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, July 18, 2018

First Test of Pottery Studio!

I had thought this post would be on the new porch roof, but the weather has been hot, so I spent more time inside working on the first test batch of pots (actually they are all bowls of various descriptions).  As I write this, the kiln is almost cool enough to open to reveal the final product.  It’s always a surprise since I layer glazes, and it’s impossible to predict how they will combine.  The glazes were brushed on, so the thickness is variable, and that has a lot to do how the glazes mature.  And it's a new kiln, so I can't predict how the heat will compare to the results from the commercial firing services I've used in the past.

First of all, this post will describe the steps in making a pot, but will not attempt to offer instruction on how to do it.  There are much more accomplished potters who have lots of youtube videos online.  The best I’ve found are by Tim See in upstate New York.

Tim See's YouTube Channel

He has recently updated a beginner instruction video which is excellent!  18 minutes long and well worth it.  The instructor in my first pottery course taught centering by demonstrating it, without any explanation.  She put her hands over the lump of clay, seemed to hold it there for half a minute, then pulled her hands off the now-centered clay and that was it.  I spent the whole course not being able to center clay.  This is MUCH better:

Beginner Throwing Lesson

So, to begin.  Clay comes in 25-pound bags of clay (two bags to a box):


Start by forming a ball an putting it on the wheel-head, usually on a disc called a “bat.”


It’s been seven years since I last did any serious “throwing” of pots (that is, forming a pot on a pottery wheel), so it took some time to regain my muscle-memory and technique.  So there were a few flops:


I was also reminded that if the wheel spins too fast and you're using a soft clay, the sides will be thrown out into a flying saucer shape 😦  That will go into the recycle bin.  Even though it has dried, as long as it hasn't been fired, it will revert to soft clay if water is added. 


I made ten bowls, using two different types of clay: a very stiff stoneware clay called Moroccan Sand, and a soft porcelain/stoneware mix.   I will feature one of the bowls, step by step.  This is the one — a cereal or soup bowl — with the “throwing” complete.


When that is done, the piece is generally covered loosely with a plastic bag (so it dries more evenly) and left to dry until it is “leather hard.”  At this stage it is ready to be trimmed.


As you can see, the bottom is quite rough (unfinished) and too thick.  The lower part of the pot has to be left a little thick so that it supports the weight of the wet clay without collapsing.  But once it is partially dry, it can be thinned with clay cutting tools as the wheel spins (like a lathe).


This is the bottom of the feature piece trimmed, with a foot/base shaped.  Looks better, huh. 


After trimming, the pots are left to completely dry before they get the first ("bisque") firing.  If they're put in the kiln while still somewhat wet, they will explode as the steam seeks to escape.  Not good.  The bisque firing chemically converts the clay to a ceramic; the clay shrinks and becomes much harder and stronger.

Loaded into the kiln for bisque firing:


The bisque firing took almost 36 hours, from start to maximum temperature, and then the slow cooling.  The temperature ramp (heating and then cooling back to ambient) is slower than the final firing.  I started the firing late afternoon, so by the time the kiln started to throw off a lot of heat, it was night and cooler outside.  I ran the ceiling exhaust fan all night, left a window in the studio open, and closed the door to the rest of the house.

When the pots are out of the kiln, they are ready for the application of glaze (various chemicals in a water solution, that when heated hot enough become glass).  In a commercial studio or school, glaze is in five-gallon buckets and the pots can be dipped.  It's quick and evenly coats the pot with glaze.  In a small private studio, that would not be feasible, so I use pint containers of glaze and apply several coats with a brush.  My glaze wall:


Here's the featured bowl with glaze applied (seen on a heavy metal banding wheel, that you can spin to facilitate applying glaze or underglaze stripes, etc.).  Glazes are not the same color as they will be after firing, which adds to the art.  The glaze companies have photos of what the glaze will look like after firing, but it rarely matches the results of mere mortals, and often looks very different.  Experience required.  Sigh.


I glazed ten bowls (but only was able to fit nine of those in the kiln, due to a shelf issue).  Before this, I numbered all my pots (wrote number on bottom while clay was soft), and recorded all the data for the pot in a notebook (date, weight and type of clay, glazes used and how applied, etc.).  For this test batch, I didn't do that, and wasn't terribly careful about what glazes I used (they had all dried up, and I had to add water and re-hydrate them, so aiming for a final effect was secondary, if even that).

So this is what they looked like with random glazes applied (only nine fit in the kiln):


When the kiln was opened, this is what I saw:



And then out on the counter (including the red one that did not get fired; it would have looked something like the one just to the lower left of it):


So the result?  I was not really happy with any of them.  There is a usable soap dish, and two needed and usable cat dishes, and a usable dog water bowl  (right front), but the soup/cereal bowls were a disappointment.  They shrank more than I remembered pots shrinking.  The glaze on some did not fully develop (should have run the kiln hotter or longer).  The clear glaze tended to craze; I could hear the tinkling after pulling them out of the kiln, perhaps too soon, as the glaze shrank faster than the thicker clay body.

I won't be getting any more of the Moroccan Sand clay, and will likely mix the rest of it with the porcelain blend — see how that works.

And throw the pots BIGGER, so when they shrink, they will end up the desired size.

Sigh.  What makes it so compelling.

For next time, the porch roof.  Work is proceeding (but more hot weather ahead).  So we'll see.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Drawer Factory

I’ve been holding off on the front porch roof, so just drawers this time — ten of them (one from last time that could not be installed due to lack of slides, and nine new ones).  I’ll also update my electric car quest. 

I went down to the hardwood store and spent more than $100 on wood for new drawer boxes, and as it turned out, that gave me just enough for nine drawers (and that’s only for the four sides).  Here’s what it looked like cut to size and with dovetails routed.


You can see $100 doesn’t go far, but to be fair, most of that wood is either cherry or maple, with the rest being poplar.  Add drawer bottoms, fronts, drawer pulls, full-extension drawer slides, glue and finish, and you get an average cost of about $40 per drawer, and that doesn’t include the considerable cost of labor, if you were to pay someone else to do that.  Not surprising that most kitchens scrimp on drawers (and quality).

Here’s a photo of this batch of drawers in process.  I’m getting faster, but it still is a very time consuming effort.


So, three new drawers for the master bathroom vanity, which gets perhaps the most elegant drawers (cherry boxes with striped mahogany fronts).  The new ones are the three on the left.  Still a few to go.


The cherry I used was not all from the same source, and some had both heartwood and sapwood, so there is some visual interest (if you like that — I do).


 I make and install the boxes before installing the fronts, because I like inset drawers, and it would be almost impossible to install the fronts first and expect to get a uniform gap around the front.


Here’s the same drawer with the front attached.  The new one is on the bottom of the stack.


I made that particular drawer very deep, taking advantage of the 30” depth of the cabinet.  Most of the other drawers I made shorter.  But it will be good for holding a lot of things.


The other three new kitchen drawers are on the other side of the kitchen; in this photo, the bottom three are new.


The pottery studio got three new drawers (thirteen done, just three remaining).  The new ones marked with the arrows.


Here’s a shot of one open.  Love those full-extension slides.



Electric car status update (part of my extensive garage remodel)

As I noted in my first report, I put a deposit on a Tesla Model 3 (since April 1, 2016); Tesla says that should mature at the end of this year (for the dual-motor variant), but that’s with the long-range battery option, which I don't want.  I should be able to take delivery of a dual-motor Model 3 with the standard, 220-mile battery early-2019.  Not such a long wait, considering my garage extension will not be ready before then.

But I still have a few reservations with the car, as good as it would be to drive.  Among other things is the glass roof (perhaps too hot for San Diego’s fierce sun), and the lack of a rear hatch (it has a conventional trunk opening, difficult to load big things).

More significantly, the Model 3 uses an app on a smartphone to unlock and operate the car, and since I have no use for a smartphone, that obviously would be a problem.  It does also have an RFID keycard, but that has limited functionality. 

A lot of people want a regular fob — not just me.  The good news is that Elon Musk told the folks at Consumer Reports that he is considering providing a key fob to owners, and one forum report quoted a Tesla service rep as saying a fob is “in the works,” albeit with no time frame provided.  I guess they first have to work through their production issues. 

And for the present, the only interior color option is black, which for me is a non-starter.  A white interior is in the offing, and next year they say red will be offered.  Are they channeling Elvis Presley, or have a fondness for 1960-vintage cars?  No tan!?  I want tan (or sand, beige, cream, light gray), and will wait for that.  What if it takes years for that to appear, or never?

I discussed some other alternatives to the Model 3 last time, but now the primary one is the upcoming Volkswagen I.D. AEROe. 

The VW I.D. AEROe is supposed to be a premium sports sedan that could be released in the U.S. between 2020 and 2022, with a smaller sporty hatch five-seat derivative following in 2023.  While the small first-to-be-released I.D. Neo hatch will have just one motor, the I.D. Crozz Tiguan-sized crossover will have two motors, as will the I.D. Buzz passenger van.  I expect the AEROe and smaller derivative will also have two motors for all-wheel-drive, a must-have for me (for four-wheel magnetic braking).  There have been no leaks about what the AEROe will look like, but a concept version may be revealed at the Paris Auto Show early-October this year.  At least one German publication thinks the I.D. Vizzion concept car will be the basis for the AEROe:


Right now, my interest is in the smaller, sporty hatch five-seat AEROe derivative, which unfortunately looks to be five years away, but who knows? 

In the meantime, Volkswagen has built an electric Pikes Peak race car — the I.D. R.  VW says the design was intended to bear a family resemblance to its I.D. line of electric road cars.  That would be nice, but a real stretch, considering:


The Pike’s Peak Hill Climb takes place on June 24, about a week from now.  Here’s a preview of the car on the mountain.  Fast!


UPDATE: The VW I.D. R won the race, by a large margin, and also set a new course record — the first car to ever break eight minutes!  Video report:


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pottery Wheel Side Table

The pottery wheel side table turned out to be a byproduct of my lack of wood for building the desk credenza and/or more drawers.  By that I mean it jumped to the top of the list, because it could be made from what I had around — bits of maple and cherry and even a little mahogany, plus some small pieces of plywood.  And since it is a functional piece for the pottery studio, I took some whimsical license in its design.  It certainly doesn’t look like a living room piece. 

Some of the cherry came from my stash of old rough milled wood, from a half-dead tree cut down many years ago.  Pieces cupped, twisted, split . . . but when put through jointer, table saw, heavy-duty band saw, and thickness planer — very nice indeed.  Still had the bark on it!


The function of the pottery wheel side table is to hold clay and pottery tools while working the clay on the wheel.  So it needed to be about the height of the wheel and relatively small — about 18” square.  There had to be enough space underneath to mop the floor (need to keep the silica dust under control).  There would be enough space under the top for storage; I elected to make a pull-out tray (a variation on a drawer) for that space. 

The legs are basically 1.5” square, made up of four separate 3/4” square pieces of wood glued together.  The outside and inside of these pieces run from the floor all the way to the top.  The other two pieces are half-length.  It’s a strong design, but a bit complex, almost a puzzle.  All in all, about 50 pieces of wood went into this table, all glued together without screws or other fastenings. 

This is how it went together:


The top was built concurrently.  It was laminated with five pieces of wood (cherry and maple), and then a beveled raised frame was glued on the outside.  (the center maple section was actually a leftover from my kitchen countertop, a piece of laminated side splash I decided not to use)


As with the kitchen countertop, I applied an epoxy surface to the top, then dry sanded, wet sanded, and waxed.  Pottery is a wet hobby, and the top had to be completely waterproof. 

This is the table without any finish (top is just sitting there, not fastened yet).


This is a side view.  The living room credenza (when I get to that) will be made of cherry (trim, drawers, and top), with the plywood panels painted the same blue.


Here it is with the drawer-tray open.


I used a half-blind dovetail joint for this drawer; it doesn’t have a separate front.  First time with this joint for me, and it didn’t proceed without incident.  It might have had something to do with the front being made of 3/4” stock and the sides from ½”.  Not sure what it was, but I will be making more of these half-blind joints in the future, so will have to get it all figured out.


This photo shows where the little table fits in.  The tools placed on the table were staged; I will be doing a post showing a bowl being made — from lump of clay to finished glazed piece.  The important role of the table will then be fully revealed.


The Drawer Factory

I did manage to find enough suitable cherry from my stash of old wood to make the drawer for the pottery table, and another drawer for the bathroom vanity (and its front), but then discovered I had run out of 18” drawers slides (more now ordered).  I’m planning to make a run down to the hardwood store this week to stock up on drawer wood, and the new slides should be here in a week or so, so more new drawers on the way. 

Still need to move on the credenza, and have now started the design for the porch roof.  So as always, something will happen. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bamboo Flooring in the Living Room

I already used the same bamboo flooring (by Cali Bamboo) in the master bedroom and the main hallway.  It's a wide "fossilized" treated bamboo that clicks together (no glue or nails), so it goes down very quickly.  The advertise it as the hardest (wood) flooring there is (even though bamboo is technically a grass, not wood).  It really is very hard; the dogs running all over it make no marks at all, and no scratches from furniture sliding on it. 

My previous posts on putting down this bamboo explained how it clicks and locks together, so I will not dwell on that aspect.  What's new is the way I joined the hall bamboo with the living room bamboo, which are at right angles to each other.  I had the same situation where the bedroom bamboo met the hall bamboo, but in that case I used a special raised molding supplied by the manufacturer to transition. 

The joint between the living room and the hall is long, and I wanted the connection to be flush, so I needed a different approach.  Initially, I thought making the flush connection would be difficult and time consuming, but it turned out to be easy and fast. 

The edge of the bamboo from the hall looked like this, with the locking tongue sticking out where the ends of the living room bamboo will meet.


The ends of the bamboo that have to butt up against this edge are flat, cut off with my miter saw.  Each piece of bamboo flooring is just over six feet long; when putting these boards down, you just lay one after the other until you get to the far end, then measure the needed length for the last piece and put that in place.  The random-length piece that was cut off then starts the new course, so that the joints are staggered.  So that's why they are flat at the starting end, and do not have a corresponding locking end profile, like the ends of full pieces.  Anyway, they look like this:


Ideally, you would machine the end to interlock with the side edge tongue on the hall bamboo, but that would be overly complex and not realistic.  So my approach was to use a sharp carbide scraper to make the tongue flatter, and then run the ends through my table saw fitted with a dado blade to form a shelf or sorts.  Ready to cut:


And the results, showing the underside of the board:



The end of the board then fits over the tongue, and so that the boards do not move relative to each other, I applied a bead of urethane glue to the joint, and set the new board in place, using weights to keep the two sections flush while the urethane glue sets (it expands as it cures — moisture activated).


The overall process for replacing the floor was relatively straightforward, with the slight complication of this being a small house with no place to put all the living room furniture while I replaced the floor.  The room is twelve feet wide and the required underlayment comes in four-foot wide sections, so the floor went down in three sections.  The furniture for each section was moved to the other two sections as work progressed. 

First step was to remove the old baseboard, carpet, carpet pad, tackless strips, then scrape the glued bits of carpet pad until the concrete slab was flat and clean.


 Underlayment then goes down and then successive courses of bamboo.  And as mentioned before, cut the last piece to fit, and use the cut-off to start the next course.


Since I needed to move the furniture back on the first section of bamboo before starting the second section, that meant I needed to install the new PVC baseboard next (lest I have to move the furniture a second time). 


The second third is the same, except that after putting down the new strip of underlayment, the seam between the two sections of underlayment is sealed with a special vapor-barrier tape.  In the photo, I've already covered up the seam with a new course of bamboo. 


And the second third is done.  This goes very quickly.


The last third is the same, and then with the new baseboard in place, it's done.


The Drawer Factory

I didn't have quite enough bamboo to finish, and had to order another box and wait for it to come in.  Time to build more drawers — seven of them.

Another drawer for the master bathroom vanity, to wit, the bottom one here:


And the last two drawers on the far side of the platform bed (still need the one in the foot of the bed). 


A couple more drawers in the pottery studio, bringing the total built to ten (six remaining):



And finally, two more in the kitchen (the lower two in this stack):


Next up, I had wanted to build the bi-level credenza to go next to my desk to hold my big printer and associated desk things, but I didn't have enough plywood.  So I have started on the pottery wheel side table (a real Chinese puzzle to put together).  That will be the next post.

I also ran out of wood for drawers (poplar, cherry, maple), but I'm putting off the long round trip down to the hardwood store in San Diego.  Also putting off ordering a truck delivery for plywood, etc. from Home Depot, because the next major project is the roof for the new front porch, which will require a lot of building supplies.  Need to get all my ducks lined up before proceeding.  Can do more yard work in the meantime.  Sigh.