Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kitchen backsplash

I had been really looking forward to this part of the project given our success with the granite floor. With Chris at work, however, I'd be installing the backsplash solo. This means keeping all my "customers"  (wetsaw, mortar, tiles) happy single-handedly to avoid a tour-de-farce mess.

We had ordered and received from Home Depot glass mini-subway tiles (1"X2") on sheets. The brand is Merola and the color is "ice." In Fort Lauderdale, I had watched the kitchen guy cut my glass tiles with a wetsaw so I knew how easy this is despite common assumptions that it is some kind of difficult craft that needs years of mastering. We had purchased an inexpensive wetsaw from the Home Depot and I took the time to return to HD to get a new diamond blade, one that specifically mentions its willingness to cut glass. This may not have been necessary but it always feels good to start something crucial with a fresh whatever. And I did not buy the most expensive brand they sell. I chose the mid-range brand.

Here's the most important secret to know regarding the installation of glass tiles on sheets. They are heavy and they will slide down your wall the instant you turn your back to sneeze. In order to keep this movement to a minimum, you will need to use a high performance mortar. This is where you have to read the labels very carefully. Most buckets of pre-mixed thinset mortar carry the not-for-glass-tile disclaimer. I found the bucket that did not carry those words which is about as strong a recommendation as the maker is willing to go with. I had done a considerable amount of research and had decided to mix the mortar myself, but HD sells nothing smaller than a fifty pound bag of it, and that is much more than I needed. Also, I had no appetite for carrying fifty pounds across the width of Central Park, a trip I feel guilty about doing in a taxi.

I also discovered I'd need a trowel other than the one I used to install the granite floor. This one would have to have shallow pointy triangular teeth. So now we own two trowels each costing $10. I'm not going to throw them out, but I doubt we will ever use them again. I should do a calculation to determine the annual cost of keeping them in a small coop NYC apartment given their size and the overall cost of a square foot of space in this neighborhood. Actually, that is a calculation I should do with everything I own. I'd sell them on EBAY but then I'd have to do the calculation of time, effort and postage that would surely outweigh a break-even. Maybe someday a friend will need them.

Gay men in cities treat tools as do straight married women treat baby clothes.

Having done a plan that would mean the least amount of tile cutting, I began to trowel on the mortar which is a fiesty white blend that is definitiely more muscular than the mix prescribed for the floor tile. I slapped on the first two sheets, determined the cuts I would need to make and ran to the saw. After repeating this pattern a few times, I checked out the lines of my rows and found that the sheets had migrated a bit in deference to gravity and in defiance of the mortar. Forewarned, I did not panic. I nudged them back into line, inspecting them from a variety of angles and rechecking them until the mortar had dried sufficiently to still them forever. There is something about setting tile in place that I find immensely pleasurable. Glass tile is particularly wonderful because it changes a flat and flimsy wall into a luminous and emotional surface that changes with the passage of hours bearing sun or shadow or rain or moon.

After giving this installation the time required to set, I commenced the grouting of it. Here's where I made a mistake. Wanting to avoid the dusty mess of a bag of grout powder, and because I was going for a standard color: pure white, I selected a bucket of pre-mixed grout. Never again. Pre-mixed grout is much more watery than it should be, making the grouting process one hell of a big sloppy mess. I spent more time cleaning up the far flung globs of grout than I did on the actual installation.

I'm quite happy with the backsplash, even where the rows went a little warbly, giving it a hand crafted look. Background music for setting glass tile: Michael Buble's It's a New Day, Miss Kittin's Frank Sinatra, The Spinner's Could It Be I'm Falling In Love, Lauren Bacall's Welcome To The Theater and a mess of stuff by Jackson Brown from the Pretender album.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Love our Bianco Antico granite - Hate the IKEA service.

We drove to New jersey to "select the slab" (this is the name given by stone dealers to this part of the kitchen counter process. It is also a phrase that will resonate with anyone who has ever walked the halls of a bath house.) We purchased the granite through IKEA when we got the cabinetry. We did this because they throw in the sink for free if you buy at least 25 sq feet of counter top. (And the sink you get is a higher grade stainless than the weak and thin stainless that IKEA sells.) If we got to that threshold with our small galley kitchen, I can't imagine anyone else having a problem with this requirement. IKEA had a good selection of stone, some of which I recognized, including Bianco Antico which has a blend of whites, blacks, browns, blueish and smokey quartz and flashes of mica in undulating veins. Nice harmonizer to the stainless steel appliances, gloss white cabs and black granite floor. IKEA warns you that one downside to buying a stone countertop through them is that you will not be allowed to select the slab. Because I am not easily convinced that any policy established in this world is honorable or upheld or not circumventable with ease, I called the dealership that contracts with IKEA and set up an appointment to select the slab. When we got to the warehouse in New jersey, we found we had the option of picking out any stone we wanted, not just Bianco Antico (without forfeiting the free sink!). We spent a half hour looking at dozens of options, one or two of which would have meant an upcharge. When we settled on our original choice, the staff asked if we wanted to see the several slabs of that variety before picking one. We did! Amazingly, overhead rolling cranes and huge grippers on chains carried slabs above the shoppers. I crouched once or twice as a huge piece of Brazilian riverbed passed overhead.

A week later, I received a call saying that our chosen slab had been delivered from the warehouse to the shop. Time to schedule the making of the template. Two guys with many years of experience and glue guns showed up at the appointed time and had the templates done in an hour.

A week later I got a call from the stone dealer that made me begin to regret having made this purchase through IKEA. The dealer would not cut the slab until IKEA responded to them with the go-ahead. (The dealer had sent IKEA the exact number of square feet which is always slightly different from the estimate made at the time of purchase.) I made innumerable calls to IKEA about this and got a variety of answers from a variety of worthless people, some of whom claimed to be post-purchase customer service specialists. I got a call back from a guy who said my paperwork was lost. This call came one hour after I got a call from a lady who said she had my file and was ready to help me complete the transaction. I was finally able to pay the balance and then it took many more calls to get IKEA to give the green light to the dealer in Jersey. I advise you not to buy your counter top through IKEA.

Back on the phone with the dealer, I asked her if I could identify some sections of the slab that I really liked and one section that I did not like, so that the stone cutter could choose and avoid those sections. She said I would have to come to Jersey again to do this but reminded me that ordinarily this is not allowed because they have to cut the stone in the least wasteful way possible. I said that I understood this and that I had taken pictures of the slab and could send an email showing the parts I liked and the parts I didn't like. She told me that this would not be allowed, but I sent her the following two pictures. I kept the grammar simple because my interaction with the dealers at the warehouse, with the template makers, and eventually with the installers meant working with skilled people with limited English.

When I called her to ask if she had gotten my photos, she said "Yes, but I cannot do anything with them for the reasons I mentioned. You will have to take what you get or tell me not to cut the stone." I responded that I understood the policy and would accept the results. Just as I suspected, when the counters arrived, the cutters had honored my preferences exactly, proving that if you use just the right tone and approach to any negotiation, you will get what you want a percentage of the time even when stated policy gives you no control at all.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Kitchen update.

With the new floor in, the next step was the painting of the old masonry walls we exposed when we tore off the metal studs and drywall a previous owner had put in place. Getting rid of those walls increased our number of square feet considerably but revealed a pipe originally used to drain the icebox (precursor to the refrigerator) and various sections of plaster buildup and peeling paint. It also meant having to get the electrician to cut channels in the masonry to run conduit to the outlets that had been mounted to the metal studs. In the process of doing this, he made a crack in our neighbor's wall. Luckily, the apartment is empty. The super repaired it.

I used a hammer and chisel to chip off the many layers of old paint on the top half of the pipe. Once sanded, it began to match the brushed stainless appliances.

Scrape. Spackle. Prime. Paint. On the back wall, we used The Ralph Lauren color "Ambassador Sterling". This is a difficult paint that requires many layers, but the softly metallic result is good.
The IKEA cabinets arrived in a flotilla of boxes.

Hanging the wall cabinets was not as dreadful as one might suppose. Everything rests on on crossbar, the key element of which is the prudent securing of it to the wall using ample and appropriate gizmos. On the old masonry side, we used blue masonry screws. (Surely they have a more technical name.) On the side with the functioning plumbing (we made a hole in the drywall and looking through it with a flashlight, found that it contained all sorts of chases and drains that go through all the floors. This meant keeping the drywall on that side of the kitchen and fastening the wall and base cabinets using drywall screws wherever we hit a metal stud, and toggle fasteners anywhere else.

We also had to saw a panel for the far side of the dishwasher and cut a backing board behind the dishwasher to help support the countertop. IKEA includes the panel when they help you plan your kitchen but they don't tell you anything about how to brace it to the wall. I found slotted angle at Home Depot, and husband had the right fasteners, washers and through bolts to secure it.  Husband also had a stray piece of mahogany at his shop so I suspect we are the only kitchen in Manhattan that has an unseen mahogany backboard behind the dishwasher supporting the counter. I made shims for one base cabinet by breaking wooden paint stirrers into small pieces. Surprisingly, everything ended up perfectly level and flush with very little adjustment.

I am very much in love with the saturated Tiffany blue protective film covering the high gloss white cabinet doors. I've taken off only one piece of it. You are then supposed to let the surface "cure" for a few days before you touch it. And never clean them with anything stronger than mild soap and water.

The plumber has promised that when he returns to hitch up everything, he will replace the drain connector at the base of the old icebox pipe. This will allow me to back the fridge up closer to the wall. Here is what it looked like after we hammered off the old floor.

Resting on the base cabinet is the stainless steel range hood. The yellow packing tape holding styrofoam left some serious residue on the surface. Husband says a fluid called bestine is needed to remove this without scratches. He has it at the shop.

Meanwhile, I live in chaos and have lost a few pounds.