Friday, July 24, 2009

Urethane laughs at chemical strippers

Back during George H. W. Bush’s administration when Kim & I were just starting to get to know each other, she was over at my house one day, and I caught her casting what appeared to be a disapproving look at the card table & chintzy chairs which were gracing my kitchen’s dining area. I laughed and explained that my long range plans included replacing the ensemble with a 48-inch round, white oak table & matching chairs. At present, though, its acquisition had yet to bubble up to the top of my “high-dollar list of things to buy”.

During the subsequent chit-chat, wherein Kim noted that she and girlfriend Alicia, while out-and-about, had noticed a vendor at the Limestone County Flea Market was selling a new, locally-produced version of what I had just described. Deciding to go for the Brownie Points, I expressed interest, and bumped a new table & chairs up on the list. By the following weekend, my bachelor kitchen had new furniture.

After many subsequent years of great meals, spilled food, and pages of kids’ homework, the table’s finish started showing its age, and was moved last week to my shop for refinishing.

While the table’s white spots and sporadically missing finish were one thing, the major annoyance was the gummy feel the finish was getting. Although good for holding plates in place, the surface’s stickiness made flipping through a newspaper or magazine tough.

Other than the feet being beat up a little by constant mop attacks, the pedestal’s finish was, overall, still in good condition. One theory is that all the dried drops of milk & dog slobber on it had formed a protective coating.

Meals got a lot cozier during the project. Kind of nostalgic too – That’s my pre-Kim kitchen table we’re eating on.

As I had met, and talked shop with the man who had built my table when I bought it, I knew that the table had a urethane, as opposed to polyurethane or varnish or lacquer, finish. Generally accepted as tougher & more durable than other finishes, a cured urethane finish requires a special mix of chemicals to remove it. Surprisingly, after running an inventory check, I found that my shop had sufficient amounts of everything necessary to strip & refinish the table.

Normally, lifting an old finish with chemicals is kind of fun. Brush the stripper on, wait until the old finish wrinkles under the chemical assault, and then remove the old stuff with a plastic putty knife. Detailed/curved surfaces might take more time. Urethane was found to be a new ballgame – It never wrinkled. In fact, it really never came off. After copious amounts of timed chemical application it softened, but still stuck like grim death to the substrate. After almost a gallon of stripper, about 70% of the finish was still on the table.

Fine. In spite of adequate ventilation, the chemicals were giving me a headache anyway.

After cleaning up the chemicals’ effort and allowing the table to dry, I pulled out my trusty random-orbit sander, and armed it with an aggressive 60-grit sandpaper to finish the coating’s removal.

After an appropriate amount of aerobic activity on my part, the old finish was still intact... and shinier! It now seemed like the urethane was laughing at my efforts to remove it.

Well, me and Mr. DeWALT don’t like to be laughed at.

Even with the experience gained through wearing out one belt sander, I think hard before using this particular tool because it can very quickly ruin even a wood as tough as white oak if not given 100% attention during operation. However the urethane ultimately proved to be over-matched, and was but a memory in a very short amount of time.

This brute force belt sanding was then followed up with progressively finer grits of orbital sanding until a small section wiped with mineral spirits revealed no scratches.

All the raw wood was then wiped with Golden Oak stain.

The pedestal was then disassembled, and the component parts were cleaned with mild soapy water before being scuff sanded.

For really big jobs, the boat bay gets converted into a spray booth. But, between this being a small job, and urethane’s amazing ability to self-level & float out brush marks, I decided to brush the finish on in my shop. Granted, what with the sawdust & all, a workshop is not the best staging area for applying clear finishes. Inside the house would be better. But, if left alone overnight with the doors closed, the shop’s air does clear up. Plus, keeping the effort in the shop precluded anyone from whining about the smell.

The first of three coats of spar urethane was applied one morning before the sun came up, and set up without a hitch. The second coat, applied late that afternoon, had, to my great annoyance, cured with tell-tale brush marks visible.

Nothing hideous but, then again, nothing I wanted to live with either. I had always had great success with the urethane family of finishes. Why had the second coat not cured-out better?

The weather. Once I thought about, it dawned on me that most of my woodworking projects are accomplished in the Fall when the weather is cooler & drier. Here lately, the daytime temperature has been around 90 degF with the relative humidity around 74%. Since urethane cures in the presence of water, and heat accelerates curing, I just considered myself lucky that everything turned out as well as it did. Live and learn.

So after 220-grit sanding the brush marks out, the whole shebang was moved inside to Tom’s Room where the Man of Steel could keep an eye on things.

That was the ticket – The third coat floated out flatter than Kansas.

I can comfortably declare that we are good for at least another 16 years.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Visualize Whirled Peas

In addition to winding clocks and lighting travel trailer pilot lights, another activity I appear to enjoy doing the hard way is making my own bread. I’m not a masochist, though, when it comes to kneading the dough. Either a mixer with dough hooks or one or both of my two bread machines do the hard work.

While the bread du jour varies according to what’s on a given night’s menu, potato bread gets made a lot as its texture lends itself well to toasting.

I imagine it would also make good croutons. The problem would be that I would have to eat a salad to find out.

Back when I was a fast-food breakfast cook, we always used White Lily all-purpose flour for making biscuit and breading steak. Since I thought the biscuits were always tasty, it made sense to start making yeast bread with White Lily bread flour. That ended up being a wise decision as the countless loaves of bread and tins of dinner rolls that have come out of my kitchen have never a had a problem that could be blamed on the flour.

The other day, I was in the grocery store’s baking aisle about to pick up another five pounds of White Lily flour when the label on King Arthur’s flour bag caught my eye, “… never bromated”. While I didn’t know what ‘bromated’ meant, it sounded serious enough to scan White Lily’s bag for a similar statement. After a fruitless search, I was now in a quandary – do I stick with what I know works or do I take a chance that flour which has not been so horribly mistreated might make a tastier side item? Would members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Flour be standing at the door waiting to throw measured cups of tepid water at me if I chose poorly?

Nah, its just marketing. It worked, though; I bought a bag.

Every so often, I like to experiment with new or unusual ingredients. A couple of years ago, after getting annoyed that the Boyz were not eating enough of their vegetables, I invented a recipe for Collard Bread after Google was unable to match any documents. Yeah – it shocked me too. The resulting bread was surprisingly well received. I’m sure slathering it with extra garlic butter didn’t hurt.

Last week, I had a small amount of Southern style green beans, and smoked pork drippings left over from a meal that were too good to just throw away. Out came the bread machine. Although tasty, the loaf’s presentation had a bit to be desired. The green beans, while tender, had not broken down much during blending, and had subsequently been pushed to the outer edges of the loaf during the bread machine’s mix cycle instead of blending in a random pattern.

Saturday night’s vegetable of homegrown cabbage was not received well by everybody. A part of my third-grader’s school project, the plant had been grown from a seed and later transplanted to the garden. Through some misstep of mine, the cabbage leaves never formed a head, and ended up being quite tough and a little bitter. But, after an hour-and-a-half of cooking with a dollop of bacon grease and a shot of hot sauce, I thought the greens came out okay. Surprisingly, they tasted a lot like collards... which gave me an idea which included the bag of PETF-approved flour that had just been purchased.

This time, the bread machine was only allowed to mix & knead the dough. When the hard work was complete, the dough was then rolled out, rolled up, and then allowed to rise in a Pyrex bread loaf dish before being baked in the oven. The resulting bread had a wonderful whirled appearance whose taste simply demanded an appropriately aged cheese, and a 1980 Demi-Sec Vouvray to complement it. Having neither on hand, I made do.

Later, while rummaging through the refrigerator, I ran across a several-days-old container of leftover black-eye peas, and instantly visualized my next King Arthur Flour creation.

Made the same way the cabbage bread was, it too was quite tasty.

One problem when making bread is that the end product often attracts bread termites. Usually, when a loaf is made, only the amount of bread needed for the meal is sliced off, and the loaf is turned cut-side-down on the cutting board to keep it from drying out. By the next meal, the termites have usually come & gone leaving a hollow spot.

Number two son was puzzled as he declared he never saw any unusual activity the countless times he passed through the kitchen.

But the “termites” have never been a serious problem – The freezer always gets its fair share of bread in the end.

Ultimately, I could not tell a difference between the White Lily and King Arthur bread flours. Both make fine yeast bread. Now I know.

Hmm, there's a can of sardines in the cupboard...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

After the Arc was completed,

It began to rain. The month of May brought about the most rain I believe we have ever seen since being in our present house. But, since North Alabama had been in drought for some time, no one was complaining… at first. After many days of gentle rain, the saturated ground could take no more and our back yard became a shallow swimming pool.

Although our lot slopes back-to-front for drainage, the house’s crawlspace is roughly a foot below grade. During a lull in the rain, I could tell from the water marks on the under-house access door that the crawlspace was flooding from both seeping groundwater and water rising up & over the retaining wall.

I wasn’t overly concerned at first because the crawlspace has been wet before, and no problems had been caused by the water.

The first indication of trouble was heard the day after the above picture was taken when Cookie and I were playing ball after I got home from work. A wild pitch sent the ball close to the air conditioning unit located on the other side of the fence. While retrieving the ball, I heard the air handler gurgling. I don’t believe I have ever heard an air handler gurgle before, and it is not a very comforting sound especially when, as was subsequently found, no air is blowing out of the vents inside the house.

After partially disassembling the air handler, the root problem appeared to be a blockage in the 16-inch return air duct… under the house. So, I donned my swimsuit and ventured in what was now a lake under the house.

The return air duct under my house is a 46-foot long flex-hose. The rising water had apparently found a nick in the Mylar outer wrapping and proceeded to soak the Fiberglas insulation. In time the water’s weight overcame the giant zip-ties holding the hose to the return air vent. The hose then collapsed on itself after falling into a foot of water.

While within my ability to repair (once parts were acquired), the motivation to address this problem (in a swimsuit) was extremely low, and I thought strongly about calling an HVAC crew out to fix it. But whoever ultimately addressed the damage would need a lot less water under the house to do a good job, and I figured it was cheaper for me to pump it out than someone else. So, next stop – Lowes for a sump pump.

The rain had apparently caused problems for a lot of people because the pump shelves looked a lot like the generator section does after a long power outage. Luckily, the store still had what I thought was an appropriate pump for my application for sale. Reading the box, to allow automatic operation via the included float switch, the manufacturer recommended installing the pump in a sump pit. Adding “eventually dig a big hole” to my Master Plan, a 2,900 gallon-per-hour pump and 50 feet of 1-1/2 inch discharge hose were purchased, and I returned home to start what I thought would be three or four hour task.

Nothing doing – The pump was unplugged 6-1/2 hours later so I could go to bed. Another 3-1/2 hours the next morning still did not complete the task. Then it rained again that afternoon. Between seeping groundwater and continual rain, it took a week to get the standing water out of the crawlspace. During this time I decided the repair was probably going to be surprisingly expensive if someone was hired to do it. So, I stopped by an HVAC supply house and picked up new flex duct, and supplies to re-insulate the rigid supply-air ducting.

Midway through dragging all the waterlogged duct work out from under the house, the thought of hiring the rest of this job out became very appealing as this part of the task was obviously geared towards a younger man. But I managed to persevere.

Installation of the new parts went well other than a work stoppage due to having to run the pump again due to mid-task rain. With HVAC issues covered, the project's focus could now switch to the sump pump's permanent installation so as to keep this particular [literal] exercise from happening again. Remembering the sump pump manufacturer’s original instructions, a plastic sump pit was acquired.

The original plan had been to lug the thing to the crawlspace’s lowest point, and dig an appropriately-sized hole with an Army foxhole shovel in which to bury it. Luckily for me (does anyone really want to sit & dig a foxhole if he’s not being shot at?), there were too many pipes & ducts in the path of the garbage-can-sized container’s prime planting location, and the plan was dropped.

Many years ago, while planting an Acuba in the house’s front flower bed, my shovel ran across a 6-inch, concrete pipe which, after subsequent study, appeared to connect the crawlspace’s low point to some sort of French drain system. Since the pipe was full of mud, it was obvious that someone’s good idea had not stood the test of time. Since the time was ripe to explore the pipe’s starting point more closely, an exploration hole was dug next to the house, and it quickly filled with water.

As I suspected, it was obvious that my house’s builder, back in 1969, had figured there was going to be a crawlspace drainage problem, and had laid a concrete pipe in the house’s footing to get rid of probable water accumulation. Since that short piece of pipe was still draining water, the sump pump was moved there and allowed to finish draining the crawlspace.

Since I knew a deep hole was ultimately needed, and the rain was subsiding, everything was left alone for a couple of weeks to allow the ground water to subside.

Although the sump pit was 27-inches tall, a three-foot deep hole was necessary to orient it to accept flow from the below-grade crawlspace. The concrete pipe / pit union was accomplished with aluminum roof flashing and polyurethane foam sealant.

To make up the difference between the top of the pit & front garden grade, sections of plastic lawn edging were riveted together to make a collar.

The pump’s white PVC discharge pipe was painted and routed into the side of a gutter down spout whose flow is then directed through a somewhat tortuous path away from the front walkway. Midway through the effort, Kim decided that the front bed was a bit overgrown. So, new plants are now in place. While the pit is a bit more obtrusive than originally intended, the new stuff will grow to conceal it more in a few seasons. Obtrusive I can deal with; crawling under the house again to fix flood damage is tougher.

Of course the rain has now stopped, and other than filling the pit from a hose, the system has not had a true test. But I think my duct work will survive the next heavy rain.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Shared Courtesy Parking

After my Airstream's renovation, 30-amp power & water were run to its outside-the-fence, designated parking space . Although the site was the cat's meow when first established, as time went on, it became a chore to move the Overlander whenever access to my shop or boat was needed. Plus, I was never all that comfortable with my vintage American Classic sitting outside the fence.

The solution was a concrete pad I refer to as Mount Airstream. This full-hookup (power, water, sewer, CATV, WIFI) pad not only made life easier, it allowed me to offer to offer 7/8-hookup Courtesy Parking to travelling RVers in the Airstream's original parking place. While a newspaper ad was never printed about the courtesy, I did mention the parking-site-for-frugal-travellers on the Airstream forum. I almost had my first 'Airstream cousin' visit earlier this year, but his circumstances changed, and Huntsville, AL dropped off his stop-over list.

While talking over the fence the other day to my neighbor Mark, he mentioned that his young niece and her husband had run into a rough patch while trying to close on their new house, and the short-term solution was that one of their Dads was going to bring a travel trailer over to Mark's yard in the next day or two for the couple to live in for a while. Of course I immediately mentioned all the amenites offered at my Overlander's original parking place. "Thanks", he said with genuine appreciation, "But, they may be here for several weeks, and I don't want to tie-up your driveway. Plus, I already have a [15-amp] outdoor outlet for them to plug into."

Not to ring my own bell, but I once wrote an article on campground power and how campers need to be aware of how poor power can cook their air conditioner$. After mentioning the available 30-amp service to Mark, I could see the light bulb immediately light above his head (and he did not even need to read my article).

With power, water, and CATV hookups running across the driveway from my courtesy parking site, Mark's niece is now enjoying staying at both our places.

Keep me in mind if you are ever passing through The Rocket City.

Monday, July 6, 2009

DeSoto State Park, AL

Near the start of this year, the local paper ran a story about the renovation of DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne, Alabama. Recalling that Kim & I had enjoyed tent camping near there years ago with our Sunday school class, I mentioned to her that it would be great to check out the improvements sometime during the summer with the Airstream. Since the campground is now taking reservations, Kim scheduled us to enjoy Independence Day there.

The pool was, as usual, an instant hit with the Boyz.

While not exactly “Olympic-sized” as billed, it is a large and surprisingly nice pool. Being spring-fed, it was quite cool too.

Whoever scoped out the campground’s renovation did an excellent job with the effort as the important things like utilities, bathhouses, campground loop surfaces, etc. had been addressed quite well. The campsites themselves were packed with fine gravel which made them suitable for tent or trailer camping. Concrete had only been poured where it was necessary to control drainage.

Our site was huge, and had plenty of trees for both privacy and ambience.

There was even enough room to set up the Putt-Putt golf course number 2 son had received for Christmas.

On a campground, when not hiking, swimming, biking, et cetera I generally like to stay busy doing one thing or another. That’s just the way I am. But, last season, I found myself wanting to, on occasion, just sit there and both enjoy being outside, and watch the passers-by. The thought of reading a book for pleasure, as it is something I have not done since BK (Before Kim), also kept popping into my mind.

The problem was that I had had no where comfortable to relax for extended periods. Sitting on the Overlander’s gaucho was not an option since it is indoors, and the Boyz were usually already there watching TV.

While the Suburban always provides us with canvas folding chairs, ya can’t stretch out in any of them. What I needed was a lounge chair… like my dad had long ago.

Even though I haven’t seen it in awhile, my folks probably still have the one Dad’s sitting in above and I thought about asking them for it. But, after 36 years, I kinda doubt the plastic mesh is still good. After a local search, it appears that style of lounger is not made anymore (at least according to Wal-Mart’s shelves). I ended up having to buy a not-really-portable, upgraded version, with cushion, which is nice enough to leave out on our patio 24-7.

Although buying a chair is, in itself, innocent enough, none of this desire for a comfy chair was discussed with my wife because I remembered her mentioning long ago that one of her campground memories of her dad was of him being sound asleep on his lounger. Pick any camping trip, and the memory was the same. Seemed to kind of annoy her.

Well, the new chair was one of the first things unloaded simply because of the way big things were packed in the Burb. When Kim & the Boyz wandered over to check it out, I immediately started my spiel about wanting to take some time to read a good book, and yada yada yada and that this is MY chair. Each of you already has a chair. You will sit in your chair and I will sit here. Although I could tell by the look on Kim’s face exactly which childhood memory had bubbled up, she played right along and reaffirmed to the Boyz what I said.

In what was an unfortunate twist for him, Number 1 son ended up being the first lounger. While taking a bag of garbage to the dumpster on his bike, he dropped a wheel off the side of the road and wrecked big time. His right knee got bloodied pretty bad, and his left leg bruised. Luckily, his helmet did not look scratched. But he had sucked it up, got back on his bike, and completed his chore. I was so proud of him; I wanted him to recuperate in comfort.

Luckily, young people recover fast, and the next day we were ready to hit the hiking trails.

One thing that I did not know about the Desoto State Park grounds is that it contains a dam constructed in 1925 to provide the first hydro-electric power produced in Alabama.

Even though North Alabama had record setting rainfall back in May, not much has fallen lately, and below the dam was fairly dry.

Unfortunately, this meant that DeSoto Falls looked more like DeSoto Trickle.

When we last visited, the Falls had been in full glory, and a good portion of the day was consumed with hiking down & back to explore behind the falls. Unfortunately, barbed wire now prevents visitors from doing that. Since there appeared to be a lot more residences in the area than either of us remembered, it’s possible that a private individual might now own the former hiking path’s land. Kind of sad if true, but it could also be that the State just decided there had been too many hiking accidents and closed the area.

Another interesting sight in the area is an old, active Baptist church whose construction was integrated into an existing, huge chunk of rock.

While really cool to look at, Kim and I both laughed when I figured out we were both thinking, “I’ll bet they are constantly chasing leaks when it rains”.

After doing just enough hiking & sightseeing to be fun but not grueling, we returned to the campsite to rest up before going back to the pool. Apparently, I should not have stopped inside to get a cold drink first because, when I went back outside, I found someone who had already forgotten whose chair is whose.

Since I wasn’t really ready to sit or lounge, the time seemed right to go on bike patrol to see if there were any other cool-looking trailers camping at the park for the holiday weekend. As luck would have it, I found another Airstream not too far away.

While I’m not familiar with this particular model, it must be an Airstream because Airstream owners are, I’m told, the only ones who camp with pink flamingos.

When my brother, sister, and I were growing up, comfortable seating in the den, where our family’s one television was located, was somewhat limited. First-come, first-serve. Leaving the room during a commercial was a problem because the ‘leaver’ would invariably come back to find someone in his/her seat. Since bickering generally followed, a rule was set and ascribed to that the leaver had to first declare, “My seat is reserved” if he/she wanted it back upon return. This rule-of-order worked amazingly well.

The television nowadays, what with computers and all, is not the focal point it once was, and we have plenty of comfortable seating in the den. Not so at the campground. Guess who forgot to reserve his seat?

Since Kim’s folks live reasonably close to where we were camping, and her Dad’s birthday is one day short of our country’s, we decided to invite them & her brother over to the park for a birthday cookout. Due to the number of people to grill for, I opted to bring the Weber grill, and use the campground grill to stage the Coleman stove to cook up bacon for Kim’s famous baked beans. There is nothing like the smell of bacon cooking at a campground.

The weather remained great, and the burgers were enjoyed by all.

Surprisingly, Kim’s Dad opted for a regular chair for the post-dinner chitchat & smores.

In what was a really neat touch, the Park Ranger, in celebration of our Nation’s birth, had set up a mini parade of emergency vehicles to run the campground loop with sirens & lights a-going. Many children were following behind on bicycles with red white & blue streamers. The Firemen & EMTs tossed out hard candy to all the kids on the route. Afterwards there was an ice cream social at the pavilion.

I’m not much of a sweets eater, so it aroused no suspicion from anyone when I opted to stay at the campsite instead of partaking of the home-made ice cream. Kim did, however, notice my ulterior motive when everyone got back.

The morning of our departure welcomed us with a steady stream of rain. Since the Boyz wanted breakfast on the road, and enjoy traveling in their pajamas, I opted to break camp after sun-up without waiting for the rain to subside. No big deal because I needed to get back & check on the ‘farm’ anyway. It ended up raining the entire way home.

Good thing we got back when we did – The watermelon had broken out of its patch.

Everyone agreed that DeSoto State Park would be added to our “Let’s go back there again” list of places to visit. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting.