So I decided to take a few days off around Xmas and New Year.
Not like I would have done in my youth in the UK, where it would have been a from-the-day-before-Xmas-eve-through-a-couple-of-days-after-New-Year's-Day affair1 of drinking and driving and trying to get snogged by a disappointingly short list of candidates2, but I was looking forward to kicking back and maybe doing some lazy board-gaming with some pals while my Carpal Tunnel issues played an accompaniment on my radial nerves.
Fortunately, this planned period of creative inactivity and light to moderate medical distress was interrupted and replaced by something infinitely more tedious when one of the downstairs bathroom walls showed signs of shedding a huge section of tiles. The new grout cracked, and when I finally couldn't pretend not to notice it any more and gave the tiles a poke, a three foot on a side square of tiles moved back and forth so as to suggest a prime development space had become available for an ambitious young patch of mildew looking to expand rapidly in an area of low competition for resources. "How lucky for me" I thought and spent Xmas deciding what to do3. Then Mrs Stevie noticed and announced that Something Must Be Done Immediately (Idiot).
So I started by numbering the tiles with a sharpie so I'd know how they used to be arranged.
I've been in the position of having to re-use removed infrastructure before and know well that no matter how well the old parts are cleaned up and made as good as new as can be managed4 they never regain their "universal fit" qualities but instead form a fiendish jigsaw that resists going back together even if the parts are placed exactly as they came off - because some of what is going on involves flat sides becoming tapered requiring ingenious 3D assembly techniques and a large vocabulary of exotic language.
I refer my readers5 to the nonsense I had to go through one Martin Luther King Day when the previous evening's howling gale had torn off the siding from the house and strewn it about the lawns before dumping damp snow on it and then freezing it all into one 30 ft by 15 ft diorama for a description of the process when ad-lib techniques must be used. Suffice to say it is not a process to be adopted voluntarily.
Once I had a 6 tile by 6 tile square marked out archaeologist-style (the size determined by scientific poking to see when the wall stopped moving about and behaved like a wall again) I used Mr Dremel tool fitted with a special attachment and a carbide bit to clean out the cracked grout so I could prise out the tiles.
I broke the bit.
So I departed in a cloud of Class Two Words of Power to Home Despot and bought two new bits, which showed me just how expensive carbide tool bits can be when I scanned them at the self-serve checkout. Fortunately no children were harmed by my surprised vocal reaction to the price demanded, though I had to defend myself against a trumped-up charge of shattering a box of light bulbs placed some ten feet away from the checkout and my tinnitus started acting up again. I returned to Chateau Stevie triumphant, credit card smoking, and changed out the broken bit for one of the new ones and started in on the grout again.
I broke the bit.
So I fitted the Dremel with the third bit and that one lasted until the end of the job. Mrs Stevie demanded to know why I was crying as I worked and I explained the cost that had been exacted on my wallet due to premature bit failure. Fortunately I was already half deaf from the tinnitus and the earsplitting shriek of the Dremel tool in the confined space otherwise Mrs Stevie's surprised vocal reaction would have done serious damage to my hearing.
As it was all that happened was that another row of tiles loosened up on a different wall. By then I was too overcome with emotion to invest any more at this foul turn of luck. Mrs Stevie grabbed the receipt for the bits and departed vowing to replace the defective parts6. Tool working (and working well I should say), Mrs Stevie snarling at someone else; the day was beginning to look up. In quite a short while, all things considered, I had all the grout that was going to yield to the Dremel out from between the tiles and was able to carefully prise one gently out from the matrix for examination.
Three dozen tiles cascaded into the bottom of the bath, mixing themselves face-down quite thoroughly in a manner not unlike casino card dealers use in games of poker. It is a genuine miracle none of the bloody things broke broke. My guess is all the shrieking had driven off the evil spirits infesting the tilework. Either that, or Entropy was as taken by surprise as I was by the debacle and forgot to have a say in things.
That made three pieces of luck that day: a) No breakages, 2) I had evaded the usual Brain ambush and numbered the tiles before they perpetrated their mutinous dash from the tyranny of vertical imprisonment and þ) Mrs Stevie was so busy giving some poor innocent at Home Despot what for that she was out of theater and in no position to offer her usual hurtful commentary on the sudden out-of-plan excursion events had taken. Result.
So I carted the tiles downstairs and cleaned off the remnants of the old glue and at least three different types of grout - one of which seemed to be made from concrete and guano and had the hardness of diamond - using my table sanding machine. Of course, my shop vac was upstairs because I had used it to suck up all the non-tile debris as I worked, and the thought of wrestling the damned thing back downstairs again to use for dust collection duties and then back upstairs for more debris containment as project Glue The Tiles Back On The Wall Again progressed was so unutterably repugnant that I decided the hell with it and simply donned a respirator mask and cleaned up the tiles in an atmosphere of finely ground dust.
It added a frisson of danger to the whole affair, as both the furnace and water heater were still active and I had no idea if one or more of the components of the fine dust now hanging everywhere would prove to be essentially long chain unsaturated hydrocarbons like flour or sugar or coal. If this were the case, the moment the thermostat7 tripped and the burners ignited I would be carried from this earthly domain in a bright flash, the sound of a thousand heavenly whale-sized tubas and more thermal expansion than would normally be judged to be a good idea in a confined basement. I idly wondered if I would notice, or would consciousness flee instantly as Mr Brain was dashed into soup and sprayed hither and yon and serve the bugger right if you ask me.
I might have pursued these cerebral pontifications on matters of celestial philosophy and stuff to the point of achieving True Enlightenment had I not fed my thumb into the sanding machine and achived a new record for the number of Class Four Words of Power shouted into a full-face respirator in a single minute instead. Still, one must take the victories life offers I suppose.
Having cleaned the tiles of what detritus I could and having distributed it in a fine layer over everything in the basement including a pile of freshly laundered, er, laundry, I returned to the bathroom in order to assess the state of the wall and see why the glue had failed in the first place. It seemed that the glue, an adhesive undoubtedly made of chemicals banned these days either because of the frightful danger they pose to humans merely by coming under observation, or because of the protected and/or extinct nature of the animals ground up to make them, had simply stopped being glue.
The wall was also not suitable by today's standards as a bathroom wall either, in that it was ordinary gypsum board and not backer board, nor had it been treated in any way to make it resistant to damp. It was, however, completely undamaged, with only a tiny colony of mould starting which I exterminated with bleach. I reasoned that the wall had served for about fifty years as it was so it would make it for another year (the bathroom is scheduled for complete replacement) and I would simply use more modern glue known to cause cancer in rats in California. Which is what I did, my not being in California nor caring overmuch about the health of rats.
Combing on the glue into the almost square but not quite patch of wall (a couple of tiles had bravely clung on when the rest had moulted) was challenging for Mr Back, who wasn't slow in telling me about that, but eventually I had about twice as much glue on the wall as was called for. Well, it was the first time I'd ever done this. You think you can do better, turn up the next time the wall collapses. Then I started fitting the tiles back into place.
As I said before, I wasn't so naive as to think that the small bits of cement-like grout I couldn't shift from the edges of some of the tiles wouldn't have an effect on the business out of all proportion with the amounts of material involved, and if I could have got the stuff to shift I would have but needs must when one's luck is blowing from the septic tank vent so I took the precaution of working from the outside of each line of tile in to the center, and was rewarded with having to spring each final pair into place as I had expected. I was delighted that the vertical spacing was preserved, so that the last row of tiles actually fit without my having to pull off all the lower courses again and get glue all over everything, which is par for the course.
True, there were a couple of places where the tile went back very slightly crooked but the way things were there was no room to use the spacers I had bought to impose linear order to things. These are little plastic crosses that one places in any of a number of clever ways to keep tiles looking neat as you lay them. The problem here was that a) there was still some traces of old grout where the plastic needed to seat and 2) these tiles were so old they had moulded in spacers. You don't see these any more, but it used to be that some tile brands had little nubs on two of their four sides so that they self-regulated their spacing. These had become apparent when I started in with Mr Table Sander and were a major cause of everything now being harder than strictly called for.
I stuck sheets of polythene over the tiles and took a shower and joined Mrs Stevie for some well-earned New Year's Eve snacks. Time was, we'd have had about 8 people in to share these but as time has gone on the couples we used to invite have less time and less inclination to spend it with us. A shame, but there you go. I used to enjoy those New Year's Eve parties and the New Year's Day brunch after. Mrs Stevie was getting sick anyway. The Stevieling had a party to go to so it was just us. We sat and bickered while we binge-watched some Netflix show or other8 and ate cheeses of all nations but mostly America and nibbled on salty pepperoni and drank wine. This resulted in me getting a ferocious dehydration hangover, so the evening wasn't a total loss.
I used part of the evening to re-string the bag of the kite The Stevieling had given me using purple paracord originally intended as improvised Japanese-style wardrobe for Mrs Stevie but re-purposed for anything else but that after I had shared the idea with her and we'd had a frank exchange of views on the subject of string bondage lingerie.
New Year's Day dawned and I grouted the wall (again) and dealt with that other line of loose tiles dislodged by acoustic shock using a technique known as "the bodge job". It's still holding so job done. The Stevieling demanded I get the shower back in commission as I was working,. She sounded just like her mother, which brought a tear to my eye. She distracted me just enough for me to run the frantically spinning carbide blade of the grout remover over the back of my hand. The resulting Medical Grade Words of Power - deployed in to cauterize the wound before the blood could get in the grout and discolor it - drove her from the room and removed the need for tedious explanations. One in the win column, there.
I stuck up more plastic to keep water out of everything and retired to the sofa to drink Southern Comfort and play Nintendo, which is what I should have been doing for two days already.
- I once attended a week-long party in this period in which the party-goers simply moved to the next house on the itinerary and went home briefly to wash and change sometime in each afternoon when no-one was looking. Come to think of it, one event from that is worth a Tales From Someone Else's Misspent Youth post, so watch this space↑
- Over the years I learned to save my eardrums by careful observation of my intended target before suggesting some light to moderate germ-swapping, but my judgement was often badly impaired by the spirituality of the season and generous applications of rum in my late teens and I spent more than one Xmas Holiday suffering damage like unto that incurred by attending a Hawkwind concert↑
- These things must not be rushed↑
- A process experience shows starts well but gradually becomes subject to lower and lower standards as the utter tedium of the job starts to eat into the old brain↑
- Both of them↑
- It is easy to overwork Dremel wheelpoints, to give them their correct name, but I've been using the tool for nearly 30 years and am aware of its limitations and the best practices when using it. Not only that, I had read and understood the instructions for once↑
- Or whatever the device that does the same job in the water heater is called↑
- Honestly can't remember which ones. We'd already done Broadchurch Mk2 and River and abandoned Haven in disgust so it wasn't any of them↑