"I love my cats because I love my home, and little by little they become its visible soul." Jean Couteau

Monday, July 15, 2013

my first adventure in tiling

This past weekend was busy with my company's picnic on Saturday and errands and being lazy on Sunday, so here's an old project to fill the time. I think this is the last project from before I started this blog that I need to catch up on, so I guess now I have to keep up the momentum with lots of new stuff!

I'm messy when I cook, which means the wall behind the stove gets kind of gross. For quite awhile, I had wanted to do a tile backsplash, and when I had some time off between quitting my old job and starting my new one at the end of November, I decided that was the perfect time for tiling.

As usual, I did a lot of looking online and at Home Depot before deciding on tiles. I decided on small, black, glass tiles, then Zach and I went to The Tile Shop in Columbia. We debated between square and hexagon tiles. The square ones would be easier, requiring no cutting, but we both kind of liked the little bit different style of the hexagon ones (we also had a hexagon wedding cake, so I guess it's a thing with us). I wasn't planning to tile the entire wall, just the the couple of feet underneath the microwave, behind the stove. I bought some glass tile nippers for cutting the tiles to create a straight border around the four edges. Thanks to Zach for doing most of the tile cutting!

Before we nipped the tile, I cut out a piece of cardboard from some package we had gotten (Zach does A LOT of online ordering, so we get packages frequently) to be the size of the area to be tiled. Then I laid out the tile on the cardboard to figure out how it would fit. The small hex tiles were connected on mesh backing, so I laid out the pieces and cut them to fit together as necessary. That way we knew where the edges were going to be to know which tiles needed to be nipped. I kept the tile pieces on the cardboard until just before putting them on the wall, so I knew how they were supposed to go.

I had talked to my dad at Thanksgiving, since he's so handy and has done tile work before, to see if he had any tips. He recommended trying Bondera, which is a sort of sticky paper that replaces mastic for attaching the tile to the wall. My dad had never used it, but had heard it works, and it seemed like the perfect thing for such a little area. The great thing about the Bondera is that you hardly have to wait to do the grouting. With mastic, you usually have to wait at least 24 hours before you can grout. Home Depot didn't have Bondera, but they had a similar thing, called SimpleMat, so that's what I used. 

I had never grouted before, so I did what any good home improvement novice does these days -- I read about it online. First, you need the right tools, namely grout, a grout float, and a grout sponge. I got a small rubber grout float. I didn't get a special grout sponge, but just used a clean, new, regular sponge that I already had. Then came the question of sanded vs unsanded grout. The info I found said to use sanded grout if your grout lines (the space between tiles) is bigger than 1/8"; otherwise, use unsanded grout. Since my grout lines were small, I used unsanded grout. I got a small container of pre-mixed, unsanded grout at home depot. I picked a medium gray color because I thought white would be too much contrast with the black tiles. I also got some caulk to run between the tile and counter, tile and bottom of microwave/fan, and along the two sides, just to give it a more even edge look.

Once I had all my tools, it was time to get started. First, I measured my area, cut the SimpleMat in pieces to fit, pealed the film off one side, and stuck it to the wall. Easy!

Next I pealed the film off the other side of the SimpleMat, grabbed my cardboard piece holding the tiles and, piece by piece, stuck the tiles to the SimpleMat. Easy again!

Now things got a little more difficult, but mostly because it's hard to get any easier than the first two steps. I read tips online about how to mush the grout on and then put the grout float at an almost 90-degree angle to wipe off the excess grout. There will still be grout on the tiles. Let the grout start to dry for a few minutes, then clean off the grout with a sponge by wiping in a circular motion. There will still be a thin film of grout on the tiles. Let the grout dry all the way, according the instructions on the container, then clean off the film with a damp rag, then buff over it with a dry rag.

Thin film of after grouting

Next came the hardest part -- caulking. Again, I had never used a caulk gun before and didn't really know what it was all about. The key, which I learned by trial and error, is to turn the metal piece at the end clockwise to get the caulk squeezing out and counterclockwise to stop the flow of caulk. When you stop squeezing the caulk gun trigger, caulk will continue to slowly ooze out until you unscrew the metal piece a bit. Try to move the gun along smoothly to avoid getting globs of caulk. Use a wet finger to smooth the caulk. As you can see from the close-up photo below, I didn't do a super fantastic job getting nice even caulk lines, but when I tried to fix it, I seemed to make it worse, so I called this as good as it was going to get.


I sometimes wonder if I should have done the whole wall. I go back and forth on how I feel about it. But, at this point, it would be a lot of work to scrape up the caulk and rip out the tiles to redo it all the way, so we'll live with it this way for the foreseeable future. And it certainly doesn't look bad. I'm actually pretty pleased with my first foray into tile work.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

a present for dodger

At the top of the stairs on our main level, we have this weird little nook. We often stick boxes there when we get packages and are too lazy to put things away. When we do that, our cat, Dodger, likes to sit on them. So I decided to make him a little cat tree/perch to go there. Also, I decided to make it tall enough that Oliver can't jump up on it. Since he's super small, he can't jump as high as Dodger, so this will give Dodger one spot that's all his where his little brother can't come nudge him out.

For Christmas, my dad built us a cat tree for our living room. I thought they would like to have a cat tree there, but we didn't want a big carpeted monstrosity that is your standard cat tree or pay thousands of dollars for a fancy, non-ugly cat tree. So we found a few that we liked online (in the non-ugly, thousands of dollars or not available in the U.S.A. category) and asked my dad if he could make something like them. He said sure and quoted us out a couple hundred dollars for materials, which was totally acceptable to us given the alternatives. The one he modeled it after is only available in Japan and quite a bit smaller (I guess Japanese cats are smaller than American cats). Anyway, this is what we ended up with, and it's awesome:

So when I decided to make my mini tree, I wanted it to look similar to the big tree my dad had made. I used the dadand blog to get an idea of the basic materials (minus the sisal rope and carpet), mainly 2x4s, 2-inch wood screws, and plywood. I already had some plywood left over from other projects, and it was enough, so that was a win. I got an 8-ft 2x4, which I cut into four 24-in posts. 

I measured the weird nook space and cut my plywood. After I cut the first piece, I took it upstairs to test it out, to make sure I got it right. It fit perfectly at the 24-in height, but not at the base, as I hadn't taken into account the extra wall depth due to the baseboard. Luckily, I could easily adjust the piece I had to make it fit correctly. I brought up the 2x4 posts and stood them all up to make sure it all fit and looked good.

After cutting the plywood and 2x4, I primed all the pieces using some Kilz Original that I had left over from other projects. The paint I had gotten (Behr Interior Semi-gloss in Tilled Soil to match the big cat tree) claims to be self-priming, but I never really believe that. However, I didn't worry about doing multiple coats of primer, which was good since I had just enough for one coat of everything.

Next I had to get some moulding for the edges of the perches. I had looked when I had been at Home Depot getting the 2x4, but hadn't seen anything that looked like the picture on my phone of the big cat tree. So I called my dad, who said he had used door stop moulding. I looked it up online and found some that looked similar, so back to Home Depot I went. I picked one that I thought looked close and got 14 feet since I had measured that I would need 12 feet, and I wanted to have some extra for when we screwed up cutting it. Then I headed over to my friend's house to borrow his miter saw and nail gun. I didn't take any pictures, but it was an adventure. 

First, when we held up the moulding to the plywood, the moulding seemed a little too tall. I hadn't paid much attention to size, just sort of guessing at what looked right, and it turned out I had gotten 1 1/-in moulding, while the plywood was a 1/2-in thick, and we figured the carpet I'd be putting in would be about a 1/2-in thick also. This left the moulding 1/4-in too tall. This turned out to not be a big deal. We used the table saw to rip 1/4 in off the bottom of the moulding so it would fit perfectly.

Next, I'd never used a miter saw, but it's a little complicated having to figure out which direction your angle needs to go, and depending on which side of the jig you're cutting on, you have to account for the blade width so your pieces aren't too short. My friend tended to err on the side of cutting the pieces too long and then trimming super small amounts off until they fit right, which I think was a reasonable strategy. We ended up not having a lot of moulding left over, so getting some extra was also a good strategy. Then we used the nail gun to quickly put finishing nails in to attach the moulding to the plywood. Not quite two hours after we started our miter cutting, we had all the moulding nailed on and the perches were starting to look like, well, perches.

I took the pieces home and started painting. The moulding came already painted a somewhat glossy white, so I scuffed it up with sandpaper to enable the brown paint to stick better.

At this point, I realized that I had forgotten to get carpet tape when I had been at Home Depot earlier. I was kicking myself for having to make ANOTHER trip there, when I took a look at the carpet I had left over from the big cat tree and realized that it wouldn't be enough for the perches. So I was going to have to go back to Home Depot anyway, so forgetting the carpet tape wasn't that big of a deal. But by this point it was almost 5pm, and I decided that trip would wait until another day.

In my infinite wisdom, I got the same paint that my dad had used on the cat tree he had made for us. It sounds like a good idea, since I wanted it to match, but my dad had complained A LOT about how bad that paint was, and how it never seemed to really dry. So, of course, I ran into this as well. I decided to put a coat of polyacrylic on, to see if that would help seal in the tackiness. I did it just on the moulding, as a sort of trial, and it really did seem to help, so I put it everywhere else too. I actually had to do another coat of paint on the bottom of the perches before putting on the polyacrylic because the tacky paint had picked up so much dust that I couldn't adequately clean off! But then everything seemed dry and good-looking, so I moved on to assembly!

First, I attached the posts to the base with #8 2-inch wood screws. First I drilled big holes about half-way through the bottom of the plywood, then a smaller hole all the way through the board in the center of the big holes. This allows the screw to be counter-sunk, that is to sit down in the board instead of having the head stick out; that way everything stays nice and flush with the floor. Then I measured in on the 2x4 posts and drilled one hole in each of those and screwed them to the base. Once the posts were firmly attached with one screw, I drilled through the second hole that was already in the base and into the posts. This way, I didn't have to worry about my tendency to not measure super precisely and getting the holes misaligned.

After I had the posts attached to the base, I cut and attached the carpet for the base. I cut out areas around the posts, so the carpet would cover the whole base and used double-sided carpet tape to attach the carpet to the plywood. 

Now it was time to attach the top perch. At this point, I brought everything upstairs and put it in position. I had to evict Dodger from his box, but he stuck around to watch the rest of the assembly, which was surprising, since he usually runs away at loud noises like drills.

I wanted to put everything in position to make sure I got the top lined up correctly. I set the top on the posts and used the small drill bit to drill all the way through both the plywood and posts. Then I went back with the larger drill bit to counter-sink the screws. I screwed the top to the posts and cut and attached the carpet.

Dodger was a little uncertain at first, but after initially coaxing him up with treats, he decided this could be an acceptable replacement for his box. Oliver also thinks it could be a nice play to hang out.

I have to say, of all my projects so far, I think I'm most proud of this one. I think because my other projects involving building things out of wood have felt kind of hacked together. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to not be super precise in my measurements, and in sewing it's generally not a big deal if you're off by 1/16 of an inch, but in building structures that can really matter. So having this actually come out looking really good makes me pretty happy. And that Dodger seems to enjoy sitting on it makes it even better.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

hosta la vista, baby

The original goal for this post was to get it up for Father's day. However, I delayed in calling Miss Utility, so we couldn't get things planted as quickly as I had initially planned. But even if it's delayed, I still want to say happy Father's day to my dad, and thanks for all the plants and landscaping advice over the years!

A few weeks ago, Zach and I drove up to Michigan for a long weekend. The primary reason for the trip was to attend a retirement celebration for my mom. It was really great to be there and see Mom's many years of hard work acknowledged and praised. Being a fairly humble person, I think Mom was somewhat embarrassed by the amount of fuss that was made over her, but it was well deserved.

A side bonus of the trip was getting plants -- hostas, to be specific. A couple of weeks ago, I was mowing the grass, and decided that it would be easier to do that if the little spot in our backyard between the cement pad and side of the house was filled with plants. 

I have previously mentioned my dad's handiness here, but on top of that, he's also a fantastic landscaper/gardener. When he retired several years ago, one of the things he wanted to do was spend more time growing hostas and even set up a small business selling them locally. He now grows over 100 varieties of hostas in his home gardens! So, it only seemed fitting that I should finally get a few hostas in my own landscaping plan. Since hostas generally like shade, it had been infeasible to put them along the side of the house, which gets pretty much full sun all the time, but I thought that under the deck would be perfect. However, it turns out that there are now a few varieties that are OK with lots of sun, so we can put some in the full sun area at the end of the house.

Zach and I walked around Dad's extensive gardens, looking for hostas we liked. We finally decided on some larger, green hostas, called Honey Bells, for up against the wall, with some smaller, more yellow hostas, called Golden Scepter, for the front. For the full sun area, we picked one called Guacamole, which is light green with a darker green around the edges. Dad dug them up and put them in pots. When it was time to go, I got to use the 'tall' feature of my Honda Fit for the first time -- you can flip the back seats up to make more floor space, which was perfect for fitting nine hostas.

When we got home, I set all the pots out in the backyard to wait for the weekend, when we would have time to plant them. Dad said we could leave the hostas in their pots for a long time, as long as we kept them well-watered. With all the rain we've been having this week, that has not been a problem!

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, due to my forgetting to call Miss Utility in a timely manner, we couldn't plant the hostas the first weekend we were back. So, the next weekend, while I flew back to Michigan again for some more Mom-retirement-stuff, Zach dug the holes. As with our other landscaping project, digging the holes was not easy, due to large amounts of rocks in our 'soil.' Zach is a little afraid of anything to do with landscaping; I think he's afraid of messing things up and/or killing plants. So I got all the holes started before I left, so he's know where they were supposed to go, and told him that he only needed to dig the holes, not actually plant the hostas in the holes. 

Monday, after work, I went out back to plant the hostas and discovered that the rumors of deer in our neighborhood were true -- ALL the leaves had been eaten off the hostas! I know how much deer love hostas, so I'm sure it must have been them. I planted them anyway and emailed my dad, who told me to get some Deer Off to spray on them, which I did the next day. I was trying to figure out when the deer had gotten the hostas, so I asked Zach if they had been eaten when he was digging the holes. He said, 'You mean with all the leaves gone? I thought you did that!' I guess that's why I'm in charge of plants around here.

So now I just have to wait for the leaves to grow back, so my hostas look less sad than they do now: