My Shop ~ Part 9 ~ The Workbench

I made a workbench back in Colorado just before we moved to Panama. I’ve really enjoyed using the bench for the past few years, and now it is just about to have a new home in my new shop. So even though this isn’t current work, I thought I’d post it.

Most workbenches, including all the ones I have had in the past, are built up against a wall. Over the years I’ve found that this has a few shortcomings.

  • The size of the project that one can work on is limited to that typical two-foot depth.
  • The bench becomes a cluttered catchall.
  • I don’t like to work facing a wall; I’d rather be working out in the middle of the shop.
  • Benches are usually made of 2″x4″, 2″x6″, and 4″x4″ stock and are heavy as all get out. Most benches can’t easily be moved.

I set out to build a better bench, at least better for me. I had a general idea of what I wanted, so I made a couple sketches and was on my way. I designed a bench that was on wheels and had a 4’x8′ footprint. I needed a place to securely store my hand power tools so that they would be out of sight if someone looked through the windows; I was selling my old work van, so I cannibalized the large drawer that I had installed in it some years earlier. I also wanted some smaller drawers for quick access to hand tools.

I believe that to build strong you don’t need a lot of strong lumber or steel. A massive bench made of heavy stock such as 4″x4″ lumber for the legs can easily be redesigned and built with smaller stock if you use the principles employed in trusses. I had some extra hem-fir 2″x2″s and 2″x6″s, and some 1/2″ plywood hanging around, so that was a start.

First I used the 2″x6″s to make a base. I half-lapped the corners, glued the joints, drilled bolt holes through the lapped corners, and bolted on large castors. The bolts hold the corners together along with the glue.

Then using the 2″x2″s and the plywood, I made a lightweight but strong carcass. I glued the joints and screwed everything together with drywall screws. Here’s the start of the bench:

This end of the bench will have the smaller drawers.

Next I installed the big drawer. I bought the drawer online from Joey Bed Cargo Trays (a note on their website says that they suspended business in 2009). I think they are out of Oregon. The unit arrived knocked down and was easy to assemble using plywood that you supply. These drawers can carry a lot of weight:

Next I cut in some electrical boxes, trimmed out the drawer faces, and made the top. I’d seen the top design in a woodworking magazine. They said it was strong and stable. Strong it is. Very strong. But I built it in dry Colorado and moved it to wet Panama. Big mistake, as the whole top now has bowed up in the middle about five-sixteenths of an inch, making flat assemblies impossible. I’m planning to remediate the situation by building a metal top above the wooden top. Makes more sense because I now do more metalworking than woodworking and it will make welding and grinding easier. Here’s a photo:

Working by myself, I had to craft a way to lower the top piece of heavy MDF onto the grid after I applied wood glue to the grid. Here’s what I came up with; the upright struts acted as  hinges, placing the MDF perfectly when I pivoted the sheet downward.

I covered the top and the bottom of the bench top with plastic laminate (I did both sides so that it wouldn’t bow… yeah, right…), and trimmed the edges with some nice pine boards. Then I made the small drawers; poplar sides and one-quarter inch plywood bottoms.

Now, what to do with the raw plywood sides of the workbench? Well, I’m a big fan of aluminum diamond plate. You know, the stuff that the toolboxes in the back of contractors’ pickup trucks are made from. So because this bench is a mega-toolbox, I bought some 4’x4′ sheets and some pre-bent corner pieces of diamond plate from Online Metals and UPS delivered the package a few days later. After installing the aluminum (I cut the aluminum with a plywood cutting blade in the table saw and installed it with hundreds of pan head sheet metal screws), I installed the electrical outlets and trim covers, drawer handles, deadbolt locks, and the project was done. Here’s the finished bench from the small drawer end:

And the big drawer end:

With one drawer open:

OMG! Did he actually dovetail those drawers?

And with the big drawer open:

The workbench doesn’t look brand new anymore, but that’s okay, I don’t either:

That’s all for now.

Carport Roof ~ Part 1

The heavy rains of a week ago turned out to be just a passing storm. We are back in a dry pattern and were able to get a lot done this week even though Armando only worked four days. In my most previous post, I said that we were going to erect part of the carport roof. Here’s what we have done so far:

We started by digging a footing for a column. The footing is one meter by one meter by one meter deep. We filled the hole with rebar, concrete, and large rocks. This mass will keep the roof rooted to the ground during heavy winds:

Then it was time to form the column. A friend had given us some plastic sewer pipe to use as a form for round columns, but this didn’t seem to have the look that I wanted.

We could make a square box column out of M2 panels (2″x4’x8′ Styrofoam sheets with a wire mesh on each side). We could leave a hole in the center of the box for the rebar to go up through, then pour concrete into the center of the form, embedding the rebar and making a good strong column. It would look like this:

To join the M2 panels at the corners, pieces of wire mesh bent at right angles are clipped to both panels. This makes a unit that is not likely to crack at the corners.

But wait. A plain round or square box column would certainly do the job, but these columns are just plain static. They don’t add much of a design element to the entire project because there is no sense of motion or tension or even something being comfortably at rest.

I’ve been playing with shapes and forms in my head for months, and one design kept pushing the others aside. This shape is the wedge, or flying buttress. This isn’t an original idea of course, and it can be seen throughout history and throughout Panama today. Most of the concrete block bus stops have the shape, as well as the gas station in the center of El Valle. So I laid two sheets of M2 on my shop floor and drew a diagonal line on them. I cut the metal mesh with the angle grinder and sliced through the Styrofoam with my pocket knife. When I snapped the panels on the cut line, I was left with four pieces; two for the front and two for the back side of the column. I think that this design gives a nice counterbalance and motion to the static mass of the shipping containers. My design looks like this:

You can see three pieces of rebar extending from the top of the form. We welded these pieces to the beam above the column. Now the roof is connected all the way through the column and into the concrete footing.

Armando and I clip the corner mesh pieces to the column. All totaled, the column took just three sheets of the M2 panel.

Cynthia thought I should include a picture of the clips that connect the corners together. Here they are. I think I look as if I am auditioning for a new character on The Simpsons.

Here Armando trowels on a first coat of repello (stucco):

If I move just a few more inches to the right, you can see the alignment of the flying buttress column with my shop. This is the effect, the optical illusion if you will, I was aiming for:

You can also see that it aligns perfectly when viewed from the front gate and the right side of the driveway curbing:

Did you notice in the photo above that Armando was performing his incredible “white bucket floating in mid air” trick? I would swear on a stack of Popular Mechanics magazines that this photo has not been manipulated and that there were no strings attached. Here is a closeup:

Floating a bucket in mid air. Look ma, no hands, no strings, no wires. Armando seems nonchalant as he reaches for more mortar to spread on the wall. You can see Sammy looking on in amazement. Such is the craft of the magician.

In the next photo, Armando applies the finish coat of repello to the column. You can also see that we have been busy welding beams and joists (2″x4″ carriolas) into place. We’ll put the roof metal on next week after we pour concrete into the center of the column form:

The long shadows give a clue as to the length of the day. Armando is tired.

That’s it for progress this week. Here are some odds and ends:

While welding up in the air, it is always a quandary where to keep extra welding rods. I solved the problem for myself by looking in the junk pile. An empty urethane tube (aluminum) and a piece of string made a perfect welding rod quiver to sling over my shoulder:

When we put the polymer sealer on the interior walls in my shop I got the idea to use the walls as a chalk board. It works perfectly; here I show Armando my plans for the column:

I checked my math twice. It's been many years since I did long division by hand!

The month of April holds one of the negatives of living in Panama. Just before the anticipated start of the rainy season, all the farmers and large landowners burn their fields and all the accumulated dry vegetable matter. Sometimes old tires will find their way into the piles, too. Here’s a view to the mountains. Note the smoke haze has nearly obscured the normally visible antenna towers:

Outtake (Cheap) Shot: Cynthia thought it would be an “art shot” to take this photo of me on the ladder. Reminded her of the book, Under the Bleachers by Seymour Butts:

That’s all for now. More next week.

In No Particular Order ~ The Past Few Weeks

Panorama: First, reader Missy has been asking for an overall panorama shot of the entire project. I downloaded Serif PanoramaPlus Starter Edition, plugged in a couple photos, and a few seconds later the program delivered a panorama. Here you go Missy:

Here’s what you are looking at in the above photo:

Left: two containers that will be the kitchen, home office, and TV. Cyn will be able to watch Law and Order while she makes dinner. There will be a roof deck above these two containers.

Between the two sets of containers: this will be a parallelogram-shaped area for the front entry, living room, dining room, and staircase to the roof deck. We hope that the walls will have a lot of glass.

The back set of containers: this area is for two bedrooms, two bathrooms, the laundry, a big dry (dehumidifier) closet, a half bath, and storage for outdoor tools.

My shop is the block building on the right of the photo.

Now on to the grist of this post:

Septic: The new septic tank is done and covered with dirt. When Armando cut a hole in the sheet metal under the concrete to make the inspection/pumping lid, he recoiled as fast as he could. Seems that an opossum had crawled into the intake pipe and had fallen into the tank. I was fine with leaving it down there, start the septic-izing if you will, but Armando had Sammy fashion a hook and fish it out for disposal off site. Sammy donned a respirator and there was a lot of laughing and retching going on. It is good to get the septic tank project off the to do list.

By the way, the big plastic septic tank that we dug out has now been re-purposed. We cut the bottom off at the first reinforcing ring. This part is now a swimming pool for Armando’s young son. Then we cut the remaining part of the tank to make a ring two-feet tall. This ring is now a chicken corral for baby chicks at Armando’s house. All that is left is the cone at the top of the tank and maybe we will dream up a use for this, too.

Moving Dirt: This sounds like something Yogi Berra would have said: “There is a lot of dirt in a hole.” All the dirt that the guys dug out for the septic tank had to be moved. The guys put the better top soil on the garden and the junk dirt became fill for areas in the driveway. This gave a better entrance to my shop. I had them put a layer of crushed stone on top of the fill to keep muddy feet out of my shop. Here’s a picture:

My Shop: From the above photo you can see that I built a sliding door for my shop. You can also see that I painted the concrete floor with garage floor epoxy to keep moisture down and to make it easy to clean.

In my makeshift shop at the house we are renting, I had three small benches. They were painted black at the factory and rust was beginning to break through the paint. So I disassembled them, buffed the parts with a wire brush on the angle grinder, and primed and painted them yellow. Here I am reassembling them with all 96 bolts:

Now they have a nice home in my new shop. I still have to make new shelves and tops; termites demolished the old ones. You can also see that the floor is painted and lights and electrical receptacles are completed. You can’t see it in this photo, but I am using the walls as a chalkboard. The surface is perfect for sketching out plans and doing math. Bit by bit, I’ll move my tools and big workbench into the new space:

Concrete: The sheet metal roof overhangs the shop by five feet on the west side. I decided to pour a slab under the overhang. I plan on installing a deep sink in the space, and thought it would be a good place for a clothesline. But the more I thought about it, the space seems ideal for Cynthia’s hot glass studio. I’ll put up some walls later. Here’s the new slab:

We mixed a bit more concrete and made a ramp next to the slab to access the back yard:

In the photo above you may have noticed the concrete drips running down the side of the container. That’s because we poured a concrete roof on container four. Why? Shipping container roofs are metal. It gets hot as an oven inside. Also, the torrential tropical downpours pounding on the metal makes it unbearably noisy inside.

We started the concrete roof project by welding 2″x3″ steel carriolas around the edge of the container. This will hold the concrete and can be painted a house or trim color. Next we went to work cleaning any rusty spots on the roof and then painted on two good coats of polyurethane red oil primer. Next, we put sheets of one-inch Styrofoam on top of the container roof. We held the foam away from the edges to thicken the concrete in these places. Next, we cut rebar for embedding in the slab. We tied the rebar together with baling wire. Here it is at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, ready for concrete.

At 6:30, Armando and Sammy arrived, along with two additional men to help with mixing all that concrete:

This pile of concrete has 18 wheelbarrows full of sand and gravel! What a lot of work, and they still have to carry it up to the roof bucket by bucket.

Here’s Armando walking a five-gallon bucket of concrete to the far end of the container. As we poured concrete, we pulled the walking boards back and lifted the rebar into place in the slab. Some time ago, I found in the road an eight-foot piece of aluminum 2″x4″ rectangular tubing. It made a perfect screed to level the concrete:

Here is the finished roof slab. You can see that there is a pitch to the outside of about an inch. Later I’ll fashion a rain gutter so the rain doesn’t spill down the side of the container:

Of course, after not raining a drop for several months, just as I was about half way through putting a broom finish on the concrete, the rain gods decided to play a funny joke on ole Fred. So now the concrete has a broom finish with rain dots. But it didn’t turn out that bad really, and this is just a utility slab and doesn’t have to be pretty.

A Bit More Concrete: It is as if someone threw a switch. For the past week the rains have been frequent and heavy. This is right on schedule, even a bit early, as our neighbor Tomas told me a couple weeks ago, “We should expect rain some time after Easter.” Today is Easter. We are all hoping that this is a false start and that there will be more sunny days to pour more concrete.

The rains have made it perfectly clear that for the next months it will be difficult to go the few feet from container four to my shop without getting soaked. We have decided to construct some of the carport roof.

When we built the shop roof, we extended a 4″x4″ carriola beam beyond my shop another twelve feet or so over the driveway. This is the area that will get roofed.

First, we need a column to support the outside corner of the roof. In the next photo, Armando is digging a mega-footing, just like we did for the container support columns. It isn’t that this footing will carry much weight. Much to the contrary, the massive winds that  we experience here will put the roof under tremendous uplift forces. So the footing is mass that will keep the roof from blowing off:

This footing is a meter square and a meter deep. We'll fill it with concrete and large rocks. In the foreground is a rebar mat and rebar for the column.

Here’s the rebar in place and the hole filled with concrete and large rocks:

I have a design in mind for the column, stay tuned.

More Doorways And Stair Landings: While Armando and Sammy were moving dirt, I got to work and cut two more doorways from container 3. These doorways will connect the parallelogram area (living room, etc.) to the bedrooms. After I cut the metal shipping container siding, I made and installed door frames.

One important detail is that because of the slope of the land, the front containers were intentionally set 15-inches lower than the back set of containers. Eventually there will be three steps up from the living room to the bedrooms. To accomplish this, I needed to build stair landings. So, taking the angles of the parallelogram walls into account, I welded carriolas to make landings. Soon, when the carport roof area is finished, we can pouir concrete floors in container 3, and these floors will encompass the landings, too. Here are photos of the landings and doorways:

This hallway goes past the half bathroom to the master bedroom.

This doorway leads to the second bedroom.

Bonus Photos:

Walking to the house today I passed two big vultures having snake for breakfast:

After the dry season, the grass is becoming green again.

Walking home from the house yesterday, I picked a handful of tiny wildflower weeds for Cynthia. How romantic can a guy get?

Well, I think that that is just about enough for today. Thanks for stopping by.




On Vacation

I’m taking a few weeks off from construction of the container house while a friend visits us from the States. I’ll be back writing about the house after the first of March. Wow. March is so soon? I’ve got to get busy as the dry season is passing quickly!

I took our house guest for a drive in the country to Cedelinda’s (I’m tutoring her in English) house. Cedelinda lives in the small pueblo of Chichi Bali, a five-kilometer drive on a not-well-maintained dirt road. There is no bus or taxi service, and there is currently only one pickup truck that drives the road daily to and from the pueblo. There is a trip in the morning and a trip in the early evening. People can get a ride for a dollar. If you miss the ride or don’t have the dollar, your other option is to walk.

The purpose of our visit to the pueblo was because Cedelinda had invited Cynthia and me to see her in church as she became a catechist (started catechism education in the Catholic church). The church was packed with standing room only, but the priest had car trouble and couldn’t make it to the pueblo. So after the non-service, Cedelinda invited us to her house for refreshments.

I guess there are wonderful health benefits from having to walk. But the thought of a pregnant woman, or an older person with arthritis walking to and from Chichi Bali seems like too much to me. It gives new meaning to what old folks say to kids, “When I was going to school it was uphill both ways.” Well, for school kids from Chichi Bali, it still is uphill both ways!

After the trip, I remembered that the dash cam was recording all this, so here for your viewing pleasure is The Trip To Chichi Bali. Much of the road is carved into the side of the mountains and there are precipitous drops into deep valleys. There are a couple slight pauses while I stop to pick up a few people. Watching a video of driving a dirt road may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, in two parts because of the YouTube 15-minute limit, here is the trip from our house to Cedelinda’s house:

Toward the end of part 2 of the trip we stop at the church. After we leave the church we drive to Cedelinda’s house.

So, what’s the verdict? Would you like to walk this twice a day to and from work or school? Feel free to picture the walk in your mind. Throw in rain, darkness, mountain lions crossing your path…

Here are some photos we took at the church and at Cedelinda’s house (photos by me or D.H.):

Cedelinda with her niece looking on

Fresh local flowers picked for the occasion

Cede showing off two of her pet parrots

Everyone laughed at me but I don't mind

The parrots are so well treated that they don't fly away

Cede's dad, Ignacio, and her brother, Benjamin, pick some ripe star fruit off a tree at their back door

The next day, our house guest and I went to the orchid conservatory (because of poachers and other habitat problems, many of the orchids now exist only at the conservatory). This isn’t the flowering season, but a few orchids were in bloom:

Cynthia couldn't help but play with the previous photo in my photo manipulation program of choice -- Gimp. This is the result.

I’m enjoying a little time off from the hard work of building the house. But I’ll be back at it soon. That’s all for now.




Lunch, A Cemetery, And To Grandmother’s House I Go

Nothing special in this post, just the story of our day away from home.

Cynthia and I needed a few things down in Coronado so today was the day. In Coronado, we made our purchases, and being lunch time, I decided to surprise Cynthia with a visit to a new restaurant in San Carlos.

Coming from Panama City, just where the speed limit drops before San Carlos, right on the highway where all the stones are stacked in piles for sale, is an authentic Italian restaurant named Mamma Mia — Toscana in Bocca (Tuscany in your mouth if I remember my smattering of Italian).

The first thing we noticed was the setting. There is a large wall that separates the restaurant from most of the road noise. Inside the wall is a large bohio (open sided, thatched roof hut. It’s always cool under a bohio.).

The setting is very relaxed and peaceful. Our English/Spanish bilingual waiter brought us menus written in Italian. We did some quick math and saw that we could very easily spend more than $20, maybe more than $30 for lunch, so we did our “water and the least expensive dishes” routine. No wine, no dessert. Cynthia ordered a spaghetti dish and I ordered a cheese/tomato pizza.

I was very hungry. I went to the owner who was working at the outside kitchen and said that we would like some garlic bread while we waited. “No!” he said, our lunches would be flour, flour, flour, too much flour! He refused to make bread for us! He said, don’t worry, your food is only a few minutes away and it will be plenty!

Sure enough, our food arrived promptly. And he was right, it was plenty. Not too much, not too little.

I was in Tuscany, Italy, back in the ’70s and I have to say, all my memories of the food came back to me today. Simple food. Well blended flavors. Spaghetti al dente, just as Cynthia likes it.

We finished our meal and told the waiter that we would like the small crumb left on my plate wrapped to go. He laughed; whether at my joke or at my Spanish I cannot tell you. I left a twenty that included a tip.

On the way back up the mountain, I remembered that the formerly nearly impassable road to a cemetery had just been freshly graded, oiled and graveled. So again as a surprise, I turned at the road and drove to the Virgen Del Carmen cemetery. This is the same name as the Catholic church in Los Llanitos near our house.

Here are some photos. Notice that the colors in the plastic flowers are not very faded; they must be changed regularly. And check out the views!

This rock formation is called, "La Puerta" (The Door).

From enjoying the views of the cemetery, we drove home.

But while we were at the cemetery, I showed Cynthia  another “road” that went to Cedelinda’s aunt’s house (Cedelinda is the young woman I am tutoring in English). I was there just last week. Not much more than a steep-hilled, two-track dirt path with lots of rocks, the Honda barely made it. Let me explain why I was there.

Cedelinda’s grandmother is 97-years-old and lives with Cede’s aunt. Grandma, deaf and nearly blind, fell and badly hurt her spine, her hip, and her legs. The family had to care for her there in the house for several weeks until she was well enough to get from the house to the road so she could go to the doctor! With only a rough path, the house is a long way from the road, and the road is so bad that it would have made Grandma much worse.

Cedelinda related the story to Cynthia and me. Pretty much the only way over the road is in one of the local pickup trucks or a farm truck. All had the suspension of a spring-less buckboard and I cringed at the thought of Grandma being jostled so much. So I volunteered to drive Grandma to her appointment with the doctor.

I actually did it again the next week, too, so she could be seen by another doctor. Cedelinda suggested that the second time I take a different road that was in better condition. On the specified day, I drove to the spot that we were to meet. We went to the doctor’s and returned.

Now here is the part that touched me so deeply that it brought tears to my eyes and affected me for days after. As I said, they don’t live near the road. Grandma can’t walk. A wheelchair would be useless on the hilly, rocky, narrow terrain of the path. How to move Grandma? Simple. A young, robust grandson piggy-backed his nearly-100-year-old grandmother to the road. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they came into view, Grandma’s arms wrapped tightly around her grandson’s neck.

I was deeply touched by the profound intimacy that I routinely see in these peoples’ lives. In the States, families tend to be smaller and separated by miles and by generations, and we generally rely on professional services to take care of situations like this. But here, three and four generations live under one roof and they often do what needs to be done themselves. After he carried her, grandson straightened her dress and made her presentable. It took several of us to get her settled into the front seat of the car.

I do not pity these people. Their lives are not complex, hurried and harried as are the lives of so many up north in the States. There is a profound simplicity for them. But there is also the constant need for them to be self-reliant, inventive, and resourceful. I admire their “grit” in so many ways.

Here is a short video of the “road of choice.” After I turn the car around, you can see Cede, her aunt, and the grandson bringing Grandma to the road.

Cynthia and I had a good day today exploring. That’s all for now. 


My Shop ~ Part 8 ~ The Floor

The concrete floor for my shop was the easiest and best slab I have ever poured was not without difficulties. All ultimately ended well, but as always, there is a story.

For some time now, we have had a pile of cascajo (cas-ca-ho [the letter a has a soft sound in this word] — river run sand and gravel) taking up space in the driveway. Cascajo is great for foundations and large columns. The mix as it is dug from the river has a range of sizes from sand granules to six-inch rocks. But it is not so great for floors because of the larger rocks. The rule of thumb for pouring a slab is no gravel/stone larger in size than one-third the thickness of the slab. I know we should have sifted the pile, but Armando and his crew balked. They said that sifting just isn’t necessary. If you come across a rock that is grande and causing a problem, just pull it out of the slab and throw it aside.

Additionally, most of the pile had been sitting for months and it was permeated with grass, weeds, and roots. I could foresee a problem when it came time to trowel a nice finish, but again the guys said “es normal.”

Here is a photo of the root-infested pile of cascajo:

I’ve learned to pick my fights with the guys because I can really make a fool out of myself; they usually know things that I don’t. A case in point is when two men showed up to put an internet antenna on the roof of the house we rented when we moved to Panama. They arrived with:

  • the antenna and connecting cable
  • a six-foot length of half-inch electrical conduit
  • a small coil of bailing wire
  • a nail
  • a hammer
  • a pair of pliers

I scoffed to myself. Where was the electric drill? Where were the numerous brackets, bolts, and accessories that they would surely need to mount the mast to the roof? And where was the mast? In my opinion they were missing about $129.95 in essential pieces and parts. But I watched.

They found an old tree stump in the yard to use as an anvil. Then with the hammer they pounded flat about three-inches of one end of the electrical conduit. Next with the hammer and nail, they punched a hole in the flat section, then using the bumper on their small van they bent the flat section to a right angle. Next, back to the tree stump they switched ends of the conduit and punched a hole in the conduit about two inches from the end.

Then using the pliers up on the roof they slightly unscrewed three screws that were holding the metal roofing in place, plus a fourth screw all the way. They put the removed screw through the nail hole in the bent end of the conduit and put the screw back into the hole in the roof that it came from and tightened it down. Then they wrapped some bailing wire around one of the loosened screws, ran the wire up and through the hole at the top end of the conduit, and back down and around the second screw, back up and through the conduit, and down to the third screw. They tightened the screws. At this point the conduit mast was triangulated firmly in place. Then they mounted the antenna dish on the conduit and ran the cable to the router on my desk inside the house. D.O.N.E.

So I am careful. I learn a lot from these capable and resourceful men.

But Sr. Murphy often shows up on the job. In the case of the floor slab in my shop, it seems that my image of troweled-smooth concrete is very different from their version. I like it smooth. Very smooth. I don’t want a sandy surface. They like it flattened out so you don’t trip on any of the ridges. They don’t take smooth into account because it is a long day’s work and anally troweling the floor to a mirror finish is just not going to happen.

There is more to the story, but let’s see some photos:

I held my ground on preparing for the slab. I like a nice level couple-inch layer of gravel to pour the slab on. If you pour concrete on dirt, moisture in the dirt will capillary-action wick its way up into the slab. But capillary action can’t happen through the stones because the spaces between the stones are too large. The slab will stay dry. So even though they thought I was stupid, I had a few yards of one-inch stone delivered. Sammy and I spread it level. Jabo wasn’t sure he liked it:

On Thursday, Cynthia and I put welded wire mesh on the floor to keep the slab from cracking. Here is the floor ready for concrete. My laser level is set up to level the concrete, and in the corner is a wooden bull float that I made from scrap.

The guys mixed a big pile of concrete:

And Armando and I spread it out. Because of the large rocks in the mix, it was difficult to raise the wire mesh to the center of the slab, but I got it raised about a third of the way up. Close enough. I’m using the laser level to set the grade so Armando could more easily screed the concrete. You can see he has thrown out a few trouble maker rocks:

Here Erin and Pancho take a break after using 24 sacks of cement:

In the next photo Armando trowels the floor. After wooden floating the floor, you shouldn’t steel trowel the concrete until all the water has disappeared from the surface. This way you won’t be pushing water around, washing the cement away from the granules of sand. But it was pushing 5:00 and the guys (including yours truly) were tired. So Armando pushed the envelope slightly and troweled while there was still water on the surface. I knew I wouldn’t be happy with the finished product, but it is, after all, just a shop.

We finished, cleaned up the tools, and called it a day. The next morning, Saturday, Armando had work elsewhere, so it was just me arriving on the job. I took a look at the floor. I didn’t like it and gave the job a C-minus, maybe a D. It was rough and there wasn’t enough cement “cream” on the top. It was going to be difficult to sweep it clean in the future.

What to do? It is generally a bad idea to apply a skim coat of cement paste onto a concrete floor because in time flakes will spall off the floor. But our floor was still very green, still hydraulically pushing out water. I’ve read that you have a good chance of succeeding with a skim coat if you catch the slab while it is still only a few hours old. The most common reason for needing to do this is when a surprise rainstorm pops up and washes the cream away just after steel troweling a driveway or a patio slab.

So that’s what I did. I got a steel trowel, a bucket of dry cement powder, a bucket of water, and a sponge. I spent most of the day sprinkling cement on the slab, then adding a bit of water by wringing the sponge, then troweling the paste onto and into the floor. I had to take numerous breaks to stand up and straighten the old Arthur Itis knees. At the end of the day I gave the floor a B-plus. I can’t give it an A because the mesh didn’t get lifted as high as I wanted and also because there were a few dips just a bit deeper than I would have liked. Troweling the top coat was gruelingly difficult for my old body, but I am glad that I did it.

I’m spraying the floor with water a few times a day now, and will continue for a week. This will slow the rate of cure and will prevent a lot of surface cracks. Here’s my finished floor slab just after I sprayed it:

The next time I am in the city I plan to go to Discovery and buy a few gallons of garage floor epoxy. With the epoxy, a quick sweep of the broom will clean the floor “real nice.”

I need to let the slab sit and cure without foot traffic for at least a week, so depending on the condition of my knees, I should be back working on the house windows maybe tomorrow.

That’s all for now.


Against Doctor’s Orders ~ Cynthia Goes Horseback Riding

Without going into details, suffice it to say that a little more than a year ago Cynthia had a major surgery snafu that left her with more than minor neurological problems. Her neuroligist said, “No driving a car, no working with your torch and hot glass, and no horseback riding.”

The no driving a car Cynthia can understand. But the urge to work with hot glass has gotten the better of her and she has been working in her studio a bit recently. She hasn’t burned off any fingers yet so she figures she is ahead of the game.

And this last Saturday, our neighbor invited her to go horseback riding. “We won’t go far, and we’ll go slow,” he told her as they mounted the horses, he on Acero (Steel) and she on Max. Both are good-sized quarter horses and having them both just walk was going to be a challenge.

“Oh good,” I thought, “I can go take a siesta in the hammock,” which I did. About a half hour later my cell phone woke me up. It was Cynthia. Seems that they did go far and they did more than walk. At one point, Ricardo dismounted to take a photo of Cynthia. When the camera shutter made its clicking sound, Acero was startled and took off running. They tried and tried to no avail to capture El Fugitivo (The Fugitive) as Acero is now called. The closer they got, the more El Fugitivo ran. They were now on a narrow trail beyond the hill with all the cell, radio, and TV towers.

On the phone, Cynthia asked me to go get Ricardo’s yardman, Abdiel, and bring him to the towers to help capture Acero. It’s not far, but it is a tough drive most of the way. The Honda barely made it because of the myriad of protruding rocks in the road, and I wasn’t looking forward to turning around and retracing my tracks.

Here is a video of the drive from the main road to El Valle to the hill with the towers (no audio):

The view is quite stunning from the hill the towers are on. Here’s a very short panorama video of the surrounding area. The sun was so bright that I couldn’t see anything on the camera’s viewing screen and the wind was whipping me every which way, so the video isn’t very good. But it serves to show the view:

Once Abdiel and I arrived, Abdiel took off running and Ricardo mounted Max and took off at a gallop. Funny, but as soon as Acero saw Abdiel, he came right to him and followed him back to where we were waiting. I guess the horse was tired of being on the lamb. Here are some photos of Cynthia’s great adventure (most photos by Ricardo).


After all that excitement, Cynthia was tired. I offered her a ride in the car, but “I left on a horse, I’ll return on a horse,” was her reply.

She was quite sore after not riding for two years, but she is looking forward to riding again. Her neurologist means well and her advice about not riding horses may be sound advice. But Cynthia values and needs a high quality of life. Even given the risks, she’d rather ride the horse than ride the La-Z-Boy lounge chair watching reruns of CSI. “I’d rather fall off the horse and roll down the ravine than spend the rest of my life watching TV.” And you know what? I don’t blame her one tiny bit. You go, girl!

That’s all for now.



My Shop ~ Part 7 ~ Electrical, Repello (Stucco) & Pizza

With the completion of the repello (stucco) on the interior shop walls, Armando and Sammy moved operations to the bathroom walls. Because the bathroom is so small, there was no room for me to to help.

I’ve found over the years that working in small rooms and closets doing tasks such as putting up drywall or painting can be more difficult than working in a larger space. There are still the same number of walls, angles, and corners but there is little room to turn around after you get tools and a ladder inside the space. So Armando was on his own in the “phone booth” bathroom and Sammy kept him supplied with mezcla (mortar mix).

While they were doing the repello, I took a day and cleaned up the repello-ed walls in my shop. There were some trowel marks, rough spots, and small pimples that I wanted to get rid of so the walls would take a nice finish. I have a wet angle grinder and a set of diamond polishing pads. I put the 50-grit pad on the machine and passed it over every square inch of the walls. Here’s the grinder, Hellcat brand; you hook a garden hose up to it, plug it into the wall, and try not to shock the hell out of yourself:

The grinder did a great job, leaving the walls quite smooth and ready to finish.

I’d been having a back and forth debate with myself on whether to paint the walls white or to coat them with a clear acrylic polymer. The white would be nice for light reflection, but it would get dirty very quickly with all the welding and grinding going on in the shop. Also, a good quality paint would cost a hundred bucks or more, and the paint would hide the nice look of the repello-ed walls. Ultimately, the polymer won out and I applied two coats (about $25) with a sponge that same day and the next morning. Here’s the polymer:

The guys were still doing well on their own so I decided to start the interior wiring. Before we laid the concrete block walls, I had decided that I would surface mount the electrical boxes on the walls rather than build the boxes into the walls. I’ve pulled covers off of built-into-the-wall boxes and they are all nasty with rust and corrosion from the concrete.

So after I applied the two coats of polymer sealer, I struck a level line around the shop walls for the receptacle and switch boxes. Even though they are a lot more expensive, I decided to use weatherproof exterior boxes because they won’t rust and there are no holes for spiders to enter and make cozy little nests. In this next photo I have drilled two 1/4-inch holes in the wall and am tapping in screw anchors, called tacos here.

I drilled two holes in each of the boxes and screwed them to the walls. The boxes have little lugs on the back that stand the box off the wall, so I ran a bead of gray urethane caulk around the boxes to seal yet more spider hideouts. I hate to reach for a plug and put my hand in a spider web. You can get some nasty spider bites here in the tropics.

Then I measured and cut PVC conduit and clamped it to the walls and ran it across the floor as needed. I chose PVC conduit because metal conduit would rust fairly quickly, especially under the concrete floor slab. 

I also mounted boxes for lights on the ceiling. Even though I like 4-foot strip fluorescent fixtures, I decided to use individual fluorescent bulbs because the electronics in strip fixtures get blown by the uneven electrical current here. Cynthia helped me pull wires through the conduit. You can also see how nice the concrete walls look; they have a slight shine that you can see on the wall at the left of the window blocks in the photo above.

By the time the electrical was to the point that the concrete floor could be poured, the guys were done with the bathroom walls and some other small details. But before the floor, it was time to repello the exterior walls. The exterior walls are larger than one man can repello in a day and I didn’t want any “cold” stop/start joints so I had to pitch in and sling mud with Armando. Now I can get another dollar a day in my pay envelope because Armando taught me how to apply the repello. Repello-ing is hard work!

Years ago when I was carpentering for a living, someone asked me if it was hard to install a window. I said, “No, not as long as you know what you are doing!” It’s not the same with repello. Even if you know what you are doing, it is still damn hard work.

As of today we have the back side, the east side, and the front side all repello-ed, leaving only the west side that we will tackle tomorrow if I can get out of bed. For the east side, we didn’t start our work day until 11:00 a.m. so that the sun would have time to pass overhead and we could work on the wall in shadow. We finished about 6:00, at which time I flopped into my hammock for the rest of the night. I think Cynthia hooked me up to an IV frijole dip drip so I could get some nutrition while I slept. Here is a photo of the front and east walls just after I hosed them down to help them cure:

There is a tradition here in Panama that when a roof goes on, you have a roof party. So last Friday was the day. I knocked the guys off at 12:30 for a pizza lunch and the rest of the day off. Cynthia and Cedelinda had been making the dough and preparing the toppings:

It’s my job to cook the pizzas. Our fancy Bompani oven isn’t up to the task of cooking pizzas, so some time ago I went down the hill and bought some locally-made firebricks. I cut them in half with my tile saw. Then I lined our BBQ grill with the half-bricks. Like this:

A half-hour preheat turns the BBQ into a Jim Dandy 500-600 degree pizza oven. By the way, I don’t know who Jim Dandy was, and I didn’t know whether to capitalize it or not, so I Googled it. It’s capitalized. And while looking, I found a Jim Dandy BBQ restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio. Who’d a known. I wonder if they do pizza. Anyway, a big shout out to Jim Dandy’s even though I am a 30+year vegetarian. I love Google!

At this point I put the camera down and started cooking. Cynthia’s pizzas are works of art. I got busy cooking and then planted my face in my pizza and completely forgot to take photos of the finished pizzas. Trust me, they were beauties.

We bought about a dozen pizza pans, the kind that have hundreds of 3/8-inch holes on the bottom. The crusts get nice and brown and the pizzas don’t stick to the pans. We like to have build-your-own pizza parties every year on my birthday. That and homemade chocolate cake makes me happy to be a year older. Or at least I don’t notice.

Anyway, the roof party was a delicious success. The guys were stuffed to their shirt collars and got to take home leftovers. The first time we made pizza for a work crew here each man took a slice. They clearly liked it but were too shy to take more. We had to order them to eat more, at which point they loosened up. It was great fun to see them egging each other on to eat yet another slice. There were lots of jokes about not having to eat for a week and not being able to work because they were too full.

That’s all for now. Maybe next week we can think about pouring the floor in my shop. Stay tuned.

My Shop ~ Part 6 ~ The Roof

Now that the dry season is here, we are making good progress on my shop. All the interior walls are repello-ed (stuccoed) and the roofing metal has been delivered. Here are some photos of walls being finished:

Armando works a wall

We call this little closet "the phone booth"

Gusty winds come with the dry season, so we geared up with ropes and clamps and extra bodies to keep the 24-foot-long roof panels from blowing away. Here we are placing the first panel on the east side of the shop:

Armando and I place the first panel. Gloves are mandatory when working with these over sized razor blades.

Up goes the second panel

After lifting and placing each panel, Sammy and I go up on the roof. He sits on the bottom end of the metal to keep it from becoming airborne, and I take a straight edge and a Sharpie marker and mark locations for screws. Armando follows me, placing a few screws to keep the panel in place.

Break time at the half way mark. Sunglasses are mandatory while working on the highly reflective roofing. Later, much later, the roof will extend out another 15 feet over the carport.

After all the panels were in place, Armando and Sammy went back over the roof and placed the missing screws. What a beautiful day in the tropics!

I included a six-foot roof overhang on the west end of the shop. Below the roof there will be an outside sink, a clothes line, and space for potting plants, etc. It is also a place that Armando can wait out a rainy season deluge. Maybe a hammock is in order:

The larger window is in my shop, the smaller window is in the bathroom.

Here are some inside shots with the roof on:

Now that the roof is finished, I can remove the temporary center stick. It reduced the bounce while working on the roof.

We were finished with the roof about 2:30 so I sent the guys home. Armando proclaims the roof “listo” (LEEZ-to — done, ready):

Will he walk the plank?

Tomorrow Armando and Sammy will go back to repello-ing the remaining bathroom walls.

My job for the day will be to clean up the repello on the interior walls. There are some trowel marks and a few rough edges here and there that need attention before paint. I’m going to start out using a wet angle grinder with a diamond polishing wheel and we’ll see how it goes.

After cleaning up the walls, I’ll make the final decision — white paint or clear polymer finish? I’m leaning toward the polymer as it won’t show the inevitable scuff marks, although the white would make the shop a bit brighter.

After the walls are finished, I can mount the electrical boxes and conduit. I plan on running most of the conduit under the floor slab. I don’t like horizontal conduit because it is a dust collector.

Then we can pour the floor slab and make the front door. Move in is in sight!

That’s all for now. Arf!

Bonus photos:




How To Not Work

This morning Cynthia and I were eating breakfast. Being the day after New Year’s Day, we had a high degree of doubt that Armando and Sammy would show for work due to, well, it was the day after a big holiday and there probably was a whole lot of celebrating going on. Plus it is Monday, the most difficult day of the week for them to get a bus out from town because so many people are traveling back to the city.

For a couple years now, Armando has been keeping a lot of his chickens here at Cynthia’s and my rental house. He lives up against a mountain, and mountain cats (tigres) frequent his neighborhood at night looking for tasty morsels, i.e. his chickens.

It is the custom here in the interior of Panama for chickens to roam totally free. Ours show up at our back door every morning and every evening and hoot and holler until we throw corn to them. We throw just enough for that meal. If we put out a large amount, it would only draw other birds, rats, snakes, and who knows what else. The chickens sleep in the trees at night and can easily fly to the roof of our house.

Cynthia has had her favorites including Joe, Helen, and now Chicken Cheeks. She encourages Armando not to prematurely take them home for chicken soup. When Armando wants to catch one of the chickens for dinner, he and I run around the yard like chickens ourselves until we get one of them cornered. It is good exercise at the end of a long day of welding.

We have had as many as thirty, splitting themselves into two flocks; one inside the fence and one outside. Currently we are down to five, although one has been missing the past few weeks.

Back to breakfast, Cynthia and I were just finishing when we heard a chicken clucking and chicks peeping. You never know where the hens will hide to lay their eggs, so we followed the peeps to our storage room that we made in a semi-enclosed outdoor kitchen. On my hands and knees, I found mom and four chicks tucked in a corner, well protected by storage boxes. She was still sitting on at least two more eggs.

I made a quick drive to town and bought some baby chick feed, a finely-ground corn with some supplements added. The chicks were starting to wander afield, so I sprinkled some of the feed near mom and moved the little fluffies back to mom.

Here’s a video of mom and her brood:

Now it is 9:30, well past the acceptable time for me to go to work on the house. Cynthia suggested that we take down the Christmas tree, so that sounds like a plan for the day. And I’ll keep checking on mom to see how the remaining eggs are progressing.

Update ~ 10:00 a.m.: Chicken Mom has decided to venture outside to the back door. Three of her four followed her, and we still heard peeping in the storeroom. I went in and found that two of her now five chicks had become lost in the maze of boxes. Chicken moms aren’t the sharpest crayon in the box. I scooped them up and moved them to mom by the back door.

I made an InstaCoop to protect the newlings from the local eagles and other flying predators.

Soon, though, they will be on their own, taking their chances at survival just as you and I do every day. It’s a jungle out there and for us here in Panama, it is only a few feet away.

Speaking of Chicken Mom, it reminds me of the Chickenman radio series from the ’60s. Short episodes of silliness.

That’s all for now. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find another reason not to work.