The Summer of Sandblasting
Advice from Modern Phoenicians on hiring a sandblaster to strip paint from a CMU block home
By Alison King
We’ve followed the sandblasting trend on Modern Phoenix for years now, and if there’s one thing we’ve collectively learned, its to not undertake the experience lightly. The look's popularity is largely due to the desire to return to more honestly expressed materials and the richly neutral hues found in locally manufactured block. Superlite is one Phoenix brand that dominated in the midcentury (and continues to today) but other manufacturers like San Xavier from Tucson competed locally.
In the 50s and 60s, many homes built of Concrete Masonry Units (commonly called cinderblock or CMU) were not painted — take several of Blaine Drake’s block homes as case in point. These homes were built stripped down from the start, but there was a time in the renovation of Phoenix College in the 60s when Ralph Haver & Associates recommended sandblasting to remove institutionally unimpressive paint from the beautiful brick buildings. Its not a new process, but one that has finally entered the mainstream in the same sensibility as refinishing concrete floors.
Sandblasted surfaces are now a hallmark of the Arizona Look. Sometimes blasting is completed shortly after a CMU building has been erected, to soften the edges and reveal the beauty of the aggregate more. Contemporary architects like Will Bruder, Eddie Jones and Wendell Burnette have large bodies of work featuring unpainted block, and landscape Architect Bill Tonnesen has made the blasted look part of his signature style for over a decade. These are just a few among dozens of professionals who are partial to the effect.
2010 turned out to be the Summer of Sandblasting as three Modern Phoenicians undertook the task after reading Tonneson’s primer on Sandblasting 101 here on Modern Phoenix. Two used the recommended blasting service, and all three had satisfactory results. This is in stark contrast to the curses and clashes reported on our message boards, where windows have been frosted and clients left messy and unimpressed.
We thought it would be a good idea to compile the best of our group’s collective wisdom for future sandblasters so they can plan ahead and get the most out of their first blasting experience. We asked concrete artisan Brandon Gore of Gore Design Studio, Photographers Casia and Eric Fletcher of Purple Nickel Studio and Photographer John Covington of JC Studios to describe their recent experiences, and what they’d have done differently if they only knew then what they know now.
Brandon Gore was attracted to sandblasting because he’d painted his home in Sunnyslope four times in three years – yet despite trying a last attempt at gray, “it just never looked organic or authentic. I am a believer in honesty in materials, and there is nothing more honest when you have a concrete block house than to have it look like a house made of concrete block.” And if anyone knows the properties of concrete around here, it's going to be Brandon.
The question of return on investment is often brought up when discussing sandblasting, especially as it relates to resale value of the home. Many are puzzled at whether it makes sense to put the time and money into sandblasting before selling a home because in this current market, that cost may never be recovered. “I plan on selling my house within the next six months, but I don't care what the ‘experts’ say.” says Gore. “I am still finishing this house as I would want it if I were to live here for the next 20 years, and I think that will make all the difference when I put it on the market. Cheap finishes don't sell.”
Gore contacted Baja sandblasting on Tonnesen’s recommendation and they came out the next day to test a small area to see if the home was a good candidate. The sample looked good, so the job started that week and was completed within two days. “Many of our grout joints were completely blown out, so we had to have them all re-done, which added another $500,” says Gore.
“Expect the noise to be similar to an F-16 taking off with full afterburners directly in front of your house,” Gore warns. He recommends contacting the neighbors in advance to avoid dirty looks, an act he regrets not doing. “Ask the sandblasters not to start until 8:30-9 to ensure most people have already left for work. Then drink a couple shots of whiskey and insert ear plugs.”
Casia and Eric Fletcher took stewardship of Casia’s mother’s modest 50s block ranch home in Tucson a few years ago. Eric, an architectural designer, has taken the lead in remodeling the home for modern standards. The fact the home was CMU block was very attractive as many of the homes that surround them in Tucson are slump block or red brick, not to mention the ubiquitous stucco treatment so popular in the southwest.
“The house seemed to have only two layers of paint, making it a perfect candidate for blasting,” says Casia. “Since we had already gutted the interior of our home, we were able to see the block’s true color and quality. It was in excellent shape. As an architectural designer, Eric felt it was important to express material in its raw form.”
“We were inspired to choose sandblasting after years and years of seeing it on the Modern Phoenix home tours,” Casia continues. “We fell in love with the modern simplicity of it and of course the minimal maintenance.” Their home is now a real stand-out among stucco and paint finishes in their neighborhood.
As much as they loved the house and saw its modern potential, the exterior really was an eyesore, bothering them more and more as each year of renovations passed. “Our neighbors probably felt the same way!” Casia admitted. They found that re-painting the home vs. sandblasting would run about the same cost, so combined with the minimal maintenance, they saw it as a good value. “Of course painting would involve way less prep and clean up time, but in the long run sandblasting made more sense for overall maintenance and aesthetics.”
“We did research on the Modern Phoenix Marketplace forums and several highly recommended Phoenix contractors kept coming up. Two companies had great testimonies from past clients. We couldn't find anyone in Tucson that could do the work so we contacted both Phoenix companies. Baja Sandblasting fit our needs the best. After seeing photographs from Brandon Gore's project it only solidified our choice!” After negotiating compensation for the extra travel to Tucson, Baja came out and did the job in one day.
The Fletchers found the process to be a little murkier than expected and regret not asking more questions. It was only after they probed Baja a bit about what to prepare for, that they got a few suggestions. Serendipitously, this was right around the same time that Tonnesen’s article debuted on the Modern Phoenix website, helping to describe the process from a client’s point of view. “We had no idea to notify our neighbors of the noise and dust and to tarp off the interior of our old casement windows for a second barrier, since the contracted company only does the exterior protection. We also wrapped all of our exterior doors on the inside and wrapped our attic vents for more protection,” Casia shares.
But even with all the extra prep, blasting media and resulting dust still got into every nook and cranny of the home, requiring a top to bottom cleanout. Even though they were fairly warned about the noise of the blasting machine, they weren’t warned strong enough and thought they could hang out and watch movies all day.“No way!.” Casia says. “Our dog Brandon went crazy from the noise, too.”
Just how loud? John Covington's video doesn't even begin to give it justice. "You can't even hear the giant generator and compressor running over the noise of the sand blasting nozzle spray," Covington claims.
Once the blasting was done, Eric wasn’t quite sure what to think. There’s nothing like a sandblast to help you see your home’s every pock and pucker — the days of post-cleanup didn’t help, either. It took a while for the results to sink in, but he quickly grew to love it. “Anything was better than what we had before,” Casia reassures us. They’ve gotten over this big hump, but “now our basic shingle roof looks worse then ever before. Our old and rotting fascia boards used to blend in with the horrible paint job, but now stand out. And any wood that came into contact with the sand blaster will need to be touched up.” More work, but nothing this creative couple can’t tackle!
Phoenix photographer John Covington was inspired to sandblast his 50s-era Ralph Haver home by the “minimalist modern design ethos of bringing everything back to basics with a simple clean style, including exposing the natural finishes of the wood and block.” Value also drove his choice, thinking like the others, his overall cost would pay off in lower maintenance over time. Since he doesn’t plan to flip the home, it made a sensible choice.
“I contacted four different companies and chose Ramón at Ace Sandblasting because he seemed to understand the end result I was looking for and I was able to see other houses that he had blasted,” John shares.
John learned like the others sandblasting does magnify existing flaws. “Bad mortar joints, termite damage and everything you never wanted to see! It's not for the squeamish, but a great way to get a clean slate for a complete gut and remodel project. I would not recommend this to anyone thinking that they can live in the house during the process.”
The biggest surprise, however, was the stickershock for the 5 buckets of Sigma Seal used to seal the block after blasting. His job required $1250 in sealer, but it was worth it. “If you don’t seal the block water will soak right through the masonry into your house and also calcify the blocks as well,” he warns.
Wisdom he has for future sandblasters includes being prepared for a big commitment. “Before you begin just know that you're jumping deep into the first step of renovating your classic home and taking off years of old paint and cover-ups that will expose any and all flaws in the house that have been cosmetically covered up with paint and caulking,” advises John. “ If you are 100% committed and have the budget to see the job through completion, sand blasting is a cool way to go, inside and out!”
Photos copyright 2010 Purple Nickel Studio, JC Studios and Gore Design Co
Story copyright 2010 Alison King