pore grout sponges.  Submerge the sponge in the water, squeeze almost all the water out (you don't want water running into the grout that's in the gaps), and wipe over the surface.  Clean the sponge in the bucket and repeat, again and again, until the surface is pretty clean.  Then do the same thing with a bucket of clean water until there's no grout on the surface of the tile.


The grout tends to lighten as it dries out, over a period of days.  Had I to do it over, I would have used a lighter, gray grout, but it looks fine, and the look will be different after sealing.  In the meantime, this is it:


The empty square in the middle is for a decorative tile that I will make after my pottery studio becomes operational (a future post).

Concurrently with this work, I have been laboring diligently on the new kitchen countertop, but that's going to take another couple of weeks to complete (although good progress so far, just lots of steps).  The next post, however, will be about my little bonus project — three test drawers for my platform bed (out of eleven).