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.

Interior Walls, Wiring, & Plumbing ~ Projects In Progress

September 9, 2011

This post is mostly about building walls inside shipping containers.

Having been in construction since I was six, I know that there is a natural rhythm to most construction projects. There are periods of time when important work is being done but progress is not very visible. The job seems to be crawling. Then there are the periods of time when the job seems to be flying and progress is very visible. One’s moods can swing on these phases if one is not careful.

I think that the job has just moved from a crawl phase to a flying phase.

Having worked six weeks in the yard, Armando has finally finished filling holes, leveling humps, and removing lots of trunks and roots. He has planted some grass and the yard is starting to be a yard. Additionally, yesterday we moved five coconut palm trees and two other palms (Cousin Christine — yours is being planted this weekend) that we had been holding in a nursery area at our rental house. We planted three of the coconuts by the electric service entrance wall at the southeast corner of the lot. Instant transformation, they are softening that concrete corner. This progress is exciting and a big boost to our moral. We can actually begin to see The Warmth of Home emerging from Job Site Mud and Muck.

Three new coconut palms soften the corner of the lot.

The floor between container 3 and container 4 is ready for rebar and concrete, but we are holding off on that until we do some more infrastructure in the area. It is nice to be able to walk on the floor and be able to more accurately gauge how the spaces will feel. Here is the floor ready for concrete:

We’ve been working on the interior walls in number 3. I used 2″x3″ galvanized steel carriolas to make the wall framework. I framed the walls with the 2x3s as horizontal purlins (a style seen in old barns; the purlins go sideways so that the exterior board siding can be installed vertically). We will screw 4’x8′ Plycem (tilebacker / cement board) sheets to the steel stud work.

Building the walls goes like this: First, determine where a wall will go. I have chosen to place the wall so that the framing is in alignment with an outward bend of the corrugated siding of the container. Perhaps a photo will help:

You can see that the framing for the new wall is placed where the container siding is outward.

Next, I cut a carriola bottom plate to fit between the walls of the container. I drilled some holes in the carriola, measured from two points at the end of the container to get the wall parallel with the container, and screwed it to the floor with 3.5″ drywall screws. After the Plycem is up, the concrete floor will lock this wall in place, so the screws are only a temporary placeholder.

Then, as you can see in the photo above, I cut a vertical stud to sit on the bottom plate. At the top of this stud, you may have to cut a notch out of the stud to fit around the beam at the top of the container like this:

The top beam sticks out more than the bottom beam so you have to cut a notch.

I did this at both sides of my new wall and welded the studs in place.

Then, I cut purlins and welded them in place every two feet on center up the wall like this:

Plycem can now be screwed to the purlins.

By placing the wall where the container corrugations go outward, I can now put the Plycem in place and it will make a nice inside corner. I’ll probably run a small bead of urethane caulk around the Plycem to seal any insect highway gaps.

Here's a scrap of Plycem showing how it will make a nice corner against the container.

Here’s an overview of the three new walls in container 3.

Three new walls framed.

At the far end of the container is a hallway; I will cut holes in the container for a doorway from the living room, into the hallway, then into the master bedroom. By the way, this is the only hallway in the entire house. I avoid hallways if possible; they are major space wasters.

The next space toward where I am taking the photo from is a half bath, accessed from the hallway.

The next, larger space will be a walk-in closet off the master bedroom and studio space for Cynthia’s torchwork (making glass beads), her seed bead stringing, and fabric storage for sewing projects. These spaces will be dehumidified.

The final space, the one that I am standing in in the photo above, will be an eight-foot square deposito (storage closet), accessed by the existing container end doors. This deposito will be for outdoor tools and equipment.

But before the Plycem goes up, I have to do some rough electrical and plumbing. Here’s some electrical roughed in in the half bath:

I cut holes for the conduit with an angle grinder with a cut off blade. I welded the rough-in box to the wall framework.

As an aside, I finally got my plasma torch repaired in the city. Two, four hour round trips, $50 to diagnose, $25 to repair, and $0.39 for the new part. When I got it home, I fired it up, cut a nice round hole in a carriola for the electrical conduit. Fantastic! Then when I went to cut a second hole, it made a wild clicking sound (relay going bad?) and shut itself down. Okay fussy, finicky machine, fine, die that death if you want to. I’m done. So instead of nice round holes, I have nice square holes cut with the angle grinder. No law against round peg in square hole.

The above wall happened to be placed above a container floor beam so I couldn’t drill straight down for the hole for the conduit. Instead, I used two elbows to relocate the hole. Later, the concrete floor will cover this conduit:

Oh, one thing I discovered is that where there it a forklift pocket on the side of the container…

there is a steel plate under the wooden floor, so it is easier just to swing the conduit and relocate the hole through the floor away from the steel plate. This is all working for me because we will have the three-inch thick concrete floor to cover these conduits throughout the entire house.

By the way, speaking of the wooden floor, the floors in our containers are mahogany, just a tad under one and a quarter inches thick. We will be pouring a concrete slab floor because it is the surface that we want. Also, it will cover the wood which is no doubt heavily drenched in pesticide. Before I work in the containers, I use a large fan to flush the fumes. Otherwise it can make your eyes water.

So far I only have roughed in the water supply for the toilet in the half bath. I brought some PEX tubing with me when we moved to Panama and decided to use it to make the pipe stub-ups. I like PEX a lot, but so far have not seen it here in Panama. Here is some PEX, the brass fittings, crimps, and the crimping tool:

Blue for cold, red for hot. Same stuff, just color coded for easier identification .

Here’s the toilet stub-up:

You can warm PEX with a torch, bend it, and it will keep its new shape. I welded two pipe clamps to the side of the container. Later, this bathroom wall will get Plycem. That and the concrete slab will hide the plumbing.

The PEX, the PVC electrical conduit, and the PVC water pipes can all be cut with this dandy pair of shears made for the job:

In the meantime, Armando has been working for two days grinding away remnants of the container siding webbing in container 4. I’m glad that he has the Power of Youth still on his side.

You can see that he is wearing safety glasses (and not-seen earplugs), and the guard amazingly is still on the machine. I insist on it even though most workers here think these safety devices are mere nuisances. I’ve seen two nasty cuts from guardless machines and I’d just as soon not make a trip to the hospital.

Next I’m on my way down the mountain to see if I can get the DeWalt angle grinder that Armando has been using repaired. I think the switch has given up the ghost; it has had some rough duty during its life on this job. I’ll probably buy a second one, too; a guy can’t have too many angle grinders.

If you are considering a container house project, I hope that I have given you some good tips from my experience. Take what you want but you are on your own. Have fun. Keep the guards on your tools and be safe. It’s a jungle out there. At least it is here in Panama!

That’s all for now.

A Big Floor And Some Small Stuff

August 30, 2011

In this post, I frame the floor between #3 and #4, build some interior walls, and do some minor stuff.

A significant amount of rain has been falling, and I am happy to have a bunch of interior work to do. The interior of #3, #4, and the 12-foot space between is now bone dry. Not a drop of rain enters, thanks to Juan who mentioned in a comment that he uses Sika Urethane caulk to seal container seams. I searched but could not find that brand, but I did find some other urethane and it is working well. I sealed the two 40-foot seams where the walls that hold up the metal roof connect to the containers below. Here’s a photo of the urethane on the tilebacker wall:

Good and gooey and very workable, the solvent based urethane caulk is holding out rainwater. Remember, later I will build a sloping metal roof over the container roof.

Next, I had some 2″x2″ square metal tubing in my way so I built the framework for the wall that will hold the low end of the big roof between #2 and #3. I caulked the welds with the urethane and prime painted the metal:

The framework is at the top right of the photo. Most of the photos I have posted so far have been from the east side, but this one is from the west.

Next, while I waited for delivery of the metal for the big floor between #3 and #4, I started some of the interior walls in #3. The wall in this photo will divide the hallway (that goes from the living room to the master bedroom) from the half bath. The half bath will be about 4-feet by 8-feet.

This wall will get tilebacker on both sides, brand name Plycem. There will be a sliding door on the bathroom. I am standing in what will be a dry room -- a closet with a dehumidifier -- a real necessity here in the cool but humid mountains.

Then, before I made a big mistake with a bad paint and painted all of the exterior of the containers, I wanted to test out some oil based polyurethane red oxide primer and some white polyurethane wall paint, so I sanded, primed two coats, and painted two coats onto the 12-foot section between #3 and #4. I used my Fuji HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) spray gun. This is a nice rig and it sprayed the polyurethane on the metal siding like glass.

At least something is finish painted. Will it remain white or will we choose a color?

Finally, my delivery arrived and I could get to work on the 12-foot by 40-foot floor between #3 and #4 — that’s the space behind the white wall in the above photo. The floor will consist of 2″x4″ metal carriolas, covered by metal roofing panels, and topped with a 3-inch concrete slab that will extend throughout the containers, too. Here is the framing underway:

I have to admit to a small error; when I placed the containers on the columns, I placed these two exactly 12-feet apart measured from the outside of the containers. However, the floor joists ended up being about 12-feet two-inches long because I affixed them to the indented part of the container main floor support I-beam. I had to buy 14-footers. Should I do this again, I would move the containers a few inches closer to each other. Nevertheless, I can use the cutoffs for other projects.

To start the project, I measured off two-foot incriments, then used the angle grinder to take away some of the paint for easier welding:

A carriola floor joist is ready to slide into place and be welded.

To measure the lengths of the carriolas, I used two boards and a clamp, adjusting the length for each joist. You wouldn’t expect it, but the lengths varied due to various dents and strengthening gussets. Here’s a photo of the measuring jig being used to mark a joist for cutting with the chop saw:

After three days of cutting and welding, here is the floor framing finished and with two sheets of roofing metal screwed in place:

You can also see that I fashioned a center beam from two carriolas. Tomorrow Armando and I will pour three small footings to further support the concrete slab and to reduce any floor bounce. I also built the framework for the wall that will separate the bedroom (foreground) from the master bathroom.

Throughout all of this, Armando has helped me lift and tote the heavy stuff, but mainly he has been working to smooth out the lot. He is almost done:

You can really see his progress in this next photo taken from the northwest corner of the lot. He is taking out a lot of stumps and surface roots as he goes:

I can’t wait for windows! The big opening on the west wall of our bedroom will be divided into a window grid with 2″x2″ square tubing.

My next small task will be to finish cutting and removing a scrap strip of container siding metal and re-purpose it into a very short wall section that will go at the bottom of the bedroom window wall.

That’s all for now. Thanks for visiting my blog. I’m pleased that so many people have subscribed to receive notice of new posts, and it was fun to watch the 10,000 hits mark come and go right at the one-year mark of my blog. Here’s a screenshot of month-by-month hits:

A dip last year during "family business," but otherwise my traffic is growing! Please feel free to add your comments to my posts. Fred

Welding Frenzy ~ Welding On Shipping Containers

August 6, 2011

With the tilebacker walls in place, it was finally time to haul the welder up onto the roof of container four. The four-foot high wall that holds up the high end of the roof over the space between three and four was only tacked in place. I am now faced with the task of welding a forty-foot long bead, welding the wall to the roof of the shipping container.

Armando and I tried first to lift the welder with pulleys and a rope, but we were getting exhausted and the welder wasn’t budging far off the ground. When I bought the pulleys I wanted double-block (two wheels per unit) pulleys but could only find less mechanically-advantaged single-block pulleys. So we rigged an electric winch (thank you for the loan of the winch, Ivan) and effortlessly lifted the heavy welder to the roof. Once up on the roof, with the new ATW wheelbarrow wheels, the welding rig no longer bumps and bangs, but rolls across the corrugated roof very easily.

The wall to be welded is made up of metal siding cut from the wall of the container below. Here’s how the siding sits on the container. You can see that I have some significant gaps to fill while welding. White is the wall, red is the container roof.

This is the largest gap, about a quarter of an inch. Most of the spaces are about a sixteenth of an inch or the metals are kiss-fitting.

I really wasn’t looking forward to this welding task. If it rains, the gig is off. If it is sunny, working in a hot welding hood on the hot metal roof, body crouched so as to reach the area to be welded but avoiding flying sparks and splatter, legs falling asleep; no, I wasn’t looking forward to this task. But it had to be done, and afterwards no more water will enter the container below.

I also wasn’t looking forward to the job because I have been using number 6011 welding rods. These are the standard welding rod here in Panama and can be found in any hardware store and even some grocery stores right next to the duct tape. They burn paint away easily and work in any position. But they stick easily and this can be frustrating.

If you don’t know, the idea of welding is to touch the welding rod to the metal you want to weld, create a short circuit if you will, get sparks flying, then pull away slightly and maintain a gap that the fire jumps across, heating and fusing the metals. It is during this initial getting-the-sparks-flying stage that the welding rod can fuse itself (or stick) to the metal to be welded. If it sticks you have to wiggle the rod back and forth until it breaks free then start the process all over again. When I tacked the wall in place, there was a whole lot of sticking going on and I wasn’t looking forward to forty feet of frustration.

I have to declare here that welding is new to me. Previously my work life involved wood, glue, screws and nails. I learned a little bit about welding from Bob H. back in the States, just enough to get me going and make me dangerous as they say. I guess you could call me a back yard welder. I don’t know squat about the coefficient of this or that, or the temperature that bronze-molybdenum-strontium 90 alloy melts at. I only know to get the spark going and keep it going. So to all the professional welders who fall across this blog by mistake, those with multiple certifications in underwater welding and welding in deep space on the Space Station while holding a wet cat, please have pity on me for what I am attempting to do at this stage of my life, and maybe remember those first not-so-pretty welds that you made so many years ago. Thank you.

So for my birthday, friend Les gave me about ten pounds of not 6011 rods, but instead 6013 rods. I thought I would give them a try on this project. How bad could it be? As it turns out, not bad at all.

The ubiquitous 6011s burn real hot. They burn paint real quick. Lots of slag flies everywhere, the rods stick easily, and if you are thinking about last night’s fight with your wife and not paying 100% attention to counting the number of seconds that are passing, you can burn a hole in the metal the size of Texas.

Even though technically in the same family (I don’t really know this for sure, I’m making this up), the 6013s are a real pleasure to work with. If the 6011s are a stay-out-all-night rebellious teenager, the 6013s are their stay-at-home studious twin. Rod sticking is much, much less with the 6013s. They burn hot enough to eat through the numerous layers of paint on the container roof, but the burn is more surgical if you will. There is less flaming slag flying over the top of my welding helmet, thereby burning fewer holes my scalp. Both rods seem to want to burn well for me with 60-amps set on the dial of the welder:

The new (to me) 6013s also don’t burn big holes in the metal nearly as easily. And if I do burn a hole, I can close the doughnut hole much more easily. A blob of the 6013 seems to stay in place as it cools making closing the hole quite easy, whereas the 6011 blob shrinks as it cools, leaving the hole almost as large as when I started. And if I switch the amps down from 60 to 40, the holes close quite rapidly.

To weld, you have to keep the welding rod moving. There are numerous techniques: the back and forth wiggle, the circle swoop, etc. The technique that I found to work best for me is this: working in the general form of a backwards letter C, maybe something like this:  ]  , I start at the bottom left of the backward C.  I get the spark going and sit in one place on the roof of the container for a second-and-a-half to two seconds, burning paint and making a small puddle of molten metal. Then in the next second I sweep to the right and up, then over to the left. Then to prevent creating a hole, I get the heck out of Dodge, wait for the new metal to cool for a second, then repeat. I’m left handed and am working from right to left. So if you are right handed maybe you will find a forward C and left to right easier. Your mileage may vary.  If you figure that I move about an eighth-of-an-inch at a time, that makes only 3,840 repetitions in the forty-foot long stretch. It goes like this: weld, weld, weld, move, stretch, drink water, repeat. Simple.

Here is a photo of the mess I am making:

A lot of the mess is paint that has burned and flaked, and the weld cleans up fairly well with a wire brush. It looks to me like it will keep water from leaking into the house. Here is the weld all wire brushed but not prime painted. The roof was too hot and the paint probably would have boiled. Hey, maybe Monday I’ll fry some eggs for lunch.

I got to the half-way point today before I sensed the blisters on my knees from the hot roof. I quit about 2:00. Monday weather permitting I will be back at the second half. With my new knowledge of the 6013 rods and my experience today, I’m not dreading the second half at all. Still, it will be good to be done with this part of the job. I will have to repeat this process when I erect the wall over container two. Stairs will lead up to this wall, and a door will take us out to the roof deck. I am anticipating the hammock swinging in the breeze.

Thanks for the swell welding rods Les! That’s all for now. Happy welding!

Wallito (The Little Wall)

August 3, 2011

In Spanish the word ending -ito signifies affection or diminutive stature. In this post, I tell about the short wall I just built, hence the new English word I coined; wallito.

There has been a lot of rain recently, including a few complete rain-outs, so progress has been slow. But I have managed to work on the two-foot high wall above container three that holds up the low end of the roof between three and four.

Originally I was going to use some of the 20-foot scrap wall section cut from container three for this new wall, but we have amended the plan and now are cutting only doorways from the container. Because we decided to use tilebacker (cement board) for the interior walls, it seemed like a natural to use the tilebacker for this little wall overhead.

First I cut eight 2″x2″ square tubing “studs” and welded them in place to receive the tilebacker. Because I was working by myself, I made the runway scaffolding so I wouldn’t have to lift the welder.

The wall will go in that long open space above the container.

Speaking of the welder, I got tired of the anemic factory-installed wheels and put on some wheelbarrow wheels. Now I have an ATW (all terrain welder).

Some difference, huh?

Then Armando and I hauled the four sheets of 3/4″ tilebacker from container one to container four (it’s always a treat to carry heavy stuff through the mud). I cut them to shape with a tile blade on my circular saw and Armando sponged on the first coat of sealer. The sealer will resist water and dirt stains.

For the sealer, we decided to go with a wet-look acrylic polymer. Two coats sponged on quickly is all it takes to protect the surface. Ask me in three years how it worked. Here’s the sealer sitting on top of a piece of tilebacker after the first coat. The second coat brings up the shine.

Rain stopped production for the day, but this morning I swept the water off the top of the container roof and installed the tilebacker sheets on the studs. I used the same sheetmetal roofing screws that I used to screw the roofing to the steel framing. Here’s the wall all finished except for the second coat of sealer.

I sealed the tilebacker to the top of the container with urethane caulk. To control water runoff from the roof, I will make the standard Panamanian roof gutter system: take a piece of 4-inch PVC tubing and slice the length of the tubing with a saber/jig saw. A circular saw is faster, but the PVC will most likely shatter, making a mess of the tube. Out in the pueblos in the mountains, they use an old rusty handsaw. Tedious work for sure.

Anyway, after the cut is made, you spring open the tube a bit and slide it over the tail end of the roofing metal. Pieces of bailing wire wrapped around roofing screws holds the gutter in place. You can paint the gutter any color you want, but our previous gardener Miguel liked to use tar thinned with lacquer thinner as the paint. Any color you want as long as it is black.

Ultimately the container roof will be covered with a concrete slab, sloped toward the center of the container and down and off the back end of the container. The slab will cover and protect the urethane caulk. I hope.

I am concerned about the corrosion/rust between the metal container roof and the concrete slab, so I am considering painting the roof with an elastomeric roof coating. I could paint the coating up over the caulk and a few inches onto the tilebacker, then pour the concrete slab. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Here’s a picture of the wall from the inside:

Later, when I work on the interior of the house, I will apply a second sheet of tilebacker on the inside of the studs. For protection from potential smashers/robbers, I will probably weld a couple pieces of 1/2″ rebar in the stud cavity. The tilebacker is strong for the elements, but probably is no match for a big boot and would be a weak point in the building envelope. But for now I am only interested in getting the building dried in.

Tomorrow I will work on putting tilebacker on the triangular section you see up in the first photo. Before that, I need to paint the exterior of the wall below the triangle with white paint.

When I don’t need Armando to lift and tote, he is busy working on leveling the lot and preparing it for grass. Sod grass can be had here, but it is expensive. Armando said that he wanted to clear out some of the grass close to his house because he has had some close encounters with the slithering kind in his house lately. Replacing the grass with gravel will slow the critters down. So early one foggy morning, I went to his house to get a pickup full of grass. He lives on a dead end off a dead end off a dead end, and by the time I get within a few hundred yards from his house, the road is very narrow. I can’t make the turn into his “driveway,” actually only a wide path. So we worked for an hour with two wheelbarrows and got the truck loaded.

Sod from Armando’s yard is somewhat of an exaggeration, as he dug up the grass shovel by shovelful, pieces breaking, some only a few inches square at best. We kidded that planting the grass in my yard was like getting a hair transplant, hair by hair. But he got the job done in two days, and now the yard is starting to look like a yard.

(Normally when I write these blogs, I re-size the photos to be a bit larger on the page. This time, the re-sizing option doesn’t exist. Sorry. You can always click the photo to make it larger.)

I’m glad to have this little wall out of the way. Soon I can haul the welder up to the roof of container four and finish welding the upper wall to the container roof. That’s all for now.

Here’s The Plan

June 30, 2011

Regular readers will remember a previous post or two when the price of containers went through the roof and we were having difficulty finding a crane that we could afford to raise two containers to form the second floor. We decided to amend our plans to make a one-story house. Now, we rarely think about that old two-story plan and we are happy with what we are currently building.

For some time I have been promising to take some pictures of the (rudimentary) scale model of the house and post them here.

Here they are:

This is the view from the east. The four containers are marked 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Referring to the photo above, the kitchen is at this end (east) of containers 1 & 2. The TV, computer space, and our hang-out area is at the far end (west) of 1 & 2.

Between 2 & 3 is a 24-foot space that will form the front entry, the dining room, living room, and stairs to the roof deck above 1 & 2. The roof over this space is very simple, but creates a big surprise, exposed in the next two photos.

This end (east) of containers 3 & 4, as well as the 12-foot space between them, will be my shop. The far end (west) of this space will be our bedroom, master bathroom, a half bathroom, and a big closet that will have a dehumidifier.

The location of the laundry area is unconfirmed as of this moment, but I have promised Cynthia that we won’t have to go into town to do our laundry!

When we were buying containers, we wanted to get a 20-footer to make a guest casita and storage room (deposito in Spanish), but the price was the same as for a 40-footer. So the plan now is to take some of the metal that I cut out of the containers and build the casita myself.

The roof surprise is next:

View from the south-east.

Above, rotating just slightly to the south-east, you can see that the roof has a low-slope, late-1950s style. But it is on an angle creating some interesting geometry. Roofs in Panama are all about shedding a large amount of rainfall, and this low-slope is very common. Steep snow-shedding roofs just aren’t necessary here and look out of place in my opinion. Swiss chalet in Panama? Huh? Maybe if you are homesick for Switzerland, but don’t push it.

Hot air balloon view from the east.

Above, you can clearly see how simple the big roof is; it is just a big rectangle with one corner cut off at the bottom. But on its 45-degree skew it packs an understated design punch.

To give you a better idea as to the size of this roof, the long beam on the leading east edge will be 65-feet long. I’ll weld it up on the ground and have some fun with ropes and mirrors getting it up in the air.

The triangular open area between 2 & 3 creates a covered entry, and the prow of the roof forms cover over much of the roof deck.

Monster gutters and a sloped concrete roof on container 3 will move rainwater off to the west. It should provide a dramatic cascade during our tropical downpours.

So that’s our new plan.

My window painting gig is coming to an end. I had to weld up another scaffolding to safely get one last window done. Now I have to second and third coat a few windows and touch up some tired areas of the house and I will be done. The owners of the house and I are really happy with the way the job is turning out; the new transparent paint really showcases how badly the polyurethane failed after only three years. But ask me in another three years how our grand experiment in paint vs. varnish turns out; I’ll be hanging by my thumbs in the meantime.

The top window is done and we have moved the scaffolding down one level. Armando sands and preps this window. Compare the top left window with the one on the right. What a difference!

IN OTHER NEWS: In It Takes A Pueblo, I made two errors because of my incomplete grasp on the Spanish language. I now have the full stories:

1. The 500 sacks of cement were a gift to the families in the pueblo from their elected representative, the diputado (deputy). Aparently the diputados have discretionary funds. Some fix the remote dirt roads, some give sacks of cement. Remember this come election time, dear voters.

2. The young boy with the goose egg lump on his forehead that I took to the Central Salud wasn’t in a car accident as I thought. Turns out that he and his older brother were playing with rocks. Big rocks according to their sister, and the younger boy got in the way of an airborne boulder. No TV for a month… wait a minute, they don’t have a TV because they don’t have electricity in their home. At least the kids aren’t couch potatoes!

That’s all for now.

To Varnish Or Not To Varnish

June 5, 2011

I’m taking about a month off from our house construction project. But I am still working.

People we know, I’ll call them the Rodriguezes, have a large house with a lot of big wood framed windows. Many of them are high and difficult to access. They asked me if I would be willing to re-varnish the woodwork on the windows. One of their comments to me was that the varnish didn’t seem to last very long to the exposure to sun, wind, and rain, and they wondered how well the previous job was done.

It has been many years since I varnished anything, so I headed to the Internet to see what I could find on the subject to educate myself before saying “yes” to the job. Varnish, I learned (or re-learned) is a product made from oils and resins. One of its main uses is on the rigging of boats. The masts and other wooden parts are called spars, hence the term, spar varnish. The spars flex in the wind, and they need a flexible finish that will bend with the wood. The significant amount of oils in varnish allow this flexibility.

But I discovered that the oils in varnish evaporate rapidly, hence the necessity of the annual re-varnishing of wooden boats. But windows on a house aren’t like boat rigging. They don’t flex and bend in the wind and don’t need a flexible finish. So why do we use varnish? Because, I assume, it is clear and you can display the wood.

In my research I came across this article, and this related one. In the second article, the experimenter coated four oak doors with various products and set the doors in the back yard to weather. He painted one of the doors with exterior oil based paint; he used the paint base, before the tints of color are added. This product, he explains, is milky in the can but dries clear. The door painted with this product was the “clear” winner of his back yard test.

I sent the links to the Rodriguezes and they liked the paint-not-varnish argument. We walked around the house and noted what needed to be done.

I was curious if I could buy this product in Panama, so in one of my trips down the mountain I stopped at the Cochez hardware store. I tried to get my point across to the “paint gal,” but I guess I wasn’t “clear” about what I wanted and she couldn’t understand me. So I drove down the road to the Sur brand paint store. By the time I was done, four staff people were trying to steer me to varnish.

But I held my ground and insisted on them lining up on the counter cans of the four different alkyd paint base mediums. One can was actually marked, “base transparente” so I started with that one. The stuff in the can was thick, like white jelly. I dipped a finger in it and spread the paint on a piece of wood I had brought with me. With some fanning and blowing, the white stuff turned clear as it started to dry. I proclaimed, “I want this one.”

“You want this one? You don’t want varnish?”

“Yes, I want this one. It is better than varnish for wooden window frames.” The shaking heads and rolling eyes finally gave in to my insane out-of-the-box desire and sold me two gallons of high quality alkyd oil-based paint. I also got two gallons of lacquer thinner to thin the product so that it would soak into and seal the wood.

I collected my tools and equipment and started the job. But the rubber backer that holds the sandpaper disks on my Porter Cable random orbital disk sander had in the humid climate turned to jelly and powder and rendered the tool useless. I ordered a replacement part on the Internet, but it will be two weeks before it arrives.

I went back down the hill and bought a DeWalt random orbital sander. I’ve been using it for a few days now and like the tool a lot. I seem to be able to sand longer without my hands painfully vibrating.

I now have several windows sanded down to bare wood and first coated. The thinned paint raises the soft grain of the wood, as I expected it would. One window frame has now dried — it took three days — and I have sanded the primer smooth and second coated it. So far it looks very good. I plan three coats on all the woodwork.

The prospects of doing one of the windows, 25-feet-off-the-ground, 22-feet long and 6-feet high, scared me to death. I did not want to stand on a ladder with my face plastered against the glass like a suction cup to keep me from falling off the ladder, trying to sand and paint. Not safe, not fun. Same category as dealing with the snake in our kitchen.

After a lot of sit-and-look pondering, I decided to fabricate some staging. I noticed that above the window there were three-quarter-inch bolts that acted to join rafter tails to the rafters of the house. Hmm. I could make the staging using 2″x3″ metal carriolas. I could drill a one-inch hole at the top of each carriola staging frame and hang the entire staging from these beefy bolts. I went off to my shop in container #3 and spent a day cutting and welding. The staging is now in place and I have sturdy planks, two wide, to walk on while I work. Such a guilty pleasure.

Here’s a photo of the staging I built to access the high windows:

The red arrow points to my staging.

The red arrow points to my staging hanging in place.

Thanks to Steve at Hardwood Lumber and More for the eye opening info about varnish in the links in this post.

That’s all for now.