Fire Pit and Stone Seating Area

This week’s past project falls in one of my favorite categories: large outdoor construction. I really love projects that involve moving a lot of earth, and involve working with concrete and stonework. A future post will cover my wall and gate project, which remains one of my most ambitious project to date. This post, instead, will cover a project from the summer of 2015, when I built a fire pit and a large area of terraced stone veneer seating around the pit.

While the fire pit is the centerpiece of the project, it was far more straightforward to build than the seating. To build the seating, I first had to build the internal structure using cinder blocks. The cinder blocks would be anchored together with rebar over concrete footing, and would then be filled with concrete prior to be covered in stone veneer, with large paver stones used for the seats. This would give the terraced seating enough strength to survive the brutal Wisconsin winters without cracking due to the shifting ground caused by the freezing/thawing cycle. Transporting the cinder blocks down to the job site was a great opportunity to utilize the awesome hauling capabilities of my F250, since unlike an F150 it is able to take an entire pallet of cinder blocks in the bed and transport them off road through the ATV trails on my land.



Several pallets of cinder blocks later, the overall structure of the seating area began to take shape:


I used ratchet straps to hold the shape together prior to setting the rebar and pouring concrete. Once the concrete pouring was done, and mortar was applied to the cinder block joints, the structure maintain a rigid shape on its own.



I repeated a similar process on the other side of the fire pit’s future location, and then filled the interior spaces of the cinder blocks with concrete to complete the structural work.


The next step was to set the paver stones for the seats with mortar, and then apply mortar in between the pavers to produce a flat surface. I purchased rustic flagstone pavers from the Home Depot, and laid them out over top of the cinder blocks.



I mixed structural mortar (Type S) and applied it to the top of the cinder blocks, placing the pavers on the mortar to attach them firmly to the cinder blocks. I then applied the same structural mortar in between the pavers, to fill the gaps.



For the walls of the terraced seating, I used Quarry Ridge Bella Stone Veneer Ledgestones, purchased from Madison Block and Stone, and attached them with mortar. This complemented the rustic appearance of the flagstones.



Once I had applied some of the stone veneer so I could verify that I liked the look, all that was left was to finish the stonework across all of the seating. I used my Polaris Ranger UTV to haul the stones and mortar down to the job site instead of the truck, since it was easier to maneuver on the small trails across my land. It can haul 500 pounds in its bed, so it was more than capable of hauling a day’s worth of stone veneer in a single trip.


After several weeks of work, the stonework was done:

My focus then shifted to building the fire pit itself. I built it with brick and mortar, and use landscape stones to build the upper rim of the pit. I laid down gravel for the base, and then building the structure of the pit was a quick, straightforward process.




Once the mortar work was done, the fire pit was complete:


The final step was to apply bark around the seating areas, add some solar lighting so that people could see where they were going in the dark, and to have a sign made to place on the trails nearby the fire pit so that people walking from the house would know where to turn.



The inaugural fire in the fire pit was an awesome way to celebrate the completion of the project. Several weeks later, we had the fall Hardin Design & Development party at the house, and the seating area was put to use with about 30 people enjoying the fire.



Bathroom Remodel

Continuing the past projects series is a project from the winter of 2015. Our house has five bathrooms: three on the top floor, one on the middle floor, and one in the basement. The master bathroom is very nice, the basement and the guest bedroom bathrooms are fine, and the bathroom in my office is interesting (black and white checkered floor with a black and white striped wall), but the bathroom off the kitchen in the middle floor was in pretty bad shape. While I eventually upgraded the hardware and other decor in the other bathrooms earlier this year, the bathroom off the kitchen needed a lot more work. It had peeling wall paper, a non-functional shower with significant rust damage, and an abundance of ugly gold fixtures. Here is what it looked like:


Step 1 was to remove the old wall paper, and then to sand and re-seal the drywall that had damage. Because it had been peeling already, removing the drywall was pretty trivial. I had to use drywall removal spray and a scoring tool for some sections, but many just peeled right off by hand. Once removed, I was left with drywall to repair before I could repaint the walls.



I also removed the existing shower door, sink, and other fixtures that were attached to the walls. The only existing fixture that I kept was the toilet.


Finally, I removed the rest of the shower walls and base, since everything needed to be replaced. This aspect of the demolition process was fun; anytime you get to break things with a sledgehammer and reciprocating saw it’s a good day!



After I removed everything, I installed a new shower base, as well as new shower fixtures and WonderBoard that would eventually support the tiles in the new shower. I did all of this prior to painting the walls, so that anything that would potentially disturb the drywall and require repainting was out of the way.



Once I was ready to paint, the last thing to do was to remove the toilet from its wax ring so that I could get behind it:


The process of resealing, spackling, and painting the drywall went very smoothly (it was obviously a pretty small room). I taped over the trim so it didn’t have to be removed (I kept both the existing tile and trip on the floors, as that matched the style of the new bathroom well). My wife and I picked out a pale blue-green color for the walls, to give the room a little bit of character without being overwhelming.


Once the painting was done, I installed a vanity, mirror, shelving unit, and lighting. I was really happy with the result, as it completely transformed the look of the bathroom!




The final (and most challenging) task was to tile the shower. Making this more ambitious was the selection of arabesque patterned tiles, which are not rectangular and are those much more challenging to lay evenly and to cut for edges. Before starting the arabesque tiles, I created an edge with white tiles to define the border of the shower:



I then started laying the arabesque tiles. To attach them to the WonderBoard, I used a tile setting mat product called SimpleMat, which is basically fly paper and firmly attaches the tile to the WonderBoard backing. I used a tile cutter to cut the edges, and a pattern began to emerge:


I used a dark gray grout on the arabesque tiles and a white grout on the white edge tiles. The gray grout really did a good job of highlighting the arabesque pattern.


Many, many hours later, the entire shower was tiled and grouted. I was happy with how uniform the tilework looked. For a first foray into non-rectangular tiles, I felt like the pattern and quality help up very well.


As spring was approaching and I had other projects to attend to, I left the shower without a door. It isn’t one that is frequently (ever) used, and was still usable sans door. Eventually, however, I did install a door, bringing this project to true completion.


This is yet another post in my past projects series. I’ve been writing a lot of these lately since I’ve been traveling (the last post was written on a flight from Detroit to London, and this post is being written on a flight from London to Atlanta), but posts about new work will be coming later in March. This post concerns a landscaping project from the spring of 2016. Until the mid 1970’s, the land that my house currently sits on was a Christmas tree farm. This led to a large amount of white pine trees that are very close together, and in the summer before I bought my house there was a severe drought (by Wisconsin standards) that led to quite a few of the trees in my front yard contracting a blight that gradually killed them over the next three years. By last spring, it was clear that it was time to start removing the trees before they started falling and possibly causing damage to the house, guest house, or front gate/wall. Therefore, as soon as the ground thawed in early spring, I started removing the trees. Instead of felling them with a chainsaw, I was able to simply rip them out of the ground with my truck, using a chain. The trees were already dead, and had very poor root structures so the F250 made short work of them.




I used the truck to rip the trees out of the ground, and then used my Polaris Ranger 570 UTV to pull the trees to a staging area where I could chop them up with a chainsaw prior to transporting them.



This process went pretty smoothly, although I made one careless mistake and wasn’t paying attention to how much tension I was putting on the chain and caused it to snap, smashing into the tailgate of my truck and destroying it (that tailgate is now hanging in my guest house garage):



After all the trees were ripped out, I used a chainsaw to chop them up into manageable logs. I got rid of some of the logs, by taking them to a designated drop-off area in Verona using the truck:



I wanted to keep a decent amount of wood to use as firewood in 2017 (giving it a year to fully dry out) in our fire pit (which will be covered in a future past projects post). In order to do that, I wanted to build a basic covered shed on a far corner of my land that is accessibly via ATV trail, making it easy to retrieve the wood for future fires. I hauled the requisite building tools down to the job site using the Ranger and its trailer:


I used treated 4×4 lumber to build the frame, setting the posts in the ground with poured concrete footings:



After the structure was built, I gave it a plywood roof to keep rain and snow off of the wood. I filled the ATV and trailer with wood, and hauled the wood down the trail to the shed, filling it with wood to start drying for the next summer.


In the end, it was a pretty impressive wood pile:


Once all of the wood was cleared out, I tilled the land that had been cleared, removed any remaining brush, and seeded it with grass to extend the lawn into the space where the trees had previously been:



After a month or so, the lawn started to come in:


And by the end of the summer, it was fully grown in and had completely transformed the look of the front lawn. The following photos show the final result, in summer and fall. While it was sad to lose some of the trees, in the end I was very pleased with how the new front yard looks from all angles, including entering the property through the gate and leaving from the main house or guest house garages.


Garage Remodel

This is part of an ongoing series on past home improvement projects that I have worked on prior to the existence of this blog. Last summer, I worked on finishing both my main garage, as well as the guest house garage. The main garage, which can fit four cars and also contains a large storage/workshop area, was designed to be a showroom for my sports cars. The guest house garage was designed to be a little bit more rugged, and to be a home for my truck, ATV, and other trailers, tools, and large equipment.


Finishing a garage is not unlike finishing a basement or any other sort of room, but with an initial hurdles that most garages are dirtier than your average interior room. With this in mind, the first step was to thoroughly clean the garage. This included sweeping, vacuuming, and washing the concrete floor very thoroughly, and removing cobwebs from the walls and ceilings.



After that, I removed some existing shelving that I no longer wanted and set to work repairing drywall damage. Most damage was very small and could just be repaired by mudding, sanding, sealing, and spackling over the damage.



Before painting, there was other work to do. I removed the previous exposed incandescent light fixtures and replaced them with LED recessed lights from Commercial Electric, as well as some LED spotlights from Hampton Bay. The goal was to have durable, efficient LED lights that don’t need regular replacement, and to provide more even light across the entire garage. The LED spotlights would be angled to shine and reflect of the hoods and windshields of the cars, to provide an effect that calls attention to the cars.


The next step prior to painting was a bigger one. I wanted to close off the workshop section of the garage, so that it wouldn’t be as visible from the main part of the garage. This would allow that part to remain immaculate and focused on the cars, while the workshop could have other equipment and be more functional. I still wanted a doorway to get into that workshop from the garage, even though it had it’s own door to the outside. Step 1 was to assemble and raise a frame made from 2×4’s, which would have a space for the aforementioned doorway.



Once the wall’s frame was up, I drywalled it, sealed, spackled, and painted it:



I then began painting the entire garage. I went with a grey color on the walls, with white ceilings. The grey walls I felt like would look good with the lighting I had selected, and would also look good with the gray epoxy floors I was planning on doing. Also, grey walls look great with a fleet of black cars. Further, grey stands up well to dirt. The original walls in the garage were white, which gets really grungy over time without frequent washing.



Once the painting was done, I assembled a sliding barn-style door for the utility room. I purchased the Rockwell Kit from Rustic Hardware. I wanted something that didn’t need to swing open (taking up valuable space) that would look good both open and closed, and that could cover a fairly large doorway. I went with a dark brown wood, since that would go well with the grey walls and also complement the dark woods throughout the rest of the house.


It was fairly easy to assemble and install, and I was able to hang it after anchoring it into the studs in the wall I had built earlier in the project:



The last step was to epoxy the floors. I used Rust-Oleum RockSolid, which cost roughly $750 for the entire garage. Applying epoxy is very similar to painting (you even use a paint rolled). The most important things are a) making sure the floor is very clean and chemically etched before applying epoxy and b) making sure the epoxy is well mixed. I had some minor issues with part b that I had to subsequently address with additional coats.



After the epoxy was dry, I added some floor mats to make sure that the surface wasn’t too slippery in the winter, and I decorated the walls with brand-appropriate decorations for my various vehicles:


When the most important part, the cars, were added to the garage, it definitely achieved the effect that I was looking for. It provides a showroom caliber environment for showing off the cars, which was the goal.



After completing the main garage, I moved on to the guesthouse garage. I will not go into much detail about that process, since it essentially mirrored the main house garage process. As shown in the following pictures, this garage was slightly less show room and slightly more utilitarian, since it is home to my truck and ATV.




Wine Cellar

I’m starting a series of posts chronicling past projects that I have worked on in the house. The first one is an 800+ bottle, climate controlled wine cellar that I built in the winter of 2014/2015. I built all of the racks by hand, along with the other renovation work required to convert a former walk-in storage closet / craft room into a wine cellar. Originally, the room looked like this:



After ripping out the countertops and the carpet, as well as the aging, office style fluorescent lights, I had to repair drywall damage and install new LED spotlights to shine on the wine bottles:


Before painting, I had vapor-seal spray foam insulation injected into the walls. This allows me to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity in the cellar. Finally, I installed a wine cellar climate control system from NFINITY in the wall, with power lines and drainage tubes routed through the wall into the house’s basement utility room:



Once that was completed, I painted the walls red (wine cellars are a great opportunity to use a bold color) and installed tile on the floor, which further help with temperature control and make it easier to clean up any spillage as compared to carpet:



After some other minor electrical work, it was time to start building the racks. I designed a rack in AutoCAD, somewhat based on a rack that I purchased from World Market. It was designed to be stackable, so that I could assembled individual, easy to move/stain racks, that could then be assembled to fit the space available in the room. I built the racks from white pine, cut via miter saw, and first assembled the outer frame using wood screws and then attached the individual bottle holders using wood glue and clamps:




I also designed a diagonal rack to offset the look of the more traditional rectangular racks:


Finally, I built a series of display racks to go over top of the main racks, for displaying large format and other upright bottles:


After building almost two dozen racks, it was time to install them in the wine cellar temporarily to verify the fit.


I also installed an electric fireplace to provide ambiance for the wine cellar’s tasting area without providing heat that would hurt the wine, and built an arch to go over the fireplace:



I cut and stained a climate-safe door that would provide a window into the cellar while keeping the cold air inside:



As everything was assembled, it became easier to visualize what the cellar would look like in its final form:


I setup a staining area in my garage. I used a combination of brushed stain from Minwax and aerosol stain (also from Minwax). The aerosol stain was vitally important for staining the interior of the rectangular racks, since there was not enough space to reach in with my hands and brush stain them.



Once the racks were stained, I was able to reassemble them in the cellar, and the final picture started coming into focus. I setup a tasting area with two leather chairs, and installed a small refrigerator to cool white and sparkling wines prior to drinking. Later on installed an iPad on the wall with cellar tracker software, Vinocell, to track the cellar’s inventory:



Once everything was fully assembled, all that was left was to start stocking the cellar with wine! My wife and I took a trip to Napa the following summer and sent back around 200 bottles as an initial base inventory, and we have been keeping it stocked since. The end result is both a beautiful and usable space, that is one of the crown jewels of of our house when we have dinner parties.