Sunday, February 25, 2007

The light at the end of the tunnel

What a weekend. Thursday night I stayed up past midnight working on the plaster repairs in the upstairs bathroom. Friday, I took a vacation day from work and spent over eight hours working on the bathroom. Needless to say, I slept well Friday night.

With all the plaster cracks repaired, I’ve moved on to short ceiling by the window on Saturday. This portion of the room is only 4- by 5-feet and is a little over 7-feet off the floor. The great news is I can reach it without the use of a stool or ladder. The bad news is that I’m working above my head all day. That means all joint compound dust falls down in my direction, making a quality respirator a necessity. It also makes for one sore neck and shoulders at the end of a long day. (To get a better sense of the room, read my Upstairs Bathroom Primer post .)

Yesterday I put on three skim coats of joint compound onto that short ceiling. I’m doing this because the paint in that area was crazed and cracked (see my post, Crazed ceiling paint). Before applying the skim coat, I removed any loose paint with a stiff putty knife, then used my random orbit sander to quickly sand the entire ceiling with 120 grit sandpaper. When finished sanding, I vacuumed the ceiling to remove the dust.

With skim coats, you apply a very thin layer of joint compound with the understanding that there will be another coat coming after the first (and most likely after the second as well). Apply the thin coat neatly so you won’t have a lot of sanding to do between coats, if any. You can use either a 10- or 12-inch taping knife to apply the joint compound (see my Drywall and plaster joint compound tools post).

While the coats of joint compound were drying, I swapped out the older bathroom fan for a more powerful model. This meant some quality time up in the attic removing the old fan, enlarging the hole for the new fan, and mounting the new fan. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. A little over two hours worth of work and the results are every encouraging. Once the power was back on I tested the new fan and it’s much quieter than the old fan. Once the ceiling is painted, I’ll add the bathroom fan’s grille.

Today I finished sanding the joint compound and officially turned the plaster walls and ceiling over to the painter (my wife). Now I’ll have time to finish the new wooden light soffit for above the sink. When I’m finished with that, this project may actually be finished... unless I decide to be a hero and address the storage problems in the bathroom’s deep (over three-feet!) closet. We’ll have to see how motivated I can remain; at this point my motivation tank is damn-near empty.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Where home improvement and woodworking meet

Last night I went hunting for hardware to attach my forthcoming wooden light soffit to the plaster soffit that’s already in place. I spent over a half hour scouring the hardware aisle (screws, fasteners, etc.) at my local Lowes and I must admit, for a big box store they have an impressive selection of fasteners. From shelf supports to decorative hardware for mirrors and glass doors, they have much more than you’d expect.

The issue I’m facing with my wooden light box is that it’s going to be completely enclosed with four sides and a plywood bottom (which will hold the new light cans). Therefore, I need some type of fastener that I can drive vertically through the plywood bottom and into the plaster soffit. There are three challenges with this plan.

First, simply driving some type of screw is out of the question because the plaster is like concrete and not accommodating to fasteners.

Second, I’d like to be able to remove the wood soffit in the future, just in case. If I didn’t want to remove, I could simply leave the plywood bottom and right side of the box off and attach the box to the soffit with L brackets. Then, with the box attached, I could slide the plywood into the box and nail the right side in place to enclose the box. This would be a nice option because all mounting hardware would be hidden. The shortfall is that if the wood soffit ever needed to come down, I’d have to remove the right side and then the plywood, certainly damaging the paint.

And finally, since I’m using 1/8” plywood for the bottom of the wood soffit, I’ll need to reinforce the plywood from inside the box to assure the hardware used to attach it to the plaster soffit won’t damage the thin plywood. (I’m using 1/8” plywood simply because it was available in my workshop, leftover from a previous project. If I were buying plywood specifically for this project, I would recommend going with at least 1/4" plywood for the rigidity.)

So here’s my plan... I’ll attach two wood boards perpendicularly to the bottom of the existing plaster soffit, one near each end. Fastened to the bottom face of those two boards will be two 10-24 x 9/32 tee nuts, one near the front and one near the back. (If you don’t know what tee nuts are, stay tuned over the next few days... they’re a fastener you need to know about.) I will then drive 10-24 machine screws up through the plywood bottom, through the support board inside the box, and into the tee nut held by the board attached to the plaster soffit. Since the machine screws can easily go in and out of the tee nut, I’ll be able to lower the wooden soffit should a situation ever arise.

To conceal the screw heads on the bottom of the wood light soffit, I’ll use plastic, hinged screw covers.

I realize that without photos or a diagram that this game plan is hard to follow. Please stay tuned over the next few days to see this plan unfold.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Removing old bathroom light box

Before I start building the wooden light soffit for above the bathroom sink, I need to remove the light box that’s currently in place.

Before doing any work around any electrical device, be sure to turn off the power and test the fixture to assure it’s safe to proceed.

The photo to the right will give you an idea of how deep the existing light box is. With the frosted glass removed, you can see the box is over nine inches deep. Since the bulbs are set at the very top of the box, you can understand why the light produced by the box didn’t do a very good job of spreading light throughout the bathroom. Even though the bathroom is only 5’ x 11’ (see my Upstairs bathroom primer post), much of the light’s effectiveness was blocked by the inside walls of the light box. If the light bulbs were down closer to the rim, the light would have been cast at a much greater angle.

With the chrome trim removed, I discovered that the light box had actually been plastered into place. Lovely. With a stiff putty knife, I removed the skim-coat of plaster from the lip around the edge of the light box. The plaster was only about 1/16” deep. I had to be careful to make sure I didn’t accidentally drive the putty knife into the huge mirror above the sink.

Before the box could be removed, there were four nails driven through the inside of the box and into the wood framing for the existing plaster soffit. The last step before removing the box is disconnecting the electrical from the box. Once these two steps were complete, the box was ready to slide out.

Before pulling the light box out of the plaster soffit, I taped an old cardboard box to the mirror so the box wouldn’t accidentally scratch the mirror during removal. Once the cardboard was in place, I put one of the screws from the chrome trim back in its hole and gently pulled down on the screw with the claw of my hammer. It didn’t take much effort to loosen the box from the plaster.

With the light box removed, I was able to see inside the plaster soffit. Before removing the light, I wasn’t sure if there was any horizontal wood framing to the left of the light box. (Unfortunately, an electronic stud finder isn’t powerful enough to scan through the thick plaster.) The great news is that there is no framing that will get in the way of the new light canisters I’m planning to install. If there had been wood framing in the way, it could have impacted the placement of the new lights. It’s great to know that won’t be an issue.

With no framing to worry about, I can simply cut holes in the plaster so the tall light canisters can extend from the bottom of the short wood light soffit (less than 3” tall) up into the plaster soffit.

Now I can get to work on the wood soffit in the old workshop. It’ll be nice to create wood dust instead of joint compound dust!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Custom wooden light soffit

Yippee! Looks like Bergie’s going to have a chance to get reacquainted with his workshop! If you didn’t know better by reading this blog, you’d think I enjoyed home improvement over woodworking. Oh, to the contrary!

At this point in the upstairs bathroom project, I’m about 85% finished with the plaster crack repairs. I’m taking a little break from the plaster repair to mock up the light box that I’d like to add to the bottom side of the soffit above the sink.

The image to the right shows the current lighting in the bathroom. That light fixture on the bottom of the plaster soffit houses three bulbs behind the frosted glass; certainly not enough by today’s primping standards (so I’ve been informed).

To improve the lighting in the bathroom, I’d like to add four halogen lights within a shallow, trim-enhanced, wood soffit which would be attached to the bottom of the plaster soffit shown above. Those four lights should provide much better light to the sink area, and the moulding around the visible edges of the wood soffit (the front and right side) should add some nice lines to otherwise “flat” area.

To the right is a photo of the mock-up that I just got approved by the commissioner (my lovely wife). I’m using two pieces of moulding intended for other household trim applications, but I think by combining the two I can achieve a great-looking home for the new lights. I’ll create four sides with the vertical moulding to form a box but leave the smaller moulding off the left and back sides so I can butt those sides right up to the left wall and mirror. I’ll also rabbet the inside of the bottom edge of all four sides so I can add a piece of wood (most likely plywood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard)) to form the bottom of the box, where the holes for the lights will be cut. Below is a recap of the wood moulding I’m planning on using.

Rabbetted stool
The vertical sides of the wood soffit box are rabbetted stool moulding which is intended for use when trimming a window. A “window stool” is the flat horizontal shelf at the bottom of a window. I like the rabbetted stool for this light box for a couple of reasons. First, the 2-3/4” height will ample for the soffit box I want to build. Also, the rounded over edge will make for a nice detail for the bottom of the light box.

Base cap
The base cap moulding has great detail that will add some intriguing depth to the front and right side of the box. This base cap is intended for use as moulding along the top of flat base moulding along a floor. Let’s say you’re using 1” x 4” wood for base moulding at the base of your walls. The base cap – with the fattest part of the moulding on the bottom – adds some nice detail to the flat base moulding. For my box, I’m flipping the base cap around so the fattest part of the moulding will be along the top edge.

Both of the mouldings above are offered by Georgia Pacific and sold at Home Depot (at least in the Midwest).

Here’s some more information about the mouldings:
- Rabbetted stool: item number WM 1194, 11/16” x 2-3/4” pine
- Base cap: item number WM 163, 11/16” x 1-3/8” pine

Since the housing of the lights I’m using are taller than the wooden soffit I intent to build, I’ll still be facing with cutting holes into the plaster soffit that’s currently above the sink. However, that should not be a big issue, because before I thought of this wood soffit idea I thought I was going to have to cut holes for the four lights in the plaster soffit anyway. Now, since the holes in the plaster will be hidden by the wood soffit, I don’t have to worry about how clean the cuts are into the rock-hard plaster. (Previous attempts to cut into the plaster around my house have left rather rough edges.)

Once the wooden soffit is built, I’ll attach it to the bottom of the plaster soffit with L brackets.

Off to Home Depot for the rest of the moulding! Yippee!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Progress tonight, 20% off paint tomorrow

Tonight I put in another three hours of quality time into the upstairs bathroom project. I’m happy to report that the ceiling in the shower nook is almost completely repaired and ready for primer. More on that in the near future.

Tomorrow there’s a bag sale at Ace Hardware. Anything you can fit into a paper bag is 20% off. While we’re not ready for paint, we’re going to take advantage of the savings opportunity and buy our latex paint for the bathroom walls and ceiling. We’ll also probably stock up on Kilz latex primer, since we’ll put that down on the plaster (and joint compound repairs) prior to putting down the final paint color.

Now, it’s time to start flipping through the paint chip samples that we’ve be accruing over the past couple months. Seems like every time we’ve gone to Ace Hardware, Home Depot, or Lowes recently, that we come home with another three or four shades of gray (the color we're painting the walls).

Let the official shade of gray debate begin!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Who do you love?

A great Bo Diddley blues song went a little something like this...

I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
I use a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?

Who do you love?...


Not exactly the most romantic of Valentine’s Day songs, but it does have a nice little home improvement twist to it. Or not.

On this day, I hope you’re well aware of who you love. If you’re lucky, you’re blessed enough to not only know who you love, but what you love. For me, it’s my wife and our classic Cape Cod home. As much as I shake my head and swear under my breath at this home, I love it more than any other dwelling I’ve ever known.

So, on this Valentine’s Day, what do you love?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Preparing plaster cracks for joint compound

Since I’ve already discussed joint compound and the tools used to apply it, I’m now going to cover how I prepared the cracks in the plaster walls prior to applying joint compound.

If the cracks are large and contain small pieces of loose plaster, you’ll need to remove the old chunks of plaster prior to applying the new joint compound. When I say chunks, I’m merely referring to small pieces about the size of a grain of rice or a single piece of Rice Krispies cereal.

To clean out the plaster crack use the sharp end of a can opener. Since the pointed end is made to withstand opening a tin can, it’s durable enough to dig into plaster. Simply drag the point along the crack to loosen the old plaster and enlarge the crack slightly for the new joint compound. Inevitably you’ll come across cracks where the old plaster chunks, or any loose plaster dust, will not want to come out of the crack. For the new joint compound to work well, you need to remove the loose material. To do so, I use a plastic drinking straw to blow air directly into the crack. Now, keep in mind that when you blow into the crack that there’s a great chance of the debris coming right back into your face... or better yet, your eyes. Consider yourself warned.

Once you have the cracks cleaned you need to determine if you should use any type of drywall joint tape, wall repair fabric, or corner bead to strengthen the repaired crack. Below I cover the three that I used to repair my upstairs bathroom plaster cracks: joint tape, self-adhesive joint fabric, and paper-faced metal corner bead.

Before diving into the explanations below, you may want to read my Drywall and plaster joint compound tools post for a primer on the tools involved with applying joint compound.

Paper joint tape
This is the old standard for covering drywall joints. Simply put down a thin layer of joint compound over the seam with a 4-inch joint knife, place the paper joint tape over the length of the seam, then drag the joint knife over the entire length of the tape to remove any bubbles. After the first coat has dried (which will depend on which type of joint compound you choose), apply another layer of joint compound over the tape with a six-inch taping knife to taper the compound out over the edge of the first coat. When the second coat is dry, gently sand the area smooth. Wipe the dust away and then add another thin coat of joint compound with a 10-inch taping knife.

Best case scenario: you’re finished and ready for priming and painting.

Worst case scenario: more sanding and another layer of joint compound. Just remember, the more joint compound you put on the more sanding you can look forward to. Thin coats work best, and make sure to keep the blade clean of dried pieces of joint compound when applying the second and third layers of mud or you’ll leave scratches in the wet joint compound as you draw the knife along the seam.

Self-adhesive joint fabric
As the name implies, this drywall mesh is easy to apply to the wall because its backing is sticky. Simply cut to length, apply to the wall over the seam (or crack in my case), then add a layer of joint compound with a 4-inch joint knife. Follow the instructions above for the second and third coat. Since this type of joint tape is a little thicker than the paper joint tape, you’ll need to decide when and where to use it. I used it to patch plaster cracks only in areas where there’s no concern over the thickness of the joint (this isn’t a concern when applying to new drywall, because drywall edges are tapered to accept tape and mud). If a crack is mid-wall, I’d recommend the thinner paper joint tape, if any at all. Remember, your repair will need to be discreet so when the wall is painted it won’t stand out.

Paper faced metal corner bead
To add joint compound to corners (both inside and outside corners), drywallers have traditionally used metal corner bead. It’s thin, easy to cut to length, is pre-bent at a 90-degree angle to fit perfectly into corners, and features a slight recess molded into the corner to accept extra joint compound (to assure the metal won’t show through the joint compound in the corner).

More modern alternatives include plastic corner bead, which is easier to cut and isn’t as prone to cutting your hands as its metal counterpart. Another modern alternative, and the choice I went with, is a corner bead that’s a hybrid of paper joint tape and metal corner bead (see the photos to the right). This product is beneficial because the paper is super thin, yet the metal corner is very durable. I used this product to patch cracks in the corners of my plaster walls and at the point where the walls meet the ceiling.
Now that I’ve covered the tools, joint compound, and crack preparation, next time I’ll show you some of the variety of cracks I repaired in my plaster walls.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Great progress this weekend

This weekend I experienced some extremely encouraging progress in our upstairs bathroom remodeling project.

First, I finished repairing the cracks in the plaster walls. I’ll cover the techniques I used to patch the various cracks in the coming days. It’s a relief to know that the dirtiest part of this project – sanding the joint compound – is in my rearview mirror. I might need to do a little joint compound work in the shower stall, but it should be as time-consuming as the walls. You can also read my previous posts, Patching plaster cracks with joint compound and Drywall and plaster joint compound tools to see what I’ve covered on the joint compound work up to this point.

The most encouraging portion of the weekend’s work was the fact that it only took me about and hour-and-a-half to remove the cracked paint from the arched ceiling of the shower nook. After finishing the joint compound work, I decided to take a pass at the cracked paint. Low and behold, it came of so “easy” that just a little elbow grease later and I was finished removing the paint from the plaster ceiling. Once again, the fact that I have solid, smooth plaster probably made the paint removal go much faster than if I was working with less rigid drywall. I’ll share photos and the technique I used to remove the paint later this week.

In other bathroom news, I picked up a new, more powerful fan for the bathroom that will need to be installed prior to painting the ceiling. Since I’ll have to remove the old bathroom fan from the attic, I’m hoping I have a week or so before I’m ready for this task. The temperatures are in the teens here lately, and I really don’t want to spend too much time up in that icebox.

I’m also considering new lighting solutions for above the bathroom sink. There’s currently a recessed light housing with three bulbs and frosted glass. Needless to say, it doesn’t provide a great deal of light. We’ve already purchased some halogen bullet lights, but I’m not certain how I’m going to install them. I really don’t want to cut individual holes in the ultra-hard plaster soffit above the sink for the four new lights. Thus, I might build a new wood soffit to house the new lights and attach it to the bottom of the current soffit. It’d be nice to actually use my woodworking tools for once! At this point I’m thinking a simple rectangular frame with some molding on the edges to give it some depth. Once I figure out what I’m going to do and get it approved by the commissioner (my lovely wife), I’ll share what I come up with.

Now, time to relax and work out the kink in my shoulder from all that damn sanding.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Time out for a prank

This week has been extremely un-productive in terms of working on the old Cape Cod. Between family commitments and the day-to-day rigors of working a full day, coming home to more work on the old house just hasn’t been in the cards.

What was in the cards this week was a good old fashion prank on a co-worker. If you watch The Office on NBC, this prank will hit home with you. On the show, Jim occasionally puts a co-worker’s office product inside a Jell-O mold. If memory serves me, his first stunt was suspending co-worker Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O.

This stressful was the perfect time for a little comic relief. One of my co-workers is a big fan of The Office, so she’s been the brunt of my antics. Shortly before the holidays when she was out of the office for a few days, I filled her favorite water glass with lime Jell-O. She retaliated with a weak attempt to fill my Eclipse gum BigEPak (a small plastic cylinder that holds 60 pieces of gum) with Jell-O. I say weak because the gum started breaking down inside the Jell-O, making the Jell-O more like goop. What a rookie. And, since she ruined 30-plus pieces of gum, the ball was back in my court.

My opportunity presented itself about a month ago when a different co-worker’s computer mouse failed. After a new mouse was delivered, I swooped in and took the old useless mouse. That’s right; I would exact my revenge with a tool of modern day society that no office cube-dweller can live without: their mouse.

My wife actually did the hard work, which was finding a container that was perfect for placing the mouse in, upside down, so once the Jell-O had set, it could easily be flipped out of the container.

The results are to the right. I made certain I was nearby when my co-worker arrived at the office that morning. She said she didn’t know what to do. After all, you can’t exactly call the IT help desk and say you need a new mouse because yours is buried in Jell-O! Since I’m not completely mean-spirited, and because I really didn’t want her to call the help desk, I left her “good” mouse nearby so she would see it. I also put it on a plate so the Jell-O wouldn’t “melt” on her mouse pad.

Well, now that the fun and games portion of this week is over, I’ll be back to work in the upstairs bathroom tomorrow. More progress reports on the plaster crack repairs then.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Stainless steel compound mud pan

This morning I swung by Lowes and picked up a new stainless steel mud pan to replace my failing plastic mud pan.

If you enlarge the photo to the right, you’ll see the failing plastic in the bottom of the plastic mud pan. I alluded to this yesterday (Plastic joint compound mud pan) but it was only accentuated this afternoon when I noticed a small flake of yellow plastic embedded in the hardened joint compound that I put down yesterday. This only validated my decision to go to with the better stainless steel mud pan.

The new mud pan is shown to the right. One little piece of clarification to my Drywall and plaster joint compound tools post from a couple of days ago. When preaching the virtues of spending the extra money on a stainless steel mud pan from the get-go, I guessed that I probably saved $10 by purchasing the plastic mud pan instead of the better stainless steel mud pan. Well, much to my delight, the stainless steel mud pan that I purchased today was only $8.88, while the plastic mud pan was around $4.50. Trust me, spend the extra $4.00 on the stainless steel mud pan (skip the trip to Starbucks on the way home if you’re concerned about the four bucks!).

Working with the stainless steel mud pan is great. Since the joint compound doesn’t adhere to the sides (which happens moderately on the plastic mud pan), it’s easy to mix and then pull the mud from the pan to the taping knives. And the best part, clean-up is extremely easy. I was using a hand brush to clean the plastic mud pan because as the joint compound hardened it became more difficult to remove it from the inside of the pan. With the stainless steel pan, some warm water and a couple of passes with your hand is all you’ll need to clean out the inside of the mud pan. (Naturally, remove all the excess mud with a joint knife and throw it in the garbage before washing the mud pan in the sink.)

The only concern I have with this new mud pan is that the top edges are sharp, and since I hold the pan from both the bottom or from the top with my thumb pointed down into the pan, I’ll have to be careful not to cut myself. (I know I probably just jinxed myself.)

This project should really hit its stride now that I’m saving so much time cleaning up. Yeah, right!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Plastic joint compound mud pan

If I didn’t state clearly enough in my Drywall and plaster joint compound tools post to never buy a plastic joint compound mud pan, let me state it again now with absolute resolve.

I spent a large portion of today repairing cracks in the plaster walls of our upstairs bathroom. I would guess that there have been at least 30 batches of joint compound mixed in my plastic mud pan on this project alone (plenty of cracks, and three layers of mud on each). With all the scrapping from the metal 4" joint knife on the inside of the tub while mixing, applying the mud to the walls, and during clean-up, the plastic is going to naturally start showing signs of wear.

Today I noticed on a couple of occasions that when I was dragging joint compound across a repair area that small flakes of the yellow plastic mud pan were on the wall. Needless to say, when you’re trying to leave a nice, clean application of joint compound, any fragment in the mud is going to be pulled along the edge of the taping knife and leave a streak in the mud. While the flakes of plastic from the mud pan are small, they’re a total menace.

So again, don’t skimp when it comes to shopping for your joint compound tools. Tomorrow I need to go out and buy a new stainless steel mud pan, so I really didn’t save anything in the end.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Drywall and plaster joint compound tools

Below is an overview of the tools I use to apply joint compound to either drywall joints or plaster walls. While the type of joint compound you use will differ depending on your situation (read my post Patching plaster cracks with joint compound), the tools basically remain the same.

Mud pan
A mud pan is where I mix my joint compound when making small batches, like the plaster wall crack repair in my upstairs bathroom. The narrow design is easy to hold in one hand as you gather mud with one of the various joint compound applicators shown below. As you can see to the right, a few years ago I went the cheap route and bought a plastic mud pan. I probably saved about $10, but I now regret it. Spend the extra money and get a stainless steel mud pan, it’ll last forever.

My plastic mud pan has been used so much it’s developed some small hair-line cracks which I’ve repaired with thin strips of styrene plastic (.020" thickness, found at model railroad hobby shops) glued onto the crack from the outside of the pan. Again, spend the money upfront and buy the better one. Never skimp on tools, you’ll only regret it later.

UPDATE: Read my February 4, 2007 post, Stainless steel compound mud pan, to see the right type of mud pan to buy.

4" joint knife
This is the tool you must have when applying joint compound. It’s used to mix the joint compound in the mud pan and to put the first layer of joint compound onto the drywall or plaster.





6" taping knife
Once the first layer of joint compound has dried, move to a 6" taping knife. The difference in the width will help taper the joint compound out over the wall. Most taping knives have blue spring steel blades that are sturdy, yet have some flex when you’re pulling the mud along a seam.




10" taping knife
Hopefully, the final step will be a third coat of joint compound with a 10" blade.







Inside corner tool
To apply joint compound to an inside corner, use the aptly-named inside corner tool. (There’s also a similar tool meant for outside corners, but I don’t have a need for that application.) The blade of the inside corner tool are set at the perfect angle and make drawing mud down a corner extremely easy.

I’ll show more specific examples of how to use joint compound tools as I progress with patching the cracks in the upstairs bathroom.