The plan for the lower level of the house is to remove the wall between the lounge room and the master bedroom and convert the bedroom into the kitchen (the master bedroom goes upstairs).
That change will turn the lower level into a three-part space. The lounge on the east, the kitchen on the west and the dining area in the middle. We have two lights in the lounge that are set up for it to be a single space, and when the layout changes one of them will be in the wrong spot to be useful. Even as-is we never use that light; the space it illuminates is a bit of a dead area. The easiest time to move it is now, before the ceiling goes on.
There is an extra cable in the roof that used to go to the ceiling fan, removed long ago. It was disconnected and the switchplate on the wall removed and the hole plastered over. The easiest thing is to repurpose that cable for later.
A hole drilled in the current ceiling luckily located the cable straight away. We pulled it through and popped it in the spot where we’ll have a new “dinner table” light later on.
We’ll put a cap thing in there to keep the insulation away from the wiring connections, and then just cover it over with plasterboard. Once we’re ready we can use the measurements to cut the plasterboard in just the right spot to locate the wire.
The floorboards are sitting in the lounge room acclimatising. They’ll be installed in about a month. We were always going to put a ceiling over the exposed beams in the lounge. They give a kind of fake country feel that makes the place look dated. Ceiling work involves a lot of up and down on ladders and, let’s face it, it will be a miracle if we don’t drop anything on the floor from height while we’re doing it. So it’s best to sort the ceiling out before the floor.
We want to put some insulation up there and move one of the lights while we’re at it. It will also give us an opportunity to fix up the bodgy hole that was cut way back in the day for the fireplace flue. It’s supposed to have a shroud around it, but we found the shroud down under the house when we moved in. The shroud has a circular hole for a flat ceiling, and the sloped ceiling turns circles into ellipses, and it looks like cutting the correct ellipse out of the shroud was put firmly into the too-hard basket.
The rafters are 900mm apart, which is way too far for fixing plasterboard directly to the roof without risking sagging. The solution is furring channel, a metal extrusion that is attached to the rafters, with the plasterboard then attached to the extrusion.
The furring channel was relatively easy to procure, along with special clips to attach it to the rafters. We needed another ladder so we could both be up there at once.
The main trick is ensuring that the surface that is created is flat. Any kinks in the plasterboard will be quite obvious, so the furring channel has to be just right, and you can’t trust old rafters that were never installed with precision in mind.
We utilised our trusty straight edge and a level to line up the ends both across and up-and-down the roof, and used it again to eliminate any sag in the middle of the furring channel.
The furring channel comes in 6m lengths, and the room is 6.3m long, which left a gap. We cut them in the middle at the shop so that we could transport them in the ute. We could have wrangled other lengths, and gone cutting the furring channel to span the whole distance with ends that line up on the rafters, but the gap is not a problem: we’ll span a piece of plasterboard across it.
We spread the work out over two days, and it probably took about 7 hours in total, since we’re newbies and we had a lot of breaks for cuppas and the like.
Some really nice weather arrived for the Easter weekend, so instead of sitting out on the deck drinking G ‘n’ Ts we got to finishing off our first little rammed earth wall.
From lessons learned on the first section, we removed the chamfer piece from the top of the form and tried freehand cutting a chamfer at the end instead.
We also discovered the origin of the bowing on the walers. It’s not the ramming of the dirt per se, but rather in the clamping. Our bolt clamps are outside the form, and were meant to provide a simple automagic method of holding the end of the form in place, against the rods. But the walers bend in at the ends ever so slightly as the rods are tightened, which translates to a noticeable bend outwards in the middle.
You can’t avoid having holes in the wall if you’re going to use a through-clamping method of holding the form. So the bolts need to go through the body of the form to prevent the walers from bending. We’ll do that next time.
Levelling the top of the wall was a lot easier without the chamfer pieces in the form.
We ran out of dirt at the end, and it seemed wasteful to make another batch just for a tiny corner. We left it as it was knowing we’d come back to do the last section the next day.
The bow in the wall is much more apparent with the form off. The slight curve also meant that where the two sections join the second section was slightly wider than the first section and there was a really obvious line on the wall that we don’t want going forward. The formwork has to be perfectly straight to make sure things like that don’t happen.
Chamfering was done with a mini mattock and a mallet, then smoothed with a steel ruler. All freehand. The chamfer is fine for the present purposes but it would be much better to do it against a guide that can keep it uniform along the length of the wall.
The dirt mix was a bit wet, too, and stuck to the form. Bits came away with the form. Again, they’re fine here but we’d want that to not happen going forward. We’ll try a drier mix and reduce the clay content.
The next day it was on to the last section. The PVC pipe we’d put into the second section had moved while ramming, though, and didn’t line up properly with the holes in the walers. We couldn’t get the rods through.
We’d decided that the big rods were too thick anyway, and had some thinner ones at hand. The thinner rods allowed for more play and we were able to get them through the holes. Again, having the through rods inside the edge of the form would make that a non-issue.
As we finished the last bit we realised that we didn’t have enough sifted local dirt. We’d calculated a 2:1 compression ratio from our test cylinders, and it turned out to be more like 2.2:1. Which is not bad considering the test cylinders were only 20cmx10cm.
It was no big deal to get the sifting table out and make some more dirt, though.
We were expecting the last shorter section to only take the morning, but what with the drama with the misaligned holes and running out of dirt it was 3:30PM by the time we had it done and everything tidied up.
We’d bought the cement for the wall some months previously, before knowing how long it would take to sort out the cement mixer. The bags had been sitting on the ground under the house. It’s dry down there, and the bags are plastic-lined inside, but moisture still got in and the outside layer of cement had gone hard. It broke into quite big lumps that the mixer couldn’t break up, so we ended up with lumps of cement in the last bits of wall. The sand was also quite sticky, and contained lumps, so there are intermittent areas of pure sand that aren’t good.
With all the formwork out of the way, we could put the bricks back the next day. We filled the little gap between the bricks and the wall with some concrete. This side of the wall will be under the deck eventually, but for the moment it’s nice to have it neatened off.
The middle section seems to be the best. The mix was drier and it hardened off very quickly. In a way, though, that worked against our favour. Five days later and the section where we’d run out of dirt is starting to crack and lift away. Because the lower portion had dried the top bit didn’t incorporate into it. It’s a relatively thin layer that dried faster than the rest. Leaving something to the next day is obviously another one of those mistakes that we won’t make again.
So, lessons learned:
Make more rigid forms. We’re thinking a shorter form with formply on the outside of the waler as well as the inside, all screwed together.
Through-rods inside the form. They only need to be finger-tight, too. The ramming will tighten them up.
Use a drier mix.
The big lump of wood rammer is good, but could be scraped down to make it more manageable.
Make some kind of guide for cutting the bevel.
Buy the cement only when we’re ready to ram.
Use smaller through-rods.
Always finish off a section for the end of a day’s work. It will be hard by the time you can get back to it the next day.
Don’t work if it’s going to rain.
Have covering ready for the amount of wall you have. It will want to be covered for some time after it’s complete if there’s any threat of rain.
Use sand that doesn’t clump. The beach sand and builder’s sand test cylinders turned out pretty samey-looking, but the beach sand won’t clump.
Now that the cement mixer is all fixed up, and we have sifted and partitioned dirt/sand, we can go ahead and ram some earth.
It was going to be an all day thing and we were due rain in the afternoon, so we got cracking early making the formwork box. Of course, first we had to clear all the leaves away that have accumulated since the footing was done ages ago.
After measuring the desired height using the laser level inside shining out the window, we cut our formply to size. We wanted to have the wall come to the top of the form so that we could scrape the top flat using the form itself.
We want a chamfer on the top edge, because rammed earth edges tend to chip if they’re at 90 degrees. To achieve the chamfer automatically as it were, we nailed a piece of angle to the top of the form.
Then it was set up with a temporary clamp, and levelled. The dirt was mostly level already from doing the foundation, but one end needed some shims to get it just right.
Next it was time to fit the walers, which are supposed to hold the form straight while ramming. We needed to drill holes in them to let the clamping rods through, and we got to use the new drill press for the first time to do that.
That’s it! We have our box, our dirt, our mixer and our home-made rammer.
As the dirt went in we were careful to make sure the sides against the form were well packed. It’s the only part of the wall that will ever be seen, so it’s worth the effort. We went around the edge with a piece of wood and a mini sledge to hammer it down.
Half way through and the rammer gave up the ghost. The concrete lump I’d made wasn’t strong enough and it fell to bits. We smashed the remaining bits off the end of the handle and fixed a piece of wood to it with a screw.
The wood+handle thing actually works pretty well – except that it wasn’t nearly stable enough. The screw hole in the handle quickly wore out and the bit of wood wouldn’t stay attached. We had to come up with something on the spot, so we chopped a spare post and planed off the corners to make it vaguely round on top.
That did the trick, but it’s really heavy and hard on the hands. We’ll modify it and give it a proper handle and then it should be sweet.
This bit of wall has to be done in three parts due to the length of formwork we have. The clamping bolts will need to go through this bit of wall somewhere when doing the next section over, so we put some PVC pipe in there for the bolts. Also made up on the spot.
Almost done, and down came torrential rain. We had to pack away the mixer and cover over the dirt box. We had just enough mixed dirt in the wheelbarrow to complete the job.
The last bit was done with rain pouring down, and the top of the wall got pretty wet. The dirt was not tamped as well as it could have been. We didn’t have a spare tarp, so we covered the wall with the offcut pieces of formply, which was not ideal since the water could still leak through.
We got a tarp over it the next day, but it rained steadily for three days.
Finally, on the fourth day we were able to take the tarp away and removed the formwork.
Well, it’s solid enough! Most of it looks pretty good.
There was definitely some laziness in the tamping towards the top. The piece of angle wood made a nice chamfer, but it was a real pain to work with. It kept getting in the way of the rammer, and it was really hard to get good tamping near it because it wasn’t that strong. It’s probably better to do the chamfer as a separate process at the end, using a piece of something shaped for the purpose. A bit of triangular metal would be perfect.
The walers weren’t really up to the job. They’re 90x35mm hardwood, but the 2.1m span was too much and the wall bowed out in the middle by about 3mm on either side. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s quite visible when you look down the length of the wall, and it will cause problems when it comes time to put the decking on top. The form could do with being half its length, or having an additional clamp in the middle. We’ll try the second method on the next section of wall.
The clamping rods are too big. You can get away with something much finer, and it would be better to insert bits of electrical conduit in the wall to act as rod-through points rather than those big bits of PVC. We’ll fill the holes later and they shouldn’t be visible, but it’s all just bigger than it needs to be.
We got floorboards for the lounge room ages ago, and then changed our minds about what kind of wood we wanted on the floor. Blackbutt has more character and is more durable than Tassie Oak.
It’s finally time to get it done properly, so floorboards were procured and moved into the room to acclimatise before being laid.
Meanwhile, the promise of a new lounge room floor means that the boards that are currently there can be used somewhere else – so S got cracking straight away removing the 30-year-old carpet in the main bedroom. With a little help.
The lounge room won’t be done until late May, so for the moment S is stuck with chipboard – which she prefers to the old carpet anyway!
After changing our minds 5 different times with respect to the old cement mixer, we decided to go ahead and fix it up. Getting a new one would have shortened the timeframe to get things done, but it can’t compare to restoring something that would otherwise be rubbish and making it work again. The less rubbish in the world the better.
So after pulling it to bits the bits were stripped and repainted.
There were many learnings along the way. We have an assortment of wire brushes that fit the drill, but the drill heated up quickly and there was concern that it would burn out. It’s not really made for continuous duty. Dumping the drill we got a special paint-removing attachment for the angle grinder, but that wore down faster than lickety split. At $15 a pop, it wasn’t going to cut it. Finally we found rotary wire brushes for the angle grinder which were cheaper and faster than the paint remover, and got rid of the rust at the same time.
The main shaft attached to the bowl was swelled by someone hammering on it, and the bearings just wouldn’t come off. We got a bearing puller from the auto shop but it was useless. Eventually we just cut them off with the angle grinder.
We got this really good enamel paint, but it went on very thinly. It’s good proper tough stuff, but it was going to need 4 coats to give a good finish. So we got some other enamel paint, which went on much quicker, and was nice and shiny, but was a bit too plasticky for comfort. In an attempt to harden it up we put a coat of the original enamel over the top … and the other paint underneath half melted and rippled and now the surface looks like a bodgy job. Oh well, we’re not going to strip it again!
With new bearings for the pinion and bowl, it runs like butter again.
The bowl has so many dents in it that it doesn’t seem worth the effort to strip and paint it. We’ll leave it as is and get a new bowl some time in the future.
For the moment, the edge of the bowl needs neatening up, as it looks to be a pretty nasty scratching hazard as is. The motor shelf and the big wheel at the back are being painted, and we’re off to get a new motor for it today. It’ll be all go again before we know it!