Sunday, December 28, 2014

Grill Area, A Pattern Emerges

The start of any project is ugly. Demolition creates a disturbing chaos, visually and emotionally, because we can't be sure that such destruction is necessary. After all, someone years ago installed the concrete picnic table in our back yard, and no doubt they stood back to gaze at it with affection. I'm sure they had some pleasant dinners on that table, but not us--we've neglected it, let it grow mold, and never once had a meal on it.

And the picnic table was in the spot where I plan to build the new grill area. But what to do with half a ton of concrete? Break it up and throw it away? No, I decided to knock it down and use it as a foundation for the stone patio, elevated so that a heavy rain doesn't flood the grill. It just took a few minutes and the table top and benches were flat on ground. No going back now.




Then I moved some of the old concrete tiles to complete the base area. A pattern began to emerge from the chaos. I filled in the gaps with rubble, like paint on a canvas, and the pattern came to life.

I almost ran into the house to get Cheryl. "There's something really beautiful in the yard I'd like you to photograph," I said to her with some pride.

We walked out and she curled her eyebrows at me. "Are you kidding?" she asked.

"You can make it beautiful," I said. (After all, I did get her that really nice camera lens for Christmas...)

"OK," she said, "but we aren't going to actually see this, are we?"

I explained that it will be under the stone.
A future homeowner will uncover my artwork some day and wonder why we buried a perfectly nice picnic table. Maybe I should leave a note.





Friday, November 28, 2014

The Secret Jam Cam

On Wednesday we installed some surveillance cameras so that we can watch the dogs while we are out. Specifically, we hoped this would give us a chance to have a normal and relaxed Thanksgiving dinner at our friends house while Jam was home alone. Here's what happened.

2:15pm
The dog have been walked and pooped and fed early. The house has been picked up so that Jam doesn't have any obvious temptations. I walk Cheryl to the car but then come back inside so that Jam might think it's a normal work day. Cheryl pulls out of the driveway. I come back into the house and watch TV for a second, then I go out the back door to trick Jam into thinking that I'm just doing some yard work and will be back soon. I walk around the house and then get into the car with Cheryl.

2:20pm
We turn on the iPhone app that controls the cameras in the house. I expect to see Jam at or near the back door, waiting for me to come back. But there's no Jam. I switch to the living room camera. We can take pictures of the video feed, so I got this one of him on the couch looking out the window to the driveway. I love this.
He knew I was lying about working in the back yard, but he's not sure where I am. We drive away.

2:25pm
I switch to the kitchen cam, and there is Jam snooping around, checking out the counter tops. Bad boy. But there is nothing frantic about him--he's calming walking around.

2:26pm
Then seconds later we can see that he's opened a cabinet door (despite the baby locks) and he's taken out one piece of Tupperware (see the arrow) and put it on the floor.

No big deal, but we circle back to the house. Cheryl parks on the street and watches Jam on video while I run around to the back door and come back inside, as though I had been working in yard the whole time. I put the Tupperware away and give him a mild scolding. Jam is truly surprised to see me.

2:30pm
We're back on the road. We can see Jam at the backdoor. Then minutes later he is taking a nap. We are relieved to see this.

2:30 - 6:00pm
We continue to check throughout the afternoon, and Jam slept the whole day. What a relief to see that he is not stressed out. We had a very pleasant day as a result.

6:00pm
It's dark outside so the cameras have gone into nighttime mode. Here are Willow and Jam, sleeping on the couch in the living room.
We had a very nice Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Filling the Tiny Cracks

My allergies continue to fill my head with so much fluid that I can barely think. One good thing about keeping a blog is that I can go back and check my memory, specifically to find out when my allergies were ever this bad. Was it in October? Yes, turns out it was in October 2011. So maybe it's something in the October air.

Unfortunately, I am unusually tired all the time, the type of fatigue that prevents me from concentrating for long. And almost everything that's worth doing requires some concentration.

Over the weekend I decided to tackle another area of the patio, replacing the sand (and dormant weeds) in the cracks with mortar. But unlike the walkway that I recently grouted, the big patio was laid with stones very close together in places--my thinking at the time was that tiny cracks would discourage weeds from moving in. But I discovered that weeds love those tiny cracks.


If I were floating in the mortar, the job would go pretty quickly. But I don't want to stain the stone, so I'm tucking in the mortar (using very dry mortar and pressing it into the cracks). And tucking the grout into those tiny cracks requires real patience. After a couple hour of this on Sunday I was exhausted, physically and mentally. What a pathetic creature I am...


At this rate I may not finish before Florida sinks beneath the sea. I will finish it, though, even if I need to get some scuba gear.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Remembering Frames Past

Like with the upstairs bathroom, I'm reluctant to remove anything that has some history to it, but the old tiles in front of the fire place were dull and stained and beyond reviving. I'd made the same decision about the bathroom tiles, but not until after a few weeks of hand-wringing.

Since we had plenty of left-over tiles from the stairway project, we thought they might also look nice by the fireplace. The first challenge was to build a beveled frame for them using some left-over oak boards from the old kitchen floor. Jam felt the need to supervise me closely, because cutting wood on a angle and then making a frame takes patience. Here he is, pretending to be asleep so that I take my time. Clever dog.


I took some art classes in college, and in one of them we learned to stretch the canvas and make a simple frame for our painting. Looking back, all I can remember now is that frame, looking at it and probably thinking about how I could have done a better job--I'm certain that the stuff I painted inside the frame was hopeless crap. Oh well, some of us just make the frames.


A few coats of varnish and now it blends in with the floor OK. I still need to grout, probably a dark color, but I'm in no hurry. The fun part is over.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Doggy Speed Bumps

Our dogs have no regard for the welfare of our floors. I just spent an entire week sanding, with machines and by hand, to remove the years of doggy toe-nail gouges from the oak planks in our living room, and then I carefully applied three coats of a tough polyurethane to the surface so that it now looks smooth and healthy again.

But to the dogs, the stupid floor is more slippery than ever, forcing them to either walk slowly (which is no fun at all) or to extend their toe nails and run like wild animals.

Unfortunately, floor varnish takes several weeks to cure and harden. It is very vulnerable at first. Even after I explained this, the dogs do not care--I just get blank stares. They love to run from the bottom of the stairs down to the kitchen, like race cars spinning out and losing control on the track, and they will not see my side of things.

Then I realized that if I strategically placed some chairs in the path, they would not be able to generate enough speed to do any harm.

A photo of our living room with two chair where no chairs should be

So now they walk like little angels through the maze of chairs. Ha, ha.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sanding around the Piano

Our new bamboo was delivered this week, and as always there's a ton of yard work to do. But since Cheryl is out of town for a week and since we are down to two dogs now instead of our normal three, the foot traffic in our house is at an all time low, a perfect time for me to refinish the living room floor.

For the past 10 years our dogs have been racing through the living room in a blur, their nails scratching and grinding, making me cringe every single day. (But they are having so much fun--who could be mad?) In the morning the hoard is always in a hurry to get to the kitchen for breakfast. In the evening it's a race to see who can get up the stairs first. The poor oak boards are now pitted, gouged and defiled.


I played in a band for years, and I carried a real baby grand piano (a cheap one) from club to club, moving it often by myself, so I didn't expect a problem moving my Petrof a few inches. I bought some heavy-duty furniture moving pads to make it easier. But it took all my strength just to lift one corner of the piano while Cheryl slipped the pads in place. And then it would not budge, and I'm afraid to push too hard. (I had a piano collapse once when one of the legs gave way.) So the piano stays put and I'll finish around it.


Today I removed all the baseboard molding, and I figured out how to remove the spindles from the railings. It was a long day for sure.


Everything is wrapped in plastic, ready for the sanding tomorrow. But will the scratches come out--I have no idea...

More later.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pergola: Done

I finished the last bit of grouting early this morning, working on the part of the walkway that is not shaded by our big oak trees.


Grouting a stone pathway is the most peaceful sort of work. Cement and sand is mixed together with just a little water and the clock starts ticking. My red bucket holds enough for about 30 minutes of work. The commitment of focus during those 30 minutes is absolute, like meditation, because there's no time to get distracted, no time for second guessing or dawdling, no time to check email, no time for phone calls, no bathrooms breaks, no coffee, no Facebook, no time for anything except focus. Just continue grouting until the bucket is empty.


Cheryl called me from the back porch, "Fred, can you come here for a second?"

"Sorry, I can't." My bucket isn't empty yet. (Cheryl had found some nice patio furniture for the pergola.)

The pergola project is finished, but I still have about 700 more square feet of stone patio (around the big bamboo) that I could grout--I put down the stone several years ago and swept sand into the cracks, and of course I fight the weeds every summer. If I really love grouting, then I have plenty more that I can do. Maybe I don't love it that much.


For years this part of the yard was completely wild with vines and cherry laurels. It is struggling now to reinvent itself. Unusual looking vines and bushes are popping up--were they always here? Like always our goal is to find a natural balance in the yard, with plants that belong and that can survive through long periods of neglect, which I am certain to offer.

Next project: the new grill area.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Little Red Bucket

I guess I love my little red grouting bucket. It was my mortar bucket for the entire bathroom project, and now I'm using it to do the tuck grouting on my pergola stone. What a sweet little bucket. (No, I can't marry my bucket, but thanks for the suggestion. I am very happy with my redheaded wife.)


Because I'm mixing my own grout (1 part Portland and 3 parts sand) and I'm using very little water in the mix, my bucket holds just the right amount to work before it gets too dry.


One trick, as I learned after scanning through several YouTube videos, is to get the mixture just wet enough to hold together and not too wet or the cement will leach out and stain the stone. The other trick is to use a tuck grouting tool (because we are tucking the grout into the cracks), which is thin enough to get into the cracks and just the right stiffness to work the grout. And it has a pretty red handle.


When things are just right, I pour out a small amount--it sprinkles out on the stone like damp, crumbly flour. This isn't something new--people have been doing this for thousands of years.


I use my tool to sweep it into the cracks, then pack it down.


Then I sweep more into the cracks. It takes two or three packings. When it dries, this stuff will be as hard as the stone.


And not to forget my cool new masonry brush, which magically sweeps the remaining grout crumbs off the stone without crushing them.


It is so much fun that I can't wait to do more.


However my "real job" keeps interrupting me. More later

Friday, May 23, 2014

Flagstones Down, Ready to Tuck

The rough layout is done, just in time because we have company coming this weekend, and I need to dog and pony them.


I used two different approaches to the layout. The upper deck has an exposed front and side, so it has the thickest stones. Very heavy. I put the biggest ones around the perimeter, then filled in with smaller ones.


The lower deck is curved on a steep bank, though I cannot get my camera to show it. (Why is that?) Because of the surface curve, this deck uses the thinner and smaller stones. I have no idea what effect gravity, rain and time will have on these curves. Right now I'm hot and I don't care.


In the past I've always just swept sand into the cracks between the stones, but on this project I will mix up some sand and cement and get down on my hands and knees and grout the entire thing using a process called tucking. I'm sure I'll think of another name for it before I'm through.


More later.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Flagstone Sandwich

Several of the patio stones are fat and layered like peanut butter sandwiches, such that if you strike one of the them just so with a chisel, the stones will split apart perfectly, like two pieces of bread. Or sometimes the smaller ones just split open if you drop them. It's easy to spot the splitters because there's a dark seam (like peanut butter) along the edge.

The biggest stone of all was one of these splitters, and I was torn about whether to split it or leave it alone. Torn, that is, until I tried to pick it up. Much too heavy for the cart. So I wrestled it to the edge of the pallet and just let it drop onto its edge. The I took my axe, placed it on the peanut butter line and gave it a tap (a smack) with my mini sledge hammer (my favorite tool of all time).

The axe blade sank into the peanut butter a few inches, and I could hear the ancient layers begin to strain and groan and separate. Another tap. But the stone is so big that getting it to split without shattering to pieces would be a miracle. Deep breath, another tap and the seam split open, but one side fared better than the other.

In the photo below, the big stone in the circled in red is the brother and the one below, circled in yellow, is his broken twin sister. The breaks in the bottom stone are OK because they make for neat and even grout lines. But I failed the sister, and I am ashamed for it.


Also, I've finished up the fa├žade for the upper deck. This will make more sense when the top layer of stone is down.


My project leader, Jam, was on hand to supervise. Moments after this photo was taken, he rolled in the dust and was covered in black. Knucklehead.

Friday, May 9, 2014

On Not Breaking Stones

This shipment of stone had some unusually large pieces, several of them wider than the pathway I'm making. Many are outrageously heavy and unwieldy. I'm tempted to smack the big ones with my sweet mini sledgehammer and crack them into smaller pieces. But I just don't have the heart.

I know the stones don't have any awareness or feelings. They don't elicit the sort of compassion or sympathy that living things do. They don't have memories, but if they did the memories would be of a long, cold, dark winter at the bottom of an ancient sea bed. The stones are just very old, and I like them. Being old is cool.



It's slow going--a big jig-saw puzzle with no matching pieces. I found a likely spot for one of the big ones, and I wheeled it into place. I had to adjust the crushed limestone and hope for the best because there would be no scooting around after the piece is down.


I let it go and it fell into place with a thud that shook the entire neighborhood, if not all of Clearwater. Lucky for me that it landed in just the right place, nice and snug.


And later I found a spot for an even heavier one. The stones are all different thickness, and this one is a real fatty. I once owned a Fiat that weighed less, maybe.


It's not done, but the dogs have already decided that the path is very good for zoomies.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Almost A Mayan Road

When Cheryl and I were visiting Mayan temples in the Yucatan, we walked along an ancient Mayan road made from crushed limestone, ingenious because the stuff almost glows in the moon light, and this allowed the Mayans to travel and work at night. The Yucatan in summer can be wicked hot. They used huge stone wheels (we saw one) to compress the limestone into a solid road.

Crushed limestone is often used today under stone patios and walkways to keep the stone steady over time. It doesn't tend to wash away like sand. So when I ordered the four tons of stone, I also ordered crushed limestone. "How much limestone?" the guy asked me with a little smile.

To get ready I put down the path borders--these won't be visible after the stone is set. Then, the tedious part, I dug out the trench for the entire 40 feet. There's no turning back now because the sides are sandy and unstable.


I took a heavy hand tamper and pounded the earth back firm--don't ask me why this is so much fun. Then into the trench goes a fabric liner to keep the plants (those insidious cherry laurels) from poking up through the stones in the future.


Then I began to shovel in the crushed limestone. Here's a picture at dusk that shows why the Mayans could travel at night. Too bad I have to cover it up--it's really cute. Unfortunately, the dogs desperately want to defile this area, and I don't have a steam roller in the garage. It would take something really heavy to compress this into a solid surface. But I will give it a good tamping and then cover it with stone.


Anyway, I told the stone guy what I was doing and allowed him to use his discretion on the limestone. The delivery truck arrived with six tons of it, enough (it seems) to build a road to the beach.

It was a long day of work, and like usual I pulled Cheryl outside to show off. She smiled and said, not in an unkind way, "I thought it would be bigger."

I love her.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Flagstone: About Four Tons

The flunky at the flagstone place today was clearly not too pleased that he had to walk out into the yard and assist me in selecting some stone. I am indecisive by nature, and cautiously so when it comes to parting with money. I need some time to shop and to fret over my decisions. He was not in the mood to wait.

Now that the pergola is pretty much finished, it's time to lay its stone floor and some pathways. And then it will be time for some plants, except that the clock is ticking towards summer, so I need to be pretty quick.


I'd done my homework. I knew that I will need about four tons of the stone to cover the area. But at the store today there were rows and rows and piles and piles of stones. Who knows how much is four tons? Not me.


"How much is four tons?" I asked the guy as I gestured in a most general way and so that he would understand my intent. In other words, how much of this stuff do I need?

"Eight thousand pounds," he answered.

Then I realized that the weight of each pile was clearly printed on a tag.

He took my hesitation as a sign of confusion. "You see," he said slowly, "one ton equals two thousand pounds, so if you multiply..."

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bridge over the River Koi

Tomorrow we move the new bridge into place (fingers crossed). Yesterday I took some delight in dismantling the old one using my BFF tool, the mini sledge hammer that I've had for over 20 years. Not that I'm especially sentimental about my tools, but this one is like family.

The old bridge didn't put up a fight, though. It just crumbled from the rot, and I was able to take most of it apart by hand. I smacked it a few times with my hammer just to share the fun.


Cheryl had convinced me to go ahead and get rid of the old bridge ahead of time, and I'm glad she did because I discovered some necessary prep work. Now the new bridge will be sitting on stones instead of the ground, and I've chiseled away some stone border to make room for the new guy. Sometimes Cheryl is right.

The bridge is 8 feet long, so I was able to use a 2 x 4 to place the stone footings.


How much does the new bridge weigh? I have no idea. I'll have help tomorrow, and that's a good thing.

The railings aren't sturdy enough to use when moving the thing, so I have another plan. Actually I have 3 plans. Plan A uses rope. Plan B probably won't work. And plan C involves gasoline and a match.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pergola: Goose Neck Knee Braces

It occurred to me that the pergola would be more sturdy if the joists were resting on a ledge rather than just hanging off the side of the post. A one-inch notch should be enough. Yes, I could have used my circular saw. But I love my little chisel. So by cutting one-inch score lines down the side of the posts, I had a depth finder for the entire cut. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Fun, until I ran into a nasty knot on one of the posts...



Then came the knee braces, my opportunity to add some character to this otherwise ordinary and plain structure, especially in comparison to the very cool, two-story Gazebo that our friends just built, with it's spiral staircase and view of the water. Wow. But mindful that it's a sin to covet our neighbor's cool stuff, I am resolved to add some quirky whimsy to our little pergola. We will love it because it is ours (however homely it may be).


So I've settled on these goose-neck knee braces. I just bought a band-saw to cut the 10 braces that I need. And now I thinking about designing something unusual so that the pergola is partially enclosed. Something unique...


Next: putting on the top two layers.