Hole in the Wall

Willem DaFoe put it best: “Television is the explanation for this.”  (Boondock Saints, 1999)  Of course, he was referring to a hit on some Russian mobsters by coming through the ductwork in the ceiling, rather than some home improvement projects.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of Saturdays watching TV.  After the cartoons were over, I’d spend more time watching PBS and catching some shows that taught me useful things.  These shows were, unlike the cartoons, what I’d call a slow burn enjoyment: you catch the show and get excited that you could do these things too, and then you might spend some time doing other things.  Then, suddenly, the inspiration would catch a spark from some buried ember, and flare up again.

The hosts of these shows were good at what they did.  They provided enough background of the project to highlight the challenges, and walk through the steps so you felt you could tackle them.  All with a calm and matter-of-fact presentation.  The hosts weren’t (often) flashy, and there were differing areas and subjects so you might go weeks without seeing the same thing.  These folks were always there, and staples of a formative mind.  I could always count on them to be there, and showing me something.  I came to respect and admire these folks, and while I don’t quite call them heroes, they are role models.  They don’t wear a cape, they don’t have magical abilities, but they do have some amazing powers.  And some fairly common names.

Names like Bob Ross, Norm Abrams, Bob Villa, Bob Thomson, Julia Child.  Shows like This Old House, New Yankee Workshop, The Joy of Painting, Victory Garden, and The Way to Cook.

Foundations in doing things.  There are not many other shows that could make you feel like you can tackle anything, until recently.  In the modern age of makers and hack spaces, with folks like Tommy Macdonald, Marc Spagnuolo, Adam Savage, Roy Underhill, and others, this feeling is transferred to the newer generations.  There’s very little areas where you cannot feel like you can get something done, and feel good about it.

Enter my confusion, then.

Earlier today, I posted a photo and promised an update regarding a project I was working on.  I implied it would be finished by the end of the day.  Well, lo and behold, the project has other plans.  I find that I’m mid-way through the project, yet again, and haven’t been able to finish it.

Removal of the patch, plus two rows of good tiles... and showing the lack of anything behind it that should be there.
Removal of the patch, plus two rows of good tiles… and showing the lack of anything behind it that should be there.

I’m replacing the shower fixture in my place, for a variety of reasons.  (The biggest one is the fact that it’s leaking.)  I’ve been doing the forty cent fix, replacing washers.  Until this last time, when the stem came out of the fixture without some of the threads.  To make matters worse, the fixture assembly was also missing threads on the inside.  Oh, and the company went out of business 20 years ago… so parts are a special order and take at least 2 weeks to arrive.

Marking out where the new fixture will go... and where the pipes should be.
Marking out where the new fixture will go… and where the pipes should be.

After a lengthy debate, and some budget searching, I decided to just replace the fixture with a new, one handle one.  (With built in shut-offs, because that’s another problem.  But I’ve learned my lesson.)  To make this project even more “super fun,” there’s no access panel to the shower.  (For those who don’t know, most bathrooms have an access panel cut into the wall behind the shower and tub fixtures.  This means you can get to it to make any repairs necessary, but from behind.)  My unit is one of four where there is (almost literally) four tubs within 5 square feet: all the bathrooms are in the associated corner to cut down on building costs.  So the unit to the right is a mirrored image of ours, the one behind us is a flipped image, and the one caddy-corner looks like ours…sort of.  But this means the only way to get to the fixture is to go through the drywall and tile.

To make this super fun project even better, it looks like someone once cut through the existing drywall to do a patch… and didn’t do a great job.  Now, I’m no expert at drywall, or tile, or plumbing, or remodeling for that matter.  But having spent the better part of my life watching shows that gave me information and confidence that I can tackle this project (in thirty minutes, even), I went gung-ho on it.

Using the pipe cutter to cut a replacement pipe to the right length.
Using the pipe cutter to cut a replacement pipe to the right length.

So now, there’s a hole in the wall of the shower (which shows even more scary stuff than I thought… like no support studs or boards for the pipes, and a crack in the tub fixture itself), and a leak that won’t stop because the stem and seat are pulled out, and a cross-leak because the cold water stem needed to be replaced as well.

I’ve gotten some of the new copper sweated together (soldered up, for those who don’t speak plumbing), and mocked up ready to go.  I’m a little worried about the whole pieces being put in, as I need to shut off the water to do this.  So far, the existing plumbing hasn’t given me any headaches coming out, because I haven’t tried to remove it.  This was supposed to be over this evening, but…

The good news is that I’m finally at a stage that I should be able to put this thing together by the end of the day tomorrow.  And learn from my mistakes.  While it is certainly good to know what these skills are, and what the steps are to do them, sometimes it’s worth the money to have the professionals come out and do this right.  I got a quote of 4200 dollars to replace the tub, fixture, and walls.  While the money is a problem, the timeline of this project would be four days.  So far, I’ve spent that doing this myself.  And I’m not done yet.

Coming together, on the flame resistor cloth.
Coming together, on the flame resistor cloth.

The best part of this news is that I should be done tomorrow.  And the skills and components of this project really are simple, when you get down to it.  I’m just dealing with complications that shouldn’t have been this difficult.  Keep in mind your projects, and your time.  Just because you think it can be done quickly and simply, pay attention to what others tell you.  This plumbing job came across to me as just a half-hour fix.  Until I spoke with experts, that said 4 hours was more common.  And because I have to reverse-engineer the wall and plumbing (oh, and the wall is supposed to be there when I install the fixture, so I have a reference… except then I’d have no way of actually installing this, because there’s no access panel), this has become a complex job.

Funny thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’ve got someone lined up to help me with the new drywall and tile once I get to that stage.  From all I hear, that’s really a simple job; the worst part is that it’s just time consuming.  I have the parts necessary to rebuild the wall (other than the tile and drywall, but that’s a simple fix), and the parts necessary to rebuild the plumbing are already in the house.

Keep the right tool for the job at hand. Experience talking.
Keep the right tool for the job at hand. Experience talking.

I’ve interspersed this article with some of the photos I’ve taken of this job.  Don’t let it fool you.  This really is a simple job.  But it brings to mind another phrase.  There’s doing something with the right tool for the job, and then the tools you have on hand.  Don’t let your skill or your confidence in your ability be the latter of the two.


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