Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The many types of drafts/draughts, and how I got rid of a few

This post is about my latest attempt to reduce drafts in my house.  While trying to think of some random historical tidbit to include in this post, it struck me that the word "draft" (or sometimes "draught" in British English) means an awful lot of different things:
  • Currents of cold air flowing through your house and making you chilly
  • The intentional flow of air (and smoke) up a chimney
  • A preliminary version of something you're writing or creating, like a rough draft
  • A bank draft, an order to take an amount of money from an account
  • "The draft", people getting conscripted into the military, or a sports team
  • The depth of a ship's hull under the water (and also a measure of the curvature of a sail, for some reason)
  • Beer or cider from a large container like a keg rather than individually bottled
  • A horse or other animal that pulls heavy loads
  • Draughts, the game of checkers
  • Drafting, making technical drawings
  • A political draft where supporters attempt to convince someone to run for office
  • An angle of taper for a mold or cast used in manufacturing to make it easier to get the manufactured item out of the mold
  • Campdrafting, an Australian rodeo sport (probably called that because it involves draft animals)
What on earth do all these things have in common? The word comes from Middle English meaning to pull or draw something in.  Aha!  Cool!  A lot of these things do have to do with pulling: air being pulled through a crack or a chimney, a ship's hull being pulled down into the water, a draft horse pulling a cart, the military pulling in people to serve, pulling beer from a keg, etc.

But a rough draft of a paper, or a technical drawing?  The word "draw" comes from the same or similar origins, as it turns out, which is why to draw also means to pull (like to draw a card or a gun).  I guess maybe it comes from the act of pulling a pencil across a paper (or ink across some parchment).

Anyway, I'm still trying to make my house more energy efficient and comfortable.  Despite the new top-sealing damper on my chimney, I could still feel a draft sucking the warm air out of my living room on a cold day.  Time for another crusade for draft reduction!

This time, I really wanted to actually plug the fireplace up with a cover or something.  I was going to cut a thin board to size and glue some insulation to the back of it or something (I drafted a plan), but when I got to Home Depot, I discovered that you can buy board insulation for pretty cheap.  Board insulation is a rigid foam material that you would normally install inside your wall in between joists when you're constructing a new house.  There are different types that go in different layers, and they come in really large sheets that are $15-$20 each.  I bought a large sheet of it (which didn't fit in my car) and cut it down to fit into my fireplace.  It cuts very easily with a large utility knife, but little bits of foam cling to everything.

It was kind of hard to fit it into the fireplace.  I had to make a rough cut and then slice off slivers until it fit.  There are still a few gaps around the edges, but it's not too bad, and I can fill it up with some cloth or something.  Maybe I'll actually make a cover for it for both that purpose and for aesthetics, at some point.  It's...not very pretty.  But hey, this was a LOT easier than my original plan, which was to cut out some wood to fit this hole.

Fireplace insulating plug. It even has a handle!

Floor heater insulating plug, with handle.
There's a hole in my floor where there's an old floor heater that's no longer in use.  I can feel a draft from that hole, and I had plenty of leftover board insulation, so I put a layer of foam in there and then taped a plastic sheet over it to make it air tight.  The metal grate goes on top.  One day, I'll get someone to remove the old heater completely and patch the floor, but that's a more ambitious project for the future and not critical.

Here's to a slightly less drafty winter!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke...

I have always loved the movie Mary Poppins.  Mary Poppins was the movie I watched over and over and over again as a kid, the one I watched so many times that it shriveled up and died in the VCR, tattered strands of tape all twisted up and hanging out of the VCR slot.

Mary Poppins was released by Disney in 1964.  At that point, my house was already a respectable 44 years old.  Geek factoid: The production used the sodium vapor process for the combined live-action and animation scenes.  I love how the Wikipedia article on the sodium vapor process says it's very simple in principle, and then proceeds to describe it over several rather complicated paragraphs.  Basically, it involves illuminating the live-action stuff with a very specific wavelength of light and a bunch of other wizardry for combining that imagery with other footage.  Disney used this process a lot and the 1960s and 1970s.  It could be done with more precision than bluescreen and also did not pose limitations on makeup and costume colors.  The Mary Poppins team won an Academy Award for their use of this technique.

Mary Poppins depicts London in 1910 ("It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men!"), at which point they were probably burning coal in their fireplaces (blech!), sending plumes of grossness through their chimneys to "up where the smoke is all billowed and curled".  This was 10 years before my house was built, and I'm actually not sure if coal ever would have been burned in my fireplace.

Anyway, I just had a chimney sweep come and work on my chimneys!

Chim chimminy, chim chimminy, chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be...sort of.

The cold season is coming on (kind of...as I write this, it's about 90 degrees outside), and in my endless quest to reduce drafts in this old house, I decided it was time to deal with the chimney.  It didn't have any kind of damper or cap on it; it was just open to the sky.  Consequently, rain comes in, and heat goes out.  Plus, I'd never had it cleaned or inspected for problems.  I have no intention of actually burning anything in it (because why?), but I thought it would be a good idea to make sure it wasn't going to, you know, fall over or something.

The main chimney (there's another one for the stove vent) is made of river rock that somebody in 1920 probably just went and picked up from the Santa Ana River wash (which you certainly aren't allowed to do anymore).  It has a lot of character, and it matches the chimneys and adornments on a lot of other craftsman-style houses in my neighborhood.

My river rock chimney. Photo Copyright 2013 by Andrew Morang
I had a chimney sweep come and give my chimney a complete inspection and cleaning, and he also installed a cap and a damper.  (He did wear a top hat, but he swapped that out for coveralls and a respirator when he was actually cleaning.)  He said the everything was in great shape, although overdue for a cleaning.  But, we had some problems with the damper that he didn't notice initially, and I had to get him to come back to fix it.

Clean fireplace
A top-sealing damper is a clever little device that sits on top of the chimney and can be open and shut as desired via a pull chain or lever inside the fireplace.  When shut, it clamps down over the chimney hole to keep warm air from escaping.  If you're going to burn a fire, you open it to let the smoke out.  This little assembly sits inside a cage with a roof over it to keep animals and rain out even if the damper is open.
Chimney cap with top-sealing damper

Damper pull chain
Unfortunately, the damper didn't seal adequately after the initial installation.  Most chimneys are flat on top, but mine slopes outward.  The damper seal kind of hung out over this sloping part, leaving an air gap underneath.  Also, the damper lid, when closed, was misaligned with the damper seal.  When I went up on the roof and discovered this, I was very disappointed.  Bummer.  Had to call the chimney sweep, have an awkward conversation, and ask him to come back to fix it.  At least he was extremely nice and professional about it.  It was also really helpful that he was technological enough to receive photos of the problems by text, so he immediately understood exactly what I was talking about.

He came back and fixed it, and this time I went up to the roof with him to inspect it.  I should have done that the first time.  Lesson learned: Suck up the awkwardness and inspect the workman's work while he's still there.  Better to catch the problem immediately.

Damper problem #1 - air gap under cage
Damper problem #2: Misalignment with seal
Check your workmen, step in time, check your workmen, step in time, never need a reason, never need a rhyme, check your workmen, step in time!

Hollywood doesn't make movies with dance scenes like this anymore...

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Oh, rot! My windows are decaying...

Rot.  "Oh, rot!" is a slang expression meaning "Nonsense!"  Rot is the name of a tributary to the River Danube in Germany and also the name of a village in Sweden.  Unfortunately, it's also something affecting the windows in my house right now.
Charming window

Recall that my house has charming but slightly weird inward-swinging casement windows.  Although the insides and outsides of these windows have been painted 8000 times, nobody ever bothered to paint the top or bottom of the swinging frame.  Consequently, the wood has been exposed to the elements for 95 years.

At some point, I noticed this fact, particularly that the bottoms of the windows were in pretty bad shape.  I thought I should put a coat of primer paint on them just to keep the protected, but when I started prepping them for that, chunks of wood kind of fell out, and I realized that they needed a lot more attention than a quick coat of primer.  Yay, my windows have dry rot.

The bottom of one of my windows, in very bad shape.
True dry rot is caused by fungus that grows in the wood and basically eats it, breaking down its structure.  The wood becomes soft, cracked, and brittle.  I don't know for certain if my windows actually have true dry rot, but they certainly have the symptoms.

So of course I had to fix the windows.  I purchased a handy-dandy dry rot repair kit on Amazon which contained all the necessary ingredients.  The procedure went something like this:

  1. Take the window off its hinges, put it in the garage, and use a utility knife and pokey tool to remove all the wood that wanted to come out.
  2. Liberally brush on some wood hardening liquid to the exposed wood.  This stuff is great.  It soaks right in (my windows literally sucked it up) and makes the wood nice and hard and a little shiny.  It's almost like a very thin water-based varnish, and supposedly it kills fungus.
  3. When the first coat of wood hardener is dry, brush on a second coat for good measure.
  4. Let the wood hardener dry for a day.
  5. Fill the holes in the wood with an epoxy-based wood filler.  The stuff that came in my dry rot repair kit came in two tubs.  One looked just like peanut butter, and the other looked rather less edible.  You daub out equal quantities of each and mix them together, and then you have about 20 minutes to work with it before it becomes too tacky.
  6. Let the wood filler set for 24 hours.
  7. Sand down the areas you filled to make the surfaces nice and smooth.
  8. Thoroughly vacuum the windows to clean up all the dust you made while sanding.
  9. Prime paint the exposed wood and the newly-filled areas.
  10. You could put a top coat of paint on if you want to, but I'm not going to bother right now because the windows really need to be refinished anyway.
Wood filler, after sanding it down.

After prime painting
This project has taken me a while.  I got started in July, and I still have 2 of 13 windows to do.  I can do at most three at a time (based on time and space limitations).  Plus, I have to do it when the weather is nice enough for me to remove the windows for a while.  I ended up doing a lot of taking windows down and putting them back up.  Once the wood filler was dry enough, I could put the windows back up to let them set and then take them out again when I was ready to sand and paint.

Painted-over window hinge
Another slowdown was the fact that 4 of the windows had stuck hinge pins.  Like the insides and outsides of the windows, the hinges have been painted 8000 times, which is not particularly conducive to operation.  Thankfully, although I procrastinated on the stuck windows for quite a while, they did not turn out to be all that difficult to unstick.  I just squirted them with WD40 and then pried the hinge pins out with a tiny screwdriver.  I wedged the tiny screwdriver under the pin and banged on it with a hammer.  I then cleaned the hinge pins with more WD40 and some steel wool, and I'll lubricate them with something before I put them back permanently.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much life these windows have left in them.  They are all operational, and I think my repair will hold for some time, but they really need to be refinished and re-puttied, some of them need their hinges reset, plus they are old and drafty.  And they have lead paint on them, which means that refinishing them will be a little complicated.  Is it worth expending this effort, or should I replace them entirely (probably at considerable expense)?  I like their historical charm, but I also like energy efficiency and reliability.  I'm not sure what to do and will have to think about it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A-Plumbing I Did Go

I have been an appreciator of The Three Stooges for about as long as I have been an appreciator of old houses.  Their slapstick routines hold plenty of appeal for a small child, but their gags have a lot in them for grown-ups, too.  Through their satire and parody of the era in which they performed, you get a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in 1930s and 1940s America.

Widely regarded as one of their best film shorts, "A Plumbing We Will Go" (1940) shows the chaos that ensues when the Three Stooges accidentally end up as plumbers trying to fix a leak in a "high society" house.  Water ends up everywhere, including the electrical system after Moe and Curly hook up some electrical piping to the plumbing system.  When the wealthy homeowner shows off her new television set (a novelty in 1940) to a group of friends, the broadcast of Niagara Falls suddenly turns into a gushing stream of water that bursts through the TV screen and all over the guests.

The Three Stooges - "A Plumbing We Will Go" (1940) from daniel lansing on Vimeo.

A-plumbing I did go the other day, and while I think I'm a bit more of a competent plumber than Moe, Larry, and Curly, I did end up having to call a plumber to get me out of a spot of trouble.

 I was a-sitting on the toilet when...(every good story should start with "I was a-sitting on the toilet when", don't you think?)

I was a-sitting on the toilet when I heard that ominous sound: "Drip...Drip...Drip"  It was a-coming from the cabinet under the bathroom sink, that darn vanity that I've had so much trouble with.  This time, it wasn't the seal around the edge of the sink.  It was the plumbing.  So I a-took all the stuff out of the cabinet, engaged in advanced geometric maneuvers to take the drawer out, and a-popped out the Dumb false drawer front panel. (I'm very glad I installed those handy little plastic clips on that thing for easy removal.)  There was water all over the place.

Preview photo, so you have some idea what I'm talking about. That shiny brass connector is the one I installed (successfully).
The sink has two connections to the water pipes in the wall, one for cold and one for hot.  On both sides, to span the distance between the sink faucet and the water pipe in the wall, two lengths of hose were used, connected by a little threaded hose connector piece, presumably because a single hose wasn't long enough.  On the cold side, that little threaded connector piece was corroded, and the joint between the two lengths of hose was dripping.  Okay, well, that's not too tricky to fix if you're a do-it-yourselfer.

The first thing to do, obviously, is to shut the water to the sink off so it doesn't gush everywhere while you investigate things.  There are two shut-off valves under the sink (one for cold and one for hot) so that you can shut the water to the sink off without turning off the water to the entire house.  The cold water valve (the one I cared about for this repair) did not work.  The handle didn't want to turn, and when I a-cranked on it with a wrench, it made an ominous creaking noise and turned around but did not diminish the water flow at all.  Hmm, I guess I need to a-shut the water to the whole house off after all.

Curly has been sent to shut the water off while Moe and Larry wait in the basement to fix the leaky pipe, but they've been waiting a while, and the water is still dripping.
Moe: "I wonder why that egghead don't shut the water off."
Larry: "Hey, I saw a guy shut the water off once in the front yard."
Moe: "When I want your advice, I'll ask for it.  Hey, go out in the front yard and shut the water off."
Larry proceeds to dig an enormous trench in the front yard and never does manage to shut the water off.

The water shut-off valve for my house is in the front yard (in a straight line from the water meter, which is under a little metal cover next to the street curb).  There's a whole mess of pipes where the shut-off valve is that doesn't make a lot of sense.  Something to do with one of the several old sprinkler systems in the yard.  Later, when I a-showed the shutoff valve location to the plumber, he gave it a puzzled look and said something like "It looks like you have a pretty unique configuration here."

All right, shutting the water off to the house would have allowed me to fix the drip successfully, but since I'm kind of anal retentive and like to do things right, I thought I should probably replace that faulty sink valve in addition to the drippy hose connector.  I think this is where things started to go badly.

[Trip to Home Depot. Stare blankly at the dizzying array of valves before getting the plumbing expert on staff to point at the right one.  New hose, new connector, new valve...check.]

I a-put in the new hose and threaded brass connector with no problem.  I made sure to wrap the threads with Teflon tape to ensure a good seal.  That part was quick, easy, and effective.

Then I a-tried to put in the new valve....

The threaded pipe connector emerging from the wall was in bad shape, so bad that I had trouble getting the new valve to screw into it.  I a-wrapped it in Teflon tape and finally managed to get the valve on, but when I a-tested it, it a-dripped.  I undid it and redid it, and it still a-dripped.  I screwed it on tighter, but it still a-dripped.  Uuuugggghhhhh.  Time to a-call a plumber.

Anthony from All City Plumbing was prompt, polite, competent, and efficient.  He came the day I called at the appointed time, thoroughly explained the problem and what he was going to do to fix it, and fixed it immediately.  Great customer service, especially compared to some other contractors I've dealt with!  (He told me that contracting school does not teach you any business or marketing skills, so there is little wonder that many contractors struggle running a business, no matter how good they are at their trade.)

So what did Anthony have to do?  He took out the valve I had installed, and confirmed that indeed, the threaded connector thingie (called a "nipple") coming from the wall was in bad shape.  He tried to remove it, and it imploded under his wrench.  He couldn't get it out of the 90-degree elbow pipe connector in the wall, so he had to hack apart the wall to remove the 90-degree elbow from the wall pipe.  Even before I called him, I was afraid that this was about to start spiraling out of control.  I was afraid I was going to have to get the house entirely re-plumbed if each successive piece of pipe proved to be corroded.

Thankfully, the pipe in the wall looked to be in excellent condition.  The threads were solid, and it was just the 90-degree elbow and the threaded nipple that needed replacing, and that was done in no time (and at minimal cost...for plumbing work).  Thanks, Anthony!  Now I just have to a-put the wall back together.  Oh joy!

The pipe imploded. The silver thing is the back end of the plumber's wrench propped in there to prevent further collapse.
The plumber's handiwork.  No more dripping.  Nice new hole in the wall.

Lesson learned (and, in fact, explicitly stated by the plumber): If you live in an old house, if it ain't broke (or even if it's a little broke), don't fix it.  If the valve doesn't work but it's not actively leaking, it's probably better to just leave it because as soon as you take it off, suddenly your entire plumbing system needs replacing when it would have been okay for a good while yet if you had just a-left it alone.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Molding: My baseboards (not my bread)

Molding/Moulding.  This post is about quarter-round molding/moulding, the little quarter-circle strip of wood that finishes off the place between the floor and the baseboard, to cover up the uneven gap between floorboards and wall and give it a finished look.

Turns out I've always been confused about the difference between "molding" and "moulding".  I thought "molding" meant bread that was growing stuff and "moulding" was your baseboard trim or a frame for shaping something.  However, I just looked it up, and it turns out that they both refer to all kinds of mold.  The extra "u" is just British English: unnecessary, or perhaps classy and sophisticated.  Take your pick.  Take your picke.  Ye olde moulding.

Aside: In Southern California, there is very little mildew (no doubt because there is very little water).  In Mississippi, everything left to its own devices grows mildew, or "mildew butter" as my family calls it.  When I was a very small child (in Mississippi), I had some cooking and food toys.  One of them was some plastic butter on a butter dish which I dubbed "mildew butter" for some reason, probably because I had heard my dad so frequently bemoaning the proliferation of mildew on the exterior of our house.  Ever since, my dad bemoans the proliferation of "mildew butter".

Another aside: Mildew is, technically speaking, a fungus, not a mold.  However, sometimes it is used as a catchall term to describe fungus and mold that grows on plants and wood...just to be confusing.

Final aside: It is no doubt possible, in Mississippi, for your molding to be molding.  That is, your molding could be growing mold.  Or mildew butter.  Whatever.

Anyway, this post is not about mildew or mold, but rather about quarter-round molding and how I finally installed some nearly two years after my floor was refinished.  The old molding wasn't salvageable, as it had to be broken in order to get it off when they sanded down the floors.  I didn't want them to install new molding right away because I wanted to do some work on the baseboards first.  But since the molding is decorative and I had other priorities, this project has proceeded at a glacial pace.  Now, after two years of diddling away, the project is finally done!

Filling the gaps to keep out drafts

When wood flooring is installed, a gap is left between the edges of floorboards and the wall to allow the boards to expand and contract naturally with changes in temperature and humidity.  Unfortunately, this gap can be a source of drafts.  So, in the first stage of my quarter-round molding project, I filled up that little gap between the floorboards and the walls with expanding foam and caulk to keep the drafts out.  My dad had recommended the expanding foam, but it turned out to be overkill, and I had to cut it down a lot where it bubbled out all over the floor.  I guess the gaps are quite a bit larger in his house than they are in mine.  The caulk worked better for me.  Both materials are flexible enough to accommodate the swelling of the floorboards and should handle the worst of the drafts.

Touching up the baseboard paint

Next, I needed to touch up the paint on the baseboards. The old quarter-round molding had been painted over many times, leaving a bead of bubbled up paint mess on the baseboards along the line where the top of the old quarter-round used to be.  Paint had oozed into the crack and collected there.  I needed to clean that up and paint under where the new quarter-round would go so it would be neat.  After, er, almost a year, I finally did that.

I started scraping, and it just all flaked off...
The phrase "opening a can of worms" is used to describe something that gets quickly out of control due to unforeseen consequences of doing something simple.  It's most likely a fishing metaphor from the 1950s when fishermen could buy worms as bait in a tin can.  I've never personally opened a can of worms, so I can only suppose that they must quickly start wriggling out of the can after it was opened. However, I have first-hand experience with another metaphor, which I am hereby inventing: "starting to scrape some chipping paint".

I painted it neatly down to the floor.
Of course, when I went around with a paint scraper to neaten up the paint goo (after first testing for lead and thankfully finding none on the baseboards), all the paint started chipping off.  Of course.  It's never easy, is it?  Big chunks of paint came off revealing a shiny grayish-mustard color underneath.  Whoever painted over the grayish mustard with greenish gray didn't sand down and/or clean the surface adequately, and the greenish gray, with the white coat on top, was just flaking right off.  There's also a pinkish-beige in there somewhere, but I haven't quite figured out where that fits in.  And a dark bluish gray down near the bottom.

I scraped whatever came off but tried to keep it contained.  A complete refinishing isn't something I want to get into right now.  I sanded and cleaned, and then I repainted using the matching white color which the previous owner left for me in the garage.  I really like the white trim.  I guess tastes in color change over time.  I can't imagine wanting to paint my trim in grayish mustard, but maybe it matched the wallpaper...

Installing new molding

I originally thought to install the quarter-round molding myself.  It does not seem, in theory, to be very difficult.  You can buy it in long pieces (it's not very expensive), paint it, cut it to size, and then nail it down.  However, I suspect the cutting and fitting is more difficult than it seems, and I don't have a miter saw to cut the appropriate angles for the corners (an electric one being much more efficient than sawing it by hand in a miter box).  The bigger challenge was in nailing it down.  That would be best done with a nail gun.  You can rent those, but you also have to rent the air compressor that produces the pressure to fire the nails.

Finally (after another, er, year), I figured that by the time I rented all that equipment spent a lot of time being frustrated about sawing things to the right length and angle, I may as well just hire some competent professionals.  So, I just called the flooring place that did my floors and had them come back to install the quarter-round molding.  It took them about 3 hours, and they did an okay job.  They certainly did a better job than I would have done, but they didn't do a good enough job to make we want to hire them back.  They didn't do a bad enough job for me to publicly post here who it was.  So yeah, "competent" professionals.

They painted the molding using the paint I provided (the material was pre-primed), cut it to length, angled the corners, and popped it in with a nail gun.  They filled the small gap between the top of the quarter-round and the baseboard with caulk to make it look finished.  I was a bit concerned about that because that will make it harder to get off next time I want to, and leave a gummy line to remove next time I want to refinish the baseboards.  However, I let them do it, since this seems to be the standard practice, and it does look better.  They also left a pretty big gap on the bottom side where the quarter-round molding hits the floor.  I think the floor surface underneath was probably kind of uneven around the edges, so that no doubt contributed, but they probably could have made it tighter if they had been so inclined.  Oh, and although they knew they were going to be painting the molding, they forgot to bring any brushes and had to use mine.

The part that really irked me was that they left some scratches in the floor.  One of the workers was wearing knee pads to protect his knees while crawling around.  He kind of scooted around on the floor while wearing these hard plastic knee pads, and he left scratches in the beautiful finish he himself had helped to apply not quite two years ago.  After weighing the discomfort of a confrontation with them about it and getting them to come back and fix it (while I babysat them) against the trouble of just fixing the minor scratches myself, I've decided to just fix the scratches myself.  Fixing minor scratches in a wood floor will be the subject of a later post.

Lesson learned: watch your workers carefully, and speak up if you need to.  If I had been smarter, I would have seen what was happening and made him strap some towels onto his knee pads.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tile: the finishing touch

Tiles have been used for thousands of years in walls and floors and ceilings and roofs.  Elaborate tilework has long been a fixture of Islamic buildings, and the Moors brought it with them to Spain in the Middle Ages, after which it spread across Europe.  For many years, tiles were used in palaces, churches, and the homes of the wealthy.

Advances in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution (in ceramics, glazing, and in industrial procedures) made tiles cheap and readily available through mass production, and with middle class people seeking to emulate their wealthier counterparts, tile became a widespread in houses.  In Victorian days, they were commonly used as a decorative fixture in hallways and foyers and on fireplaces.  Tile also became a standard feature of Arts & Crafts style houses, despite the Arts & Crafts movement's attempt to counter the Victorian style's overly-decorated look.  True Arts & Crafts tiles would have been hand-made and hand-decorated rather than mass-produced, but no doubt middle class builders of Arts & Crafts houses would have cheated a little.

But tile wasn't purely a decorative item. The Victorian era also gave rise to an increased focus on sanitation.  Tile was used in kitchens and bathrooms (after those were invented), and eventually in other public spaces, like subway stations, because it is durable and easy to maintain and very easy to keep clean. The glaze prevents water and goo from soaking in, and you can just spray or wipe it down without damaging it.

I have no idea what my kitchen originally looked like (it was completely redone sometime around 2000), but it could very well have looked like one of the kitchens in this interesting Flikr album featuring kitchens with tiled walls and counters.  One of my neighbors has a blue and yellow tiled counter top like the ones pictured here, and the bathroom in my old 1930s-vintage apartment just around the corner from my house had rather startling red and yellow tiling that took me a while to get used to.

At any rate, when my kitchen was redone, wall tile was included above the counters and behind the stove.  It's mostly plain white square tile, but a few special tiles were thrown in showing printed "vintage" Redlands citrus grower logos and advertisements.  It looks like you can order them from Zazzle, and perhaps they're available from local tile sellers, too.

Unfinished border along the top of the tile section behind the stove
When I bought my house, there was a built-in combination microwave/stove vent fan in the kitchen over the stove.  Since it neither microwaved nor vented effectively, I replaced it with a real vent fan.  When the old microwave was there, you couldn't see the top of the tiled area behind the stove because it was covered up by the microwave.  However, the stove vent fan doesn't come down as low, so you could see the place where the tile stopped.  Although I cleaned up the wall area nicely before installing the fan and gave it a fresh coat of paint, the tile was never neatly trimmed.  So, I decided to finish up the edge with some nice-looking quarter-round tile that matches the quarter-round in other parts of the kitchen.
New quarter-round tiles finish off the border

This project actually went very smoothly and quickly.  I didn't even have to cut the tile or align it because it fit perfectly.  Also, I lucked out at Home Depot and found a little bucket of combination adhesive/grout that was really easy to apply and easy to clean up.  I stuck the tiles to the wall, waited a day until it was set, and then filled in the cracks with the same stuff.  Easy-peasy, no problem.  Then I had to paint the edge of the wall to finish it off.  It looks nice.  It looks like it's always been that way.

However, I learned that I don't enjoy working with tiles.  I kind of hate grouting.  Aside from filling a little hole in the corner of the bathroom floor with grout (which doesn't count), I don't think I've grouted anything since an art class I went to when I was about 11 years old in which we decorated flower pots with pottery shards and lots of grout.  Incidentally, that wasn't an art class I enjoyed very much.  Remind me not to ever tile an entire wall in a kitchen or bathroom by myself.  Blech!  Also, remind me not to ever become a mosaic artist.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Everything but the kitchen sink

Old Dumb faucet with a very short reach
Actually, this post is about the kitchen faucet.

I replaced my kitchen faucet, and I learned some useful things in the process.

My kitchen was redone very nicely sometime around 2000.  Unfortunately, the faucet was problematic for two main reasons.  First, it was leaking.  It wasn't dripping when it was turned off, but when it was on, water would dribble out around the swivel joint that allowed you to turn the faucet from side to side.  I could presumably have fixed this leak with a replacement part, but the second problem made me disinclined to bother.  My kitchen sink is quite large, and the faucet was too small for it.  I always had to lean way over the sink to wash my hands or do the dishes, which is ergonomically terrible.  Also, the water inevitably splashed all over the counter behind the sink and made mess.  So, I decided that I really wanted to replace the faucet entirely.

Faucets can be made with a few different types of internal mechanisms for controlling the flow of water, including compression washer, ball, cartridge, and disc.  If you are interested in the details of these and how they work, this overview from about.com explains it nicely.  Based on the information I found there and elsewhere, I decided I wanted a disc faucet because they last forever with little maintenance.  It turns out that most of the "good" faucets being sold these days are this type anyway (Faucet.com's catalog has over 2000 ceramic disc faucets and less than 400 of all other types combined).

Spout "reach" is the technical term in faucet-speak describing how far the faucet extends horizontally from the base out over the sink.  My old faucet's reach was no more than 6 inches, and after measuring my sink, I decided I wanted one with a reach of 11 or 12 inches for maximum practicality and comfort.  Faucet.com very conveniently lets you filter their large catalog by spout reach.  That narrowed the field considerably, as there aren't too many on the market with such a long reach.

I was astounded at the prices for faucets.  These seemingly simple mechanical items cost $400-$1400!  Whew!  After looking at the prices, I procrastinated for months, until one day I sat down and figured out the secret.  Kitchen faucets designed for the "home" market are horrendously expensive, but "commercial" faucets, which are basically the same thing, are drastically cheaper.  The "home" faucets are made to look pretty or fancy or frou-frou, and you pay a huge premium for aesthetic design that doesn't contribute to the functioning of the faucet.  I wasn't particularly enamored with the aesthetics of any of the "home" faucets I saw anyway; I wanted something simple that would fit the Craftsman style of my house and without any of the bells and whistles that would be likely to break or leak.

The Moen 8717 with a 12-inch reach was exactly what I wanted, and at 1/3 the price of the typical "home" faucets of seemingly similar quality, it was a no-brainer.  It's simple, elegant, and high quality.  I also purchased the optional spray hose to make sink cleaning easier, a feature my old faucet did not have.

Then came the next step in the learning process: installation.  I watched a couple of YouTube videos (a seriously useful tool for all sorts of home projects) and determined that I could easily do this myself.  Well...now that I've done it once, I can confidently say it will be easy if I ever do it again.  It really wasn't difficult, but I had a few hiccups.

Taking the old faucet out was easy.  Nothing was rusted shut, thankfully, and once I figured out how to use a hand mirror and a lamp so I could see the bolts behind the sink basin, it came right out.

Hard water scum
Then came trying to clean up all the mineral scum on the counter top.  We have pretty hard water here, and because of the dribbling old faucet and all the splashing, the area around the faucet stem was full of scum.  I bought some granite cleaner and resealer, but that did absolutely nothing.  I resorted to scraping it off with a razor blade.  This brute-force approach was much more effective.  I finished it off with the granite resealer just in case it actually did do something.

New Moen "commercial" faucet with 12-inch reach and a spray hose
Then came the installation of the new faucet.  The new faucet didn't come with any kind of seal for where it joins the counter, to keep water from leaching under it and dribbling down the hole into the cabinet below.  Some internet research informed me that plumber's putty was used for this purpose, so I went off to Home Depot to get some.  I arrived at home depot at 9:10pm, only to discover that Home Depot closes at 9pm in the winter.  Seriously!?  Oops.  Note: Don't start a house project on a weeknight.  I took the next morning off work, got my plumber's putty, and put in the faucet.  It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the mysterious long plastic tube thingy that came in the faucet package was actually a socket wrench of the correct size for tightening the bolts.  It's very difficult to lie on your back in a kitchen cabinet and tighten a bolt a quarter inch at a time with an adjustable wrench...  The new spray hose was the only thing that went in easily.  My counter top used to have a built-in soap dispenser, but it was broken, so I took it out and used the hole for the spray hose.

But once I got it in, it worked perfectly!  I've been very happy with it so far, and my arms and back will no doubt thank me in the long run for not having to lean way over to wash dishes.