Sippican Cottage

Fixing the Bathroom

We had the worst bathroom in the western hemisphere, unless you count punk club restrooms. Here’s a detailed description of how we lived with it for a long while, and how we finally fixed it up for very short money.

Interestingly, Ensuite Ablution Hellhole Is the Name of My Plasmatics Tribute Band

Okay, so now we’ve got a second bathroom in working order. We can turn our attention to the existing, sorta-master-basically-en-suite ablution hellhole. Interestingly, Ensuite Ablution Hellhole is the name of my Plasmatics tribute band. But I digress.

So, how bad was it? Is ol’ Sippican exaggerating again, like he’s done a billion times? Or is that hyperbole? I forget. But am I lying? You decide. This was our only bathroom when we moved here:

Hmm. Rustic charm, n’est-ce pas?

Rustic, spastic, whatever. I love the scorch marks from cigarettes on the plastic sink. It’s a mark of the breed for the former occupants: Putting lit cigarettes down momentarily no matter where you are or what you’re doing. There was also a voluminous series of ciggie scorchmarks in a semicircle on the floor surrounding the toilet. That one was a new one for me.

The tub might have been the worst feature in the room. It’s a one-piece fiberglass job that was popular about fifty years ago in the real world, so in Maine it’s probably part of a twenty-five-year-old fad. Maine gets everything last, and never starts trends. By the time ideas arrive here from California or New York, filtered through the sieve of Massachusetts, they’re pretty much over everywhere else.

The floor, a birch tongue and groove strip, like most of the rest of the house, was rotting away where the shower spray overshot onto the wall for decades.

This was an especially annoying version of the single piece tub/surround animal. It was designed to fit through skinny doorways, so while it was the standard 5-feet long, it was only about 2-feet wide overall. Subtract the dimensions for the tub rails and the surround thicknesses, and there wasn’t even 18″ to stand in. A normal male human is 18″ wide at the shoulder. I’m not normal, but I am male. I had to stand like a bullet in a box to shower in there, with the shower curtain scrubbing at me like a car wash the whole time. The former occupants bought the wrong one, too, or hired the wrong plumber, or some concatenation of multiple errors. The faucets are on the right, but the drain is on the left. The drain was on old, brass affair that accumulated a muskrat in it every fortnight or so. I was constantly standing ankle-deep in dirty water in there.

The worst part of the whole equation was that only one of this bathroom’s two doors was skinny. The other was a big, wide, solid birch door, and a regular single piece tub/surround would have fit right through it. It gives me a popsicle headache trying to figure out the thought processes of these people, so I’ve given it up entirely. You can have a go if you like. Marijuana is legal in Maine now, so you can set up your think tank here and properly approximate the decision trees that come up with this sort of idea. Just desolating the aisles at the liquor store won’t be enough.

Hey, look! It’s the toilet tank top. It’s in the ersatz closet, covered with shelf paper instead of on top of the toilet for some reason I’d rather not puzzle that one out, if you don’t mind.

I’ve mentioned this before, and at the risk of sounding like some sort of scold, remember, friends don’t let friends drink and decorative paint.

That light switch was a like a slot machine. You could pull the little lever, and every once in a while you’d hit some sort of electrical tumblers just right and the overhead light would go on. We stopped trying after a short while, because we wondered where the electricity went when the light didn’t come on, which was most of the time.

Ye Olde Accesse Doore was a hoot. You really needed it, because the plumbing was strictly tenth-century, and leaked all the time. The door was held on with standard cabinet hinges, with the 3/8″ long wood screws simply driven into the drywall. If you pulled the colonial strap handle, the whole thing would come off in your hand. If the cat brushed up against the door, or you looked at it funny, it would simply fall off the wall onto the floor. I didn’t know any other way to look at it, other than funny, so it spent most of its life off the hinges.

So, whaddya think? Can we do something other than move out to make our lives incrementally better? Can we make something of this bathroom? Stay tuned. The Ensuite Ablution Hellhole is getting a makeover.

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Equity Bloodlust, Or Bathroom Remodel. You Decide

Well, I don’t know how to break it to you fine folks, but my wife was taking pictures again. There aren’t many, and the ones I do have are fuzzier than an elderly man’s ears. But honestly, I don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind either. After all, if my wife’s vision was any better, would she have married me? It’s doubtful. And I’m beginning to wonder about her hearing. Is it possible that she’s just been nodding at me and smiling all these years, and hasn’t heard a word I said? These are the sorts of things that keep a man up at night.

So, we begin our master bathroom saga in media res, and we’ll have to skip over things, at least as far as photographs go. You’ll have to take it on faith that I didn’t make my family bathe and brush their fangs for ten years in that hellhole I showed you yesterday. When we moved in, we at least took the curse off the place. We replaced the toilet. Non-negotiable, that item. We demolished the sink/counter/closet arrangement, and bought a cheap particle board cabinet with a plastic sink top at the Orange Place. When I said cheap, I meant it. It cost something like forty bucks. But it was clean, and we didn’t scorch it with any ciggie butts, so it banished the downscale vibe an iota or a smidgen or something.

I painted the walls with a yellowy off-white. I disassembled the closet. It was built like a tree fort, so I could save almost all the lumber. I used the  salvaged wood from it to make a workbench down in the workshop. It was another example of the way the former occupants spent more money than we did on the house, but never improved it one bit. It was all sort of wasted. It was a bad closet. It’s a good workbench.

I put a coat of shellac, tinted with a dark walnut color, on the birch strip flooring. We ran plumbing and electrical for a washer and dryer, which took the place of the closet and half the vanished countertop. We scrubbed the tub with everything we could think of, from soap to lacquer thinner. I stand by my opinion that it’s impossible to actually clean a plastic tub, never mind a fiberglass job. The finish just ain’t hard enough. The tub still looked like the communal hot tub at a leper colony, but it sorta felt clean. And we lived with it, while we took care of more pressing matters.

In Maine, you learn quickly that only two things really matter in your house. The roof, and the heat. Anything else you manage to fix is gravy. In the kitchen, I think some of it actually was coated with someone’s gravy from Thanksgiving 1974 when I ripped it out. But we pecked away at the house and finally got around to the bathroom. Our roof is solid enough to keep out large animals now, if not every raindrop, and we actually have a thermostat on the wall that does things when you operate it. It’s time.

My number one son decided to help me. If you’re young, and don’t have kids, I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m going to try to describe to you about 1 percent of the marvelous feeling you have when your children become adults, and hang around with you even if they’re not required by law to do so anymore. They have driver’s licenses and can flee, but they don’t. They come over and bash with you. It’s like you made a gift for the world, but the world wasn’t home when you dropped by to give it to them, and you got to keep it. And my son and I bashed at this room, I tell you what.

I’ve lectured you previously that most of the demolition you see on home and garden teevee is done by imbeciles. They think demolition is smashing at things. I often caution people that demolition is taking things apart, generally, not wrecking them. But I’m an honest man. I’m not going to lie to the internet. I don’t want to be the first to do that. I admit that we acted exactly like the people on This Old Flip, because I hated this room. Hated it. I didn’t just want to fix it. I wanted to make it suffer, like we had suffered. This wasn’t renovation, it was a reckoning. We went at every surface like it owed us money, which in a way, it did. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re not paying to live in our house. It didn’t cost enough to make lifelong mortgage slaves of us. It’s worth eight or ten times more than we paid for it. In my mind, I was a legbreaker for the Sippican mob, and I was going to beat some equity out of it right now. Mere threats wouldn’t be enough to satisfy my bloodlust.

So we smashed, and banged, and sawzalled, and pried, and wrenched, and levered, and didn’t spare the horses. We were starting fresh, and we were going to spend a little money. Because bathrooms cost money, yo, and there’s no amount of sweat equity that can make, say, a toilet. I know a toilet is just mud baked in an oven, but I can barely get the house up to room temperature as it is. I won’t be making one of those in the basement. But I’ll also testify that it’s never been easier to end up with a great bathroom on a small budget. The stuff to make it has gotten better in the last ten years. I’ll show you how we did it. Well, I’ll tell you how we did it, and post some fuzzy pictures.

[To be continued]

[Update: Many thanks to John L. for his generous smash on the tip jar. It’s greatly appreciated]

How To Recycle

I know the dictionary definition of recycling. You’re supposed to paw through your trash like a crack-addled raccoon, and sort it into various bins, which you dutifully place on the curb once a week. Then a couple of parolees come by and place your items on their truck, drive to a dump — my bad, landfill — and dump it together in the same hole anyway. After fishing out any aluminum cans and gold bars they spot, of course. Recycling theater.

Well, I’m no actor. We make things. Every chance we get, we make things out of stuff we already have, rather than get new stuff. Behavior like that doesn’t really have a title anymore. It’s not frugality. Frugality is clipping coupons to keep on spending like everyone else. We’re not going to the store in the first place. We’re not skinflints. We don’t have much money, but we don’t have alligator arms when the check comes. We just avoid check-coming places to solve that problem. Waste not, want not is as close to a slogan as I can think of.

So if you want to try to live like us, I suggest you lie down in a dark room until the spell passes, and then get on with your life. But if you’re stubborn, and sorta poor, and insist, I’ll tell you how to fix up your bathroom for short money.

First, have two children. At least. They’re the only riches in this world worth a fig. Then stand around and take credit for their musical ability. That part’s easy. They practice, and you thump your chest. Then allow them to make music videos. Encourage them to recycle music, too. Don’t put Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond out on the curb. Make something out of them, even if you don’t have a piano or saxophone:

Did you spot it? It’s what I had my eye on the whole time. It’s what fascinated me, and called to me in my dreams. I wanted that cabinet in the background.

I built that thing to hold a gigantic teevee set about 20 years ago. When I say gigantic, I’m not referring to screen size. It was sized to accommodate a 32″ set. If you’re younger, you might not know that a 32″ teevee used to be considered pretty big, and it had a cathode ray tube in it, took up the same floor area as a dishwasher, and weighed about 200 pounds. And all that firepower was just so the kids could watch SpongeBob VHS tapes, which we stored in the cabinet wings on the sides.

That cabinet is about seven feet square, and the center bay is two feet deep. It can hold a prodigious amount of stuff. It was currently being halfheartedly used to store dishes and detritus in the dining room, where the video was recorded. It wasn’t useless, exactly, but I could make it more useful in the bathroom. Bathrooms need beaucoup storage.

When planning a bathroom, everyone just wants to go shopping for stuff to achieve an appearance. That’s why they spend two grand on a plastic slipper tub that they’ll never use, while they forget that towels need a place to live. We’d removed a washer and dryer from the bathroom, and put them downstairs in a laundry room we fashioned. I’ll bore you with that story sometime. Anyway, for my sanity’s sake, the three fixtures that count, shower, sink, and toilet, would stay about where they were currently located. I knew exactly what I could fill the gaping laundry hole with. Let’s recycle the big cabinet.

It’s the wrong color, of course, and the hardware has to be replaced. But that’s a relatively cheap and easy fix. Regular people who don’t currently have a SpongeBob VHS collection cabinet can find storage items like this at a flea market, and upcycle them. Anything’s better than the sawdust and glue cabinets they sell at the Orange Place. And cheaper.

Because it’s so big, we’re going to install it permanently, and build the rest of the bathroom around it. We were faced with the usual problem. The floor sloped in two directions. We built a platform for it to sit on, and busted off its existing baseboard/base. That came apart hard, I’m pleased to say. I knew it would have a lot of weight in it when I built it, and you could have plopped a car on it, and not just a Matchbox car, either.

As you can see, lots of preliminary work is already done. That happened off-camera, in the “and then a miracle occurs” stage of construction. You can see the stub-outs for the sink drain and water lines. The electricity is all straightened out. That’s a GFCI plug. It’s downstream of the plug that holds the GFCI outlet with the trip switch on it. If you’re unfamiliar with how it works, only the first plug in a series gets the GFCI outlet. Every one after that enjoys its protection. The door and window trim has all been removed. It was all pretty battered, and we’ll put up new stuff. The floor, which had more holes in it than a OJ’s alibi, got sheets of 1/4 plywood subfloor glued and screwed over it. The walls we mostly saved, with lots of patching, but we skinned over the ceiling with 1/2″ purple drywall. The purple makes it moisture resistant, and very elegant looking until you paint it, if you think an eggplant is elegant, anyway.

This is the view from the en suite, tout de suite entrance door from our bedroom. We used to be treated to a stunning view of the laundry waiting to happen first thing in the morning. Now it’s très élégant, n’est-ce pas? Sorry, we’ve been watching Pepe Le Pew cartoons again. I’ll lay off the French for the rest of the essay.

Note the tapering base it sits on. When you can spot the slope in the floor from ten feet away, you’ve got slope, I tell you what. You get used to dealing with problems like that after a while, and adapting to them instead of fighting with them. The cabinet ended up plumb, and level, and affixed firmly to the wall.

It makes me happy to see it there, where it will be more useful. It made me happy to watch my children perform in front of it. It makes me happy when it greets me every morning when I enter that bathroom, instead of the inelegant washer and dryer it replaced. It makes me happy to reach into it every day to grab a towel for a shower. But most of all, it makes me happy because I screwed it to the wall, and that made it impossible for me to ever have to move the damned thing again.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and donating to my tip jar. It is greatly appreciated]

Interestingly, The Schluter Apparatus Is the Name of My Kraftwerk Tribute Band. But I Digress

So, what’s a master bathroom remodeling project supposed to cost, anyway?

Like any construction project, the answer is, “How high is up?” You can spend an almost unlimited amount of money while tinkering around with any part of your house. Bathrooms are famous for costing big. If you want a bathroom that looks like one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, no one is going to stop you, and many TV hosts will egg you on. They might not stop you, but they are going to bill you. The potential cost of a bathroom remodeling project is exceeded only by a kitchen re-do or a divorce on the scale of what things cost. Many kitchen and bath remodeling projects end in divorce, so I lumped them all together.

But I’m slipping out of touch with such matters. When you don’t have any money, it’s pointless to wonder how much things cost. To us, the Hometown cable show is Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You have a budget for throw pillows? OK, Rockefeller. I used to rely on Means Residential Square Foot cost books (Contractor Pricing Guide) to ballpark construction projects. They came out every year, and were pretty accurate. They were swallowed up by some other business, but they still publish them, I guess. You can buy one here. Make sure you bring money. Most of their books cost about what I’d budget for completing the whole project, so I haven’t bought one for a very long time.

Hey, let’s ask the internet. The internet is free, and worth it, as I often remark. Let’s ask it what a master bathroom remodeling job might cost. Hey look, the Orange Place pops right up, and comes across with an answer right off:

I don’t know why I bother to write jokes when they’re just lying around on the internet like that. And I don’t know about you, but I have a strict policy on these matters. I don’t care if it’s a BMW or a bathroom, I don’t poop in anything that costs $30,000 and up. And just between you, me, and the wall, it’s very unlikely that I’ll be installing a $30,000 bathroom in my $24,000 house, even though that bulleted list is pretty much exactly what we’re aiming to accomplish, just not in the dreary style they’ve achieved in the picture. Thirty grand for a Home Depot-grade bathroom is like ordering champagne with your Big Mac, or putting premium gas in a rental car. We can do better, with a lot less.

So I did a little pricing of my own, back when we were planning this foofarah. What’s a plastic shower base cost?

How about a plastic enclosure to go with it?

I’m wasn’t allura-ed by the designs or the finishes, and my bathroom already has a mustee smell, thank you very much. Even for this crapola, if you add the cheapest versions together, the shower stall is around $550. It ain’t worth it. I just got rid of the Reagan’s-first-term version of this shower enclosure, remember? I hated it. I would hate these, even if they were new. I figured we could do better. I got to poking around, and discovered things have gotten way, way better in the shower world in the last five years or so. We got one of these, instead, for about the same money:

It might be one of their best sellers, but the Orange Place didn’t sell one to us. We didn’t pay over $500 for it either. We don’t shop like regular humans anymore.

First, I went to Amazon. I treat Amazon the way other people used to treat Best Buy. Everyone looked at stuff on the shelves in Best Buy, and then went home and bought it off Amazon. Well, since Amazon has become some kind of weird bazaar of drop-ship villainy and warehouses heaving with counterfeit goods and pop bottles filled with warm yellow liquids, I treat them like they treated Best Buy. I find what I want, look in the right hand column to see who’s actually selling it at rock bottom prices, and see if they have their own store outside of Amazon. Many, if not most, do now. I found Contractors Direct, verified they were real people in a real building that I could find if they cheated me, and bought it directly from them. They seem to find a way to give Amazon’s vigorish back to their customers if Amazon’s not involved. Same, stuff, rock bottom price, delivered in a couple of days, in perfect shape. I’d rather give my money to regular humans in Connecticut than pay Jeff Bezos’ alimony.

So you might look at that weird collection of orange stuff and wonder how you’re supposed to make a shower out of it. The minute I saw it, I knew exactly how to use it, because I knew the old-fashioned shower construction arrangement it superseded. I used to perform construction work in mansions, and sometimes they wanted an old-school walk-in shower enclosure. Thirty years ago, only the very wealthy could afford a walk-in shower. They were labor and material intensive.

You’d begin by framing out a stall. Then a copper liner was fabricated to act as the base. It went up the walls about six inches. The seams were all soldered. That sounds inexpensive, doesn’t it? Once it was in place, expanded metal lath was stapled on the studs, usually over a sheet of heavy plastic or sometimes tar paper, to keep the moisture in the shower. Then two or three coats of mortar were smooshed on the lath, usually by a very skilled mason, sometimes by a plasterer. A tilesetter would usually install the mortar bed that went inside the copper tray. It was a tricky installation; it had to slope enough in four directions to get water to run into the drain, but not be so steep it was uncomfortable to stand on. Then the whole thing was tiled to a fare-thee-well.

So I saw the Schluter apparatus and had a kitten over it. The orange membrane is waterproof. You apply it to regular drywall like wallpaper, except you use thinset mortar instead of wallpaper paste. The floor is a plastic sheet with a hole for the drain, already sloped properly and covered with the same membrane. There’s gaskets for the holes for the plumbing fixtures, and a pre-made, waterproof curb. There’s rolls of membrane for any seams. You can trim all the plastic stuff to size with a utility knife. It’s rich folks stuff for less than poor folks stuff costs. And the price was low enough that we could afford to buy two pre-made niches for soap and shampoo, too, and still get out of the deal for less than a shabby plastic shower tray and surround.

All I have are fuzzy pictures and dad jokes, but you can watch the Schluterman put one in, if you’re interested or bored or Jeff Bezo’s ex-wife, waiting around for your alimony check:

So, we became instant Schluter devotees here at the cottage. It’s entered the lexicon. We no longer take showers. We schluter. “Have you schlutered yet, dear?”

[To be continued]

Fuzzy Pictures Delenda Est

Well, we’re moving right along with our master bathroom remodeling saga. Of course it doesn’t look it. There’s no shower, sink, floor, or finishes in the pictures yet. Or maybe there are, but they’re too out of focus to see them.

My wife’s smartphone pictures became a sort of running gag around the cottage. She’d dutifully wade in to whatever construction devastation I was presiding over, take a few snaps, and then hie her way back to safety and sanity. Then we’d look at them a few days later, and laugh. They were mostly optometry tests. What gives?

Here’s where I’m going to break all your hearts. I got to wondering about it. What was the problem, exactly? My wife is dumber than I am, it’s true. I married her and she married me to prove it. But she ain’t dumb. Is her android thingie on the fritz? Am I moving too fast to be photographed properly? (this is very doubtful) Couldn’t we fix this problem? So I watched her take a picture. She dutifully set up the phone for a photo, pointed it at us, and then tried to press an imaginary button they have displayed on the screen to take the picture. This button is about as responsive as Google’s customer support line. She was following the directions, which while technically allowed in our home, isn’t common. You end up waving the phone all around to get the illusory button to acknowledge that a human is touching it. Waving it all around makes the focus unfocused.

Gimme dat, I said. I went into the menu and moved an entirely different imaginary slider, and handed it back to her. “Press the actual, real, live, mechanical volume switch on the side of the phone to take a picture, dear. I know Steve Jobs’ festering corpse hates those, but we’ll have to disappoint the gods of the smartphone once again.” So I’m afraid today’s batch of fuzzy pictures is about the last you’ll see for a while. I miss them already. You’ll all have to make do with images that more clearly show what a shabby job I’m doing at any given time, and how homely I am. Sorry, but the Soft Focus Guccione Era of photography is pretty much over around here.

For old time’s sake, here’s some murky photos of the flooring we selected for the bathroom. Or more accurately, the flooring that was selected for us by the Blue Place.

It looks like slate, but it isn’t. It also looks like the tiles we put in the pantry porch, but they aren’t. Those were totally Orange Place cutout bin specials. The bathroom is done up with Blue Place “No one wants this sh*t anymore” bargain bin discoveries. I don’t know why everyone wanted faux slate floors all at the same time, or why everyone decided they didn’t want faux slate floors any more all at the same time, either. But we paid less than the cost of the plywood underlayment per square foot, and they look great. They’re textured a bit, too, which is great for footing in the bathroom right outside the shower.

There are three ways to lay 1′ x 2′ rectangular tiles. There’s running bond, which is like railroad tracks, with each course offset from the course beside it by half its length. Most brick walls are constructed with a running bond, for instance. Then there’s herringbone, which is how the tiles are laid in the photo above. That’s my default for everything, including brick walks and such. Of course there’s also stack bond, where the tiles are laid in straight stacks with no offsets. That’s a favorite among deranged people and serial killers, in my experience.

In the last photo, you can see that the wall that encloses the shower has been extended a bit further into the room, and covered with moisture-resistant drywall. That’s because my shower will no longer be the width of a mail slot, like it was before. I may be able to wash even around the sides of my torso in there, instead of just my sternum while I stand at attention and get molested by the shower curtain.

The order of operations might puzzle some folks in the construction biz. But we’re trying to keep this bathroom at least partially usable almost continuously. We tiled half the floor, near the shower, on day one, and left the toilet in place and working. The next day, we removed it, fixed the subfloor, and tiled the remainder. The throne was back in service the next day after grouting. With the floor in, we could put in a new sink, too. It was a pedestal job, and couldn’t hover while we put in the floor tile. The shower will go in last, because we can limp along without it the longest. We put in a second bathroom, first, for just that reason.

[To be continued. Tune in tomorrow. Same Bat time. Same Bat Channel]

B*tches Love My Niches

Okay, let’s do stuff. Here’s me and my heir doing something construction-y in the shower stall. I’m not really seven feet tall. I’m standing on something or other I shouldn’t be, and probably driving screws into the (purple) moisture-resistant drywall. I was sort of surprised that the Schluter folks don’t recommend that you tape all the seams or fill the screw holes or anything. Their waterproof membrane goes right over the plain drywall. This job is getting easier all the time. I’ll have to tape and mud the seams at the ceiling line, though. Many “remodelers” don’t tape seams that will be hidden behind things like ceiling moldings. That’s a mistake. Drafts and bugs move around in there, and so does smoke if there’s a fire.

The shower mixing valve is plumbed in, too, using pex plumbing, which I recommend highly. You cut the plastic pipe to whatever length you require, insert brass fitting into the ends, and crimp a copper ring over the joint with a tool that looks like a bolt cutter with a circular hole in the jaws. Easy, and basically foolproof. I know, I’m a fool, and I have a hard time making the stuff leak.

You can see the premade niche installed, over my son’s shoulder. They aren’t cheap, but they save a lot of fussing. We got a second, smaller one for soap, too, and installed it under that one. They’re sized to fit inside a stud bay, which is convenient. Schluter makes premade benches for shower stalls, too. They’re made of the same foamboard with waterproof orange fabric glued on them. They cost more than an arm, and the leg your wife wants to rest on it when she shaves her leg down to her cloven hoof.

My wife wanted one, bad, but I didn’t relish spending between $150 and $200 for half a foam box, which is all it is. The bigger one would be a hazard to navigation when entering and exiting the shower. And the idea of tiling a triangle gave me night sweats. Adding that type of complexity to the tile job didn’t appeal to me, because as you’ve probably noticed, I’m lazier than a clean coal miner. But I listen to my wife every fortnight or so, and it always turns out well. I solved the problem another, less expensive, and dare I say it, superior way. More on that later.

Here’s another son I keep upstairs, like Rochester’s first wife. He wandered down and gave the new shower his seal of approval. He goes to college online. He’s the little kid you see playing the drums in the music videos I feature from time to time. He’s smarter than the rest of us. Not because he’s on the President’s list at UMaine. He’s smarter than us because he scheduled the school semester smack dab in the middle of the bathroom renovation, and didn’t have to help us much. He’ll go far in this world with that kind of foresight.

The two niches are in. B*tches love my niches, I always say when I want to sound like Snoop Doggy Dog, which is never. The waterproof membrane goes right to the ceiling line. You can see a little thinset mortar peeking out from the edges of the membrane. You embed the membrane using thinset mortar for its glue. It has more in common with wallpapering than tiling. It’s tough stuff, though. The floor will go in last.

This is the most important step in the whole procedure, and one that gets overlooked a lot. The floor has got to be flat and level and solid. Not sorta flat and level, either. The drainage slopes in the floor tray won’t work if the floor is tilted in any direction, and water will pool in the corners or against one or two walls. As you can imagine, my floor was serious whoopsie in the flat and level department. Here’s how we solved the problem.

I put a long level on the left and right sides of the opening. The right side was low, some, and the left side a lot. I shimmed the level on the left side until it was, well, level. I measured the height of the shims. I ripped 2″ x 4″  to that width. I laid the stick in the opening from left to right, and shimmed the left-hand side up until the stick was level. Then I set a compass to height of the gap between the floor and the stick on the left, and drew the compass across to the right. It tapered a lot. I cut to the line on a bandsaw, and then screwed and glued the stick in place.

Then I mixed up a batch of sand topping mix:

It’s concrete without any coarse aggregate in it. It’s basically mortar. I dumped it on the floor, and screeded it with the piece of leftover underlayment you see in the shower stall picture. You just drag it along, with a little sawtooth wiggling as you go, and the tapered shim you made does all the work for you. It dries out overnight, and you can work on a nice, flat floor the next day. We did.

[To be continued}

Running on Empty

We’re fixing our bathroom, remember? We’ve made a trade. We eschewed somewhat expensive, shabby plastic everything for a relatively inexpensive but potentially more elegant and durable tile installation in our shower. We’ve traded time for money. We’re forced to do this a lot. However, we also do it deliberately a lot. Here’s why.

A man gets a crappy job and trades his time for money. He needs that money to buy things he doesn’t have time for anymore, because job. Let’s say he wants a thing. He really only wants that thing, but the thing comes with all sorts of strings attached. The person he has to hire to make the thing or sell the thing has to obey all sorts of rules and pay all kinds of middlemen that have nothing to do with delivering the goods. And everyone’s taxed prodigiously coming and going. Pretty soon that simple thing, whatever it is, isn’t so simple anymore. The Orange Place told me I wanted a $30,000 bathroom, remember? No I don’t. I want a $2,000 bathroom, not a $2,000 bathroom with $28,000 of someone else’s overhead dragging along behind it like Marley’s ghostly chains.

We’re not cooperating in regular commerce and its byzantine processes very often. There’s more to it than simply starve the beast, too, but I certainly do that at every opportunity. Who would I get to do something — anything — if I didn’t do it myself? This is beginning to apply in every walk of life. Pretty soon, I’ll be doing my own thoracic surgery if things continue the way they are. No one seems to know how to do what’s written on their business card anymore.

Every once in a while, I get twenty pesos burning a hole in my pocket and figure it might be nice to have someone do something for me. I like to give my money to my neighbors whenever possible, too. Here’s a recent example. Our car needed a repair. Still does, though we already paid for one. We diagnosed the problem ourselves, and painstakingly described the repair to the shop. It included removing the left rear wheel to get at the part, disassembling the faulty part from the frame next to the gas tank, and putting the new part, which we named in the manufacturer’s exact lingo, back in its place. We waited two weeks for an appointment. Fine. They have a lift, and pneumatic tools at the ready. I figured they could do the job in twenty minutes. I would be saved from lying under a jacked up car while not doing something else just as important. The part wasn’t expensive, either, we looked this all up. I watched a fellow on YouTube make the repair. I could have done it. I wanted to live like other folks for ten minutes and get someone to do something for us.

Although the job was postponed for two weeks, they didn’t finish the job on the appointed day. You’d have to start it to finish it, after all, and they didn’t. The fellow said, “I promise I’ll come in on Saturday morning and do it.” He seemed to think he was doing us a favor. OK. We say fine. My wife calls on Saturday. No answer. She walks down to the place. It’s a hike. The fellow is in there alone, except for his three small children, who are running around the place trying to hurt themselves while he yells at them, and treating my wife to their hacking coughs.

My wife is confused, because the man is working under the hood of the car. He says he’s almost done and hands her a bill for $250. My wife wants to pay with her debit card, like the last time we went there to buy tires. No dice. We only accept cash and checks now, he says. She walks all the way home, and all the way back with our checkbook, and pays. When she gets the car home, we discover that he’s changed a solenoid switch instead of the part we asked for. The bill also has a $60 line item to buy a device to turn off the dashboard warning light. We own one of those, and used it to diagnose the problem in the first place. The trouble light was back on by the time the car made it home, anyway, and he kept the device.

Now I could go down there today and painstakingly explain the problem to whoever will listen to me while they nod and wait to say: tough luck. I could probably get them to fix the correct thing, with enough explanation, and some more money. I won’t, because it’s not worth the trouble to me. I’ll fix it myself. Ricardo’s Law of Comparative advantage doesn’t apply when everyone sucks at everything. I won’t be screaming on Yelp or threatening to sue or any other daft thing, either. All that does is make you conspicuous in a very small mind, which is a bad idea in today’s world. We just won’t go there anymore, and they’ll never know why. Or care, I imagine. They can work for everyone once, until they retire, or retire to prison, whichever comes first. I wanted to pay for a car repair, but paid tuition for an education instead. Still valuable.

Whew! So we’re back and working on our shower stall. the walls are waterproofed, and the floor is level. Now you lay in this foam tray with waterproofing fabric on it:

I can’t say whether this item is over-engineered or under-engineered, exactly. It’s both, if that’s possible. It’s certainly not one percent stronger than it needs to be. It’s basically a styrofoam cooler lid with rubbery shelf paper on it. But I think it’s not one percent less strong than it needs to be, too. It’s actually hinged in the middle, to allow it to be shipped in a box that UPS won’t sniff at. Good enough is good enough, I always say. We laid it flat in the stall, and tested the supplied drain doohickey to align the plumbing below. We’re working on the curb, too. It comes in two pieces. It’s a U-shaped foam affair, turned upside down. I’m checking it for level, because I leveled the floor, and I don’t trust that guy, either.

Once you’re sure everything is copacetic, you remove the tray, lay down some mortar, and put it back in place. Then you bed the drain flange, the flanges around the faucet handle and the stub for the shower head in mortar, too. I packed the seam on the left with mortar. Probably overkill, it was within their specs, but there’s no sense taking any sort of chance with a shower floor. The curb is bedded in mortar, too.

There’s a fussy little procedure that happens now. Sorry, I don’t have pictures. There are a series of corner pieces and seam-covering strips that seal the joins between the walls and the floor, and the curb and the floor, and the seams in the curb. It looks like this:

I gather from reading online reviews that everyone hires the best tilesetter in the history of porcelain, and they get this part wrong, and the shower leaks forevermore. I have relatives who suffer from this, although they have the blue version of this orange stuff. The best tilesetter in the history of porcelain, the only fellow that everyone seems to hire, appears to be related to our mechanic, more times than not. Read the directions: it’s not that hard.

The floor in the shower is sloped in four directions to reach the drain. That calls for mosaic tile. We bought the cheapest version we could find. We’re sticking with a dark gray (black) and white color scheme. You can spend a lot on this kind of tile. People use marble mosaic tile a lot, but marble costs a fortune, is slippery, and stains easily, so I don’t get the allure. There’s some sort of shared madness that makes Pinteresters put pebbles in there. Yes, uneven footing in an enclosed space with sheets of glass handy. What could go wrong? I haven’t washed the local seashore lately, but I imagine it’s hard to clean rocks with a scrub brush, too. The tile we got looks fine, and the pattern is simple and interesting enough. The flexible nature of hexes on a rubber backing made it adapt to the slopes fairly readily. And lots of grout lines make it grippy instead of slippy under your feet.

Tomorrow, we tile the walls.

[To be continued, as soon as I fix the car]

[Update: Many thanks go out to Hank for his generous, ongoing support for this site via our tip jar. It is much appreciated]

Architectonicking for Dummies

So we’re required to perform a dash of architecture now.

I know you’ve been watching teevee again and think architecture is some dude with gray temples wearing a corduroy sportcoat with leather ovals on the elbows, sitting at a big slanted desk covered with giant sheets of paper defaced with incomprehensible lines. But it ain’t. Architecture is a process in three parts, or should be, but rarely is.

I’ve heard it expressed as head, heart, hand, which isn’t bad, but smacks of live, laugh, love signs, so I’ll give it a pass if you don’t mind. Architecture as a practice requires you to meld structural concerns with aesthetic choices grafted onto the ergonomic demands of the occupants or passersby, depending on whether you’re designing a snout house or an obelisk in the park. To simplify further, it should be sturdy, look good, and accommodate the people that use it. Architects don’t even try to do that (their job) anymore. A few of them manage two out of three. Most don’t care about more than one.

In a house, the engineering part is a trifle. If you need any heavy duty engineering to build a house, you’re building a dumb house. Engineers who design their own houses forget about the occupants (their wife) and any visitors and indulge their penchant for cables and girders and spans and buttresses and wires and pipes and lots of other unattractive things they’re supposed to hide in the walls. Interior decorators with a hand in their home’s design start thinking about throw pillows on day one, and work back from there. And full-blown architects ignore the occupants entirely, figure the customer can hire an engineer to worry about how to hold up the roof no matter what they come up with, hire someone to buy throw pillows when they’re through, and simply scrawl the weirdest thing they can imagine on their sketchpads or computer screens. See Frank Gehry for the most virulent strain of this carbuncle. To confound the public further, computer nerds started calling simple coding “architecting” to make themselves sound important, and make my eye twitch when I read it.

I’m working on very small batches of architectonicking (take that, code monkeys), it’s true. I’m hunched on a stool in a shower stall, trying to make this little spot attractive, sturdy, and useful. Designing stuff like this is more like juggling than a linear process. You have to keep all three balls in the air at the same time. You can’t worry about appearance all the way through, then pick up the other two balls off the floor. Each affects the others.

So we’re using 3″ x 6″ porcelain subway tile again, because it’s a fundamental building block, sturdy, attractive, and cheap. Really cheap in this case. They’re imported from Turkey and cost fourteen cents a piece. So I forgot to mention that because of our circumstances, I have to add a fourth dimension to architecture: the budget. That’s something no architect ever gives a shiny shite about. He’s always spending someone else’s money, so money is no object. I’ve got to use whatever’s handy and cheap to achieve the other three design parameters. It gets daunting sometimes.

Subway tile is pleasant, cleans easily, and looks sane to most everyone. It produces an unforgiving grid, however. It’s a field tile. The edges are up to you to deal with. I’ve got to deal with the join between the floor and the walls. The floor slopes, remember? For a change, it’s supposed to slope, unlike all the other floors in my ramshackle house. But if I lay a full course of tile along the floor to begin the wall, the whole wall will be slanted like a major newspaper. What to do?

Builders used to understand that transitions from one thing to another were best handled by overlapping them with things like moldings. Otherwise things get fussy. They also knew that everything, including houses, looks better with a definable head, Fettermans excepted. Things look saner with a definable base to sit on, too. And too much of a good thing (subway tile) is still too much.

So we took some leftover tile from bathroom floor and cut it on a wet saw, and made a sort of baseboard, It’s a rich, grayish black. We put it on both sides of the curb, too. We snapped a (level) line on the wall where the field tile would begin its march up the wall, and measured down from that to conform to the slope of the floor. It looked nice, was more durable than field tile, and was better than throw pillows for softening up the join between the wall and the floor.

But you have to think ahead. The niches needed to be integrated into the grid scheme of the field tile, too. We lined the interior of the niches with more leftover pieces of the floor tile. The top of the tile baseboard and the edges of the niches get a brushed metal profile. These are sorta new, and a godsend for people like me. Fitting bullnose tiles around niches like that is difficult, and expensive, because you have to buy all sorts of bullnose shapes to accomplish it. These profiles look clean and cost way less. We also embedded a profile on top of the black baseboard tile, to define the transition from baseboard to field tile.

Part of determining where the first course of field tiles would begin was measuring carefully to make sure the niches would break about in the center of the courses of tiles. We’d installed them one tile-length from the corner to make that work out as well as could be expected, too. We’re going to tile all the way up to the ceiling, to confuse the spiders who used to live up there. We put a brushed metal profile at the top of the field, too, instead of having a raggedy grout line along the ceiling. Then we turned our attention to the side walls.

I started on the left-hand wall first, because it was easier than the right-hand wall, which has the shower head spout and mixing valve in it. That would require more measuring and cutting and fussing. I figured, if I’m struck by lightning halfway through, I’d feel silly talking to the patron saint of architects, Frank Gehry’s little brother Beelzebub, knowing that I could have had an easier last day on earth than I did.

[To be continued. Please tell your friends about Sippican Cottage]

That’s My Plan and I’m Sticking To It

So, we’re tiling y’all. Pressing on, and pressing little oblong slabs into some mortar.

You can place subway tile like this on the wall using regler tile adhesive. It’s goop in a bucket. It holds the tile pretty well, and dries in a day or so. We used it on the backsplash tile in the kitchen, if I remember correctly. But we’re deep in mortar country here, folks, so keep your hands inside the ride at all times.

I used to use Custom mortars, if for no other reason than the Orange Place, the local lumberyard, and the hardware all carried their brand. The stuff let me down when I was mortaring the tiles on the floor. Wouldn’t set properly. I had to scrape it out from around the drain and start over. It’s then I discovered that the Blue Place had Mapei mortars and grout. Mortar is basically just dirt in a bag, so I don’t understand how Mapei could get it so right compared to Custom, who got it so wrong. I finished the job with Mapei stuff, and loved it right through. They’ve got a modified grout that’s right next door to epoxy, too. I used that as well. It’s bulletproof compared to most grouts, and has stayed clean lo these many months. It even smells better while it’s giving you silicon silicosis.  Most men have dreams of being slowly suffocated by too much silicone, not silicon, but I’m not most men.

We finally did get around to the wall on the right. When you place tile on the wall in a bed of mortar, you put little plastic spacers shaped like a cross to get the lines right. However, you have to roll with the punches a little. The old walls are slightly off-kilter, and since some of them lean back a little, they are essentially longer than the wall right next to them. That can wreak havoc with your spacing. We need to keep the tile on level lines, but also line up the grout lines with the wall next to the wall you’re working on, or forever banish obsessive compulsive bathers from the bano. You can see that I’ve dealt with the problem by aligning the tile on the left hand side, and then slowly making up the difference with business card shims. Once I got to about the shower valve, the wall took a turn for the better, and I breezed the rest of the way.

That sheet of paper taped to the back wall sure looks interesting to you, I’m sure. Perhaps it holds some secret to the inner working of a great mind. Inside info is best info. Maybe the real skinny is on the paper. We’ll zoom in and let you get a gander at the thought process of the genius tiling the shower:

That’s my plan, and I’m sticking to it.

The Blue Place artfully placed solid surface slabs next to the tile aisle (I’ll let devotees of alliteration and sibilance and couplets and suchlike chew on that sentence for a while. It’s more fun if you read it aloud in Daffy Duck’s voice). I bought one to forestall the need to tile the top of the curb. It’s quartz-y, if not actual quartz stuff. Really heavy, but kind of floppy, actually, which surprised me. When I cut it with an abrasive disc in a grinder, it emitted a familiar smell to me. Jayzuz, are they charging $100 a square foot for Corian again, only calling it quartz this time? Whatever. I laid the strip atop the curb in one last bed of mortar, and the tile job was finished.

[Tomorrow, we’ll fit this baby out]

Gantt We Still Be Friends?

Wait. Saturday and Sunday aren’t work days? Who knew?

I once held the title of Project Manager for a large-ish commercial construction company. Your job was simply to make sure that the material necessary to complete a job was purchased and delivered to the jobsite when it was needed, but not before if you could help it. Stuff grows legs and gets broken if it’s hanging around too long. You’re also supposed to make sure the correct crew or subcontractor was there to receive it and bang on it until they broke it and called you to get another one. By tomorrow, preferably.

The project manager job seemed really, really simple compared to slugging it out on my own in the residential subcontractor landscape. The main reason it was so easy was that there was a budget with plenty of zeros, and you spent it to get what you needed. You had to shop around a bit, but essentially you were a drunken sailor wandering around with tens of thousands of dollars in your pockets. Speaking of zeros, there was always plenty of zeros in pickup trucks available to do the work, instead of me hitting my thumb all by my lonesome.

Well, now I’m the crew and I’m always at the jobsite, either tiling the shower stall or brushing my teeth or something, so scheduling me isn’t a big undertaking. Buying stuff in advance was a problem, though, because we don’t have much money. I have to shop around a lot, which wastes time that could be spent tiling or brushing my teeth. And we have to “settle” sometimes. But we don’t really compromise all that much, truth be told. We just completely do without many things many other people find essential, and concentrate on the things we think are important.

So we had to have a budget for this debacle before we started, and have a plan of attack, of course. There were no Gantt charts or anything, or detailed spreadsheets for the materials. That’s a waste of time. We simply had to know if we had enough dough to finish, or we wouldn’t ever start. You can’t tear apart the bathroom and lose interest halfway through. That’s college, not construction. We had to save our pennies for a decade or so to get to this fairly expensive project. It cost more than lifting the house, or roofing it, and even more than the kitchen remodel. We had to buy stuff, and bathroom stuff ain’t cheap. Even the cheap stuff ain’t cheap.

So, here’s our budget: I figured I needed $500 for the Schluter shower stuff and assorted showery things. I figured we’d need $500 for a decent sink and the various things grouped around it, like a mirror and faucet and shutoff valves. I figured we needed $500 for all the tile, drywall, light fixtures, paint, woodwork, and band-aids. And we’d need $500 for a glass shower door.

So when I told you that the Orange Place said I wanted a $30,000 bathroom, and I said pshaw, I want a $2,000 one, I wasn’t joking. I could have spent a couple of hundred dollars and changed out a few knobs and painted the place, but we’d done that already back in the mists of antiquity and the Great Recession. It wasn’t worth doing again for less than two grand, and it couldn’t cost a penny more. That’s an easy budget to figure.

So like a good project manager, I ordered a glass sliding shower door and frame just enough in advance to get it in the house before it snowed three feet and made deliveries hinky. We didn’t get an expensive one. Holy cow the really ugly ones cost over a grand. We didn’t get the cheapest one, either. We got the cheapest acceptable one. That’s different. The cheapest ones aren’t much less expensive, but the glass is thinner than Karen Carpenter (too soon?). We got the least expensive one with slightly thicker glass. We worry less every day about busting it. It came by truck freight on a big pallet, and we worried about them busting it instead:

But they didn’t. It weighed a lot. It was as fragile as a teenage ego, but somehow it arrived unscathed, a testament to good packaging or dumb luck, take your pick. Either way, we were careful not to scathe it ourselves. We leaned the pallet against the plywood you see there, to keep it from being a hazard to navigation in the dining room. Knowing how the cat operates, I screwed the pallet to the floor so it couldn’t slide down or tip over and dash our shower door dreams to tempered bits at two AM. We’ll be renovating the dining room in blogposts shortly, so drilling holes in that floor didn’t give me the willies.

The instructions were great. I’m not being sarcastic. They were the best instructions I’ve ever seen, because there weren’t any. They sent you to a webpage and had a video of how to install it instead, recorded in a sort of cartoon world. I loved disembodied hands drilling holes on orthagonal trajectories with eighties muzak playing in the background. It sure beats reading the Chinglish version of Ikea instructions which usually come with these things.

We helped ourselves a bit with other forms of planning ahead. There was plenty of wood blocking in the walls to accept the anchors for the frame.  The opening was damn near square, and curb was level and more or less at right angles to the walls. Those are the things that make the difference between having a hard time with these things or not. I gave my wife a seven-dollar industrial diamond spade bit to drill though the porcelain tile to set the anchors, instead of a diamond ring for our anniversary, but she didn’t seem to mind too much. I sleep with one eye open for any number of reasons, not just that one.

Nothing left to do but put in the shower valve and head.

And here you see how we solved the built-in bench conundrum. We bought an inexpensive teak-ish semicircular bench instead of very expensive Schluter bench accessories. It’s quite sturdy and out of the way in the corner there, and my wife loves it, and me sometimes, I guess. I didn’t have to tile it, thank jayzuz. And elegant? It’s just like Central Park in June: There’s an occasional bum on it.

[Tomorrow: Before and after pictures!]

Tag: fixing the bathroom

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