Front Columns Tiled And Much Ado About Zero

Today Armando and I finished grouting the tile on the electric service entry column and on the columns on either side of the front gate. It all looks good, but I think it can look better yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

To start the project of tiling the columns, I planned the layout of the tiles by moving a sample tile around on the three columns and making a few marks. Then I set up the laser level and marked all three columns, front and back, with a level line that I could set the first tiles against.

I wanted to nail a board, right at the laser line, on to each of the wall sections to set the tiles on. But my scrap wood selection is getting thin and I couldn’t find a straight board in the bunch. So I spent a week designing an intricate tool that would hold each tile in place while the mortar set. The Tool had springs, calibrating levers and locking knobs, leveling bubbles, braces and counterweights, and wide feet to keep The Tool from settling into the mud. I figured that I would need a dozen of them, and estimated the cost at just under $500, plus another week or two to locate materials and fabricate them.

I showed my plan to Armando and he said, “Give me a few tiles and some mortar.” This is what he came up with to hold the tiles in place:

Okay, I made a joke. It is true that I didn’t have a straight board, but I came up with the stick idea myself. Living here in Panama, I have learned that a lot can be done with a little, and I don’t need to make nearly as many trips to hardware stores to buy as much stuff as I think I need to.

Here are some more of the first tiles in place. I’ve filed a patent application for the sticks Tile Placement and Holding Device:

Here’s a photo of the tile saw that I use. With the diamond blade, it slices through the porcelain tile like butter. Here I am making a cutout for one of the tiles to go around the light fixture wiring box:

With all the rain recently it has been a real challenge to get this project done. Even with the tarp overhead it has been tough slogging. But now and again up will pop a spectacular day. Like this one:

Here are the three columns, all tiled and grouted:

It was raining when I took the above photo, and the tiles look pale and flat in color. We really had to rush the grout due to impending rain; there is more cleaning to be done so that a lot more green can come out of the tiles. Additionally there is some mortar hard-stuck to the tiles here and there, so I plan to clean them with muriatic acid. I’ll do a test first to make sure that the acid doesn’t damage the tile, turn them sky-blue-pink or something. Ultimately I’d like them to look like the ones I showed you in an earlier post, and I think this can happen with a bit more polishing:

You may also have noticed that the front gate is no longer black. Rust was already breaking through the enamel paint, so Armando spent a couple days sanding and re-priming with the better quality polyurethane red oil primer.

House Paint Color: A while back I showed a picture of some blue house paint that didn’t look that blue on the paint chip. We decided that it was a no go from the get go:

Back at the paint store, I looked for a similar color only with more green. The one I chose turned out way too bright, way too yellow-green (left side of next photo). But I added some black to it (right side of the next photo) and darned if we don’t like it. We may have a winner.

Our house will be about 2,500 square feet when it is done. This is a big house for the neighborhood, and a light, bright color such as white or yellow or bright green would make the house just scream, “Huge!” But the subdued green will help the house nestle into its natural tropical surroundings. And kind of like the cloaking device on Star Trek, I like the idea that the house will be more and more revealed to visitors as they approach the house.

Now The Nonsense News ~ What’s A Zero Among Friends? It is time for me to renew my Panamanian driver’s license. One day last week I drove the hour-and-a-half to Penonome, the closest city with a licensing office. The pleasant attendant asked if I have a motor vehicle registered in my name. “Why yes,” I responded. She then checked the records and said there was a PROBLEM. A BIG PROBLEM. For expats living in Panama, your foreign passport number must match your motor vehicle identification number as well as your driver’s license number.

My passport number is 0123456789. Well not really, but close enough for demonstration purposes. The number on my driver’s license is the same, 0123456789. But the number on my motor vehicle registration is 0000123456789. Because a leading zero(s) has no numerical value, the numbers all look the same to me.

But no, they must match. Like a photograph. Someone might become confused and there might be a problem in the future. I said I’d chance it, but she gave me a piece of paper and explained that I would have to go to Panama City, three hours in the other direction, and have the numbers all made the same. In my mind I would be paying to change 123456789 to 123456789.


I explained that they were the same. One plus one equals two, just as zero-one and zero-one equals two. But no, a public functionarie’s duties are clear (even if the thinking isn’t). The zeros are vitally important when it comes to identifying me and my papers, and the paperwork mistake by the motor vehicle department must be corrected.


I hired Sven, our local errand guru, to make the run to Panama and sort this all out. It actually took him two days (a two-zero-per-day limit perhaps?). But now I have a brand spanking new title for the Honda, the proper 0123456789 clearly displayed. With filing fees and gas for Sven, the damage was $55.

Now with the new title in hand, I can again drive to Penonome and try this again.

Wish me luck.

I’m not really angry about all of this. Not any more, anyway. But I did want to illustrate one of the little ways that life is different here, and it is the expat’s job to adjust and to assimilate. “Resistance is futile” (short version) (long version). Some can’t adjust and go back “home.” But here is home for us and we try to adjust, even while shaking our heads. So much ado over a zero.

That’s all for now.


Sliding Home: The Front Gate Ready To Roll

The front gate is rolling on its track. I am extremely happy with it as it looks just as I had envisioned it. Although there are more than 300 weld points, the whole gate has the minimalist feel that I wanted. A few people have seen it so far and easily identified the design as cat tails.

This was a fun project even if the welding, grinding, sanding, and painting was quite tedious. I spent a lot of time stepping back, looking at the progress and planning my next move. Actually, I had to plan three or four moves in advance, as in a game of chess, so that I didn’t end up with overlaps, gaps, or clutter that didn’t make sense in the design.

Although I was replicating a wild grass, I wanted order to the design, so I worked from the center out to both sides, fabricating two of every stalk. The left and right sides from center are mirror images.

Assembly: The frame of the gate is made of 2″ x 2″ x 1/16″ square tubing. The two square tubes at the bottom formed a beam once the stalks were all welded in place; the gate doesn’t sag at all. I drilled 1/2″ holes in the beam for the stalks to pass through.  The stalks of the plants are 1/2″ round stock. The seed pods at the ends of the stalks are made from black pipe; half-inch pipe fit well over the round stock but wasn’t fat enough for a seed pod, so I cut lengths of 3/4″ pipe, too. I pounded the smaller pipe into the larger pipe then welded the pipe assembly to the stalks. After I cleaned up all the weld points with the grinder, I applied body filler (Bondo) to most of the joints and the tops and bottoms of the seed pods. Then I sanded the body filler smooth. I topped everything off with two coats of red oxide primer followed by one coat of dark gray. This color may or may not change in the future; we’ll have to see what color the containers end up being painted.

Armando and I were working on the job, and I rounded up two other local workers to help us move the gate from container 3 to its place on the angle iron track. Although the design is very “airy,” this is one heavy gate. I think a gate opener is in order; I can slide the gate but Cynthia pushed on it as hard as she could but it was as if it was welded to the ground.

Here are some photos. Remember, click a photo to make it larger, click the back button to return.

Fabrication underway.

Here is the gate all welded and welds ground out, ready for body filler. I think the design is graceful and has a hint of art nouveau.

Looking out, you don’t feel like you are in a garrison. There is a hint of a family crest in the center of the gate.

Dog tired but happy. The curved stalks are strategically placed so as to strengthen the vertical stalks.

I welded this bracket from metal 2x4s. The wheels guide the gate as it opens and closes. Remember, there will be a concrete hat on top of the columns.

Next, I think I will take some pictures of a small model that I built showing the new and improved one-story design of the house. I’ll post them so you can see the new plan.

That’s all for now.

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