Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scary, but It'll Do

Yesterday afternoon around 5:00 o'clock I drove down to my local True Value to wander around and see what they could do for me.

I asked the assistent, whom I found stocking some shelves, if they had patching cement for concrete.

No, not for my third floor stairway ceiling, for my front step. I had a parent of a trick-or-treater Thursday night [my borough always does it on the Thursday night] express doubt about the safety of it, commenting ominously, "Somebody's liable to sue you over this." And it was getting really bad, so bad I put a board over the cavity so no small witch or ghoul would fall in.

"It's right here in this aisle," he said. "Here's the kind you want, in this bag." Then, "Wait a minute," he said. "This might not work after all. The temperature has to be above 50 degrees for twenty-four hours after you apply it."

"Well, it's 68 degrees outside now . . . I don't know what it's supposed to do tonight . . . "

"Let's check The Weather Channel." He led me to a laptop, brought up the site, and look, the low last night wasn't supposed to get below 58 degrees. But tonight, it was supposed to get down in the 30s.

The assistant expressed his doubt as to whether I could get the job done in time, but, said I, "It's tonight or never. I have to get that step patched before somebody hurts himself on it."

So, quickly, quickly! One 40 lb. bag of patching cement, one 5-gallon bucket to mix in, one trowel for the application! Pay for it, throw it all in the car, and take the fastest way home!

And yes, I did get the cavity filled. In the light of day I see it was not a pretty job. Not my usual level of craftsmanship. But it'll do.

The first thing was to pull out the rest of the loose pieces of concrete tread. When I washed out the dirt from the resulting cavity, the sand and gravel aggregates kept running out as well. If this was June or July, I think I would have kept the hose trained on that rotten concrete till it all washed away and gave me the excuse to put in a whole new pair of steps. But winter's coming, so I stopped at the first semblance of solid material and hoped-- hoped!-- the cement would adhere.

Then, even though I borrowed a concrete block off a neighbor to hold a board against the broken step to make a kind of form, it wasn't much use. The remaining concrete was sticking out cockeyed so I couldn't get the board to sit squarely against it. I ended up throwing the board on the grass and just using the concrete block, on end, to keep the patching cement from slumping out the front side of the cavity.

Couldn't mix too much cement at once; had to consider the capacity of my old Black & Decker drill with the paint-mixing attachment on it. Even in the light of the setting sun it was plain that my batch wasn't going to fill all the hole.

So I got clever. Or stupid, you take your pick. I filled the cavity up just high enough so I could lay the broken pieces of original concrete back in, mosaic-style. Couldn't find them all, and there's cracks between them that'll have to be filled with all-weather caulk or something to keep the water out. But it's level, right?

Not quite. A couple of big pieces weren't sitting high enough, and the riser surface of the step was all pitted and spalled. So there I was at 7:00 last night, for all intents and purposes in the dark, mixing up another batch of patching cement, this one half the size of the first.

Half the size, and nowhere near the stiffness. I glopped it onto that riser with my gloved hand (faster than the trowel) and it slumped down on the step below like a tired teenager. The concrete block kept it in place in the middle (and it seems to be stuck there at the moment), but otherwise . . . ? Gaahh.

The finished job is pretty ghastly-looking. My only excuse is my race again time, the weather, and potential liability claims. God willing, next spring I can get a set of front steps put in that're good looking and permanent. In the meantime, hey, the patch is hard! And the reinserted pieces don't seem to be going anywhere! It might even bear weight! And be halfway safe even when the snow covers it!

It's awful, it's ugly, it's hideous, the After picture looks like it should be Before-- but it'll do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Plaster, Irony, and Other Truly Valuable Building Materials

A couple weeks ago, as my entry in the Value Hardware DIY Drama contest, I posted on the Sturm und Drang that is the ceiling plaster over my third floor stairway. Or rather, that isn't the ceiling plaster over my third floor stairway, since so much of it ended up on the stairway. Therein I confessed my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault of Procrastination in fixing said plaster--leavened with a lot of excuses as to why I fell into it.

A day or two after I made that post I thought, Hey, wait a minute. There was another reason why I didn't repair that plaster before it fell down; why, last March when I had my ladder and my Big Wally's PlasterMagic repair kit on hand, I didn't get right to it. It wasn't that I didn't want to, or was suffering from a compulsion to get all the wood trim stripped first. It was because, well, the Big Wally's website was (and is) running a contest for the best videos of PlasterMagic repairs. The prize was $250, and I was determined to enter.

But I can't repair plaster and run a video camera at the same time. Whom could I get for a cinematographer to document my Atlantean effort? There was a neighbor kid with a camera and ambitions in the filmmaking direction, but she never seemed to be around when wanted. And what if she were standing within range of the damage as I worked and something should, well, happen? Didn't want the kid to get hurt. Maybe I should think of somebody else . . .

Stalemate. I kept on desiring that $250 prize and not coming up with anyone I could ask to make the video; I kept on stripping woodwork and not repairing the plaster . . . until June, when I finally tackled the ceiling and it tackled me back.

When and True Value combined to open the field for entries in the DIY Drama Contest, I thought about entering. I mean, mah dramah, let mii sho u itt. And thought some more. And a little more. (Do we discern a pattern?) Then shortly before the deadline, I pinned myself down and got the post written and submitted.

Then, having read the other submissions (and there were some impressive ones), I promptly forgot all about it, since there was no way I was going to win any of the $300 gift card prizes.

So imagine my astonishment when I got an email last week from Aaron at saying I'd won the drawing for one of the prizes!* Unbelievable, but true: Today the gift cards arrived from the contest coordinators!

So, thank you,, and thank you, True Value. I will add the latter to my Useful Links list and I encourage one and all to click on it.

But the situation is so ironic magnets fly to it. For the sake of a $250 prize I put off repairing my plaster until it fell down, which led to a post that got me a $300 prize to help me put it back up.

Yeah, I still do have to put it back up. I wonder, can I get a nice bucket of pre-slaked lime putty at my local True Value? Or maybe they can order it? It's not the easiest thing to come by . . .

Never mind. There are lots of other things this house needs that they can fix me up with very well. Without the procrastination!
*Actually, it was a bit more complicated than that. The actual notices got hung up in my spam filter and it was through his comment on my Plaster Disaster post that he actually got the word to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I have quinces this year. Big ones, middle-sized ones, smallish ones; quinces picked off the tree and wind-fallen on the ground; yellow, ripening, fragrant quinces and spring-green immature quinces. I admit, they are not the "true" quince, Cydonia oblonga; they are the flowering quince, Chaenomeles japonica. I do not care. The fruits smell and cook up just like the real kind, which makes them real enough quinces to me. I'm told they make excellent jelly and other scrumptious things, and I intend to try.

Last year I had exactly one fruit of any size. The year before that, and before that, and before that, there was no fruit, period. Come to think of it, there wasn't much in the way of flowers those years, either. This shrub was a thorny nothing straggling along the ground my first spring here. I propped it up with bricks so it'd grow upright, but it was a long time before I could identify what that angular bush in the corner of the vegetable garden even was. So this year it was gratifying to see such a yield from a shrub that I'm reliably told isn't supposed to bear much fruit at all.

True, it would've been even more gratifying had conditions cooperated to keep the fruit on the shrub awhile longer. Annoying to have most of one's harvest on the ground before it's reached full size and ripeness.

But I'm not giving up my dream of quince jelly. I've been on the InnerToobs the last two evenings, trying to discover the best way to ripen up the green ones. Finally this evening I found a page called From Harvest to Table that told me I should spread the green ones out in a cool dry place, turn them every so often, and they should be ripe in a few days. Oh, yes, and they should be out of direct sunlight. Oh. That's why some of the ones I brought in first were getting kind of wrinkly on the windowsill!

So tonight I laid down newspapers on my pantry shelf in the basement and arranged my haul. Cool and dry and out of direct sunlight. Will more of them turn golden yellow and start to emanate the heady sweet essence of quince?

We'll see. At least, it'll keep the fruit away from my dog. He had two or three of the bigger ones on the floor of the front room with bite marks in them when I got home from work this afternoon. Guess he thought they smelled good enough! Happily, they're hard enough he couldn't actually eat them, and once they're scrubbed and boiled his incursions won't matter.

I don't think.

Tomorrow, maybe, I'll have my first go at quince jelly making with the ones that are already yellow and sweet-smelling. It'd be a shame if I missed the opportunity.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Great Plaster Disaster--A Retrospective

We have been invited to submit our DIY goofs for the Value / DIY Drama Contest, and I can think of none better for me than this past June's Great Plaster Disaster, or The Dangers of Putting Things Off.

I noticed in June of 2007 that the plaster in the sloped ceiling over the stairs to my third floor study was cracked and started to sag a bit. I did nothing about it.

In July of 2007 I attended a lime plaster workshop taught by the great Rory Brennan, and learned all about his Big Wally's PlasterMagicTM
repair system. I still waited to do anything about my stairway plaster.

In my defense, I needed an adjustable ladder, to manage on the stairs. In April 2008 I received and learned to used my Little GiantTM ladder. I still did nothing about the sagging ceiling over the stairs to the study.

In March of this year I ordered and received my Big Wally's repair kit. And did nothing with it.

Finally, in June of this year I decided I'd get around to fixing my ceiling plaster. I put down the drop cloth, set up my ladder, and went to work.

Now, the Big Wally Way involves drilling holes in proximity to the cracks so conditioner and adhesive can be injected. Late on June 6, 2009, I drilled a few holes till the battery in the drill ran out, decided the hair in the plaster would hold it up awhile longer, and went to bed.

On June 7, 2009, I was back at the Great 3rd Floor Study Stairway plaster repair project, and, well, let me quote my entry of the day:

I am an IDIOT.

And any other hard names you'd care to spit at me.

About a half hour ago, I was drilling a Few More Holes to make sure I'd get the loose plaster well secured to the lath on the sloped ceiling. But the vibration was too much for it and a big square piece about 18" square came swinging down, literally hanging on by the cattle hair along one edge.

And I am a world class GOOF, BLUNDERER, and IDIOT. Did I dash over and ease it off in one piece? Did I, o did I?

No, I did not. I thought it'd be so cool to have a photo of it for the blog! So I picked up my digital camera, turned it on, and--

When I'd barely pressed the shutter, the monster loose piece came crashing down to smash on the stairs below, along with big chunks of the plaster that'd been next to it.

I wasn't even in time to get a shot of it falling.


I picked up the broken pieces. Maybe I can put them back together like a puzzle and glue them back up?

Or maybe I'm going to have to use what I learned at
Howard Hall Farm in July 2007 and fill in the gap with real haired lime plaster.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for the Big Wally's conditioner to work so I can at least stick down the edges of what's still up there and keep it up.

6:58 PM-- I don't think so. No. I got part of the droopy plaster back up, so it's not falling down, but overall it's no go. Most of the plaster is gapping by 3" or more, and the part I secured still has a gap of 3/8" to ½" between it and the lath. There's too many broken off plaster keys behind it that're keeping it from snugging up. And the really godawful loose parts are so warped that when I try to bring them up with the washers and screws, they bend and break. That is, if I can even reach the lath with the ends of the screws. And I don't have enough Big Wally screws and washers to secure it all anyway.

To make it worse, some of the laths are loose from the rafters and I'm not sure how to put them back in place without causing more vibration and bringing more plaster down. And it's got to be put back in place, or the plaster will still be insecure.

O vae mihi! vae mihi! Oy vey iz mir!

Okay, Kate, deep breath. The loose pieces that are still up don't look ready to fall down. Not right away, at least. Now if an overweight robin lands on the roof, all bets are off. But right now, stay cool, don't make any sudden moves, and maybe, it'll stay up till tomorrow.

On June 8, 2009, I called the Brennans up in Vermont and Rory's wife Lauri advised me to brace what was still up so it'd stay up. But did I do it that day? Noooooo!
On June 9, 2009, I didn't even begin to do anything about securing the loose plaster until it was after noon.

But then I got onto it. I really did. Especially after I began to hear rustlings on the plastic dropcloth around the stairs, that were not made by any of my cats. Whoops! Keys failing! Down I ran to the basement virtuously to cut some 1x3's I had to the correct length. Meanwhile, up on the 3rd floor, several square feet more of plaster were giving up their hold and coming down. Okay, okay, I get the message! Definitely time for serious damage control. I was off to the blue and gray store; do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Bought four 1x2x6's and a box of coarse 2" drywall nails.

I cut the wood strapping to the right length and brought it upstairs to screw it to the ceiling.

This was the point when my low blood sugar kicked in and filled me with woe, angst, existential gloom, and general consternation. I could not get the screws to screw in. And when I did, they weren't long enough to hold. Aaaagghhh!!! I can't do this! What is wrong with me? Why aren't I rich enough to hire somebody to help me do this? Why am I single-- if I were married, I'd have someone around who'd have to help me do this! What if all the plaster in the room falls down? Why are all my friends not available right now? Why? why? why? Woe! woe! woe!


Going back to bed and sucking my thumb wasn't an option. So I did what any normal DIYer would do in the circumstances-- I drove back to Lowe's for a box of 3" coarse drywall nails and more 1x2 wood strips and a packet of Phillips-head driver bits. My head was so woolly I couldn't verbalize what the last item was called and the clerk looked at me as if I were the world's worst ditz.

Never mind; I found what I needed and got it home. With the help of a late lunch (which finally kicked in) and my old corded drill (which still works, thank God, and has better torque than the battery-operated one), I got the strapping up and hoped the plaster would now cease its rain of terror.

After that, I wasn't sure. Lauri Brennan thought it'd be easier for me to put the existing plaster pieces back up. But the more I looked at the void over my stairway, the more I wondered if I'd rather take a crack at replastering it.

I mean, I did take that class, didn't I?

By July 3, 2009, I'd restocked my supply of Big Wally's and got the remaining loose plaster secured. I confess I haven't done a thing since then to fill in the 5' x 3' gap on the ceiling over my third floor stairs. I need to decide what quality lime putty to use for my plaster.

And considering that I'll have to mix it outside and the weather's getting chilly, that lath may not be covered till next Spring.

But it ain't falling down anymore, is it? Nope. I can procrastinate some more.
(This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by True Value.