I’m not a carpenter, but I my interest in DIY started when I began remodeling my house.  I’ve learned a lot along the way and want to share the tricks I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made with framing, hanging and finishing drywall, finishing, and other topics.

Cutting in Corners with a Paint Brush

Cutting in corners: it’s a term that means painting one side of a sharp corner without painting the other.

There are many ways to cut in corners when you’re painting a room. During my remodel I tried several specialty tools that claim to make the task dummy proof. In the end I found that none of those gimmicks and gadgets were superior to familiarizing myself with an angled paintbrush and learning to cut in corners the old-fashioned way.

Cutting in corners with an angled paintbrush isn’t a skill I can really explain in words or even in still pictures. You really need to see it happen to understand just how simple it actually is. So watch the video that I’ve provided.

The key is in the angle of attack and paying attention to the feedback the brush will give you. I’m sure that sounds like some straight up Mr. Miyagi jibberish, but you’ll understand the moment you hold the brush to a corner and feel what I mean. Present the brush to the corner with the longer end to the back of the stroke and the shorter bristles at the front. Hold the brush at an angle that pushes the bristles at the top of the brush into the corner and the bristles at the bottom of the brush into the surface that’s being painted. Then slowly pull the brush toward you.

Remember: you only want the bristles making contact on the side of the corner you intend to paint. If your paint line begins to stray to the other side then stop and adjust your angle.

Cutting in a ceiling is pretty difficult, so paint the ceiling first and then cut in the walls that butt against it.

Try the motions without paint on the brush a few times just to get comfortable.  You’re going to make mistakes at first. That’s fine. Just keep a damp cloth handy to wipe up the mistake before it dries. Before you know it you’ll be cutting in corners like a pro!

A splice of NM cable made outside of a junction box.

Electrical Code Violations: Where’s Waldo of Bad Wiring

 

Can you spot even more electrical code violations in this video?

Back in the 1980’s my 1860’s two-story home was retrofitted into a dental office.  The walls and ceilings were originally finished with plaster and lathe, but during the remodel some of them were covered with ½” drywall and some were just covered in wallpaper.  The ceilings seemed to have gone through two changes: at some point they cut into the plaster to run wiring and then covered everything with ½” drywall.  At some point later they ran more wiring, and simply hid everything with a drop ceiling.

I removed the drop ceiling ages ago and at least the wiring it hid was accessible, but when I removed the drywall and plaster and lathe it exposed a whole host of dangerous electrical code violations. Let’s take a look.

Electrical Code Violation 1: Splices Outside of a Junction Box

An electrical code violation found in my ceiling. The image shows a Romex cable splice outside of a juncton box.

This splice violates the National Electric Code by being made outside of a junction box.

Here’s the first problem:  someone made a splice outside of a junction box. The problem should be obvious: if a short occurs or the splice fails, there’s nothing between your hot wire and a bunch of combustible material like the dried-up lathe covering the walls and ceiling, and the corn cobs stuffed in the ceilings by rodents over the last 150 years.  Yeah, that’s totally a thing here.

Now this isn’t just good practice, it’s in the National Electrical Code, specifically code 300.15 which states that all spices in nonmetallic sheathed cable (the type you use for most household wiring) must be installed in a junction box.

 

Electrical Code Violation  2: Hidden Junction Boxes

This image shows a hidden junction box in my ceiling. It's an electrical code violation because the splices are hidden away and can't be accessed for maintenance.

This junction box violated code because it was hidden inside the ceiling and made inaccessible for maintenance.

The second problem that I discovered was that, above the drywall and plaster and lathe, there were a metric crap-ton of hidden junction boxes. You might not consider that a problem.  After all the splice is protected, so why get your panties in a bind over it?

A hidden junction box isn’t as much a safety concern as it is a maintenance problem.  Sometimes splices fail, and when they do, would you prefer the splice to be accessible, or would you prefer it to be hidden under drywall that needs to be cut, replaced, and refinished in order to make what should have been a simple, cheap, and fast repair? How about 10 years down the road when you don’t remember putting that junction box up there in the first place? The hidden junction box is an electrical code violation because it turns a cheap and obvious repair into a major issue.

The plethora of hidden junctions have already bit me in the butt numerous times in this house.  I’m not the one who installed them so locating them often required following wires out of the panel and into either the itchy, insulated space of the eaves, or into the claustrophobic, creepy crawlspace. I’ve spent entire days tracing wires in my house because someone took a shortcut 20 years ago.

Once again this in the National Electric Code, code 300.15.A if you’re curious.

Electrical Code Violation 3: Knob and Tube Wiring Cut Off and Live in the Ceiling

This image shows an electrical code violation I found in my ceiling. Not only was this knob and tube wiring junction not in a junction box, it was cut off and left live in my ceiling.

This Knob and Tube wiring was fine, until they cut it off and left it live in the ceiling.

And then there’s this.  This is some old knob-and-tube wiring. Now this isn’t a problem just because I found it.  Knob and tube gets a bad rap not because it’s inherently unsafe, but because it can break down with age, and because of the way it can interact poorly with modern upgrades to the home.  For example code 394.12 states that it can’t come into contact with insulation because it creates a fire hazard, but plenty have people have retrofitted with blown insulation without much regard to what might be within the wall or ceiling.

But as I said the problem here isn’t the mere existence of knob and tube.  It’s the fact that it was cut off and left live in my ceiling.  How this place never burned to the ground is beyond me. This single find illustrates a number of electrical code violations in a single junction!

Gary Katz Introduces the Festool CT Wings

When you’re working solo on a construction or remodeling project you’re bound to run into situations that would benefit from a second set of hands.  This problem has probably existed since the day the first cave woman hinted that the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling would look better a little to the left and then left her mate handle the details. But where evolution of the species has failed to provide an additional go-go-gadget appendage, German engineering has succeeded.

Gary Katz over at This is Carpentry just introduced the world to the Festool CT Wing, an add-on to the Festool CT Dust Extractor which uses the airflow to suction the Wing to the wall, giving you a horizontal surface on which to rest work while you secure it from the other side. I’m not sure if the Wing will be specific to the Festool CT or if it can be used with other dust extractors, but I do know I’ve killed numerous Shop-Vacs by blocking up the air-flow for prolonged periods.  If I get an answer to this question I’ll be sure to post it.

 

Here's the brush I started with. It's hard as a rock.

Cheapskate’s Guide to Reviving a Dead Paintbrush

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Good paintbrushes ain’t cheap, which is why you should wash them right when you’re finished using them.  But every once in a while laziness makes fools of us all, and we find ourselves with a good brush gone bad. This is the process that I use to bring a brush back from the dead.

1. Soak a Stiff Brush in Boiling Vinegar

If your brush is encased in dried paint or stain, never fear! You can use good old-fashioned white vinegar to loosen it up. You’ll probably be doing this in your kitchen, so make sure you have a fan in a window of otherwise ventilate your space as well as you can.

It’s probably best if you find an old pot or pan that you don’t plan on cooking in again since you’ll be removing some pretty nasty chemicals form your brushes.  Fill the pain with an inch or so of white vinegar and bring it to a boil.  Let the brush soak until it begins to loosen up, then begin to swish it until the dried material loosens up.  Eventually the bulk of gunk on your brush will flake off. Once the bristles of your brush bend freely in the pan, you’re done with this step.

2. Scrub with Wire Brush or Painter’s Comb

Now that your bristles are soft enough, begin scrubbing the brushes with a wire brush or painter’s comb parallel to the bristles. When there’s no chunky residue left, you’re finished with this step.

3. Soak in Brush Cleaner

Make sure you use some common sense and wear goggles and gloves when handling these cheminals. Put enough brush cleaner in a mason jar or metal bucket to submerge the bristles but not the metal band. Let it soak for a few minutes, then gently begin swishing the bristles so the liquid can soak in between them.  Eventually the bristles will regain the flexibility they had when the brush was new.

4. Comb the Brush

In a sink under warm water, use a painter’s comb to remove any remaining material from the bristles.  Make sure to get deep into the center of the brush.  The bristles will eventually regain their flexibility and original color.  Make sure to take your time on this step so that you remaining crud dries in your clean brush and ruins your next finish.

5. Spin Out the Water

Companies make tools to do this, but I find that if I keep on the gloves from the last steps and rub my palms together with the handle of the brush between them, I can spin it fast enough to shake the bulk of the water out.

6. Wrap Brush and Let it Dry

Finally, wrap the brush with a sheet of printer paper or newspaper and tape it shut. As the bristles dry they’ll dry straight.

 

Open Wall, Insert Tub

Well I’ve been busy, and by busy I mean working feverishly to accomplish  in a week what it would take an actual carpenter a day to accomplish. The last time I wrote I was pulling up the sub floor under my future bathroom. So how’d that go you ask?

Removing the Subfloor

All right, so you didn’t really ask, but screw it, you’re here so I’m telling you anyway. Removing the subfloor was a breeze. A circular saw and a variety of pry bars makes quick work of it (if you’re  looking for help with yours, try this). After the subfloor was out I was able to venture into the veritable Shangri-La of fiberglass particulate and claustrophobia that is my crawlspace.

Crawlspace Adventures (or How I Learned to Hate my Cats)

Let’s get this out of the way now, and I can’t stress it enough:  cats and remodeling don’t fucking mix. There, I said it.  Before you start tearing your house apart I strongly suggest you take little Ms. Whiskersbiscuits  to a farm up north, and by farm up north I clearly mean glue factory. As soon as the gates were open to the magical caverns below my house, the cats insisted on being down there doing who knows what. But I digress.

I wanted access to the crawlspace from above because it’s too shallow for my barrel chested self to work in from below.  My first task was to remove some old wiring. This turned into an all day event when I found a wire just sort of hanging out down there and decided I needed to find out where it ended.

This wire had no juice, mind you, but I was terrified that somewhere along the way it was connected to a switch and I didn’t want a live wire hiding out down there just waiting to burn me and the dog down to cinders.  Two additional holes in my house later I found it connected into a junction box hidden in the crawlspace about 15 feet over on the other side of my house where I have no intention of demolishing anything for quite a while (and the crawlspace is actually too shallow to, you know, crawl).  Thanks to some ass hat hiding a junction box where they shouldn’t have, I was forced to bury my own.  At least the wire is protected now if it’s actually connected to a breaker.

The next item of business was plumbing.

Let’s Talk About PEX

Read it, bitches.


Well you see kids, when a man and a woman, another woman with a penis, a midget, and a donkey love each other very much

No no no, PEX!  I’m terrible at working with copper pipe, and with a better product on the market I found myself lacking the motivation to get any better.  PEX is a flexible polyethylene tubing that can be used in conjunction with copper or completely replace it.  Each fixture gets a direct run from a manifold, which distributes water in a way not unlike the way your breaker box distributes electricity to your appliances.

The upshot of using PEX is that it’s dead simple to install. The fittings are crimped onto the hose using metal rings, a special crimping tool, and a gauge for testing the fit.  The downfall is that it’s a little bit of an investment to get started. If you choose to go with an all PEX system, dem shits ain’t cheap.

Since I know next to nothing about plumbing I also decided to do a little light reading and picked up Creative Homeowner’s Plumbing: The Ultimate Guide.  It takes all the guesswork out of choosing supply line and drain sizes, and how to size and place drain vents.

Installing the Subfloor

After herding the cats out of the crawlspace I installed the new sub floor, and for added stability I installed an additional layer of 3/8″ plywood over it.  Nothing interesting to report here.

Roughing-in Shower

I picked up a single-unit bath/shower from my mom’s boss a few months ago.   I had to remove a door from the hallway to get it through the house but I think in the end it will be worth the effort.  Unfortunately it came with no measurements or instructions, but after locating the company’s phone number they were kind enough to email me everything I needed. Tonight I framed in two small walls that the shower will be fastened into.  The space it created is 33″ x 60″ and perfectly centered in the room.  On one side I’m going to create an access panel to make working with the plumbing a breeze in the future, and on the other side will be a small closet.

Finally ready to move in the shower and frame in the back wall.

Finally ready to move in the shower and frame in the back wall.

Removing Subfloor

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I’m writing this post as a guy that found a method that works for him, but not necessarily as a guy that knows the best way to approach the problem.  So if you have a better method to remove subfloor, by all means leave a comment!

Well I’m just about ready to run the plumbing in my new bathroom but I have a problem: the crawlspace below the bathroom is completely inaccessible thanks to a foundation wall on one side and a large heating duct on the other.  Add to that the fact that there are parts of the crawlspace where my ample derrière just wasn’t designed to fit without several months of a serious eating disorder.  (Next month: The Boring Homeowner Guy on How he Beat Bullemia!)

I opted to attack from above by removing the plywood subfloor.  This will also give me a chance to ensure that everything is level from the joists on up, something that’s never a guarantee in an old house like mine.

Tools

You’ll only need a few tools to tackle this job:

  • A circular saw with a ripping blade, preferably one you don’t particularly cherish.
  • A drill or impact driver and appropriate bits if your subfloor was installed with screws
  • A hammer
  • A small pry bar that you can handle with one hand (“15 inches is a good size,” said no woman ever)
  • A large ripping/wrecking bar

The Method

First things first: if there is any plumbing or wiring coming up in the sections of subfloor you plan to remove, deal with them now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Separate Sections of Subfloor

The basic approach is to cut the subfloor along the grooves between sheets.  Most plywood and OSB subflooring is tongue and groove, which means that one edge has an open gap through it’s center, and the opposite edge has a protrusion that fits directly into it.  This provides additional stability, eliminates air infiltration, and allows expansion and contraction of the subfloor as a single unit. It also means that if you skip this step, you’re an idiot.

As I said above, don’t buy a brand new saw blade for this task, and don’t think it’s not going to be a little bit duller after the fact.  Your chances of hitting a nail are two are pretty good.

Pry Up Individual Sections

Depending on the method used to install your subfloor this step could be a breeze or it could be slightly less serious than El Nino.  If you’re lucky your subfloor was installed with screws, in which case you can reverse the bulk of them out and lift the subfloor out with little effort.  If your subfloor was nailed, this is the method that I found worked best for me.

Using your hammer and small pry bar lift up a corner enough so that your larger prybar will fit under it.  Rock the prybar in progressively larger motions so that your subfloor doesn’t crack, but you should start to hear nails pop.  As nails begin to pop  remove them with the hammer or small prybar.  Work your way around the sheet in this fashion.  Eventually the sheet will have enough flexibility that you can grab ahold of an edge by hand and rock it up and down to pop the nails even more quickly.  Using this method it took me about ten minutes to remove a sheet, and it was still in decent enough shape to use for something else later.

The Best Thing About Remodeling A House Is…

Totally not up to code! Also totally not actually dropping a deuce in the hallway.

Totally not up to code! Also totally not actually dropping a deuce in the hallway.

… you can put a toilet anywhere you want!

Last night some friends got super-excited when I told them I bought a toilet that has different buttons for #1 and #2. We decided we need to have a pooh party to test this contraption out, but I decided to run some very scientific tests on it beforehand as you can see.

Okay, I’m not really dropping a deuce in the hallway. And for the record, I’m actually clothed behind that newspaper!

The Bookshelf

Finally… it’s kind of finished.

After a month of screwing around aside from some trim my bookshelf is completed.  The top, sides, and vertical partitions are made of oak-veneers plywood with stop-dados rounded in for the shelving.  The shelves are oak-veneered plywood with a solid oak nosing that I attached using a reversible glue bit joint created on my router and a bunch of wood glue.  The stain is red oak with a spar urethane finish over everything and it’s glued and brad nailed together.

Overall I’m really pleased considering this is my first major woodworking undertaking.  A couple of things that I learned in the process.

  1. When you’re making a built-in, spend extra time getting everything square and level, and then spend some more time getting everything square and level.  The framework of the bookshelf itself is pretty good, but the backing (which is 1/4″ oak-veneered plywood) is on a wall that angles in about an inch from top to bottom.  So most shelves are not tight against the back of the unit.  Not cool at all.
  2. Reversible glue joint bits are a bitch to setup, but awesome after you have them figured out.
  3. Wear a hag or hankerchief over your head when you’re staining.  The first set of shelves that I stained are “spotted” with areas where I sweated and the stain didn’t take quite the same way that it did on the rest of the material.
  4. Apply wood glue with a small brush, only use as much as you need to, and clean up squeeze out as well as you possibly can! That crap really shows up after you stain!

The Busy Homeowner Guy, Part 1 Revisited

Pretty much the same lamp I bought.

In my last post I forgot the post important drywall finishing tip of all: use a halogen lamp to locate imperfections! Without a good light source to shine on the subject, you might as well call Hellen Keller General Contracting to finish your drywall for you.  Pick up a halogen lamp, the brighter the better, and shine it at all angles on your walls and ceiling to spot imperfections that you’ll never see what the naked eye.  Well… until there is paint on your wall and they’re significantly more annoying to fix.

The Busy Homeowner Guy, Part 1

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Holy crap have I been busy.

Last we talked I recalled the tale of a vicious beating I took at the hands of a 12 foot sheet of drywall that fell off the lift I neglected to understand prior to use.  Since then I’ve gotten a lot accomplished and I’ll be posting my progress over the next several days as I recover from a pulled muscle in my lower back and get absolutely nothing of a physical nature accomplished.

Hanging the Drywall in my Office

During the remodel of my bedroom I learned a couple of things that I took into account when prepping for the office remodel:

  1. The more you glue the less you screw, and that makes finishing your drywall that much quicker.Use LIQUID NAILS or another construction adhesive on the back of your sheets and then stare in amazement as they hang with excellent stability with three or four screws per row instead of 5 or more.
  2. Plan for the least number of joints, especially butt joints. Think about your room dimensions ahead of time and order drywall lengths and widths that will minimize the number of joints you need to finish and, ideally, will eliminate butt joints completely.
  3. If your house is old or otherwise horribly studded, use 2×4 scabs and furring strips to square up your room and simplify hanging. My house is more than 150 years old and nothing is square so this step is pretty important for good results.

During the hanging and finishing in the office I learned a few more lessons, some the hard way:

  1. I’m not so sure about collared Phillips Bits anymore. Though it worked fine on my first room I ended up having to go over about 50% of the screws in my office and sink them just below the paper. I’m not sure if this was user error or the fault of the bit, so the verdict is still out.
  2. Get a Drywall Pole Sander. A combination of a pole sander with a fine grit paper and a foam sanding block made quick work of the sanding.
  3. Do a level 5 finish (skim coat). After I finished sanding I watered down my remaining compound to the consistency of pancake batter and applied it with a paint roller. After it dried I gave it a very light sanding. I can’t find a single imperfection in my walls or ceiling (here’s a video showing how). Three coats and a sanding are probablygood enough, but a skim coat definitely gives your drywall a professional feel.