Construction Journal Entry Week of 9/3/23

9/4-8/23 I went up to Camp Serendipity for five days: Monday through Friday.

Since it was Labor Day, the westbound traffic was super heavy and nearly bumper to bumper. Fortunately, the eastbound traffic that I was in moved at nearly the speed limit all the way. It rained lightly almost all the way but when I arrived at 12:30 the rain had stopped, and the sun was out.

I made four trips with my gear including three wheelbarrow trips with a 50-pound sack of mortar mix in three of them. I stacked the mortar on the back stoop up against the door where the rain couldn't reach it.

Next, I hoisted the brand-new flag that I had brought with me, and then had my lunch and a nap.

When I got up, I put away the gear and then strung a cord from the outlet by the back door down to the back stoop. I set up a 1/2-inch drill motor with the new mixing paddle I had brought with me.

Back in the cabin, I installed a new shower curtain to replace the torn one that was in there.

On Tuesday morning I was eager to start working on the masonry wall and I was out working at 7:00 AM. I counted the missing wall ties, and in the area where I plan to start, there were ten that were missing. I made ten wall tie assemblies by drilling a hole near the end of each tie and inserting a pin anchor into each hole.

Next, I removed a heavy steel bracket that held the main electrical conduit that brings power into the building. The bracket was bolted to the concrete wall and clamped around the conduit. Later, when the stoop was poured, the conduit was embedded in the concrete, so the bracket was not needed any longer. It was going to be in the way for the stones I intended to lay up, so I unbolted the bracket from the wall.

Next, I selected three more stones and washed them on the steel washing table. That worked very well because I didn't have to stoop over very far, and the table was easy to keep clean by spraying it with the hose and it was easy to brush off the stones and turn them over and get them nice and clean. I was now ready to start laying up stones.

I mixed a 5-scoop batch of mortar in a bucket like I had seen in YouTube videos. It looked easy in the videos, but I soon learned that it didn't work very well. First, the half-inch drill was way overpowered. Even with short trigger bursts the paddle spun the bucket out of my hands and splattered mud all over. So, I exchanged the half-inch motor with a 3/8-inch cordless drill and that worked a lot better. I still had to do experimentation with how much water to add because the threshold between too much and too little is just a few tablespoons. So, if the mortar is a little too dry it's very stiff and hard to work. On the other hand, if it's a little too soupy, it takes a lot of extra dry mortar mix to soak up the water and get the right consistency.

From my previous experience, I know that a lot of time can be saved by carefully measuring the water and the mortar mix and then dumping them together and mixing it.

Once I had an acceptable batch of mortar, I used it to lay up the first stone. Then I mixed up a second batch the same way and the same size. With that I laid up two more stones. These were on the very bottom ledge, so I needed to install weepholes alongside each stone as I went. I used regular plastic drinking straws for the weepholes. In the process, I learned that it wasn't as easy to use mortar from a bucket as it looked on YouTube. You had to reach down into the bucket with a pointy trowel which couldn't scrape the sides or the bottom of the bucket very well at all. I decided it would be much better to use a mortar board as I had done for all of the previous masonry work I had done including laying up the concrete blocks and chinking the entire building inside and out. That way you can dump the mortar onto the mortar board and work it and scoop it and handle it in a natural position and keep the mortar live and soft and scoop up just what you need on the trowel. I cleaned up the tools and then went in for my lunch and a nap.

When I went back out, I set up the same system I had used for the 30 years previous. I set my mortar board on two sawhorses and then set the steel mortar mixing box, that I had also inherited from Leonard, on top of the mortar board. Then I found the vessels I had used for precisely measuring the water and the mortar mix. I had fastened two one-gallon coffee cans together with the bottom cut out of the top one to make a 2-gallon vessel with two sturdy wire handles coming out of each side in the middle of the vessel. That way when you pick the vessel up full of mortar mix by the handles, the center of gravity is right near the middle making it easy to tip the load into the mortar box when it comes time to dump it.

That provides exactly the correct measure for one batch of mortar. To get the exact right amount of water, I had made a vessel out of a wide-mouth plastic jug with a hole cut near the top. Then to get the water, I have a 5-gallon bucket full of water as the supply sitting next to the mortar box. To fill the jug, you grip it right above the hole and dip it into the five-gallon bucket. That is the fastest way to fill the jug: it's just one dip. Then the jug is set on the end of a sawhorse, so the excess water runs out the hole and right into the five-gallon bucket. Once you set the jug down you can turn your attention to dumping the mortar mix into the mixing box and getting the hoe ready. By then the water is at exactly the right depth which is the bottom of the hole. Then it is dumped in with the mortar mix at once and the mixing can begin.

It is easy to mix because to begin with there's a lot of loose water in the mixing box that is easy to stir. As it gets stiffer by absorbing more mix, it never gets so stiff that you can't push the hoe through it. It is much quicker than any other method I have seen for mixing mortar.

Another trick I learned from Leonard is to use a small trowel. I remember him showing me that little trowel and telling me that was his main workhorse tool. I should have known that from my previous experience also because that was the main tool that I used for all the chinking. I tried using a regular brick trowel as they did in the YouTube videos but it's just too big and gives you one extra tool to wash. I gave up on it and put it back in my tool bag.

Yet another trick is to wash each tool right away when you are done using it. So, when mixing a batch, as soon as the mortar is at the right consistency, you wash the hoe and set it aside. Next, you dump the entire batch of mortar out of the mixing box onto the mortar board. Then you wash out the mixing box. Then you set to work with that little trowel and use up the entire batch of mortar. Before you start the fine detailed troweling, you scrape off the mortar board. Then after you are done with the pointing, it's time to wash that little trowel. Of all the tools, this probably had the most time for mortar to begin to crystallize and start setting up so it probably will require the most scrubbing. Since the other tools were washed right away, they are easy to clean just by hosing them off.

With the new setup, I made a batch of mortar and laid up two more stones. Then I cleaned the tools and quit for the day at 3:30.

On Wednesday I started out by scouting for more stones. In the process, I checked on Paul and Runty and was happy that they seemed happy. Next, I made a batch of mortar the new way which used up a 50-pound sack of mortar mix. I laid one course of stone with that, then I installed two wall ties over the stones that I had just laid. Then the weather turned smoky, so I went inside and filled 16 water jugs. I left them staged in the front entry room, planning to carry them to the truck in the morning. Then I had my lunch and a nap.

When I got up the smoke had cleared, and the air was nice and clean. Next, I mixed one batch of mortar and mortared in one huge, beautiful stone. The stone probably weighed 50 pounds and was tricky to lift and get into place, but I wanted it there because I wouldn't have to lift it too high, and I wanted that stone to be prominent. Once it was in place, I installed two more wall ties that went over the top of the big stone. I took a picture of the stone and the wall ties. I scouted for stones for a little while and then I took a break just relaxing in the sunshine in Dave's Adirondack chair.

On Thursday morning Dave called first thing and we had a delightful conversation. Then I loaded all the water jugs into the truck requiring 8 trips up and down the hill with two gallons of water each.

I heard a big truck stop at the neighbors across the street and I wondered what was going on. I walked over and discovered that the sheep, that come to the valley every September, arrived today. There were 900 sheep in total in two truckloads. I met Antonio the shepherd, Molly his big guard dog, Chapita and another small sheepdog whose name I didn't catch. Antonio told me that there will be 10 dogs altogether. I took some pictures of Antonio and the sheep, but I failed to get pictures of all the dogs.

Back at the cabin I harvested rocks from the front porch area. There were some really nice rocks around the scouts' cook site, and I would carry those to the edge of the porch and throw them down onto the upper roadway. Then I used a wheelbarrow to wheel the rocks over to my washing station. There I washed each rock and stacked them for future use.

Then I mixed up another batch and laid stones around the corner. I took a picture and then had my lunch and a nap.

On Friday morning the air was smoky. I packaged up a shower curtain we had bought that turned out to be inferior. We will give it to charity and Ellen will try to repair the old, ripped shower curtain. I installed one more wall tie and put away the tools for the weekend. Then I vacuumed the first floor in the cabin and had a nice conversation with Robert telling him about my new project of stonemasonry. I took a picture of the first week's work.

It was a very exciting week for me, and I am pumped about starting this stone masonry job. For a while I thought I would hire out most of the work but now I think I will do the entire job myself. I am really looking forward to having fun with it.

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