Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Counter Top Choices

As with any big project, there are a lot of choices to be made. Countertops are for us, a huge decision.

Not only do we want something that looks good, but the price needs to be within our budget and the material needs to be durable.

I mentioned a long time back that our two main choices have been solid surface and granite. We both like the look of granite over solid surface. It has more "depth" and character, plus it's a natural material that just plain looks fantastic.

It also has some downsides. If I'm going to do the job myself I need to do it with granite tiles. I don't mind the small grout lines, but some people don't like 'em. It's also a porous surface and needs to be protected regularly. It's also easier to damage and harder to fix than solid surface.

With the other material, solid surface is something I normally wouldn't try myself, but since the company my wife and I work for manufactures and fabricates it, we're a step ahead and I can have the pieces easily made to my specs at a discount.

The colors aren't quite as pleasing to us as granite, but they still look great compared to laminate tops and help give the kitchen a quality appearance.

What I really like about solid surface, and what has really pushed me in that direction is the durability. Scratches can be sanded out, it's non-porous, and more stain resistant.

With all that said, I'm about 80% certain we are going with solid surface. It'll hold up well to a house with kids and pets, and I won't have the regular maintenance in keeping it sealed.

I brought home the color charts yesterday so we can start narrowing down our options. The kitchen needs to be solid surface, while for the bathroom we can do either solid surface or cultured marble. A lot of the colors are the same, but the finish is different, so we'll have to kick that around a bit.

3-1/2 of these color cards are for solid surface.

These are the cultured marble options.

I expect about 10-15 days for fabrication and I can then pick up the finished pieces. Once we pick out a color, that is....and install the cabinets so we can have counter tops made to match the actual layout.

Until then, I'm finalizing the kitchen cabinet layout. I did find a 12" cabinet that will work for us that will allow us to put the dishwasher to the left of the sink. I need to break out the graph paper and draw the plans up in detail just to be sure though.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ikea Kitchen Cabinets, Part 1 of Many

I've had about a year to look at kitchen cabinets, and the prices on some of them make my soil myself. Before you say it, I know the saying "you get what you pay for".

Well, I'm not renovating a $500,000 house here, so I needed a good combination of price, quality, and appearance.

After reading as much as I could find about them, I decided to not only drive the 90 minutes to check out Ikea's cabinets in person, but to also buy one in the style we were most interested in.

There are about 4 different cabinets in the layouts we're looking at which are all 24" wide, so that's the size we got, with three drawers. If we decide to go with different drawer faces in the future we can just buy the new faces and screw them in place easily.

Before I get into the adventure that is building a cabinet, let me say this about the Ikea store we went to: It's fvcking huge! 3 floors packed with just about anything you'd need in a house. I'm not a fan of the style of a lot of stuff there, but the sheer amount of stuff for sale is impressive.

If you've never dealt with Ikea's cabinets before, they are a modular design which you get the "pleasure" of putting together yourself. If it saves me money, bring it on!

So we pick out the style we want and get a print-out of the details from the kitchen department. At the check-out, they point us towards the pick-up area and we go to wait. 5-10 minutes later a girl calls my number and gives me a push-cart filled with boxes and bags (see the first picture below). I sign off on the pick-up sheet without taking inventory of every box and bag. Hey, it's only pieces for one cabinet, she can't screw that up, can she?!?

The big box in the back left is the main "box" of the lower cabinet, which is a generic box used for all the various combinations of drawers and doors. The only option here is one of two finishes. The three boxes in front of it are the three drawers. The front box to the right is the small drawer front, while the big piece in the back right is the wrong fvcking piece that I wasn't smart enough to check before leaving the store. It was supposed to be the door for the lower drawers, but instead looks like a side trim piece for an upper cabinet. If I can't return it I should be able to re-use it later. The bags in front are various hardware pieces which I'll cover in a little bit.

Step one is assembling the "box" of the cabinet. The wood is veneer over particleboard. Depending on who you want to believe, some say this is better than solid wood. It's cheaper, so for me, that's better! The pieces are all in good shape, no ding or dents, and well packaged.

If you've ever assembled a desk or entertainment system, you can do this. The instructions are a little vague in places, but it's easy enough to find your way through the process. I used my cordless drill to make it easier, and made sure to use the clutch set to a light setting to make sure the screws didn't get over-tightened, which would destroy the particle bard. I did the final tightening by hand with a screwdriver. These are the sides of the cabinet.

The back of each cabinet has a couple of metal brackets which will later be used to attach the cabinets to the wall. My Ryobi 18v drill has seen plenty of action and still runs like a champ. (Come on, Ryobi, how about a couple of new lithium batteries for all the promoting I do for you guys?)

The cabinet sides and top/bottom are connected with dowels and screw posts. They don't look very strong, but once the cabinet is in place they'll be plenty strong enough. When I moved a year ago, I threw out a desk which was assembled with the same type of hardware. It had moved with me at least 4 times and even though I beat the hell out of it over the years, it still held together well. The instructions don't say anything about using some glue in here with the dowels. While I don't think it would hurt, I doubt that it's needed.

Hey, we've got a box! The top isn't a full piece like the bottom, because it doesn't need to be. It saves weight and money this way.

The feet are interesting. Instead of building a traditional base for the cabinets there are four feet with can be adjusted to make up for uneven flooring. It's hard to tell from this picture, but each foot assembly can be rotated 180 degrees so that it spans two cabinets. This helps spread the load between cabinets and helps even everything up. They're just held in by gravity, although I will probably put a little silicone sealant in each mounting hole just to help hold everything in place when I'm placing cabinets. The extra hardware shown is to hold the toe-kick pieces in place. I didn't get the toe kicks yet - I'll worry about that when I figure out how many linear feet I need for the final install. Since they're clamped in place with these plastic clips, they aren't as strong as a regular nailed-in piece, but they should be able to handle the limited kicking they'll get.

With the box done and sitting on it's feet, it's time to build drawers. Two drawers will be without a face for now, until I pick up the correct piece. The sides and back of each drawer are metal, while the face and bottom are wood (well, particle board....). Each piece has it's own instruction sheet and hardware.

First up is the bottom drawer. The slider assemblies just screw in place with two screws. Super-easy and quick to do. They have some built-in springs to close the drawers and to keep 'em closed. The instructions tell you which of the pre-drilled holes to use for each slider assembly. This same box could be used for adjustable shelves instead of drawers.

Each drawer also comes with a dampener to make the drawer close slowly and smoothly. If you just give the drawer a push to close it, when it's about 3" from slamming closed it suddenly slows down and slowly closes on it's own. I consider that a pretty nice feature.

Here is the 24" cabinet about as complete as I can build it for now. Each drawer face is adjustable up/down, and the lower ones have an extra brace which helps make sure the face is nice and flush with the other drawers. The lower drawers share one face. I'm not sure how much I like that yet, but we'll see how it goes. I can always easily change that in the future.

As you can see here, the drawers extend fully, giving you access to all the crap that ends up in the back. Once the cabinet is in place, the counter top will over hang the front by an inch or so.

We really liked the handles on the display cabinets in the store. They carry a decent selection of handles, although a lot of people go out and buy something elsewhere. In this case, one-stop shopping for us. The directions don't tell you where to mount the handles and the fronts aren't pre-drilled (different handles need different mounting holes) so I laid down some tape and found the center-line vertically and horizontally. Once I have a lot of cabinets to do I'll either make a template or buy a jig. For now, this was quick and easy, and the handle is centered.

Two holes later, we're happy with the result. I'd be extremely happy if I had bothered to make sure we had all the correct parts to build the cabinet...

So the verdict so far is that the cabinet appears to be a very decent value at $223.00 including drawer pulls. My only complaint is that nothing in the store has a regular English name - it's all Swiss. Cute marketing ploy, but it's irritating trying to understand the documentation, sales tickets, and instructions at times.

When it comes time to build a dozen or so cabinets, the best thing I can recommend to make the job easier is to get an old door and put it on a couple of saw-horses so you can do the work without crawling around on the floor.

This cabinet took about 75 minutes to build. Since it was the first one and a learning experience, the next cabinets should go much more quickly. I expect that if I were to build another on a work bench that I could have it done in 45 minutes.

When it comes time to build and install the cabinets, I plan on only building the boxes and installing them. After they're all in place I can worry about the drawers and doors. That will keep my build area a less cluttered and keep the weight of each cabinet down while I get everything in place.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Doin' the Electric Slide

Alright, I'll admit it (again) that I haven't done jack-squat on the house for a while. The Xbox 360 has been drawing way too much of my attention, and I'm thinking I might have an addiction to it.

Regardless, work must go on.

I'm probably repeating myself by saying this, but before I can do any "meaningful" work on the house I need to finish two large projects. First, the electrical system on the house needs to be upgraded because:
- it's a 100 amp service which is maxed out.
- the previous owners wouldn't know proper wiring methods if their lives depended on it.
- if I'm going to add a dish washer and disposal and heated bathroom floor, I need room in the panel for those three circuits.

Second, I need to update the water supply system in the house. I blogged specifically about our crappy water a number of times, and it's almost time to pull the trigger on getting clean water here.

Before I can do that, however, the electrical needs to be done because I'll need some good dedicated circuits for the new water softener and iron filter. More on that later.

For now, I got an electrician out here to look over the system and he's now been hired to come out and take care of the service panel for me. I can add circuits and do normal wiring, but changing out a 45 year old panel and upgrading from 100 amp to 200 amp is slightly beyond my comfort level.

Here's what $2,000 American will buy me:

A new 200 amp panel will be installed. The supply line from the outside meter into the panel will be replaced with an above-ground line. (the line comes to the house on overhead wires and runs down the side of the house to the meter, then underground and through the foundation wall - we're getting rid of the part which goes underground).

The half-ass wiring to the stove will be fixed so the whole system will pass inspection.

The old conduit which carried wiring that went to the crappy old fake fireplace will be reused to carry new wires dedicated for audio/video/computer equipment.

The furnace will be isolated on it's own circuit, meaning the sump pump, basement lighting, and water softener will finally get their own circuits.

The existing wiring for the A/C will be replaced with the proper larger-gauge wiring.

An outdoor outlet will be added by the patio, meaning I can finally plug something in out back without having to run an extension cord through the window.

A GFCI outlet will replace the regular outlet above the laundry sink, and will be relocated close to the washer/dryer so I don't have to use an extension cord for the dryer.

A whole-house surge suppression system will be installed.

A few other misc. items will be taken care of by the electrician, along with all permits and mapping out of the circuits for me. No longer will half of the breakers be labeled "pump" and the other half "lights".

I had budgeted $2,000 for this, and expected to pay that +/- $200.00. I'd have come in on the low-side if I didn't spend the extra $175 for the surge suppression. Cheap insurance, in my opinion, and exactly on-budget.

Work should start in less than two weeks, so hopefully I can get the water guys out here right away after electrical is done. Then I can start on either the kitchen or bathroom. Assuming the electrician shows up and works... I've heard too many horror stories about no-show contractors to feel warm & fuzzy yet.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

My First Post of the New Year

It's been a few weeks since my last post, but I swear I've got a good reason.

Until recently the only TV in the house has been a 32" tube. It works well, but it's hardly the center-piece of a real entertainment system.

I knew I couldn't count on Santa to upgrade my viewing experience, so I took it upon myself to rock my own video world. Into my life came a 50" plasma high-def flat screen. Oh. My. God. What a difference!

There are a number of channels we get which are broadcast in high-def and also at the same time on another channel in standard def. The difference is about the same as looking at an old VHS tape compared to DVD.

The Mrs. took a few subtle hints and supplied me with an Xbox 360 to go with it, and once I added the high-def cables for it I was all set.

The next step was getting the Xbox online with my computer, so I wired up a router and the two devices can now communicate. This means that music, pictures, and video stored on the computer can be played on the plasma. The PC will eventually be used for file storage when we get around to getting a laptop, but that's a ways down the road.

After I renovate the family room I plan to wire the TV, DVR, stereo, and computer together so that I can have total control of the system from one spot. I can play background music from the computer through the Xbox or play music from iTunes directly through the stereo. Any sound coming from the TV could be played in 5.1 stereo through the stereo, too.

The gears in my mind are turning at warp speed with the possibilities!

Long story short, I've put off any meaningful work on the house while I spent the holidays with the family - kicking their asses at Halo 3!