Monday, June 8, 2015

Outdoor patio drop cloth curtains with rust-proof, wind-resistant hardware

The internet abounds with fantastic ideas.  Unfortunately, some of them are not very practical.
Such is widely the case with exterior curtains that are made out of common painter's drop cloths; for instance this example.  
While those curtains shown above may do well in certain geographic regions, can you imagine what would happen if they were installed on an outdoor patio or pergola in the greater Houston area?  Even a small subtropical thunderstorm would probably rip them from the wall, send them into the sky, and perhaps deposit them somewhere in Liberty County.  And even if a storm did not get them, that interior grade of hardware would not stand up to our legendary rain and high humidity (nor salt air if installed near the coast).  It would quickly rust, staining the canvas panels.
Some makers appear to have overcome the rust potential by using shower curtain hardware.  While preferable to interior grade drapery hardware, that approach has the downside of making the resulting patio curtains resemble, well, shower curtains.  Image screengrabbed from this site
Making patio curtains out of inexpensive and durable painter's drop cloths is a genius idea that did not originate with me.  After being alerted to its potential by the collective oracle that is social media, I searched for an assembly method that would fit all of these requirements:

  1. Rust proof, or at least highly rust resistant.
  2. Could stand up to some pretty strong winds.
  3. Durable enough to be be left in place for long periods of time.
  4. Had to fit the "organic industrial" vibe of our home.
  5. Had to appear substantial.  Our patio is 10' x 14' with a 3' concrete surround, which is fairly large. Small hardware would be under-scaled for the space. 
  6. Curtains had to be easily movable across the full span of each rod, scooting across with no effort on the part of the user.  This is important for easy sunning and airing-out of the curtains to prevent the development of mildew.  

This maker solved the rust problem by using a galvanized pipe as a curtain rod, and by avoiding clips altogether.  However, the rust avoidance was achieved at the expense of convenience, because it would be very difficult to re-position rod pocket curtains across wide spans without actually climbing up to the rod (which in my case is a full 8 feet above the floor) and hand-bunching each time to achieve uniformity.  Plus this approach looked a bit too traditional for my taste.  
I found much of my inspiration in the genius-upon-genius method used by the Beach Brights blogger who coined the phrase "chain link fence curtains".
This is a fantastic look, but this blogger was doing an interior rather than an exterior installation.  Therefore, (s)he could get away with no strong mounting hardware, no top hem to the curtains, and no reinforcing grommets in the curtains themselves. This was possible because his/her curtains would not be subjected to wind and weather stresses. 
Basically what I did is combine the best ideas shown by a number of these previous makers.  I used the chain link fence hardware coupled with galvanized pipe rods and nickel-coated brass grommets.  The following series of photos provides general construction details and sourcing.
Let's start with the sourcing and yes, I included SKU numbers! (Tap to expand for clearer resolution). Unlike many makers, I was not aiming for lowest price because I was taking a penny-wise-pound-foolish view of this project.  My intention was to maximize durability and longevity - I wanted to create curtains one time and then hopefully enjoy them for years to come with no additional work other than periodic laundering.  Most of these materials listed above came from the Big Orange Retail Giant (BORG), aka Home Depot.  
This assemblage right here became the brains of this particular drapery operation.
The chain link fence tension band and the carriage bolt with the nickel coated brass grommet shown sandwiched in there as a sizing illustration.  Half inch grommets were the best size to function with these other components. 
However, I made a miscalculation in my initial sourcing, and it's worth mentioning here.  An avid Prime subscriber, I found this little grommet kit (tools plus 12 grommets) on Amazon, so I bought it and it proved to work very well.  I then set about purchasing another two dozen nickel plated brass grommets to finish the project...

...only to discover that there is an apparent world-wide shortage of this item in this size.  So instead of buying 24 more loose grommets, I was forced to buy several more of the original whole kits just to get the grommets from them.  Yellow brass - yes you can buy those right now if you want them (yellow brass is severely out of style). But not the nickel plated.  Moral of the story:  Don't make assumptions.  Make sure you source ALL your materials prior to starting a project like this, or else you might end up paying more than necessary for a stop-gap measure. 
The grommet kit is very easy to use.  You hole the fabric using the included punching tool (the kit also includes a small block of wood not shown in this pic, to place under the punching area)...
...and then you use the included die set and a hammer to pound the grommet (we had a small sledge hammer that worked well).  The result is a professional-looking grommet.

By the way, I washed and dried on the highest heat setting all drop cloths before I began working with them, to ensure I had pre-shrunk them.  
I am omitting step-by-step details because everyone's patio is going to be different dimensions and therefore the measurements won't be transferable, but the general ideas will be similar in each case.  I did my usual DIY thing and measured the project step by step as I went, roughly in this sequence - mount the hanging rods first, do the top hem and grommets next, fit individual curtains to openings, measure for the bottom hems, then complete bottom hems.  Our patio is so tall that I had to be careful with my upper and lower hems. I had no extra length in the drop cloths to play with.  But I did have this goofy dog to play with.  

I basically created a shallow upper hem and chose six fence compression bands for each of the six curtain panels, simply because it "looked about right" when laid out with six.
I did all this work on the patio itself (nice clean sealed concrete post here), hauling the sewing machine and ironing board outdoors to do it.  My whole point in improving this patio is that I want to use it more frequently like the full room of the house that it ought to have been functioning as all along during the past five years.  That full use will require drawing the curtains when the sun is too strong or when the mosquitoes are too thick.  
This might seem like a lot of work on top of a lot of expense for patio curtains, but guess what?  Even if I had wanted to purchase curtains off the shelf, (a) it would have been prohibitively expensive and (b) it probably would not have been possible to purchase an appropriate product at any cost due to the sizing issues.  This patio is post-tension slab integrated - it's not a block of concrete that was poured separately from the house.  Because it is structural, it is sloped to the north and east so that it drains away from the exterior walls of the house.  What that means is that each of the six curtains I made had to be a slightly different length in order to hang the same distance above the concrete.
Another sin you will see on the internet is patio curtains that touch the ground.  That might work in Las Vegas, but we have a super-wet climate, and ground-touching curtains would wick rainwater and degrade pretty quickly.  Therefore I aimed for about an inch and a half of clearance to keep them out of the watery slop zone. 
When you are dealing with a pitched patio floor, the best strategy is to just pin up each pair of curtains and see what looks best, ignoring minor irregularities.  Here on the north side of the patio, I barely had enough length to make a decent hem...
...but fourteen feet away on the south side of the patio, the distance between the floor and the ceiling was several inches shorter.  So I had to hang the partially-finished curtains, find my ideal length, pin it up to that level, and then cut down those hems so that they would be the same depth as their northern counterparts. 
My advice for someone dealing with sloped floors is this:  Don't try to over-engineer this process.  Proceed step-wise, hem the curtains, and be done with it.  These are drop cloths afterall, so they are rather crude and rustic, full of imperfections.  A bit of hem depth difference here and there won't be noticeable as long as they are generally consistent.
The one thing I will say, though, is that pinning and ironing at each step is key.  You don't want the final product to turn out to look too crudely made.
Because each curtain was a slightly different length, I "numbered" them one through six by sewing notch marks in the upper left corners with black thread.  That way when I take them out of the washing machine, it will be obvious how to re-mount them to the hardware.  Obviously this is curtain number three. 
With every great blog post, there must be a great reveal.  This is a tough one to make even with a wide-angle lens, but here goes.
I made the table runner by cutting a chunk off the bottom edge of my extra drop cloth and hemming the cut side.  It ties the scene together.

Information on additional design elements also seen here:
Patio concrete sealant.
Ceiling paint color.
Repurposed TV-VCR stand as outdoor sideboard (seen in photos farther down).
 Outdoor rug sourcing.
Drainage culvert planters - those contain blueberry bushes that must have specific soil chemistry (we harvested a few quarts of blueberries this year). 
Here is a close-up of the galvanized pipe, chain link fence hardware, and grommet-fitted drop cloths.  Two of our patio openings were between 5 and 6 feet wide, and so we installed plain rods in those.  The north opening was a full ten feet wide, and so it needed the center support shown here in addition to the two end supports.  If you have any doubts about how I put this three-pair assemblage together, check the sourcing list near the beginning of this post. 
I'm pleased.  The fabric softens up a space that was previously all concrete, brick, and cement board.  
Looking back whence I came. 
The interior wooden table tends to get used for meals, reading, and chatting.  This bistro table is usually reserved for wine. At this point, the chiminea to the left is mostly reserved for storage of home-grown onions, because obviously we cannot light a fire there LOL. 
Some people put weights in the hems of their patio curtains, but I chose not to.  I like to see them blowing around a bit and I am hoping that the movement will help discourage birds from entering and nesting on the patio (I had to wait until two batches of mourning doves fledged before I could even start this project).  Here you see the potential of the curtains to block late-afternoon sun. 

This is an awkward tunnel-vision photo, but this gives a sense of the effect at night.  The off-white curtains, when drawn, are bright enough to bounce the porch light around sufficiently well so that I can now use the space as I would an interior room.  Previously the view out each opening looked like the Black Hole of Calcutta at night.   

Another night shot, repurposed TV-VCR stand in the background. 
Good luck with your own patio curtain project.  And I must leave you with this closing meme, which is so very true of projects like this, with or without the benefit of sourcing lists!

UPDATE JUNE 10, 2015:
What I said at the beginning of this blog post.  About 48 hours after I finished this project, I was sitting in my brand new little patio oasis blissing out and enjoying the job that was finished when this happened:
It came barreling out of nowhere and that purple part (the most severe storm conditions) passed straight over the top of us.
All hell started breaking loose, with horizontal winds and crap flying everywhere!
So much for my peaceful moment of contemplation.  You can see from the wet mirrors at left that the wind-driven rain was so strong that it traveled ten feet into the patio and hit the wall. 
Prior to this event, it had not occurred to me how heavy these drop cloths could get when totally saturated.  Not simply wet like they came out of the washing machine, but saturated.  And even with all that weight, the wind still tried to pull them to horizontal - the forces were enormous.

There is no question in my mind that if I had used lighter gauge hardware here, the curtains would have been ripped loose.  And probably deposited in Liberty County.  In sooth, a good DIY call, because they are still perfectly fine after all that.

UPDATE JUNE 13, 2015:
Oh good grief!!  We can't seem to catch a break on tropical rainfall this season!
You don't even need to know what the colors mean.  Just know that it's a LOT of rain, and they are currently predicting a 30% chance of cyclone development in the next few days.
I searched and searched the internet for ideas on how to protect patio curtains from severe weather without removing them, and found absolutely no effective ideas except for commercially-fitted plastic sheeting such as would be installed at commercial establishments (e.g., restaurant patios).  I certainly wasn't going to go that route, so I decided that the Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S.) principle would find good application here:
Put a bow on 'er - she's done.  I simply rolled up each curtain from the bottom and tied a length of cord around the resulting bundle, securing the cord around the galvanized pipe rod.  This keeps the curtain up under the soffit and away from the deluges of rain.

Internet search strings:  Keep patio curtains dry, patio curtains in rain, patio curtain protection, outdoor curtain shielding.
So far this morning we have probably had two inches of rain, and everything is still high and dry.
I wouldn't go to this much trouble for a normal short-term rainfall event, but what we've got going on right now is not going to be normal.  This too shall pass, and my patio will once again let its hair down.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Best concrete patio sealant

Answer:  I do not know which is the best sealant, but in this post I show two products that appear to have some promise.

But first, a rant.

Actually I do always rant. 
In this previous post, I wondered aloud why Houstonians tend not to maintain their fences with pressure washing and stain.  In our land of cheap housing, we live in gorgeous McMansions, most of which are surrounding by cedar enclosures that reflect appalling neglect, or at least an incongruent plain-ness.
There's simply no comparison:  Our backyard four years ago in its very early stages of development, before and after fence staining.  For a few bucks and a few hours of time, this, too, could be your look.  Pics from this post
It is with a similar degree of exasperation that I wonder why most Houstonians do not clean and finish-seal their concrete.
This type of blackness and despair is the eventual result of non-action.  At left you see the edge of our concrete patio, freshly pressure-washed.  At right you see a concrete paver stone that has not yet been pressure washed.  Prior to washing, the appearance of the patio essentially matched that of the stone to the right. 
Not only is this kind of mildew and algae build-up unsightly, it's dangerous because it's very slippery when wet.  More than once I have nearly broken my neck after losing my footing in this area.

Unfortunately, the remedial choices are few, especially if you do NOT want an epoxy or "wet look" sealant, both of which I think make outdoor concrete look plastic and fake.
This chart summarizes the choices, which basically fall into four categories, only one of which (that excerpted above) maintains natural looking concrete. 
Here's the kicker, though: Perhaps because concrete sealing is not very popular in this area, few products in the silane / siloxane / silicate class were for sale locally.  (The other probable reason for the non-availability is that, here in the deep south, we don't have to worry about frost damage to our concrete, and frost damage is what these things were intended to prevent).  After doing additional research, we settled upon Drivehard Concrete and Masonry Weatherproofer for our main patio, which we had to order for delivery.
It looks like this and is described as being a "nano-silicone / silicate" based product. 
However, we have two patios, and with so little information to go on, we were not sure which formulation would work best in our climate.  Therefore, we also bought this other option which was available locally at big-box hardware stores.  We figured we'd compare the performance of the two over time, one on each patio.
Behr Premium Protector and Waterproofer.  It is described mostly as a silicone product, whatever that means.  
Especially this year with the abnormally high rainfall we have been having, it has been a struggle to keep both patios even slightly clean.
I had initially pressure washed earlier this spring and then was waiting for a dry day to apply the sealant. Well, with all the rain, a dry day did not arrive, and meanwhile, this is the amount of algae that re-grew just within a matter of weeks.  I had to pressure wash all over again as if the first washing never even happened.  

Here is a test spot of the Behr product on our smaller patio.  I had put down the tape because when the concrete is dry, it's impossible to see where the product was applied.  But you sure can see the application when the un-treated concrete gets rained on.  
This is a view of the Drivehard product application in progress on our larger patio.  It goes down like plain water.  I did not just apply one coat - I went over it, and over it, and over it, each time making a new pass to add more product to areas where the concrete soaked up the initial roll-out.  The instructions say that you can do this as long as the initial coat does not completely dry in between applications.  
Here is a finished view of the larger patio while it is partly wet and partly dry.  If you look carefully, you can see that the edges beyond the concrete seam have some standing water, but the sealant excludes a lot of it from soaking in, such that it no longer darkens when wet.  
This is a close-up view of the treated concrete.  Some water does still penetrate, but a lot of it beads on the surface. 
Both products performed as advertised in that they did not leave a visible residue or coating.  The concrete on both patios still looks "natural" and uncoated.  I will re-edit this post in the future with a verdict if one proves to be superior to the other.
And this is the first of two posts that will celebrate that fact. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How blinding is too blinding? LED advertising in League City

When are we going to set reasonable limits on the likes of this nonsense?!
LED business advertising sign on Highway 3, looking southbound toward the Walker Street intersection in the background.  The picture is a bit blurry because my telephone could not cope with the over-exposure - it messed up its ability to focus.  And if this sign did that to my high-tech phone, what do you suppose it did to my geriatric eyeballs?  
How many million megawatts of illumination are we going to permit before we start realizing that these new-fangled signs are completely blinding to motorists?  Especially older motorists whose eyes are no longer capable of adjusting quickly?  For an average older adult in good health, I estimate that they would experience a minimum of 10 seconds of visual impairment because of this thing - at least 5 seconds of being blinded during the approach to the sign, and at least 5 more seconds of perceiving abnormal darkness as the age-stiffened pupils slowly re-expanded to a degree appropriate to functioning in ambient night lighting.  During that 10 second period of impaired vision at this location, their car would travel at least 500 feet, during which I believe they would be seeing much less than they rightfully ought to be.  And that is downright dangerous.

I am not in favor of increased government regulation such as sign illumination ordinances (hint, hint) but apparently common sense is not going to prevail on this one (I took this pic while walking my dog last night, but this is by no means the only such sign in League City). And apparently we haven't yet had time for case law to deal with it either.  I'm not an attorney, but if someone blinds me in the roadway such that I run over a pedestrian whom I am prevented from seeing as a result of that blinding, then I would guess that both I and the pedestrian have a claim against the person who inflicted the blinding.  And if we can't act on that claim, I'm guessing that subrogation might get the job done for us.
Google screengrab on the subject of subrogation.
But is it really necessary to let it get that far?  Why can we not, as a society, realize that certain things are just plain stupid and then decline to do those things in the first place?  Instead, apparently we have to escalate into Sign Wars until someone (a City Council maybe?) draws the line and says "when".  Ugh...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Upcycling scrap Parallam into a bench

Well, it's been just about forever since I've done a DIY post on this blog, mainly because the hubster and I have been customizing an RV that I've got showcased on a separate and unrelated blog.  But I'm going to interject a new DIY post now in part because Centerpointe Section 9 turns five years old this week, and this project is a propos of our original construction, which seems like only yesterday.

Being the proud owner of only the third build site that was sold in this 75-home section of the subdivision, I spent almost two years watching every possible construction scenario unfold here.  I was constantly bothered by the degree of waste that was occurring.  A giant heap of construction debris would form unceremoniously in the front yard of each new house as it was going up, and most of it was actually valuable stuff.  I would go around pilfering the piles, documenting my dealings with cell phone pics in case I ever had to prove that I wasn't "stealing" valuable construction supplies.  Because you really couldn't tell the difference, eh?  If I was discovered trotting happily down Arlington Pointe with a wheelbarrow full of Austin Chalk, who's to say I didn't pull it off the new stone pallets instead of from the dump sites?
I mean recycle - I don't mean five-finger discount.  Oh, waitaminute - I actually mean upcycle.
One of my rescues was of a section of Parallam left over from the construction of our very own four-car garage.
It's a great big sucker, as garages go, and there were several Parallam beams supporting the roof load.  You can see two of them here, at right angles to each other.  The piece I rescued from the trash pile was trimmed from one of those.  
Parallam is freakish-looking stuff - this is a view of the end grain of my scrap piece, post-finishing. 
For five long years, I hoarded that unwieldy piece of Parallam...
...and I'm channeling Christopher Walken as I say that...
...until finally I resolved to complete my originally-conceived mission and make a bench out of it.

Trouble was, my house is already chock full of furniture and I didn't need a bench - at least not a conventional 18-inch high sitting bench.  I needed a squat bench, which could be used for several purposes that I will explain in a moment.  Here is how I constructed it.
My squat bench would have low legs so that it could be placed alternatively under a window sill or in front of the fireplace.  The Parallam scrap was bloody heavy - over forty pounds - and so those legs needed to be robust.  I bought a standard piece of four-inch pine post and with the help of my better half, chopped four legs each about six inches high.  After allowing them a few weeks to dry, I primed them and painted them using the same paint as is on our fireplace. 
This is the bracket that I used to attach the legs to the Parallam slab.  About a buck and a half each at Lowes. 
These structural pieces were not intended for finish carpentry, of course, and I had to cut off these tabbed ends to give the piece a finished look. 
A chick and her power tools... it's a beautiful thing.  Dremel, in this case.
So then the deal is that you need to attach the brackets to the legs first.  I used drywall screws here because I'm sick and tired of buying new hardware for every project that comes along.  The drywall screws stick out a bit, but they are not visible on the finished bench.  
In order to prepare the Parallam scrap itself, I sanded it and gave it about ten coats of polyurethane, also sanding between successive coats.  Parallam is rather splintery and was never intended for furniture construction, but that's just a minor annoyance.  It looks so cool that I wanted to finish it.

That's my husband helping me to determine an optimal leg placement.  
View of the underside, two of four legs attached.  There is no bracket portion showing from the front or side of the finished bench.
Et voila - the finished product in situ.  
Allow me to insert this delightful aside:
Almost two years ago, I published a post titled "Modernizing a traditional home design with color, Part 1: Fireplace make-over" in which I described how one could spend less than two hundred dollars on natural slate tile and paint and achieve a fireplace look that was similar to a two thousand dollar all-stone fireplace.  My version is obviously not quite as grand, but it has analogous visual impact and focal-point weight at only one tenth of the typical cost.  Judging from the blog stats, it was a very popular post and I was probably the first person to do this - but others have since followed suit.  And every time I see someone channeling "my" fireplace on HGTV, I pause the program and take a commemorative pic of the fireplaces side by side, as this example shows.  So, yay design coup on this idea.  I appear to have influenced the course of residential design in America.  Many of the others even appear to be using the same shade of paint (Valspar Ocean Storm).

BTW, speaking of the five year anniversary of Centerpointe Section 9, you can tell that our TV is also five years old - the wide outer border is a dead giveaway of its advanced age (the body is also much thicker than current models).  It was cutting edge technology five years ago but it's obsolete today.  That's fine with me because we don't have to worry about anyone stealing it any more - it's no longer worth anything to speak of!
OK, back to my Parallam story.
Here is the close-up.  I've become quite the wimp in my old age, and every time we have one of those horrible damp freezing cold Houston winter days, I pull this bench out a bit and plop myself down in front of the open flame, dreaming of July temperatures.  
But it's not just the fireplace that this bench was designed to serve.
It's also an under-window bench.  This is my second bloom cycle for this orchid, which prefers this exact spot at my home office window. Trouble is, it got too big to sit on the window ledge proper, so it needs something else to sit on.  I can move the bench here in warmer times when I don't need it in front of the fireplace to help the warming of my ancient bones.

You can also see my oft-discussed principle of cross-referencing in this photo (what HGTV designers call "repetition").  The legs of the conference table, squat bench, and cabinet are all three different woods and different finishes, but they are all square, so they still look like they go together.  
Not bad for a $15 investment of brackets, polyurethane, and wood for the legs, wouldn't you say?  My only regret is that I wasn't better five years ago at pilfering other peoples' Parallam scraps, because I really could use one or two more of these little benches. I can see that now that I have finally completed this one after five full years of not quite getting around to it.
Because you have to have stuff to support your orchids.  Life would not be complete without orchids.