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Home Renovation Tips From a Pro
A project I did with my friend Megan McBride. We renovated a wall in my dad's house, which he was not too happy about. You'll see why.
As most of you probably know by now, I own my own construction business. It's nothing too fancy, I have a company truck, some tools, a constructioning license and three employees. It's pretty neat being able to help a man support his family with a little under the table payment. Anyway, I don't want to sound arrogant but I'm really good at what I do. I've been in the construction business for six years, and I have a certificate from College of the Redwoods (our local Junior College) construction program. Since home renovation seems to be one of the only industries experiencing growth in our war on terror, I decided to give you guys a few tips so that greedy contractors aren't able to charge you your first born daughter's virginity in repair fees. This thread is mostly for home owners, college dorm students (how to fix shit so your RA doesn't throw you out when your 300 pound sculpture of animes that you're making for metalshop crashes through the wall), or people who have to fix up their house because their landlord won't, but there's some good advice for even and normal renters who may have just accidently gotten a little carried away with a skip-it (these things happen).

What I want to focus on today is how to renovate a wall. Some people see these wonders of modern engineering and just think that they're just walls, just a piece of white wall that is holding up the roof. This isn't the case. Underneath the wall is a bunch of hard work and wood. This is where all the wires are for your plugs, and it also has insultation to keep the noise from bleeding into your neighbors room. The first step is designating a wall in your house/dorm/apartment for renovation. Pick a wall that you want to fix up. I picked this wall in my hall way. It has gone ignored for many years in my house because when the door opens it covers it most of the way, and the hallway isn't traveled often now that my tunnel is installed.

As you can see it's in need of repair. Some spiders have made their home in it, and that wire could cause a problem. I want to put a plug there to hook up a security camera for my CCTV system I'm installing so I can masturbate more securely. You may want to put a plug in for a variety of reasons. I've put plugs in for customers for mini refridgerators, celing fans, and irons. My wall still has some of the old wall on it, so this happens to you the first thing you have to do is get rid of that. You can do it real fancy like and use a crowbar to pry the old wall free, or you can just beat the shit out of it with a sledgehammer. I prefer the second method myself because it's a lot more fun and it makes a ton of noise, and that sounds good when you're doing construction. Here's a hint, the more noise you make, the more work people think you're doing.

Now that the old wall is gone we have the problem of all the pesky nails that didn't come out from the sledgehammering. Most people swear by the classic claw hammer for removing nails. This is where my training and experience makes a difference. I don't. The claw hammer is a clumsy and dangerous weapon in the hands of a novice, and sometimes even in the hands of a professional such as myself. I have on more than one occasion hit my legs with the claw end while using the hammer to chisel out a groove or smash bugs, and let me tell you--that hurts. So instead I use a tool I found out about in a Southern Californian flea market. The construction business down there is crazy compared to Northern Californian standards. They have a whole community of Mexicans who do nothing but live eat and breath construction 24 hours a day. Their dedication is unmatched. So when I was browsing through this bucket of old tools and found this odd little device, I figured it was an advanced tool I had never heard of. The old mexican lady, who was probably a retired construction worker herself, told me how before the hammer was commonplace it was used to remove nails. Supposedly when Thomas Edison invented the hammer there was a little war and this tool faded into oblivion. Anyway I don't know what it's called, but grab one if you ever see it.

I use this tool to get the nails out most of the way. Sometimes they are really long nails that have been in the wood for years, and they just wont come out. The important thing is to get them out as far as you can. This way they don't compromise the integrity of your wooden beams. Rusting metal in wood just isn't a recipe for longevity. It's a good way to have your walls rot from the inside and then your roof will fall in on you without warning. Once you get all the nails either out or most of the way out, you need to decide what you want to do. The traditional method says to work all day with your claw hammer, risking possible injury to the wood, or even yourself. I like to use the blunt end of my classic nail remover to hit them off to the side. This gives the wood some additional metal support which actually strengthens the boards. Nobody that follows this method will have their roof fall on them while their family sleeps at night.

OK, now that we've got the wall prepped and ready by removing all the remnants of the old regime we need to clean out all the little spider homes. This varies by state to state, sometimes there might be bats or even scorpions, so be careful. In Northern California we just have a bunch of harmless spiders so I'm not wearing any protection. I just use a scrub brush that my ex-wife left under the sink, and it gets the job done just fine. This is the point where I like to stick a little something into the wall. Here I opted for the message in the bottle because I live in a small fishing community so I thought it'd be funny later in the future for whoever found it, unless the oceans are gone or messages in a bottle are known about anymore in which case people will think I was retarded, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. An important thing to remember is to make sure that the object is skinnier than the wood in the walls, or you'll have problems later. I learned that one the hard way. Also don't stick anything like a banana in there because it will rot, not make your wall smell like fresh banana bread.

After everything is clean and you have your little time capsule all ready, it's time to really start work on the wall. The most important part of the wall besides holding up the roof is stopping sex sounds and the cold and heat from splurging through into your room. Most modern contractors use fiberglass insolation. This is very dangerous stuff that can cause cancer and pneumonia in the lungs. Even wearing a mask or putting your nose inside your shirt like you smelled a fart doesn't keep all the vicious glass fragments out of your tender supple lungs. I found a solution that I think is much safer--foam padding. This is stuff that you use under a hardwood floor so it's not too hard. You can pick up giant rolls of this stuff for pretty cheap at Costco and other hardware stores. It works really good for insulating floors, and is obviously better since it's much thinner but still keeps all the sound and cold in the house; and the floor covers much more area of a room than the walls so it has to be good.

Use a staple gun to put most of the padding up. I used a nail for the thicker parts because the staple gun wasn't working. Try to avoid tears and gaps in the foam and the wood. Do your best but nobody's perfect so expect a few to get away. If you focused on making sure there was a perfect seal you'd spend five times as long on a project than you have to. Try your best to avoid cutting anything but the foam. I got a little careless here and I accidentally nipped the wire for my plug. The easiest and fastest way to fix this is with electrical tape. It's like the duct tape of electricity, it'll fix anything. Don't want to dwell on this because it's really not that important, so let's move on.

Next step for me is putting my electrical box in. The traditional (and admittedly easier) way of doing this is to use a square box and not a round one, but the only square boxes I had left were metal ones that I have taken out from other parts of my house. NEVER USE a metal box. If your wire touches the edge it can cause your whole house to become electrified because of all the nails in the wood. After you use your sledgehammer to nail the box into your beam, bring the wire in through the back and now you're all ready for the most important step, sheetrocking!

Before you sheetrock (also called drywall for you old fashioned types) you have to througholy measure the dimensions of your wall so everything fits right and you dont waste any chunks of sheetrock. It's expensive and if you're working on a second story then you're going to have to carry it up the stairs again and that's no walk in the park. Plus, carrying large peices of sheetrock through a house is cumbersome and you're prone to knocking stuff over, and some pottery/pictures just aren't replaceable. So take the extra time to measure everything out properly. Ideally a tape measure is the tool you should use, but sometimes resources are tight or you forget your toolbox at a friends hosue or whatever, and you just have to make do. Here I chose to use a smokey the bear ruler instead of drive over to my friends house.

After you have all your dimensions written down, find a peice of sheetrock that is still good and ready. I like to recycle stuff because I'm thrifty, but if you're rich you can probably just use a brand new peice. There's really no difference other than saving yourself (or in my case a customer) a little extra cash. I like to write everything on a peice of tape so I can stick it on the sheetrock while Ii'm working so I dont have to waste time looking at a peice of paper. (Again, I forgot my toolbox so I'm making ends meet with this peice of wirey medical tape that serves no purpose in construction anyway.)

The next step is where your wall starts to look like a wall instead of some sort of stupid window that you cant even see shit out of. You take your measurements that you just measured with your smokey the bear ruler (or whatever), grab your peice of recycled sheet rock and the biggest baddest knife you can find and go to town. I'll let you in on a little secret right now. Back in the early days when hardware stores first started to spring up in the old west and whatnot, they actually sold good stuff like bullets and spurs. But as the need for spurs and other cowboy things grew less because of the future, hardware stores had to find something else to sell. They got the genius idea to start carrying special "tools" that would make constructioning easier. However, most of these "tools" were just manlier version of kitchen tools. The butcher knife became a "razorblade," a spatula became a "putty knife," a spoon became a "paint stirer," etc. You can save yourself a lot of money by substituting "real tools" for stuff you find in the kitchen. It has also been arround longer and is tried and true, and therefore safer.

The bigger the knife is the easier it is to control. Most people use a dinky little exacto knife razor blade thing, but it isn't anywhere as safe because your hands can get sweaty and when you're pressing real hard it kind of flings out of your hand and can stick in somebody's leg. So unless you have good insurance and better friends, just use a butcher knife, something that's actually made for cutting. Cut the peice out to the exact dimensions you need to cover up your wall. you want to make sure that the edges line up with the studs, so you have something to attach the sheetrock to. The studs are the peices of wood with all the holes that hold up the wall (it's construction jargon). After you are sure that it's the perfect size, go ahead and cut out any extra things that are going to be showing, like plugs or lightswitches.

I measured exactly where my circle plug box would be on this peice of sheetrock, and scored it with the butcher knife. It's really hard to cut such a small hole, so i'll teach you a little trick. Once you have sheetrock scored, you can just break it off, or hit it out. I turned again to my trusty sledgehammer and knocked that hole part out. Now that your sheetrock is perfectly and geometrically ready, grab your hammer or screwer and get ready to rock--sheetrock. hahahaha.

Ok, so I have the sheetrock up, and I screwed it in along the top and the sides, because I know that the studs are there. You want to space your screws about 6 inches apart, and make sure it's even. My screws are always almost painfully accurate, because I have a slight case of OCD and I can't sleep at night if know deep down that a customer's house's walls dont have perfectly spaced screws.

Make sure that you put a few extra screws in the corners, because these are the weak spots. Don't worry if because you aren't that strong and your drill is too heavy and you're trying to hold it up with one hand causes you to miss where you really wanted to put the screw a few times. I will teach you how to cover that up later. Unfortuneatly I got distracted or something when i was measuring this peice and i made it too long. I dont want to try cutting it while it's already screwed up to the wall and risk damaging the wood, so I'll just use a little trick that I learned in college. Using a tool called a "studfinder" (haha do you see how funny that could be?) i move it along the sheetrock until the little lights beep, telling me exactly where the stud is. I'll just do this all the way across so I will have my screws in the right spot, even though i cant see where the wood is behind it.

Take a step back and admire your work. As you can see here (because my wall was divided in fourths) I am one fourth of the way done sheetrocking. Despite what you may think, it's not wise to just have 4 equal peices all line up. You have to stagger them. That way if there is one structuraly weak part in your house, only one peice of sheetrock will be compromised.

I start the staggering by putting a peice on the bottom by following the measure, cut, and screw steps i outlined above. You can see the bottle peaking out a little bit. It wasn't too big for the wall, success!

I jump back up to the top and put on another peice to continue the tradition of staggering. See how it lines up pefectly? This time i didn't take any shortcuts or get distracted, so all the sides line up. There's a little bit of a gap on that diaganol section, but it's in the acceptable margin. It's kinda like how even if you let somebody hit the ball in baseball it doesn't screw up your perfect game if somebody catches it. I've got a lot of experience with catching. It's a lot easier in life to go through as a catcher and not a pitcher, and will cause you less stress in the long run, even if it seems to be a pain in the ass right now. But enough with anologies, we have a wall to finish.

Wow. Look how far we've come. We've gone all the way from an old crappy wall to a sturdy new wall what will keep out the cold and the noise and the bugs, and bring beauty to this rustic old hallway. Pat yourself on the back, because the hardest part is done. Now there's just the matter of the finishing touches. The cosmetic end to all your hard work that will make people who dont know all the work it takes think that it's just one solid white wall (remember how you thought that before all this?) You can sit back and smile at their stupidity because you know that you're better than them. It really brightens up my day when i see someone look at a wall and i just know deep down that they dont have any idea what's going on, but i do, and that makes me better than them.

The next stage is called "mudding and scrapeing." You go to the store and buy a big bucket of "mud." Haha, i know you're thinking "that is a crazy thing to say!" but it's not really mud. It's a white gooey substance that is nothing more than sheetrock dust with water in it. But don't try to make it yourself because all the sheetrock dust that you can broom up is filled with dirt, and it's not as easy as it would seem. What you want to do is go to the kitchen and get a big ol' spatula.

So now that you have your spatula, load it up with a big huge pile of mud, and start smeering it over every crack you can find. Fill in all the holes from the screws, and make sure that it's as smooth as you can make it. This is where you get to practice being a catcher, and save your perfect game by filling up any little flaws with mud. Once the liquid sheetrock dries it is indistinguishable from the actual sheetrock, except for color and texture.

Make sure to fill in everything. Before you may have thought to yourself: "jeesh he probably should taken more time to cut out that circle!" but now you can see it looks like it's flush against a solid wall! Just go through and make sure everything is sealed and covered up by mud. After you're all done, it will look something like this:

Wait for it to dry, and then we'll move on to the final stages of completion. If you did a pisspoor job of mudding because it was your first time or you were trying to watch cartoons, or might have been drunk (or a little of both), you can do a second coat of mudding. If you are a professional or couldn't afford alcohol because the "blacklist" is keeping you out of work, then you probalby only have to worry about one layer. After it dries the mud turns into a soft chalk like substance, easily scrapeable and manipulated. This step is where we take the time to smooth all the rough spots in our mudding, and make the wall look like one seamless entity. Hardware stores sell things like planers and sandpaper that traditional construction workers use, but being englightened to the scam that those guys are trying to pull, I realized that a cheese grater is nothing more than a fancy planer. I use this one that I found that was labeled "for smaller cheese shreds" and it works magnificantly. You just scrape the excess chunks away until you have a nice smooth surface.

When you are all done your wall should look like below, with a nice smooth look to it. Run your hand over it to make sure it's smooth. You can get this job done faster by using two hands and your face. Just rub everything with skin on the wall, but don't get too carried away especially if it's somebody elses house you're doing work on. You will have undoubtedly created a large mess of powdery mud on the floor with your cheese grating, so you'll want to clean that up before we go to the next stage. You can use a broom and sweep it all up, but remember do NOT try to add water to the dust to make mud, IT DOESN'T WORK! I like to use a dust buster because they're light and portable and I always have one handy on my tool belt.

After you have everything cleaned up and wiped down and you're 100% sure that it's smooth and ready, it is time to paint. I'm not going to go into the details of painting a wall, because that is the subject of another thread entirely. Just make sure to get all of the wall and After your paint is dry you can put the finishing touches on it, such as putting a plate over your electrical socket, and hanging up a picture, such as I have done.

After all that, congratualions, you are done! You have just taken the first step into being self reliant and not depending on others to fix your shit. You now undoubtedly have a greater appreciation for walls and the wallers who wall them, and maybe you'll think twice about throwing stuff out of your vehicle at them when you see them working near the street. Remember the important tips that I taught you, and how some of them can be applied to other construction projects, and not just walls. These are:

* Claw Hammers are dangerous and hurtful. Only use one if you plan on doing a shitty job.
* Mistakes make you human, don't hit yourself with tools or chunks of wood over simple mistakes.
* Kitchen tools are softer more feminin versions of hardware store tools, but have the same functionality.
* Lots of d ried paint on your skincuts off your body's ability to sweat and causes dehydration which makes you loopy. Combined with alcohol this can lead to arrest.

I hope you will take this knowledge and put it to good use. Stay tuned for my next project, where I will take you through the steps of building your own playhouse/science lab out in the backyard, from the ground up including foundations, plumbing, and framing the structure. And also bulldozering.

2003-2008 Brian B. Griffiths