Stove Talk

November 6, 2011

In this post we go stove shopping.

Cynthia loves to bake. Bread and cookies and bagels and you know, carb stuff and sweet stuff. Coincidentally, both of us like to eat what she bakes. Neither of us however, can afford the carb-o-calories, as one 4-ounce bagel split in two transmutes to a 37-pound weight gain per person. But no matter, she likes to bake as it is one of the major ways that she expresses love. She usually keeps a small amount for us and gives the rest away to friends and neighbors.

A couple years ago we were living in a different rental house that had an old, crappy 20-inch gas stove. It was no fun to cook on and not much fit in the oven. So we went stove shopping. We came home with a 36-inch Bompani gas range.

Image from the Bompani website

The Italian-made Bompani looks great and we had high hopes for it. I understand that others like their Bompanis, but we don’t. Maybe it needs a tune up or adjustment, but we aren’t the only ones here in our area who don’t like this model stove. The stove top burners take forever to light and then blow a lot of air. The oven is a big disappointment for Cynthia as it doesn’t get hot enough to bake bread well or brown.

Indeed, I had to convert our BBQ grill into a pizza oven by putting firebricks on the grill. Cynthia makes the dough (with Herbs de Provence) and homemade sauce and I bake them in the BBQ. I’m a vegetarian, but I understand her chicken (not nuggets from a box) pizza with BBQ sauce is dee-eee-licious. Perfect pizza every time. But I digress. The other day Cynthia made some delicious bagels but instead of ten minutes in the oven they took twenty and still didn’t brown.

So a few weeks ago we went stove shopping. A must have on her list is a convection oven. We decided on gas as electricity here is expensive and can be quite unreliable. Also, most electric ovens are computer controlled and have lots of digital do-dads on the back panel, all of which are vulnerable to our frequent power surges, brown outs and black outs.

We found our options very limited. One store had a gas on gas convection, a Frigidaire Professional series. But the unit seemed to have a split personality;  although the placard said “Professional,”  there were way-goofy digital buttons on the dashboard that said things such as “Pizza” and our personal favorite, “Chicken Nuggets.” We had to stop and visualize a professional chef, let’s call him Adolfo (no last name, just Adolfo), at a high end restaurant opening a box of frozen chicken nuggets to cook for the hungry folks at table 8. Huh?

Also, we don’t want a dashboard at the back of the stove as the stove will be situated in an island in the kitchen.

We kept looking. Although way, way out of our budget, we stopped at the Viking store on Ave. Brasil. They have a gas convection wall oven for “only” $4,200. Like the Bompani it looks great. Maybe we could get a separate cook top and the Viking wall oven.

Image from the Viking website

We could save for it, Cynthia loves to cook, and it would be a reasonable splurge (swallow hard). As we left the showroom the sales agent sent us off with a bundle of advertising glossies the size of a phone book.

We lived with this idea for a few weeks, then two things happened.

I (conveniently at breakfast time) often drop in to see our Panamanian neighbors I. and J. They always have a glass of fresh fruit juice and a Panamanian tortilla (more like polenta) for me. We sit on the back porch and I share the recent gossip of our neighborhood as they are here only on the weekends. I mentioned the Viking to I. and he said that I should Google it because his daughter has a kitchen full of Viking and it has all needed frequent, expensive repairs.

Sure ‘nuf, the Internet seems to be full of complaints about Viking. Seems that they now outsource much of their line. I read about an architect who specified Viking in a kitchen. He and his clients have been very unhappy with the performance and durability of the entire line. One reviewer said, get a GE. It is better and cheaper.

Cynthia and I aren’t appliance snobs (remember my refrigerator conversion?) so I can’t say that we are crushed or disappointed by the Google revelations. But what to do?

The second thing that happened is that during our Googlizing, we came across the old electric vs. gas oven debate. What we took away was quite surprising to us. Seems that gas is a moist heat (water is a bi-product of burning gas), good for not drying out roasts and the like. Electric is a dryer heat, good for browning breads and such. Huh, who knew.

So, being that Cynthia’s focus is on baking breads and not meat, we are now toying with the idea of getting a good gas cooktop and a separate, reasonably priced electric convection wall oven, one cheap enough to repair or replace if it gets zapped by an electric spike, probably a GE or whichever doesn’t have the stoopid “Chicken Nuggets” button. We just aren’t push button food type people I guess. That shopping trip is for another day. Stay tuned.

In other news, Cynthia has just cut out fabric for five new shirts for me. This afternoon, she woke me up from a slumber in the hammock to show me a piece of fabric. Okay, I stand corrected. She didn’t directly wake me up. But she did have Jabo take his current favorite chew toy, a flattened two-liter plastic soda bottle, then directed him to “Give it to Dad.” Every time he gnaws on it is makes a very loud crinkling sound, sure to wake any husband from a Sunday siesta.

“Look at this!” she exclaimed.
Wiping the sleep from my eyes, all I could see was a piece of fabric.
“Find the pocket,” she said.
“I don’t see any pocket,” I said.
She handed the fabric to me and, upon close inspection, sure enough there was the pocket.
“Now look inside,” she instructed.
“Wow, look at that, the inside of the pocket is a contrasting fabric,” I said.
So here is the first shirt in progress. Try to find the pocket!

Find the pocket. It's there!

That’s all for now.


My Shop ~ Part 2

November 5, 2011

This past week Armando and I worked on my shop. We poured five concrete columns and dug and poured the foundations. Here’s how it went:

Here are the columns:

The column on the right is nearly 12-feet tall, and the concrete in the form exerted some serious pressure on the forms. After we poured it, we were just about to walk away when I spotted the beginning of a split the entire length of one of the pine boards. Luckily I had planned ahead and had some straps standing by. Armando and I rushed and got the column strapped up just in time. We strapped a piece of metal against the split to keep it from bulging out. Close call. Like my favorite line in disaster news stories, “It could have been worse.”

After the columns were done, Armando spent two days between raindrops digging the foundation. In the next photo I am laying out the location of the door so that we don’t put rebar sticking up there.

Then while Armando was mixing concrete, I cut rebar to sit in the foundation trench. I also cut more rebar, bent one end in an “L” shape, and wired it to the bottom rebar. Like this:

These upright rebars will fit in some of the holes in the blocks when the wall blocks are laid, and we will fill the holes with concrete.

Cynthia insisted that I include this next photo. I’m not sure why.

Next we ran a string around all the columns and leveled it. The height of the string isn’t important. Now we need to pour the foundations nice and level so laying the blocks will be easy. We took a six-foot piece of 1″x3″ board and nailed a one-foot piece of 1″x3″ on the bottom like a foot. We put the footed stick in the foundation trench at the height that we wanted the top of the foundation to be and drove a nail in the stick where the string met the board. After Armando dumped a wheelbarrow full of concrete in the trench, I used the footed stick to tamp the concrete down until the nail in the board met the string and, tada — level footing.

Here you can see the string more clearly. This part of the foundation is completed. The blocks are holding the vertical rebars in place.

Armando worked really hard today mixing all the concrete. We used a dozen 94-pound sacks of cement and who knows how many wheelbarrows full of sand and gravel from the river. Here he is putting the cement on top of the pile of sand and gravel.

Then he opens the bags and thoroughly mixes the pile by turning everything several times with a shovel. We kept one eye on the sky but despite the ominous clouds, we were free of rain all day. Cynthia forecast no rain for the day. She’s right again! Armando likes to wear his hard hat because it keeps his head cooler.

Then he makes a hole in the pile and fills it with water and mixes it all together again. I try to help, but this is young man’s work for sure.

At the end of a seven hour day, Armando was dog tired.

And that ain’t no joke.

Bonus photo: Sunrise over my hammock

In other news, after several days of heavy rain a tall, very rotted tree in the lot next to our rental house fell across the main road. A tractor trailer rig came to a screeching halt as the tree fell, missing each other by only inches.  Several people stopped to help including John who lives in town. I’m standing with Cedelinda (pronounced Sadie Linda). I tutor her in English.

Cedelinda helps clear the road.

After we had the job almost done and I had dragged the big trunk mostly out of the road with the truck, four firemen showed up with chainsaws and finished the job. It was difficult to know who these men were, as they showed up in a pickup truck with the logo of the Tourist Police, all wearing orange Panama Civil Defense tee shirts.

Yes, Panama has a Tourist Police division. They are stationed in tourist destinations to keep tourists safe. They are also stationed at the airport, checking the paperwork and recording the destination of taxis departing with tourists.

Extra Special Note: Thanks to Cynthia who took all the photos in this post. She made me promise to take pictures of her tomorrow at her sewing machine. She is making me five new shirts. I can’t wait to try them on.

A Final Note Today: I find it curious that I like to write. To the best of my knowledge, no one else in my family wrote much. I don’t know how good a writer I am, but what qualities I do have I owe to my English 101 teacher, simply known as Prokus, at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. I liked Prokus. I remember one time a student raised her hand and asked, “Prokus, how come I didn’t get a “A” on my paper?” He answered, “Precisely.” I thought of this today because I noticed the passing of Andy Rooney. He wanted to work until he died, and he missed that goal by only a few weeks. I always enjoyed his essays. Other writers I have enjoyed over the years include Charles Kuralt, Garrison Keillor, John Ciardi, and Studs Terkel.

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.


My Shop ~ Part 1

October 29, 2011

I’ve been making progress on the windows, but it is pretty much a solo affair that I can take care of myself. And now that the yard is in good shape, Armando has run out of work. There is some grinding to do on my welds, but not enough to keep him busy. As he is basically day labor, and I can tell him “that’s all for now,” but I run the risk of him finding other work and not being available when I next need him. Also, it is good to have him around for when I need to lift, tote, and carry.

So I decided to get him started building my shop, and I can go back to window work. After a lot of back and forth on what materials to use, I made my decision. I could use the M2 panels (foam sheets with a wire covering that gets stuccoed) or go with the Panamanian-style concrete block construction. I really like the M2 because it is very fast, very strong, and isn’t prone to cracks like the block work, but Armando isn’t familiar with it and it is more expensive. Also, I would like to turn him loose on the project without much supervision from me.

I decided on block construction. Once the corner columns are accurately placed, I can let Armando take over and run with it. He likes the idea, and it gives him a chance to work without the boss telling him what to do every ten seconds. He even said that he will start at 6:30 a.m. to beat the rain instead of our regular 8:00 a.m. I could immediately see his sense of ownership of the project.

The shop is going to be 20’x24′, and is located where the 20-foot container that we didn’t get was going to go. Here’s an archival photo of the four columns that we placed for the 20-footer:

And here are those columns now, sadly knocked to the ground with a twelve-pound sledge to make room for my new shop. It was a tough decision to make as we had worked so hard on the columns. But progress is progress I guess. Here the corner batter boards are in place, and Armando is digging holes for the footings for the concrete columns.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; block work here is different than in the States.

In the States, every block is laid perfectly plumb and level. When a block wall is done, it very strong standing on its own. Just stand back and look at all the perfectly straight courses of blocks.

Here, the blocks generally have less cement in them and workers generally have less training. A concrete block wall in Panama isn’t meant to stand on its own. The process is to dig and pour footings for concrete columns, embedding in each footing four vertical pieces of rebar where the columns will go. When the footings have hardened, wooden forms are built around the upwardly protruding rebar and the columns are poured.

After the column form boards are removed, a trench connecting the columns is dug and a concrete footing is poured. As opposed to Stateside block work, this footing can be “kinda level.” The blocks are then laid “kinda” in rows, “kinda” straight and “kinda” level. When you get just shy of the top of the wall, form boards are nailed across the wall from column to column and a strengthening top beam is poured that includes more rebar. The blocks are basically infill and it is the columns and beams that provide integrity for the building. Then, a coat of repello (stucco) is troweled over the entire wall — columns, blocks, and beams. The wall is now pretty much straight and can function seismically.

While Armando was digging the footings, I made two forms for the columns.

These three-sided forms will be put in place around the rebar and then the fourth side will be nailed in place.

In the next two photos, these forms are standing tall and proud, and Armando is making the journey up the ladder five gallons of concrete at a time.

In my next few blog posts I’ll probably seesaw back and forth between the windows and the shop. That is unless another project catches my interest, such as building the metal bending brake that I want to make. The house has lots of opportunities for bent metal trim, and I want to make new, thicker lids (to hold more insulation) for our refrigerator and freezer (see A Really Cool Experiment).

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.


Windows ~ Part 1

October 26, 2011

At long last, we are working on windows. We still have a few interior partitions to build and Plycem to hang, but I wanted to use the wide open work space in container 4 a bit longer before building those partitions.

I should insert a note here about a recent change in our plan. Way back when this was to be a two story house, we had plans for two bedrooms — one downstairs where our master bedroom is going to be now, and one upstairs that was going to be the master. When the price of containers went sky high and we changed to a one story house, we were going to make a guest bedroom in a detached 20-foot container. But the 20-footer was the same high price as the 40-footers, so our plan stagnated a bit, and we have been floundering with a new plan to have one bedroom in the house and someday add a second.

Both Cynthia and I were unsettled by this un-plan, but we thought that time would iron out the bugs, and it has. Our newest, new and improved plan is this: we will put two bedrooms, two baths, and the laundry in the space between 3 and 4 and in container 4. My shop has been moved to a detached building (yet to be built) at the end of the driveway.

So now, the two bedrooms and bathrooms need windows. The areas to get windows are:

  1. the big open wall between containers 3 and 4 in the master bedroom. This entire wall will be windows. More on this area later in another post.
  2. the clerestory windows in the high wall over container 4, and
  3. the walls in the two bedrooms

We’re starting with areas 2 and 3 first. Cynthia and I talked about where and what size we wanted the windows, and I made a materials list. I bought some two-inch square, one-sixteenth-inch thick square steel tubing to make window frames from. It comes in 20-foot lengths. Here it is on the material rack in container 1:

I also ordered some jalousie windows to be made to fit the steel frames. Although we are not big fans of the look of jalousies, they make a lot of sense here where the rain and saturated fog can blow sideways. You can have the windows open for air but still have protection from the rain. Most of the older Panamanian houses have jalousies, although the newer houses seem to be going to vinyl sliders.

I used the metal chop saw (the red tool on the floor in the above photo) to cut all the pieces for the steel frames. Here’s a photo of the pieces all cut and the jalousies standing by for installation:

Next, I took a sheet of 3/4″ plywood and cut it to the size of the 4’x6′ pane of glass that will sit above the jalousies. Actually, I cut the plywood 6′-3/16″ so that the glass will have a little wiggle room. I also drove a big-headed nail into the 4-foot width, leaving the nail head sticking out 3/16″, making the height of the opening 4′-3/16″, like this:

With this plywood jig, the frames will be the perfect size for a piece of glass 4’x6′ and absolutely square, ready to receive the glass without problems. Here is the plywood jig with the first window frame being welded together:

By the end of day one, here is what I have welded together:

The two frames on the left are for a window in the north wall in each bedroom. The top rectangle is for the large pane of glass, and the lower part of the frame is for two, 3-foot jalousies. I still have to weld the bottom pieces on these frames, but I need to cut another piece of plywood to use as a jig so the jalousies will fit.

The frame on the right side of the photo above will be for the security bars. We plan to use the same design as the front gate, minus the cat tail seed pods. We think that the seed pods would be too busy looking in the design. This frame will be overlaid and attached to the frame that holds the windows. More on that detail in another post.

After these large frames are done, I will make a narrower frame for the east wall of the guest bedroom, and then frames for the short windows in the clerestory.

In another post I will use my new oxy-acetylene torch to cut holes in the container walls and install the frames. Stay tuned.

Bonus photo: As I welded the corners of the window frames, flaming balls of steel flew off the welding rod and rolled onto the plywood, burning this pattern in the plywood:

Welding calligraphy? But is it art?

Reminds me of the wood-burning iron that I had as a kid. I think I remember making a set of drink coasters for my mom for Mothers’ Day one year. Butterflies, I think.

That’s all for now.


My New Oxy-Acetylene Tank Cart

October 21, 2011

Thanks to everyone who guessed about my latest contraption in my last post. You all guessed correctly. You are a smart bunch. Even you, Charles.

No, actually, as Juan and Rick guessed, it is to hold the oxygen and acetylene tanks that I just got. Charles–Fugetaboutit.

My next task on the house is to make frames for windows, cut holes for windows, and fix the frames in the holes. So far, I’ve been cutting the container walls with a steroidal 9-inch angle grinder with a metal cutting disk. But let’s face it, this is really arduous and dangerous. Arduous because it takes a lot of muscle power, and dangerous because of the propensity for the machine to kick back and sever body parts. I’ve written before about my plasma torch that died an electronic death, not to be revived here in the harsh Panamanian climate of rust, humidity, electrical brown outs and power spikes, and geckos that have the propensity of dying on circuit boards, “melting,” and shorting out the whole mess.

So that leaves two choices:

Choice 1: Hammer and chisel. I remember when I was first investigating Panama as a place for us to live, I stayed at a hotel in Boquete. Early one morning, 6:15 to be exact, I heard a hammer pounding a chisel on metal. It didn’t stop. Finally I got up and got dressed and went to check it out. Two men were cutting strips off of 20-foot lengths of sheet metal roofing. No angle grinder, no plasma torch, no shears, and, bringing me to choice number two, no oxy-acetylene cutting torch.

Choice 2: Oxy-acetylene cutting torch. A torch is really low-tech. No electrical parts, no computer, just a hot flame that slices through metal. The cost had been stopping me, but it was finally time to bite the bullet and buy a rig.

I got a medium duty Victor brand set, complete with welding/cutting torch, hose, and gauges for the oxygen and acetylene. $245 at Pemco in Panama City. Victor is an excellent brand and I like the way the torch balances in my hand. Tools like this are exciting.

Next, I needed to rent the oxygen and acetylene tanks. $300 deposit for the two tanks, plus $75 for the gas in the tanks. I could have bought the tanks, but I would have had to return to the city each time they needed refilling. With the rentals, I can just swap them locally at the hardware store.

But they don’t just deliver out here in the hinterlands. The tanks need to be transported upright and I had no way to accomplish this with the Honda Ridgeline. So I welded up a goalpost rack for the truck. I used the existing tie-down fixtures in the bed of the pickup to affix my rack.

Here are the tanks strapped to the goalpost rack. Jabo is a gas, too.

And here it is in all its painted glory, along with the long-load rack that I made some time ago but just now got around to painting. The traffic police will be happy with the official reflective sticker, $1.

I used the goalpost rack again today to transport two, heavy eight-foot lengths of 4″x6″x1/4″ angle iron that I picked up for my next shop project, a sheet metal bending brake. But I digress.

The point of this post is the cart that I just made to hold the oxygen and acetylene tanks in my shop, and to make it easier to move them around the job. Here are some photos of the cart ready for paint:

I pretty much started the project by holding a length of 1.5″ square tubing in my hands and holding it up to the tanks. The rest just followed element by element. I love the lines, kind of retro, like something that would have been in my grandfather’s shop. I think it has a little Steampunk look about it. I considered clear coating it, but safety yellow won out.


And here it is with the tanks loaded and strapped in with the safety chains across the tanks and an additional anti-theft chain.

So that’s that, I am now ready to cut the window openings in the container walls. I’ve just picked up the windows I had fabricated, so my next post will about windows.

Thanks for all your comments on the Name That Contraption post. That’s all for now.


My Latest Contraption ~ What Is It?

October 19, 2011

This is a quickie post. I’m gearing up for windows and I’ll have more in about two days.

But in the meantime, here is a photo of my newest contraption under construction. Feel free to take a guess as to what it is. I’ll reveal the answer in my next post.

One person who saw it thought it is part of a dog sled for the Thirty-seventh Annual Running of the Iditerod de Panama. What’s your guess? Feel free to leave a comment below.


Paint! ~ We Paint Some Interior Walls And Ceilings

September 26, 2011

We are making progress. With the interior walls framed and ready for Plycem (tilebacker), it is time to paint. I want to paint before hanging the Plycem because the Plycem will have a clear finish and will not be painted. Doing the job in the paint first, Plycem second order will save us from having to do a lot of masking and taping.

I debated on whether or not to paint over a note that someone had written on one of the walls. The paint won, but I did take a picture of the note. I find it endlessly fascinating that our house has been around the world:

F.C. The best from St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands. 5/14/2008

I wonder what F.C. and his crew were loading or unloading?

Here is a photo of the paints I chose for the interior walls:

The tube of urethane caulk is actually a windshield adhesive. The tube is aluminum and double sealed to prevent the caulk from drying out. Even so, I wore a hole in the palm of my hand trying to pump it out of the tube with a caulking gun. I ran new beads of this caulk where container walls meet the ceilings and at weld joints that I have made.

The Lanco Oil Red Oxide Polyurethane primer is thinned with mineral spirits and sprayed on nice and smooth.

The Lanco Super Dry Enamel (Esmalte) is thinned with lacquer thinner and dried in just a few minutes.

I’ve seen the question asked on the Internet, “Can I use latex paint to paint a shipping container?” The beauty part of latex is the easy cleanup. It is a lot more work to clean the spray gun when using oil based paints, but it doesn’t make sense to me to spray water on metal and expect it not to rust. When I started painting years ago, I don’t think there was such a thing as latex paint. All I remember is cleaning my first boss’s brushes with turpentine. Oil based paint really is not that bad once you get used to the regiment of cleaning up after yourself. I allow a half hour to forty-five minutes at the end of the day to get everything squeaky clean.

Here’s container 3 all primed and ready for the white top coat:

I bought a roll of yellow "caution" tape to use as masking on conduits and on the hardware on the container exterior doors. Jabo awaits further instructions.

There is hardly any over spray with the HVLP spray gun.

After we sprayed the primer, the next day it was ready for the first of two top coats of white:

This is the north wall of container 3. I really savored the moment when I cut out the two doorways. The nearest doorway goes into what will be our dry (dehumidifier) room. The further door goes into the hallway that will connect to the living room. With the doorways cut I don't have to crawl through walls and go out of my way to get where I am going. It feels more like a house now.

Partly painted. I'm standing in what will be my shop, looking toward the master bedroom. The unpainted square area is in the master bath. It will be cut out and the wall pushed out four feet for the shower. We plan to use glass blocks for at least one wall of the shower.

First coat all done. Note that 34 sheets of half-inch Plycem have been delivered. I can't wait to start hanging it on the interior walls.

We still have to cut holes for windows including above in the clerestory wall, but for now I’m happy with the progress.

Here’s a photo from outside (west side) looking in. The big hole in the wall will be wall to wall, floor to roof windows. The view of the night sky from the bed should be spectacular as there is no artificial light for miles around.

The left container (#4) is part of the master bedroom as is the large open area. This end of the right container (#3) is the hallway between the bedroom and the living room (yet to be built).

Rain has been starting by noon most days, but in the mornings Armando has been working on delineating the east side of the driveway. When we built the driveway we put large rocks in the mud then covered the rocks with tosca. At that time we had no design idea of how the driveway edges would meet the rest of the yard. Now, we have stretched a string line and Armando is digging a ditch. We’ll pour a concrete footing in the ditch then lay a course of concrete block as a curb. Here’s Armando working on the ditch:

With the new garden on the left side of the driveway and this curb on the right, the lot is getting more and more defined.

That’s all for now. Thanks for visiting, and feel free to leave a comment below.