Monday, October 14, 2013

The Secret of Monkey (BBQ) Island

Avast ye mateys!

Okay.  So maybe talk like a pirate day was last month, but I couldn't resist it given my fond memories for that other Monkey Island of lore.  The latest project on the Monkey grounds has indeed been an island, albeit a far more terrestrial barbecue island and not nearly the maritime destination as its electronic diversional counterpart.

Ahoy Matey!

They say a man's home is his castle.  "They" obviously refers to people who have never been married, or they would surely know that instead a man's home is in fact HER castle, and that includes all the inside rooms, common areas, kitchen, bathrooms, any place that doesn't have a greasy vehicle in it or hasn't been explicitly designated the Man Cave.

The only other refuge that qualifies for a similar variance is a place dedicated to the practice of that distinctly sooty- fiery-burny (and hence sufficiently "manly") style of cooking:  the Outdoor Kitchen.

I must admit that even outdoors, I do very little of the cooking, but that's no excuse not to embark on another construction project.

While we already had a standalone stainless grill and gazebo, what we really needed was a more complete solution that lessened the need to shuttle back and forth from the inside, giving flying pests more opportunity to breach the "castle's" outer perimeter.  I had previously laid water pipe and electrical conduit underneath the patio in preparation for an addition like this, but didn't know what final form it would take.  We decided to build a pair of islands to straddle the grill that could provide storage, work surfaces, a sink, and refrigerator.

Bottom Rails
I started by laying out the base using some galvanized steel channel track I got off Craigslist.  A fellow was selling seven boxes of components from an expandable wall framing system.  These wall sections are designed to each scissor open and extend out to instantly frame a 4-foot length of partition wall.  I got the whole load for $35 and salvaged them into their component studs and track sections, which provided more than enough material for entire project.
The parts came together quickly using just tin snips, vice grips, and self-tapping screws, much like a large Erector Set, and at the end of the first weekend was ready for siding.

Rough Framing
Adding composite lumber feet
However, working with jagged sheet metal was not without its downsides, as the skin of my fingers and palms collected more holes than the plot of Batman and Robin.
Both islands framed

Cutting stucco siding
The normal way to create a stucco finish is rather messy and time-consuming, and involves first siding the boxes with plywood, then wrapping them with mesh, and then laboriously applying a layers of mortar and stucco to the outside.  Too inefficient for me.

Fortunately, JamesHardie makes a stucco-textured siding panel that can be cut with a circular saw (with diamond blade) and simply screwed into place as a standalone covering.  I found it at the local Lowes for $37 per 4x8 sheet. 

Attaching siding over moisture barrier
After wrapping the framing in a plastic moisture barrier, I simply cut and screwed in the Hardie Panel, countersinking the screw heads so I could caulk over them later.

My plan was to simply screw it into place, caulk and fill the corners and screw holes, then paint over the whole shebang to match the house.
Framing overhangs
The overhanging edges of the counter needed special attention, so fortunately I had a little help.  We boxed overhang using galvanized studs, and then clad the countertop with pressure treated outdoor plywood.
Working in tight spaces
Both little monkeys did their best to help.  Though they really thought the open cabinets made a great clubhouse and really preferred we not finish it.

I sealed the plywood with RedGard waterproofing membrane, then screwed some steel angle iron to the edges to keep the plywood from curling up.  I applied a layer of cement backerboard using thinset and screws.  Then another layer of RedGard went on top of the cement board, both to waterproof it and prevent the tile from cracking.

Reinforcing edges
Work break

My first thought was to leave open shelves for simplicity, but I was convinced that adding stainless doors would be a worthwhile addition.

Stainless doors
From, I ordered a tilt-out garbage can holder and two sets of double doors, one with a built-in deep storage drawer.  Costing a grand total for the set, it was by far the largest expense, but in the end so worth it.

Cutting slate tile
We always planned on tiling the top, but were unsure of what type of tile to use.  In the end, we found a great deal on clearance natural slate tile at a local tile store for $1.99 a square foot.

Finished tile
Using a cheap tile saw I have purchased years ago at Harbor Freight (one of my favorite stores), I was able to quickly cut and set the tiles, then finish the top off using a water resistant grout (no sealing!).
Prepped for sink
I dropped in a composite granite bar sink into an opening I had left in the countertop.  I plumbed the supply lines to pipes I had laid down before the patio concrete was poured, and I routed the drain lines to a dry well I dug in the dirt behind the island.

Mounting sink
After adding plumbing and electrical outlets, the only one last final touch remained.

I planned to use a small bar refrigerator that I got for free off Freecycle a number of years ago, but it was clashingly black in color.  This presented the perfect opportunity to try out a new product I'd read about online.

Ugly fridge

Thomas "Liquid Stainless Steel" is a paint-on system that claims to give the attractive look of "brushed stainless steel" as "commonly used in chef's kitchens".  I was a little skeptical, but at only $25 for their range/dishwasher kit (and a fridge that was free in the first place), I had little to lose.

Uglier fridge
The kit comes with a small foam brush, a can of clear protectant, and a can of "color" coat that consists of fine stainless steel particles suspended in automative paint resin.  You're supposed to carefully brush on a few thin coats of color, followed by up to three clear coats of top coat to add shine and protect the finish.  The instructions warn that the first few color coats will look quite bad, but not to worry.  I certainly found that to be the case; the initial coat looked horrible, but the look indeed improved with each successive coat.

Somewhat less ugly fridge
In the end, I was pleasantly surprised.  While by no means a replacement for stainless steel, it resembled what it was; a faux painting technique that evoked a stainless-like look.

At the right angle and a distance of 10 or more feet, it looked fairly convincing, certainly enough for an appliance that would live outside. 
Faux Stainless
So in the end, did it give the look of a "Chef's Kitchen"?

Hmm. Well--especially close up--no Thomas Keller would probably not be terribly impressed.  But Helen Keller... maybe.
So here are pictures of the final product.

In the corners of each island, I later drilled large holes to mount shade umbrellas for additional sun protection, also lining the paths for the umbrellas shafts with pipe that could channel any rainwater to safe outlets underneath the islands.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jungle Gym for the Monkeys

Anybody with two boys can tell you; trying to confine them inside on a nice day is like trying to limit Michael Bay to making movies where nothing blows up.  It would probably be so much effort that you'd be better off just trying to make sure nobody gets hurt in the process.

When Mama Monkey and I were looking for a new Monkey House a few years ago,  one of our top "must have" items was enough space in the backyard to erect a jungle gym... Confession: "play structure" is perhaps a more appropriate term, but then the title of this blog entry wouldn't been nearly as simiantastically satisfying without the jungle reference.

When I was a kid back in the stone ages, nobody had "play structures".  We had "swing sets"--flimsy structures of thin-walled steel tubing held together with long-lost screws, rust, and peeling faded paint.  The goal, of course was to swing so high that the pipes began to separate and slide out of each other, so that with each rhythmic swing, we were progressively one cycle closer to wonderfully catastrophic collapse.

Play structures today are a still a site for silliness (pay attention to Monkey in the background), but they've become a big deal.


They come in a wide range of sizes and prices, from small sensible units like this $400 basic sensible wood gym playset at ToysRUs...

Kid's Creations Adventure Mountain Playset - Installation Included

To this $15000  behemoth Adventure Mountain Playset sold by Costco.

Hmm.  Don't get me wrong.  We love our kids, but I wasn't ready yet to shell out more than a year of college tuition at my Alma mater for them to just burn off some energy and get some fresh air.

Instead, I was looking for something in between, but couldn't find a way to get the perfect combination of price, configuration and build quality.

Jungle Fort Tower - Site Plan 2That was until I found Detailed Play Systems.  They sell downloadable plans for a fairly intricate play structure that you make yourself with many options for configuration and expansion using your choice of lumber and commercially available parts.

When we had the hardscape poured in our back- and side-yards, we left a large rectangular area for a future play structure, encircling it with a sidewalk path where the little monkeys could run around, skate, or ride their bikes and tricycles.  With a little reconfiguration and modification, the design from Detailed Play Systems would fit perfectly in this area.  The plans are painstakingly complete, and after awhile looking through them I felt comfortable tweaking them to suit our needs.

The first step was to prepare the ground.  This involved leveling and packing the earth, and then covering it with heavy duty weed cloth.

Big Monkey and I used DeWitt Pro5 commercial landscape fabric that has become my go-to product for this sort of thing.  Much heavier-duty than the stuff you can get at the home center, this material won't (hopefully) disintegrate after only a few years of use.

The next step was to sketch out the structure in chalk on the fabric and begin building the frame.  High end commercially-available play structures use redwood, while lower end ones use cheaper unspecified varieties the manufacturers optimistically describe as "rot resistant".  I chose to take it one step further by using pressure-treated lumber.  While pressure-treated wood used to rely on arsenic compounds--making them unsuitable for playground equipment--manufacturers phased them out about ten years ago and now use copper-based compounds.  I spent about $1000 in total lumber costs.

The assembly was straightforward, but awkward at points for one monkey to do due to the structure's weight.  The DPS plans give precise measurements for every cut and hole, and seem designed for allowing parts for the complete structure to be built off site.  Since I could bring my tools to the build location, however, I found it much easier to just cut pieces to fit as needed and drill holes through mating members at the same time, allowing me to account for imperfections and bends in the wood.

The frame of the main tower and swing came together quickly using the specfied hot-dip-galvanized fasteners.  The special galvanization is necessary because copper preservatives tend to quickly corrode ordinary fasteners--they act as a battery when place in contact with unprotected steel.  The second tower went up a few months later.

For the decking, I found a seller on eBay who was getting rid of a load of old composite lumber (Trex) decking boards he had replaced under warranty.  They had varying amounts of surface cracking and peeling, but were still good on the underside and insides.  For $30 total--the price of one new board--, I got a full truckload of odds and ends, the majority of which I used as decking for the towers, and cut down and routed the rest as balusters for the railings.

One of the great things about the Internet Age (other than "building a global community", "open access to information" and all of that fluff) is that you can buy anything you want on Amazon.  This includes swings, slides, bumpers, and all the other parts real manufacturers use to build the fancy play structures they charge a buttload for.  After a ton of searching, I found a deal where Amazon was insane enough to offer a "free shipping" special on a spiral slide.  I exercised my credit card and spent about a grand on all the commercial swing parts and accessories to the unit the true pro treatment.

The last step before unleashing the monkeys was to provide some soft cushioning for their little monkey butts.  We chose brown recycled rubber bark for its longevity and appearance.  This stuff is made from old tires and is not cheap, but it lasts forever so you don't have to "refresh" it every year.  We bought three one-ton "super sacks" for $2000, and paid some laborers to convey the bark to the back yard.

And here are shots of the completed play structure.  The majority of it was actually completed almost two summers ago, so you can see that the structure and bark are both aging quite well.  We tacked on a few pieces from an older Step 2 tot structure we had to give it a little more variety, and recent additions include the sandbox below and the shade structures above.  Together, they all cement the structure's place as the backyard's center of activity for what we hope will be many summers to come.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

3D Printing, the Frankenlamp, and the World's Awesomest Time Waster

This holiday season, the Cave got a new addition, thanks to the kind generosity of "Santa" (aka Mama Monkey and her folks).   I got a new Solidoodle Pro 3D printer, an invaluable tool and the ultimate plaything for any Maker or Maker wannabe.

While the term "3D printing" conjures up images of red/green glasses and bootleg ViewMaster reels, the real technology is much cooler and occasionally even useful.

I had my first introduction to 3D printing in the Spring of 2004.  It was Wired "NextFest" at Fort Mason, and my friend Debbie and I were fortunate enough to experience a largely splendid showcase of groundbreakingly mundane and trivial technology.  We derisively called it "nyet-fest" at the time.  Nevertheless, nestled in one corner of the exhibition hall, Z Corporation demonstrated something remarkable I had never seen before.  Using inkjet printer components, they had created a device that repeatedly sprayed a fine pattern of water into a bed of plaster, and used it to build up--layer by layer--little plaster statues with remarkable detail.

This demonstration of technology used what Wikipedia refers to as "plaster based 3D modeling" (PP), and one of the first examples of a new class of affordable rapid prototyping tools.  Using it, one could create a small plaster model of practically anything.  If memory serves, Z-Corp's printer still cost around many thousands of dollars a pop, however, and while plaster is fine for making owl statues and Yoda heads, it's not particularly strong or well suited for making functional parts.

The Solidoodle, on the other hand, uses newer "fused deposition modeling" (FDM), which is a essentially a tiny computer controlled glue gun that builds objects layer by layer out of a fine stream of melted plastic.  The technology is emerging and still a little finicky, but has recently become very affordable largely due to the efforts of the RepPap Project.  Unlike plaster, plastic is flexible and durable, and thus well suited for all sorts of functional objects.  Accordingly, I set forth to make useful items and officially designated the Monkey Man Cave as a Yoda head-free zone.

The printer arrived a few weeks ago, and after creating a few custom Lego blocks, replacement missing stool feet, and a new battery cover for a remote control, I was ready for something more sizable and challenging.
The desk in the Man Cave had a nice tiffany type lamp, which my architectural ignorance I will describe as being in the art-deco/arts-and-crafts/mission style.  While I really liked the lamp, I had recently also pruchased a desk-mounted monitor arm, and the lamp was in the way when I wanted to swing the monitor off to the side.  Not content to live with the problem, I came up with a simple solution; Frankenstein the two together, making an unholy monitor arm/lamp union that could combine forces to rule the galaxy while paying homage to the style of the original lamp at the same time.  The 3D printer would be essential.
The monitor arm pivoted on a plain chrome tube that clamped onto the edge of a desk.  To keep the arm from hitting the lamp when it swings around, the idea was to mount the tube permanently on the desk and to wire the tube itself as a new replacement lamp.  To keep with the previous style, however, we'd have to dress up the plain chrome tube.

The existing lamp featured decorative cast metal base topped with beautiful stained glass shade.  I would keep the shade, but the base was too narrow to be re-purposed for the new Frankenlamp.  Instead, I'd have to use the 3D printer to create a new base from scratch.

The first step was easy.  I mounted the monitor stand by unscrewing it from the clamp it came with and fashioned a mounting plate from a large 1/4" thick fender washer.  This I mounted to the desk after drilling a hole for the new lamp wires.

The 3D printer has a maximum print envelope of 6x6x6 inches, so it could not print the lamp base in one piece.  I used OpenSCAD, a parametric code-based design program to create the base with four interlocking pieces that could be printed separately.

Each piece took about three hours to print from a few dollars of black ABS plastic filament.  I used the printer's low-resolution mode, which left the pieces with a subtle horizontal surface texture reminiscent of raw machined metal.

A light coat of spray paint in oil rubbed bronze completed the illusion.

To build up the lamp base, I simply slipped the printed pieces over the chrome monitor support tube. and topped it with a hose clamp that would both hold the parts together and bear the weight of the monitor arm.  A custom top cap piece covered the whole assembly.

I drilled a hole in the top cap to fit a standard lamp assembly from the hardware store, and fastened it to the top with the original lamp shade.

This is the competed Frankenlamp.  Not only does it make a nice addition to the Man Cave, but I was able to add a fabric shade to the original base and reuse it in another part of the house.