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.  

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