The pitter patter of little wheels

One of the most exciting things about moving into my own apartment is that a lot of the restrictions of renting no longer apply. It's quite possible that I could get a pet - a little dog perhaps - to mess up my floors and slobber on the couch. I considered it, however I'm not sure I can take on the responsibility of taking the pup for a walk each day, particularly when there aren't any off-the-leash parks nearby and some days my very objective is to avoid leaving my apartment.

Don't get too sad for me, however, because I've found a perfect substitute, and one that wont't mess up my floors. In fact, just the opposite! I am the now proud parent of a baby robot vacuum player. Introducing to the world: J. Edgar Roomba!

Me and my baby Roomba

When he first got home he mostly hid under my shelves and under my bed, but eventually started to explore his surroundings. Before long he was doing laps up and down the hallway banging into the skirting board at every opportunity. About 90 minutes later he coughed up a furball and went to bed. It was quite the productive first day.

It's fair to say there were a few teething problems. I hadn't Roomba-readied my apartment, so anything on the ground posed a danger to the Roomba, or more accurately in reverse. A stack of new picture frames from IKEA learning up against a wall came down in a crash as the Roomba slammed into them. Thankfully none of them broke. Less lucky was the large ceramic wrap-around pipe cover for my bathroom basin. I had removed it to get access to the pipes and placed it on the bathroom floor. The Roomba hit it and it toppled and smashed on the tiles. The cheeky bugger then just stayed there and circled around in its own mess. Toddlers, eh?

J. Edgar Roomba after smashing my bathroom basin pipe cover

Certain incidents aside, he's doing a great job. This particular Australian model can't be scheduled (otherwise it's the same as the American model), so I have to manually start it. That's not so bad, because I usually have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't get itself trapped somehow (which occasionally happens). It does have the programmable interface, but that's pretty advanced. I don't need a HAL-style situation here. And although he won't touch my thick rug (carpet would probably be fine), he climbs the lip up to my bathroom quite easily.

They grow up so fast. He's currently whipping around and butting into all of my furniture with such confidence, collecting dust from places my vacuum would never venture (ie. everywhere). Now I just need one that will dust on top of things, clean my bathroom, maybe do a little cooking and every now and then tell me a story.

J. Edgar Roomba coming to steal your dust bunnies

Adorable doors

You know when they show old people in movies and they can only remember one thing about their youth and they sit in their wheelchair staring out the window repeating a reference which is understood only by people now deceased? Yes? Imagine now, if you will, that I'm in that chair, hair powdered white while softly repeating, "cornice cement, then sand, cornice cement, then sand..."

I am speaking about my doors again, of course. If the idea of more door talk doesn't thrill you, you might want to move on.

I've been removing the door trims on more doors in the apartment, then doing the ol' cement, sand and paint job on them. Some have turned out great, others not so great. It seems to depend on how flush the metal part of the door jam is with the plaster. If there's a bump, or it's on an angle, that's going to show up when I fill the gaps with plaster. I think I'm even getting a little better at the plastering. I've never quite been able to produce a perfectly flat smooth result, but with the low-sheen paint the inconsistencies just don't bother me.

Bedroom door with painted white trim

I had already painted the trim on the two doors in my bedroom until I had time/energy to do the full work (above), so they hadn't bothered me too much. One morning I was in bed and I looked at the door and it just had to go. Out came the hammer, the sandpaper, the sanding attachment for the drill, the paint and I finished up two doors over two days. I also took this opportunity to redo parts of the first door I worked on.

Finishing up the last coat on the bedroom door job

That's five doors down now, just two, maybe three to go (the laundry door is still a puzzle without a solution). It's still my favourite change to the apartment.

I also have a mix of chrome door handles throughout the apartment that make screeching, clunking and thumping sounds that would be more at home in a dungeon. I decided to replace them with simpler black handles, even though there's the usual 200% price increase on black coloured hardware. I bought one from Style Finish Design to see how it would look. It was quite the challenge to fit correctly to my thin doors. Firstly, the handle spindle (the square metal rod that goes through the door and turns when you turn the handle) was way too long. I had to cut it in half, and then screws were too long. They chose to describe the screws as "snap off screws", meaning you snap it to the length you want but I found that was a little optimistic. The hacksaw sorted that out. It turned out quite spiffy though.

Lounge room door with new black door handle

I'd like to say that this door is finished, but it probably never will be. It's my rosebud, or more appropriately my hunt for the Zodiac killer if I was Jake Gyllenhaal's character I guess.

The grass is always greener (when it's fake)

Works on the apartment have started to slow down. I'd like to blame the return of work, but the fact that I have a couch to sit on and watch my stories is probably equally to blame (finally finished Mad Men though, so some boxes are being ticked).

When I moved in I dumped all of my plants rather unceremoniously out on the larger of my two balconies, and it looked a mess. Some of the plants started to suffer burns from the couple of hours of direct sunlight they were now getting each day. The balconies were not pleasant places to be as the steel floors always felt dirty and a little bit unstable. I had to sort it out.

I had considered getting some fake grass for the balcony in my previous (rental) apartment, but it had always seemed very expensive in Bunnings, particularly for the tiled stuff. Now I was working with a different layout: two narrow but long balconies. I found a bunch of eBay sellers who would sell rolls of the stuff for a much better price. Rolls were either one or two metres wide. My balconies were about 900mm wide, so the one metre wide roll would cut down perfectly. Combined, the balconies were about 10.3 metres in length. I decided to go for a 10 metre roll and use some of the off to fill the gap (or just cover it with plants).

I chose the less "butcher shop window" looking of the two options. This type, described as "natural coloured" is made up of three colours of plastic rather than the super cheap stuff which only has one colour. It's a much better look, though still a little far from "natural" to really convince anyone (mostly because I would never have grass that looked that freshly mown).

Close-up of the grass

Laying the roll wasn't too hard, just slightly awkward as the roll didn't fit within the width of the balcony. I rolled it into position and then trimmed the excess with a stanley knife from the matting side. Trying to cut from the grass side was much harder as the knife just slid across the plastic grass knots.

The roll of grass before laying it on the balcony

As it turns out, the roll was a bit longer than 10 metres so I didn't need to use any offcuts to fill any gaps. It just worked a treat.

Fake grass on the balcony with plants

The grass is a big improvement over the steel. I don't need to wear shoes when watering the plants and the texture is quite nice. While I'm working at my desk or on the couch I can always see the green out of the corner of my eye. It's a nice addition to the place, and I wonder how much nicer it would look when not up against the weird orange floating floor in my apartment. Yes, about that...

Throw the switch

Remember when I removed the door trim of a door so I could hide some cables, but then I decided I couldn't hide the trim and turned it into a different project? Well, no, I haven't fixed the cabling problem (I'm thinking under the floating floor... somehow) but stay with me.

The cable problem stems from having one speaker, my CD player and turntable on the opposite side of the door from the other speaker and my amp. Before you go all millennial on me and tell me I shouldn't have CDs, or a CD player, I'm here to say that physical media is great, so say I, and I don't care what you say about saving space or portability or whatever. Popping in a CD or sliding on a record is the decision to engage in a complete work, and staying with it until it's finished. It's about receiving something that someone thinks is complete and worthy of your time. I just like it.

I had a long stereo RCA cable (male to female, so an extension cable) I made for the turntable for the last apartment, and was reusing that here. But with the purchase of a standalone CD player (a 1991 Technics SL-PG100 from a local refurbisher on eBay), I either had to run another stereo cable or switch the cable between the two sources. While the two separate cables would provide more flexibility, I didn't want to fill the apartment with cables.

I'm somewhat more comfortable with a soldering iron in hand than a caulking gun, so I decided to build a simple audio switch. I couldn't find anything on eBay that was simple and not ugly, so a DIY job it was. I picked up the components from Jaycar and set aside an afternoon to build it.

The switch, soldered up with some hookup wire

It couldn't be simpler. A 6-socket RCA panel, a DPDT (double pole, double throw) mini toggle switch, a plastic case and some hookup wire. I wondered whether I should have used something more substantial for the internal wiring (the answer is probably yes), however I figured the wiring would be so short it's unlikely I'd notice a difference if I used cheaper, easier-to-use wire.

First I soldered the ground pins together on the RCA sockets, then all of the equally-cut wires to the 6 pins of the toggle switch. The middle two pins (taller, on this switch) go to the left and right signal pins of the output RCAs. The other four pins - paired on each side - connect to the left and right pairs of the two inputs.

I decided to use the plastic case length ways so it had a smaller profile. I drilled a hole in one side for the switch, and a few holes and used my junior hacksaw to cut out a space for the RCA sockets. The socket board is loosely held in place by the plastic screw poles in the case which is good enough if the cables are not going to be swapped very often.

The finished switch, with turntable and CD player

I sanded the cut edges and assembled it all together and it works a treat, not even a bump when the switch is thrown. There's something just a little bit fun in flicking a switch every now and then. It's not hard to imagine I'm in an airplane cockpit or I'm riding in the Batmobile and I know what all these switches do.

Black frames

It wasn't really until I moved in and spent a few nights at my desk staring out the windows that I started to appreciate the pleasant city view the new place has. It was just a shame that view was surrounded by grubby old aluminium window frames. You know, getting all grubby up in my view. So I decided early on that I'd like to paint the window frames black. No big deal. In fact, I didn't think it would make that much of a difference at all. It's just a small strip around the window, surely it wouldn't have a big impact visually?

The window before the black gloss paint

I picked up some metal etch primer (so the paint would, in theory, stick to the metal) and a tin of black gloss metal paint. On the last day of 2015, in the stinking heat, I got my supplies ready and started the smaller of the two windows/sliding doors in the living room. In the ridiculous heat, mind you. I wanted to get it done before the new couch arrived (hooray!) and got in the way.

I started by scrubbing long strips of dirty, sticky adhesive off the window frames. I'm not sure what reason one of the last tenants of this apartment had for using so much glue all over their window frames, but it made a real mess. I scrubbed and scrubbed and got most of it off with the help of some orange oil goo-remover.

Next it was time for the etch primer. I have a real knack for underestimating the time I'll need to paint by a magnitude of four or so. It ended up take two or three hours just to get a coat of the primer on. The primer was almost the same colour as the aluminium, so it was difficult to see what kind of coverage I was getting. Between that and the heat wearing me down, it's quite possible my primer coat wasn't great.

I left it overnight (you know, the night all the fireworks go off). I returned home from my low-key festivities around 3am, but I knew I had a big day of painting ahead of me so I didn't indulge in much of a sleep in. I was back at it, this time with the wild fumes of the black metal paint.

This stuff was a real struggle to get on the metal. It barely stuck at all. The first coat was incredibly patchy, almost watery, and it still took me hours. If I stood back and squinted, I could get an impression of what the new black window frames should look like. What I saw shocked me. It was a big change visually. I started to worry if I had made a big mistake. The window frames were now much more obvious than before. I worried they were making the windows seem closer, and the room smaller. Even though I had concerns, I decided to crack on and see what it looked like finished. Working in the heat, with a fan pointed right at me, the paint was drying quickly at least, so I could start the second coat right after the first.

It took not just a second coat, but a third coat, and then further touch-ups (and I can still see parts that need another coat), so I was well and truly sore and sick of painting by the end of the day. It was an incredibly tedious job as there were almost no flat surfaces, lots of crevices, bends, nooks etc to cover. Having the sliding door also added so many more surfaces to paint. I was glad I wasn't painting the exterior of the window.

The window after the black gloss paint

It wasn't until a few days later that I started to like the gloss black and assuage my concerns about the dark frames making the room feel smaller. Now I love it. At night the frames are great; they disappear and the room seems bigger. The actual task of painting was so tedious though that I think I'll need to give it some time before tackling the other window that's twice the size. Maybe next New Years.

If you can't stand the iron-on edging...

My friend Greg has spent a few weeks of his summer holidays here in Melbourne. He was excited to drop by my apartment to check it out. I was giving him the tour when he stopped in the kitchen and said, with considerable reticence, "You know, this part of the kitchen is a bit weird." It was the cupboard surrounding the fridge: two tall flat panels on either side and some shelves above. One of the flat panels protruded further than the bench top making it awkward to get in there. I'd already removed the shelves to make room for the microwave (I'm firmly in the microwave above the fridge camp), and it wasn't until Greg pointed it out did I notice that the other panelling was now redundant.

The kitchen as it was. (This photo is from a few years ago. I forgot to take a photo before we started ripping into it.)

We had a cup of tea and chatted, but I had one eye on the screwdriver. Now that the idea was in my head, I wanted it rip it out. Greg was keen, so we got to work unscrewing and yanking the panels off the wall. Before long it was all out and Greg could head home to leave me with the mess.

Greg removing some panelling from the kitchen

It really opened up that corner of the kitchen. It also exposed a big U-shaped cut in the ceiling (it looked like someone had started cutting a man hole up there and never patched it), and the sides raw, unfinished of the benchtop and the overhead cupboards. I considered just painting them to match the wall, but decided to use one of the panels now removed to cut some laminated pieces to cover the ends. This was going to require a trip to the hardware store.

Cashed up with gift vouchers thanks to generous family members during Christmas, I went on one an old-fashioned shopping spree. Picture me running down the aisles gleefully waving armfuls of cornice cement and deadlocks into my skidding trolley. Well, not quite. Without a car I'm restricted to only what I can carry, so no trolley, and there was a lot less running and more gently squeezing past people who were busy carefully considering which light switch covers they prefer. Nonetheless, I came home with a bag of goodies, including a new handheld jigsaw!

After marking out the shapes I wanted, I fired up the jigsaw. Wow, that thing is loud! Maybe the loudest thing I have in my house. I asked on Twitter if there was any Power Tools In Apartments etiquette I should be aware of, but since it was about 3pm, and not on a Sunday, I seemed to be in the clear. It helped me to put in my earphones to dull the sound. If it didn't seem as loud to me, it was easier to imagine it was quieter for the neighbours. I had assumed that cutting with the jigsaw was going to be like every other DIY job: it would seem like it's very easy in theory but then you go to do it and it's very hard/fiddly/messy/frustrating/takes a long time, like painting, caulking, sanding, plastering... pretty much everything else. Well, it isn't so. Cutting with the jigsaw was a dream (aside from the noise) and I was done in a few minutes. What a dream.

Jigsawing the new cupboard side panels

Fitting the lower side panel

After cutting the two pieces and turning my apartment into an Lonestar Restaurant (you know, how they had the peanut shells all over the floor, which just looked like sawdust?), I was able to screw on from the inside of the cupboards and things were looking a whole lot better.

I also took this chance to run the long telephone extension cord I was running to my modem through the cavity above the overhead cupboards. That required some drilling and a frustrating process of feeding the cable through while taped to another stiffer cable to act as a feeding rod. Sometimes you just have to improvise to get things done. Hiding that cable was well worth the hassle.

The exposed edge at the top of the overhead cupboards

I was left with the cupboards looking pretty good, but the lower panel still had rough exposed edges that ought to be covered. During my next trip to the hardware I sought out some melamine edging tape. It comes in a roll like normal masking tape (but thick) and you simply iron it on to the edge, with some baking paper between (or the tape itself melts). The tape is pre-glued so it just needs that heat. Unfortunately I couldn't get any in a woodgrain to match, so I settled for black. It wasn't a bad choice as the bench top is dark grey and the front of the cupboard has a black spacer strip anyway. So there I was, listening to the new Broadway cast of Follies and sanding and ironing my benchtop late at night. Later, when I was doing some caulking in the bathroom I ran a tiny amount of silicon along the join between the countertop and the new panel to stop any water from getting down there. I hope.

Ironing on the edging

Later, after the cleaning

I think it has come up a treat considering I am once again relying on zero handy skills and know-how. It has made that part of the kitchen so much more usable, and it's where I keep my kettle and tea so it's basically the only part of the kitchen I use. Now I need to go and buy some more wall paint to finish painting the newly exposed walls behind the fridge, and properly repair the cuts in the ceiling, but those are jobs for another day.