Sunday, July 14, 2013

How to build a Homemade In-Ground Back Yard Pool / Spa - Germantown Philadelphia.

Our first year in the new house kept us busy, building the stone wall and clearing brush in the deep back yard. The second summer seemed hotter than ever before in Germantown, by August An old claw foot tub had been lying upside down in the tall weeds began to attract my attention. Cara and I employed it as a make shift water feature to survive the intense heat and humidity. Although we had to take turns in the tiny tub, we enjoyed it so much we decided that this was an idea that we needed to expand on and within a couple weeks we were pacing off and marking out an area in the yard. I believed at the time that this was going to be no more than a modest back yard splash pond.

Ok so its a plan, the next day we picked up a couple of shovels and started digging. We dug in the heat with great enthusiasm and while we worked we exchanged exciting ideas on how a little more work we could make it better...  so we dug some more. It seemed the more we dug the more great ideas we had! And just think... some people pay to exercise like this!

After throwing ideas (and dirt) around for several weeks we finally had carved out both a design and a 20 foot long 8 foot deep and 8 foot wide pit. We both agreed had no interest in the traditional backyard aqua blue monstrosity that most people picture when you say pool. We just want a place to cool off and float. and that it would be best if it did not look like anything more than an elegant garden reflecting pool. I said to Cara "Its going to be a sleeper" I explained to her that a "Sleeper is a street term for a car that you don't recognize as being super fast until the light changes.
She agreed, we want a sleeper.

Now we finally have a design, we decided we would build a six foot wide and six foot deep and 12 foot long "plunge chamber" with a shallow deck at one end and set it into a flagstone patio.

I sketched it up on the computer. to help with any estimates we might need to get.

Estimates for having it shot-creted were in the range of 12- 15 k!  So this really was going to have to be a "do it yourself" project for sure!

I studied many blogs and decided that for years similar projects could be and have been done with concrete block.
I decided to go with Ivany Block. Its a block that is specially designed to accept horizontal rebar as well as vertical. This block costs about 3 dollars a block but adds substantially more strength to the structure.
I calculated that about 300 blocks would cover the job and ordered a delivery from Fizzano Brothers.

So now I've got the blocks, no turning back. But before we could start building we needed a strong foundation so that would require a lot more digging and that was not going to be done this year we will have to wrap things up and wait until spring.

After a major collapse of the hole during the winter, Spring began with a lot more digging and a massive timber reinforcement project to keep the project safe as we installed the foundation and block walls. The collapse turned out to be a blessing, It required gigging out allot more space than I was initially going to and now I will have about a 26"of work space behind the wall as I construct the pool. It will also give me some additional foundation which is recommended to provide stability behind a retaining wall.

Once the retaining boards were up I began setting the drains. Three feet apart and I installed a Hydrostatic pressure valve under the drain to the right to keep the pool from floating like a ship when and if the surrounding water table rose to high.
 I set the rebar for the foundation with a grid of heavy 5 bar at  8" centers and set super heavy vertical bars before poring the foundation to insure that the walls will not separate from the floor under the pressure of back fill. To make a footing, I dug a 12" deep trench under the foundation and filled it with stone and a course of concrete block. The footing fill in as we pour the foundation and provide even more strength to the walls and foundation bed.
Here comes the concrete! I ordered a soupy mix of high strength fiber reinforced Concrete. Because of the larger footprint and the footing the total pour was 11 cubic yards! 

As the walls began to rise, we could now for the first time see what we thing were building looks like, in other words, time to make adjustments. It was decided to extend the Sun Shelf from 3 to 6 x6 feet. I believe the additional length will make for a more accommodating shallow end and create a longer more elegant esthetic.

in order to keep stacking block during the endless spring rains we built a MASH unit.
5 more yards of concrete for the sun deck, this time all mixed in the drum...
Can you believe that some people pay to get this kind of work out? 
Blocks and bars of the sun deck,  This thing is really starting to take shape.

300 blocks will hold about 4 cubic yards of concrete. If I had bad dreams last sumer of endless digging, this year it will be of mixing, luging and pouring 80 lb. buckets of mortar into 6 foot deep holes.

 I skimmed the surface with s-mix and finished up with three coats of Ramuc EP Hi-Build Epoxy. I chose Sand color to create an exotic turquoise color when filled.

 I chose a blue stone cap from Robinson Flagstone for the perimeter. Butter the back of each section and set over the bonding onto a bed of grout.
A couple of days fiddling with the plumbing and
its time to start filling the pool. 

We finished the patio by mid September and with the addition of a 266k gass heater we will be enjoying our back yard pool well into November.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The thing I love most about Philadelphia is the Park

Sadly, many of the elegant structures and bridges in the 
Wissahickon have fallen into disrepair. Litter and dumping has been a problem for this environment from before I can remember and now a new level of neglect is starting to take hold. Once relegated to concrete abutments and train yards in town, a number of vandals have moved their campaign of blight into the our parks. Spray tagging is beginning to appear on many of the stone walls, steps, foundations and natural surfaces along the creek

As a landscape painter I have looked to the bridges along the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill as the primary subject of my oil paintings.

These majestic structures have always captivated my attention and respect and it saddens me to see them defaced.

As a professional faux and mural painter I  have been using faux  techniques for years to "antique" brand new restaurants, making new walls look old, transforming iron security gates into mahogany and making plywood look like marble. I also paint theatre and movie sets, employing paint effects to give a sense of realism to surfaces that would other wise "not fit the scene". 
It occurred to me some time ago that the techniques I provide for my clients, if modified, would be a perfect way to restore the landscape. 

This year I decided to put that idea to work.

The trick to successful faux is color. The process begins with accurately matching a base color and subsequent glaze colors. Then its a mater of layering and stippling the colors together to replicate the surrounding texture. When you can no longer see it, you know you've got it.
Often I have to apply the base one day and return to glaze the area the next. 
Access is difficult, I often find myself climbing thru stickers and over icy, wet ledges to get to the area, add a couple gallons of paint , rollers, spray bottles and brushes and it becomes 
a good work out!

Ironically when done correctly, faux finishing is impossible to detect and so my efforts (unless pointed out) disappear into the scenery, This is of course my goal, but it makes promoting the project unusually difficult. 

I have a meeting with Jane Golden's office next month and I hope among other things, to gain access to  the SEPTA and Con-rail bridges that span the Schuylkill River /I76. If I am successful in that effort it will be noticed by virtually every one!  I hope that telling this story might inspire able bodied citizens to get out doors,  volunteer and help restore this world class park that is truly unique to our city. 
Thank you again!
My number is 215-605-3269
My web site is faux)
I liked off my biannual effort at Lincoln and Ridge Avenue this morning.  Immediate removal is the only way to break a vandals will to continue hitting these surfaces. If you or someone  you know is interested in helping out with material donations, an account titled "Anti Graffiti" is being handled by Russel Jr. at Killian's Hardware, Chestnut hill.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making a Walnut slab bench table with Bow Tie inlay

On a recent trip thru the Pocono Mountains I decided to stop at lewis lumber in Picture Rocks, PA. Turns out they had just received a delivery that included a wonderful selection of rough cut American Walnut slabs. I decided the time had come to try my hand at a bench or table in the style of George Nakashima.

I look care selecting the slab from about 20 beautiful pieces. I selected a 6 feet 4" long slab and tied it to roof of the jeep. In the studio I spent some time sketching my design based on the feel and look of the slab I selected. I decided to have it stand at 18".
I wanted to try to produce 4 compound angle tenon legs out of Hickory. Before drilling holes into this beautiful piece of wood I recalled a joinery method used by Paul McCobb in the
1950's to secure a similar bench leg. Employing this method I made 4 mounting bases for my tenon legs. This allowed me to adjust the angle and placement of the legs prior to fastening and reduced the possibility of a misplaced hole or bad angle.

I marked the depth on each leg, cut the shoulder on the band saw and used a chisel to trim them round to the depth of my cut. In preparing the slab, I stripped the bark with steel wool and sanded the surface with 3 courses of paper 80, 120, 220. then mounted the legs and made some small length adjustments until it stood firm and level.

One quintessential detail and ultimate challenge for me was to include a hand carved butterfly inlay over a split at one end of the plank. I considered purchasing a router jig to do this but decided at the last minute that the look achieved using a router was to mechanical, also I don't care for the template shapes provided in the kits, moreover I want this bench to show off my abilities not my router's.

The trick to making a clean and flush butterfly inlays is to first design and shape your hardwood inlay piece, I made a couple of sketches and produced one out of
soft wood just to get a feel for the size and look of my pattern.
I chose Ebony to make my butterfly because its very hard and will provide elegant contrast against the deep brown Walnut. I cut it out of a piece of Ebony stock on my band saw. position your stock so the butterfly's grain will intersect the repair. I'm careful to cut slightly outside the lines so can use a file to chase it up and create perfectly straight clean edges. I used a metal file to angle the sides inward slightly so that the footprint of the piece will be slightly smaller
than the top. Position the piece and trace its outline with a marking blade or scribe. Obviously this is a critical step - it cant move and the angle of your marking blade must be maintained all the way around the perimeter.
Cut out with a flat sharp chisel making sure to produce a flat bottom and straight vertical walls that are the same depth as your inlay material.

Apply some glue to the center of your piece and carefully
hammer it in using a board to protect the surface of your wood, clamp it and
let it dry for 12 hrs.

The next day I sand it flush and its done.

I used a 50/50 mix of Boiled Linseed oil and applied this liberally with a rag fully saturating the surface for 24 hrs. then applied liberal coats once a day for a week. The color of the wood became dark and even and the grain filled in beautifully. To produce a super smooth finish I wet sanded the surface with my last coat of oil and 400 grit sand paper. I finished the whole bench with oil based poly urethane and gave it a couple more passes with 400g and fin.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Scenic work for movie set - Law Abiding Citizen

I got my introduction to the world of movie set production this week. I was brought on to the set of "Law Abiding Citizen" staring Jamie Fox and Gerard Butler. The scenic department needed assistance faux painting two action sets on the last two days before filming. The set was constructed in a huge warehouse in south west Philadelphia.

both "subterranean" sets were actually entirely free standing wood fabricated structures.
All the stone, brick and mortar is made of vacuum formed sheets and stapled into place, our job was to faux it all to look like the real thing.

The gates and cell doors are all brand new iron work and custom made on site, then faux painted to look ancient and rusted. Due to filming requirements, every thing had to be fire proof, so we were strictly limited to water based materials. I worked from sketches on site ...

The schedule was crazy. We started each 15 hour day at 7:00 am with two coffee breaks and a 45 minute lunch break in between

It was the most intensive two days of faux painting I've ever done and I'm hooked! I hope very much to be doing more movie painting in the future.

To see more of my work please visit

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Portrait painting at studio Incamminati

I started a Monday night portrait painting class with Kerri Dunn, My goal is to learn some new approaches to handling color and value, and reestablish some existing skills that have weakened since I started to work exclusively in Acrylic. I haven’t done much in oil since the Academy.  I know that simply doing the work is the only way to achieve my goals.  My busy schedule has made it far to easy to put the brush down when I’m done the clients work, and for that my fine art skills have suffered. 

So each Monday night at 5:30 tired or not I’m finding my way to Studio Incamminati for three hours of pretty intense study from a live model, This is the final model pose for this class, it will be a four night study.

This is what I achieved on the first night, I’m using Ultra marine and Burnt Sienna on a medium ground linen canvase with clear gesso. The Belgian linen is a bit rough. The goal here is to develop the drawing and establish values. I’d forgotten how nice the oil is to work with, great for removing and adjusting the tone.

I'll continue to post my progress each Tuesday for the next three weeks.
To see more of my work please visit