Friday, July 29, 2011

Shower Pan and Vanity

We hadn't planned to gut the bathroom. But when early floor investigations turned up rot and rear end separation, we had no choice. We did have the choice between restoring the original or starting from scratch. Guess what we did?

The spiffy new shower, sink and vanity cabinet.


The original "wet" bath
The original toilet on the "black" tank

The original configuration was a rear "wet bath" where the entire bathroom acted as the shower. This led to leaks into the closet (silly place for one) and out into the hall. After 40 years, the plastic was dirty, broken and, well, plastic. Out it all came.

While Barbie was in England with a school group, Bart single handedly gutted the bathroom, repaired the rear end separation, replaced a particle board wall with birch and installed a Nature's Head composting toilet, all while working his day job too. He didn't take any pictures of the process but hey, he was a busy guy for those three weeks and Barbie had both cameras. The day after Barbie got home, we pulled out of the driveway for our trip to Lopez Island. The trailer had a solid rear bumper and frame and a functional loo.

Questions occasionally arise about composting toilets as people consider them for their trailers or tiny homes. I can only off our experience. After 7 years of using our, we are still happy with it. We don't use it year 'round and we use other facilities when we can. So most of the use is for liquids when it's not convenient to use another facility. We rarely use it for solids, but have done so with two of us for a weekend with ease.

I started with peat moss originally and have added more only a few times since. Most of what it composts is the single ply toilet paper that we use. Sometimes I start to smell a slightly privy-like odor, which means it is time for a tune-up. I have a scoop that lives behind the Nature's Head and is used to gather leaf mold, the mushy layer of actively decomposing leaves. This layer is full of microorganisms that break down waste in the wild. About a cup to a pint of that goes into the bin, maybe with a bit of water to keep the contents of the bin looking dark and moist (California summers dry things out), and in a day or so, it's back to smelling like a woodsy forest floor.

We have never emptied the bin. Never needed to. Most of the waste that goes into it is carbon based (digested food, toilet paper). When that decays (an oxidation process), it turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor, which then go up the vent. I can imagine that someone using it for all functions full time would be adding more material than the microorganisms could break down. For our use, about 60 days a year, with several months of sitting quietly through the winter, ours is a sustainable system.

After the composting toilet went in, the nearly empty bathroom spent most of a year as a storage space. We mulled over plans while working on other projects, then plunged in and epoxied to our
heart's content.
The curved shower pan wall was laminated in place

Filler in the epoxy allows sanding for a smooth slop

 Once we decided on the location of the shower wall, Bart cut out the floor of the shower pan. He  layered it up from several thicknesses of 3/8" plywood in a terrace, leaving space around the edge for the shower pan walls. Thin 1/8" plywood was screwed on top to make a smooth slope towards the drain. All inside surfaces have epoxy over fiberglass cloth for strength.

Fiberglass on the inside walls
Barbie tried to build the shower pan walls as lightweight as possible. The front wall is hollow: two pieces of 1/8" plywood with 1x2 furring strips laid flat at the edges. The front wall (to the left of the entry wall) is 1/4" ply, as is the upright front of the shelf. The curved wall is 2 pieces of 1/8" ply, glued together in place to match the curve of the trailer wall. That part was awkward since there was no way to clamp each place exactly in position except with arms, elbow and hands...for 45 minutes.

The laminated curve

Barbie learned a lot about how much thickener to add to the epoxy to keep it from dribbling down the sides and making streaks. She also learned how hard epoxy is to sand, especially if it doesn't have enough filler in it. Her sailor's vocabulary got a workout, but we like the results.
Straight counter, June 18, 2011

Once the shower pan was epoxied, sanded and epoxied again with white pigment, Barbie could begin to place and build the new vanity. It's a bit of a trick to build a piece of built-in furniture when the only right angles occur in mid air. The back of the trailer is a compound curve, so every piece that would be attached to it had to be clamped up at a right angle or parallel to the floor and scribed to shape.
Curved counter, June 25, 2011

Then, just when all the pieces were cut out, we decided on the stainless steel bowl sink (Ikea, $8) and changed the shape of the counter top, adding a curved front to the left side of the vanity cabinet. This led to a six month quest for a successful method to build a curved door. But in the end, it all worked out. The final version was birch veneer with the Tin Pickle's flamingo logo laser cut at Techshop, glued over curved and braced plastic. Bart used the lathe to turn the base that the sink sits on, using a piece of scrap stainless. It makes cleaning easier.

Update: If you use this kind of faucet, place it as close to the sink as you can. The water flows straight down, or even a bit backwards. Where we have it, it's really hard to get your hands under the flow. Replacing the wood counter and moving the faucet over is now on my list of things to do someday. Live and learn.
Every piece was scribed to fit

The aluminum for the vanity frame came from Brunner Enterprises. The edging is meant as shelf edging for price tags, but holds birch veneer with only a bit of extra persuasion. With aluminum framing and 1/4" birch ply construction, the vanity can be easily supported by rivets into the wall.
Fitting PEX
June 28, 2011
Once the wall between the shower and the vanity was in, Bart did all the plumbing. He used PEX and shark bite fittings, managing to fit all the lines in only the left and bottom sections of the vanity, leaving the other cabinets for TP and supplies. He researched and installed a low flow, high power shower head and also put a meter in the shower that helps us keep our showers under 2 gallons when water is scarce.

June 28, 2011

The shower curtain rod is a piece of stainless steel tubing that Bart had on hand and the Barbie bent up in the metal room at TechShop.

We used 1/2" plywood for the divider wall between the shower and the vanity since it would have quite a few things hanging off of it. All the wood facing the inside of the shower is covered with epoxy over fiberglass.

Bird's eye view of the shower

The blue bulge below the shower head in the picture on the left is the flow meter. Since this picture, Bart has changed the temperature adjustment to a single lever control.

Below is the finished shower pan, with the cabinet doors from the vanity in there until the glue dries on the vanity tracks.

The finished shower pan

At some point, hopefully early in 2012, an epoxied birch skirt will surround and overlap the top of the shower pan, running around the curve and up to the bottom of the window. We made do with waterproof duct tape on there last summer, but it was ugly.

It is a pretty shower.
The birch grain comes clearly through the fiberglass and epoxy.

Here is the finished shower with the birch skirt in place. It is made of two sheets of 1/8" plywood. By laminating them in place with epoxy, they will be more stable in holding the conical curve from the shower pan to the wall. The only trouble with this brilliant plan is that there is no way to clamp the setting epoxy sandwich into the exact curve, except to wedge one's body into the shower area and use shoulders, elbows and knees until the epoxy sets. Fortunately, it was a warm day.

The shower has worked for several years now with no leaks that we can tell. It is a bit cramped under the curving roof for our nearly 6 foot tall son. Shorter people have no difficulty. With the low flow shower head, the easy to read water meter and the easy shut off control, water supplies for boondocking can be carefully preserved. It takes about half a gallon to warm the pipes from the water heater to the shower and after that, gallon and a half showers (wet down, shut off water, soap up, rinse) are entirely comfortable.
A homemade shower is better than a wet bath.


  1. For curved pieces that need pressure when clamps don't work, I have success using water on top of plastic to hold the the glued material together. Sand works even better and I use lead batteries when I need extra weight. Lead shot would be best but it is hard to come by in sufficient quantities, while sand is everywhere.

  2. For curved pieces that need pressure when clamps don't work, I have success using water on top of plastic to hold the the glued material together. Sand works even better and I use lead batteries when I need extra weight. Lead shot would be best but it is hard to come by in sufficient quantities, while sand is everywhere. You might want to swap out the corrugated hose for smooth wall marine hose. The corrugated hose gets dirty quick and clogs easy. I only use it when I need something very flexible. The smooth wall stuff can be hard to bend or slip over fittings--heating it solves that.

  3. Thanks for your suggestions, Conrad. The most difficult place to clamp wouldn't have been helped by something that relied on gravity, unfortunately. We needed to keep the two layers of 1/8" plywood walls of the shower pan pressed together and at exactly the correct slope to conform to the shower enclosure. It required a fair amount of pressure and watchfulness to be sure that nothing slipped out of position. Filling the entire tub with lead shot might have done the trick, though.

  4. Are you in the Bay Area? We are just beginning our remodel and was wondering if I might be able to pick your ear on some issues. Ours is a 72 Landyacht.

  5. We are in the Bay Area. The best resource I know, and where I got much of my support, inspiration and technical advice for my work on our Tradewind, is on I go by webspinner there, my husband goes by barts. I do mostly the wood and fabric, he does the electrical, mechanical, plumbing and most of the metal work.