Bathroom remodeling



This is the main bathroom in our house. (It was built in 1945, so they weren't into the big luxury master baths that exist now.) I always hated that the fixtures were all pink; and the linoleum was too. But, I found evidence during the remodeling that even the walls had been pink. Egads!
The smallest cracks in the shower tile, over such a long time, caused this wall to deteriorate very badly. And, neither normal drywall nor "green board" is an adequate backing for a shower wall, even though many contractors these days use "green board". This wall was done with a kind of foil-backed water-resistant gypsum board that probably isn't made anymore.
Cracks in this tile, especially around the soap dish, also caused a lot of deterioration. I replaced some of the 2x6 framing in this wall, with pressure-treated lumber so that it will not rot or get eaten by termites.
Ugly open shelves, to be replaced with a cabinet.

...time passes...

I tried to keep the toilet operational as long as possible, for convenience. (We do have another bathroom, on the other side of the house.) I took out all the old drywall on 3 walls (the fourth, with the window, being cinder block) and replaced it with 1/2 inch ceramic tile backer-board. It is made from cement rather than plaster or gypsum, and designed to survive being wet. They have a demo in Home Depot where a piece of it is kept immersed in water all the time, and they lead you to believe that it still retains its strength. Anyway, you need something like this behind any kind of tile (ceramic, porcelain, glass, or stone). I was expecting only to tile halfway up the walls, and do a typical textured finish above. But my wife insisted on tiling all the way up. It cost more, and it is certainly a lot of weight for the walls. We will see how stable it is over the long term. Already there are grout cracks in the corners where the walls have shifted a bit since the tile was done.
On the walls where the tub and shower would be, I did 2 layers of tile backerboard. One layer, then some roofing felt (which is tar-impregnated and sheds water) and then another layer of 1/2" backerboard. It's definitely overkill, and I'm not sure it's ever been done this way before, but I can be fairly certain that we will not have water getting into the framing anymore, even if cracks develop in the tile.
I installed an exhaust fan. There wasn't one before.
My wife was obsessed with the idea that the ceiling in a bathroom is always a problem, and we should have something made from plastic or some other substance that will not rot, peel, or require any maintenance or painting. In Belarus they sell something like tongue-and-groove "siding" (like what is used for wood wainscoting here, and some people also use it on ceilings) but it's made from plastic. This is not easily available in the US yet. There are also plastic ceiling tiles, again not available here. So she and I were at Lowe's, looking for something that might work. Really there is not much. The closest we'd found was 4x8 sheets of textured plastic, which you see sometimes on the walls in restrooms in fast-food places, gas stations and the like. It looks tacky. Then, randomly, I found this stuff - plastic pegboard! It comes in 2x4 foot sheets, almost like suspended ceiling tiles. But, as it turns out, ceiling tiles are a bit smaller (because the metal frames are spaced exactly 2 feet apart, but they have some thickness). So I had to cut a bit off the edges of these to make them fit.

The worst part is the label! There really is no decent way to get it off. I tried a lot of methods. The glue is not soluble in water, nor alcohol, nor any organic solvent that I tried. I emailed the company about it, and got a reply, with lame excuses about how if they used a lesser glue, it would fall off in the store, etc. etc. Anyway, I do not recommend this product until they fix their labels. As it was, I had an extra couple of panels so was able to mostly avoid the parts of them that had the labels.

The coolest part is that the exhaust fan is hidden. Fumes and vapor can go through the holes in the pegboard.

I installed marine speakers in two of the panels, with 3/4" plywood glued to the back of the panel for better acoustic baffling, and to add weight and cut down on the vibration. The speaker wires come out in a box over the toilet, where there will be banana jacks for hooking up a stereo.

The remaining hole is for a 12-volt compact fluorescent light over the tub. The 12-volt circuits are connected to my DC power system, consisting of batteries and solar panels, so that we can still have lights during an electrical outage; and maybe we will save a tiny bit on the electric bill too.
Here you can see that I just removed the toilet. When I took out the old tub, the drain pipe came right out along with it. There had been a cast-iron trap, and it had mostly rusted away (yet somehow the drain still flowed freely; no roots got into it, and the dirt didn't collapse. Guess we were lucky.) I called a plumber, hoping he would have a very good way to connect a new ABS trap to the old iron sewer pipe; but he merely cut away the rusted part, made a clean edge on the remaining pipe, and used a rubber clamp-on boot, the kind that has two hose clamps. And then charged me several hundred bucks for this "service" which I could very easily have done myself in a couple hours. This is why I usually end up doing things myself - every plumber, mechanic, electrician, carpenter etc. seems to get paid more per hour than I do. It doesn't make a lot of sense, considering that I'm an engineer. It should be a waste of time for me to do this general labor stuff, but even if I take twice as long to do the job, my time is worth so much less than theirs that I come out ahead! Something is wrong with that.

Anyway, I didn't trust that the rubber-and-hose-clamp lashup would survive as long as the rest of the bathroom, so I wrapped the whole trap and connector and the area around it with a sort of bandage made with fiberglas mesh tape (the kind used to reinforce joints between sheets of drywall) and mortar with copper sulfate mixed in. (Copper sulfate repels roots, so if there is a leak, the water will leach the copper sulfate out into the soil, and roots from nearby trees shouldn't get into the pipes as they otherwise would. At least I hope that will work.) So the whole trap is embedded in a big blob of mortar, and shouldn't move. But the pipe going up from the trap to the tub is still flexible ABS, so if the ground shifts a little over time, hopefully nothing will break.

I got a bit of help to drag the tub into the bathroom - it is cast iron, and quite heavy. Unemployed Mexicans hang around the exits at Home Depot here all the time, looking for work. For $10 an hour they will do anything you like. So I hired a couple of them to help me move the tub.
Here you can see the new drain. I was surprised they didn't cover this big hole in the floor, but at least it was fairly easy to replace the trap with such a big hole to work in. I filled it with sand rather than dirt, to avoid having too much rigidity, and also perhaps it will repel termites. I've read that most bugs don't like sand, because the sharp edges on the grains tear up their bodies.
More crazy overkill here. I decided since the old wall rotted away so badly, the new one should be masonry. But it took too long to finish this part of the project. There is an access door in case I ever need to replace the faucet. But getting to the tub drain will be impossible now. The wall has rebar and angle-iron reinforcement embedded in it, all welded together, so it's quite sturdy despite being thin. Unfortunately a few hot sparks splattered onto the tub while I was welding and made some slight pits in the enamel finish.
Lesson learned: always mark the locations of pipes, wires etc. on drywall or backerboard while you are installing it! This is what can happen if you don't. I actually managed to screw into the same pipe twice with two different screws, right in a row! I noticed a puddle forming under the tub, but it was not obvious where the leak was coming from. So, I had to cut out successively larger areas of backerboard (two layers, remember, because this is in the shower area) to find the leak and fix the pipe. And cutting backerboard indoors is no fun anyway; so much dust. Outside you can just try to be upwind while cutting it, but for this kind of surgery I had to wear a respirator. Afterwards I marked the location of the pipe (!), cut out the hole in the upper layer a bit larger than the hole in the bottom layer, replaced the bottom layer first (with a fresh custom-cut patch), then more roofing felt, then the top layer.

...time passes...

I did my glass block section on top of the masonry at the end of the tub. In the mornings it lets a lot of extra light into the shower, and seems a lot cheerier than it used to.

Eventually it was time to get the tile done. We decided to go with marble. I had a strong inclination to do sea-green glass tile, but it is just way too expensive. I found a good deal at Lowe's on this marble, less than $3 a square foot. The reason it was so cheap, I guess, is that the colors and patterns have a bit of variety; some tiles just do not match most of the others.

Tile on a large scale, especially stone tile, and especially with 1/8 inch or smaller grout lines, is hard work, and a matter of art, and perhaps a bit of magic. For this part of the project I'm glad that I hired some help, even though it cost a lot. I looked in the yellow pages and called several companies, and set up an appointment with the lowest bidder. He turned out to be a flake; he didn't show up, and sent a friend instead. This friend only had experience with floor tile, and going straight up a wall, all the way to the ceiling, is a whole different ball of wax. I'd have thought that if you try to go all the way up on the same day, you'd have trouble with tiles falling off; but it turns out that if you use the right kind of extra-strong thinset for the job (called Marble Mate) that, at least, is not a problem. What is a problem is that the little rubber spacers used to keep the tiles apart, so that you have space for grout, get compressed under all the weight. And the wall ended up kindof uneven, too. I'm not sure what I could have done differently, but my backerboard was not completely flat all the way across. So, this guy was having a terrible time trying to get the tiles to line up properly. He started with whole tiles in the corner (which you should never do; rather, you should start in the middle, and just plan on cutting tiles at the edge. Almost-whole tiles look way better than thin strips, or uneven grout lines, and no room is so perfect that you can realistically do a whole row of whole tiles along any edge.) He did several vertical columns of tile, and then gave up and told me I don't owe him anything, but he cannot do this job.

So I called the next higher bidder. He estimated the job himself, and then sent out a crew of two very experienced Mexicans to do the work. They didn't speak much English so he told us to always call him if we had any issues. They did a great job. (To avoid trouble with compression of the rubber spacers, just use folded-up bits of paper. Duh.) It took almost a whole week though, with long days every day. They came before I went to work, and often were still here when I got home. I think the boss underestimated the amount of work, and didn't make much money on this deal, but he stuck to his initial estimate anyway. My only complaints were that they used some of the tiles that don't match very well, in obvious places; so we got them to replace those. I got enough extra tile that we didn't have to use the ones that didn't match. And, they grouted in every corner, even the corners in the shower. The boss said not to worry about it, but a few weeks later I had cracks in those corners. Shower corners should always be caulked with silicone, never grouted, because the walls can flex a bit, and it's important not to have leaks. So I had to scrape out the grout later with a little screwdriver, and do the caulking.

Finally in early 2005 I got the toilet and the shower doors installed. I used Turtle Wax to seal the tile in the shower, to keep the calcium deposits from sticking too badly, with the hard water we have here. Soon, I was too busy at work, and soon after that it was summer, and I don't get much done most summers, especially stuff that I need to do outside. The next part of the project would be custom cabinets. The sink couldn't be installed before the vanity was built, so we just had to do without for almost a year. But I've been enjoying the shower, and Kohler makes good toilets too. This one flushes very nicely.

At least I bought all the wood for the cabinets before going into estivation for the summer. It's real maple, and maple plywood.

...time passes...

In the fall of 2005 I started on the cabinets. Like everything, this took much more time than I anticipated. I got some new tools along the way - new set of router bits, a planer, a couple of new sanders, etc. Thank you China, and thanks to Harbor Freight.
Beginning staining of the vanity. The stain is Minwax Colonial Maple with a bit of Cherry mixed in to darken it. I thought it was too bright an orange color as-is; they could just as well name it Carrot.
The tricky part was getting the sink to fit right. One reason I needed to build my own cabinets is that there is not enough space for standard ones; they are too deep and don't leave much walking space between the vanity and the tub. And I liked the idea of having the sink hang out, like the old one, and like some early-19th-century designs that seem to be coming back in style now. I had to carefully cut a piece of wood to match the curved "belly" of the underside of the sink.
After several coats of Minwax Helmsman varnish, it was ready to be installed.
The sink fit pretty well. I glued it to the rails on the cabinet with construction adhesive, and managed to get one screw through one of the sink's mounting holes, right into a stud (rather than a water pipe, this time). So it seems sturdy.
Shiny new plumbing!
Next will be the granite countertops. Unfortunately, the sides of the sink are not exactly straight - they are curved just a bit. So fitting the stone exactly will not be as easy as it should be.

29-Jan-2006 - Installed the upper cabinet. The lower shelf (and the rows of tile above and below, for which I had to buy a tile saw) was a week or so ago. I still need to make the 6 little drawers that will go across, and the doors for the upper cabinet. The electrical boxes are for 12VDC power, ethernet and the speaker terminals for the ceiling speakers. My present plan is to use a SqueezeBox and one of those efficient TriPath amplifiers for the sound system.
5-Feb-2006 - Installed the LED lamp over the sink. It's disappointingly dim. I used a multi-LED bayonet base module intended for automotive use. A 1 or 3 watt Luxeon would be better, but would be very directional and might not light up the pretty red glass very well. It could be supplemented with some yellow LEDs though, to warm up the color a bit. Anyway, like this it looks very dramatic at night, and at least it's enough light to wash your hands.
19-Mar-2006 - Today we went to Copenhagen and picked out a nice mirror. We hadn't been in that store before but everything there is cool.