Monday, October 27, 2014

Still crawling or just standing?

The beginning of a new university semester, along with the usual leftover exams from last semester (according to Austrian law you have four chances to sit a lecture exam, one at the end of the semester, one at the beginning of the following semester, one in the middle and one at the end, half a year after the first. It's your choice which one you pick, although the longer you wait the less you remember of the lecture and if you happen to fail one sitting, you can always re-sit the exam - provided you didn't fail the fourth sitting). That was quite stressful and kept me from working at the house.

Last weekend was dedicated to the renovation again but not much was done. First I tried the chemical paint stripper on the bedroom door. My verdict: never again! The manufacturer/distributor didn't bother to provide a proper MSDS sheet so I was left to guesswork, but my dad, who studied chemistry, said the stripper is probably ethyl acetate based. Not very toxic, but incredibly smelly and it can make you slightly dizzy.
Worst of all it didn't work. Not too well at least. The first side of the door was covered with stripper and then cleaned up with a scraper one hour later. The very top coat bubbled up nicely and prevented the solvent from reaching all the others! It was possible to remove the top coats of white modern oil paint with some (considerable) effort but the original grey linseed oil paint just laughed at me. Fair enough, at least it's smooth enough to paint over.

The second side was even worse. This time I covered the stripper with a polythene sheet and let it sit for almost four hours, hoping the paint would soften more. Ha! This side had three layers instead of two, the top coat(s) of white oil paint, an unknown yellowish layer and the grey linseed oil paint. The white separated, as before, the yellow gummed up and turned incredibly sticky and the grey didn't budge, not even in spots where the other layers had chipped off and I applied the stripper directly to the linseed oil paint. It took hours with a scraper, steel wool and paint thinner to get most of that crap off. That leaves sanding, some filling and painting.

I also fixed the attic door. Apparently some time after installation the door expanded and popped off the casing with the strike plate. I completely removed that, removed some plaster so I could move it slightly outwards and then nailed it back into place at a slightly different angle, moving the bottom away from the door by a few millimetres while keeping the mitred joint at the top more or less tight. While doing that I discovered that the door had an incredibly thick layer of paint and wood filler in spots (I swear, some of it was several millimetres thick!) that prevented it from closing properly. So I grabbed the heatgun and removed some of that. Turns out the door was originally shellaced and cleans up rather nicely! I ended up stripping half of it in just a few hours. I'd love to take it back to exposed wood but we'll see how that goes. There are three doors in that section of the hall, one was simply painted over the original shellac (perfect for stripping), one had the shellac mostly removed but enough left for easy paint removal and the third, unfortunately, has always been painted. Maybe I'll just repaint that a dark brown to match the other two doors as closely as possible.

No pictures unfortunately, as I was in quite a hurry.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Crawling Along

We're still working on the house but completion doesn't seem to be any closer. We've arrived at the stage of a thousand tiny little things, at least as far as the rear section of the house is concerned.

Here's what happened so far:

The bathroom floor is grouted. We used black grout and it was super-messy!
Getting all the black stuff off my fingers took TWO weeks! The floor is done except for the silicone along the walls.

We also did a lot of time consuming wood repairs. Thankfully one of my brothers actually had to do some basic carpentry practice at the university so he knew what he was doing to some extent. Our selection of tools is a bit limited. The table saw is an Aldi special from the late 90s and while I've used it to install over 800 sq. ft. of solid oak herringbone it definitely lacks features (fixed cutting depth) and precision. Our B&D handheld router was on clearance "as is", i.e. with a worn bit stuck in it and without any accessories. We do have a set of decent chisels and a Japanese saw that makes very smooth and straight cuts. This was used for cutting the tenons.

 Originally the door was assembled without any glue, only wedged mortice and tenon joints. I'd have liked to keep it that way but since we had to cut off one of the stiles right at the tenon we needed to use some glue. Since no one keeps 2 m C-clamps at home we used a few ratchet straps to pull the glue joints together. The work would have been a bit easier with quality lumber but we wanted to make do with what we had at hand and that was scaffolding planks - awful stuff for finish work! We had to use them for the door frames because they're essentially the only kind of 5 cm thick lumber wider than 8 cm (i.e. larger than a 2x3, 2-bys aren't standard in Europe except 2x3) and had some leftovers we used for the door repair. 2x3s would have done the trick but those we had were even worse. Here's the almost finished product minus cutting the tenon to size in the rabbet and sanding down the patch a bit with the belt sander. For some reason we cut the patch too short so we had to add onto the other side as well. The last patch was further up the door were a huge knot (3 cm in diametre or so) had fallen out during paint stripping.

Then we cut the casings to size, nailed them to the frame and I could hang the door, a first for me. As the door has a rabbet you can't simply screw hinges to the jamb. The modern solution is a screw-in hinge - essentially a 6 mm machine screw drilled into the wood. You can probably imagine the equation wood + machine screw + heavy door = trouble. Those hinges twist under the weight of the door or even rip out. The result is far too often a door that scrapes across the floor. Besides, compared to the old large hinges the modern ones look pathetic.

That's why I insisted on using traditional hinges. As you can see these are a bit more tricky to install as you need a long and very narrow (1.5 or 2 mm) pocket in the frame.

This pocket is made using a special chisel that is half chisel half rasp. Since these hinges are far more labour-intensive to install they fell out of favour in general construction in the 1960s and today only few carpenters still know how to work with the old type and have the tools. We did find a carpenter who hung two doors for us but he refused to do the bathroom and WC doors because he was afraid the frames would fall out of the wall. Long story short, after much hemming and hawing I bought a 2 mm chisel on eBay for little more than a cheap lunch and tried my hand at hanging doors. The first one was relatively smooth although I hammered the hinges a bit too far into the wood. That was easy to compensate by bending the hinges on the door.

The bathroom door was more problematic. If you look at the drawing in the second link above you'll see that the actual hinge is rather far from the opening on the left-hand side. Since we had mis-measured we widened the rabbet on the frame and that moved the hinges even further left. That means I ended up morticing the hinges into the wall instead of the door frame... which means we have to open the wall from the other side, double up the frame and replaster. *sigh* I also had to cut down the tiles so I could fit the door casings. First I tried a carbide file but that didn't work too well against the wall. Then I used a Multimaster knockoff with a carbide disc that had been sold to me as "good for tile". Needless to say that after roughly 60 cm of soft wall tile the disc was bare.
We already decided to rip out the kitchen door frame and widen it by 2 cm instead of playing this stupid game again.

I also discovered that every single door needs to have the paint stripped off. Some of the old paint jobs (or the prep underneath) are flat out horrible! One door has more than 5 mm globs of wood filler in the corners! It's a miracle the unknown painter didn't decide to fill in the panels completely to "modernise" the doors! Unfortunately more than half of our doors are from the same place and were painted by the same fool. Even worse, there are three coats of paint and the first two are crackled and chipping but in general rock-solid linseed oil paint. The heatgun doesn't do much but gum up the old paint. I bought a bottle of solvent-based stripper two years ago so I guess I'll give that a try. I just need to clear enough space and build some kind of large tub to catch the softened paint and stripper for disposal.

On the bright side the bathroom, rear hall, WC and small bedroom are whitewashed and look fairly finished!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Plumbing, Tile and Carpentry

As promised, here are a few pictures of the bathroom nearing completion!
The floor still isn't grouted because I managed to pick the wrong colour when I bought supplies on a surprise trip to Vienna (some friends had booked tickets for a tour to a never-opened nuclear power station back in February and I'd completely forgotten about it) so the floor is still on hold.
Before the plumber arrived the bathroom looked like this:

 On Thursday afternoon we bought a new drain assembly at a small hardware store just across the border because we didn't want to go the whole 50 km round trip to the nearest DIY store. It cost CSK 44 (less than €2) but it's half plastic so I'm not sure how long it'll last. Anyway, yesterday we finished the bathroom plumbing and now have a working sink - for the first time since 2009 I think.
Here's how the bathroom looks right now:

Yesterday I stripped all the door casings that had loose paint on it. I really don't like our new Black & Decker heatgun because it vibrates much more than the old house brand one we had before (the old one still works but it's in Vienna). My left hand still feels a bit numb from the work I did yesterday!

Once I was done with that I went on to repair a cracked door panel. The WC door is in somewhat sorry state. We found it leaning against a wall in a rather damp cellar so the bottom is quite badly rotted. The lock was frozen solid so I disassembled, cleaned and greased it. Also there were a few dozen coats of paint, some lifting and chipping from the damp. The bottom panel had a 5 mm crack running top to bottom ( a hide glue joint that separated long ago I think). Last year I watched a carpenter repair a door panel and used his technique. First I screwed blocks of scrap wood to the door on each side of the crack. Then I squeezed some glue into the gap (careful not to get any into the groove the panel sits in, the panel itself is supposed to move freely as the wood expands and contracts!) and clamped the wood scraps together.

When I tried cut and install the door casings I ran into a problem. We (and I think that means I) apparently made a systematic error sizing the frames for the salvaged doors. I'm not 100% sure what happened back then but I suspect I only measured the width of the door, neglecting the fact that there has to be a small gap between the door and casings so the door can move. On the existing doors that's between 4 and 5 mm on each side, so our frames are 8 to 10 mm too narrow. *ugh*

We decided to move the casings out by 2 mm on each side creating a wider rabbet on the frame and shaving 2 mm off the door on each side. That gets us the desired 4 mm gap. The only problem is that we need to deepen the mortice for the lock. That's what we're going to try today.
We can't hang the doors yet because the old-style hinges require a special chisel that can cut very thin grooves (1 to 2 mm) in a solid block of wood, sort of half rasp half chisel. These hinges are not screwed to the jamb but actually set into a pocket in the jamb and then secured driving nails through both the jamb and the hinge. The good thing is unless the jamb cracks these hinges are NEVER going to come back out. The bad thing is you need proper tools and it's not that easy. Our carpenter does have the tool but he's chicken that the aerated concrete block walls will tumble when he installs the hinges. Now I'm looking at one of those chisels on eBay. There's an Amazon seller who has two for €24 but he doesn't specify the thickness, which is pretty ridiculous since length and width really don't matter in this case. A woodworking online store sells them for €54(!) each! That's a whole lot more than I'm willing to spend for two doors!

Installing the sockets didn't go smoothly either. You're supposed to set the boxes flush with the wall and then tile up to the box so the socket itself is in fact installed on the tile. The holes are a bit off-set in this case and the old (1960s) sockets I wanted to use are designed to be installed flush with the box. With the tile beween socket and box the metal claws that can be used to hold the socket in place collide with the plastic bits of the box that hold the mountin screws (a continental European socket can be installed either using claws that spread against the walls of the box or using sheet metal screws on either side). Since the hole is a bit off I can't use screws (one screw hole is covered over) and the claws hit the box. I'll have to try to cut the tile back a bit or use modern sockets.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bathroom Progress

I arrived late on Sunday and set to work on Monday (not that early either). Tiling the floor turned out to be more problematic than we'd expected because the tiles are so incredibly hard!

I'm not sure if I've mentioned that before but the idea was to do everything without power tools, except for drilling a few holes. We had a tile cutter, carbide saw, carbide file and tile nippers. These tools worked like a charm for the wall tiles but not so much for the harder floor tiles. In fact after the first cut the carbide saw didn't really cut any more. We managed to cut the first tile around the floor drain taking turns with the saw (I think the two 5-cm cuts took more than half an hour) but the second one broke at the very end. My dad decided to superglue it back together instead of recutting it, I only hope that won't cut any toes. At that point we'd happily have used the angle grinder but unfortunately it seems to be in Vienna. Around 10 PM the floor was still 9 tiles short, two of which needed deep (10 cm) cutouts for the radiator pipes. I also ran out of thinset and motivation so I called it a day.

On Tuesday I started by scraping any excess thinset from the wall tile joints, which took a few hours as well. Then we went to the DIY store because we had to buy fixtures and black flexible grout for the floor. We didn't get any grout because two DIY stores only had non-flexible black grout and we're worried about cracking since the tiles are installed on EPS board. We did grab a super-cheap angle grinder (€29.90) and a tile cutting blade (set of three for €5.99, a single one would have been 26.99).
Back home I started grouting the walls and when I ran out of motivation after 1 1/2 walls finished the floor.

Yesterday I finished grouting the walls and we did a lot of cleanup in preparation for the plumber to come today and install the sinks, taps etc. Once that was done I stripped some door casings so we can get the bathroom close to finished. We have a huge pile of casings but most of them are lonely individuals and it's hard to find enough for a door. The first set I stripped was originally finished with shellac and came out really nicely so it seemed like a crime to paint it. The bathroom door was originally painted so I needed more casings.

After a lot of searching I found two matching upright pieces but no top piece and no other matching pieces I could shorten. Nothing. The second round of searching yielded the remains of one long piece - cut in half lengthwise by our beloved carpenter. You really can't let him work without constant supervision! Late at night I finally found another matching piece but two out of the three pieces have various strike plates that need to be removed, the damaged wood cut out and patched.

Today the plumber arrived at 10 and I helped him install everything. The bath taps went in flawlessly, as did the washing machine tap and trap cover. Then I installed the small WC sink while the plumber did the bathroom sink. He quickly discovered that we'd bought the wrong type of drain assembly! We'd thought we'd use the type that uses a lever to operate the plug but in fact the mixer taps we bought don't have that lever (I think it's actually designed for a kitchen sink) so we need a drain for a rubber plug. Other than that the bathroom is now in working condition! The WC sink made a bit of trouble as well. Long ago when I did the drains I must have mis-measured somehow so the drain was far too close to the floor. We ended up using the longest trap pipe we could find and a 10 cm extension on top of that. Looks a bit weird but functional. I only hope no one ever bumps into that contraption.

So where are we?
The bathroom floor needs to be grouted, all the corners need a few miles of silicone, the doors have to be hung and painted, the walls have to be painted and I still have to install sockets in the bathroom (yup, we can have that here provided they're at least 60 cm from the shower or bath).

Pictures to follow soon!

Saturday, June 14, 2014


I promised a more detailed update on what little work we did over the last 2 years and here it is.

We're mostly done tiling the small WC and the larger bathroom but not quite there yet. I'd have loved to do a real vintage-style tile design but this is a family job and my parents own the house, so they had a substantial say in this. In the end after lengthy discussions we agreed on plan white 8x8 (20x20 cm) tiles with black skirting (base trim) and border. Shopping for tile was an experience in itself since this plan was absolutely against current fashion trends. First we went to a small tile and construction supplies store. Most of the tiles the elderly owner showed us were huge (up to 12x24 or 30x60 cm) and beige-y or grey. I said we didn't want beige or grey tiles because they didn't look too good with our existing wood ceiling. To which he replied: "You have to lower the ceiling and plasterboard it anyway! For the recessed lights!" (he used the pseudo-English word "Spots" and pronounced it "Shpotts", which sounds like Spott, German for ridicule). At that point I was ready to ignore all his advice.

Off we went to the next store. They had a small selection of smaller white and solid-coloured tiles and we eventually agreed on the cheapest. This manufacturer didn't offer border tiles and we thought we could avoid ordering Villeroy & Boch borders by cutting our own.

For the floor we chose black and white tiles from the same manufacturer for a chequered pattern (and mentioned this plan to the sales girl). This bit of info will become important later. Order time was 4-6 weeks so we had some time for other stuff. The two rooms are small (the bathroom is 2.35x1.85 m or slightly over 8x6' and the WC is only 0.9x1.2 m or 3x4') and we didn't tile up to the ceiling but we still had a lot of tile boxes. Heavy boxes! I can't remember the weight but I think we essentially maxed out my parents' trusty old Mitsubishi van since we also loaded about 150 kg of thinset and 50 kg of self-leveling floor leveler.

Tiling was a rather time-consuming process, especially the small bits and pieces. The large sections of wall that mostly use whole tiles go reasonably fast and then when it comes to cutting every single tile progress slows to snail's pace. I'm not awfully fond of tiling either but at least I'm getting better at it. My first tile job far back in 2002 definitely sucked!
We did the whole job almost without power tools, except for a drill with masonry bit. Our tools were a traditional tile cutter (first we borrowed one from a friend's mom, then I bought a used one for 5 Euros and finally we broke down and bought a new one for 65 Euros), a carbide file, tile nippers and a large tile saw (looks like a giant coping saw). For the softer wall tiles these tools are rather easy to use but for the hard floor tiles the file was essentially useless and the saw was hard on the arms as well. On the other hand the hand saw allows for rather intricate cuts that just aren't possible using a wet tile saw or angle grinder. Electric tile saws are great for some kinds of tile (I once had to lay large rock-hard floor tiles with a surface scored to look like small brick with wide joints and those were impossible to cut without a wet tile saw) but generally I like an old-fashioned tile cutter better. It doesn't make much noise, it's a lot less dangerous and it doesn't make a mess since the tiles are scored and broken rather than cut.

Since I didn't exactly trust the floor to be level I started one course above the floor and nailed small strips of wood to the walls as guides. Some things I learned the hard way about this method:
- Don't use dabs of thinset in addition to nails unless you're sure you can take down the guide strips again within a few hours
- Make absolutely sure you put these strips up level
- Make absolutely sure to put these strips up at the correct height!

I didn't and so we ended up having lower skirtings in the bathroom.

I also calculated the number of tiles I'd need for each wall and if I'd have ended up with a very narrow strip on one side I'd start with half tiles instead of whole ones. That way you have half a tile on one side and slightly more than half on the other instead of a whole one on one side and a narrow strip on the other. Things you learn on the web and from watching tile layers!

Cutting the trim pieces was more of a challenge than we'd expected. The borrowed tile cutter wasn't awfully precise and our first own one even less so. In the end our trim pieces varied in height by up to 1 mm, which is noticeable if you have 2.5 mm joints. Nobody's perfect...

The old window was rotted beyond repair and one casement was already a non-matching replacement so we decided to replace the whole window. We definitely didn't care for a repeat performance with Mr. D who bodgered our other two new windows so we looked into other options. A local carpenter never bothered to actually make an offer so we decided he probably wasn't interested. In the end we decided on a "long-term temporary" compromise. Unlike most traditional Austrian windows (that are actually two sets of windows in a common frame in order to increase insulation) this was actually two windows in one opening, each with its own frame. Therefore we decided to leave the outer window in place for looks and replace the inner set of casements with an undivided double-glazed casement. Doesn't look good but cost about 1/3 of a proper wooden replacement window (i.e. a set of two true-divided light casements). Waiting for the window to be delivered and installed (8 weeks order time) slowed down our progress considerably.

Once we opened the first boxes of floor tiles we knew we were in BIG trouble. Instead of being the same size, the black tiles were several mm smaller than the white ones in both directions! We immediately called the store and complained, only to be told: "You want to mix different colours? You mustn't do that! You always have to check with the manufacturer if that's possible before ordering! Variations of up to 5% are perfectly acceptable!". Continental European customer service at its finest, customers begging for the mercy of being granted the honour of buying something. We did bother to mention that a) we HAD in fact mentioned that we intended to mix and b) the differency considerably exceeded 5% but at that time we didn't really want to return all the tile to Vienna and start shopping and arguing from scratch again.

Instead we used creative spacing and made do with what we had. That worked, although with the unfortunate side effect that the white grout really emphasises the size difference. I guess we'll have to live with it. My parents suggested black grout for the bathroom but I think that'll get dirty rather quickly.

The floor itself is interesting as well. The base is a thin concrete slab. On top of that we put down pink foam board with a fibreglass mesh and cement coat. This type of insulation is specifically designed as a tiling substrate. It's laid in thinset using a notched trowel and that's one of its core weaknesses. There are always some air bubbles below the foam board and in those spots any object falling on the finished tile floor makes weird hollow noises. And there are quite a few of those spots! Another issue is the amount of flex in the foam board. In order to prevent the tile floor from cracking we used flexible modified thinset and flexible grout. Furthermore, we put down plastic mesh before applying the thinset. In the WC I only covered the seams, in the bathroom I simply put down mesh everywhere.

Anyway, that's where we are now: