September 29, 2018: Home improvement projects are a lot like traveling to a foreign country. You are venturing into unfamiliar terrain where the language and customs are different from those you are familiar with. There are wonderful sights to see and new discoveries to be made, but you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone and immerse yourself in the experience. This is not to imply that our kitchen remodel is nearly as exciting as, say, a trip to Italy, but uncovering 30-year-old construction techniques is sort of like sifting through the ruins of ancient Rome.
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With the upper cabinets surrounding the kitchen sink 90 percent complete, it was time to move on to the main attraction. That would be replacing the tile countertops that has been one of our major goals since this project started. We initially wanted to go with granite slabs and were even willing to absorb the cost of having them professionally installed before consultations with the installers convinced us it might be more trouble than we wanted. It was at that point we gave up on our fantasy of a solid surface and eventually came around to the idea of using granite tiles to achieve a similar look at a much cheaper cost. Cheaper because we would be doing the installation ourselves.
We shopped around until we were sick of looking at tile samples, and eventually we settled on blue pearl, a popular type of granite that has a bluish-gray color mixed with large pieces of mica that reflect light in interesting ways. We wanted to go with 18-inch tiles because they would be larger and better able to create the illusion of a solid surface, but we learned that these were expensive and hard to find, so we decided instead to use 12-inch tiles. The design would still work well enough, and we could order them from Home Depot instead of having to go through a specialty flooring company that would have been at least 50 percent more expensive. As luck would have it, the tiles we wanted went on sale just as we were ready to buy them, so we got a 15 percent discount on the three cases we purchased through Home Depot’s website.
We had them shipped to the store so we could examine them there in case there were problems with the order, and if you read last month’s newsletter then you already know what happened: one of the three cases arrived damaged and had to be returned. Not to worry, because we still had plenty of time before we would be ready to install them. We took home our remaining two boxes and carried on with our work.
Well, we had been pretty tired the night we went to pick up our tile order, so we never bothered to inspect the other two boxes. They looked like they were packaged well and the boxes were in good shape, so we figured the contents should be free of chips or breaks. What we hadn’t counted on was manufacturing defects, which have become our Achilles heel in getting this job done. It is usually true that you get what you pay for, and such has been the case with our “bargain” priced tile. Of the 20 tiles we took home, 12 had fatal flaws ranging from deep scratches to uneven surfaces to entire sections that were improperly polished. It is as if the manufacturer fired all of its quality control staff — assuming there ever was one.
We had to pick up our replacement box from Home Depot anyway, so when we went there we brought back another case of the worst tiles we had. We explained the situation to the clerk, who was very helpful and arranged for another replacement order. She even offered us an additional 10 percent off the box for our trouble. Meanwhile, the original reorder gave us better results. We were sure to inspect it this time, and were pleased that all 10 tiles looked to be in good shape. We took them home and now had 20 of the 23 tiles we needed to begin our new countertops. It would be a few more days before the second reorder arrived.
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RANITE TILES ASIDE, we had yet to begin the demolition of the old counters. YouTube is a goldmine of how-to information, and it was where Glenn turned for hints as to how to proceed. The consensus was to pry off the edge tiles with hammer and chisel to provide access to the field tiles, which could then easily be scraped off. Heck, some people showed how they were even able to save the old tiles for later reuse — not that anyone would likely want them. Tiles, it seemed, were generally mounted to wood backer boards with a bit of mastic, and it was a simple matter to detach those boards from the cabinets — if they were attached at all — and cart the entire section off to the dump without so much as breaking a sweat.
And then we watched another video. It was by a guy who needed to replace his ‘80s-era tile kitchen counters and planned to do the demolition work himself to save on costs. He didn’t know what he would find when he started, and what he found made our hearts sink. There was no gently prying off edge tiles here; he took a steel hammer to them and busted them into a million pieces. Underneath was a slab of concrete reinforced with wire mesh, and the field tiles were embedded into it with thinset mortar that made them nearly impossible to remove. He had to chisel off the concrete to reach the bare wood underneath. For this, he had hired a friend who owned an electric hammer drill. Wow. Our countertops were installed in 1987. Could this ordeal be what awaited us? Only one way to find out — we had to take the plunge and start the demolition.
We began with the smallest counter hidden behind the stove and laundry room door. That way we could test things out and not destroy the main sink counter yet, just in case we decided this wasn’t a weekend project. Glenn happened to have a 3-inch cold chisel, so he gave it a few whacks with a hammer on one of the edge tiles and the piece broke right off. Easy. Except that what lay underneath confirmed our worst fears. Concrete city! The YouTuber had been right, and now we faced the daunting prospect of how to remove it all without breaking our backs or our budget.
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E HAVE SINCE learned that mortar bed counters are the preferred option for laying tile because they provide a rock solid surface that will last for decades. True enough, our old counter was in pretty decent shape despite the fact we had grown weary of the boring tiles and the grout was eroding. We knew from watching the YouTube video that removing such an installation would best be done with power tools that would create a ton of dust and noise and which we didn’t happen to have, so our first instinct was to try it the old fashioned way first, using hammer and chisel.
There was nothing delicate about the process. The tiles — or pieces of them — popped off fairly quickly with a few well-placed hammer blows, but the concrete required repeated smacks with the chisel, jackhammer style, until it turned to tiny rubble that could be brushed away. The concrete was reinforced with chicken wire that had been stapled to a layer of building paper and the plywood underneath, so the trick was to pulverize it and then use wire cutters to snip the metal, clearing away as much debris as possible before proceeding. Once enough of the front tiles and mortar bed had been cleared away, it was a simpler matter of sliding a pry bar underneath the remaining tiles and lifting them up in one chunk.
Demolishing the first small countertop took about an hour, proving to us two things: one, it was possible to do the job by hand; two, it would take a few days to remove all the counters this way. Time being less of a factor than money, Glenn decided he was up for the challenge and continued on using his hammer and chisel. And some earplugs. And some goggles. And a dust mask. Even doing this by hand did not make it any less noisy or dusty, and there is nothing fun about the risk of going blind from flying tile splinters.
All things get easier with practice, and Glenn’s technique improved on the second counter next to the refrigerator. Although it was twice the size of the first counter, removing the tile took about the same amount of time. The plywood beneath the concrete was in great shape, so we were excited that we would be able to save it and reuse it when it came time to install the new granite tiles. Next it was time to tackle the main counter surrounding the sink.
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HE SINK AREA presented us with a unique challenge. Our galley kitchen features a bay window that juts about a foot from the wall and helps bring in light and create the illusion of space in a place that has little of either. Its sill doubles as an extension of the countertop behind the sink, and removing this tile would be tricky. Because the base of the window is supported by nothing but a few wood beams and some stucco, we didn’t feel safe smacking it full force with a cold chisel. Nor did we want to repeatedly tap at the tiles in the direction of the window, fearing we might accidentally break the glass or the frame. An electric hammer drill wouldn’t make the task any easier. But a grinder might.
Over the next three days, Glenn chiseled the tiles off the edge of our undermount sink and removed the rest of the counter until all that remained was the window ledge. The Granite Expo installers hadn’t wanted to deal with this area because of the need to seam the new countertop, but uncovering the sill gave us some comfort in knowing it probably would have been even more hassle than that. The window sill is covered with a half-inch sheet of plywood that raises it above the level of the plywood on the adjacent counters. The original builders solved this problem by adjusting the thickness of the mortar bed, making it thinner in the bay window so the tiles could all be laid at the same height. We wouldn’t have this luxury when we switched to cement backer board, so we had to come up with a solution to the problem.
Getting the old tile off was solved by some careful chiseling and working from outside the window using the grinder and a diamond blade. We taped plastic sheeting over the window well to prevent dust from flying into the rest of the house, then Glenn ground down the grout until he was able to chisel around the tiles and remove them. By now we had decided that we would need to raise the height of all our counters by three-quarters of an inch, thanks to the uneven level of the window, but doing so would mean that the half-inch plywood in the window well would have to go so it could be replaced with the thicker wood.
Redesigning the window sill meant first cutting out a strip of drywall between the sink cabinet and the sill. Then Glenn had to remove the nails holding the plywood in place, and wouldn’t you know that some of those nails sat right beneath the frame of the window. There was no using a pry bar to pull these stubborn nails; they would have to be sawed off to get the wood out. But what saw to use? More problems to solve.
It took nearly as many days to get the plywood removed from the window sill as it had to take up all the concrete from the counters. We tried a circular saw, but it was too big and couldn’t cut close enough to the wall. Same with the jigsaw. We tried a reciprocating saw, but it proved too hard to control in the tight space beneath the window. We switched to the grinder with its diamond blade, and while the wheel made short work of the wood and got us closer to the window, it also gave off vast quantities of dust and wood smoke. Ick. When all these methods finally brought us to within striking distance of the nails, we switched to the Dremel tool with its cutoff wheel, but could not get the proper angle to slice the nail heads. So we attached the flex shaft to the Dremel and were eventually able to cut the nails flush with the window ledge to remove what was left of the plywood. Easy. Riiiiight.
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Y NOW WE were ready for anything other than dealing with countertops. Unfortunately we wouldn’t get off that easy. With the tiles removed, the old undermount sink just popped out of its space in the cabinet. We kept it hooked up as long as we could, relying on it to provide convenient access to water in the kitchen and because it was also connected to the dishwasher. Once we pulled the sink there would be no clean dishes unless we rinsed them off in the bathroom. But finally we had to move forward, and the day came when we shut off the water supply and removed the chipped ceramic basin, faucet and garbage disposal still attached; we would be reusing both of those.
First we had to repair the floor of the sink cabinet, which had rotted out following a leak we developed several years ago. Much like the battle with the plywood in the window sill, removing the old particle board proved to be a logistical challenge involving several different saws. Once Glenn had finally removed all the ruined wood, he had to fabricate a new base from three-quarter-inch plywood, which proved to be thicker than the original five-eighths-inch base. He improvised, using his router to cut grooves along the edges so that everything fit comfortably.
Roni really wanted a farmhouse sink in the new design, so she had looked around until finding one online at Wayfair made by a company called Vigo. We had measured the space in our cabinet and determined the old sink was 32 inches wide. Most of the sinks we found were 33 inches, but Glenn thought we could accommodate the extra inch. This turned out to be a bad idea. The sink arrived just before Labor Day, but we didn’t get around to installing it until three weeks later. It was only now that we discovered it was an inch too wide for the cabinet.
Because the old sink was an undermount and we planned to mount the new basin flush with the countertop, we already knew we would have to modify the countertop and cabinet face to accommodate it. The farmhouse sinks feature an apron that extends beyond the front of the counter, so the top part of the cabinet would have to go anyway. But the cabinet walls were supposed to remain intact. Because of the extra inch on the sink, the only way to get it to fit was to relocate the cabinet wall between the sink and the dishwasher.
A couple more days of sawing ensued. By now there was so much dust in the house that it was impossible to keep it from collecting on shelves, tables and furniture. Or in our lungs. It took plenty of patience, but Glenn trimmed off the excess counter and cabinet wood to make room for the farm sink. He moved the dishwasher and carefully cut out the space he needed in the cabinet. And after all of this… it fit! Just some minor shimming needed (hopefully) and we’ll be ready to tile next month. Maybe.
As we write this, the new sink is temporarily installed in the cabinet, not hooked up to the drain or water supplies, so we can start installing more plywood and cement board on top of the counter base. It is HUGE. We didn’t realize how huge until we saw it installed, and now Roni is a little concerned she might not be able to reach the faucet once it’s all finished. It is a change that will take some getting used to, but we both agree that it brings a whole new look to our old kitchen. Now if we can just figure out how to keeps the cats out of the basin.
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Y NOW YOU are probably sick of hearing about our kitchen. We do occasionally have a life outside of this project — at least Roni does — and this month that included attending the Fall Forum hosted by the Contra Costa Fish & Wildlife Committee on Sept. 13 in Martinez. Roni is one of the members of the committee, which advises the county board of supervisors on matters of wildlife policy and distributes money the county receives through fines collected from violators of environmental laws. Each fall, the committee hosts a banquet for the recipients of this grant money to network and share the results of the projects they have funded.
The Fall Forum usually features a guest speaker, who this year was Dr. Gordon Frankie, a professor from U.C. Berkeley who is an expert on bees and has written a book on the subject. We enjoyed the lecture while feasting on a dinner of barbecued ribs, chicken, portabella mushrooms and chili prepared by one of the committee members and his staff of volunteers.
Sept. 22, the first day of autumn, found us at the Heart of Oakley festival. Actually, it found Roni there at the information booth for the Ironhouse Sanitary District; Glenn and Ben came along for moral support, or maybe instead it was for the food. Ben wanted the opportunity to grab some lunch before his evening work shift began at the Grocery Outlet across the street from City Hall. We were all glad that our favorite Giant Bad A$$ Sausage booth was in attendance.
The weather was comfortable if a bit breezy. There was a steady crowd past the Ironhouse booth to learn about recycled water and the perils of flushing disposable wipes down the drain. Roni was in her element answering questions from the public while Glenn had time to visit some of the other booths and watch the cultural dances on the concert stage in the park. Afterward he walked home, continuing a streak of 2-mile walks that began back on July 6. The streak stands at 85 as of this writing, but it looks like it will come to an end when we embark on vacation in a few days. A brief interlude before we return to work and kitchen remodeling.