Sunday, July 15, 2018

Front Stairway

Like many projects, the front steps started as a conspiracy between an idea, ample enthusiasm, and a general lack of common sense to hold one back.  How nice it would be, we thought, to have fancy-ish paved steps leading up the sloped lawn to our front door.

Not only would this add some appeal to our dreadfully uninteresting forescape, but it would keep those who supply of our neverending cavalcade of Amazon boxes--those that make it all the way to the front door at least--from hopping over the flower beds as they take a shortcut through the lawn and kicking rubber bark onto the sidewalk on their way out.

Of course there were doubts,... sometimes from me but mostly from other people.  That didn't stop the progress, but this was our biggest home project to date.  It took a very long time indeed, as interference from life and other inconveniences separated the intermittent pockets of project-ing across roughly 18 months of time.

As a first step, I drove some stakes into the ground where I figured steps should go and ran string to help visualize it.

I shoveled out the sod inbetween the lines with a pickaxe and shovel.  Too late to turn back now.

I continued to chop and dig out the rough steps by hand, loading the clods of clay-filled soil into wheelbarrows and dumping them in the backyard, where I disposed of them later. 

In this photo, I had dug out enough to start to visualize the steps up the roughly 40-inch rise, but I went deeper later to make room for a base rock layer.

This actually turned out to be one of the most labor intensive and dangerous tasks of the job.  The labor was carting off four truck-fulls of wet, heavy, soil to the landscape dump for recycling.  The danger was driving my Duran-Duran era truck to get there.

Once enough soil was removed, I made a lumber frame for the steps, and added rock and wire reinforcement.

Since I was doing this myself, a little flair was in order, so some bent bits were added to give each step a gentle curve, and cables were threaded though the forms for low-voltage lighting.

Concrete really is the ideal outdoor building material.  It's strong, durable, versatile, and costs next to nothing if you have the tools.

Like anyone else who needs to pour concrete, I borrowed my parent's cement mixer. 

This same mixer makes cameos in memories of my own childhood, so I felt lucky to pass on the experience to my own little monkeys.  It also felt nice to have the help, especially when the help came in the form of mocking and general silliness.

Once the concrete was poured into the forms and cured (in three separate stages)...

I was able to pull of the forms and get a good approximation of step-like objects.

At this point, however, I hadn't really figured out what to do to keep the sides from caving once the inevitable rain started to come down.  I knew I needed to reinforce it, but I wasn't sure what to use and considered many materials.

In the end, more concrete, wire mesh, and some rebar won out, so I added some forms and mixed up another batch.

Non-incidentally, reports of a length of rebar going through a sprinkler line around this time (necessitating some painful digging out and reconstructions) are, of course, fake news.

With the forms off, the steps really started looking legit. But bare concrete is kind of ugly, so the idea was to skin it with pavers and their ilk.

To minimize waste, I had sized the width of steps to match the repeating pattern in some large irregular-shaped pavers.  The front and back curves of each step also matched, so I could layout the pavers in a large slab and cut it like a jigsaw puzzle into separate adjoining pieces with no waste.

For this, I found a Harbor Freight brick saw invaluable cheap solution... as was my helper.

I laid out the pavers onto the steps, over sand and rock for the flat bits, and with thinset onto the steps themselves.

For the front edges of each step, charcoal bullnose pavers gave a nice contrast.  Each paver was cut down to size and fanned out, with colored mortar lovingly shoved in-between the cracks.

The cutoffs from each bullnose provided the front face of each step, and also housed a pair of LED lights for each step using the wiring embedded into the concrete beforehand.

I used polymeric sand to lock the pavers, and then sprayed on a medium gloss sealer.

To finish off the steps and cover up the remaining raw concrete, dark stacked stone was added to the sidewall faces and wall cap pavers mortared on top.

I completed these last steps relatively recently after many months off.  In the meantime, other projects intervened, including pillars and fencing across the entire front yard.  The front gate is visible here, as is a part of the stair landing that extends to the side for access to a mailbox embedded in one of the pillars.

And here is the result, with the steps completed.

Projects still to be done include extending the pavers over the swalkway area above and perhaps the driveway, but that is for another day.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Restoring the Ride (revisited!)

For the last few weeks, I've been totally obsessed with a new project, fixing, building, and revising the ghost of some of my past Maker failures at the same time.

I decided to update my aging Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, spiffing it up and reversing some of the ravages of time.  It's still a daily driver, so anything I could do to make it better would make my commute more enjoyable.

This is my car on the day I drove it home twenty years ago.  It has been my constant companion, having followed me through many happy times and countless life changes.

Yet, the years have resulted in a fair amount of wear and tear -- for both me and the car -- but at least for the car some of that can be undone with a little skill and significantly more effort.

I decided to give the Eclipse a full makeover both inside and out.  

For the interior, this included stripping it down and replacing the stanky carpet (top picture), cleaning up and touching up all the plastic surfaces, fixing and covering the upholstery, upgrading the gauges and lighting  (LEDs!), and cleanly rewiring the radio and all the accessories into a separate fuse box case I made on the laser cutter because I could.

For the engine bay, I got inspired by some online modding communities to do some largely unnecessary upgrades.  I cleaned everything up, replaced all the belts, upgraded the hoses with silicone and stainless steel, detailed some items, and upgraded the intake (little more pick-up, nice vroom-vroom sound!) just for fun.

The toughest challenge, however, was the exterior, specifically the hood and front bumper.  They were in poor shape, with cracking and chipping paint, making the Eclipse a 20/20 car -- it looked good only if you watched it going 20 miles per hour from 20 feet away.

The most painful part was that it was all my fault, and the latest example of three failed previous hood paint jobs:

Failure #1 (2004) - After touching up some chips, I clearcoated the hood with an underpowered compressor, resulting in a generally acceptable but slightly uneven clearcoat in sections.

Failure #2 (2008) - To cover up the uneveness, I repainted the hood with custom mixed paint, but decided to save money using inexpensive clearcoat from OReilly's.  It looked good at first but developed spider cracks after a few years.

Failure #3 (2012) - The spider cracks wouldn't make a good surface to paint on, so to avoid stripping the hood, I purchased a new aftermarket "primed" hood I found for sale on Amazon.  Since it was already "primed" I assumed I could just scuff it and paint it.  I also used extra materials to repaint and clearcoat the front bumper.  Neither surface was apparently prepped well enough though as they both started cracking and chipping after a few years.

So this is where I began try #4.

Since I still had the original factory hood around, I decide to strip it down and start from scratch, doing everything possible to help the paint stick.  This was a painful process that involved paint stripper and a lot of scraping and sanding with a dual-action sander (thanks Harbor Freight!).  Once all the old cracked clearcoat was gone, I wet-sanded it smooth.

The bumper got a similar treatment with sanding off of all ugly bits and really scuffing up the rest before wet sanding to smoothing it back out for primer and paint.

Ignore the hood in this pic.  It's actually the bad one and while it kind of looks OK in this picture, it looked horrible from any other angle.

With that done, both parts were ready for paint.  Time to put on my Breaking Bad costume.  Safety first.

First, I primed both parts using a two-part primer that you mixed together before spraying.  It was expensive, so surely it must be good and give maximum stickiness.  I used a $10 spray gun, also from Harbor Freight.

Then came the color coat.  Looks better already, just not shiny.

Now the all important clearcoat.  This time I used a pricey urethane clearcoat that, like the primer, comes in two parts that you mix together, which starts a countdown clock for you to apply it before it hardens by chemical reaction.  It's supposed to yield a super hard clearcoat, which I needed because I don't want to do this again...again.

Fingers are crossed.

Incidentally, I purchased all the paint materials together at 

It was getting dark by the time I did the bumper. Even the dark can't hide that shine though!.

The next day, everything was looking promising, but the hood had picked up some bubbles and specs of stuff while it dried.  I really should have sprayed it propped up.  Oh well.  Good to know for the fifth time.

There better not be a fifth time..

To smooth it out I ended up doing a WHOLE LOT of wet-sanding with successive grades of sandpaper (1000, 1500, 2500, 3000), then buffing with rubbing compound and polish.  The good news is that this got rid of any orange-peel like bumpiness in the paint at the same time.

This was a PITA.   I knew I needed to wet sand enough with each grit for the buffing to work, but was constantly afraid of accidentally sanding through to the color coat.  That would have force me to repaint everything again.  In the end, I had to go back a few times over the course of two afternoons of messing with it to re-sand everything before the hood would polish up well.

This is the result, with the hood swapped back onto the car.  Not too shabby, if I say so myself (though still waiting on a new logo badge)

 Now no longer a 20/20 car.

Maybe even a 5/5 car now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

DIY Faux Ceiling Beams and Laser Cutter Exhaust

Ever since I finished constructing the Monkey Cave, I've thought about adding ceiling beams to complete the look.

Not only could they help even out the difference in height due to the drop ceiling for the garage door, but they could give the Cave some interest and rustic appeal, kind of like Tuscany, minus Diane Lane and plus 3D printing and laser cutting.

Exposed ceiling beams, though, aren't really native to construction in this part of the country.  Instead, I found that most beams are really "faux" versions made of lightweight foam.  Light on weight doesn't mean light on the pocketbook, however as I'd have to spend over $500 to get them shipped, which seemed too much to me to pay for a little Tuscanification.

I also considered making "Box" beams from separate planks nailed together.  While hollow, they would still be quite heavy compared to foam beams.  More importantly, they wouldn't look solid, as it would be very difficult to hide the seams and finish the planks well enough to provide the illusion of the one piece beams I wanted.

Because no solution seemed ideal, for a long time I shelved the idea entirely of adding ceiling beams at all.

Recently, though, the opportunity to revisit ceiling beams came when pondering upgrades to my laser cutting setup.  Up to now, I used a flexible hose to route the fumes out a vent opening in a nearby exterior wall.  But because the hose crossed a walkway and was inconvenient to connect and disconnect, I wanted a more permanent solution.  I came up with the wacky idea of ducting the fumes across the ceiling instead, perhaps hidden within a faux ceiling beam.

Once again, I looked into foam beams, but found that their walls were simply too thick.  To get a big enough opening inside to provide adequate airflow, I'd need at least a 7x7 beam, which would be both too big and even more expensive than before.

Brainstorming for other materials to use, I came across a solution I'd never seen used before: PVC fence posts.  They're light, hollow, come in wood grain finishes, and Home Depot had some "end posts" for sale at a really good price.  They could work perfectly if I could tape up the side openings, connect some of together to extend their length, and perhaps add a faux finish on top to make them look more like stained wood.

To reach the ceiling, I also needed to add a vertical section.  For this I used some oval galvanized ducting.  I added pop-riveted sheet metal to close the ends and outlets at the top and bottom.

I mounted the assembled unit in a corner where there was an offset in the wall, allowing me to cover it up later by extending the front-most section.

To pull air through the duct, I mounted a 12V bilge fan into a short length of post, laser cutting an acrylic plate to seal the fan in place.

The fan would be mounted at the end of the ducting run just inside the vent opening in the wall.  The wiring to power it would run inside the ducting to the laser cutter.

To finish off the beams, I cut up the edge of a chip brush to make it ragged and used it to dry-brush two coats of mahogany gel stain onto post segments.

Despite being fairly loose and random with the paint brush, I was pleasantly surprised by the final effect.  Even with minimal effort, it looked very convincing even close up.

The vent opening in the wall was located a few inches below the ceiling.  To match it, the ceiling beam duct couldn't be mounted directly to the top.  Instead, I decided to use short standoff blocks--fastened to the ceiling with toggle bolts and wrapped with short sections of post--to hold the beams at the proper location.  Besides adding the needed spacing, the standoffs also provided a way to hide the joins between separate sections of pipe.

Designed specifically for faux ceiling beams, Home Depot sells rubber strips made to resemble distressed bronze straps with rivet heads.  Wrapped around the posts at the standoffs, they hide the seams while also providing the perfect accent detail.

I added framing around the vertical duct, covered it with drywall, and then taped and buttered the seams.
I sprayed it with a texture gun and let it dry. When painted, it nicely matched the adjoining wall.

Finally, I added two non-functional beams to complete the installation.  Here is the completed project.