The good news is today I ran through a LOT of subway tile. The bad news is that I didn't get as much done as I wanted or needed to, so...tomorrow is going to be just as hectic and chaotic as today was. But there's light at the end of the tunnel; this job will be complete by the end of the week.
Day 5 started out with hanging a little cement board just to get it out of the way, then it was on to setting the mosaic shower pan tile. In hindsight, I think I used a trowel with notches that were one size bigger than what I probably should have used, but a little extra thinset never hurt anybody.
Day 3 saw the plumber get in and do some minor work to get new faucets installed, and today I got back in there to finish the shower pan, which meant mixing up another few batches of sand cement. Hopefully I got the slopes pretty close to perfect; any little imperfection in today's work will mean extra work tomorrow when the tile gets set...and setting tile on poorly sloped surfaces is negative amounts of fun, so I made sure to do everything possible to get the sand cement just right.
There are a lot of ways to build a shower pan. There are a lot of ways to waterproof a shower.
And there are a lot of people in the world that would like you to believe that in order to build a solid, totally custom leak-free shower, you need to spend a silly amount of money and use approximately 47 different layers of waterproofing products.
The thing is...I've demo'd enough bathrooms in really, really old houses to know different; if the work is good, old-school methods work just fine (and cost way, way less than the newer products on the market). All the new waterproofing liquids and membranes and products and systems...it's like they're made simply as a license to do half-assed work. They're good products, and there's a time and place to use them...but they're not nearly as essential as a lot of people think they are. And even though there are a lot of contractors and tradespeople that frown upon some of the old-school ways of doing things, for some goofy reason, I really enjoy building shower pans - when the opportunities present themselves - and building them the old-fashioned way (although...I dunno that they were using vinyl shower pan liners 100 years ago).
Day 2 @ the current bathroom shower renovation project included beefing up the subfloor a bit, adding in some blocking so I had a form of sorts for the shower pan (and something to nail the liner to), and then throwing down the sand cement pre-slope, which is the first of two sand cement mixes used in building shower pans.
The sand cement mix is pretty much just that, a combination of sand, portland cement and water (roughly 5 parts sand to 1 part cement) that I mix up on-site to the consistency of, well, wet sand. It's way, way less soupy than the concrete you're probably used to seeing in flatwork and foundations, and is essentially packed into whatever shape one wants, vs. formed, poured and then screeded or floated out. The purpose of the pre-slope is to build a pan that slopes, roughly 1/4" per 1', towards the shower drain from all sides, and is essentially what starts to dictate just how well water will drain in the shower.
It takes a little time and effort to get the slope just right, especially when you don't do that type of work every single day, but I'm always pretty excited to see the end result, because I get to say "I made that", instead of "I bought that and threw a few screws in it".
Here's a pretty quick and dirty look at what today's work looked like:
Today was a short day, but sometimes that's a good thing. It is when you're doing demo, anyhow.
The project that got started today involves tearing out an existing shower, and basically rebuilding it with a new custom shower pan and new tile. It's nothing too complicated or extravagant, but I do enjoy getting the opportunity to build shower pans every now and then.
Day 1 = demolition. Not a big task, and luckily enough this one came apart pretty easy.
And, if you want to see some super gross stuff, check out what I found in the shower drain today:
And in other news, we got the green light to go ahead and put the construction of this HUGE set of built-ins on the schedule:
This will easily be the biggest set of custom built-ins I've ever been involved with...should be a super fun project.
I had an old door sitting in the shop for what seemed like forever. I don't remember where it came from, or when I got it but odds are pretty good that I saw it laying near a dumpster in an alley and I brought it to the shop. There isn't a huge amount of salvageable lumber in those old doors, but they come in handy from time to time.
For example, the rails and stiles are almost always douglas fir, which is a pretty decent softwood. And, it can be pricey to buy it new.
The panels are almost always solid wood, and those come in handy when I need to build a quick box in the shop to hold scraps, tools, hardware, etc.
The doors almost always have multiple layers of paint, and that paint is almost never the same color from one door to the next. I use that painted door "skin" for veneering random stuff from headboards to cutouts of various shapes and sizes.
Granted, it takes a little bit of work to get to the usable material in the old doors that have been thrown out, and I don't make a habit of bringing too many doors into the shop, but having one or two on hand can make for a decent rainy day project. And, if I really feel like looking around, I can always find one being thrown out...which means they don't cost any money to buy.
Similarly, on more than one occasion I've had a client tell me they have an old door - usually from a house with sentimental value that got demolished for one reason or another - but didn't know what to do with it. There are a lot of ways to reuse old doors, either leaving them kind of as-is, or carving them up, salvaging the lumber and building something with what's underneath the surface.
Anyhow...I had this old door laying around the shop and I was tired of bumping into it. There's usually enough lumber in an old door to make the legs and apron for a small table, and I have plenty of other reclaimed lumber in the shop that would make a suitable table top, so...I figured that's what I'd build: a small entry/hall/sofa table, using the wood from the reclaimed door for the frame and some reclaimed 2x4s for the top.
It wasn't an exercise in check-out-my-technical-woodworking-chops so much as it was a project in taking a pile of things literally headed to the landfill and building something halfway decent. That said, it was the first time I'd gone with the reclaimed douglas fir frame + reclaimed framing lumber top, and I wasn't thrilled with the resulting look. But it was still a pretty fun project, and definitely a little different from building big, beefy tables and dealing with larger lumber like I've been doing lately, which made it a nice change of pace.
This is one of those builds I had the time to film, so I cobbled about 70 individual clips together and condensed them down to 15 minutes, which is never easy. I could have probably made 3 or 4 videos from this build and gone into more detail about the mortise and tenon joints, or the router, or the jig I threw together pretty quickly to cut the tapered table legs...but I get a headache just thinking about editing all that video, so 1 lengthy, fast-paced video it is.
Several weeks ago I took on a mantel build using lumber reclaimed from a very, very old log cabin near Troy, MO. The clients got such a good deal on the wood that they bought more than they needed so they'd have some on hand to be used at a later date.
That later date was this week.
There were three or four log cabin beams leftover from the mantel job, and the clients took them to a sawmill where the bulk of them were sliced into 3/8" thick pieces. Every live edge and imperfection was kept as is, and the end result was 40 or so planks that were 8'(ish) long, 5"-6" wide and 3/8" thick. The idea was to use those planks to cover the master bedroom's tiered ceiling.
The project, while definitely involving some tool know-how, was mainly an exercise in problem solving and math; for all intents and purposes, there was literally **just** enough available material to cover the desired amount of space. The goal was to install the reclaimed wood planks side by side, live edge to live edge, so that they didn't fit together perfectly yet didn't have huge gaping spaces between any two boards. In other words, a lot of decisions had to be made in regards to when to use a plane to shave a board down in spots to yield an improved fit, and when to call a fit "good" and put the plane away.
Another challenge was having to measure and cut lumber that had literally zero straight surfaces. For example, on the angled surfaces, the ends of the planks needed to be cut at about a 41° angle, but that's 41° in relation to the long, unstraight live edges. When a board doesn't sit real flat against a table saw or miter saw fence, it's tricky to know ahead of time just how accurate a supposed 41° cut is going to be. Many, many times - and this was the nature of the beast: lots of test fits, recuts, test fits, recuts, etc. - I had to cut things 3 or 4 times to creep up on the fit or joint I was looking for. The pics make it look like a job where boards were just randomly grabbed and nailed to the ceiling as-is...which is the look we were sort of aiming for...but the amount of sawdust and wood shavings on the ground when it was all said and done attested to just how much finagling was done to generate that look.
Overall I think the project turned out pretty well. At first it was tough to think it would, given how many imperfections and weird fits between boards were desired. In many instances which board to use in a certain spot, or how much planing should be done were decisions that were agonized over, but in the end, all the imperfections - the worm holes, the wonky fits, the varying widths and thicknesses...as a whole, it all sort of worked out pretty well.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked in regards to building things out of reclaimed materials is "where's a good place to find reclaimed wood?". The answer I give usually varies depending on:
If a person isn't looking to break the bank, then local options can vary depending on where a person happens to live. Here in St. Louis, we're pretty lucky in that we've got - in a good portion of the city - a relatively intact housing stock inside the city limits that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Every now and then a house will get demo'd or, which is more typically the case, rehabbed and there are opportunities to pick up some old, turn-of-the-century lumber that would otherwise head to the landfill. This can be a great source for fairly solid 1x, 2x and even 3x pine material. It's cost-friendly, although there's a fair amount of elbow grease required to harvest, haul and clean up the material. Similarly, if getting dirty isn't a person's idea of a great time, architectural salvage operations can be a great source for reclaimed materials. The price is a little higher than if you went and personally salvaged the material, but not by much.
Sticking with the St. Louis example, if a person is willing to travel a little outside the city - like I did today - or if a person just lives in a very, very rural area, there are still a decent number of old barns and log cabins that, if one knows where to look and who to talk to (or can access something like craigslist, as sketchy as craigslist can be), get taken down every now and then and provide opportunities for reclaiming predominantly pine or oak material. That said, if the barn is still pretty solid and/or has a lot of very desirable or relatively uncommon material (like hand hewn beams), the owner will sometimes try to sell the barn outright to an outfit that'll come deconstruct the barn and then sell off the materials, so these opportunities sometimes come and go pretty quickly.
Either way, rural or urban, there's usually somebody, somewhere, taking down on old building or is willing to let an old structure get taken down...you just have to do a little hunting and reach out to the building owners. More times than not, when I cold call somebody about what I think might be an opportunity to get my hands on some lumber, the person on the other end is pretty receptive and accommodating.
But enough about that.
Today I went and checked out a place a little northwest of the city with an old friend. She and her husband are in a situation where they've come into some (family) land and are planning on building a house on it, but they first need to clean up the property a little bit. Part of cleaning up the property, involves taking down a house - built in the late 19th or very early 20th century - on the property (the property also has a barn and the remnants of a few smaller structures). The house is way, way past the point of being fixed up and Mother Nature has slowly been doing some reclaiming of her own, but the house has a lot of sentimental value to some of the family members (the family has owned the land since the mid 19th century) so it can't just be flat out demo'd, which I can totally appreciate. The goal is to ultimately salvage as much (re)usable material from the existing house as possible and put it to decorative use in the new house, and build furniture with the reclaimed lumber for various family members. As a guy that deals with reclaimed wood quite a bit, I was called in to put some eyes on the structure(s) and give everybody my $.02. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the opportunity.
I was not disappointed. In fact, I geeked out enough that I'm sure I kept everybody there - giving me a tour of the property and various dilapidated structures - longer than they planned on being there. Part of my fascination with old buildings, rural or urban, is seeing the craftsmanship that went into them, learning about their history and hearing some of the stories tied to the structures. The other part of my fascination is that I simply get to be a little kid again and go "exploring": vacant houses...beat up barns...buildings with histories no living person knows of...romping through fields and creeks and trees...pretty cool stuff.
The first leg of the tour took me through the house. It's got a stone foundation and was originally a 2-story, fairly rectangular building, although a few additions were seemingly put on over the years. There were too many trees in the way to get a decent pic of the front of the house, but this is the back side, with what had once been a long porch stretching across this face of the building already demo'd:
The next pic is a little more of a close-up shot of the back side of the house. With some of the siding off the house, you can definitely see some of the really amazing, old-world construction techniques that have kept this build standing as long as it has, even while exposed to the elements. This is something I nerd out to.
One such example is - if you follow the big horizontal beam all the way to the left, where it meets up with a beefy vertical post - the mortise and tenon joint. But, it's not JUST a simple mortise and tenon joint, it's also a dado'd joint, with the horizontal beam resting in a little notch (the "dado") cut into the vertical post. Those two little circular dots, those are pegs that hold the mortise and tenon joint together, which keeps the beam from moving horizontally. The notch in the vertical post keeps the horizontal beam from moving vertically. The end result is a rock solid joint, sturdy in multiple directions, all built into 1 simple connection...and it was all done with hand tools! Pretty amazing stuff.
I don't know how much - if any - of that big beam is salvageable, but I bet there's at least one or two in the house just like it that are.
The basement - or cellar - under the original part of the house is pretty wild. There's old mason jars scattered throughout the house, the contents of which wildlife has helped themselves to over the years, but the basement is mason jar headquarters. Shelves apparently lined the cellar walls at one time and were filled with food being preserved in the jars, and it's easy to envision how much hard work went into that way of life a century ago.
It seemed like a lot of the wood we could view from the cellar was pretty rotten, but we identified some definite salvage opportunities. It's hard to completely give up on a beam as big as the one in the following pic until you can say for certain that it's 100% rotten; hand hewn beams that big don't come along every day, and they're big enough that even if there's some rot here and there, sometimes it can be worked around if enough healthy meat is left..
The unfortunate thing about this house is that it's been exposed to rain for quite some time, and there is a LOT of rotten stuff. The plaster just crumbles off the wall, and anything that's been exposed to rain has been exposed for a long enough time that it's pretty well shot.
That said, there's a healthy number of interior wall studs, and probably some of the floor joists - which are massive - that can be salvaged if demo goes the way we all hope it does. We tiptoed through the entire place and I didn't feel like I was going to fall through anything (it helped that we all avoided the few spongy spots in the floors), but it becomes a different story once things start getting dismantled. With a building this far gone, the best course of action is usually to try to pull parts of the building down and sort through the rubble on the ground.
Amazingly, one feature of the house that seems to be almost untouched by water damage or years of vacancy is the stair case.
Aside from being crazy stout, it's pretty rad that it's got that little 90-degree bend at the top. Again...hand tools, or at the most, very, very primitive mechanical tools. That's the good news: it's intact and solid. That's also bad news, in that this thing was so well put together, it was essentially made to not be taken apart. Trying to salvage the thing will be an exercise in patience, problem-solving skills and, inevitably, the operation of any number of saws with borderline surgical precision. I've seen these salvaged before, but I've never seen one removed without some collateral damage.
When we got done walking through the house, I learned that there was another small structure on the property off in the distance. I was intrigued, and the more questions I asked the more intrigued I became. I think my hosts picked up on my interest in checking the thing out, so they graciously drove me back to the little building.
While driving through fields and across creeks, I kept asking questions. As it turns out, the building we were driving to check out, referred to as the schoolhouse, had possibly been where "the help" lived. I don't know that my hosts had ever gotten the full, 100% accurate story behind "the help" (you can probably ballpark it, but nobody really knows for sure) or that particular building, but still...it's a structure, and it's apparently got some pretty fascinating history. In later years, or more recently, it had been used as a corn crib and a place to store hay.
I couldn't wait to see it.
The funny thing about this structure is that, due to its tin roof, the interior is in exponentially better shape than the house. Sure, it's got a bit of a lean, but aside from that, it's got a lot of solid material. I don't know that there are any immediate plans to deconstruct the thing, but it's definitely a neat little building with a potentially very storied past.
After checking out that little structure, we headed towards the barn. She's seen better days for sure, but she may have a little life left in her. That's the owners' hope, anyhow.
I'm by no means any kind of barn expert, but I think this particular barn is what's known as a double-pen barn, meaning it's a barn consisting of two "pens" on either end and a space to drive something - wagon, truck, whatever - between the two of them, all under one big roof. It's in rough shape, but it's still got some pretty cool features, like the track for a hay trolley and all the various types of joinery, like this half-lap joint:
Of course, no barn is really complete without barn doors, right? That space to drive something between each pen that I mentioned previously, it's accessed through these two doors:
It's tough to get a sense of scale from the pic, but those doors are BIG.
There's a lot of good material in that barn, but the barn is also still halfway solid. More importantly, leaving the barn upright and trying to rebuild some of it seems to be the ticket to getting the blessing from the family to remove the house, so...the barn stays as is.
Like I said before, she's seen better days. But whether they're brand new, gently used or past their prime, the ol' barn is an American icon, especially in the rural parts of the country. As much as I'd love to build some stuff with the lumber in the ol' girl, I can 100% stand behind the idea of trying to squeeze a few more years out of 'er.
Some day (soon, hopefully), some of the stuff you saw in these pics will become furniture, and decorative items in a new house. It's going to take a silly amount of work, and probably a little luck, but that's part of the draw (for me, anyhow) to working with reclaimed materials...taking as much pride in the construction of solid, well-built new stuff as the craftsmen that originally used this lumber so obviously took in their work over a century ago.