I Was Rattled ~ Septic Redo

About two weeks ago Armando was working on defining the left side of the driveway. He was digging a trench, pouring a foundation, and laying a row of blocks just as he had done on the right side of the driveway. While he was mixing concrete, we had a power outage. No power/no water pump. No water pump/no water.

Armando is nothing if not resourceful. The drainage ditches have run dry so there was no water there. And the little underground stream that in the rainy season fills the concrete cistern in the side of the mountain was dry too. But he remembered that there was water in the yet-unused septic tank; we filled it to keep it from popping out of the ground.

He removed the lid, leaned over, and dipped a five-gallon bucket into the tank. Startled by something, he pulled his hand out quickly. “There is something in there!” he exclaimed in Spanish. Of course, I immediately thought it might be Jimmy Hoffa or some similarly distasteful discovery. Then trying to lighten my first thought my mind went to, “What is it Lassie? Did Timmy fall down the well?”

Turns out, it wasn’t an object in the tank, but only the tank itself. Even though we had back filled with topsoil and not the expansive clay, the tank still gave way to the pressures of the soil and the high water table. The tank was crushed and split.

I was distressed. I didn’t want to dig up the whole mess and start over again. I was really rattled. How rattled? When Cynthia does the laundry, she dissolves some OxyClean powder in warm water then adds it to the washing machine. Yesterday she left the solution on top of the machine and it played quite a tune as it rattled during the spin cycle. I was this rattled:

I don’t know why, but that video made me smile.

After some discussion, we decided to remove the plastic tank and build the local tried and true concrete block septic tank. One benefit of all of this is that we can make a much larger tank and not have to pump the tank for a long time. Tank pumping is expensive, $300 to $500 seems the average here.

Wanting to beat the rainy season, the next day we started the redo. The tank was filled with water that would have to be removed. Also, we knew that we would be working on the project for two weeks or so, and every morning we would have to bail or pump hundreds of gallons of water from the pit. I decided to bite the bullet and buy a pump. I should have done it back when we were fabricating the columns to set the containers on.

I made a quick trip to town and bought a portable, gasoline engine powered water pump. Chinese, $236. I also bought some PVC pipe fittings and a couple lengths of pipe. Back at the job, the pump worked like a charm and emptied the tank in just a couple of minutes.

Whenever a new tool is brought to the job, the guys have a great time. Here, neighbor Ricardo stopped by to check out the excitement. We were all pumped.

After pumping, we started digging. While the guys dug, I made a tripod for a hoist, like for back yard car engine pulling in the old days. Even when we had the tank empty and dug free, the hoist just pulled the tubes into the ground and the tank stayed put. Eventually we dragged the tank out with a tow strap hooked to the Honda.

The other side was crushed, too. We're going to cut the tank at the first rib to make a swimming pool for Armando's young son.

Then the guys set about digging a larger pit for the new concrete block tank. They decided to work barefooted because the clay stuck to the rubber boots and it was just too arduous to work. I told them they should be paying me for the foot beauty treatment, and I offered to let Armando bring his wife to enjoy the spa too. For some reason he thought she would decline my generous offer:

As they dug, the men kept a rock nearby so they could bang the shovel on it. The clay soil stuck to each shovelful like glue. Finally, after four days of digging, we got to the point where we could set rebar and pour the floor:

Next came the walls. I noticed that Armando’s block work was much better than on the shop. I mentioned it to him, “Good block work, Armando,” and he said it had to be stronger because he didn’t want his work to collapse!

Here’s the repello in progress, inside and out. Outside, they worked their way up with the repello a few rows at a time as the blocks were laid.

And finally the roof. We installed a few 2×3 steel carriolas as joists and placed scrap pieces of roofing metal over the joists.

Here’s the finished roof. After the concrete cures a bit, I’ll remove the Styrofoam block, place some plastic over the hole, and pour the access hole cover for future pumping and inspection.

Now the only things left to do is to remove the forms, make a hatch cover, back fill around the tank with sand, move a lot of the dirt to low spots in the driveway near my shop, and spread the rest of the dirt over the tank to make grade.

After finishing the roof on the tank, we quit for the day. I had been wanting to investigate lock options for several of the doors in the new house, so I Googled my search. After watching a YouTube video on electric door strikes, a screen came up with other videos to watch. I was tired and wanted to sit a while longer so I clicked one. It turned out to be the Ukraine version of the TV show X Factor. It was so entertaining that I watched several of the performers and killed an hour. Cynthia pulled up a chair, too. Here is our favorite act:

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.


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:




My Shop ~ Part 5 ~ Rafters & Repello

Try as I might, I just can’t get to spend much time working on the windows in the house. Armando has been working at a good pace now that the rainy season is on its way out, the transition to the dry/windy season seems nearly complete. A week ago we had five days of full-on rain, then it stopped and it has been sunny and breezy most days with brief showers now and then. With Armando’s speedy progress, the shop needs more of my attention.

The concrete block walls are now all up and the last beam has been poured.

The walls are up and the last beam is curing.

Main beam: In my last post, Three Reasons Why I Like Panama, I brought home on the roof of the Honda two, 40-foot 2″x4″ metal carriolas. I’m still glowing from the experience. These carriolas are for the center beam in the shop. I spent one entire day cutting them to 35-feet, then welding them together with inch-long welds every foot or so to make a 4″x4″ beam. I made caps for the ends to keep bees and other critters from occupying the inside of the beam. To make the caps, I took a scrap piece of 2″x4″ carriola and cut two, three-and-seven-eights-inch pieces off of the end. I tapped these pieces into the ends of the beam and welded around the perimeter. A light grind with the angle grinder finished the seams. Then I wire brushed all the welds and applied a few coats of polyurethane red oil primer. Here’s the beam:

The shop is 20-feet front to back, but I made the beam 35-feet so it would overhang the front of the shop 15-feet. This overhang will be part of the carport roof later.

The next day Armando, Sammy, and I lifted the beam into place and I welded it to the rebar protrusions that we had embedded into the concrete beams at the tops of the walls.

Repello: As I welded, Armando and Sammy started stuccoing (repello (rey-PAY-oh) in Spanish). The repello is simply a cement rich mix of cement and fine sifted sand. They applied the mix with trowels. After it set a while they struck the wall smooth with a length of 1″x3″ board, then using a wooden float they swirled the wall with big circular strokes to even everything out. Later they steel troweled the wall.

While they troweled the wall, some areas were a little dry so they sprinkled them with water, and other areas were a little too wet so they tossed a bit of dry cement at the areas. The finished repello has a mottled two-toned effect. I kind of like the effect and I am not yet sure if I will paint the walls a color or coat them with a clear polymer. I asked for a baby-bottom smooth finish and this is pretty much what they are doing. Here’s the repello underway:

Roof framing: While the guys applied the repello, I got busy welding the metal carriola roof joists to the building. When we made the forms for the two side walls, I cut four-inch lengths of wooden 2″x4″s and nailed them between the form boards every two feet. This made pockets for the joists to sit in. After we stripped the forms and knocked the wooden blocks out, the beams looked like this:

Before we nailed the wooden blocks in place, I had already welded together and placed in the form work a rebar assembly that would embed in the concrete beam and have a four-inch length of rebar sticking up right next to each of the wooden blocks. The rebar looked kind of like this: |_______|_______|_______|_______|_______|_______|_______|_______|_______|

This is so that I could weld each end of the joists to the rebar, thereby firmly connecting the roof to the walls and keeping it from blowing off. We get some pretty wild gusts here and it is not uncommon for an entire roof to blow off.

In fact, there is a Panamanian joke. Most Panamanian houses are relatively small. Tiny, in fact. The joke goes like this:

  • Armando: That was a really strong wind we had last night. It blew the roof right off my house!
  • Me: Oh no, how awful! What will you do?
  • Armando: Oh don’t worry, I found it and put it back on.

Here’s a photo of the roof joists all welded in place:

It took me two days to get all the joists welded into place. I still need part of a day to clean up the welds and apply a few coats of paint to prevent rust and corrosion.

Dealing with rain running off the roof: When it rains, a lot of water will get dumped at the back side of the shop where it would no doubt seep through the foundation and wall into my shop. So while Armando doesn’t need Sammy to mix and deliver repello or to work a trowel, we have him digging a drainage ditch across the back of the shop and then down hill to the front of the lot.

At first his ditch was like a line of wet spaghetti, but I asked Armando to straighten him out a bit. Now Sammy can be proud of his ditch that is totalmente recta (totally straight).

We are finding that a lot of our plants are not doing well because the soil is so very soggy so much of the year. So Armando directed Sammy to dump the excess dirt in the big garden at the front of the house. Eventually the plants will become elevated above the high water table.

Overview: Some time ago one of the Lynns who comments regularly wanted an overview photo of the job site. Here you go. This photo was taken from the road to the east, through our neighbor’s lot. I sure would like to get some unifying color painted on the exterior of the containers and my shop, but that will have to wait.

That’s all for now. Happy new year!


My Shop ~ Part 4 ~ Walls And Beams

Prognosticators who get paid to make scientific wild guesses say that we are in a wet La Nina weather pattern. This time they seem to be right because the rainy season shows little sign of giving way to the nearly constant sunshine of the dry season that usually starts like clockwork on December 15th. But still, we are making some construction progress, just not as fast or in as pleasant conditions as we would like.

For my shop, Armando has been working his way up the block walls.

Concrete block walls in Panama are topped off with concrete beams to strengthen and level the top of the wall. I set aside my work on the windows to help Armando get the rebar and forms for the beam in place on the back wall. You can see the wooden form work on the back wall in this next photo, and you can see that he has a few more rows to go on the front wall. Jabo is dog tired from all this activity:

Because of all the young man physical labor needed to pour the beam, I asked Armando to bring another guy for a while. He brought his cousin Sammy, who being low man on the totem pole, got to mix and haul the concrete. Here they are pouring the beam at the top of the back wall:

Jabo wants to help, too. He can easily make the four foot jump to the staging:

After the beam was poured, Armando went back to finishing the blocks on the front wall. Then we stripped the forms from the back beam and formed the beam at the top of the front wall.

For the big door, I’ll bolt a sliding door track to the inside of the concrete beam. I’ll build the door out of 2″x2″ square metal tubing and some of the scrap metal cut from the containers. For security, I have purposely not put many windows in the shop, so the big door will provide a lot of light and air while I work inside.

And by the way, out from the front of the shop will be a large carport roof, so if I am working on a large project, I can easily work undercover in the driveway.

And, that big blank wall to the right of the big shop door looks like an opportunity waiting for some sort of custom art piece. Wait… In the meantime, Cynthia says we can hang a piece of her artwork. For a Breast Cancer Awareness Week art exhibit with friends at a local gallery, Cynthia made a bra to represent what she says the contraptions actually feel like. Looks to me like Madonna would be green with envy:

Made from aluminum window screening, plumbers hanger strapping, pop rivets, washers, and other fittings, this is Cynthia's interpretation of what it is like to wear a bra.

Back to our program, here’s the front beam being poured:

A steady light rain yesterday kept us wet enough and cold enough and muddy enough that after the beam was poured at noon I sent the guys home with a full day’s pay. I went home and took a long hot shower. They don’t have the luxury of hot water in their houses so with perpetually wet clothing, unless they dry the clothes over a wood fire which makes them very smoky smelling, it is likely that they will have “refreados” (head colds) when they return on Monday morning.

That’s all for now. I’ll write another short post about progress on the windows. In the mean time, stay warm and dry.

My Shop ~ Part 3 ~ Walls Going Up

We are now about three weeks into building my shop and the walls are going up.

We have had a lot of interruptions; both Armando and I have had head colds, I took some time to wash the mold off the wooden ceilings in our rental house, I’ve had to make trips to the city to take care of other business, and there has been rain, rain, rain. But still, we are making progress and when I look at today’s batch of photos I am satisfied with all we have accomplished.

Early in the day when it is not raining, Armando works out in the open. But by 10:30 or 11:00 he moves under the tarps. The tarps are a minute to minute affair as the wind whips them, strings break, and the tarps get torn by the rebars sticking up from the columns.

After the house is finished, Armando will go back to working for us one day a week doing yard work. He’ll need a bathroom outside of the house, and it will be more convenient if a bathroom is near my shop so I don’t have to tromp dirt through the house. We decided to take a corner of my shop for a small area for a toilet and shower. In the next picture, Armando lays block by the bathroom door. By the way, wherever a block meets a column, Armando drives a concrete nail part way into the column, then makes a hole in the end of the block, lays the block, then fills the void in the block with mortar, thereby locking the block to the column.

As I mentioned in a previous post, block work here in Panama is not perfect. It’s okay, I keep telling myself. In the next picture you can see that a lot of the blocks simply fall apart.

Here is the same shot but later in the day. I decided to put a small closet in the corner. The main reason for this is to strengthen the door jamb for the main shop door. The door will be eight feet wide. I’ll put a security door on the closet and I can keep small tools such as drills and grinders in the closet.

Here’s an overview of the shop to date:

In other news, I am making progress on fabricating the window frames that will get welded into the container walls. I’ll have a post on that soon, but for now know that I am welding and grinding away on the project. I am welding square 2″x2″x1/16″ metal tubing. If I had an unlimited budget I would have liked to use 1/8″ tubing because it would have been a breeze to weld. The 1/16th inch thick tubing is much more of a challenge as it is oh so very easy to burn right through the tubing while trying to weld. Some of my corners have been great successes, such as this next photo looking straight down on a corner.

Other times I haven’t been so lucky and the welds are, um, ahh, UGLY. In this next picture I am working with two pieces of metal that I cut slightly too short. The magnification of errors resulted in a 3/8″ gap that I had to bridge by using a piece of 3/8″ rebar. All of this mess will of course be ground smooth and will disappear after a few coats of paint are applied. But still, ugly is as ugly does and I present it here without shame:

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

My Shop ~ Part 1

I’ve been making progress on the windows, but it is pretty much a solo affair that I can take care of myself. And now that the yard is in good shape, Armando has run out of work. There is some grinding to do on my welds, but not enough to keep him busy. As he is basically day labor, and I can tell him “that’s all for now,” but I run the risk of him finding other work and not being available when I next need him. Also, it is good to have him around for when I need to lift, tote, and carry.

So I decided to get him started building my shop, and I can go back to window work. After a lot of back and forth on what materials to use, I made my decision. I could use the M2 panels (foam sheets with a wire covering that gets stuccoed) or go with the Panamanian-style concrete block construction. I really like the M2 because it is very fast, very strong, and isn’t prone to cracks like the block work, but Armando isn’t familiar with it and it is more expensive. Also, I would like to turn him loose on the project without much supervision from me.

I decided on block construction. Once the corner columns are accurately placed, I can let Armando take over and run with it. He likes the idea, and it gives him a chance to work without the boss telling him what to do every ten seconds. He even said that he will start at 6:30 a.m. to beat the rain instead of our regular 8:00 a.m. I could immediately see his sense of ownership of the project.

The shop is going to be 20’x24′, and is located where the 20-foot container that we didn’t get was going to go. Here’s an archival photo of the four columns that we placed for the 20-footer:

And here are those columns now, sadly knocked to the ground with a twelve-pound sledge to make room for my new shop. It was a tough decision to make as we had worked so hard on the columns. But progress is progress I guess. Here the corner batter boards are in place, and Armando is digging holes for the footings for the concrete columns.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; block work here is different than in the States.

In the States, every block is laid perfectly plumb and level. When a block wall is done, it very strong standing on its own. Just stand back and look at all the perfectly straight courses of blocks.

Here, the blocks generally have less cement in them and workers generally have less training. A concrete block wall in Panama isn’t meant to stand on its own. The process is to dig and pour footings for concrete columns, embedding in each footing four vertical pieces of rebar where the columns will go. When the footings have hardened, wooden forms are built around the upwardly protruding rebar and the columns are poured.

After the column form boards are removed, a trench connecting the columns is dug and a concrete footing is poured. As opposed to Stateside block work, this footing can be “kinda level.” The blocks are then laid “kinda” in rows, “kinda” straight and “kinda” level. When you get just shy of the top of the wall, form boards are nailed across the wall from column to column and a strengthening top beam is poured that includes more rebar. The blocks are basically infill and it is the columns and beams that provide integrity for the building. Then, a coat of repello (stucco) is troweled over the entire wall — columns, blocks, and beams. The wall is now pretty much straight and can function seismically.

While Armando was digging the footings, I made two forms for the columns.

These three-sided forms will be put in place around the rebar and then the fourth side will be nailed in place.

In the next two photos, these forms are standing tall and proud, and Armando is making the journey up the ladder five gallons of concrete at a time.

In my next few blog posts I’ll probably seesaw back and forth between the windows and the shop. That is unless another project catches my interest, such as building the metal bending brake that I want to make. The house has lots of opportunities for bent metal trim, and I want to make new, thicker lids (to hold more insulation) for our refrigerator and freezer (see A Really Cool Experiment).

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.