Monday, 27 May 2013

Fun with concrete pavers and planter pots

Lately I've been experimenting with concrete and cement to create my own garden pavers and plant pots. Concrete and cement are fairly cheap products so if you screw up your paver its not like its a lot of money thrown away.

I've noticed that many people don't seem to know the difference between concrete and cement - many people think concrete is just dried cement. According to Wikipedia, concrete is made up of aggregate (such as small stones) and cement as a binder. So what is cement made from? Portland is the most common and is made by heating limestone (a source of calcium) with clay and grinding this product with a source of sulfate (source: Wikipedia). I always thought Portland cement was named after the US city, but apparently no, it is named after the English Isle of Portland.

If you are making plant pots/ planter boxes, its important to remember that the lime in the cement can damage your plants. To solve this problem, you'll need to either leave your finished pot out in the rain for a month to wash the lime away (or hose it down regularly over a month), or you could seal or paint the inside to protect the plant.

Rockery planter
I'm planning to build a rock garden and fill it with dry tolerant plants that can handle our sandy region (we're only a few days away from winter now, hence why our grass is actually green in the background). My rock garden will be made from a mixture of real rocks, cement planters and driftwood from the local beach.

For my first cement creation I mixed Portland cement with vermiculite (a light weight gardening additive) and water in a bucket with a garden trowel. The vermiculite gives it texture and makes the finished product lighter to work with. I cut some chicken wire and moulded it into a low cylinder shape and squashed down the front so that flowers could spill over that area.

The mixture should feel like cookie dough (not sloppy but not crumbling and dry). I squashed it flat in my palms (with rubber gloves on) and pressed it against the chicken wire frame, both inside and out, but leaving a hole at the bottom for drainage. This is what it looked like after 12 hours curing in the shade:
After drying completely.
I bought a parahebe (a native NZ plant that is commonly used in rockeries) and planted it in my cement creation. The green grass makes it difficult to see the plant, but it will stand out well once I surround it in rocks and succulents.

Stepping stones
To create some country garden style round stepping stones, I've used my laundry flexi-tubs as moulds. I've used concrete for these, partly because concrete is cheaper to buy (since the cement is mixed up with stones) and partly because the small stones add strength which is important for pavers since they take a lot of weight. Don't use quick-set concrete for pavers - buy the regular ready-mix concrete or it will dry before you get a chance to wrestle the mixture into the flexi-tubs.

Mix the concrete and water (according the instructions on the packet) in a bucket. You'll need enough mixture so that the pavers are about 4cm thick (about 1.5 inches). Make them a little thicker for high usage areas such as around a front door (mine were only used around the chicken coup to protect my boots from mud).
It is quite easy to remove the dried pavers from these flexi-tubs but to protect the tub you should spray the inside with either cooking oil or spray a mix of dish liquid and water inside. Tip the concrete mixture into your tub:
Grab the sides of the tub and give it a really good shake until the air bubbles rise to the top:
I left the two tubs in the shade of the garage for 24 hours (don't leave them in the sun to cure). If the weather is hot, cover them with plastic while they cure. 

This is what they looked like when I carefully tipped them out the next day. They dry to a lighter colour with time. Ideally you should apply concrete sealer to protect them from moss and other slippery plants that might grow on them with time. Avoid walking on them for about a week to give them time to harden.

Animal drinking trough
I made this trough to place under a shady tree so that the chickens could have a place to drink when they are out scratching in the garden (and the dog will probably drink from it too). I've filled it with water to wash out the lime taste, but apparently it won't harm the hens like it harms plants. Sealing the inside would protect it from slime growing at the bottom, but I don't really want to risk having chemicals in their drinking water.

I mixed vermiculite into my concrete mixture again (to add some texture and make it lighter), but its hardly even noticeable except around the rim.
The bottom and sides should be about 4cm thick (1.5 inches) for strength. I sprayed dilluted dish liquid into the flexi-tub and on the bottom and sides of the plastic bucket that I used to mix the concrete in. I poured all of the concrete mixture into the tub and then filled the bucket with water (to weigh it down and wash out the concrete mix). I then pushed the bucket into the concrete mix until it was 4cm from the bottom.
Try to get it as centred as possible to ensure that all sides are equal in thickness. Leave for at least 24 hours in the shade.
Using bought paver moulds
Our kitchen looks onto a herb garden that I'm currently building. I wanted to use "nice" pavers rather that just laundry tub pavers, so I bought these two moulds off an auction website. If you want to buy some just search "concrete mould" or "mold" in the US, also known as "forms". Many companies sell these online.
I've chosen a cobblestone look and a picture of NZ (note that pictures will be backwards). The instructions say to use cement only, rather than concrete, otherwise the picture will have air bubbles and flaws on it. I've chosen to pour cement in halfway up and then pour concrete to the top. That way the paver will be stronger (due to having aggregate at the bottom).

Concrete colouring agents are cheap to buy so we bought one to create a terracotta look for the herb garden pavers. I decided to experiment by mixing it up quite roughly to get a mottled look of part stone colour and part terracotta:

I made a couple more without the coloured powder:
Here are all the pavers ready to be placed around the garden:

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Couch side table

The arms of our couch always get cluttered from us putting empty coffee cups down on them or leaving our mail there after we've read it, so I wanted a couch side table that would be in perfect reach for coffee cups and leaving our mail and magazines on the top.
I built this side table to match the height of the arms of our couch and I cut angles out of the bottom of the feet with the mitre saw because I love that look. I used a Kreg pocket hole jig to attach the sides to the legs. I'd been putting off buying one because they cost twice as much here as in the US (since the tool stores have to pay high shipping costs to get it here) but I eventually decided to bite the bullet and bought the Kreg Mini from an Auckland online tool store called Carbatech. I'm really glad I bought it because its great for building little side tables like this and creates a firm join while the glue is drying. The Kreg screws are good quality and very sharp so I'd buy those again.

I spray painted the frame in cream and once it was dry I brad nailed the top on (leaving a mm or so between each piece of timber for expansion) and then filled the brad nail holes with wood filler. The wood filler instructions said that it could be stained but after staining the wood I was disappointed to see that the filler didn't take the stain well at all and has left patches on the table top unfortunately. Next time I'll just go for the rustic look and not cover the brads with filler.
I've read about people who make homemade furniture stains so I thought I'd give the coffee stain a go. I put a couple of teaspoons of Maccona instant coffee into a cup and added some boiling water. Once it was cool I rubbed it onto the edges of the table legs that I'd sanded to give a mild distressed look.

With the coffee stain rubbed into the table legs and edges with a soft cloth:

The overall look is subtle, but just perfect for a gentle distressed look without it looking too dirty. I applied it to the table top too but the finished result just looked like someone had spilt coffee on it and rubbed it in so it was pretty unimpressive. I opted to brush on one coat of walnut stain that I had left over from building the laundry table instead, then followed this up with a coat of water-based polyurethane. I'm really pleased with the water-based poly - I had used oil-based poly on my other furniture and absolutely hated the chemical smell and cleaning up, but the water-based doesn't have any smell and is so easy to brush on and clean the brushes afterward. It gives the same luxurious shiny coating so I'll use that from now on.

Here is the finished couch side table. Sorry this photo is quite dark - the table looks better in real life. I've put a seagrass storage basket on the lower shelf and a fake orchid plant on the top to add some colour. The lighter patches where the wood filler didn't take the stain are a bit annoying but will be hidden by coasters and magazines soon anyway. :)

Friday, 3 May 2013

Building laundry wall cabinets

In my previous post, I wrote about the laundry table that I built using mostly knotty pine for the table top and carcass, with plywood for the drawers and 2x3s for the legs. So the next step is the laundry wall cabinets!

The painted wall all ready for the wall cabinets
I left the wall unpainted where the cabinets would be going since I didn't want to waste paint (and time) painting behind them. After plastering and priming this wall I had applied three strips of masking tape to remind me where the three wall studs were. The cabinets will be fixed to the wall with the centre stud marking the mid-point of my cabinets.

I built the wall cabinets and doors using 17mm thick plywood (roughly 3/4 inch) this time, unlike the bench that has knotty pine for the carcass and door. The reason I went with plywood this time was because I found it quite difficult drilling the 35mm (1.4 inch) wide hole required for soft close hinges in the pine. Its much easier to bore a wide hole in plywood. The open shelving is still made using 19mm knotty pine and the decorative moulding is clear pine. I bought the decorative shelf supports from Bunnings.

I planned for the cabinets to be 30cm deep (a foot) but the by the time I cut the plywood sheets with the circular saw they ended up more like 29.7cm as expected due to the saw blade removing a few mm with each rip cut. The pine shelving is 23cm deep - I wanted to have more head room around the laundry sink so I've designed it so that the shelving sits up higher than the cabinets and is narrower.
(Note that the open shelving is not attached to the two cabinets yet - otherwise it would be too heavy to lift it up onto the wall).

The finished cabinet pieces ready for painting
I attached cleats to the cabinets using glue and screws. The cleat beneath the middle shelf is 4.5cm wide and 19mm thick, while the top cleat is 9cm wide. The worst thing would be to spend all that time building cabinets and have them fall off the wall, so I decided to place a wide cleat at the top to take three 65mm screws into the stud and two screws through the lower cleat into the stud.
After painting all of these in the same French cream colour (Resene Eighth Sisal) used on the laundry bench, I painted the shelving backboard in the same purple used on the walls. As I said in the last post, the backboard is made from 7mm thick (1/4 inch) plywood that I cut even grooves into by setting the circular saw to about 2mm deep and making false cuts to give the impression that it is tongue and groove panels. I then cut it into appropriate sized pieces to create backboards for the table cabinet and wall cabinets/shelves.
After cutting and painting the backboard, I glued and brad nailed it to the back and waited for it to dry.
I marked out the middle of the open shelving and drilled pilot holes through the cleat and the backboard (I did six holes) then Chris held it up to the middle stud on the wall so I could pre-drill the holes through the stud before adding six 65mm 8ga screws. If this was a kitchen wall cabinet with heavy bowls, plates etc, then I would also use Liquid Nails on the back to give it extra hold to the wall, but since it is just a laundry cabinet then it will mainly hold cleaning products and cloths (nothing heavy).
Once this was secure, Chris held up the right side cabinet so that its top was aligned with the top of the open shelving and I repeated the same process as above except that I used five screws through the cleats into the studs. Once that was fixed on, I added a few 35mm screws through the side of the open shelving and into the side of the cabinet to firmly secure these together. Note that I left the doors off while we hung the cabinets, otherwise they add extra weight and get in the way.
We repeated this for the left side cabinet and then I fixed the hinges onto the doors and fixed these into position on the cabinets. I measured and drilled the handles on after the doors were hung because I wanted to make sure the handles were at the right height for me to reach easily without needing a stool (I built a stool out of the off-cuts from the cabinets so that I could reach the very top when I needed to). I attached the decorative shelf supports using plenty of wood glue and two clamps on each to hold them tightly to the sides of the cabinets and shelf underside.
The very last step was to measure and cut the crown moulding for the top. The moulding is identical in style to the moulding I have used to frame the doors, except that it is a larger size. I gave the pieces two coats of paint before gluing and brad nailing them onto the cabinets, starting from the middle piece and working outwards. I touched up the brad nail holes and any gaps with wood filler before sanding and giving them a further two coats of paint.
And here is the finished job. I'm in the process of building some rustic looking wooden boxes to go on the shelves, and then I'll add a plant or two.