Monday, April 28, 2014

The Fireplace Mantle - A Father/Son Project For A Surpirse Birthday Present

The finished fireplace mantle
A few months ago, my son asked if I would help him build a stone mantle for the fireplace in his living room. The mantle was to be a birthday surprise for his wife so we would have to plan to do it when she was out of town on business. Some 30 plus years ago I installed a fireplace in our first home and trimmed it out with stone. When I finished it, I swore I would never, EVER, build anything involving stone, mortar, and/or grout, but how could I possibly say no to helping the male offspring unit surprise our daughter-in-law? So, this is the story of this past week's father-son labor of love as memorialized by intermittent iPhone photos taken during the project.

The fireplace - before the project
Last week, while spending Easter weekend with the family in Central Florida, Mikey (Mike to his friends, but Mikey to me & the family) mentioned that Danielle would be out of town Wednesday through Saturday this week. He asked if I could come back down to Central Florida to build the mantle with him and luckily the timing was good for me work wise. On the Saturday before Easter, we told Danielle that we were going to visit some camera stores, using that as an excuse to sneak out of the house and head to local stone suppliers and Lowes. It was a fruitful excursion - we found stone that matched the existing fireplace wall (image above); settled on a basic design using cinder blocks, mortar, and two 6-foot pieces of 2" heavy duty angle iron for the "frame"; and figured out what tools/supplies/material we would need.

The materials
Pre-construction test fit with the blocks & angle iron
Building the frame

On Wednesday morning, I left Tallahassee for the 4 1/2 hour drive south. As I drove down, Mikey bought the cinder clocks, mortar, angle iron and grout that we would be using and had it ready to be unloaded and taken into the house as soon as I arrived. No sooner than I pulled up into his driveway we unloaded and did a quick test fit of the cinder blocks/angle iron to visualize how the mantle would look. We mixed up a batch of mortar and it wasn't long before we were building the two column supports for the mantle with the cinder blocks. 

The finished frame
Mikey worked the left column as I worked the right one and after six  8" cinder blocks were mortared in on each side, we placed the angle iron from one column to the other and mortared in the mantle support blocks. That was the last thing that went smoothly as from then on, just about everything we did was a challenge. Those YouTube videos we watched to familiarize ourselves with the work to be done made it look easy to slap stone, mortar and grout onto vertical surfaces but real life was a whole different experience for two guys with more ambition than skill or experience.

Applying mortar to the vertical surfaces for the scratch coat - not fun
In order for the stones to properly adhere to the vertical wall surfaces, a coat of mortar had to be applied to the cinder block surfaces, after which it had to be raked. No matter how we tried to come up with different consistencies of mortar, getting it to adhere to the cinder block surfaces was a chore. More often than not, it would start to go on and then globs would fall off. We spent a lot of time re-applying and re-re-applying mortar than applying it but we were determined not to let it stop us.

The finished scratch coat, raked and ready for stone
By 8:00 pm, the scratch coat was finished and we had the living room cleaned up. It was time for a late dinner and some sleep. 

The next morning, we went to the stone supplier and spent a couple of hours sorting through two pallets of stone, picking the right shapes and color, and placing them on an empty pallet to be loaded into the bed of Mikey's truck. 400 pounds of stone later, we headed to Lowes for some advice as to how to adhere the stone to the underside of the cinder blocks that would form the mantle. After a couple of hours of talking to every employee in the building materials section, the tile section, and the adhesives section, we decided to use mega strength construction adhesive, bought a couple of tubes, and headed home. 

We offloaded the stone pieces and carried them inside, and being the impatient sort that I am, I was ready to start mortaring the stone to the scratch coat right away. However, Mikey thought we should follow the instructions on the mortar bags to the letter, i.e. wait 24 hours for the mortar to fully cure. That meant starting to apply stone no earlier than 8:00 pm. I knew that meant we were in for a long night and sure enough midnight came and went and we were still working on the stone surface. Part of the reason why it took so long was my having difficulty getting the !$^&@#! stone to stay stuck on the scratch coat. Several pieces of the stone I tried to apply went on, appeared to adhere, and then would fall off as I moved on to the next stone. Mikey didn't have this problem as none of his stones came off after he placed them but the Stone Gods were not with me that night.

The stone after being applied to the cinder blocks
At 2:30 am we used up the last bit of mixed mortar but the right inside column, the top, and the underside of the mantle was still unfinished. We were so wasted we decided to call it a night and cleaned up, leaving the rest of the stone to be applied the next day.

Two more stones to go before finishing the inside of the right column
Even though my head didn't hit the pillow until 3:00 am, I was up at 7:00 am on Friday and began waiting for Mikey to get up. At 8:00 am, I decided to mix some mortar and finished applying the stone to the top of the mantle. As I was finishing, Sleeping Beauty came out and tackled the inside of the right column. 

Next came the underside, which we figured was going to be the biggest challenge of the project. Applying gobs of adhesive to the stone, Mikey placed each stone under the mantle cinder blocks and held them in place as I wedged 4-foot 1x2's into place to support each stone. The stones appeared to stay in place and it was now lunchtime, a good place to stop as we got ready for the last step - applying the white grout to match the existing fireplace wall.

Happy Birthday, Danielle
After gorging on some pulled pork at a local BBQ establishment, we tackled the grouting process. Mikey applied the grout as I worked it between the stone with my fingers. Intermittently, I would smooth over lumpy areas and brushed away loose debris as the grout dried. This went on for several hours as we went through two 60-pound bags of grout. At midnight, Mikey began cleaning the disaster we had made out of the house while I finished up and by 1:00 am the grout job was finished and the house was clean - sort of. With Danielle expected home Saturday, not only did the project have to be finished by Saturday, the house couldn't look like a bomb had gone off during her absence.

I left Saturday morning with the mantle in place, a great three days of quality time spent with the male offspring unit, and aches/pains/soreness in places I forgot I had. Every time I visit Mikey & Danielle, I will have a great reminder of those three days staring me in the face. I only wish I had been there when Danielle came in the house and saw her surprise. Happy Birthday, D.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Home Observatory Pier - The Finishing Touches

There's a great deal of satisfaction in undertaking a new project and finally reaching the point where it all comes together. Most importantly, it's a relief to finally give it a test to make sure that it actually does what you envisioned it would do.

After several weeks of digging, pouring concrete, cutting lumber, nailing, drilling, measuring, leveling, and tapping threads, the telescope pier and pier adapter I set out to fabricate and build is finished and it is exactly what I had hoped it would be - a rock solid means of mounting my two Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes in a way that will give me the stability and absence of vibration that I yearned for.
In the first of this three-part post, I delved into the challenge of designing and fabricating the pier adapter (above) for the telescopes. I was forced to make my own since no one seems to make an adapter for these telescopes and even if someone did, I figured I could make one for a whole lot less than what it would cost to buy one.
In the second post, I described how I built the pier for the telescopes. After completing the pier, I built an observing deck around it. The final step in the project was to drill the attachment holes in the pier adapter and install it on the pier.
After drilling four 1/2" holes on the underside plate of the pier adapter using a template I made that aligned the holes with the four threaded bolts that protruded from the top of the concrete pier, I threaded 4 nuts, one on each bolt, flush with the top of the pier. Large, square washers were then placed on top of the nuts to serve as the surface on which the pier adapter would rest. I placed the pier adapter through the bolts and placed identical square washers on the top surface of the bottom plate and threaded nuts on each of the bolts.

There was a reason for using nuts and washers on both the top and underside of the bottom plate instead of simply letting the pier adapter rest on top of the concrete - with 4 attachment points, I could tighten or loosen the bottom nuts to level the pier adapter so that after everything was snugged up tight, the telescope would sit on a perfectly level plane. For tracking purposes, this is critical. After tightening/loosening the nuts while using a torpedo level resting on the top plate, I had a level and secure pier plate mounted on the pier.
Attaching the telescope to the pier adapter was simply a matter of inserting three cap screws through the underside of the top plate into the underside of the telescope mount and tightening them with an allen wrench, which is precisely how the telescope mounts on the tripod that it came with.
With the pier and the adapter project complete, all that is left to do is finish moving equipment into the shed observatory and get everything up and running. I have to put the finishing touches on the observatory shed, run power to the pier for the telescope, and get the computer and the telescope talking to each other so I can control the telescope from the computer. My first trial run for visual observing will be on the first clear pre-dawn morning with Venus as the subject. Right now, Venus is shining like a beacon before sunrise and I hope to not only get a good look at it, I may try to snap some images.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Web Site Refresh

My new website home page
It was time. My website has been in its prior permutation for a while and a little voice inside me kept telling me, "Bro, it's time to do something new with the site." Change the template, change the layout, throw in some new images, take down some old images, yadda yadda yadda, but still keep it clean. So I went to my Squarespace design page and started playing around with different templates. I was using the "Wells" template and after demo-ing a few others, I found a new one I hadn't seen or tried out - "Native". The template gave a me a framework that was different from "Wells" but still gave the site a look I liked. Once I installed it and started modifying the pages to suit my design ideas, it took about a week to tweak everything and I finally hit the "publish" button last week.

I'm a huge Squarespace fan. I've been using their site to build my website for over a year and find it to be light years better than other sites like Wix. Because of my innate Cuban-ness, it's impossible for me to resist urges to clutter up sites with a lot of crap that only detracts from the goal of presenting a clean, slick, simple display of my images. Squarespace must know there are people like me who are their own worst enemies and have a built in method of protecting me from me. In using their templates you have just enough flexibility to create a site that's uniquely yours, but options are limited so you don't ruin a good thing.

In redoing the site, I merged some of the galleries. The old sports and sports pageantry galleries have been combined into one gallery.  My travel images, some of which were in a color gallery, some in a B&W gallery, some in a gallery dedicated to National Parks, and some in a landscape gallery, are now either in one color gallery or a B&W gallery. I finally have enough astrophotography images to dedicate a gallery to those images. Galleries for light painting, wildlife, composites, cars, & Auschwitz remain. I've added new images and deleted other images from just about all the galleries as images I consider worthy of showing replaced others.

 A page dedicated to my Blog is linked in the navigation block at the top of the page and I separated the old Contact page into two, an "About" page with some tidbits about me and a straight up contact page with info on how to contact me.

As time permits, I still need to go through the images and make final cuts. Some galleries have way too many images to suit me and so begins the task of weeding out some. I have a bad habit of saving the hardest task for last, and deciding which images should be deleted is the hardest thing in the world for me since a lot of images have great sentiment attached to them.

If you'd like to check out the new version, click here. As always, any thoughts or comments are appreciated.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A (Telescope) Pier Is Born And The Home "Observatory" Is Almost Finished

A couple of months ago, I decided that if I was going to do astrophotography justice, I needed to have a semi-permanent home for my telescopes, computer and all the paraphernalia that I use when shooting the heavens above. I set out to build something in my back yard to use and no sooner had I started building my home setup, I stumbled across a high school classmate who owns property at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. My friend graciously gave me use of a 10-foot dome observatory he was going to tear down after he built a larger roll-off roof observatory and I have now set up the dome in Chiefland as my primary astrophotography venue.

Even though I will be doing the bulk of my astrophotography in the dome, I still wanted a convenient backyard site in which to play around. Chiefland is a two-hour drive from home and as fortunate as I am to have such a primo site at my disposal, the distance between Tallahassee and Chiefland necessarily limits the opportunities to use my telescopes. I still wanted to have something right outside my back door to use on clear nights after dinner, so I pressed on with the home version of an observatory to use use for visual observing and some photography.

The home "observatory" began with a some-assembly-required storage shed from Home Depot. After building an elevated framed wood floor I assembled the shed. Inside, I set up a table with computer gear to have comfortable place to control a telescope, run planetarium software, and keep my gear dry from the night dew. I built a privacy fence around the shed to block out some of the stray light from our house and the neighbor's homes (above).

After everything was pretty much finished up, I finally had a chance to set up a telescope and spend an evening looking at different objects in the sky. When I tried to observe Jupiter with high magnification eyepieces, the "shake" caused by the tripod was frustrating. I was now spoiled by having a rock solid pier on which my imaging telescope is mounted in Chiefland so I decided to build a pier for my 8" and 6" Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes (the ones I use for observing).

The first step was to find a pier adapter for these telescopes. None were available which cased me to start the project by fabricating one. I covered the fabrication process in a prior post. With that step out of the way, it was time to build the pier.

One pier option was to use an 8" X 8" post, dig a hole and set it in concrete. Another option was to use 8" square cinder blocks, stack them in the shape of a column in a concrete filled hole, and fill the inside with rebar and concrete. In the end, I decided to use an 8" Sonotube form filled with rebar rods and concrete. I dug a 16" square hole 24 inches deep, filled it with concrete, and inserted three 4-foot rebar rods vertically into the concrete as it was setting. I placed the sonotube on top of the square foundation (above, left) and dug a 30-inch square by 6-inch deep perimeter around the pier foundation to give the pier a larger footprint for stability. A few more bags of concrete mixed and poured, badda boom badda bing the pier was beginning to take shape (above, right). In order to attach the pier adapter, I inserted four "L" shaped, 8-inch long, 1/2" bolts into the concrete in the sonotube with the threaded portions protruding above the top of the concrete (left).

After the concrete was completely set, I put the finishing touches on the pier, I built a 4-foot square deck around it making sure that the deck floor did not contact the concrete pier by cutting a square notch in the deck planks. The whole purpose of the pier is to minimize vibration transmitted to the telescope and by isolating the pier from the deck, I can walk on the deck without transmitting any vibration.

The final step in this project will be to finish the pier adapter by drilling holes in the bottom plate to attach the plate to the pier. The pier adapter will be bolted to the pier and leveled/secured with nuts and washers on both the underside and on top of the bottom plate. I'll cover the final steps in a post that will follow. If I can get some clear skies, I hope to test everything out with Venus, shining like a beacon to the East in the pre-dawn sky. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fabricating A Pier Plate Adapter For A Celestron Nexstar 8 Telescope - Part Uno

This past weekend, I finally got my astrophotography observatory in Chiefland, Florida (above) up and running so I would have a place to image deep sky objects in a somewhat permanent setup. After having a chance to use my Takahashi TSA 102 refractor telescope on a pier (left) a whole new world opened up for me. I could slew the scope from one celestial target to another and then view the objects with absolutely no vibration or shaking in the telescope, even at high magnification. What a difference. The pier in the observatory is a 6 inch square steel tube that is set 3 feet into the ground with a surrounding 24 inch square concrete pad, built to support a heavy telescope/telescope mount. That was my first experience using a pier as the base for a telescope instead of a tripod and it caused me to give some serious thought to using a pier on the telescope I will be using at home for observing, an 8 inch Celestron Nexstar 8 (right). The problem is that despite a concerted effort to find a pier adapter to mount the Nexstar 8 on a pier, I couldn't find anyone who manufactured one. Not to be deterred, I decided to fabricate my own.

In order to fabricate a pier plate adapter, I needed a template to guide me with the design for bolt holes that would be used to secure the telescope to the pier plate. Unbolting the Nexstar 8 from the tripod exposed the base of the tripod plate (left). Removing the tripod plate was simply a matter of unbolting it from the tripod. Voila - the perfect template. Next I had to obtain the materials for the pier plate adapter. Since the tripod plate was fashioned from 1/2" thick aluminum I decided to follow suit with the same material for the pier plate adapter. The Nexstar and its one arm mount are very light making aluminum a plausible, solid material choice. A quick search on the web yielded a metal fabricating business a short distance from home and after a telephone call I was good to go. They had 1/2" aluminum in stock and it could be cut to any size. I settled on an 8" square piece for the bottom and a 10" square piece for the top. The bottom will be bolted onto a pier (more on that later) and the top will be the base for the telescope.

In addition to the two square pieces of aluminum, I had the metal shop cut four pieces of 1 1/2" aluminum bar stock into 4" lengths to serve as spacers between the top and bottom plates . By having 4 inches of clearance between the top late and the bottom plate I gave myself enough space to bolt the adapter to the pier. Equally important, the space between the plates would make it easy to attach and  remove the telescope from the pier by using socket cap screws through the underside of the top plate into the threads on the Nexstar's mounting plate. The plates and aluminum bar stock cost was less than $50. I picked up the necessary hardware at a local Ace Hardware - eight 1 1/2" long, 3/8" stainless beveled screws to attach the aluminum rods to the two bases and the three 1" long, 3/8" stainless socket cap screws - to build the pier adapter at a cost of $15. Now came the fun part.

Step one was drilling four 3/8" holes into the bottom plate (above, L). Although the image doesn't show it, I then used a countersink bit to create a "V" shaped bevel in each hole on the bottom of the plate so the beveled screws would be flush with the plate when inserted through the holes. Step two was drilling 5/16" holes through the center of each aluminum rod (left) and then threading the holes with a 3/8 NC tap (right) to accept the 3/8" screws. This is where the choice of aluminum stock was a blessing. Drilling and tapping thick aluminum is much easier than comparable steel stock.

Step three involved attaching the aluminum spacer bars to the bottom plate so I could make another template that would give me the location of bolt holes on the top plate (above).

I've used the template for the holes to mark their location on the top plate. After these holes are drilled and countersunk, all that is left to do is to mark/drill the holes to bolt the telescope to the top plate in order to finish the rough construction of the pier adapter. Because it was getting late, I decided to call it a night before drilling any more holes and stopped working on the project. I couldn't resist placing the top plate on the spacer rods to see how the finished adapter will look as shown in the image above which also depicts the telescope base on the top plate. I hope to finish the rough construction tonight and then prime/paint the entire pier adapter black.

After I finish the adapter I will be building a pier in the back yard and attaching the adapter to the pier. I'll probably use an 8" Sonotube filled with Sacrete and rebar rods for support. Threaded "L" rods inserted into the wet concrete will serve as the attachment method for the adapter to the pier. Stay tuned.