Saturday, December 21, 2013

Dreaming of the New Year

This time of year provides a nice break, a breather from all types of work. We're still waiting on that big rain storm to see if the roof will hold its water. Otherwise, I don't have an active project--I've pushed everything back until January.

However, I'm busy planning the new covered grill area for the backyard. I'm using Sketchup to work through all the many issues involved in laying mission tile. In the end I'll spend more time planning than doing.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Holy Place

I've gotten to the point that I don't notice how high up it is. I don't get sick at my stomach with fear any more. My brain doesn't freeze up. I can even stand on the ledge of the balcony. And look down.

The holy grail of leaks starts here in this unlikely space. I look at it with reverence and respect now, knowing that its secrets are profound. Its leaking, legendary.

After much research I finally had a plan of action. If the roofers I called did not have an answer, or if they annoyed me in any way, or if they quoted an exorbitant amount. For any slight reason, I would send them away.

But they were great. And now I see that my plans were faulty. One of the leaks is fixed now (it was a hair-line crack in the wall--who knew?). And they will return on Friday to tackle the really mysterious one--if it can be tackled...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Chupacabra of Leaks

The ceiling at top of the stairs has been leaking for 20 or 30 years. I know this because the previous owners cut a small, neat hole in it, about 6 x 6 inches, so that the water would have an easy and agreed-upon escape route. We've consulted with several roofers, of course, and all except one of them refused to take the job. The leak is infamous and legendary within the circle of local roofers, like the chupacabra, invincible, insidious and terrible, and no one will work on our roof. No one will even give us an estimate. The roofers drive up, see that it is our house, and then drive away.

This week another section of the ceiling buckled and began leaking. It's only a small area of ceiling, still with the original plasterboard, at least it was until I pulled it all down this week. Its geometry had changed such that the little hole was no longer the path of least resistance, and the entire section was soaked. What a mess.

So this finally gave me the opportunity to see where all that water was coming from.

Meanwhile, one of the bamboo tops broke off and impaled itself. Cool.

More later about the leak.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fixing It Once and For All

After the many years of neglect, of being soaked with rain in slow degrees, the little ceiling under the side roof could no longer support a simple patch and paint job. One of the boards had to be replaced completely

These were tongue and groove pine boards, not like the ceiling that runs everywhere else outside. I could have just put a new board in place, but instead I cut a new tongue and groove board just for fun. It fit on the second adjustment.

Evidently this area was repaired once before, and I'm guessing that the boards in this section were leftover from the time that our bedroom was added to the house, possibly about 70 years ago. The boards are pine floor boards, just like the ones in our bedroom.

If my assumptions are correct, this water leak has been tormenting the house since World War II. Today I finished painting the wood. The project is pretty much complete except that I still have to wait another 2 weeks (according to the Internet gurus) before I can paint the new stucco patch on the wall. And then the next marathon rain storm will decide whether I have finally broken the curse and fixed the leak once and for all times.

Willow has assigned her two flunkies to oversee things. She must think my chances of success are pretty slim.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Tree House for Tools

The problem with my leak is that it required an interdisciplinary solution. I would need a carpenter, a masonry person and a roofer. And not just any roofer--I'd need someone who works with Ludowici tiles.

Of course, I could do it myself (after studying all about the Ludowici Mission-style tiles), but the work site is about 14 feet above ground, and I can barely breathe at that altitude, at least when there is any chance I might fall.

So I built some scaffolding, something I've always wanted to do, like a little tree house except for tools.

My suspicions turned out to be true. Water had been wicking in behind the wall for years and years, rotting out a small section of roofing. The water was running down the wall. It ruined the previous window (the one I replaced), and now it stupidly thinks that it can ruin our new window.

I found evidence of at least two different attempts to repair the problem. In the first attempt, from decades ago, someone had cut out a section of stucco and then sort of pasted it back. This section just crumbled when I removed the roof tiles. Whatever the intent, the repair did not work

The second repair was done out of apparent desperation. The leak would not go away, so the person used massive amount of mortar as a sort of filler on the seam of where the roof meets the wall. The mortar, of course, had become black with mold because mortar is as thirsty as a sponge. Despite the mess, I was able to chip away at the mortar until I could pull up the tiles (I broke only one of them).

I replaced the roof, put on some new tar paper, and filled the hole in the wall with braces so that I will be able to attach some wire mess and put in new stucco.

Here's the section of crown molding I installed under the roof edge.

Next, the stucco,and then replacing the Ludowici tiles.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Watery Hubris

After nearly 5 years of apparent success, the first evidence of distress has now worked its way to the surface. I guess I've always known that my confidence was misplaced, that the rain was not really defeated from finding its way behind the wall, somewhere, somehow, and that it would eventually find the precious, soft, thirsty pine and give it a drink, which is OK for a while but only until the drinking becomes a problem and the wet wood invites mold and mildew to set up. I knew this would happen, and I could have done more to prevent it if only I had better understood the process back then. And now I can see a dark stain on the trim of our breakfast room window. The horror.

Water doesn't flow into a wooden structure, not like water flows down a ditch. No, the wooden boards pull it in, one cell feeding another, sucking it along the path of least resistance. I should have used a vapor barrier like tar paper just behind the trim. But I suppose that seemed overly cautious at the time.

Now the question is: where is the water getting in? Nothing invites superstition more than that question. After 10 years in this house, I have given up on the leaks. It rains, and when it rains long enough, the water gets in. The roofers I've called just shrug their shoulders--what can be done? Nothing. Rain will seep into the tiniest of tiny cracks, the skinniest of skinny pin holes.

I see what needs to be done but am lacking the will to do it. I can see that someone attempted a repair to the tiles by slathering them with concrete. These tiles need to be removed and replaced.

By god, I will do it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Branch Down

The wind ripped through our back yard this week and twisted the big cherry laurel branch until it snapped--this is the branch that has provided shade for the fish ever since we moved in. A benevolent branch but not of a sturdy stock. I've watched it over the years, hanging there in defiance of gravity, much too fat for its own good and holding onto the mother trunk with no regard for common sense. More than once I considered trimming it back.

I was able to cut most of it down and carry the big limbs to the street. But since then it's rained and rained. I look out at the messy pond, the broken fern branches and the little remains of tree. What a soggy mess, all because I was too tired to finish the job when I had the chance.

Jam wanted to steal my t-shirt from the table, so I let him wear it for a while. Looks better on him than me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A New Bridge

The old bridge over the upper pond is black and creaky and tired after several years of duty. Whoever designed it had good intentions, hoping that the graceful arch would add some additional grace, but the arch is too steep, and even the dogs are reluctant to walk over it for fear of slipping on the moldy foot boards. I can count the number of times I've crossed it in nine years, and I can count the number of times I've slipped onto my butt, which is once, just the other day. Once is enough.

So the Fall-Winter backyard project has a new sub-project (in addition to the pergola/gazebo and new flagstone walkways). Because I'm getting better with SketchUp, the design only took an hour or so, and I'm pretty happy with it. I've flattened out the arch, and the thicker bridge posts will have caps like the ones on the fence, so hopefully things will tie together.

In the meantime the summer rains have been very agreeable to our new plants, all thriving in their pots. Maybe by next Spring, when the hardscaping is complete, we can find a permanent home for these guys.

Our new pepper plant is in a state of compulsive production, which is OK, but I've been talking to her and telling her to chill out and take a break--we don't need 40 peppers every day. Maybe she's telling me that she prefers being potted. Maybe she knows how many of her species have met a bad end in our yard after I forced them into the ground.

Time is running out for my decision on the pergola/gazebo, but I just can't find the right design, something that is simple, practical and beautiful, and with just enough arch to make us happy. I'm looking.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mystery Pagodas

I continue searching everywhere for a gazebo design that speaks to me. I love all the mini pagodas that I find, with their dramatically curved roofs, but they are a mystery because not one of them have plans or drawings or a clue about how to build them. How can this be?

I can sort of imagine what lies beneath the roof, but not with sufficient confidence, and I seem to more cautious these days, less likely to just make something up on the fly.

And then I wonder if such a thing would be appropriate, anyway, for our backyard Florida hammock, to be tucked under those big oaks and surrounded by philodendrons and viney things. Wouldn't a more rustic structure blend in? And so the waffling continues.

I consult my assistant project manager, Jam, but he insists on a beach theme. What a good boy

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Virtual Woodworker

My search for the perfect design has taken a dark turn. I'm torn between two different concepts--the gazebo and the pergola--and I waffle back and forth, nothing new for me because I've always been a waffler, but now there is a new layer to my waffling. Now I'm learning Google SketchUp, a free graphics software that allows me to see my ideas in 3-D and from all directions, which is an apparently good thing except that using the software is a type of addiction, an infectious hobby that has attracted a whole community of people on the internet who do their projects only with this software, never actually bring home the wood or cut it or assemble it. These virtual woodworkers display and share their finished projects online, and they discuss with great detail how they solved each technical difficulty (of the software, not the wood). And I am beginning to understand why.

Using the software, mistakes are easily erased away, and there is no end to the possibilities, all of which are free except for the time that is sucked away during the process. Try this, try that, make this thicker, thinner, etc. It never ends.

But back to the gazebo and pergola. A gazebo has a roof while the pergola is open. A roof means rafters, and rafters are installed at an angle, and angles are tricky to do in the SketchUp software, at least for novices like me, especially when you consider that that gazebo I want to build is a hexagon.

By contrast, the software is allowing me to easily create and try different pergola designs. Here's a pergola design that I'm considering:

But I don't like the idea that the software is pushing me in one direction of another. I do not like this one bit. I'd prefer to concentrate on the practical issues.

For example, pergolas are ideal to support flowering vines, while the gazebo's roof is not so good for vines. Also, building a roofed gazebo could prompt one of our nosy neighbors to complain to the city, which could require the pulling of a building permit.

More later.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Good Luck, Coach

Possibly it's because I've been distracted by other events, and with a eye to ignore the inevitable, I guess, so that the inevitable would not come--yesterday Coach went in for training and we may never see him again. The best we can hope for is a quick hello when he becomes a guide dog, though I can't even allow myself to hope for it because hoping did not work in the past with our other dogs.

The day would not be delayed, and today Coach is at school. And though we have every reason to believe that he's very happy with his new classmates and his new life, and though we had known about this for months--the exact date and time of his IFT (in for training)-I am almost confused today about his absence.

At some point during the past several days, I'm not sure when, I've finished the hallway table project. I felt sure there was something else that could be done, but there's not.

Good luck, Coach.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Hall Table

I'm struggling with curves. These curves haunt my early morning hours, elusive, beautiful. And these aren't curves of the feminine kind (well, usually not)... No, these are curves in wood, like the ones in the Japanese azumaya that I was planning to build.

Long, graceful curves along the wood grain. Easier said than done--these are very, very difficult cuts.

The beauty of a curve comes from its simple and perfect grace, something that diminishes with each slight imperfection, even those not apparent to the eye. Our brains are hard-wired to appreciate the perfection of nature expressed in geometry and symmetry. If the cuts aren't perfect, I will look out and hate them every day.

It turns out that the design shown above is an Americanized version of a pagoda roof--an authentic roof of this type should achieve its curve without having to actually cut curves into the rafters. So now I searching for a new, authentic plan (I'm not giving up).

In the meantime I'm exploring some curves in the hall table I'm building for Cheryl. I also found a way to cut some nice tapers into the legs. Even these small curves are tormenting me. I've just finished gluing the legs and aprons.

This will be a really delicate hall table just by the entry to the kitchen.

At some point time in the near future, the dogs will run into the table at full speed and turn it into splinters.

Sunday, June 30, 2013


Summer is transforming itself with some deception. I know from experience (or at least I think I know) what will happen if I attempt to do any serious work outdoors in July and August. But now the rains have started. Yesterday a nice cool one soaked me as I was planting the new sun-loving bamboo that should do well along the fence and should help hide the power pole out back. The quick flash of rain had me shivering when I came in to the air conditioning.

Cheryl got me a great book on Japanese garden design. It's got my head swimming with all sorts of ideas, of wandering stone paths and Feng Shui and complexity and simplicity, except that all these ideas require work to implement. And July is here.

We've also got four new trees in the back yard, sitting in pots until we find the right spots for them. Here's our Calamondia orange.

In the master project schedule for the backyard, it's OK to get these plants now because they are out of the way and won't be disturbed by the hardscaping to come, such as the French drain I'll need to make below the patio (which now puddles up during a rain). The yard will be a mess for months to come.

Also last week we put in 4 new giant bird of paradise alone the fence.

Ha, no heat stroke yet.

Here's another of the new trees: a Kaffir lime.

Am I tougher than the summer? Maybe this year I am.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Not What the Mayans Would Do

Continuing on with the long and painful process of converting our former jungle into a less-jungly place, yesterday I tackled the area by the outdoor oven, a place that had become covered with weeds and vines to the point that the stone patio had disappeared, not unlike some of the Mayan ruins that we visited in the Yucatan, overgrown from centuries of neglect, except in our case it has only taken a few years.

No, this patio was not designed with the skill and foresight of Mayan engineers. Whoever put down these stone did so in a hurry and without regard for the future--no real drainage is accounted for, so in just a few years the rain waters have deposited a layer of Florida soil on top. Adventurous roots found a way to grip onto the stones and create their own layer of earth.

A row of ferns lines the patio to the left, several of which were growing directly on top of the stones. I severed these from the main group by cutting the roots with garden shears. Once the roots were cut I was able to pull away the thick mat of tiny roots covering the stones for about two feet, very much like a fibrous door mat about 2 inches thick.

Ferns will cover the planet after humans are gone--they are by far the biggest bullies in our yard.

Then on to the rest of the area, pulling the weeds one at a time from between the stones, checking with my shears to see when I was on top of stone or not. I swept away the dirt and weeds and then attempted to wash off newly revealed patio. I didn't even realize that the stones extended all the way to the picnic table (on the right). Of course, I couldn't really wash them because the water just puddled.

Unless I redo this patio, it will get eaten up by the jungle again, and very soon. This whole area needs to be elevated several inches so that water will run of quickly. Worse, the low spot is currently the air hole that feeds the oven--if a storm comes up while I'm smoking something, the water will just rush into that hole.

All I need is a ton or two of sand...

Next: setting up our new fruit trees.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Making My Own Post Caps

Post caps can cost $20 or more each, and I had 16 posts to cap. I spent less on my first car. So, not that I am cheap or anything, I felt motivated to make my own post caps.

To start, Home Depot doesn't sell pressure-treated trim molding--I would have to make my own. A few years ago I made the pine molding in our guest room, and I was very happy with the notion of doing it again. Molding makes me happy (which is perfectly normal). I have a router table just for this purpose.

I routed out long strips of pine, and got enough molding from one piece of fencing (about $1.30, not that money had anything to do with it). Then I cut them into little picture-frame pieces, all exactly the same size (well, not exact at the molecular level, but close, possibly a few atoms one way or the other).

Then I taped the pieces together and rested them on back of the post cap top that I cut with my table saw. From one 2 x 6 (about $2.70, not that I care), I got 16 tops.

Cute. This keeps the frame square.

Then I centered the frame on the cap and fastened it with 8 nails. I wanted to use my nail gun but couldn't find stainless steel brad nails. Total nail cost: 48 cents (or 49).

Here's the assembled cap, with some pine knots on the top. Yes, I could have skipped over the knots, but that would have cost me 75 cents or more, and I'm not crazy. Besides, the pine knots add character.

Then I had to cut the posts down to size. I cut one, then put up a cap temporarily and asked Cheryl what she thought. "You want them that low?" she asked, but having already cut the post, it was too late for the others to be any higher. I thought they should be a little lower, so we are now both disappointed.

One by one I pressed the caps into place with a big glop of exterior construction glue (about $2.25 total).

Total project time: about 4 hours. Total cost: I don't care.

We only did the posts in back. The side-yard posts are still about 8 feet tall, and we're planning to run wires between them and coax some pretty vines to grow on them.

Next: landscape plan

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Zombie Landscaping

The clearing of trees has a single-minded thrust and wide-angled lens. I was determined to finish up this weekend, determined to clear-cut the yard and be finished with it. Normally I would take each plant into consideration and have some sympathy for it before I yank it from the earth, but this weekend I approached the yard with a zombie's sense of compassion and determination.

And this was no small number of trees. We had literally thousands of trees, though most of them were no bigger than a small weed, which is what cherry laurel trees are--weeds that spread underground, one of Florida's most invasive plants (not that I can be forgiven for what I've done). Only about 20 or 30 of these trees were too big for the lawn mower, and only about 10 were bigger than about 3 inches in diameter.

Of course, I had already decapitated them a week ago, leaving about 5 feet of trunk as a lever to help get out the roots. Have these plants been in agony this past week? Probably.

Cherry laurel roots run out laterally from the base of the tree. They typically don't have a tap root that grows straight down, like an oak. So my task was to uncover the main side roots, cut them with an ax, and then wiggle the trunk until it comes out. I discovered that these roots were often as big as the trunk. Cutting just the trunk would have been easier, but this would have left a visible trunk, and I never wanted to see these guys again.

With the trunks out of the way, I was able to run my lawn mover, and now we have a typical Florida oak hammock, waiting to be filled with new plants. Hopefully the new plants won't ever learn of the violence done here or of the zombie monster that did it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Big Jaws

The clearing of brush and stumps continues, and I have already moved an incredible amount of limbs and vines to the curb, so much stuff that knew I would be cursed by the city workers when they had to pick it all up.

In our previous house, which is only about two miles away, we had to put everything into plastic bags or the trash people would not pick it up. But here, and I'm not quite sure why, we can just pile our stuff at the curb. I've had big piles of stuff before, but this was the mother of all piles--three big piles, each more than 6 feet tall.

On Friday when I heard a big truck outside I ran to get my camera and peeked through the upstairs window, careful not to let them see me, because I am a coward and ashamed of the big mess I had made. I expected to see a small army of people working on the pile and hating me for it, but by the time I got my camera ready, the piles were already gone. All I saw was a large mechanical arm and a set of 8-foot steel jaws. I was amazed as it crushed and ate a pile in one bite, picking it up and dropping it into the truck with no effort at all, all before I had time to take a picture.

Two or three more bites, and it was done.

I'm only half done with the stumps but at least I don't have to worry about trash guys anymore.

Next: removing stumps

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Clearing the Jungle

I have a nice little hand saw for cutting limbs and small trees. It can rip through a baseball bat size tree limb in about 30 seconds. Early this morning I took it to the side yard to see how much jungle I could remove. The area has be left to nature for at least 15 years, maybe much longer, overgrown with cherry laurel trees growing at an angle to reach some light, and infested with vines that grown well up into the two big oak trees.

One type of vine is very thick, and maybe it is a tree of some kind because it has branches and is very tough, but it grows in all directions, and I never noticed before today that these things have grown up 30 or 40 feet into the oaks, and they refuse to be pulled out. What the heck are those things?

After a few hours of hand sawing, I decided it was time for the neighbors to wake up, and I brought out my big chain saw and now I have a pile of brush about 4 feet deep, 80 feet wide and 80 feet long. The two citrus trees that finally died are also gone now. I've left all the stumps up to about 5 or 6 feet because, as I recently discovered, this makes them easier to remove.

Then a break for lunch, and then I spent 3 hours of moving brush to the curb, until the heat would not allow me to walk another step, and I only got a small part of the yard cleared out. I have enough limbs and brush remaining to line the entire street in front of the house. But not today.

Now we can see one neighbor's garage and the other's guest house. Oh well.

Next: Removing stumps