A day of halfassed home improvement

Yesterday I hung out with a friend as a belated birthday gesture.  I had offered to buy her a meal for the occasion, but she (perhaps in deference to my state of semi-poverty) said she’d prefer it if I’d come help her hang some curtains she’d bought.  And could I also come with her to the hardware store to buy the necessary screws and things and also some blinds to hang?  I said sure – I’ve hung a gazillion things on walls before and would be happy to lend my expertise (such as it is).

We only ended up getting one blind hung.  And even that was the most ridiculously complicated thing.  I feel terrible that we got so little done and my friend possibly wasted a bunch of money, but it’s not my fault.

She did tell me ahead of time that her walls, underneath the drywall, are made of concrete.  So at least I knew that ahead of time.  And I know my drill isn’t strong enough to get through concrete, so we rented one at the hardware store.  I’ve never tried to hang something on a concrete wall but I assumed it would be a lot like hanging something on ordinary drywall, but with different screws and/or anchors.  From what I can tell, I was correct.

Then there was a whole clusterfuck where it turned out the brackets for the curtain rod (which my friend had brought with her) had holes too small for even the store’s most slender concrete screws to fit through.  And then my friend casually dropped the fact that actually she wanted the curtain rod to hang from the ceiling, not on the wall.  I don’t know anything about the construction of high-rise apartment buildings so I had no idea whether the ceiling would have concrete right underneath like the walls do, or what.  So that was kinda scary.

Also, y’know how the stereotype is that men are better at “abstract thought” than women?  I never used to quite understand what that meant.  I damn sure do now, though, because holyfuckingshit this friend of mine is incapable of picturing even the tiniest little thing – I think if I showed her a picture of a rectangle and asked “what would this look like if I turned it sideways?” she’d just stare at it in total incomprehension.  She was thinking we could solve the problem of the curtain brackets with the too-small holes by finding different, bigger-holed brackets (that’s not the annoying part), so we went looking.  She would repeatedly pick up some kind of hook/bracket/doohickey and go “Hey, maybe this!” and none of them were suitable.  A few times I had to point out to her that the hook she was holding (since it was meant to be wall-mounted) had such a shallow curve that it wouldn’t properly cup the curtain rod if it was mounted on the ceiling.  One contraption she brought me would’ve been the right shape, but didn’t have any screw holes in the surface we’d be affixing.  And even after I pointed this out, she had to squint at it for a minute before she understood what I meant.  It was just one thing after another.

My friend decided to focus on buying some cheap roller blinds for her other windows for the time being (when we got back to her place and she took them out of the package, she was like “there’s no pull cord on the bottom!  How am I supposed to close them?” and I said “You just grab the bottom of the blind itself,”  barely managing not to wring her neck.  It had been a long day).  So she got some cheap blinds custom-cut (they have a really neat little machine that does it!) – one for her kitchen window and one for the little window in her balcony door.  I asked her if the door is the wooden kind or the metal-plated kind like they usually use for doors that lead to the outside world.  She said it was wood, and I thought, good, then I can make the pilot holes using a hammer and nail and we can use the screws that come with the blind.

For the kitchen blind (and maybe the living room curtains if we could figure out how to make the brackets work), we got some concrete screws that came with an appropriately-sized drill bit.  Also, we ended up schlepping to two other home improvement stores in the same plaza looking for either skinnier concrete screws to work with our existing brackets, or some other kind of curtain bracket that would work with our existing screws.  Some employees at the final place we went to suggested that we use our drill to ream the holes in the brackets and make ’em bigger – like, drill through the brackets at the same time as making the pilot holes in the ceiling.  I said “will a concrete bit work on metal?” and they were like “Uhhhh……….yeah.”  I do not think they knew what they were talking about.  I’m no handyman but I am aware that there are special drill bits for metal.

I also very much did not want to hold a tiny bracket up way over my head while using the wrong kind of drill bit to ream a hole in a piece of metal less than an inch away from my fingers.  I didn’t bother explaining any of this to my friend, though, because she’d shown me that her visualization skills are seriously lacking so I assumed she would not be able to grasp my concern unless I actually had the drill and bracket out and pantomimed the process.  I turned out to be wrong on that score – halfway back to her place she said “Wait…to make the holes bigger you’d have to drill really close to your fingers.  That sounds kind of scary.”  And I was like “Gee, I hadn’t thought of that!  You’re right!  Maybe I’d better not, then.” 😛

Back at her place, I decided to try to tackle the balcony door first; that task seemed easiest.  Famous last words.

The brackets for these roller blinds were L-shaped with a diagonal slot in each.  It was not immediately obvious to me how the blinds were supposed to fit in there, and the fucking instruction manual didn’t help; the drawing showed a guy placing the rolled-up blind in a recessed window where you couldn’t see the brackets at all.  There was no diagram of how, exactly, everything fit together.  The blind had a little stumpy screw-thing sticking out of either end, and I was fairly sure these stumps were supposed to go into the slots in the brackets.  But when I held the brackets face-to-face the way they’d have to be to do this, they weren’t even mirror images of each other.  I actually said out loud “What the fuck?  They’re not even mirror images of each other!” and my friend came and looked over my shoulder for like a minute and a half and said “…They aren’t…?”  She was literally unable to discern that the slot on each bracket went in different directions (well, in the same direction, because they were identical pieces of metal, but when you put ’em face-to-face…).  This girl is wicked-smart in other ways, and I did my best to remain calm and patient with her bad visualization skills because it’s not nice to make people feel dumb, but lordy.  It was a very, very trying day for me.

We tried look up YouTube videos about installing blinds, but the first three we watched also never showed a close-up of how the blind fits into the brackets – at the crucial moment, the camera always panned about four miles back while some grinning jackass went “…And now, you just slide it in!”  Yeah, great help, asshole.  HOW.  DOES.  IT. FIT?!?!?  At that point I gave up on official help and decided that the blind-stumps would just have to slide into the slots asymmetrically.

Next problem:  turns out my friend had gotten her blinds cut to exactly the width of the windows in question.  No overlap at all.  And so the place where the brackets would normally go was occupied by the window frame*.  Which was bevelled, so you couldn’t really screw a flat surface to it.  I opted to mount the thing a bit higher, screwing the brackets into the top of the window frame right above the bevelled part**.

Because I was not, as I had anticipated, screwing the brackets to a wooden door, I would have to use the drill to make pilot holes.  And the one drill bit we had was too big for the screws that came with the blinds.  Luckily, my friend had stash of other screws and one package was the right size to do the trick.  (In the spirit of teaching her to be self-sufficient, I explained to my friend that pilot holes for screws need to be smaller in diameter than the actual screw you’re putting in them – the screw threads need to be able to bite into the surface.  She nodded but I’m not sure she really understood.)

I measured, marked, and began to drill – and the drill bit wouldn’t penetrate.  When I pushed harder, the drill bit began to wobble as though it hadn’t been tightened enough and/or the whole drill just skated sideways.  I tapped the surface of the doorframe with my fingernail; it was not – as my friend had surmised – made of plastic.  It was white-painted metal.  I decreed that this particular project was a lost cause and we moved on to the kitchen window.

Again, the blinds were exactly the width of the windowpane and the frame was beveled.  The window was also recessed pretty far into the wall.  The only place to mount the brackets was on the ceiling.  Which meant – since my friend was pretty sure the ceiling was concrete – drilling pilot holes and using the concrete screws we’d bought.  Except the bracket-holes ended up having to be so close to the edges of the window-recess that there wasn’t room to drill there – a drill is wide, yo.

Juuuust to double-check if there was really concrete there, I tried making a pilot hole using a hammer and nail.  It worked!  I made my three other pilot holes the same way and affixed the brackets using the screws they came with.  Turns out we’d somehow measured wrong and I had to move the right bracket over.  I measured again, pounded some new holes, re-attached the bracket and – miracle of miracles – managed to wedge the blind into place.

I’m…a little worried about the blind’s stability.  The surface of the ceiling didn’t feel like drywall to me; it felt mushier than that.  Almost every screw I put in started out “screwing” into the ceiling but then just pushed straight in the rest of the way in a little puff of plaster dust.  That’s…probably not great.  But we’ll see how it holds up.

Encouraged by the fact that the ceiling wasn’t concrete, after all, my friend asked hopefully if we could maybe try installing her curtains – since we no longer needed the concrete screws that wouldn’t work with the brackets.  I said that I had grave reservations about her mushy plaster(?) ceiling’s ability to support the curtains and curtain rod (it’s a wide window).  She said “I have some anchors you could use!” and I said yeah, but we’d have to drill holes for those anchors and our one drill bit would be considerably too small for that.  And she was like “You need to make holes for anchors?”  Which…just…seriously?  Fucking SERIOUSLY?

Don’t get me wrong – if someone had no idea at all about this stuff, I wouldn’t fault them for not knowing.  But she has wall anchors.  She can clearly see that they are “sleeves” that you put in the wall and then put a screw in the middle.  How the fuck did she did she think they went into the wall?

Also, drywall anchors work by flaring out little “feet” inside your wall that plant themselves against the inside surface of the drywall and help support the weight of the thing you’re hanging.  Her ceiling didn’t have the feeling of drywall; I didn’t sense a sheet of anything up in there when I was doing all that hammering and screwing.  All I felt was undifferentiated plaster.  So drywall anchors probably wouldn’t help.  I tried to explain this to my friend but of course she couldn’t grasp what I was saying.  She believed me that I wouldn’t be able to hang her curtains that day, though.

I don’t mean to make this girl sound like an idiot or a bad person.  She is smart (just not at abstract thought, apparently) and I like her.  She also made me a wonderful dinner, gave me some advice about vitamin supplements and diet (she’s studying naturopathy and/or nutrition), and thanked me profusely for my help even though I barely managed to get anything accomplished and she’d rented a drill for nothing.  But I needed to vent.

*So really, what the actual door was made of is immaterial because I wouldn’t be mounting the blinds to the door itself.  But for the record, the door was the metal-plated kind.   Not wood.  *Facepalm.*

**First I had to remove a doohickey that was in the way – a piece of chain with one end screwed to the door and the other end screwed to the frame.  I mused aloud that this chain must be to keep the door from opening super-wide…like to keep a high wind from banging the balcony door into your wall or whatever.  My friend was like “Oh.  How would the chain prevent that?”  ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!?  I didn’t even respond.  A minute later she pieced it together and went “…Oh.  Duh.”

1 Comment

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One response to “A day of halfassed home improvement

  1. Moz in Oz

    See, now you know what it’s like 🙂 And also, why I value my partner’s ability to visualise in 3D and also to have a go at stuff in the workshop so very much! Also: you have tools! Excellent!

    Sounds as though your friend’s ceiling might be plaster all the way up. If you’re going to get involved again I suggest getting a very fine drill bit (ie, the smallest one you have) and using your hand to spin it into a defect in the plaster (so the hole isn’t obvious). See just how far up the plaster goes, and whether it turns to air at some point. Unless it turns to timber or metal you are SOL for hanging any weight off it – big risk that one day she “pulls the blind down” and… the blind comes down. All of it, with attached ceiling bits 😦

    And no, using a masonry drill to bash through metal is a bad idea. Broadly, masonry drill bits work like a cold chisel – there’s a chip of really hard material at the end, and the hammer drill pounds that into the masonry, chipping little bits off. The spinning is really just to clear the chips out of the hole. Normal twist drill bits actually cut, and don’t work without the sharp edges. The very tip is a tiny straight, screw-driver-like part that just dents the material (or fits into the pilot hole), but the flats on the tip are sharp and work like a couple of chisels, cutting away material (hence the spiral-shaped swarf you get).

    So, masonry drill on metal… no cutting, the effect is like forcing a screwdriver in there to widen the hole. Often brackets are made of cheap shitty metal and you’ll just wreck the bracket.

    (I have years of experience with modifying rented accomodation. I’m sure the landlords have noticed, eventually)

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