Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I Need an Outlet.

The very. very. very. last. step of the backsplash was adjusting the outlets. Let's just say that, after tackling this project, I now need an outlet for my frustration.

Theoretically, this was just a little finishing touch. The outlets were already in place and wired, and we'd already had an electrician come out to make the few changes that were needed. However, they were flush to the drywall. After installing the backsplash, they were recessed by a half inch or so.

So close ... and yet so far.

This is a really common problem with a supposedly easy fix. You buy one of these doodads:

That's the technical term.

It's an outlet box extender. You just loosen the exposed outlets from the wall and then slip it over, no messing with the wiring needed.  It sits inside the existing box in the wall, where you can slide it in and out until it's flush with your new surface. Then screw the outlets back in, and pop on the cover plate.

Now, I'm sure this works really well in Fairy Land, where all the electrical boxes are the same brand as the extenders, installed perfectly straight, with exactly the right mounting surfaces behind them, and all the fiddly little holes line up perfectly.

In Hermione's House ... well, you can imagine.

This would probably have been easier if we hadn't gotten mortar all over the screws.

Ok, now just slide that blue box over the outlets. What do you mean it does't fit? It has to! Shove harder.

One down. I need a drink. 

Several hours of shoving, pleading, adjusting, and peering into dark walls later, though, we had it all worked out. It was beautiful! That is, while it lasted...

Pure, elusive loveliness.

Brett flipped the breaker back on. The light on the main outlet turned green, and the test lamp I plugged in turned right on. All was well! Mission accomplished! I took a big sigh of relief, pulled the plug out of the wall and .... the entire outlet box came with it.


If I don't look, this isn't happening.

Apparently in all our fiddling, we'd chipped away at the drywall that was anchoring the box.

After a pause for nervous breakdowns, we discovered that there's a contraption called a Madison strap that takes care of this situation. It's basically a long bar that holds the electrical box tight to the drywall, even if there's not much to screw into. But of course we didn't have any of these, so work ground to a halt for lack of a couple 60 cent pieces of metal. ARG.

For want of a Madison strap, the kingdom was lost.

But Brett rode to the rescue! My lovely husband  made a late-night run to Home Depot, bringing home $1.20 worth of blessed, blessed sanity. I love you, honey.

This still left all the persuading and rejiggering, but we were pretty used to that by this point. And a little while later, WE HAD A FINISHED BACKSPLASH!!!!!


I love being able to actually cook in the kitchen again.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Make your Caulk Jokes Now

Get 'em out of the way, folks, because by now I've heard them all.

No comment.

Anyway, the caulk is one of the finishing touches for our backsplash. It creates a watertight, easily cleanable seal between the tile surface and the walls, countertops, and edges. It also just makes the whole thing look polished and super slick. We used a white, sanded caulk to match our grout.

Applying caulk falls somewhere between art and science. It's low-tech - just a tube of doughy material that you apply by inserting it into a press and squeezing the trigger. Since it's all freehand, the person with the caulk gun has to keep a steady hand to make the lines as straight and even as possible. When invariably our line was not straight or even, Brett would wet his index finger and wipe it carefully, with even pressure, over the fresh caulk. Somehow, he quickly gets a smooth result every time.

Picasso at work
It looks really easy when he does it, but I think it's one of those deceptive skills where making it look easy is the hardest part.

It's kind of hard to take a picture of something designed to be inconspicuous.

Here it is!  It's that thin white line at the base of the tile, touching the counter.

I know it's a small detail, but it REALLY changed the whole look. The entire thing transformed from a bunch of tiles stuck on the wall to a cohesive, professional-looking backsplash. Hooray!

Uh, except for the fact that the outlets are still missing their covers and matted with blue painter's tape and excess mortar. One thing at a time.

You can't make me do more work if you can't find me!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

It's time to seal the grout!

If you haven't been following along, we started the backsplash two weeks ago, and it was fun but a little rocky. Then we worked on it again last weekend, and things went pretty well. Happily, this trend continued to sealing the grout, which was the easiest step of all.

We tried spray-on grout sealer, which Brett had never used before, but sounded like it would be easier than the paint-on kind. And it was!

Spray it, don't say it.
Spray it on, wait 10 minutes, wipe it clean. It comes off the tile pretty easily, especially if you catch big drips as you spray. Wait an hour, do it again.

Training to be the next Karate Kid.
This was so simple that I almost feel bad dedicating an entire post to it.

But not really.

Hermie also fakes repentance - in her case, for the holes she chewed in the rug.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Grout of this World

Grouting is fun!

We know how to have a good time.

It's very similar to working with mortar (which we did last week), but way more satisfying on several levels. First of all, it's faster to mix.


Between the nice consistency and the flexible rubber trowel, it goes on smoothly and easily. And it's a finish, so of course it looks really nice as it goes on.

Best of all for me, it's pretty much impossible to screw up. Just slap it on and then wipe off the extra.

I really hope my kindergarten teacher isn't reading this. Sorry, Mrs. Chait.

But it's nothing a damp sponge can't fix!

So, ladies and gentlemen and those who have yet to make up their minds, behold our backsplash:

Hermie is happy, and so are we!

Despite how awesome this looks, I STILL can't use the kitchen. The grout is very vulnerable to stains and splashes until it's sealed, and we have to wait 24 hours for it to set before applying the sealer. Realistically, we probably won't get to that until we get a few days off later in the week. Sigh.

My next task for tonight: figuring out how to make rice in the microwave. Anyone want to go out for dinner this week?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Makin' a Splash

... a backsplash, that is.

Just when I thought our tile would spend the rest of its natural life sitting in boxes on our stairs, we got motivated to actually stick it to the walls. Crazy, I know!

Brett told me that once we got started tiling, it would go really fast. I must admit that I didn't really believe him. However, despite a few snags, overall he was right.

Art in progress.

First, we laid out all the tiles in pattern on the counter. Then we mixed up some mortar, and started troweling it onto the wall in small sections. The trowel has teeth in it to make a pattern in the mortar, which helps it grip the tiles. 

Beat that, Mondrian.

I call this one "Still Life with Shop-Vac."

Then we laid the tiles on in a staggered pattern, using 1/8" spacers at each corner.

Fitting the spacers in perfectly is oddly satisfying, especially when they fit so perfectly that they make a little clicking noise going in.

It's the little things.

 This all has to happen pretty quickly, as Brett learned when he was working for Habitat for Humanity. The mortar that adheres the tiles to the floor or wall starts drying out as soon as you mix it, so the useful window to apply it is short. Once, when Brett was being too much of a perfectionist tiling a bathroom floor, his supervisor kicked over the whole bucket of mortar. I imagine him saying "You have five minutes!" and then walking away with maniacal laughter. I'm sure it didn't have that super-villain ring to it in real life, but I enjoy my mental origin story for Brett Barbakoff, Tile Ninja.

However, Brett's experience was all with floors, and a backsplash has some unique challenges. We had to squeeze into a lot of irregular and small spaces and work around four outlets, which meant spending extra time getting the mortar right and cutting a lot of tiles into odd shapes. Even with the tile saw we borrowed from the neighbors, this ended up being harder than we thought. Several broken tiles later, our mortar dried up halfway through. Whoops.

Behold, the dreaded outlet.

By the second wall, though, we had it more in hand.


There are some imperfections that really bug me. Our counter tops aren't perfectly flat (though considering that our floor is so sloped that Hermione can play fetch with herself if she drops a ball in the right spot, it's a miracle they're as good as they are), and those teeny fractions of an inch here and there resulted in some gaps that aren't a perfect 1/8".

I know nobody else will notice them, but they make me a little crazy. When we add the white grout (that's this weekend's project), it will camouflage those spots pretty effectively. That's a secret, though - don't tell any prospective future house-buyers.

Hermione's not talking.

I'm counting down the seconds until I can put my kitchen back the way it belongs!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Stop Stair-ing

We installed permanent stairs on the deck a while back, but I never had a chance to post about them. Since I'm now laid up with a rollicking case of the flu, and speaking more than three words at a time makes me hack up a lung, I suddenly have lots of time to type.

There's a main and side entrance to the property, so we decided on two sets of stairs: one wide, grander-looking set for the main entry, and then one regular-width side stair. Each set is two steps high. Before we built the permanent steps, we were using portable boat stairs in the front and a tree stump on the side. Super safe!

Here's the main stair, all finished but the painting.

More stairs mean more pumpkins!

Brett was really excited about doing the stairs. Apparently building your own stringers (that's the support and side pieces) is some kind of carpentry rite of passage. I thought we'd just need the ones at the ends, but I'm informed that that's not enough to make the stairs structurally stable, blah blah blah. So Brett cut about ten these for the two staircases.

Reader, meet stringer.

 I'd say he passed with flying colors, wouldn't you?

Once those are made, the rest is pretty easy. We flattened out the ground for the base of the staircases to rest on, attached the stringers to the deck, and nailed boards down on top of them for treads. Then we nailed thin strips to the vertical areas of each stair, called risers. 

The last steps will be to paint and to install strips of lattice under the open porch. I'm a little worried that we might already have animals living under there; Hermione, our little ratter, is suddenly very interested in one specific corner.

We're going to wait until it's not below freezing outside to take care of those finishing touches. In the meantime, we all love having fully functional stairs!

I love dragging my Mom down the stairs! Wheee!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Raise the Rutabagas

I've discovered my new very favorite type of construction. It's the kind that we hire other people to do :-)

Okay, seriously, I love that we're doing our renovation ourselves, and that I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in every room of my home. But we came across a project that was better to hire out, and I have to say that it is amazingly lovely to come home at the end of the day and see that things have gotten done.

Hard at work.

This project was a set of terraced raised beds. Our house is below street level, so there's a large sloping hillside in one area. However, that spot gets the best sun, so it's the natural place for our vegetable garden. We decided to cut terraces into the hillside to turn it into easy-to-access raised beds.

Hillside on the right, with the terracing started.

When we considered doing this ourselves, it meant renting earth-moving equipment for cutting the terraces and moving soil, and then lots (and lots and lots) of heavy lifting to create stacked-stone retaining walls. Considering that opening a plastic bottle is a feat of strength for me, we figured that this would take us approximately forever. On top of that, it would still be expensive to rent the equipment and buy the materials. We decided to go with a landscaping company.

We went with Harvesterra, a local design/build landscaper that specializes in edibles. Perfect! They were a great choice - they burned through the work in about a week, and even found us some leftover stone to use.

I love the result!! Each level is about 7 feet deep, so there's space for a 4-foot growing bed and a comfy 3-foot mulched walking path. Plus, Aaron at Harvesterra suggested and added those awesome stone stairs up the middle.

I'd be super excited to start growing things, if I wasn't buried under every blanket in the house to ward off the 20 degree weather. Brrr. Spring, hurry it up, I'm ready for you!

Is it warm yet?

Friday, November 28, 2014

(No) Tile Style

I'm excited to say that we're finally starting to tile the kitchen backsplash. I can't wait for the kitchen to feel all shiny and polished and, most importantly, done. We've had the tile for ages. It's simple white subway tile, with just a bit of a twist because each tile is a full foot long. Brett found it at some fancy-shmancy to-the-trades tile seller ... and then we found it at Lowe's for half the price. Huzzah!


So of course, it's been sitting in boxes on our stairs for the last three months.

Brett's done a lot of tiling, so I was feeling confident that this project would go pretty quickly and smoothly. We spent the weekend on it and ... did not install a single tile.

Everything's actually going very well; there are just several important steps I didn't know about.

First, since our tile is going to end in the middle of a wall, we needed a nice edging for it. There's a metal piece designed exactly for this called a  Schluter strip. Try saying that three times fast. Or better yet, try asking the guy at Home Depot how to find it without feeling just a little dirty.

Hey baby, wanna see my Schluter strip? 

Cutting this and screwing it on to the wall just takes a minute.


However, we can't just start sticking tile to the wall. We needed to install a rough backer of cement board for the mortar to grip. The process is similar to installing drywall. You know: slow, awkward, and ridiculously dusty.

First pop off the outlet covers.

Measure 3,00 times, cut once.

This was the moment we realized that there's a tiny piece of trim glued into one of the corners. That needed to be pried, chipped, and cajoled out before we could install the cement board. I thank the heavens daily for our chisel - it's like the DIYer's hammer of Thor. 

Because it wouldn't be any fun if things were easy.

The cement board gets cut to size and screwed to the wall. Then you tape over the seams, and cover the tape with mortar.


Mix (and mix, and mix, then wait and mix some more)


This was the first time I'd mixed mortar, and I have to say, it's fun to work with. The texture is just really satisfying. Brett said that it should be about the consistency of cookie dough, and while that's a useful description, it did seem a little odd to apply to a substance that smells like dissected frog.

This is my sad face, because Mom won't let me eat the mortar.
So here we are, all covered with backer board and mortar! Hopefully I'll be posting about our finished project after next weekend.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Accidental Coffee Table

When we moved into this house, we found all kinds of interesting things laying around in odd places: old doors, spare bits and bobs, a few tools, a few surprises. One of our favorite finds was an old trunk in the crawl space. It's just too perfect - exactly the right amount of roughed-up to look well traveled but not thrashed.

A previous owner of the home worked on sets for TV and movies (and a lot of his interior remodels were done with leftover set pieces), so I'm imagining some kind of interesting cinematic back story here.

I knew right away that it would be the perfect coffee table. All it needed was a good clean and some legs. And by "a good clean," I mostly mean "to be left out in the sunlight until I was sure all the spiders had moved out."

Useful, lovely, and spider-free!

We picked up a few unfinished wood legs for just a couple dollars a piece, and then I stained them black.

This kind of leg comes with a screw attached, so Brett drilled a hole in each corner of the trunk, and we just secured each leg in place with a bolt. Done!

Bonus: Hermione thinks the new table is delicious.

Now I just need to re-cover the inside with fresh contact paper or fabric so we can really use it for that holy grail of small home ownership - extra storage! Cue the angels singing.

This is what an angel looks like, right?