Addicted to the fire…

So this is it. My last weekend before the Invaders from the South arrive. I arrived up at the barn with a list as long my arm of all the things that need finishing off and with all good intentions to get up at the crack of dawn to get started. It’s going to be a weekend of ‘finishing things off’. Much like the ‘Bits, Bobs, Odds & Sods’ blog, there’s a myriad of little things that need sorting. And some bigger things too…

Well I did get up nice and early – but you know me and my ability to be distracted. The thing is, the lads had been up in the week and put the final bit of flue out through the roof. The fire was, in theory, now fully functioning. So I had to test it, didn’t I? It would have been rude not to…

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I sat there with my cup of tea watching the fire burn. And when it had all died away, I lit it again. No, I’m not a pyromaniac. Honest! But when you light a stove for the first time, you’re supposed to start with a very small fire – just a handful of kindling. And when it has gone out and the stove has cooled down, you do the same again.

Having successfully wasted an hour or so, I finally stopped playing with fire, and went to Dundee. So much for being stood outside the doors of B&Q waiting for them to open at 7am. And after B&Q, I headed round to Topps Tiles to collect the half a dozen tiles I needed to completely finish the bathroom. Only to find that they only had half my order – even though I’d phoned the day before and they’d assured me it was all in.

Cue much sarcastic muttering about incompetence and a promise that I would be getting active on twitter just as soon as I could find a WiFi signal. Clearly that didn’t put the fear of God into them, since they knew full well that the chances of finding a WiFi signal whilst driving around Scotland are right up there with the proverbial needle and haystack. (But wipe that smirk off your face boys – when I get back to London I will write that review…. and blog it…. and tweet it….)

All in all bit of a wasted trip.

And of course the holiday season has started. All the world’s happy campers have attached caravan to car and are now wending their merry way around Scotland. Or that’s how it seemed to me on my very slow drive home. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against caravans. I’m sure it’s a lovely way to visit Scotland. But if you could try and avoid the A93, the A94 and the B954 between Alyth and Dundee, I’d be eternally grateful.

It was just on 11 when I got home, and so far I’d achieved the square root of nothing on my list.

So I had a cup of tea and lit another fire. (Believe me – it’s addictive…)

Hey ho. There’s still the rest of the day to get busy in. Or so I thought. I’d just donned all my work gear and had gone to work attacking the tap in the bathroom, when the piano tuner turned up. I’d forgotten I’d arranged for him to come this weekend.

I don’t have a doorbell; people bang on the glass for a bit and then just open the door and shout. He was obviously too polite. Quite what he thought when I opened the door – a mad woman in a mouse-eaten jumper and cement/paint/grout/sealant covered trousers, wielding a large spanner in one hand and a hammer in the other – I don’t know. But at least he didn’t run away.

In fact he spent the next hour or so pulling my beautiful boudoir grand piano to bits. I felt obliged to stick around and make him a cup of tea and then listen as he tried to explain C19th damper mechanisms to me.

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But after about two hours, having more or less dismantled the entire piano, he decided that he didn’t really have the right kind of glue to fix a broken hammer shank, and rather than botch the job, he would take it away, make a new one and come back on Easter Monday to finish. So he reassembled the piano and left, without having tuned it.

It was now the middle of the afternoon and I had done absolutely nothing on my list. Clearly this is a day destined to be wasted.

So I lit another little fire. (Hey, this isn’t for my sake – I have to temper the new stove. That’s all. I can give this up any time I like…..)

By about 3 in the afternoon I realised that if I didn’t tear myself away from the stove, nothing would get done this weekend. So I went back the tap I’d been working on when Mr Piano Tuner arrived.

And finished fixing it. And then moved on to the shower – just a a dozen or so mosaic tiles to finish. And a bit of grouting.  And then seal the corners. And a couple of wall tiles to finish. And seal around the bottom of the bath….

And finally I think I can declare this bathroom, if not quite finished, at least ready for the Invaders!

But there’s no rest for the wicked, and I still have a long list to get through. Next stop, the bathroom upstairs. Remember my bathroom floor – the one with 8,000 mosaic squares that I put down individually? Well I have a confession. In spite of the pictures that made it all look finished, in fact, after completing the main part of the design, my ‘attention-span -of -a-hyperactive-kitten’ thing got in the way. I got bored, moved on, and never quite got round to finishing it.

So, this weekend, last chance before the Invaders from the South arrive, I finally finished the mosaic floor.

And there were half a dozen or so wall tiles to finish off:

And that just leaves a whole lot of grouting.

At which point I realised I could have made my trip to Dundee in the morning a whole lot more useful if I’d remembered to by some more grout. But I didn’t. Oops.

Still, at least there was enough to finish inside the shower, so at least it will be usable.

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Have I achieved everything I wanted to before the IFTS arrive. No, not really. But is the house habitable and working – well enough for what I need, yes!

Those little squares of hell…….

If you’ve got a bathroom with a floor area somewhere in the region of 18m², it makes sense, if you’re planning on tiling the whole room, to use the biggest tiles you can find. Nobody, in their right mind, would consider tiling a room that size with 2.5cm squares.

Except somebody who likes to make life as difficult as possible.

To be fair, this wasn’t entirely self-inflicted pain. Yes, I’ve installed a wetroom style shower, and small tiles feel like a safer non-slip option, so that’s my own fault. But that’s just a relatively small surface area. The bigger problem goes back to Mr Incompetent Builder, who in the very early days of the build, decided there was no logical reason why the joists and the steel lintels should be put in at the same height. As a result, even with some judicious handling of the chipboard flooring, and an overlay of cement tile backer board, there was still a risk that large tiles could break on the uneven surface he’d left me with. No choice really – that’ll be some more mosaics then.

However, as I stated at the end of my last blog, I do vaguely recall, after all the trauma of creating the mosaic for the bathroom walls piece by piece, that I promised myself I would never do that again, and in future any mosaic tiles used would be ‘straight out of the box’.

So I made a plan: All of the shower/wetroom area in black mosaic; all of the floor in white mosaics. Straight out of the box. Dead simple.

My plan lasted about as long as a Labour/Conservative coalition – as soon as I realised I’d screwed up the tile order and bought too many sheets of black, and not enough sheets of white. Doh! So I would have to have some of the black squares on the floor, as well as in the shower area.

But that’s OK. I can still use whole sheets. No need to get complicated…

Except that actually it would probably look a lot neater if I gave it some kind of edging. Nothing too tricky. I’ll just take out a couple of rows of white and replace them with black all round the edge. Of course, the corners will be a bit fiddly, but nothing traumatic…..

And bit by bit those tiny little changes and ‘improvements’ develop and grow and morph and take on a life of their own. Until you find yourself in the middle of creating a full-scale masterpiece – tile by tile.

I mean, I know I really did say ‘never again’ after I’d tiled the sauna. Admittedly a good year or so had passed from when I finished the sauna to when I started the bathroom floor, but how could I have possibly have forgotten the backache, the cursing and the frustration of fiddling around with tiny little square tiles? Evidently my brain is good at burying the bad memories. Why else would I suddenly decide that actually it would be a really good idea to create a bespoke pattern across practically the whole area of the floor, using individual mosaic tiles? I suppose it really comes down to “do I really want a giant chessboard on my bathroom floor?”

Not particularly. So either I had to order more white tiles, or I had to get creative with the black and the white.

IMG_0677So I started, once again, with my ‘pattern’. But I kept forgetting to print off my Excel spreadsheet grid, so this time I had to draw one out by hand, and then colour it in…

And then came the real fun job. Once again I found myself laying out individual tiles, piece by piece.

These mosaics are slightly larger than the other (2.5cm instead of 2cm – woohoo!) but a larger area to cover – only 8,000 or so to put down….

And having laid them all out, and checked the pattern, I then had to lift them all again so I could apply the adhesive. So I stacked them all in blocks so I didn’t lose the pattern.

And when I had finally laid everything, I stood back and admired my handiwork. And took some photos so I could show off my handiwork to the social media world.

But as I was looking at the photo later I realised there was a mistake in the pattern. How could I miss that? 28 little black and white squares that need to be swapped over.

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Spot the deliberate mistake…..

Only 28 tiny tiles – that nobody on FB could spot until I told them where to look. So why didn’t I just leave it as it is???

Because once I’d noticed it, I knew that my anal, petty, symmetrical brain would go into melt down every time I’m I sat on the loo.

So the following weekend, out came the hammer and chisel. And order and harmony was restored.

All it needs now is a bit of grouting – that won’t take long, will it??

(Well I thought that’s all it needed. But my Mum went in there for the first time the other day. And came downstairs and uttered the immortal words “Did you know one of your tiles is wrong – your pattern isn’t symmetrical?”

One tiny white square that should be a black one. And now I know about it, I won’t be able to sit on the loo in peace until I’ve corrected it. Never let your Mum in your ME space!!)

50 shades of grey on the bathroom walls…..

Bendy wall board may be dead easy to work with, and I now have lots of lovely curves in my bathroom, but let’s face it, it’s not the most elegant finish on the planet.

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So how do I make it look pretty? Painting is not an option, unless I skim plaster the board – and as I think I’ve mentioned in the past – plastering is not a skill I have. Which means my only option is tiling.

So how do you tile a curved wall? Clearly my previous tiling strategy of “great big tiles + small area = less work and less mess” isn’t going to work here. Big tiles don’t go round bends!

The only way to tile round a bend is by using mosaics. Fortunately the world has moved on from the bad old days of the Romans, cutting individual tesserae and sticking them all down one by one. Nowadays mosaics come in sheets, on a mesh backing, usually in a nice useable 30cm x 30cm size. So it’s just like handling a flexible version of a large tile, and just as easy to put up.

In theory……

Unfortunately, I’d been indulging in some of those posh homes & interior decorating magazines again. (I think they become a bit of an addiction for self-builders). And in one of the posh house articles I saw a beautiful bathroom decorated in mosaics that graduated in colour from floor to ceiling. I decided that’s what I wanted for my ME space bathroom. Helpfully the article had the contact details for the suppliers, so I checked out their website. And nearly fainted at their prices; I would need a second mortgage just to cover the 5m² wall of my sauna. Undeterred, I spent ages trawling the internet trying to find cheaper alternatives, but without success.

I think I mentioned in the last blog the concept of the “DIY hell or high water approach”. In my normal stubborn way, I decided there had to be a way to replicate the look, without the squillion pound bill. I mean, if you think about it, it’s just mixing up different colour mosaic tiles. How hard can that be?

At work, an Excel spreadsheet is my answer to everything – but I never envisaged using it to tile a bathroom. However, being the total nerdy numbers geek I am, I designed a pattern by creating a formula to distribute black, white, three shades of grey, silver glitter and mirror squares in a randomised pattern to give me the graduated mosaic effect I wanted.  (OK, maybe not the 50 shades of grey I promised in the title – that was just to get your attention.…)IMG_0831

That gives me my template for a 2m x 1m length of graduated mosaic. Now all I have to do is replicate it with the real thing.

I went online and found a website selling individual mosaic tiles in a whole range of colours, and duly bought a couple of boxes of black, a couple of boxes of white and the necessary bags of grey, dark grey, light grey, mirror and silver glitter tiles. (My clever little spreadsheet had worked out how many of each I needed.) I also bought a 10m roll of mesh backing and a gallon of PVA.

All set to create my masterpiece……

What did I say at the beginning of the blog, about the bad old days creating a mosaic tile by tile?

Well, yes. That was me. I put a load of newspaper down to protect my wooden floor, marked it into sections of 30cm2 and started laying my tiles. One by one. Face down. Following my pattern. All 4,725 little squares. And I rued the day I ever came up with such a daft idea. Backbreaking work hunched over the floor for hours at a time, and impossibly frustrating trying to keep all the tiles equally spaced and in straight lines.

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When I’d finally got them all laid out, I painted each one with PVA, rolled out my mesh backing over the top, put a load more newspaper on top of that, and weighted the whole lot down with an entire set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And left it to dry out for a couple of days.

I’m sure some of you have already anticipated what happened next (and are smirking away to yourselves). PVA glue and newspaper – has a tendency to stick – to everything. The newspaper was stuck to the back of the mesh, the front of the tiles were stuck to the newspaper underneath, which in turn had stuck to the wood floor.

I believe, at this point, a certain amount of bad language ensued. I spent the next few evenings cleaning everything up and scraping newspaper off the tiles and the floor.

Worse – I’d created this monstrosity in my flat in London – without giving any thought to how I would get it up to Scotland. A metre-wide roll of glass mosaics – too big to take on as carry-on luggage, and too fragile to want to risk having it thrown around in the hold of a plane. I ended up having to hire a car to chauffeur it all the way to the frozen North.

So much effort, and this was less than half the job. I needed at least one more 2m length plus a bit more.

I really couldn’t face the thought of doing all that again. But another scouring of the internet provided an alternative solution. A ‘Mosaic Square’ – a 30cm square plastic tray with 225 mosaic size holes.

You just lay out your tiles in the holes and then stick a square of mesh on top – creating your own custom-designed mosaic tiles. What genius came up with that?

It was still a long slow job – I kept losing track of which section of the pattern I was working on, and in which order they needed to be arranged. But at least I wasn’t ruining my landlords antique wood floors. And I could smuggle them up to Scotland in my carry-on case (as long as nobody stopped me to check the weight of my bag!)

In total, over 10,000 little 2cm squares individually stuck down. Probably one of the fiddliest jobs I’ve undertaken in the barn. And at the time I swore I’d never do it again. Stick to the standard mosaics out of the box in future……

Still, the end result looks quite impressive – if I do say so myself!

Tiling the Leaning Tower…..

There is no respite when building (or converting) a house. With all the various traumas associated with the plumbing, including the unplanned, unwanted internal water features, it would have been nice to take a bit of time off. But everything seems to be interlinked – you have to finish (or at least get a good way through) one job, before you can get on with another.

So whilst I could put all the first fix pipework in for the plumbing, I couldn’t really fit all the taps and things until I’d decided how I was going to finish the walls.

I decided to tile everything – hides a multitude of sins, and it’s one of those things that’s flogged as a DIY job – so how hard could it be?

Well with with four bathrooms to get done, I can safely say I’ve now had plenty of practise! And one thing I’ve learnt is that the quickest and cleanest way to lay tiles is to make sure you’ve got the biggest slabs you can get your hand on. Stands to reason: great big tiles + small floor area = less work and less mess.

Well that’s the theory anyway. The obvious flaw to this approach is great big tiles require walls to be square and floors to be flat.

Sadly, there is nothing square or flat about my barn. As anyone who’s read the blog about slating the floors may recall, the concrete screed in the barn in places has a passing resemblance to a mountain range. And my door-hanging exploits will have exposed the fact that there isn’t a straight wall in the place.

Still, I’m an optimist. So I ignored my little unevenness problem and went and bought some giant 60 x60cm slabs of quartz for the floor of bathroom number 1.

At 7m² it’s the smallest bathroom in the main house – (yes I am showing off, I know, that’s still nearly twice as big as the national average). But when you take into account the space covered by the shower enclosure it meant I only needed 16 tiles. Ha – can get that done in a day, no problem!

And for once, it more or less went to plan. Yes the concrete slab was uneven – but an extra thick layer of cement will solve that, right? Hmm. I only just got away with that logic. It was fine, all apart from one tile, that started to sink into the cement like it was quicksand. And much like quicksand, once it started to sink, the suction power meant it was impossible to lift out. Fortunately it’s right in the corner of the room – no-one will ever know…..

The walls got the same treatment. Nice big 30cm x 60cm tiles. So they went on relatively quickly too. But obviously nothing in the barn can ever be entirely straight forward. Remember I mentioned the walls not being square…..

So what happens when you get to the corners of the room? It becomes blatantly obvious when the the tiles that were in perfect alignment together at the bottom of the wall start to diverge the higher up the wall they go. By the time you get to the ceiling it looks like you’ve been tiling the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So do you try to match the corners up the wall – which will then create an angle to the floor and/or the ceiling. Or do you line up to the floor, which then creates a problem in the corners?? Only one answer to the impossible conundrum – I deferred to the wisdom of the spirit level. The walls may not be square; the floors and ceilings may slope; but believe me, the tiles are perfectly level!

A few simple tricks, and in fact the problem’s quite hard to spot:

  1. Big white tiles, bright white grout. Makes the gaps disappear like magic….
  2. Cunning ploy – I tiled one wall with mosaics – they’re slightly easier to ‘manipulate’ a little bit, stretch them out a little bit to hide the gaps
  3. Strategically placed furniture – two of the corners are mostly hidden by furniture – so unless you plan to spend your time in the shower ogling at the ceiling, you probably wont see the wonkiness anyway.
  4. Give them something else to ogle at. My posh glass radiator makes a better talking point than wonky walls….. IMG_0749

Now for bathroom number 2……..