Masonry — How To Learn A New Skill!

Let’s face it. If you are a dedicated DIY’er, then you have to be willing to take on new projects which stretch your skills. Otherwise, you wouldn’t make any progress on the DIY highway. The reason that I say “stretch” is that expanding your skill set really means building on your existing skills.

There are some fundamental skills that anyone who builds must have. You have to know how to measure. You have to know what it means to be level, square, and plumb. You have to know how to think in 3 dimensions. For example: if you’re cutting a board into 24″ sections, then you have to take the kerf of the saw blade into account. Thus, you need to measure 24″, 48-1/8″, 72-1/4″, and so on. If you don’t, then every cut will be 1/8″ shorter than the previous one, and that can add up! Or you can cut and the repetitively measure. That’s what I tend to do (easier to keep track of, but takes more time). Building is fundamentally a creative art and, as such, you have to have a feel for materials and you have to like working with your hands. Your intuition also plays a big part and is an invaluable skill in and of itself. Don’t be afraid of it!

The next level is to take stock of the materials that you will be using. This generally takes two forms: (1) the actual material and, (2) the things you need to stick it together. For a wall, that will mean (1) lumber and drywall, and (2) nails, screws, tape, and drywall mud. For a masonry fence (what I happen to be building), that means (1) concrete block (i.e. concrete masonry units, or CMU’s) and caps, and reinforcing materials (rebar, anchors), and (2) concrete (for the footing), and mortar. Don’t forget the wire ties for the rebar and the rebar chairs to elevate your rebar assembly so it doesn’t bottom out  in the footing.

Understanding your materials is very important because you will be manipulating these materials to produce your DIY masterpiece. How do I cut it to size? How do I move it around and put it in place and how to keep it there? The answer to this second question is always very important to a DIY’er because, for the most part, you’re the only person there. In fact, the ability to do a job by yourself, without help, can be a crucial factor in deciding whether to go the DIY route, or to hire the job out. That is why I plan on hiring out my sidewalk concrete job.

Then there are the tools. Ah, tools! The MOST important tools that you have  (and everybody has) are your hands, your eyes, and your brain. That is why safety is SO important, because it becomes vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to do DIY projects if you are injured. See my previous post on safety. That being said, you just can’t cut wood or rebar with your hands. You need tools, which are basically extensions of your hands that perform a specific task. Tools can be segregated generally into the categories of measure, cut, beat, twist, or squeeze. The tools become more nuanced depending on the material you are working with, and generally can be grouped that way. Woodworking tools are different than metalworking tools, are different from masonry tools, etc.. You won’t use a hand saw to cut rebar, nor will you use a grinder to cut wood. So, to accomplish a project, you will likely have to get tooled up! And each new project can be viewed as an opportunity to add to the tool stable. If you’re just starting out, then obtaining the tools you need may be more expensive than the materials for the project. Fear not. Tools are an investment, and you can use them for the next project (and the next, and the next). Eventually, the ratio of tool to material expense goes way down, but NEVER to zero! There is ALWAYS room for one more tool. As an example, because I am taking on a masonry project for the first time, I had to invest in a number of tools, seen in these pictures.

Masonry Tools That I Bought

Masonry Tools That I Bought


Safety Equipment: Gloves, Safety Glasses, Hearing Protection, Breathing Protection. DON'T SKIMP!

Safety Equipment: Gloves, Safety Glasses, Hearing Protection, Breathing Protection. DON’T SKIMP!

Finally, to actually build, you have to apply your tools and your skills to the materials and start the creative process. But what if your skills fall short? Well, you have to self-educate. That means one of two things: learning by doing and making mistakes, and learning from others who have made their mistakes. This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings ever:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.

So, the BEST learning comes from your own experience (and mistakes) because you’ll remember them. However, that imposes a lot of risk and wasted time, so the BEST approach is to learn as much as you can from others with experience, and then go ahead and get some experience for yourself. That way, your mistakes, which you WILL make, will be less common and of less consequence. Before the Internet, I used to get all of the books and magazine articles I could on whatever subject I needed to study and spent a lot of time going through all of it. Now, the Internet has not only vastly more information on any given subject, but there are also VIDEOS which, for me, make all of the difference. To see a master craftsman with 30+ years of experience showing you how they do it, step-by-step, is almost like being in an apprenticeship program. Except that you don’t have the master yelling at you when you screw it up. That is left as an exercise for the you, the student.

For masonry work, I found a guy called Mike Haduck, who is a master mason in Pennsylvania. He has a YouTube channel  (here)  which is really good, and he covers every aspect of masonry that I could possibly imagine. He has great humility and in my mind is a great teacher, but why I really like him is because one of his tenants is that “there is no one right way”, meaning that his way is not necessarily the only way that you can produce a good result. It’s just his way. For a DIY’er, just getting insight on any way that works is better than nothing. However, because each job has its particulars and nuances, you have to remain flexible and, when necessary, do a riff on the basic techniques to make things work for you. And, as you get more experienced, you may develop your own ways which you can carry forward to other projects.

Here are some pictures of getting ready for the project:

Ready For The Footing

Ready For The Footing

Pouring the Footing

Pouring the Footing

Footing Completed!

Footing Completed!

Always sign your concrete work!

Always sign your concrete work!

Brick Delivery

Brick Delivery

Building Materials. Christmas in February!

Building Materials. Christmas in February!
























I also had to make a lintel, which is a piece of masonry that spans an opening. I followed Mike Haduck’s You Tube instructions (see here), and here are the pictures of the effort:

Making the Lintel. The 7" grinder is a new tool Santa gave me for Christmas!

Making the Lintel. The 7″ grinder is a new tool Santa gave me for Christmas!

Tools for rebar cutting: Measuring tape, 4" grinder, work stand (work-mate or equivalent) and a sharpie.

Tools for rebar cutting: Measuring tape, 4″ grinder, work stand (work-mate or equivalent) and a sharpie.

Bent rebar, cut blocks, and mortar, ready for assembly

Bent rebar, cut blocks, and mortar, ready for assembly

Finished lintel. I didn't pound it, like Mike did, so I hope it will be OK.

Finished lintel. I didn’t pound it, like Mike did, so I hope it will be OK.

Time for cleanup. Always keep your tools clean (especially masonry tools) and always clean up after a day's work. My dad taught me that.

Time for cleanup. Always keep your tools clean (especially masonry tools) and always clean up after a day’s work. My dad taught me that.
























Now, I’m ready for the President’s Day long weekend, and I’m very much looking forward to it. This will be the culmination of a lot of work in that this will be the construction of something that will be actually be permanent and seen by all. Stay tuned…..






How To Be A Safety Pro

Yesterday, I set about digging (again!), this time for a foundation for a masonry fence. Because the excavation for the foundation was right next to the sidewalk, I knew I would have to provide some kind of barrier and visual key that there was a deep (2’+) and potentially dangerous trench next to where people would be walking. Seriously, if you ended up walking into this thing, you would almost certainly break your leg, or worse, and that’s a liability I’d rather not have to bear. More importantly, being safe and providing barriers and warnings to potentially hazardous areas of your work shows consideration for those around you, and is just plain common sense. That got me to thinking about safety, and when you’re doing any kind of handy work, safety needs to be an integral part of how you approach the job.










First, you have to protect yourself. That means things like gloves, safety glasses, proper footwear (steel-toed boots-yes, flip-flops-no), hearing protection, breathing protection, and hearing protection. Of course, you’re not going to necessarily use all of these at once, but this always has to be part of the thought process before you proceed with whatever the next step of the operation happens to be. Almost always — safety glasses. I’ve spent way too many times trying to get crap out of my eyes and I’m probably lucky I’m not blind by now.

Second, you have to be aware of the hazards around you. Is that wire or electrical box hot? Have you checked? Is that pipe under pressure? Is my ladder stable? Will something fall on top of me? Do I have a bunch of trip hazards I have to watch out for?

Third, be considerate of the people who may be around you. Cordon off public areas where there may be hazards. Clean up after yourself. Make sure that you have a clear path around your worksite so that people can go where they have to without stumbling around in your mess.

At any rate, I finished my digging and put up an effective barrier. Those traffic barriers sure come in handy! Here is a short video of the work.

How Many Hats Do I Have? — A Short Essay On Project Management

Yesterday, I was picking up some materials at one of my local suppliers (Home Depot). I got there just when the store opened (0600), yet I wasn’t ready to do any “real” work until 0900. What’s up with that?

Actually I was engaged in a lot of activity because I had to rent the truck, wait for the materials to get forklifted to the truck, drive back to the house, unpack, unload, dispose of the packing material, drive the rental truck back, top it off with gas, and then drive back to the house.

Turns out, that whenever you take on a home improvement project of any size, one of the critical tasks is to get your materials. In addition, there are a number of other tasks that need to occur before you commence “real work”. (By “real work” I mean doing the deed. Measuring, cutting, digging, assembling… whatever your concept of “real work” may be.) My Dad always said: “Always have a plan.” For simple tasks, this can be a drawing on the flap of an unused cardboard box. I did this today when I was laying out a manifold for my irrigation system. For more complex tasks, you might need dimensional drawings or a 3D model. Yet, this kind of “plan” is only one-dimensional. Well, really 2-D, but it oversimplifies the task of planning. Planning includes ALL of the tasks necessary to complete a project (of any size). Here is a list of common tasks that are necessary predecessors for “real work” in the context of DIY home improvement:

  1. Define your task. This is the fulcrum around which everything else rotates. Do you want to remodel your kitchen? Do you want to have an accessible bathroom? Do you want to have a water-conserving landscape? Do I want to put in new flooring? (Yes to all.)
  2. Make a drawing. A drawing will force you to detail  critical information. What kind of cabinets do I want for my kitchen? What kind of shower to I need to make my bathroom accessible? What kind of irrigation system do I need to have a water conserving landscape? What kind of flooring do I want? How big? How much? What shapes? As you answer these questions, your design will become increasingly more detailed, and from this, you can not only get an idea of how you’re going to put things together, but also be able to extract a list of materials. This is crucial to the next step.
  3. Source and obtain your materials. I remember before the Internet that I used to spend hours roaming the aisles of the big box stores just seeing what materials were available for my project. Now, I spend hours roaming the Internet. The cool thing is that I now have access to exponentially more choices of materials, and most come with free shipping, so I don’t even have to leave the house. Stuff just shows up. As a matter of practice, I develop my material list in conjunction with the design process, so by the time I have finished the drawings, I also have my shopping list.
  4. Perform a cost estimate and obtain financing. OK, for simple projects, that may mean taking $200 from your savings account. But for bigger projects, like a home remodel, this step is more integrated with the planning process as you will be making trade-offs with your design. Cost estimation is a science unto itself, and there are some good software tools out there when it comes to estimating residential construction projects. I did a detailed cost estimate using an online program called Clear Estimates just before I had my plans approved. Not only did I get a good figure the cost of my remodel, but I also was able to get estimates for the work I plan to contract out. Now I have some benchmark costs so I can better evaluate the bids of the subcontractors.
  5. Set aside time for the project. You want to have a block of free time that allows you to have an uninterrupted workflow to make the job go faster, and minimizes repetitive set-up times. Planning when to work on the project also helps you schedule your material procurements and deliveries. Frequently, deciding on when I’m going to do a project is the first thing that I do because it helps me plan and complete all of the predecessors (task definition, design/drawing, and material procurement). Deadlines are an effective motivator.
  6. GET TO WORK! Finally!

The steps above are the essence of what is called “project management”. It’s actually pretty straightforward if the project is simple, and if the project is larger, you just have to break it down into smaller chunks until what you’re left with are a bunch of simple projects. Here is where it gets interesting. This collection of simple projects, representing a much larger project, is not just a “honey-do” list. These sub-projects are interrelated. Some tasks have to be completed before others can start. Some tasks can be done in parallel. Some tasks require specialized skills which are best left to professional contractors. So, answering the questions of “where to start” and “what’s next” can become quite complicated. Large commercial projects develop what is called an “Integrated Master Schedule” (IMS) which typically uses computer software (e.g., Microsoft Project) to logically link all of the sub-tasks and assign labor and material resources to each task. In theory, you can get an accurate estimate of how much the project will cost and how long it will take. In reality, there are ALWAYS cost overruns and ALWAYS schedule delays, largely due to the facts that (a) there is always a measure of uncertainty in planning any project, (b) the bosses will tend to be overly optimistic because they want to win the bid, and (c) the customer frequently has a change of mind, which results in a change in the plans, and things just cascade from there. I actually have experience with doing this, and I made up an IMS for this home remodeling project about a year ago. That schedule showed that I would complete the project sometime later this year (2015). Alas, the IMS was difficult to keep up to date, and since I’m the only guy working the project, I made a choice to ditch the IMS in favor of doing “real work”. Needless to say, I now only have a vague idea when I’m going to finish, and I’m not quite sure what the final cost is going to be. All I know is that I’ve been stopping by Home Depot almost every day to pick up yet another part that I seemed to have overlooked in planning.

So, as the only person who is working this project, I need to wear many hats. Designer, draftsman, planner, scheduler, estimator, finance manager, procurement specialist (shopper), shipping and transportation (bring the stuff home), warehouse manager (store the stuff), general contractor, and finally tradesperson. I’m sure I left something out, but I think that’s enough to illustrate the point.

Now, when you see a construction crew at work, realize that there is a lot of action behind the scenes that is necessary to support that work. Even if that construction crew is a crew of one.

Here are some pictures of my warehousing operation:



WAREHOUSE  Do you see my ShopSmith?

Do you see my ShopSmith?


Happy New Year! Reflecting on 2014 and Looking Forward to 2015

The turn of the year is always a good time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next. It’s a common demarcation point, and it occurs when we’re collectively given the time to reflect and plan, according to our nature. I know what you’re saying” “If you’re in retail, or emergency services, or in the military on deployment, the maybe I’m not given the time.” However, I think because of the time of year, everybody is doing it, and you can’t help yourself. Actually, serving your customers, community, or country can have special meaning at this time of year.

OK, well maybe not so much in retail.  As they say, anybody who says there are “No stupid questions!” has NEVER worked in customer service. You know, retail is a dang hard job, and I truly appreciate everybody who helps me when I’m shopping.With a smile and a kind word, you will always get superior customer service! All you have to do is to distinguish yourself from the a**hole who decided to take out their frustrations on some poor, underpaid retail associate who is constantly bombarded by yet another a**hole! But you have to remember to take the time to take the survey and say nice things. If you REALLY want to reward good customer service, then have the presence of mind to remember the name of the person who helped you, and then take the time to make a positive comment  on the survey, or the website. These people get promotions and monetary rewards for this kind of stuff. So, the lesson is: Be nice, and when you get good service, make sure you tell the boss!

Where was I?

Reflections on 2014: I had been planning my remodel since 2012, when my lovely wife and I started discussing concepts and the things that we really wanted out of  life, and how our home would reflect that. At the beginning of 2014, I had finished detailed planning and had drawings that I thought were good enough to submit to the city building department for approval. 8 months later, after 3 revisions, I finally got the building permit! Actually, I didn’t wait to get the building permit do start work. I knew that I needed to take out my patio in back, and I wanted to save the bricks and sand. That was a major undertaking which filled the dead time in between the review of the latest plan revision, and answering the comments for the next plan revision. Once I got the building permit, I started in earnest, with site demolition, excavation, and installation of underground services.

What I learned:

  1. If you don’t follow the prescribed approach in the codes, then you will have to have a licensed engineer sign off on your plans. For a small job, it’s not worth it (and they were kind enough to tell me that). Learn the codes and follow the prescriptive approach.
  2. Take each “rejection” as an opportunity to improve your design. I can say that my plans have been significantly improved by having reworked them for the building department.
  3. Detailed planning helps you build faster. My plans have speeded up my work (thus far) in ways that I could not have imagined before.
  4. Detailed planning does not account for everything. Inevitably, you run into unexpected obstacles. The fittings don’t fit like you expected. You need to change the routing of the conduit to account for other buried services. Remain flexible and adapt. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” (Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.)
  5. Know when to quit for the day. Something my dad taught me.  This is a big project and you have to know your limits. If you push too hard, then quality suffers. It’s OK to have goals, but sometimes (OK , frequently), the goals are too optimistic. There are only so many hours in the day, and you need to take care of yourself. So know when to quit for the day, and make sure that you leave enough time for clean up!

Goals for 2105:

  1. Don’t get injured. Building can be dangerous if you’re not careful!
  2. Keep my job. Don’t get too involved in the remodeling at the expense of the day job. Yes, I still have to pay for all of this somehow.
  3. Go to Smithfield, VA for my  wife’s 50th high school reunion.
  4. Finish the site work. I’m optimistic this will be done by March. But who knows?
  5. Move out of the master bedroom, and do the demo.
  6. Build the addition and close in. I’m hoping by July-August. Before the rains come in any case.
  7. Install A/C. That will be contracted out.
  8. Install a new roof. Also contracted out.
  9. Re-stucco the front. Yet more contract work.
  10. Paint the house. Did I mention contract work?
  11. Install new electrical service. This will be all me. Wish me luck!
  12. Don’t take the remodeling too seriously. Yes, it’s important to have goals and to work hard to achieve them, but in the end, this is supposed to be rewarding and it’s important to take pride in one’s accomplishments. Otherwise, I’d be hiring somebody to do all of this!

I wish all of you a very happy New Year, and I hope that you continue to follow my blog. I’m working on an epic post for digging ditches!  Stay tuned……

A Home Remodeling Christmas

In my last post, I mentioned all of the “Christmas” shopping I did in getting all of the parts for my buried services. I’m deep into digging (more on that later), and I actually am looking forward to spending some dedicated time over the Christmas and New Years holiday to make some really good progress.

As usual after Thanksgiving, our neighbors decorated their homes with lights, and it really makes the street look nice. We would always participate, putting up some tasteful white lights and some garlands. In fact, my remodeling plans call for an exterior plug, controlled by a switch, that will be installed expressly for Christmas lights.

But that is in the future, and for now, I felt I had to come up with something that was appropriate for the season, yet fit our “decor” of a torn up yard, complete with piles of dirt and trenches. Honestly, the exterior of the house and property will look no worse than it does at the moment. What a friggin’ mess! Then, in a flash of insight, I had the answer!

My lovely wife always encourages me to “use what I have”. I think this comes from her Scottish heritage, and I appreciate and admire her way of making elegance out of frugality. In rising to that challenge, I took a look at these traffic barriers that I had, and it gave me an idea. I was required to buy traffic barriers with flashing lights for the dumpster(s) that I needed to put on the street, marking where the dumpster was, lest an errant driver not see it and run into it at night. I swear that the drivers around here are so fu#&*@’n dumb that they don’t need any assistance from alcohol to run into a dumpster in broad daylight. And swear I do. Profusely. When I’m driving.

Back to the point. These traffic barriers have flashing lights. And, I have my strings of Martha Stewart LED outdoor Christmas lights. AND I have a bunch of “CAUTION” tape. What a great combination! So, I placed the traffic barriers in a tasteful manner across the front of my yard, strung my Martha Stewart lights tastefully between them, secured the assembly with tasteful CAUTION tape, and put the lights on a timer that I had from my (now defunct) pond. This arrangement has the added advantage of discouraging errant people on the adjacent sidewalk from stumbling onto my property and breaking their legs when they trip into one of the many trenches that await their drunken follies. (OK, they have to be drunk, but that is not outside the realm of possibilities.)

Although I try to elicit visual pictures with my writing, this video is worth 454 words.  Good thing this blog has a word counter, otherwise I’d be guilty of false representation! (OK that’s 472 words).

Everyone have a wonderful holiday season, and I promise I’ll have more posts in the near future.

Shopping for Parts — What Else Would I Do On Black Friday?

As the last bits of excavation and site preparation come to fruition, the project is now entering the phase where I have to actually start buying materials. When I was making my plans, I did a lot of research on the Internet to make sure I could source the critical parts that I needed, and I did some preliminary estimating. Even though it was quite helpful, things become more serious when you start putting cash on the table. Back in the day, I would spend hours perusing the aisles of the big box stores, writing down prices and in general figuring things out. Now I spend hours on the Internet, copying and pasting prices and in general figuring things out. At least I don’t have to waste time travelling to and from the store. And I can sip a beer without fear of arrest.

All kidding aside, the Internet and stores with an on-line presence are the best thing that has happened to DIY’ers since, well, DIY. Not only can I check inventory and prices, but I can also source difficult to find products and have them shipped to me. For example, I was looking for an irrigation controller that was set up for a smart home, and I found one for sale directly from the manufacturer (Irrigation Caddy). It has an ethernet port, controls 10 zones, and has a rain sensor option. Boo-Yah! In addition, many of these stores have a lot of how-to’s. I completely figured out my outdoor 12v lighting system from a website that sold lighting parts directly from the factory (Landscape Lighting World). They had tons of how-to videos and some very practical advice on landscape lighting. Their products seemed pretty good as well, and when I compared prices, they were reasonable, so I ordered from them.

The big box stores also have significant online presence, and the ones that I use (Home Depot and Lowe’s) have convenient features on their websites that allow you to develop lists. However, sometimes navigation of that all that stuff is tricky. For instance, if you type in a key word on the Home Depot site, you get results that are typically incomplete. The best way to search is to drill down from the home page once you find the department where the product is located. The other hassle is that sometimes you get things that are in the store, which get pulled immediately, and other things which have to be shipped to the store. So I get several e-mails and texts urging me to hurry to pick up my in-store order (and being threatened that they will cancel it) while they haven’t even shipped the balance of the order to the store. I eventually straightened that out, but really, HD should figure out a way to let me know when the complete order is ready for pick-up. Then some items they won’t ship to the store and they’ll charge you to ship it to your home. For example, I wanted to order some drain pipe, and the price was $28, but the shipping was $55. No thanks.

Of course, sometimes they won’t have what you want. Mostly, I try to figure out a way to order it from someplace that has free shipping like Amazon, but in some cases, that’s impractical. So, it’s back to the big box store where you can ask if they can do a special order. My experience with these is pretty positive, because the folks at the special order desk typically have a lot of experience, and they will do thorough research. If they can order the part, you’ll have it in a few days. If they can’t they usually will give you good advice about who may have it.

Lastly, sometimes you really need to see the product in person. Thus far, I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve been looking up the product specifications on line while I was in the planning phase, so I have a very good idea of what I want and how much I need. This works fine for commodities (pipe, wire, fittings), especially if they’re hidden. If they’re not, then you have to start worrying about color and texture, and shape, and … all that stuff that I’m not very good at. So, because my wife has a far superior sense of style, I enlist her help when it comes to these things. She also has a vested interest because she doesn’t want the house to look like I dress. Well, ok,  like I USED to dress before she started picking out clothes for me. Now, I have to busy myself in obtaining “samples” so we can carry them around when we look at materials. These samples go beyond paint samples, although that’s included. We’re talking brick, retaining wall blocks, roofing shingles, … etc.. I hope I don’t need a truck to haul this stuff around! Actually, I exaggerate. All we really need are paint samples and a piece of roof shingle. Be that as it may, my wife is correct about getting all this stuff together to see what it looks like in person. Pictures on the Internet can fool you when it comes to colors because there are so many variables (lighting direction, lighting color, camera settings). Sometimes you can get the data, such as RGB values, for colors, and that can help with computer rendering. But bottom line is that you need to see things in person to make sure. Especially if you’re buying several pallets of bricks for a brick wall. I have a feeling that would be WAY more difficult to return than a pair of bunny slippers.

Excavation–Oh The Joys Of Dirt!

As I was in the later stages of planning, and after the home inspector I hired pointed out that I needed to install a proper drainage system in my yard, I came to the realization that I would have to move a LOT of dirt. In a previous blog entry, I mentioned the fact that I rented a “skid steer” (or Bobcat) to do the demolition of my concrete and retaining walls. Now, with another long weekend at hand, it was time to rent the beast again and do some real digging.

I remember from my childhood an interest in heavy machinery doing all kinds of excavation and grading on a miniature scale in my sandbox. With my Tonka Toy grader and bulldozer, I was digging awesome ditches and making the grade so smooth that you could calibrate your level on it. A nice memory, perhaps, but it takes a little time to get the hang of operating one of these beasts so it doesn’t hurt you (it can), and produces the desired result.

First, safety. It is important to get hold of an operator’s manual and read it. Although the machine is very intuitive to operate, there are some basic safety concepts which must be followed. Other than doing dumb-ass stuff that the machine isn’t designed for, like using the shovel as a working platform, you really have to remember one thing:  BALANCE!!!  ALWAYS keep the HEAVY end towards the uphill side. If you have a full bucket, then forward is good. If you have an empty bucket, then backward is the preferred arrangement. I made a couple of mistakes along the way and, because the machine is very compact, the center of gravity (CG) can shift quite a bit. It’s a tradeoff between stability and compact size. Fortunately, I did not tip over, but doing wheelies with a 2 ton machine can be scary. Interesting side note: The machine has a “roll cage” which the manufacturer insists that you do not modify in any way. I wonder if that’s because the occasional operator became over-enthusiastic and found themselves upside-down! The other factor affecting balance is the height of the load. The arms can raise the load above your head in order to dump it into a truck. But if you carry the load that way, you are in serious danger of flipping over. Of course, you also need to have personal safety equipment. A hard hat, because you can actually dump crap on yourself (I did), safety glasses (your eyes are vulnerable and too important not to take this simple safety precaution), earplugs because the engine is noisy and I didn’t want to listen to any criticism about my heavy equipment operating skills, and steel toed boots because your feet are important. If your feet get injured, then you can’t walk, and you then become an invalid. Take no chances!

Second, have patience and practice. I saw a lot of You Tube videos on how to operate these machines, and I learned a lot, but there is no substitute for experience and experiment. Start with a relatively benign environment where you have some room to move around, and some latitude to make mistakes. Try to do different operations such as cut, fill, load, and dump. Yes, you may spend an hour or two getting oriented, but the time spent is well worth it.

Third, have a plan. This means that you have to think through what you’re going to do given the topography and the desired end result. It’s more nuanced than just getting rid of a bunch of dirt, although you may have to do that at first. Where will you be able to dig? What are the constraints on my maneuverability? Most importantly (for me): how do I get this material out of the back yard an up a 30″ elevation? This last problem was not trivial. I had experienced two failures (detailed in a previous blog), so this time, I used railroad ties to build a “staircase”. I figured that if these ties could support a locomotive, they could support a measly skid steer. Turns out, that I was right. This solution stood up to numerous 2 ton trips. Here is a picture:


A Ramp That Works!


In the end, I learned how to get a full bucket (pile up your stuff, lower your bucket, and ram it while scooping the bucket (right foot) and lifting the arms (left foot). I learned how to cut (lower the bucket and aim down, push forward, but be careful about digging too deep). I learned how to fill (dump some dirt, and then lower your bucket and go backwards, then run over it a bunch to compact the dirt). Other variables include type of soil (this clay shit that I have to work with needs a jackhammer!), and proximity to existing objects (house, patio cover posts, trees….).  Bottom line is that I did OK with establishing the grade (using frequent measurements), I got rid of the dirt that I think I needed to, and (most importantly) I didn’t kill myself or anybody else. I consider that a worthy accomplishment. Here some “after” pictures:

Side Yard... Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn't fit!

Side Yard… Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn’t fit!



Nice grade for the driveway apron

Nice grade for the driveway apron


Front yard. This was my practice place.




Backyard — no, I’m NOT installing a swimming pool!

Last Gasp

End of a long day. Full dumpster, and the skid steer ready to return. Tomorrow, they will vanish from this scene.



For those of you who were interested in seeing me actually operate the little skid steer beast, Here is my video on steer skid operation:

Here are some more videos of cool skid steer operators:

This guy is my hero. I learned SO MUCH from him.

This is how I learned how to cut and fill. PATIENCE!!

Here is a trickster. See what I mean about balance:

Even the pros F/U:

The other thing I learned is that many of these videos show how the operators make nice even contours given an expansive area. When you’re confined, it doesn’t matter how small your skid steer is. There are places where it won’t reach, and you’ll have to do the work by hand. So it turns out that I have a lot of work to do by hand! But, overall, I probably saved 90% (or more) of the backbreaking manual labor which I am getting ready to undertake as “residual” earthmoving.

In the end, you have to ask the question, was it worth it ? In other words, would this have been an activity that was better to hire out?  At first blush, I seemed to think so. Then, I looked up what the going price was for excavation services in my area. I spent about $5,000 between equipment rental, dumpster costs (5 x 15 yd = 75 yd of concrete/stone and soil detritus), and ancillary expenses (diesel fuel, measuring equipment, safety equipment). The cost for 75 yards of excavation was $10,000. So I saved $5,000. Well, I still have some scut work to do with manually finishing the job (that will take several weekends). I guess it hinges on what is most important to you. If you have a tight schedule to meet, then maybe spending $10,000 on hiring a service is OK. On the other hand, if you’re not so dependent on schedule, then maybe saving $5,000 is better. Of  course, there was the angst of worrying about the skateboarder who would suddenly appear just as my skid steer was emerging from the back and running into him (her) and killing him (her) and thereby losing what little remains of my fortune. But that didn’t happen, so the bullet was dodged, and I am happily putting aside this phase of the remodeling project. And moving onto the next one! Trenching and inspections. But only after I finish up the manual work of cleaning up the excavation. Wish me luck!


Home Fire Sprinklers — Why I Did It

When I was fiddling around in my “research” phase of what it would take to make my home compliant with contemporary standards, I stumbled across the requirement (in California at least) to have new construction homes be equipped with a fire sprinkler system. Being a veteran of the Navy, where there is a fetish about fire protection and safety — think about it, you’re surrounded volatile fuels and explosives in the middle of nowhere — it, needless to say, piqued my interest. I found out that IF you are involved in a fire (unlikely because I have been careful about minimizing the root causes of fire), then the statistics show that protection with a residential sprinkler system increases your survival rate by 80% and decreases your property damage by 70%. How could I not continue? Did I mention a fetish?

It turns out that installation of a residential fire sprinkler system is within the DIY realm. If you’re trying to go with a “modern” plumbing system, which has all sorts of headers and networks and PEX pipes, then it’s probably not DIY. If you don’t know what PEX or a networked plumbing system means, then it’s DEFINITELY NOT DIY. However, if it’s just a retrofit or a new construction, you can install a simple “tree-branch” design.

A “tree-branch” design is simply a source of water that has runs and branches to distribute the water to the individual sprinklers. The basic design mimics the design of a standard plumbing system. The source of the water needs to come from the main water supply to the house, and then branches off before the supply to the rest of the domestic water system. The sprinklers can be thought of as a “complimentary” plumbing system. So, if you can install plumbing using CPVC (Chlorinated Poly Vinyl Chloride) pipe, you’re GTG with a DIY installation. Except…..

There is a pesky requirement called a “hydraulic calculation” which involves a litany of limitations and specifications which, if followed, will ensure that your sprinkler system will spray the correct amount water over the area that it is designed to cover. There are a lot of variables, and the interaction of these variables (e.g., pressure, flowrate, pipe diameter, K-factor) can be intimidating if not fully understood.

FORTUNATELY (for me), this is right up my alley. My studies in chemical engineering involved fluid flow, so I had a good background in what the calculations were all about. I dug back into the recesses of my tiny brain, and , with the help of Wikipedia, reconstructed the seldom used  neural synapses to come up with a spreadsheet which helped me figure out the required water pressure at the street main, and the required water pressure of my design. So I called the water authority to get the pressure at my residence (105 psi) and I went merrily to work. I submitted my design, and got told that it was F/U.

First, the assumed pressure was wrong. I had to submit a request for the available water pressure at worst case conditions. It turns out that the fire department and water authority have this dance figured out. I was just not invited to it. Bottom line is that I had to request a “residual” pressure base on worst case conditions. Once I received that, I was back to ground zero. Second, I was not properly accounting for the pressure at the “second” sprinkler. Code requires that whenever you have two or more sprinklers in the same room (compartment), then you must use the most limiting flowrate from two of those sprinklers. I had to lick my wounds and remember the lessons that I learned (and apparently forgot) in my sophomore fluids flow class, and revise my handy-dandy spreadsheet to make it reflect reality.

With the new available pressure, and the right methodology with my spreadsheet, I had to re-do the entire design. In the end though, I actually was able to make the design easier and less expensive to install. The key was to make the k-factors similar. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then maybe you shouldn’t be designing a residential fire sprinkler system.

The upshot is that my sprinkler design was approved today. I’m actually quite proud of it because the majority of designers plug their designs into a computer program which tells them whether they are right or not. I did the calculations by hand, so I know that the design will work because I understand the underlying principles. OK, I used a spreadsheet, but I had to put the Hazen-Williams formulas in. I’m sure that if you contract a designer to provide a sprinkler plan for you, that it will be correct and will work just fine. It’s just that the designer won’t know exactly why. Let’s just keep that as our personal secret.

Here is my advice (for what it’s worth):

  • Get a residential fire sprinkler system. The cost is more than worth the peace of mind and the protection it offers your family and your home.
  • If you’re DIY, but perhaps not so interested in the nuances of hydraulic calculations, then try to hire a designer who will give you plans. Having said that, you’d better understand some of the nuances of fire sprinkler installation. There are very specific requirements for the mounting of the supply lines and sprinklers so that they don’t jump around when they get activated.
  • If you’re interested in the design, here are some references:

Residential Fire Sprinklers



Here are my plans:1370 BFD Fire Supression R 2.5

And the spreadsheet for the hydraulic calcs: 1370 BFD Hydraulic Calculation Worksheet CPVC

OK, I know I’m a geek at heart. I really do love to design and to manifest my ideas, in terms of numbers and letters (in the correct sequence) so that they can be created in the physical world. This is what I’m all about, and this is what I hope you can see as I take my next steps on the DIY highway.


P.S.  Did you notice that “Why I Did It” contains DIY backwards?


Staking Out Your Territory — How To Survey And Set The Grade

One of the challenges that any builder has is to transfer what is on the plans to the physical reality of what you happen to be working on. If you’re building a birdhouse, then you have to take the written dimensions on the plan and transfer them to the wood. Remember to subtract the width of the saw kerf! (My woodworker friends will appreciate this bit of free advice.) If you’re building a structure on a piece of land, you have to transfer those dimensions to the land. This is not a trivial endeavor,  because land is not necessarily level, square, or plumb. That’s construction terminology for orthogonal axes in a cartesian coordinate system, depending on your point of reference. But I digress.

The bottom line is that you first have to establish reference points, relative to your plans, to measure and mark your material. With wood, this pretty easy because typically  the raw material has reasonably straight and square edges. With land, you are on your own. The first priority is to establish a reference point. In the world of land surveyors, this comes down from edicts issued from backroom deals made among the wealthy and powerful who claimed the land and established certain boundaries, which may or may not have had any bearing on the indigenous people who currently occupied the land. So, because the rich and famous had guns and cannons. they displaced the indigenous occupants who had no concept of land ownership, and established the boundaries that you and I obey.   Again, I digress. Maybe this is a sign of old age.

So, if you follow the legal thread, you own property, which is documented precisely in the county records. Your deed specifies the plat (the drawing) that is the official and legal record of the land that you own. That plat has specifications which detail the dimensions of your land, as well as the precise locations of the corners of your property. If you are adventurous, you can probably take the data from the  records, and locate the surveyor’s marks on your property. If you are a city dweller, then you may see them as little nails in the sidewalk.

The builder of the house will transfer the dimensions of the corners of the property to the footprint of the house. There, the builder will begin excavation, pour the foundation, and build the house. All per the plans submitted to the city (or “building official”) and approved. It is with this thread that I start my measurements. My assumption was that the house was situated correctly on the property, and since my objective was to obtain proper drainage via a proper grade away from the house, I would use the corners of the house as the reference points.

But the problem remained: how to accurately locate the level of the land when the raw material was dimensionally random. For this, I had to learn a little bit about surveying. The basic geometry is middle school math, but the application is a bit more nuanced. How do you measure a level over a long distance? How do you mark the reference and set the other marks precisely relative to this reference? Professional surveyors use high-tech tools like laser levels and differential GPS theodolites. The equipment costs thousands and rents for hundreds. Was there a DIY solution? Well, yes. There is ALWAYS a DIY solution!

The first step was to take inventory of what I had. I had a laser measuring “tape” (I bought it when I needed to take the dimensions of the “as built” house for my plans.), a tripod, and an iPad. I checked out the apps that were available for the iPad and. lo and behold, somebody had developed a theodolite app. A theodolite is an instrument which will tell you the precise azimuth, elevation, and level from a given reference point. (If you don’t understand this terminology and how to convert polar coordinates into cartesian coordinates, then maybe surveying isn’t your thing.) The theodolite app was the ticket. All I had to do was to build a “surveyor stick”.

To explain: Surveyors need to measure changes in elevation over long distances. To do this, they set their measuring device (transit, theodolite) over a designated reference point, and then focus on a “stick” that is held by an assistant at the point they want to measure. That stick is essentially a ruler, which if the transit/theodolite is level, will measure the vertical distance between the observer and the stick.  If you combine this information with the azimuth (i.e., the angle from true North), you will have an EXACT location of that point on the earth. So, I needed a surveyor stick that was self-supporting because I couldn’t assume that I would have an assistant. I designed one, and the plans are here.SURVEYOR’S STICK. Once I was able to measure the difference in elevation, all I needed to do was to establish the grade, i.e., the slope, to allow the proper drainage. The slope is 2% away from the house, and 1% from front to back. So using my handy-dandy laser rangefinder, I simply multiplied my measured distance by the % slope to get the final elevation at the measured point.

All I had to do now was to research a bit of jargon with respect to grading and how to actually mark the property. The first thing I learned was that surveyors will mark the land using squat little stakes called “hubs” which are pounded level into the ground where you’re making your measurement. The vertical distance of the hubs are then measured between the hub and the reference (theodolite). You then take that difference and compare that to the plan. If the measured vertical distance is greater than the required distance, you need to fill (raise) the level of the land at that point. If it is less, then you need to cut (lower) the level. If you do this at several points, you can establish the contour (grade) that the plans specify. So at each hub, I would put a grade stake, with a mark that indicated a cut “C” or a fill “F” of a given dimension. Professional surveyors use 1/100 of a ft., but since my measuring devices were calibrated in inches, I used that standard. Whatever works.

The cool thing about all of this was that after all of the staking, I began to see the real outline of the plan manifested on my actual property. It was, perhaps, a turning point in the project because it represented a change in direction from demolition to construction. In my mind’s eye, I now have a glimpse of how the finished product will look like.

Here are some pictures:

Grade Stakes. Don't you like the colors?

Grade Stakes. Don’t you like the colors?

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!


Demolition, Excavation, and Skid Steers

Now that I had the brush cleared and a dumpster to put my detritus, it was time to start demolition in earnest. The first step was to get rid of my retaining wall, sidewalks, and driveway apron made of cobblestones.

Basically any hardscape besides the driveway proper was going to go. In a blinding flash of naivete, I went ahead and rented a breaker (a.k.a jackhammer) and had the notion that I would be able to take care of this trifling demolition effort in a mere afternoon. 2 days later, I had barely made progress on that damned retaining wall, and it wasn’t looking good for the completion of the demo that weekend. I had to lift that heavy jackhammer and get it into all sorts of crazy positions in order to get proper purchase on the wall, and even then, it took forever to bust up the concrete — especially the foundation. So, I stopped the foolishness with the retaining wall and focused my remaining efforts in breaking up the sidewalk on the side of the house so I at least accomplished something during the weekend. I went back inside, cleaned up,  and nursed a beer while I licked my wounds and began plotting plan “B”.

The problem that I had was that I needed bigger tools and more power, preferably something that I didn’t have to lift and lug around. Fortunately, I rented a mini “skid steer” for use during the Columbus day holiday weekend, and I was initally planning to use the skid-steer to do excavation and grading. But these little beasties have all manner of attachments, and all I needed to do was to rent the companion breaker attachment. So, for a mere $700 extra (it was $800 for the skid-steer), I would be in business. Now, I just had to do some replanning and figure out how to operate the damned thing.

First, a little background on what a skid steer is. These are smaller versions of a standard power shovel, with a bucket on arms that can be used to scrape, scoop, push, pick up, and dump stuff. It has a small diesel engine that powers a hydraulic pump, and it has 4 wheels which are powered by hydraulic motors. These motors are controlled by handles on either side of the operator such that when you push both forward, the machine goes forward, and when you pull them both back, the machine goes back. And when you push one forward and the other back, the machine skids and spins around and does donuts. Hence “skid-steer”. The best thing about these little guys is, well, they’re little. Perhaps compact is a better work. They weigh about a ton and a half, but they’re only 36″ wide, which means they can fit into your living room through your front door. Not that you’d want to excavate your living room, but I’ve seen videos of folks driving them into garages and using them to bust up garage slabs. Which is where I got the idea to rent the breaker attachment to help me finish the demo work. Here are some pictures:

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The day came when the rental company delivered the skid steer and attachments (hydraulic breaker and two buckets). I had downloaded and printed a copy of the operator’s manual, studied it, and watched some videos on operating it. With my hard had and safety glasses, I nervously strapped myself in the seat, checked everything out, and fired it up. After a few tentative moves, I found that it was very intuitive to operate, so I set the bucket down and disconnected it from the arms so I could mount the breaker attachment. Bad move. I went over some uneven ground and got stuck. Turns out that you need the weight of the bucket , or attachment, to balance things out. So the lesson is that you put all of your attachments in one place next to each other on level ground and make your changeouts there. I put on the breaker attachment, and then went to town on the front sidewalk. Awesome! That thing broke apart fairly quickly, and using the machine to pull out deeply buried chunks of concrete with the breaker was a real labor saver.

One of the conundrums I had to overcome was getting the little guy in the back yard. There was not enough clearance on the sides of the house (yep, less than 3′), but fortunately there is a common walkway on one side of the property, and there are gaps in the masonry wall that borders that walkway, covered with wood fencing. So all I had to do was remove the chunk of fence and I was in business, right?  Well… not so fast! The walkway is about 20″ higher than the level of the ground in my back yard. So I had to build a ramp. The first version looked pretty sturdy, but literally broke apart after a few uses. I had to build another one, at a critical time while I was still paying for use of the skid steer (that $1500 clock was ticking), and it was better lasting a whole day, but in the end, it didn’t cut it either. Plus it was too steep, so I was on the edge of doing wheelies going up with 1.5 tons of machine and another half ton of load. Not cool. Especially when I slipped off once, had to back up, and ended up bashing a support column on my porch cover. Ahh… the joys of DIY! At least I had to replace that column for other reasons, so NBD. I’m trying a new scheme  for next time which involves railroad ties. I figure if it can support a locomotive, it can support a measly skid steer!

Here are some pics of the failed ramp(s) and the broken post:


DSC_0062 DSC_0070











In the end, I moved 2 loads of concrete and rocks (about 25 yards) and loaded up another 15 yard dumpster with excess earth. I still have some grading to do, so there will be more earth removal. And my grading skills suck. But I relish the chance to improve for next time, and I’m carefully studying YouTube videos as part of my heavy equipment apprenticeship program. Nonetheless,  one typically learns by doing. Either that, or I’m going to have a really bumpy landscape!


More pics:

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