350 Pounds Of Concrete Hanging On The Wall

As I mentioned in my last post, the long shipping container wall in the living room/dining room/entry was calling out for some art. So Cynthia and I looked through our photos and found eight pictures of flowers that we had taken around the property. I uploaded the photos to AllPosters.com and received the prints a couple weeks later.

Now what to use for frames? Easy would be to buy some frames off the shelf at Machetazo or other local store. But as you know, this whole house project isn’t about easy. So, NO!

But what? With our concrete counter tops, benches, and shelves, well, why not concrete picture frames? That sounded exciting so I got right to work.

Last time, I posted the following photo of the form work for our concrete picture frames. I still needed to apply some strips of wood to make a recess in the back of the frame to receive the glass and pictures:

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After I had the forms assembled, Armando mixed a rich (more cement than normal) batch of mortar and placed it in the forms.

Two days later, I pulled the forms. The new concrete frames looked quite good, but they had air holes and honeycomb here and there. They looked even better once we applied a coat of dark-gray grout to all the surfaces that would be seen. When the grout was dry, I sanded the frames smooth.

Next, Cynthia and I, each with a sponge, walked around the table a dozen times applying 24 coats of sealer as we made our rounds around the table:

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Cynthia is putting the first coat of sealer on the first frame. Notice how the sealer darkens the grout that is spread on the surface of the frames.

The next photo shows the frames all sealed, although they still need to be fine sanded and one more coat of sealer applied. These things are heavy — fifty-pounds each! P1020840-001My next step of the process was to drill holes in the tops of the frames, tap in some plastic expanding anchors, and screw in heavy-duty hooks.

Now with the frames ready for hanging, I moved inside the house. Armando and I screwed a 20-foot length of sliding door track high on the wall.

We chose to hang these frame-beasts with chain hanging from wheels that I inserted into the sliding door track. Here is a photo of the wheels:

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Note to self: Get a manicure.

Cynthia and I cut the chain and set the glass and photos in the frames.

With everything assembled, finally, we hung the frames on the chains and we were done.

Here are some shots of the photos mounted in the frames and the frames hanging on the wall:

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The largest photo is 16″x20″ plus the two-times the width (almost 4-inches) of the frame, making it about 24″x28″. They are BIG but the wall can handle it.

Here is a panorama of the entire wall:

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Ignore the curvature of the panoramic photo.

Now, isn’t that better than a huge blank wall?

We couldn’t be more pleased, and the whole project — enlargements, glass, wood for the forms, screws, sand/cement/sealer, door track, wheels ($14 each and we needed 14 of them), chain, and miscellaneous bits and pieces, and Armando’s labor sits at around the $500 mark plus about six person-days of work. It couldn’t have been easier!

Plus, we have one photo/frame left to hang in the half-bath off of the living room.

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

Five Years In The Making, My 200th Post

This blog entry marks my 200th post on PanamaShippingContainerHouse.com. Cynthia and I began this house-building project on June 6th, 2010, just two-weeks away from five-years ago. And now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Tackling much of this Big-Person’s Erector Set myself, I’ve had to push pretty hard, and keep on pushing pretty hard, if I ever want to see the project completed. As such, there has been a never-ending stream of items-become-reality.

I have become conditioned to frequently having something new to enjoy, appreciate, be frustrated by, and be proud of. As an artist, I like the creative process. It feeds me. It stimulates my brain.

This is not to say that it hasn’t been exhausting and that I haven’t wanted to walk away. Many times. The size of the project, the learning curve of creating a unique, owner-designed and owner-built shipping container house, the new skills that I have had to learn, plus the general decrapitude of my age (I can see 70 from my house), have been daunting.

But artists wouldn’t have it any other way, would they?

I know that the house isn’t done yet, however several readers have asked me if I would do it again — If I knew then what I know now, would I do it again. It’s a hard question to answer (indeed even some of our political elite have fallen into the trap and bungled the answer). And like a politician, I’d like to dodge the question and ask a different one.

Are we glad that we built this shipping container house? The answer, from both Cynthia and myself, is a resounding, “Yes!”

Would we do it again? (Ah, you still want me to answer that question…) “NO!” But not for the reason that you think. We think that building anything from shipping containers is a cool idea. We think that this has been a worthwhile exercise. We have learned a lot. We can’t identify any major mistakes along the way that have made this a stupid idea. We love the way that it is turning out.

But we wouldn’t do it again because we are more artists than builders. A builder can replicate the same house a thousand times, maybe flipping the floor plan every other time. But an artist — an artist is in it for the creation of new ideas, new expressions, new processes, new enlightening. So no, we wouldn’t do it again.

The house “works” for us in its design and materials. The containers provide a modular design grid that allows for a very fluid and usable living space. The large spaces, such as the 16’x40′ kitchen/family area, work well here in the tropics where airflow and ventilation is everything.

The still-somewhat-uniqueness of using shipping containers has enlivened the project, even more so than if we had built a good design from the standard concrete block method. We’ve enjoyed knowing that we’ve taken four containers out of the junk pile and up-purposed them into a home that has a lot of living potential.

Lastly, Cynthia and I have created this design from the ground up. We didn’t buy plans on the Internet, and we didn’t hire out any of the creativity. We’ve worked well together to solve really-difficult issues. Often Cynthia won’t like my ideas or I won’t like her’s.

But our philosophy around this is that if one of us doesn’t like the other’s idea, we look for a third option. We’ve discovered that the third option is never a compromise. Neither of us has had to give up anything along the way. The Third (or Fourth — or Seventh) Option that we find is always better than what either of us has thought of individually.

To everyone who has followed along, subscribed, or commented, thanks very much. I haven’t “monetized” this site because I like it the way it is. I’m not even selling the idea. This blog is my diary, and I’ve enjoyed making it public. I hope that you have enjoyed reading it.

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

Working The List & New Plants Arriving Daily

With the exception of the carport floor, the last significant outside job is done. This is a good thing because the rainy season has begun. That last job was to finish the west end of container two:

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Notice that the sky is no longer blue. Rain is on its way soon.

Here is this end all painted, window washed, soffit panel installed, and the scaffolding disassembled and returned to its owner after two-years:

P1020561-001Trim was still lacking in the two bedrooms at the top of the clerestory wall. It looked unfinished with the uneven ends of the zinc ceiling panels. So I installed a metal angle which provides a more crisp look. The next photo is looking up at the ceiling:

P1020560-001While I had the hang of being on ladders, Armando and I finished the kitchen ceiling by installing the last piece of zinc panel. In the seating bump-out, we hung a piece of tilebacker (no drywall in this damp climate…) on the ceiling and painted it gray. I still need to hang one of Cynthia’s red lamps:

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Cat painting by our friend, Alexia.

Since I had the gray paint out, I decided to continue in the hallway to the master bedroom. Long ago primed with red and white paint, the area was very dirty. I washed the walls and ceiling, sanded and primed rusty areas, and ran beads of caulk around the door frames. I painted everything two coats of the middle gray. Now this hallway doesn’t stand out as an eyesore:

P1020558-001Finally, using some extra PVC pipe parts, I took a few minutes and upgraded the video surveillance cameras:

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I cut a two-inch PVC elbow on an angle and glued it to another elbow. The camera fit snugly and the pipe makes a conduit to run the wire up the wall. I’ll paint the pipe the house color to make it disappear.

In the meantime, we now have about sixty-four new plants in the ground!

To the left of the driveway turnaround, we planted sixteen purple Mexican Primrose. These grow and spread well, so this area will be much fuller a few months from now. At the left side of the next photo is a new bush — I’ll build a trellis for it to vine up and over the carport entrance. It will have flowers for the butterflies and hummingbirds:

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The new birdbaths are in place in the yard. Armando and I still need to apply mortar to the outside of the birdbath supports — I’d like them to look like tree trunks.

We put a row of the same Mexican Primrose along the yellow “Shrimp Tails” by the front gate. Again, these will fill in nicely:

P1020542We planted sixteen new grass plants along the west fence line. These will grow and hide the concertina security wire on the fence:

P1020544And five red-flowered trees that the butterflies and humming birds will like:P1020564-001The back yard is filling out nicely and is a good spot for one of the bird baths:P1020548The fern garden was doing well but looks better with the addition of a bunch of large-leaf purple plants. And we like the little flowers that Armando surprised us with:P1020551-001The hibiscus struggled through the dry season, and they were attacked numerous times by leaf-cutter ants. But they are doing well now that they have had a couple deep drinks of water:P1020547P1020546That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

A Brush With Paint And Cynthia’s Glass

The number of significant tasks is dwindling! The only two large items remaining, things that will take more than a day or two or three each, are to build out the kitchen cabinets and to pour concrete and install tile on the carport floor.

When I build the kitchen cabinet doors and drawers, I want to work outside in the carport so that I’m not breathing a lot of sawdust. But I’d like to work on a nice floor rather than on the dirt that is there now. But I can’t pour the floor yet because it is the dry season and there is no sand and gravel running in the rivers to make concrete with. So these items are on hold.

In the meantime, I have decided to tackle remaining projects in order of their greatest visual impact. For example, painting large areas will make a larger impact than installing a light switch. After so long at it, we really need the illusion that the project is moving along rapidly.

With this guideline in mind, I made an ordered shortlist of projects.

I decided to start with painting the walls in the loft. Some time ago I had prime-painted the container wall that divides the loft from the roof deck. The knee wall overlooking the living/dining room was still raw stucco. Cynthia and I decided to continue the same warm, medium-gray that we have used elsewhere in the house. I went to work.

I spent four days in the loft and it has made quite a difference. Cynthia is using the loft as her hot-glass studio so I had a few things to work around. The loft sure looks a lot better now. Here is a photo taken from the east end. The screened openings at the roof line are open year round; they suck the rising hot air out of the house:

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Cyn was looking for a way to store sheet glass, so we came up with the idea to make racks from plastic cutting boards and quarter-inch rebar. One important storage issue for her is that different glasses have different coefficient-of-expansion (COE) ratings. You can’t mix ratings or your glass will crack. Now she can keep these COEs separated, each COE in its own rack. Here are three of the four that I made for her:

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I made a template and drilled holes in the cutting boards.

Here is a photo of the loft from the west end:

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Over the seven years that we have been here, we have really culled and re-culled our possessions. Beyond art supplies, kitchen equipment, and the typical clothing and linens, we don’t have much left. We need to find a place to store a couple boxes of family treasures that you see in the foreground.

As I worked my way out of the loft and around to the stairs, we realized how badly-worn the charcoal paint looked in the stairway and in the dining room. I spent another day two-coating these walls. It made quite a difference:

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In the photo above, you may have noticed the two sconce lights that Cynthia made and I installed on the wall. Here is a closeup with the light off:

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I used L hooks to mount the glass to the wall.

And here is a photo with the light on (daytime). The triangles of glass match the triangles on the chandelier over the dining room table:

We used 4-watt LED bulbs in these fixtures.

We used 4-watt LED bulbs in these fixtures.

The next visually-important area to paint was the window and door framing on the west wall of the living room. I’ve been avoiding this because, well, it promised to be a tedious task. But the order of the list is the order of the list and so I began.

Preparation work is a large part of painting almost anything; I sanded, wire-brushed, and cleaned the long-ago primed metalwork and ran beads of urethane caulk at adjoining joints and seams. Then I spent a day re-prime painting everything, including all the metal rivets that had never been painted. As of this writing, I am most of the way through the project, just two top-coats of gray to go on the sliding doors:

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Cynthia dragged me to Westland Mall to buy some new work clothes. I guess I was looking quite shabby — she likes her workman to be smartly dressed. I’ve had a difficult time finding comfortable shoes for my old, arthritic feet, but so far I really like my new Nike Air running shoes.

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So far no paint on the new clothes…

Here is a photo looking from the loft to the upper west wall windows:

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The sink comes in handy for Cyn’s studio and also for rinsing dishes from the roof deck BarBQue.

Although I’m not done with painting the west wall of the living room, I had to wait for paint to dry, plus the afternoon sun was in my eyes. So I moved on to the last remaining large area to paint — the master bedroom. Because we didn’t want to sleep in all the toxic paint fumes, we relocated to the second bedroom, which is nice because the bathroom there is fully-functional including the shower. No photos of the master bedroom yet.

In other news, Cynthia continues learning and enjoying working with fusing and slumping glass. She has a few new projects to show off including this bowl:

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This bowl has some transparent seams and adds dimension to the glass. Here I held the bowl up to a window:

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The underside:

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Cyn is gaining enough confidence and quality of execution that she is almost willing to sign her name to her work and even part with some!

Here is a tray that she made from stacks of different color glass. The effect is called mosaic and is made like a pyramid, making numerous stacks of five pieces of glass each, and then slumping the assemblage in the kiln:

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Using the same technique, Cynthia made organically-shaped cabochon beads that she will wire together to make a necklace:

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Unintentionally, the sparkly frit created “faces” on these pieces.

The next photo is of a bowl. To me it feels primordial, elements swirling in The Great Nebula or perhaps plankton and primal fishes in the depths of the ocean. But it is art — you decide:

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Cynthia would like the ability to grind and polish some of her glass creations, so in my free time I’ve been building her a lap grinder. These things can be bought, but I can build one for a fraction of the cost.

A motor (that I don’t have yet), will spin a one-quarter-inch thick, twelve-inch-diameter aluminum disk, on which she will put various-grit diamond disks. I made the stand with PVC plumbing fittings. Still to do is to buy and mount the motor, make provisions for a small water pump, and construct a water-splash apron. For the top, I used an aluminum, large baking sheet. Here it is so far:

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One of the downsides of living in the tropical mountains of Panama is the termites and the rust. A few years ago, I think I posted a photo, I made 48 wooden drawers and a metal rack to house Cynthia’s 1,500 watchmaker’s tins full of seed beads. Well, over the years the termites have reduced the wooden drawers nearly to dust and the tins have started to rust. What to do? We purchased a bunch of aluminum, full-sheet baking trays to hold the tins. In time, I’ll build a new cabinet to hold the trays. So for four days, and one remaining to go, Cynthia and our maid have been cleaning each-and-every one of the 1,500 watchmakers’ tins and moving them to the new trays. It has been a tedious, onerous task but will be worth it in the end. The living room is in disarray from my painting and from the stacks of trays:

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But one of the wonderful aspects of living here in the tropical mountains of Panama is the multitude of bird life. With my smartphone, I recorded three very-short MP4s of birds.

First, an owl just before dawn:

Second is a flock of wild parrots that flies through most mornings around 6:30 and then later in the day:

And third is a toucan in a nearby tree. Not as good of a recording because Armando was trimming bushes nearby. Toucans sound a lot like frogs:

Finally, I have been chomping at the bit to make some videos of the house. But I’d like my work to be a bit more professional looking than just walking through the house with a jittery camera. Friends are coming to visit us in two months, and although they don’t know it yet, they are going to bring with them a few small items that will make my videos much better looking. I won’t promise cinematic quality, but I think that I can improve a lot on my previous attempts. You’ve been asking for videos, so stay tuned.

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

I Can’t Think Of A Title For This Post

Since my last post, I stripped the forms off of the latest batch of counter tops. The following photo shows the counter in the master bathroom. Also in the photo, we were going to have a mirror cut for the wall, but we decided instead to tile the wall and hang two mirrors. (I’ve done the same in the second bedroom but no photos.) In the photo, I just finished tiling the wall. Armando will grout it on Monday, then I can install the faucets and sinks:

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This area will look much better when it is all dressed up with sinks, faucets, mirrors and lights. I still need to tile the wall under the counter. We’ve decided to use the shower floor tiles for this area below the sinks.

The concrete shelf in the toilet area turned out nicely; it has a nice shine due to the polymer sealer. One of our goals in designing the house was to create light-but-cozy spaces. Even the toilet area qualifies:

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When Armando grouts the tile wall, I’ll have him grout the honeycomb edge of the shelf.

The stone wall in the shower area looked drab, so Armando sanded the wall to remove grout from the stones and to smooth the mortar lines. Then he washed the wall and applied two coats of polymer sealer. Now it looks like what we had envisioned:

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In the laundry, I stripped the forms from the small counter top and sanded and sealed it. I put it in place and installed the faucet, sink trap, and drain line. This sink now works!

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A little grout will touch up the edge of the counter.

Out in the yard, Armando spent two-weeks making the last segment of the driveway edging:

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After we pour the concrete floor in the carport, we’ll order a few more truckloads of gravel for the driveway.

The big thing for us this week was the delivery of the glass table tops and the mirrors for the bathroom behind the sink.

We placed our order on the 10th of December and were told that we could expect it to arrive in two weeks. But being Panama, it just didn’t happen. All of December passed, as well as January. I kept checking with the company and kept getting promises for the next day. Or next week. There were lots of excuses. The company that put the edging on the glass broke the dining room table top and another one had to be made. The truck was broken. The driver didn’t show up. The men were all working out of town. We’re waiting for glass. One of the two edge grinding machines in Panama was broken and work was backed up. I half expected to be told that they had run out of sand to make the glass!

Exasperated, I finally visited the glass company and talked with Kathy, the woman at the desk. By this point we knew each other well. I explained that many promises had been broken and that we had been very patient. But now, our patience was worn thin.

In Panama there is an agency, probably like the Better Business Bureau, with the acronym of ACODECO. If you have a complaint with a business (or even a government agency I think), you can file your complaint and they will follow up. Apparently ACODECO has sharp fangs and razor claws (and the ability to impose big fines), because businesses quake at the mere mention of the name.

So playing good customer/bad customer, I politely told Kathy that I heard Cynthia snoring in her sleep. I told Kathy that with each exhale, I heard Cynthia exclaim, “ACODECO!, ACODECO!, ACODECO!”

Kathy’s eyes widened and she said, “Oh, por favor no Sr. Fred.”

“Oh, I have no control over what Cynthia will do when she is at the end of her patience,” I said.

The glass arrived the next day.

(The long delay in getting the glass is what prompted us to tile the bathroom walls above the counters and hang mirrors instead of ordering custom-fabricated mirrors.)

The first piece that the three men put in place was the much-anticipated, half-inch, 250-pound dining room table top. With a wide bevel on the edge, it looks great!

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After the delivery crew left, I hung the mirrors in the bathroom under the stairs. The photo is difficult to figure out; there are two mirrors that hang on the 45-degree walls behind the sink. Kind of like being in a Fun House:

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The glass tops arrived for the smaller tables, too, including the one in the dining room:

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And the second bedroom (under the mirror):

Panorama -- Guest Bedroom 8 Feb 2015

Instead of wooden end tables (mold, termites), we are using clay vessels with glass tops. Here is the living room with the round glass tops on the vessels:

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We’ll plant a plant in the brown pot in the far back corner and maybe put an up-light in the pot. And yes, that is a pig (piggy bank) with wings and wheels.

The screened bump-out in the master bedroom is a sweet place to sit and have a glass of iced tea:

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Cynthia has been busy learning about slumping glass. Her latest creation is made using a bubble pot melt form. After all the colors had melted/dripped through the form and fused together in the kiln, I cut the edges square with my tile saw. Next, she will place it on a different form in the kiln, slumping the glass into the shape of a tray. Here is the piece held up to the light:

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What’s not readily visible in this photo is the sparkle of the little blue spots (from blue aventurine frit). It’s really pretty up close. This color combination is reminiscent of a tie dye.

Lastly, I’ve been all work and no play for a long time now and it is getting old. I’ve been aching to learn to play my new classical guitar, so even though I’m dog tired at the end of the day, lately I’ve managed to carve out a few minutes at the end of the evening to sit and strum a bit.

Here’s the guitar that Cynthia bought me for my birthday (was it last year or the year before?); it is hand made in Spain (all wood, no plywood, with a hand-selected cedar soundboard), fabricated in the traditional way. With a deep, rich resonance, it is a wonderful guitar for the music that I want to learn to play — Nuevo Flamenco and jazzy Latin styles such as the Bossa Nova. Thanks Cyn (and thanks again to our friend Cynthia McC for hand carrying it to me from the States):

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

It’s A Good Thing That I Take Pictures

It’s a good thing that I take pictures. Otherwise I would have no idea what I did in the past two weeks!

Let’s start with the glass block window in the master bathroom. Except for a piece of metal trim at the top, the window is done. It adds a lot to the north elevation and pumps a lot of light into the bathroom:

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From the inside, once it is painted and the rest of the finishing details are completed, the bathroom will be an inviting space:

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Looking through all three glass block walls shows a striking pattern of contorted grout lines:

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Hanibal and Francisco finished the glass block window about 10:30 in the morning. As this was the very last project for them here (except to do the carport floor in a few months), we celebrated the completion of several month’s work with a glass of sparkling apple juice. I paid them and sent them on their way with most of the day off:

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Official photos seem to be a solemn affair…

Now on my own, I was free to tackle a slew of smaller projects. One thing that had been bugging us was the open space above the glass block wall in the kitchen. The kitchen lights at night were a magnet for mosquitoes and other insects.

To make a bug-proof vent, I cut a piece of expanded metal and painted it black. I folded it in half with my bending brake, then slipped a piece of window screen between the two layers of expanded metal. I screwed the assembly to the outside of the container; it can be removed to replace or clean the window screen:

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Here is a close up:

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Keeping on with the bug-proofing projects — I bent some L-shaped pieces of scrap aluminum and screwed them to the wall above the big security doors at the living room west wall. This closed a big gap and also redirects water away from the glass doors. I had installed window screens some time ago:

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Next, it was almost impossible to work in my shop, so I dedicated two days to a good mucking out. Much better now. Here is what I had to deal with. Shameful:

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Next, Cynthia and I tackled the electrical work in the living room/dining room. We pulled a couple hundred feet of wire, Cynthia feeding wire to me from above while I did the worm walk in the crawl space, threading the wires under the house. Now we can plug lamps and the fountain into the wall, just like regular people, and the extension cords are all gone!

I installed a receptacle in the roof support column in the living room. We will plug a table lamp in here; it can be switched on or off from each of the two bedroom step landings as well as at the kitchen door. In 1977 I learned to create a “path of light” from an electrician who called himself Sparky, and it has served me well for many years. He said that you shouldn’t have to walk anywhere in the dark. Cynthia and I pulled wires to create this mess:

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With the help of a wiring diagram book, I was able to connect the receptacle and the four-way switch arrangement:

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Instead of using the supplied screws, I simply pop riveted the receptacle into place.

Another place that was a lot of fun to wire was at the three switches at the front door; two switches for the chandelier and one switch for the outside flood lights that I installed high over the front door:

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Above the three switches is a stack of rare earth magnets. I had to use them to retrieve a drill bit that I dropped into the column.

What made this challenging is that I messed up on my spacing when I cut the top hole for the switches in the 4″x4″ steel column; using the saber saw with a metal cutting blade, I cut on the wrong marks, making the opening too tall. But with some flat stock metal, pop rivets, and a few choice words for myself, I fixed the hole. I patched my boo boo with some Bondo. Here is my ugly fix before the Bondo:

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So now the dining room chandelier is working; here is a nighttime photo with the bottom light on:

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We hadn’t originally planned to tile the big triangular wall at the staircase in the living room, so the already roughed-in electrical boxes ended up too deep in the wall. First, I cleaned the tile mortar from the screw holes with a threading tool:

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With the threaded holes set back so far in the wall, it was good to have a small kit of different length screws on hand:

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How many tools does it take to install an electrical receptacle in a tile wall?

While I was in wiring mode, Cynthia asked if I would install a light in the kitchen exhaust hood over the stove. We bought a sealed LED light strip — it can easily be removed for cleaning. Here is a shot looking up into the hood. I still need to install a grease filter on the big round exhaust hole:

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The light switches for the kitchen ceiling lights, as well as for the exhaust fan and the light in the exhaust hood will all be by the kitchen door. I chose to not put the switches for the hood on the hood itself to keep the switches from getting greasy. So far I have some temporary wiring for some of the switches. I think it is quite entertaining:

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But, is it to Code?

At this point I ran out of wire, so I moved on to other projects. We have family coming to visit in about two months, so the guest bedroom and bath became the current priority. I painted the two container-end doors with an oil-based primer and two coats of latex; they had been a gnarly, rusty mess:

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I assembled the bed, Cynthia bought bedding for the room, and we hung the mirror. There is still some minor painting to do in the room:

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Speaking of the mirror, the one that we bought came with a Masonite backing. In this humid climate, within a month the Masonite was a moldy mess. I removed it and tossed it into the trash:

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In the guest bathroom, I made a form to pour a black concrete counter top (like the kitchen counters). It is still lacking rebar:

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The blocks of plywood will make a space on the underside of the concrete counter so I can install the nuts that affix the sink and faucet. This bathroom is still lacking paint, mirror, and lights, but the tile is all done.

While I had the tools out to make the form for the counter, I moved to the master bathroom to do the same:

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How many tools does it take to make a counter top concrete form?

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After I made the form, I placed the sinks and determined spacing. BobBob helped:

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And still while I was at it, we needed a shelf near the toilet to put a lamp on, so I made yet another form for that shelf:

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As soon as I can get some black concrete colorant, Armando and I can pour these counter tops. Right now, the only hardware store in town that has colorant has it at three-times the price at other stores. I refuse to patronize the scoundrel.

In the kitchen, we have been enjoying having breakfast in the little bump out area with the glass block wall. But the white walls (the container doors that form the walls) were a bit too bright and glaring in the morning sun. So I painted the area two coats of the same gray paint that we used by the concrete bench in the living room. It made the space much more cozy. It was difficult to get a good photo with all the morning light coming through the glass blocks:

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One big bonus of painting the walls gray is the shimmering pattern from the glass blocks:

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Cynthia has been working on some projects of her own. The next photo is of a ten-inch diameter glass bowl that she made. As her first bowl, she made it relatively unadorned to make sure that her slumping and fusing times in the kiln were correct before she spent the big bucks on colored glass. With this success, she can now make more with colors and textures:

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The bubbles in this bowl were intentionally made for decorative purposes.

Cyn is also making some light sconces for either side of the mirror in the dining room. After several failed attempts (the glass kept cracking when it came out of the kiln), she determined that window glass is not window glass is not window glass. She had mixed regular, clear window glass with some of the frosted glass from the slatted-louver windows that we had left over. Apparently, the COE (coefficient of expansion) is different for the two window glasses, creating cracks when the glass cools. Who’d a thought.

So now she can go on to use just one of the glass types and I am sure that she will be successful. Here is one of the failed attempts. This was pieced with broken pieces of frosted slatted-vent window glass over regular window glass with dichroic leaf embedded in the spaces. The cracks appeared at non-conjoined areas:

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With the dry season upon us, our hundreds of plants now need to be watered. With a hose, the job takes at least three-hours. Maybe four. We hired a local girl for the job. We explained the time needed to water to sufficient depth for the roots, but at only fourteen-years-old, she was constantly texting her friends. On the first day at the two hour mark, she declared the plants sufficiently watered. On the second day Cynthia and I reiterated the need for more time on the job, but again at the two-hour mark and after a lot of texting, she was again done. I told her that I thought that she should be spending more time with her friends and that she didn’t need to come back to our grueling job. She seemed relieved. Here she is, cute as a button but not ready for the world of work:

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I have since purchased a good sprinkler and can do the job myself, moving the sprinkler around the yard now and then.

Speaking of plants, one of the orchids in the carport is at it again:

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And the tree that we call the Ballerina Tree is in full bloom again:

P1020156And last but not least, Cynthia is rich! She closed a checking account that was gouging her for outrageous monthly fees. Here is her final check for closing the account. Try not to be envious:

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After taking the photo, the check promptly went in the trash. It would have cost more to cash it.

For a blog entry about small jobs, I think that this is the longest post I have ever written! That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

A Seasonally-Appropriate Story

(I posted the following on our local El Valle Yahoo Group, but I thought that it would make a good blog post, too.)

This year, Cynthia and I discovered an excellent gift to give to employees. You might want to keep it in mind for next year or for Easter. Of all the gifts we have given over the years, including cash, this one drew the greatest amount of thanks and appreciation. 

It happened like this: We currently have three men laying the tile in our new home. Four days before Christmas I overheard them talking as they worked on the front steps. I’ll loosely translate their conversation to English:

Armando: “Wow, did you see the price of hams at Supermercado El Rey this year?”

Hanibal: “Yes, almost $40. Too expensive for me.”

Francisco: “Me too, looks like arroz y guandu y pollo (rice, pigeon peas, chicken) at our house for Christmas.”

I could see that they were very disappointed, and as a man myself, I could see that they were distressed as they really wanted to provide it for their families. 

I was busy marking and cutting tile (with my ear plugs in), and I don’t think that they thought that I was paying attention. But I chimed in.

Me: “So ham is a traditional thing for you at Christmas?”

Armando: “Si señor.”

Anibal: “But not this year.”

I went in the house to talk with Cynthia, and we decided to offer them the hams as a Christmas gift.

I went back outside and talked with them, asking them how many adults would be at their tables. The average was six. We asked if we could give them the hams as a gift and they lit up like Christmas tree lights.

So Cynthia went shopping and bought three, frozen, double-smoked hams, about twelve pounds apiece.

I was pretty sure that they didn’t have refrigeration at their homes, so we said that we would thaw them in our refrigerator and that they could take them home the day before Christmas.

The reason that I said that the hams were the most-appreciated gift that we have ever given is that when we presented the hams to them, they each shook our hands with genuine thanks, much more so than with cash in the past. Then, not even remotely expected, they each gave us a hug and another thank you. I think that the hug went way, way beyond the boundaries of the “classes,” but they were so moved they couldn’t help themselves.

Those hugs were our best Christmas presents.

For Cynthia and me, this experience was reason enough for us to work so hard to learn Spanish. Otherwise, we would never have known, and they never would have asked.

Season’s greetings to all, Fred

 

New Plant Bonanza Plus Yet More Tile

With just a month or so of the rainy season remaining, Cynthia and I decided that we should get some more plants in the ground so that they can get a good start before everything goes dry.

So Friday morning, after I got Hanibal and Bolivar started on another tile floor, Cyn and I went to a nursery in town. There are other places that we like to buy plants too, but for quality and sheer volume, Sr. Chico at Plantas del Valle was our choice this time.

It sure is nice to have enough Spanish under our belts to be able to easily describe what we were looking for — we talked about sun vs. shade, drought tolerance, colors, the heights of the plants, and how many of each. A worker took us into the yard to confirm our choices. Cynthia and her new hip navigated the muddy paths really well.

The nursery really is quite large. Here are some photos:

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We purchased 80 of these. The women are removing any dead leaves for us.

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Here the workers are choosing and cleaning 16 nice ferns.

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An hour later their truck was loaded for delivery.

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Here is our bounty, unloaded in our driveway turnaround:

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Eighty of the variegated plants in the foreground, sixteen ferns, three tall red-trunked palms, six grasses, and five mother-in-law tongues.

Armando arrived Saturday, saw the plants, and said, “I guess I know what I am going to be doing today!” He made great progress, not finishing only because a pounding rain that arrived at noon:

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Armando is planting the new variegated plants between the two rows of green plants. In time, they will all fill out and provide a colorful border along the garden path.

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View from the window at the top of the stairs to the loft and roof deck.

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Two of the three new red-trunked palms are placed at the end of the container. They still need to be moved around to find the right spot.

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The new grasses will hide the concertina wire.

The north side of container #4 is a good place for the sixteen new ferns:

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In tile news, in the loft, I cut the edge tiles, ready for Hanibal to mud them into place:P1010885-001

Here is the loft, now all done except for the grout on half the floor:

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I am in the process of installing a sink at the far end of the loft, by the door to the roof deck.

This is the landing at the top of the stairs, with the roof deck through the door:

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Earlier I mentioned that I got Hanibal and Bolivar started on the next floor — and it is a big one! It seems surreal that we are FINALLY getting to this floor — the entry, dining room, and living room. We’ll be a week or two on this monster:

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When Cyn and I returned with the plants, Hanibal and Bolivar had laid out a T-shape of tiles, using only the tiles and a framing square to determine a right angle. Personally, I wouldn’t have done it this way because if you are even a little bit out of square, the effect of compounding errors is greatly magnified when you get to the other end of the line of tiles. I find it better to lay row after row.

I didn’t want to second guess Hanibal, but the mortar was still wet, the tiles not yet set firmly in place. So I risked insulting him and interjected myself into the process to make sure the layout was square.

The best way to determine square in a large area is to use a 3-4-5 right-angle triangle. Units of measure for the 3-4-5 can be inches, feet, meters, etc. I used feet.

To use the triangle, go three-feet in one direction, then four-feet in the other direction, then the hypotenuse must be five-feet.

For an even larger area, you can multiply each number by two or three or more to be even more accurate. In this case, I multiplied each number by three. So my measurements looked like this on the floor:  P1010882-001

I’m glad I checked because the layout was about three-eights of an inch out of square in nine-feet. Using a rubber mallet, we tapped the tiles to their new location where they met up with the correct points of reference. Now we won’t have to trim tiles to get them to fit or, conversely, have overly-wide grout lines; it could have been ugly.

One day after the guys left, I installed an LED strip of lights under the long bench in the living room. The lights come on a spool; you just unroll them, peel back the paper to expose the sticky-tape, stick ’em up, plug ’em in, and you are done. These lights came with a dimmer that I mounted under the bench. Here is a night-time photo:

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In the pretty picture department, I took this photo at the nursery:

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And lastly, here is lunch that Cyn made for me one day:

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Egg salad, real chemical-free salami, peas, tomato, and grated carrot. Thanks Cyn.

We’ll be working on the big floor for a while. See you next time. Thanks for stopping by.

Some Disassembly And Assembly Required

With all the recent holidays and the crew not working, I had a chance to tackle two projects that have been on the back burner for some time now.

First, when we bought our new stove, a six-thousand-plus dollar American Range, we were assured that it was set up for propane, not natural gas. Natural gas (pipe in the street to your house) is not available in Panama, so you would think that it would be a no-brainer that all gas stoves would be set for bottled propane.

BUT NO!

Here is the stove in case you missed it in a previous post:

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When we connected the stove, the burner flames were way, way too yellow. We had a tech guy come out from the company and he verified that yes, it was wrong and was set for natural gas. He didn’t have the appropriate gas jets, and worse, said that he couldn’t get them. But he pulled a couple burner jets out and hammered on the brass where the hole is that lets the gas pass. This made the holes a practical-but-non-scientifically-bit smaller. It was somewhat better and we could use two of the six burners without sooting up the bottom of the pans.

I called the company in the States and they directed me to the company that handles all international support. I worked with them for four-or-five months to get the correct parts, but in the end, it couldn’t be done. I seemed to have hit the Inefficiency Infinity Department.

With no small amount of frustration, I collected myself and again called the manufacturer in the States. But this time I used our State-side mailing address and just posed as a regular customer. After we worked through the legalities and waivers of liabilities, the parts were shipped to me, $125. I’m not even going to try to get this reimbursed. We received them here in Panama a few weeks later, but knowing that it would take me a day to install them, the parts had to sit in a bag until I could get to them.

Finally a good day arrived. First, the stove is hundreds-of-pounds heavy and is a challenge to pull it out without scratching the floor. I got some two-by stock and levered the front of the stove into the air so that I could slip old pieces of a plastic cutting board under the front legs. The back legs are actually wheels:

P1010812-001Next, I wrapped a strap around the stove legs and around my hands and slowly pulled the stove out of its space. Like this:

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Yeah, you can have your fancy rowing machines. I move stoves!

Next I tore the stove apart to access the guts.

First I changed the jets, or orifices, on the six stove top burners. This was a dicey process because the jets sit down in holes. To keep from dropping the jets into the darkest reaches of the bowels of the beast, I took a pea-sized glob of plumbers’ putty, put it into the nut driver, then pressed the jet into the putty. It worked well and I changed the jets in no time at all:

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The new, brass jet is sitting on the burner just to the right of the nut driver.

Next, I had to replace the six burner control valves on the front of the stove:

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Some of the wiring controls the flame igniter sparker thingies. I don’t think that there is an acronym for that. There is a micro switch built into each control valve. There is also wiring for the LED lights that indicate when a burner is on, plus wiring for the oven light switch. The light switch fell apart in my hands when I tried to remove the wiring lug, so I’ll have to buy a new switch and take the front panel apart again. Another year…

Replacing the control valves took some time because the wiring was in the way of all the gas connections — I had to reverse engineer the wiring. But at about a half-hour each, I had the task done.

Next, I had to replace the jets for the oven and the broiler, and that meant removing a lot of stuff on the back of the stove. Sorry, no photo, but it too was a rat’s nest of wiring for the gas-valve safety apparatus and for the two oven convection fans.

The last new part was a replacement gas regulator that I had to install at the bottom of the stove.

Finally, I checked all my gas connections and verified that all the wiring was as engineered. I buttoned all the covers and trim pieces back into place. I was pleased because I had fewer than a hundred screws left over! Elapsed time: six hours.

By the way, there were no installation instructions with the new parts so I was winging it all the way. It didn’t explode so I guess I did okay.

Cynthia said that I was her hero, the flames now burning bluer and hotter (the flames on the stove, not her flames for me…), just as they should.

We’ve had another project in the works since we lived at the rental house down the road. There we had an old washing machine that I disassembled for recycling. But the stainless-steel drum was too good to toss. Without any real plans for it, it moved with us to the new house.

But the question arose, what style of chandelier should we put over the dining room table? We searched all the lighting stores and the styles and the lofty prices turned us away. Nothing really said Shipping Container Chandelier. Then one day, one of us, we can’t remember who, spied the washing machine drum in a heap in a corner. Hmm…

We talked and schemed, and finally came up with a plan to turn the drum into a chandelier. Cynthia fused some glass pendants that would hang from the drum. I engineered a way to hang the drum from the ceiling (back when we installed the ceiling metal I welded a bracket to the metal roof framing), how to put lights in/on the fixture, and how to hang the glass pendants. In keeping with the industrial look, I chose a piece of 2″ galvanized pipe as the pole that would support the chandelier. It kind of looks like a drive shaft and I expect the chandelier to start spinning at any moment. Here I am threading the wires (that earlier I ran through the ceiling) into the pole:

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I drilled through holes and connected the pole to the bracket with a bolt.

Next, I drilled 48 holes in what would be the bottom of the lamp from which to suspend the glass dangles. I also drilled a hole through the shaft on the drum for another through bolt, plus two more holes to pass the wires from the switches through:

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Check the body English.

The drum had three, kind of ugly spots where there used to be plastic agitators attached inside the drum:

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This fix was easy; I cut three pieces of aluminum scrap and caulked them onto the drum:

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Then it was time to attach the drum to the pole:

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I think that I look a bit like Wallace in Wallace And Gromit. I guess it is better than looking like Gromit.

Cynthia had made 50, fused glass pendants and I now had to drill a hole in each one. I put a 2×4 in the sink and added water to just above the level of the 2×4. Then, with the water as a lubricant, I chugged away, making a hole about every two-minutes:

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I fashioned a little block of wood with a hole in it to use as a guide for the diamond-tipped drill.

Next, Cynthia attached pieces of a braided bead cord (similar to fishing line only used for jewelry) to each pendant, and I started hanging the pendants:

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I pushed each loop up through a hole, then placed a piece of galvanized wire through the loop, the loop then resting on the wire to hold the pendant in place. Yes, this was tedious and an important part of Some Assembly Required.

Getting my head and arms coordinated around all the pendants was challenging but I got it done:

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No, this wasn’t my Halloween costume.

Here it is with all the glass hanging. Note that some of the pendants have dichroic glass, reflecting different colors depending on the light:

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Oh, I forgot to mention that I wired a lamp socket inside the drum so that light will spill out all the holes in the side of the drum. A separate switch controls the light that points down onto the table.

Here is a shot from underneath the chandelier; you can see that I had to make a piece of aluminum to hold the lamp that points toward the dining room table. The bottom light fixture has an LED bulb:

P1010852-001Here is one more photo of the chandelier from up in the loft:

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The bottom of the glass pendants hang three-feet above the (soon-to-be-completed) dining room table. The whole thing kind of looks like water flowing from a shower head…

Here is a photo at dusk:

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Cost? The LED down-light was expensive. It has an aluminum-finned heat sink to keep the unit cool — $200. Dichroic glass — $25. Pole and miscellaneous parts — $25. Total — $250, less than the cheapest $1,500 off-the-shelf chandelier at the lighting stores. And way cooler by far. The pendants are made from window (aka: float) glass. The pendants were made from the scraps of glass left over from our kitchen lamp shade project (soon to be installed).

By the way, there were no fabrication or assembly instructions with this Shipping Container Washing Machine Drum Chandelier Kit. But it hasn’t fallen from the ceiling so I guess we did okay.

We can’t wait until I wire for the switches and see the chandelier at night. We think that the design fits our Natural-Industrial-Bling design strategy.

In other news, my antennae perk up any time there is a full moon and a bunch of holidays in Panama. There has been a rash of robberies down in town and up here on the rim of the volcano — Saturday night two weed whackers were stolen from the local church just down the road. And last night about 8:30 Jabo went ballistic at the front gate.

So I take frequent walks around the house at night, looking for a hole in the fence or other added attraction. With the gravel path around the house, it is like walking in a park at night. Quite pleasant and peaceful if you don’t count the fact that I am carrying a bunch of defensive hardware. On one of my passes last night, I saw an owl sitting on the back fence. I throw our kitchen vege scraps by the banana plants there, and the owl was no doubt waiting for an unsuspecting mouse:

P1010835-001It let me get within ten-feet and it stayed put while I took its picture. Looks like a young one:

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A funny — I showed the picture to Armando. He said the owl looked like it was a smiling politician saying, “Vote for me!”

As I passed the back garden, I thought that this plant would make a good nighttime picture:

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And in the carport, a potted orchid was in bloom:

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

Yet More Glass Block And Tile…

In the unplanned work department — Cynthia and I returned home from our vacation at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. At 10:30 p.m. a petty thief climbed over our back fence, I don’t know, perhaps to welcome us home, and was making his way into the yard. Jabo spotted him and gave chase, the man re-vaulting the fence and vanishing into the jungle. Cynthia spotted him too, and yelled at him with such vigor that she lost her voice for two days! All the while I was happily singing in the shower.

This is the umpteenth time this has happened so I decided it was time to raise the ante and install some razor wire on the two jungle-abutting sides of our property. The razor wire is also known as concertina wire, or here in Panama, Alambre (wire) de Gillette. Most times this wire is strung at the top of a fence, but we decided to hang it mid-way on the fence; at the top of the fence the thief could just cut the cyclone fence and slip through. At mid-height, the wire is so low that Sr. Thief can’t get under it and so high that he can’t get over it. At least not without risking being sliced and diced by the razors. With some care he might be able to get over the wire, but in a hurry and in the dark it would provide an impediment to an elegant and bloodless escape. Also, at mid-height it doesn’t look quite so much like a prison wall. We’ll see, ask me in a year if it worked. Eventually, plants will hide the wire from our view on this side of the fence:

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You can see the concertina wire on the other side of the fence.

Because of the schedule disruption around our vacation, Hanibal has been trying to juggle two jobs — ours plus another in town — so progress is a bit slow. But he has completed the second glass block wall in the master bathroom — well almost — we still need to form and pour concrete borders around the open edges of the blocks:

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The 1/4″ rebar sticking out from the mortar joints will be embedded in the concrete surround to give stability to the wall. A length of this rebar runs in each mortar joint.

And looking in the other direction, Armando is working his way to the top of the stone wall in the shower. When the wall is done, he will wash it with muriatic acid to remove the mortar film from the rocks,then we will use a sealer so it has a “wet look”:   P1010753-001For our next project, Hanibal and I moved into the bathroom off the second bedroom. We tiled the walls and Bolivar grouted:

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As in the master bathroom, we planned the tile installation for minimum cutting and a cleaner look at the shower valve and shower head.

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Bolivar grouts the wall.

Today, Hanibal and Bolivar set the level of the floor in the second bedroom bath, sloping the floor toward the shower drain:

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In my spare time I have been doing a bit of painting. Cynthia decided that the walk-in closet would look better with white walls, so I applied a couple coats of paint. I still need to build a few more shelves and apply some baseboards: P1010751-001

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It is nice to have the new tile under foot rather than the rough, dusty concrete. And on the left, check out Cynthia’s Pre-sort Central laundry baskets. So much for a man to learn. 

And I’ve started painting the big wall in the living room. We selected a middle gray that will go well with the stonework and the tile and dark gray wall on the other side of the room:

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The wall will look good with some art hanging on it. And Bob finally wandered into a photo…

So far Hanibal and I have used about two pallets of tile, enough so that Cynthia and I could clean up around the remaining materials. It has been a long time since we could use the stairs in front of my shop and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Before, what a mess:

P1010553We cleaned the area and I took a truckload of cardboard and plastic bottles to the recycle center in town. After:

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Jabo practicing his Salutation To The Sun yoga pose. Either that or he is doing a Maori Haka war dance.

And now it is my turn — Cynthia has turned out a slew of slumped glass lampshades for the kitchen lights. Now I need to get busy, drill a hole in the top of each one, install lamp sockets, and hang the lights. It will be good to see them hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Wish me luck…:

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