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Mirror & Metal

February 2, 2012

The next installment of our Bathroom completion: the big mirror on the wall. I was half tempted to refer to this post as the big ass mirror, but I’m figuring that we’ll have a BIGGER mirror upstairs in a later phase. But what’s cool about this mirror is that it’s one of those freebies, re-use-ies, just-happens-to-fit-well-where-we-need-it things.

But backing it up, here’s the blank wall before installing the mirror…

The wall that wants a mirror installed

The blue tape pieces in the pic show the locations I measured of the bottom of the mirror and top of the glass countertop.

Dan Mitchell gave us this big mirror over a year ago – and it’s been stored leaning against a wall in the front room since then, untouched other than to measure it. He removed it from one of those 60’s/70’s ranch houses that we are all familiar with, and it was basically a large simple plate glass mirror with four holes in the corners; intended to rest on a tile backsplash. (Which we didn’t have.)

So it became one of those fun projects, where we have to figure something out with our design skills and ingenuity.

I researched on the tubes how most people have attached these kinds of mirrors; most used special mirror hangers that “clip” around the edge of the glass to hold it. Only bad thing is that that installation method requires some extra space at the top of the mirror to lift it up and over the lower clip. But we were sticklers on one design issue – we both really wanted the top edge of the mirror to touch the ceiling, and wouldn’t have the extra space at the top. Another attachment method was needed.

Since we were thinking of adding some shelves between the mirror and the counter top, (in the space between those blue pieces of tape), it kinda made sense that we could use some kind of angle attached to the wall that would match the length of the shelves, and be aligned directly above the shelves.

So I headed out to my favorite place to hunt down metal: Shapiro’s Metal – they have tons of scrap as well as new (and well organized) metal stock.

Some racks at Shapiro's

(One of these days I want to spend a whole afternoon over there just rooting around in their yard – they have some pretty weird and unique hunks of metal.)

I went there expecting to quickly pull out some angle pieces, maybe steel, aluminum or even stainless steel. We wanted an angle with a long leg of 1″ and a short leg of 3/8″ or 1/2″ – to minimize how much the piece stuck out from the wall. But I quickly found that all of their angles were equal length legs – they were either 1/2″ x 1/2″, 1″ x 1″, and so on. I asked an employee if they had unequal legs… he thought for a minute and said: “Ummm, maybe, but that would be something randomly stored out in the yard, but not the new stock…” Looking at my watch and realizing that they were closing in about 12 minutes, I didn’t have time to wander around in the scrap yard.

So I called Sue to relay this news, and to throw out a new idea. I was running around (literally – it’s a BIG place) to the different areas where they stock metal, to describe to her what was available. We agreed that in lieu of the “angle” idea to hold the mirror (cause they only had yucky equal-length legs), that some thick flat stock would be acceptable. With Sue still on the phone, I RAN over to the aluminum racks; with the 4 minutes of operating hours remaining, I quickly perused the various dimensions of aluminum bar, and we decided that 1″ x 3/8″ seemed right. We hung up. Then, in one of those “Ah-ha!” moments, I decided that I’d buy a full 12′ length (instead of the “shelf length” pieces) of the aluminum bar because I wanted to propose to Sue that we install this aluminum bar the ENTIRE width of the wall. (While we didn’t need the full 12′, I was feeling internally pressured to not ask for a special cut length since they were now closing… according to their loudspeaker announcements… in 90 seconds…)

Back at BAB… First thing is to review the new “full length” idea with Sue – she agrees. Then I need to cut a hunk of the bar to the full length of the wall.

Cut to length - the new flat bar idea...

We also thought we should do a test fit of the mirror, just to make sure there wasn’t something weird that we didn’t catch, like a bump in the wall gone unnoticed. I wish I’d rented some glass suction cups – the mirror weighed about 65 pounds, not normally a problem for us but pretty unweildy when we only had the edge to hold it, and the fact that it was a fragile sheet capable of hurting us if we broke it. It fit just fine; no surprises and it was short of covering the full width of the wall by just an inch and a half.

Then it was time drill some holes and test different types of fasteners. Sue & I agreed that we’d like to use a flathead screw, and recess it into the face of the bar.

I always recommend that anytime you’re trying something new, make some test samples, and test holes, and test whatevers… as much as you practically can.

So I cut off about 12″ of the remaining aluminum stock, and drilled several holes into this sample bar to test A) the right diameter for the fastener and B) the right depth for the countersink so that the head of the screw was flush with the surface of the bar.

Test holes in the test bar

Then it was time to layout and drill the holes in the fullsize bar, using the depths from the test bar, and I could set the depth gauge on my drill press so that the holes would all match…

Full size bar drilled to correct depths

Before attaching the full size bar, I wanted to test attaching the test bar to the wall. So I randomly chose a location on the same wall that would eventually be concealed by the mirror, and drilled two holes to align with two test bar holes. (The wall is constructed of 1″ thick plaster over 8″ thick structural hollow clay tile, historically challenging to fasten to… just ask Franco…)

So my first option for anchors was a traditional lead anchor. I drilled the appropriate size hole in the wall and hammered two anchors in. Oh, and I also wanted to test my ability to install the bar at a designated height (remember, to have the top of the mirror fit tight against the ceiling like we wanted) so I also drew a horizontal line to test that alignment.

Lead anchors in wall ready to test

I am really glad that I did this test because it FAILED so quickly that I didn’t even take pictures of the bar installed against the wall. I could tell as I was driving in the screws that the anchor wasn’t biting very well, but I drove them in until the bar was flat against the wall.

Then I tried to pull the test bar off the wall…

And it just popped right off.

Test bar pulls right out

Upon close inspection of the anchors, I determined that either the screw was not long enough to expand the lead anchor into the clay tile, or the lead could not adequately grip the plaster.


I had to think of something else.

Franco & I had gotten comfortable using new special “hollow material” anchors in several situations when encountering this clay tile, but they required really big holes, and a large variety of big bolt lengths – and Sue & I were kind of set on a recessed smallish flathead screw. Those big bolts wouldn’t work here.

Then I remembered some oddball weird plastic anchors that Sue brought home a year or so ago with all of our closet hardware and components. They are some special plastic expandable anchors that are intended for drywall. When they are tightened, they open up and expand into a twisted mess, but the plastic is REALLY tough.

I searched the dock and found four of them. Here’s what they look like:

Maybe this anchor will work...

Since the last anchors failed miserably, I’d be wise to test this one too.

I wasn’t sure if the “test” process would ruin the anchor. You know, like when we used to install those “molly” anchors, the minute you unscrewed the fastener, the “anchor” would fall and drop inside the wall disappearing forever. So, I tested just ONE anchor. They required a bigger hole, and the hammer drill made that easy, just messy.

Test bar installed for the second time

Success! This thing wouldn’t budge with just one anchor! I not only couldn’t rotate the bar, I couldn’t even GRAB the bar it was so tight to the wall.

Since these odd little plastic anchors appeared to work, I searched the internet to find out if I could buy a few more (I’d laid out SEVEN holes for this mirror bar).  I hoped that the Containers and More store would have them (where we got all of our closet system) but I couldn’t find the exact same kind. Crap!

I showed them to Sue to see if she knew where some might be – she wasn’t sure of any others.

Feeling defeated by the internet, I had a faint memory that I’d seen more of these around BAB. So I dug around in all of our piles of leftover hardware and little bags of screws (which goes back to June 2010), and AMAZINGLY, I found exactly THREE more of these anchors, bringing the grand total to SEVEN anchors, matching the exact number of holes in my bar, meaning there was room for zero mistakes.

I was confident I could make it work, so I taped the final bar in place, and using one of my junk drill bits that matched the hole diameter (I’ve been saving dulled drill bits in this container for 20+ years, hoping one day to buy a bit sharpener), I was able to mark the centerpoints of the bar holes on the plaster wall.

Using old bit to mark hole locations on wall

Now I had a series of seven little dots on the wall that aligned with the centerlines of the holes on the bar. But now I was about to use a hammer drill and create 1/2″ diameter holes in those same locations.

To those of you that have tried using a hammer drill in a horizontal application, you know that as soon as you engage the “hammer” action of your drill, the bit starts to dance all OVER the place. My hammer drill has a “light” setting and a “heavy” setting, but it still bounces around even in the light setting.

So before drilling, I drew some guidelines onto blue tape that aligned with the centers of the marks. I’m pretty good with adjusting a bit as I’m drilling to align the bit with guides like this, so even if the bit danced all over the place, I could just guide the drill in the right location even after the original small dot has been obliterated.

Center guidelines at each hole

Then it was time to install the bar.

I noticed during the test bar installation that the anchor spun around unless it had something to grip; and while drilling the hole, the 1/2″ diameter bit chewed the plaster up making the hole larger, and I found that if I pre-tightened the anchor, it could grip against the back of the bar, and expanded just enough to grip the sides of the plaster but not too much that it couldn’t be squeezed into the hole.

So I pre-installed all of the screws & anchors along the bar, and then tightened the screws just a little so that each one puffed up slightly.

All anchors tightened slightly

Once all anchors are tightened a little bit, I could then align the anchors in the bar with the holes in the wall and carefully push the entire bar into place; of course it meant a little more pressure here, a little more pressure there, until it all lined up.

Aligning the anchors with the holes.

It was a lot easier than I expected.

Close-up of anchor

Once the bar was firmly tightened, we needed to bring the mirror back for another test fit. Again – wishing we had those suction cups!

Sadly, it didn’t fit all the way – seemed there was about 1/16″ of an inch short at one end. We took the mirror down and there was enough play in the bar that I could loosen the screws and nudge it down just a hair. Further checking identified that the plaster work on the ceiling around the flush light fixture wasn’t exactly flat, causing our fit issue. No worries now though.

One more test fit of the glass and it fit perfectly, and we also took this mirror-held-against-the-wall opportunity to locate the four holes in the corners of the mirror, where screws will hold the mirror against the wall. (But not carry any weight.)

With the mirror safely out of the room, I drilled 1/2″ holes at each of these corner locations. Plan was to use an old-fashioned technique of inserting a wood plug into the hole to act as screw anchorage.

So I cut up some scrap red oak into these little hunks of wood:

Red oak plug before tapering

Then I held them against the belt sander and shaped them into tapers, testing their fit every few minutes. I ended up with four tapered plugs, each custom shaped to fit snugly fit into the holes.

Finished tapered plugs

As an aid to the friction fit they’ll get from hammering, I also globbed a bunch of construction adhesive into the hole.

Tapered plug ready

Anchor in...

I pushed them in by hand as far as I could, then got a hammer and slowly tapped them in all the way. I could tell that the wood was getting tighter inside the hole in the clay tile, which is exactly what I wanted.

Anchor tapped flush

Once all four of the anchors were glued and hammered in, it was time for the FINAL lifting of the mirror.

But before bringing it in, I put a small bead of silicone on top of the bar to help keep the glass edge gripped to the bar.

Silicone bead

Since this was what, our FOURTH time bringing the mirror in and lifting the mirror up, we felt pretty comfortable doing it but now had to be careful to keep our fingers out of the silicone. (Wouldn’t be an issue if we had those suction cups!)

But before lifting the mirror in place, I planned ahead and brought in all hardware, a drill and a screwdriver, and even a stepstool – I wanted to minimize the amount of time Sue needed to hold the mirror against the wall while I put in the screws.

A quick sidebar about the screws… I really wanted to find some mirror screws, which are specialty screws that are a lot like a regular flathead screw, but there is a small hole in the center of the head which is tapped with threads to accept a decorative or chrome cap that covers the head of the screw. Here’s a pic I found on wikipedia:

Mirror screws that I couldn't find

But alas – our local hardware stores did not carry them, and every place I found on the internet was overseas and I couldn’t wait for some to come from England.

Instead, I found some cheap little plastic “screw caps” that have a little flip-top lid, that you pop down over the screw when you’re done tightening. The next pic will explain better…

Screw cap with flip cover

Oh yeah, back to the mirror installation… it seemed rather uneventful; we both lifted it onto the bar, stuck it in the goo, then leaned it flat against the wall. Sue held it to the wall while I quickly grabbed the drill and made a pilot hole in the first wood plug.

I had the screw, popped it in the cap, only – I couldn’t find the screwdriver! I knew I put it somewhere close. But it’s like it crawled away. So I had to run around the shop looking for another one while I left Sue by herself holding the mirror up.

I ran back into the bathroom with another phillips screwdriver, put in the top two screws and told Sue she could take a break. The bottom two screws were easy as well.

So what I really liked about these little plastic screw caps is that they acted like a flexible washer between the hard metal screw and the fragile glass, so that metal never actually touched the glass. If I were to accidentally over-tighten a screw against the glass, it might shatter so this little cap gave it some extra “give”.

So here’s the final installation…

Mirror installed; pre-cleaning

I’ve carefully cropped myself out of the photo, but regrettably I took that photo before cleaning the mirror.

So I cleaned the mirror, then added a very small bead of silicone on the FRONT edge of the mirror where it hits the bar, so that glass cleaning solution (or splashes from my sinus rinsing!) aren’t able to suck under the glass edge.

My favorite part of this project is the design switcheroo we made due to availability of materials; I like the continuous bar support SO much better than the short pieces of angle idea. Just goes back to our mantra to be open to changes and go with the flow of what pops up.

A final lesson learned: NEXT time we’re working with large pieces of glass – invest in suction cups!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 10:35 am

    This has been great fun following your adventures in reconstructing this old building and your “new”home. I admire you and Sue for looking for solutions in different ways.Can’t wait for the next chapter of this overwhelming project.

    • Tom permalink*
      February 3, 2012 12:18 pm

      Thanks Don!
      It’s still great fun for us too and we’re glad you’re enjoying following along.

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